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Anaaya woke to a gentle nudge. She opened her eyes groggily and looked into the eyes of Hua, Mrs. Leung's lady's maid.
"Wake up, dear. It's nearly sunrise!" She turned around and started to make her bed. Anaaya groaned and pushed the covers back. She swung her feet out of bed and stretched.
When Hua saw that Anaaya was finally out of bed, she shook her head and clacked her tongue.
"I really don't know what it is with you, child, always sleeping in like that... You shouldn't make a habit out of it. One day I won't be here to wake you up!" She cavilled. "Hop now, go dress. I'll get something to eat for you too."
And with that, she was gone. The door was left ajar and Ana saw the few other servants bustling through the hallway, ready to take on another day in the Leung household. She had never been a morning person and it was thanks to Hua that she didn't oversleep every single day. Hua had looked after her from the day that she had arrived at the household and Anaaya knew that Hua had taken care of her as she would have taken care of her own children.
By the time Hua came back, Anaaya was already fully dressed. Hua shoved a few buns in her hands and waved goodbye.
"I'll see you later, dear. That is... if I survive Yu's folly." She winked and walked out the room with a spring in her step. Anaaya grinned and shook her head at Hua's comment. Since Lady Leung was out of town, Yu, the house manager, was left in charge. He was under the Lady's strict orders, of course, and took his job very seriously. As a result, he was uptight and more stressed than Ana imagined could be healthy.She chewed down on one of the buns and bustled out the door. Although she wasn't quite a morning person herself, her mistress, due to her Fire Nation blood, was and she was sure to rise with the sun. Ana made her way through the deserted halls of the servant's quarters. Apparently everyone was at work already. She hurried on and silently entered her mistress' room.
Her mistress was already out of bed, doing stretches in her nightgown. Anaaya shoved the curtains open, allowing sunlight to filter through the glass and opened one of the windows for fresh air.
Once the task was finished, Anaaya curtsied before her mistress and greeted her.
"Good morning, Lady Mei Li." She said stiffly, a small smile playing on her lips.
"Good morning, Ana. Have you slept well?" Mei Li looked at her lady's maid and responded with a kind smile. Her smile quickly turned into a frown. "You look so tired."
"Oh..." Anaaya bit her bottom lip and realized that Mei Li was probably right. "I had a bit of a restless night, that's all. It's really nothing to worry about, my lady." Before Mei could react, Ana changed the subject smoothly.
"Now let me help you get dressed." With that, she walked over to the closet and chose a coral coloured robe from the large variety of robes. She liked Mei Li, really, but that didn't mean that she wanted her to probe into her past. It was simply unnecessary and uncalled for that a Lady worry about her lady's maid's life. She walked back to Mei Li, who eyed the robe with disgust.
"Do I really have to wear that?" she moaned. "Can't I just wear my sparring clothes today?"
Ana half-smiled, but shook her head. She found it a pain to wear formal robes too, but she couldn't help that, according to Fire Nation standards, a girl of Mei Li's class had to dress in them.
"Oh no, you can't wear pants, my lady!"
"And why not?!" Mei Li exclaimed in frustration. She was in a rebellious mood today, Ana noted. "You get to wear pants and a tunic all the time! Why can't I?"
"Because your family is one of the richest, most illustrious families of the Fire Nation, Mei Li. If I'm right, you're even nobility. And on top of that, you're of age now, which means that we need to make even more sure that you always look your absolute best." Ana chimed.
Mei Li huffed and crossed her arms. "Hmph. I don't care and I'm not nobility."
"As a matter of fact, I believe you are, Lady Mei Li. Your great-great-grandfather-"
"Yes, I know! I know! My great-great-grandfather was the Fire Lord's younger brother. So what? Your great-great-grandfather was someone's brother too!" Mei Li responded childishly. Anaaya decided that it was best to leave it at that. Mei Li could not be reasoned with right now.
"Well, no matter what, I think it's best we get you dressed." Mei Li sighed and gave in. Anaaya helped her tie her breast bindings and handed Mei Li the robe, who, still reluctantly, shrugged it on as Anaaya moved over to tie the ribbons.
"I heard that General Wu's son came back home from the front last week." Anaaya mentioned. "Shu said that he won the battle for Boazhen." She had overheard two of the maids gossiping yesterday. Shu, the owner of the local grocery store, had told one of them about the news and gossip about the new bachelor in town had reached even Yu.
"Ooh... That's... nice." Mei replied dryly. Ana pulled the hem of her robe straight and folded her sleeves back.
"He is quite handsome, you know, and about your age too." she combed Mei Li's long dark hair. Mei Li frowned at her in the vanity mirror.
Anaaya's reflection grinned back at her in the mirror as she started braiding Mei's hair.
"So? He's probably looking for a wife!"
Mei Li shrugged and rolled her eyes.
"Well, good luck to him finding one, but I'm not interested."
"But, my lady! You're already sixteen! Your father urged you to find someone soon. It is customary to be betrothed at your age. In fact, some 16-year-old girls are married already!"
Mei Li shook her head, messing up the half-finished braid in the process. Anaaya scowled and sighed, but didn't say a word about it and calmly undid the braid to start over.
"I don't care what's customary! I do not feel like I am ready to be someone's wife. If my father so desperately wants me to marry, he'll have to arrange it himself and drag me down the aisle in chains." Mei replied and crossed her arms. Anaaya opened her mouth to answer, but Mei cut her off.
"Enough about this now, Ana! I'm not in the mood for this." She said. Ana's face contorted into a small scowl. Agni, she was only trying to make small talk! She quickly wiped the scowl off her face and replaced it with a placid expression, void of any apparent emotion.
"Yes, my lady. Sorry for mentioning it... I-...I didn't know that you felt so opposed to marriage and it was not my place to remind you of the matter."
Mei sighed and waved her apologies away.
"You could not have known about my feelings regarding this subject, anyway. I'm just glad you've dropped the subject."
Anaaya didn't dare speak up again. What she had meant to be a casual, helpful, conversation, had turned into a tense discussion. Therefore, she just finished the rest of her job in silence.
When she was done, Mei spoke up.
"I will take my breakfast downstairs, Ana, so you are free to go on with your other duties. I will ask someone to bring me my breakfast myself"
Anaaya nodded in response.
"I'll see to it that all your clothes in need of repair are mended by tomorrow, my lady."
Mei Li ran into one of the servants on her way downstairs and asked for her breakfast to be brought to the study. She had some reading to do. She needed to get her mind off the squabble she had with Anaaya. Ever since her sixteenth birthday a few weeks ago, marriage and betrothal had been a hot topic in the residence, because she was now of marriageable age. There was gossip about several suitable young men who were interested in her amongst the servants, Mei knew. She had overheard them often enough, although they seemed to think that Mei and her mother were oblivious to their gossip in the hallways. Mei, however, wasn't and had no desire to marry anyone anytime soon. The fact that everyone else thought differently infuriated her beyond belief.She entered the study and picked a book from the shelves. She had started in it yesterday and it had really intrigued her. It was all about the extinct Sun Warriors and their ancient culture, a subject that her teachers had approved of.
Since her father was a high-ranking general, Mei Li was schooled at home, by private teachers. He had made sure to leave her education in the most capable hands, while he was away, though Mei sometimes questioned the worldly knowledge of her teachers. They often refused to teach her about 'non-Fire Nation' subjects.
Because her teachers always blatantly avoided anything that had to do with the other nations or bending arts, Mei Li taught herself from the books she had secretly gathered. She was too curious to just accept that those subjects were off limits. It was hard to come by any literature about the other nations these days though and Mei Li had obtained most of her books via obscure traders for a ridiculous amount of money. To her though, the books were worth every penny.
Mei knew that there were more elements and nations out there, so why not learn about them? If one thing, it would only help them conquer more land and win this war!
Apparently, her teachers took a different view of that. She once proposed 'the Earth Kingdom' as subject to her history teacher. He had become red with anger and had yelled at her for even having the 'ludicrous idea of learning about those savages'. Mei had never mentioned that subject or anything of the like again to any of her teachers.
Instead of that, she taught herself, about the Sun Warriors for example. Fascinating how such a great culture could just vanish. It was said that the Sun Warriors were the first humans to learn fire bending from the dragons. Oh, what she would give to encounter a real dragon!
Right then, one of the kitchen helps entered the study with a tray, breaking her train of thoughts. He eyed her uncertainly.
"U-uhm... My lady? Y-your breakfast." He spoke shakily and gestured to the tray. Mei smiled at him. He was quite young and always very nervous around her and her father. She guessed he still needed to get used to the way everything went in the household.
"Thank you, Daichi. You can leave it there." She gestured at the corner of the desk she was sitting behind. Daichi quickly put the tray down, trying to steady his hands as much as possible and, with a small bow, quickly made his way out of the room.
She looked at her breakfast. Mmm, her favourite! And even ginseng tea, she noticed, one of her favourites too. This was promising to become a good day, after all. After she had finished her breakfast, she turned back to her book and wondered what it would have been like to live in a Sun Warrior city when it was still inhabited. It must have been truly magnificent...
Anaaya, in the meantime, had busied herself with mending and cleaning numerous pieces of clothing. She had a lot of overdue work to do. Mending was one of the chores she disliked the most, so she had been delaying it as much as possible. Every time she was given something to mend, she had just thrown in on a pile with the rest, telling herself she would do it later that day, which, of course, she never did.
As a result, she was now stuck with hundreds of holes to hide and clothes to adjust. She winced as the needle pierced her skin. Blood appeared and she put her finger in her mouth to get rid of it. She had to be careful not to get blood on the clothes, or she would be in bigger trouble. She groaned and put the garment down. How she hated this job!
"Hey, Annie!" A lean, green-eyed boy grinned down at her, his eyes twinkling like those of a 8-year-old in a candy shop: Radu, the stable boy. Ana pulled her lips in a straight line and glared at him.
"It's Anaaya, Radu. You know that." They had known each other for two years now, but Radu just couldn't stop teasing her about her name.
"Oh, yeah sure, Anika." He ruffled her hair and although Ana glared daggers at him, she had to suppress a smile. Radu noticed and smiled back smugly. When they met, he had gotten her name wrong and, two years later, he kept calling her wrong names because he knew she couldn't stand it.
"You just have such a strange name, you know." He mentioned all of the sudden. Ana frowned.
"What do you mean?" She continued to work on a blood red robe. It had a few burn holes in it. When serving fire benders it was inevitable to come across some of those. Radu shrugged and grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on the table.
"Just that it's a name I've never heard before. Not in the Fire Nation, not in the colonies and not in the Earth Kingdom either." He took a big bite from the apple and chewed on it audibly.
Anaaya pricked herself again and winced. She scowled. "Like your name is that common."
"Moawr cw'mmon than youws!" He exclaimed, still chewing on the apple. Ana frowned at his bad manners and raised an eyebrow at his mumbles.
"Sorry, Radu, I didn't quite catch that." She grinned at him and he swallowed his bite.
"I said: more common than yours!"
"Guess my parents were just more original than yours." Ana shrugged and turned her attention back to the garment. She was relieved. For just a moment, she had feared that Radu had suspected something; that he somehow had come to the conclusion that she was Water Tribe. No matter how small that chance, it was still one of the things that she was most fearful of.
"I guess..." Radu mumbled.
After two years of friendship, Anaaya was still afraid that he would find out. It was a secret she wanted no-one to know. Simply because she didn't know what would happen if anyone knew.
She wasn't sure how many people knew... Agni, she wasn't even sure if Mister Leung knew, but she figured that it was best that no-one found out. The less people knew, the less people could get hurt.
A few moments of silence passed, as Radu watched Ana while he ate his apple. Suddenly, he sprang up.
"Hey, wanna check out Mr. Leung's new ostrich horse? It got shipped in today from the Earth Kingdom. It used to belong to some general, I believe, and it's top of the line!" Radu exclaimed excitedly, while making wild gestures with his arms. Ana just shook her head.
"No, I'm sorry, I've got to finish this whole pile before the end of the day." She pointed at the pile of clothes on the table and sighed. Radu clacked his tongue.
"Oh come on! You can take a break! It'll only take, like, fifteen minutes or something!" Anaaya didn't give in.
"No, I really can't. I-"
"No 'buts'." Radu interrupted her. "You need to loosen up, gal!" And with that, he took her hand and dragged her out the door.
Ana had to admit, it was a truly magnificent thing, that ostrich horse. It's shiny black feathers shone like silk in the sun and its long neck was curved graciously as the animal looked down on them with menacing eyes. The beast was bigger than any ostrich horse she had ever seen and surely was more intimidating too. He carried his size and weight with grace, though, which somehow made him all the more intimidating."This is Rajesh." Radu said and reached over the stable-door to stroke the ostrich horse. Rajesh blew air out through his nose in response and snapped at him. Radu quickly retracted his hand, out of reach of the animal's sharp beak.
"He's still getting used to everything." Radu explained and grinned awkwardly.
Anaaya just nodded absentmindedly, not really paying attention to Radu or the ostrich horse, and stared off into the distance. She should be mending clothes right now... How was she going to make up for this? She had other chores to do too, so she probably would have to work through the night. She knew that she had set the deadline herself and that it wasn't absolutely necessary for all the mending to be finished by tomorrow, but-
Radu waved his hand in front of her eyes, breaking her train of thoughts. "Hey! You there?" he asked.
"Huh? Yeah!" Anaaya snapped out of it and nodded, still slightly startled.
"As I said," Radu started. "I think that it's a shame that such a great animal has such a foul character towards strangers. I hope that he'll come around, but it's a shame nonetheless, don't you think?"
"Yeah..." Ana nodded and elbowed Radu. "Aah, you'll make him come around, won't you, wonderboy?" Radu grinned smugly.
"Oh well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." He said jokingly and straightened his jacket. "You should've seen him this morning. He was escaped and went on a rampage. He bit old Li right in the upper arm." said Radu and he imitated the bite with his hand.
"Ey! You there!" A bearded man, who seemed to be far past his sixties, walked towards them.
"Stop jabbering to yer girlfriend fer a sec, will ya? An' get back to work!" The man scolded. Radu nodded obediently and the man shuffled past him. Anaaya giggled at Radu's expression.
"Well, you heard him." She said. This was the perfect excuse for her to get back to work. "We'd both better get back to work."
"Ooh, that's just old Ping." Radu grinned. "Don't mind him too much, you know that he's kinda crazy. We've still got plenty of time. But if Guan comes, I'm in trouble." Guan was the head animal caretaker and Radu's boss. Ana huffed and crossed her arms.
"I don't even get why Ping still works here. He goofs around all day and no one listens to him anyway! What good is he?"
Radu just shrugged.
"He's basically part of the house. No one knows better than to have Ping wandering around the property. Guess that's why he was never fired. It wouldn't feel the same without him here to nag your ears of." They both laughed.
"Ooh well, someone's gotta do the job." Anaaya joked.
Anaaya and Radu walked over to one of the trees and sat down beneath it. Although it was autumn, the days were still pretty hot. In the night, however, the winter chill was already present, making the nights considerably colder than the days.
Anaaya didn't mind the coming of winter at all. She didn't like the extreme summer heat. As someone of the Water Tribes, she thrived in colder temperatures.
Radu laid back against the trunk of the tree and put a blade of grass in his mouth.
"Have you ever ridden an ostrich-horse before?" Radu asked, totally out of the blue.
"Uhm... No..." Ana answered. She had never ridden any animal before, she had never had the need to either. Ana had spent her whole life working for others and none of her jobs had, thankfully, required riding and travelling.
"Just wondering." Radu said nonchalantly. The grin plastered on his face, however, told Anaaya otherwise. A plan was brewing in his head and he was up to something. She knew it... She just didn't know yet what it was, but it might be best to be on her guard for the following few weeks...
When the sun neared its highest point, Mei Li was still in the study, reading up on complex fire bending forms. Some of them, she had marked and written down in a small notebook. She just needed to try these! She wondered if her fire bending teacher would be willing to show her... She couldn't see why not. It was not like she was asking him to teach her water bending or some heathen ritual. No, asking him to show her some fire bending moves wouldn't hurt. She made a mental note to ask him during her next lesson.
A soft knock on the door caught her attention. Mei Li looked up from her book to see Yu, the residence's house manager, in the door opening. He was a small man with glasses and greying hair. He was a formal, uptight, but kind and just man. As a small child, Mei Li had occasionally gotten on his bad side by disobeying the house rules or breaking stuff, in which cases Yu was a bit less enjoyable than he usually was. She had received exactly what she had deserved from him in those days.
In his hands, he held a letter with a red wax seal on it. Yu stepped towards her and handed her the letter.
"This letter was just delivered for you, Lady Mei Li."
Mei Li took it from him and looked at him in question. He just nodded towards the letter, smiling knowingly at her. Mei looked at the letter and ran her hands over the seal. The pouncing tigerdillo. Her father's seal! Her pulse raced.
"Oh! A letter from father! But that's great!" She locked eyes with Yu, her eyes wide. "Thank you, Yu, for bringing it to me this quickly!" Yu nodded.
"No problem, Mei Li. I already suspected that you would be happy to receive news from your father." He smiled at her and left the room with a small bow.Mei Li wasted no time and opened the letter immediately. It had been at least two months since she had heard anything from her father. Her insides bubbled with excitement and her heart was beating rapidly in her chest. Had he won from the enemy troops? Was he coming home? What if it wasn't good news? Maybe he was hurt?
When she rolled out the letter, something fell out of it and landed on the table.
It was a silver necklace. Mei Li picked it up and examined it closer. From the chain hung a flame-shaped silver pendant with a teardrop-shaped red stone in its centre. The flame reached up from the left side of the ruby, then curved down to the right side in three arcs. At the end of each arc, where the arc and the ruby touched, was a small diamond.
Mei Li stared at it for a moment, breathlessly admiring its beauty. It must have cost a fortune. She laid her hand on the pendant. The pendant responded to her touch. It glowed faintly and warmth emanated from it for a few seconds. Mei gasped in surprise. It probably responded to her fire bending!
Unable to contain her curiosity any longer, Mei Li unfolded the letter and started reading.
My dearest Mei Li,
This letter probably will not reach you in less than two months, but that's all right. It takes a lot of time to get a letter across the world, even if we're on the same continent. Now at least you know that I am well and I hope that you are the same. Don't worry about an old man like me too much, Mei Li; I have faced many battles. I am sure that I will be able to face a few more and live to tell the story.
Hopefully, you like the little souvenir I included. I saw it in one of the colonies and immediately thought of you. Beautiful and delicate. The red jewel reminded me of your fiery personality. Also see it as something that represents our family, as there are as much diamonds in the pendant as there are people in our small family. The red stone symbolizes the Fire Nation, for it is what unites us all, the very centre of our life. As long as you have this pendant, I am sure that you will never lose sight of yourself and your loved ones.
The red stone, as I was told by the merchant, is of a very special kind. It is found in the rocks under certain volcanoes and responds to the touch of a fire bender. The Sun Warriors were said to use these gems as flashlights and energy pools. They, according to folklore, were able to store warmth and energy in them and save it for later. I'm sceptical, but why don't you try it? Maybe you'll be able to pull it off. As talented as you are, such a feat wouldn't even surprise me as much as it should! I hope that you like it as much as I do and that you will wear it for years to come. Maybe you'll even be able to wear it on your wedding day?
Mei frowned. That was a sudden skip of subject... And a weird one too...
Speaking of which, I hope that you will find someone soon! I have noted some of my old friends about you. They have sons that I believe are appropriate candidates for your hand. Now that you are sixteen, I'm sure that you can expect numerous visits from their sons. Isn't that exciting!
I trust that your mother will help you make the right choice and I look forward to meeting my future son-in-law! Agni, I can't wait! But don't do anything rash, my daughter, no matter how head over heels you are for this young gentleman! You have your own and your family's name and honour to think of!
Today, I received new orders. I'm afraid that I won't make it home before next year. The Fire Lord is planning big things for the approaching return of Sozin's Comet. I can't go into detail, but I believe that we might come out of this war victoriously! It might all be over by the end of this year! I miss you dearly, my daughter, and I wish that the situation were different and that I could come home right now. That, however, is not the case, but remember, that when I do come home, the reunion will be all the sweeter, since the March of Civilization will be completed by that time!
All of my love,
The words hit her like a bomb. Her father wasn't coming home yet. But he expected her to have a fiancé by the time he did... Period.
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