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February 26, 2016
Timo, a Fire Nation guard stationed on one of the fortified towers in Munn watched the foggy skies with lazy eyes, the moisture in the air bringing the goosebumps up along the rims of either one of his arms. It was dull work, to say the least. He had been watching and waiting for hours, and his mind had wandered a great deal in the meantime. Although he would never admit the weakness to his comrades, he was relieved to be here and not in combat outside Ba Sing Se. He had never been good in battle. Duty came easy to him in a place like this.
For his concealed cowardice, he was now punished with dull monotony, with nothing meaningful to perform. He distracted himself from the feeling of guilt by dedicating himself to any one task at a time with the utmost resilience. But now he thought of going down to ask one of the commanders if there was anything else the garrison of Munn required of him for the time being. One on hand, he would likely be whipped for disregarding his duty and abandoning his post, and on the other perhaps he was being negligent in remaining inside this safe place, when there was so much more to be done outside. Surely his commanders would prefer it if he took an active role in trying to find a new way to help out.
With his indecisiveness, he stayed put, and no letters from the outside arrived. None of the other garrisons in the Earth Kingdom elsewhere spared Munn a thought, as Ba Sing Se was the main talk of the day. Of course, any message that was meant for Ba Sing Se would have to pass through Munn first. Timo had only had half his sugar tart, and saved the other half for Wyla, a local girl. She was young and innocent, and no harm came in giving her a little extra on top of her standard ration.
A distant sound of a hawk shook the silence. It had been so hazy that for a second the guard did not recognize that it was one of their own, and not a wild specimen. His insides jolted upon themselves when he saw what the bird of his own country was carrying. A black-ribbon message!
Once the bird landed, Timo found that it was addressed to General Iroh, and found himself in yet another dilemma. Black ribbon messages were the highest level of urgency, and common sense dictated that he must see to it that the message was forwarded to the Dragon of the West at the utmost haste. However, Grand Sima Lizen had said specifically that all messages bound for Ba Sing Se would be reviewed by him personally first, and that did not make an exception for the black ribbon level.
The guard would not break procedure, so he resolved to do his best under the circumstances by going straight to Lizen as fast as his two legs would carry him. He would not stop to talk to anyone in the yards or in the halls before reaching the throne room. "Black-ribbon message, coming through!" he shouted at bystanders on his way up.
When he came to the throne room, he found that it had been transformed since the Fire Nation took the stronghold. Gone were virtually all relics of King Aisin's reign, and red banners and the feel of their homeland surrounded them instead. Lizen's daughter had even added in a spa much like the one in the royal palace in Royal Caldera City.
"Grand Sima," said Timo. "Princess," he added a nod, seeing that Jaya was there also. "Sorry to disturb whatever meeting you were having, but we got a black ribbon message."
"Bring it here at once," Lizen ordered, stretching out his hand as he sat in the throne that had once been sat in by the native rulers of Munn.
"It is addressed to the Dragon of the West," stated Timo.
"You heard my father," Jaya mused coolly. "Show him."
The last bastion of hesitance shaken out of him, Timo walked over and handed the scroll to Lizen. At first he thought the Grand Sima merely wanted to see the urgency level of the message for himself, but he proceeded to unravel the scroll and read the message, standing as he did so. "Shut the doors, Jaya."
"It is a black ribbon message, sir," protested Timo. "We must send it to the front at Ba Sing Se at once!"
"Thank you, I can see," Lizen said sarcastically. "I know what color the ribbon is. Tell me, did you talk to anyone else of the message before coming here?"
"No," said Timo. "I knew because of the level it would have to be forwarded to the front straightaway, but then I remembered your orders that any such messages were to come to you first."
"Good," Lizen said with a nod. "And did you tell anyone else that the message was for the Crown Prince?"
"No," said the guard. "I was all alone in the tower, so I was the only one there when it came in."
Lizen exchanged a quick glance with his daughter and then pocketed the scroll into his robes. "Jaya, do you remember the seal that I had you snatch from General Iroh's tent when you visited the front?"
"Of course I do, Father," Princess Jaya replied, tightening her arms together and kicking Timo in the shin as she strangled him with chains. "Now are you going to keep me in the dark or let me know what that message says?"
Lizen ignored her question. "After today I need you to return it to where you found it, as soon as possible and before Cousin Iroh misses it. I would do it myself, but I'm setting off as soon as I finish writing this."
"Where are you going?" Jaya asked, loosening her arms and dropping the chains as the last, faint breaths of the subdued guard escaped his mouth.
"To the capital," said Lizen. "It's best you don't know too much for now, but I have family business to attend to. Your great uncle was attacked."
"The Fire Lord?"
"Luckily, they say that he will live," said Lizen. "But he is in a coma, and that complicates matters of state."
"I should say that it does."
"For now, do not speak of this to anyone," Lizen told his daughter, walking her just beyond the throne room and to a nearby window. "And find a way to dispose of that," he added, pointing to Timo's body.
"He was an oblivious loner, so I don't think his sudden disappearance will be questioned," said Jaya. "In three days time, he'll turn up in the middle of the forest, looking like he wandered off and had a hunting accident."
"That will do," her dad said approvingly. "Gain some practice for yourself while I'm gone."
"Practice doing what?"
"Ruling," said Lizen, pointing down into the courtyards and the city below. "I know you're hoping for better soon, but you'll have to have patience a little while longer. In the mean time, Munn is yours, dear Jaya, until I return."
"I really wish that they would light the candles in here," Ratana complained of the state of the room with Lu Ten's cell in it. "It's damp and dark enough to barely see your hand in front of your face."
"I can do something about that if you would like," Lu Ten offered, rising to his feet and extending his forearm.
"No," Ratana shot him down sharply. "Absolutely not, I can't have you bending when you're in our captivity."
"Like lighting some candles from in here would help me to escape."
"No," she repeated flatly.
"Very well," Lu Ten said as he sat back down on the cold floor. "Since your side is against a little common sense bending for the sake of comfort, I guess we're stuck in the dark now."
"So be it, then," said Ratana. She was still doing her same old boring duties of late, as Tooru called it. Now, however, she did not mind guarding the prisoner prince as much as she would have thought. As far as enemies go, Lu Ten was not the harshest to deal with, though she would not tell anyone else that. Tooru had also joked that she should ask some of the new recruits for help like Taigang had. Naturally, Ratana would not consider such a prospect, but not merely because she detested Taigang's taking advantage of Ping and Pong. Truth be told, even she was not sure why she was so guarded and paranoid about her time with Lu Ten.
"The air's too chilly for me to be at my best down here anyway," Lu Ten added. "If this were the Water Tribes, it would be hopeless. No firebender ever held escapes there on their own. The only one that I know of that did was able to do so with some help from another. Seriously, that whole frozen prison is like one big cooler to us."
"Help from another you say?" replied Ratana. "Huh – well, it doesn't really matter anyway. This may not be one giant 'cooler' down here in Ba Sing Se, but you won't be escaping here anytime soon. Definitely not under my watch." Guarding Lu Ten had not taken much effort on her part so far, and she didn't even mind when Tooru made light of it. Granted, he seemed to have more on his mind. Just before coming to Lu Ten that night, her partner had had something on the tip of her tongue and said he wanted to tell her something, but then hastily added that it could wait for later. That was Tooru being Tooru, she had told herself.
"Well, there is that, too," conceded Lu Ten. "But I'll think of something before time is up."
"Don't count on it," Ratana warned. "Even if you get out of this cell, you'll never get back to your own camp alive, even if you can take down ten earthbenders, as your nation says about you." She could not help but notice how casual Lu Ten sounded when he referred to when 'time is up'. Even more troubling, she found herself more anxious to learn of what was to be decided his fate would be. It seemed she was more anxious than Lu Ten, at least from what he showed.
"I heard that partner of yours, Tooru, mention that you were born and raised in Munn," said Lu Ten. "It must've been difficult for you when we took that city."
"You needn't worry about bothering me with Munn," Ratana waved this aside. "Really, I left that city back when I was sixteen and wandered the kingdom until I met my next sifu. I have not looked back ever since."
Being no fool, Lu Ten could sense something was off. "Bad memories?"
"You could say that," said Ratana. "A couple years before I left, I liked one of the servant boys in our kitchens. His name was Epong and he was a few years older than I. I would have even asked my mother to give him joint earthbending lessons with me, but he wasn't a bender. In time, we grew close and I showed him around, but when my parents discovered us kissing in the kitchen, that put a stop to it. My mother would have dismissed him quietly. Lady Rang Xue had a reputation for being gentle for Munn."
"Rang Xue," said Lu Ten. "There's a name that I'm familiar with."
"But my father had Epong whipped and said that he would see to having his entire family banished from the kingdom. It was one of many things that showed me the true colors of where I grew up. When I left, I saw how much better the rest of the world was."
"A forbidden love," mused Lu Ten. "Like Oma and Shu, the two craziest people in the world. I can see why you do not like the place you came from. My childhood was rough around the edges as well, growing up as a prince from the Fire Nation, as difficult as it may be for you to believe. My mother and father were supportive, but everyone else was strict and pushed us to the limits. Especially my grandfather, and his word is law."
"I see," said Ratana. "Well, at least you've endured in your post. I never could have involved myself in Munn high life the way my mother did, not in ten thousand lifetimes." She realized that this was the first time in a long time that she had spoken of this. Even with Tooru, save for that one time before the siege, she never opened up about her past before she met Brawki.
"You make this place seem like the dark realm of Koh the Face Stealer," said Lu Ten.
"Not that I'm one for tall tales like that, but yes, that's a pretty decent analogy," said Ratana. She remembered her mother, Rang Xue, a free spirit, though a spirit that was kept locked away most of the time. Ratana always admired her, but to live that life herself would have been one of her worst nightmares. "Oh yeah, there's that party tomorrow night. I almost forgot about that."
"So you've said," Lu Ten pointed out. "Are you not looking forward to celebrating with your team?"
"I'm not one for celebrating," said Ratana. "Anyway, Taigang's been handling the arrangements with the caterers. He said that he was getting something at least that everyone on the team would like, but as far as I know, he's going all in on roast duck and boulder ales, which are him and Zan Xun's favorites."
"I like roast duck," said Lu Ten. "Back home we had a nice way of cooking it in Royal Caldera City. Makes me almost wish I was on the Terra Team." He added the latter part with a laugh.
"I'll sneak some down for you at the end of the night."
"You don't have to do that, Ratana. I wouldn't want you to get in trouble."
Lu Ten smiled. "Before I came here I heard rumors that your countrymen bludgeoned their prisoners daily with rocks not used on the battlefield. I must say, things are better than expected. Being a prisoner of yours is full of surprises."
- The spa inside of the Munn royal chambers resembles the one Azula uses in Book 3 of ATLA.
- Lu Ten's comment on the Water Tribes will be referenced later.
- Epong and Wyla, mentioned here, both first appeared in Seeds of Rebellion.
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