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|Songs of the Past|
November 28, 2014
With the sparrowkeets chirping away in the background, a tiny cottage with two windows lay next to a brook at the edge of the village that bordered one of the numerous forested regions in the Central Earth Kingdom. As midday had just approached, the sun was located more or less directly overhead, so its light shone evenly in all directions, like a magical dome of light. Behind this cottage was a cozy little backyard, which was bordered by trees that marked the beginning of the territory belonging to the nearby forest.
The sparrowkeets continued to chirp as the back door to the cottage swung open and a young boy of medium height entered the area. With lengthy black hair reaching down three inches past his shoulder level, he was garbed in a sleeveless dark green tunic and pants. In his left hand he clutched a smooth, light wooden pipa. Carefully, he nested his body atop the stump of the tree his father had cut down at the beginning of the prior season, and began to play.
Slowly at first, the sitting boy plucked each of the strings with each of his fingertips, vibrating a melody together. For several moments, the boy thought of nothing else, simply playing along with the tones he had memorized and used his ears to listen to what he was playing. As he had played this particular song dozens of times on end, the notes and the beat came naturally to him. Gradually, the boy started to hum with the tune that he composed, allowing himself to become fully immersed in its rhythm and tune out for just a moment the goings-on of the chaotic world around him.
Music has always been one of the greatest mysteries of life. Science, philosophy, spirituality and nature have all failed to provide an explanation for how an abundance of random, meaningless sounds can combine together to form meaning and mood that strikes one in the heart. The right tune at the right time possesses the power to serenade the spirit and comfort the soul. Likewise, a simple change in tune can invoke instant emotion in a person, be it excitement, joy, sadness or anger, amongst others. Even with all the evolution that intelligent beings go through throughout history, none of them can provide a rational answer to the question of why people like music. Simply put, there is no rational answer. People just do.
Eventually, the birds who had previously been chirping found themselves silenced by the tune of the boy's pipa. Any composer, no matter their shape or size, recognizes the sound of another great one when they hear it. Soon afterwards, an antelope deer and several other hybrid creatures, both big and small, came into the clearing. Another little boy and a little girl, both of smaller size and smaller years than the playing boy, wandered into the backyard through the same door that the playing boy had entered via. The smallest boy sat cross-legged on the ground and listened in silence while the girl, who was slightly taller, rested her elbow on the edge of the wide tree stump while they listened to their elder brother play.
The mother of the children emerged from the house herself and smiled for a few seconds as she witnessed the scene before her. Under ordinary circumstances, she would have thrown a fit at seeing her children so close to a horned antelope deer and a couple of other animals she would not want her younger ones to be near, but she elected to overlook that for the time being. "That was beautiful, Taigang," she said as her son finally stopped playing. The animals promptly retreated to their forested domain and the smaller boy and girl skittered back inside the house.
"Thank you, Mother," said Taigang. "I've been practicing when I have the spare time. Been doing it more since I got this brand new pipa from grandmother at my birthday party."
"An instrument is only as good as its wielder," Taigang's mom said with pride as she sat on the stump beside him and wrapped her arm about his shoulder. "It was very appropriate for your twelfth birthday. At the close of childhood and the brink of adolescence, it was about time that you had your own pipa to play."
The mother's lecture on growth and independence was cut short, however, as the front door of the house had opened up with such vigor that it startled both Taigang and his mother. The pair of them rushed inside to greet the new arrival and found Taigang's father waiting for them, sweat running down from his brow and the sleeves of his Terra Team uniform slightly torn.
"Guan, dear, are you alright?" Taigang's mother questioned as she hurried over to greet her husband. "You look like a wreck."
"I'm fine, Maya," Guan snapped back almost defensively. "I just barely got out. I wish that I could say the same for those poor bastards that served alongside me. I lost three men under my command today. Unprecedented. It appears the Fire Nation army were much more formidable in number than we ever expected."
"Goodness," Taigang's mother uttered in shock. "It sounds awful." She listened intently with Taigang at her side. Taigang's brother and sister had both retreated to their rooms by this point.
"It is," confirmed Guan. "The line has been breached. This area is no longer safe. We'll have to relocate. I don't want any of our family to still be here when the Fire Nation takes over this town."
Taigang knew the severity of the situation the way that his dad had said when and not if. "Where will we go?" he wondered aloud. "This has been our home for as long as I can remember..."
"Your uncle has a farm to the east of here," answered Guan. "We'll go there until we can figure out something more permanent." He eyed the pipa that his son was holding onto. "Have you been wasting your time with that thing again? Taigang, I told you to work on your earthbending forms!"
"I have, Dad," Taigang cried out defensively. "I practiced all morning."
"He did, Guan," said Taigang's mother. "I saw him practicing his forms for hours and I thought he had earned a break."
"You what?!" Guan's eyes blazed as he began shaking his fist. "Did I get to take a break today? Do firebenders allow any of us to take breaks?"
"Guan, I just thought..." Taigang's mother began. But upon seeing her husband raise his hand in the air to declare his conversation with her over, she hung her head in submission.
"No more," Guan announced as he snatched the pipa from Taigang's fist. "I'm putting a stop to this right now."
"Dad, no!" Taigang shrieked as his instrument was taken from him and violently smashed into pieces on the table top in front of him. "Please..." he continued to weep as his only escape, his only joy, was taken away from him for good.
"What were you thinking?" he snarled down at Taigang as he lit the logs in the fireplace. "Your eldest brother was killed in action months ago and your next brother is crippled to the point where he'll never walk upright again. It is time for you to grow up, Taigang." With that, Guan tossed the wooden shards that had once belonged to the pipa into the fire, one at a time. The light color turned dark and the strings curled up and shriveled, never to be played again. "You can't fight the Fire Nation with music."
A few hundred feet after their retreat commenced, Lu Ten and his comrades reached the main camp of the Fire Nation siege force. "Father," said the prince upon meeting up with General Iroh once again. "We had to turn back. Their resistance is formidable."
"Indeed it is, my boy," nodded the portly, bearded Dragon of the West in response. "Taking Ba Sing Se will be no easy feat. No, it will be much more difficult than capturing Munn was, or any of the battles that we undertook in the past, for that matter. But with the right strategy and resolution, we will ultimately prevail in the end."
"I would never doubt that for a minute," Lu Ten agreed.
"So, did you find anything else out on your mission?" asked Iroh.
"Only that the Earth Kingdom has multiple thick layers of defense to cut through at their capital," said Lu Ten, disappointed that he had not learned anything that could help his father's invasion of Ba Sing Se out more. "The Terra Team are our most formidable of enemies on the battlefield, it seems."
"Ah, of course," said Iroh. "I did expect that we would have to deal with quite a few of them before the day is done. The Terra Team are some of the Earth Kingdom's elite, most renowned benders."
"They must have known about the invasion well in advance," observed Lu Ten. "They sent so many of their best forces here, and it appears that some have been stationed here for some time."
"Yes," Iroh said solemnly. "I never underestimated their intelligence, so I'm not surprised that they knew of our attack before our people found out about it. They must have had spies in the Fire Nation. There used to be a nest of them in the port town of Gangkouz, but they were rooted out. Settlements near the water such as that one are among the easiest to penetrate for outsiders, especially with so much traffic taking place back and forth between Gangkouz and the colonies."
"Gangkouz, eh?" Lu Ten said. "Well, I'll be sure to think twice about anyone that I meet there from now on." Of course, there were plenty of good people in Gangkouz, too. Besides the eccentric relative whose apartment he stayed in, there was the gentle, though spirited Rang Xue. Lu Ten pondered whether or not he would ever see her again, or if he would find out just why she had felt the need to leave him in such a hurry. "So, what are we going to do now?"
"We'll regroup and launch our own counterattack," Iroh revealed, the full heat of battle now not too far from where the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and his son now stood. "Most of the top commanders are all accounted for. There's just one that's missing at the moment. It does appear that Han Shui has gone off on his own. He took a battalion of troops and headed westward, toward one of the villages that we already conquered on the way here."
"That's odd," said Lu Ten. "I wonder just what he was planning there."
"I don't know," Iroh admitted. "I only just found out this information myself moments before you just arrived. He's being very suspicious right now. He's only been acting more and more suspicious ever since we arrived at the Outer Wall. Whatever he's up to though, I have a feeling that I'll have to put a stop to it. I'm taking one unit of men and going to find him."
"Understood," said Lu Ten. "I only hope that whatever it is that he's doing won't delay us too long. It will jeopardize our counter-assault if the Earth Kingdom is allowed to regroup before we can regroup ourselves."
"Indeed," concurred General Iroh. "We must hurry."
- The pipa is the same kind of instrument played by Chong.
- Gangkouz was the city where Ratana "Rang Xue" and Lu Ten "Lu Tong" first met, so there's both irony and foreshadowing in bringing that up now.
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