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October 28, 2015
Following General Sung's approval of Captain Ratana's request, Prince Lu Ten was given an extra food ration and was also allowed to roam the grounds of the Earth Kingdom military base within the Outer Wall, under the close supervision of Ratana herself, of course. The rest of the members of the Terra Team were not too far off, practicing their regular earthbending sparring exercises. Tooru, Ratana's own sparring partner, was present, and thus the others kept most of their thoughts to themselves. Nevertheless, with a few quick glances back and forth, they shared their mutual thoughts on how odd the two of them looked - the woman who was the Captain of the Terra Team and the man who was her captive, the Prince of the Fire Nation and next in line to the throne of their main enemy after Crown Prince Iroh, the Dragon of the West himself. With such a pairing, there was no reason the two of them should look as relaxed and content as they were, unless Lu Ten had simply resigned himself to his fate and Ratana found the job of keeping watch over him all too easy, which seemed out of place for either of them, to say the least. Even if the duty was too simple for her to worry over, it was unlike Ratana to not be vigilant.
"Your military encampment is so much greener than ours," Lu Ten said as he observed his surroundings, both of his hands being bound at the wrists, so that he could not bend or make any sudden movements in an attempt to escape. This was mainly a precaution for now, as there was little chance of him escaping in an atmosphere such as this, surrounded by literally hundreds of troops.
"That's a very keen observation," Ratana rolled her eyes as well as her voice around at the same time. "Gee, I wonder why that is. Lu Ten, you're a sharp one. You are." It was not so much what she said, but how she said it and the familiar and friendly way that she was acting to the champion bender of the Fire Nation, her counterpart in the siege in most every way, that drew even more stares from her fellow Earth Kingdom soldiers.
"It's kind of cute," Lu Ten mocked back at her. "It matches the grass on the ground."
"Well, our element is earth," said Ratana.
"True, but earth is not actually green," said Lu Ten. "In fact, the dirt and rock beneath our feet is closer to brown in color. The green part is just the grass on top, which is a form of plant life. Then again, I guess that only the Avatar could be represented by brown, since that's a mixture of all the colors of all the nations together, like purple is a mixture of red and blue. Water's not really blue, either. It's clear. The only reason it appears blue much of the time is because it reflects the sky."
Before the earthbender could reply, her partner approached them. "Ratana, I need to talk to you about something."
"Are you sure now's a good time?" asked Ratana, gesturing to Lu Ten.
"It's nothing top secret or anything," answered Tooru. "Taigang and some others just went into the Middle Ring to gather supplies and find a caterer."
"Supplies for what?" asked Ratana. "Why was I not informed of this?" Even if she was on probation, she had not been stripped of her rank as the Terra Team's captain.
"They're planning a party to commemorate our recent success on the battlefield."
Ratana rolled her eyes. "Do they think we can do that for every little victory we have? The siege on our city is far from over. Besides, getting the entire encampment drunk and rowdy is just disaster waiting to happen."
"Not the whole camp," clarified Tooru. "It would just be the Terra Team."
"If there's going to be any party at all, I insist the healers be invited, too," said Ratana, thinking of Hasida.
"Some of the regular recruits will resent it if foreigners are there but they're not."
"That is my condition," said Ratana. "Hasida and her troupe traveled across seas and continent for us. So, did Taigang say how things are in the city?" Being banished, Ratana felt distached from those she was fighting to protect.
"The situation is concerning," said Tooru. "Those inside have no idea what's going on with the restrictions on travel and no war updates. There's even a blossoming black market trading information and rumors about what's really going on. It started in the Lower Ring, but it's just begun attracting those in the other two rings as well. People take what they can get, but what's offered isn't always reliable. Some supposedly urgent or valuable pieces of information are actually outright lies that make the customers more afraid and desperate."
"I see," said Ratana, dreading at the thought of a battle she could not fight, let alone win. "If only the Dai Li would allow more freedom during the siege. They wouldn't be as helpless."
"If only," said Tooru. With that he took his leave, having been summoned by General Sung.
"Sometimes I wonder where all the words that come out of your mouth come from," Ratana mused aloud to Lu Ten. "Either you spend all day thinking deeply about everything in the world around you or you don't think much at all and you just shout out the first thing that comes to your mind when you stare at your surroundings."
"Thinking is good," said Lu Ten. "But thinking too much is not such a good idea all the time. You miss a lot when you over think things."
"Hmph!" Ratana grunted. "Maybe your dad is better at the proverbs than you, since it seems you ran finally out of all the good ones that you got from him. And now you're just winging it."
To her surprise, Lu Ten laughed, shaking his chains slightly in the process. "He would most likely agree with you, if he were standing here with us."
"Yes, I can totally see that being the mighty Dragon of the West's first course of action if he were standing here with us now," Ratana threw her head back with sarcastic laughter. "Not focusing on the fact that his son is tied up or that he's in the middle of a base full of earthbenders, but that he agrees with me on something. Well, I'll pat myself back for the day."
Lu Ten narrowed his eyes and curled his lips slyly. "You would be surprised..."
"Either way, you're in a very different place than Gangkouz right now," said Ratana, shifting her tunic, revealing the strings of the talisman that she carried around her neck.
"What's that?" Lu Ten pointed at the edges of it.
Sighing, Ratana lifted up part of her uniform and brought the talisman up to the surface, angling her body and showing Prince Lu Ten clearly. "It's an accessory," she explained simply. "I got it while I was traveling in your country."
"I see," said Lu Ten, apparently more curious now. "It doesn't look like your average everyday souvenir though. Am I mistaken or is that a Sun Warrior symbol on it?" he asked her.
"Maybe," Ratana shrugged. "I wouldn't know, really. I can't say that I'm an expert on everything and everyone that has ever walked the earth over in your homeland."
"I think that it is," said Lu Ten. "They were an ancient tribe of firebenders that existed centuries and centuries ago. They went extinct, but there are remnants and ruins of their civilization in some places still. My parents took me to one when I was really young, as I remember. Funny thing was, my dad always seemed fascinated by them when I was little, but when I was older, after he had already hunted his dragon, he seemed less willing to talk about them."
"Interesting," Ratana narrowed her eyes as they passed by another training group of soldiers. These ones did not stare as much, being not on the Terra Team and not knowing Ratana quite as well. "I wonder why that was."
"The Sun Warriors were said to have been enlightened about the original ways of firebending," Lu Ten went on. "I guess that's why my dad studied them in his younger years, before I was born. I've always felt the same way about the dragons. I wish that I could have encountered one at some point in my life, but now I've lost my chance."
"What, so you could hunt one?" Ratana asked him, thinking of Ran and Shaw. "Like your father and the rest of your countrymen did."
"Nah, I wouldn't have to hunt one," Lu Ten assured her. "I mean it's too bad that they're extinct now, and it was long before my father took his journey that the tide against the species had turned and the Fire Nation had become caught up in hunting the dragons for sport and glory. Yes, my father hunted the last one in existence, but my grandfather, the Fire Lord Azulon, killed ten dragons during his prime. My great-grandfather Sozin who began the tradition slew over a hundred over the course of his career. As for me, I would have been satisfied just to look at one."
"Just to look at one?" Ratana giggled, disbelievingly.
"That would be amazing," Lu Ten explained. "And maybe I could learn a thing or two from the ultimate firebending masters themselves."
"Hmmm...." Ratana pondered the Prince of the Fire Nation's words to herself, holding up the face of the talisman to her own eyes and gazing down at it. She dreamt of bringing Lu Ten with her across the continents, in a better world, to show him what she knew of the dragons, the way he had told her about the badgermoles in the story of Oma and Shu from his perspective. In nature's harmony, the four elements were meant to exist side-by-side, interconnected, as the four nations themselves were supposed to be. Showing him the dragons would be breaking the vow that she had shared when she met the Sun Warriors. But they were his heritage and it felt somehow wrong to keep the secret from him. Then again, how could she share something with the enemy that she had not shared with her own Terra Team members yet? And as the Sun Warriors said, the more secret keepers there were, the less safe the secret would be.
"Ratana?" Lu Ten waved his hand in front of her eyes. "You look like you're having a daydream."
- Ratana and Tooru are still banned from Ba Sing Se proper, on Long Feng's order.
- The talisman Lu Ten sees is the same one Ratana took home from the Fire Nation in the first book.
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