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|Seeds of Rebellion|
January 1, 2016
"I'm hungry," said Wyla. "Dad, when are we going to eat again?"
"Soon," Prung told the girl with long messy hair and no small amount of attitude.
"Same as always," said the over-worked, exasperated father. "When it's time for dinner." He dug his shovel deep into the ground and heaved yet another wave of dirt onto the miniature mountain beside the trench, which was already half the length of the deserted street. A few hours after sunrise and he was already as drenched in sweat as he would be come sundown.
"All the stuff they give us now is scraps," Wyla groaned, her stomach echoing her sentiment in unison with its master.
"Mind your tongue," Prung barked at Wyla, struggling to keep his voice down while doing so. "We have to keep quiet around here. There's no telling when they might be listening in."
"Stay good and behave yourself," the worker beside Prung interjected, a smile forming on his worn face. "If you do, we'll go to the sweet market again once this is all over, just like when you were little."
"The market's closed Uncle Epong," said Wyla, downcast. "Everyone knows that."
"Perhaps it will open again," said Epong. He was the identical image of his brother, except Prung was a little bit shorter and a little bit bulkier than he, and the rough, prickly whiskers of Prung's cheeks stood in contrast to Epong, who was clean-shaven. "If we all stick together and be patient a little while longer. Now run along to the kitchens, dear. If I'm right about which guard is on duty, he'll give you something small if you ask nicely."
Wyla took the bait and decided to cheer up and follow Epong's lead. "Okay," she said before scammering off.
Prung watched as Wyla left them behind before turning back to the man laboring at his side. "I wish that you wouldn't do that."
"Do what?" asked Epong.
"Give her hope."
"Hope's the one possession that can never be taken away," said Epong. "Not unless it's willfully given up by the owner. Ugh! Do they really expect just us lot to finish with all this in a day? I wish we were earthbenders." They were told that the trench they dug was for a new fortification to defend from potential barbarian or free Earth Kingdom attacks. But both brothers suspected it was to occupy their time and keep them in line.
"No you don't, believe me," said Prung. "Not now anyway. They expect more from the benders. Their chains are tighter and they keep a sharper eye on them. You'll notice they're not as cruel with the children of nonbenders as the rest of us."
"So that's why the lad that was across from us tried to hide his abilities," said Epong, staring at the empty space.
"Until he was ratted out and they executed him, yes," said Prung.
"I was wondering why we hadn't seen him all week," said Epong, his voice slowing down in contrast to his brother's cold monotone when describing such things. "I reckon the earthbenders must be doing something important nowadays."
"Must be," Prung shrugged as he dug deeper. "Nothing like the maintenance or barracks organization we do on a good day."
Looking both ways first, Epong held his shovel still and faced his brother straight on. "Some of the guys are getting together later. Will you be joining us?"
"No," said Prung, his eyes narrowing. "I hope you're not thinking of rising up. Don't you remember what happened when those troublemakers were caught right after the city fell? They put us through hell in the days following. Another failed plot would bring harm to us all, not just those who participate."
"That was different," said Epong. "We're more organized."
"And if you bring harm on Wyla, I swear I'll kill you myself."
"The time is right. They're too focused on taking the capital now. Spirits help us, we can and will rid ourselves of the yolk of the Fire Nation."
"You and your spirits," said Prung, rolling his eyes. "Even with the siege, they've still got enough men here to hold down Munn. And once the capital falls, they'll be able to send as many troops back here as they need."
"Suppose they lose the siege and Ba Sing Se wards them off," said Epong.
"I doubt that it'll make a difference," said Prung. "The Fire Nation would still have us under their thumb, and the capital has never given two shits about us. Why would a siege-worn city go to the trouble to liberate us, if they're not threatened again?"
"They can't care about us any less than our former leaders," said Epong. "A lot of folks say they can't tell the difference between Grand Sima Lizen and Princess Jaya running the show and when King Aisin was in charge. And they're only half joking."
"Now there's what sets us apart," Prung snorted out a humorless, disgusted laugh. "The great city of Munn, the only place in the whole Earth Kingdom that's better off occupied by the Fire Nation than under its cruel, stubborn Earth Kingdom aristocracy."
"Not all of them were bad," said Epong. "Years and years ago, before I was wrongfully accused of theft, I worked as a servant in the household of Roshune and Lady Rang Xue."
"I'm not sure where you're going with this," said Prung. "Roshune of the Dorunian Warriors was one of the worst lords that Munn had to offer, and that's really saying something."
"Their daughter, though. Ratana; she was just thirteen when I left, same as Wyla is now. She was gentle and sweet."
"Hmph!" said Prung. "Nostalgia, useless. She's probably outgrown that now, if her parents raised her to be like them."
"No," said Epong. "She's still like that."
"How do you know that?"
"I just do."
"So where is Ratana, daughter of Roshune and Rang Xue now?" asked Prung.
"Gone," Epong said sadly. "I do not know how."
To her distress, Ratana was told that Sung had gone to Ba Sing Se's Upper Ring to meet with General How and the rest of the Council of Five for the first half of the day, and so she would not be able to see him until that afternoon. With no choice, Ratana groaned and went back down to the dungeon to resume her duty as Lu Ten's prison guard. Wordlessly, she took the ration for the Prince of the Fire Nation over to his cell and slid it underneath, with the prince himself just waking up, by the looks of it.
"Morning," Lu Ten greeted her, rubbing clenched fists over his own eyes, looking at his breakfast - double portion, as per Ratana's earlier request. "Sleep well?"
Ratana did not respond. Instead, she faced the wall perpendicular to his cell, gritting her teeth behind her lips in an attempt to hide a blush. She was avoiding eye contact with the prisoner that she was guarding at all costs now.
"Ummm...hello?" Lu Ten turned his eyes away from his breakfast and blinked. "Ratana, are you ignoring me?"
"No," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "It's nothing, just eat your food. You...you shouldn't be worrying about how well I slept last night."
"What's going on?" he asked, not buying the forced calm in her voice. "Is it something I said or did. Ratana, you're acting very strangely, almost as strange as you were acting when you left me behind back in Gangkouz. Not even giving me a telling off or a banter, or anything at all really. Why is that?"
Ratana spun back around and faced her prisoner, irritated but nervous at the same time. "Look, we really shouldn't be so friendly to one another," Ratana rose her voice, though it shook as she spoke. "You're the Prince of the Fire Nation and you came to Ba Sing Se to take it by force. I'm the Captain of the Terra Team and each day I put my life on the line trying to defend it. And right now, I'm guarding you, our prisoner. We've both been behaving unprofessionally."
"Sheesh," Lu Ten said to her. "What's been going on with you? I know all that, and you knew all that too, before now. Anyone with half a brain can tell that, but even among enemies, there can be civility. My father always says so, and he's been fighting this war much longer than we have. When he comes to the prisoner exchange for me, you can bet your backside he's going to be way more friendly to your wiry old General Sung than you're being right now. One can hardly get through life without the right attitude, or a sense of humor."
"Look," said Ratana. "There's no guarantee that you're going to be part of a prisoner exchange. They still might decide to execute you."
"I'm speaking in hypothetical terms, too," said Lu Ten, folding his own arms behind his neck. "I still intend to escape this place, long before then, as I told you the first time that we were down here together."
Shaking the stones on the sides somewhat, Ratana banged her clenched fist against the wall behind her and glared at Lu Ten. "Try, I dare you." It was not a playful proposal. It was a threat. "It is my job down here to stop you from doing just that, and no matter how much I would rather be elsewhere right now, I will not let that happen. Say that again, and I'll give you a taste of my medicine."
Lu Ten did not move, but continued staring at her, reminding her all too much of how he looked during that vision that she had seen in the Trance of Solitude on Ran and Shaw's mountain when the Sun Shaman Wu had guided her. Slowly but surely, she felt her anger melt away, and she trotted over to the wall opposite the bars of Lu Ten's cell. She sat with her elbows resting on her knees directly across from her prisoner and hung her head so the hairs beneath her conical hat obscured her eyes from Lu Ten.
Moments later, she sighed a deep breath and Ratana faced Lu Ten once again. "I'm sorry about that. Would you like to take your stroll around the grounds after you finish your breakfast?"
"I'm fine to go now," Lu Ten shrugged. "I'm not all that hungry yet."
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