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|The King of Munn|
June 13, 2014
The ornate throne room, its columns lined with diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, was a cold, yet beautiful place. In the past, lavish parties had been held and King Aisin of Munn had even permitted his chamber to be used as a ballroom at times. Recently, however, there was little to celebrate and the room remained as closed off as it usually was. From his seat of power, the third highest ranking ruler in the entire Earth Kingdom, after the Earth King himself and King Bumi of Omashu, sat alone and pestered by his own thoughts in his giant, quiet room, awaiting a visitor.
A clunky knock indicated that the lever had been swung from the other, unseen side of the fancy double doors. "You may enter," Aisin muttered, barely loud enough to be heard across the room and through the wall. On an ordinary day, his servants would be by his side, but today was not an ordinary day.
Into the gigantic room marched a man in dark, exquisite armor fit for one of the king's most trusted advisors. His outfit of midnight black stood out in sharp contrast to the green interior of the room where he stood. Seasons prior, this man's hair matched the same pitch dark color of his clothing. Now, however, grayness had begun to take its toll on Roshune's shoulder-long hair and beard. "Your Majesty," Roshune uttered, extending a bow after arriving right in front of Aisin's throne.
"Rise, Roshune," King Aisin commanded. "I assume that you know why I have summoned you hear today."
"Of course, Your Majesty," stated Roshune, nodding. "I have studied what has been going on throughout your realm as well as what transpires in the outer world for some time of late. It seems that danger lies ahead."
"As I expected," acknowledged the king, who set his eyes on an old trinket that hung from around Roshune's neck. "I see you still cling to style from the elder times. That piece of jewelry is sacred, is it not?"
"It belonged to my ancestor, Sir."
"Of course, the ever-distant Doru Kun," Aisin stated neutrally. The king's very position rested on his own divine right to rule, a status he inherited from his forebears. With seeming contradiction, he could not help but be intimidated by his underling's own lineage, which was even more old and noble than his own. Stretching back to ancient times, the Dorunian Warriors who descended from legendary Avatar Doru Kun were the protectors of the Kingdom of Munn and all that the late Avatar had stood for within his own lifetime. Chivalric, philosophical and spiritual in nature, the Dorunians held many elusive secrets that they would according to tradition, not share with anyone besides their own. It appeared that such secrets would not exist for much longer. The last of the two millennia-old bloodline was Roshune, who stood before the king now, and he had no offspring of his own now. It was years since his wife was murdered by enemies from the Fire Nation. There had also been a daughter, as King Aisin recalled, but he did not remember what happened to her. It was as though she simply faded away. "You have excellent taste, my good friend."
"There's no need to be familiar, Sire," Roshune advised. "It doesn't suit someone of your rank. I am but your humble servant."
"And a faithful one you have always been."
"Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that our metropolis may soon come under attack," Roshune said regretfully. "Our defenses have become waned of late, much of our population is famished and the enemy is on the move. Fire Nation ships will soon depart from their own shores. Their course appears to be set for the coastline around our section of the Earth Kingdom."
"You're quite sure," noted King Aisin. "How do you know that the Kingdom of Munn is a target? There are other strongholds in this area of the continent, such as Ba Sing Se, where they must be bound for."
The Dorunian Warrior shook his head, briskly but respectfully. "If they would dare to attack the capital of the Earth Kingdom itself, we can't call ourselves safe as long as they're nearby. Ba Sing Se's walls have proven an impossible barrier to breach. As for us, the outer defenses of Munn are scarce and spread out. We're far more vulnerable."
"For someone with a lineage and an appreciation for tradition such as yours, you seem to know nothing of history," King Aisin lectured, almost like he was scolding. "Generations upon Generations of Munn men and women have faced threats. Our city was at the pinnacle of the centuries-long struggle of the Northern and Central Empires, before the Earth Kingdom became united under the thumb of Ba Sing Se. We still stand after all this time, and the Kingdom of Munn will stand for that much time more."
"With all do respect Sire, the conflict that you speak of was an ancient one, in the antiquity of our civilization," pressed Roshune. "The military might, battle discipline and technology of the Fire Nation today did not exist back then."
The tired king sighed at his advisors comments and observations. "Do you have a recommendation, my humble lord?"
"As I said before, the outskirts of our kingdom are spread thin and will be hard to defend," reiterated Roshune. "We must move our entire population to the nexus of the kingdom, inside of the walls of the main city."
"Quite a lot of supplies will be needed to hold out against the firebenders."
"Exactly what I was going to mention next," concurred Roshune. "The peasants must each be required to donate some of their crops to the army. Our troops must be well-stocked should the engagement be a long one. Naturally, this means they will be stretched thin as well, due to the poorer harvest this time around."
"Regrettable," admitted Aisin. "Well, isn't the point to not be spread thin when the time comes?"
"Yes," said Roshune. "The keep is the most safe place to send everyone, and where it's possible to hold out the longest from. Although we are a fortified kingdom, that is by far the most fortified spot of all. Those inside the keep can fight from within with projectiles, bending and archery to defend the fortifications, as they have in past conflicts. Unfortunately, not every citizen or subject of Munn will be able to be accommodated."
"Of course not," said Aisin. "Decisions will have to be made, as one may say. It's already clear to me who will be allowed to stay in the keep. It must be only the nobles. It's always the nobility who have shelter from war and famine and other disasters that are thrown our way. In darker times it's always necessary to have one class intact and ready to restore order at the end."
"The peasants and foot soldiers will have to fend from the outside, but if the tide turns our way, they'll be safe in the end. Otherwise...it could end up a death trap for some."
"As throughout our history, we must keep one class intact so they may restore order when the time comes to rebuild. The scions of Munn accept their duty well."
"Regrettable, but necessary," agreed Roshune. "It won't be easy for me to dwell on the fate of the poor wretches outside the keep, but I know my place, as well as theirs."
King Aisin frowned. "Regrettable for me too, old friend. For you do serve me well."
"What do you mean, Sire?"
"You see, our population has grown in recent years, but the space inside the keep is the same as it has always been. There will not be enough room even for the nobles this time. Only the noble earthbenders."
Everything looked vastly different when Ratana opened her eyes in the tiny, window-side room in one of the Sun Warrior's temple. The sun that shone threw the opening in the wall, the air she breathed, it all smelt and felt like something alien to her. So distracted had Ratana been the previous evening that she had neglected to notice the bodies of June and Heidze in the beds within the opposing walls. A closer look told her that Heidze had left now, to where, Ratana did not know. Still processing the events of the previous evening within her mind, from her early confrontation, to the cave of the dragons, to the Sun Warriors running up the mountain when they heard the roar of the dragon indicating danger was near, the Terra Team earthbender could hardly believe the shift of her very being that had transpired. In turning away from her mission to find proof of dragons' existence, she had become some kind of kooky tool of the balance that one might find in a story.
"Morning, Ratana," June yawned as she stretched both her arms up and began to pull the sheets down her body. "There was quite a lot of commotion down here last night."
"There was much more commotion at the top of the mountain, I assure you," Ratana told her with a faint trace of a laugh.
"Did you finish your mission, then?" June asked, her sleepy eyes still blinking.
Ratana paused for a moment. "Yes, my mission's over."
"Finally," June pulled off her covers and promptly sat up, her morning hair scattered in many directions. "About damn time."
"Oh good, you two are awake." In the doorway stood Heidze. "The Sun Warriors invited us to a special Ceremony of the Flame before we set off."
"As long as it doesn't take too long," June muttered.
Ratana held her head down in shame. "Heidze, I..."
"Come on, get ready," Heidze interrupted, smiling. "We don't have much time."
"Hi," came yet another voice from the doorway. It was the girl with braided hair who had been the first Sun Warrior any of them had encountered. "Just so you guys know, the ceremony's about to begin."
"I already told them." Heidze grinned. "Shall we walk over while they get themselves dressed?"
The girl blinked a couple times in silence. "Okay, fine. I guess we can go over together."
"Sweet," Heidze failed to hide his enthusiasm. "Say, I don't think I ever got your name. What is it?"
"Yeah," Ratana interjected, still sitting on her bed with her covers over her knees. "It's not really 'Turn Around,' is it?"
"No," she shook her head as she smirked at the outsider visitors. "It's Chang Lei."
"Ah," Ratana nodded, her own messy hair falling in front of her eyes. "Well, nice to make your acquaintance, Chang Lei."
Several minutes after Chang Lei and Heidze had left, Ratana and June went to pick up Nyla from the outside pen and followed the crowd of Sun Warriors to where they gathered around a fire pit, with drummers and unlit fire hoops lining the edges of the circle.
Once everyone expected was present, Sun Chief Shang began to speak. "Today is a surprise, unexpected Ceremony of the Flame, for we have three unexpected scales with us today." After saying this, the chief flashed a glare in Ratana's direction before carrying on. "Since there are by sheer coincidence I'm sure, three outsiders here among us today, it is my decision to put the unexpected with the unexpected and allow them to do the honors." With this, he took the three scales and passed them to Heidze, June and Ratana respectively. "But first, they must take the oath, as the universe has granted them possession of one of our most well-kept secrets."
The sudden seriousness of Shang's voice made both Ratana and June jump at once, but Heidze wasted no time in stepping forward first. "Do you swear to never disclose the secret of the dragons to anyone and to defend that secret with your life and spirit, should it come to it?"
"I do," Heidze affirmed. At Shang's gesture, he stepped forward amidst the chanters and dropped his scale into the fire pit, where a blaze of flame with all the colors of the rainbow erupted.
When June came forth, Chief Shang repeated his question. "Do you swear to never disclose the secret of the dragons to anyone and to defend that secret with your life and spirit, should it come to it?"
"Well, I don't see myself being hired for a contract with a dragon as the target anytime soon," June shrugged matter-of-factly.
"June!" Ratana called out.
"I mean, I do," she corrected herself. To the earthbender's relief, Shang made no further comment on June's answer as he stepped aside she dropped her own scale into the pit, producing a similar flurry of colored flames.
Now, it was Ratana's turn. "Do you swear to never disclose the secret of the dragons to anyone and to defend that secret with your life and spirit, should it come to it?"
Unlike the two who had gone before her, Ratana had made the exact opposite her goal for a long while up until now, and the words snailed through her throat. Whether they were untrue, unworthy or merely doubtful, Ratana could only guess. "I do."
When Ratana dropped her scale into the fire, she tuned out the chanting and the drums and the clapping all around her and let herself become mesmerized by the flames that mimicked those of dragons. As Wu had said, the healing of the world must begin with individuals. This was not just to accept change, but to bring others into accepting it. Ratana now realizes through the Sun Warriors that the fire itself was not bad. Indeed, it was beautiful and just as essential as air, water and earth, which all required their own harmony to survive. Like all fires, the one produced by her scale would burn out eventually, and she would be back in the world which was decaying around her from the cruelty of those in the Fire Nation who made it so. However, she also realized that not all people from the Fire Nation were monsters as she once thought. Some had become corrupted by the time and place in which they were born, which couldn't be helped. As great as the fire was to look at like this, Ratana was still most attached to her native earth. But being a protector like she aspired to be meant a mixture of what she had learned and fighting the Fire Nation to defend the balance as she had already been.
After the flame finally went out and the ceremony was over, Wu approached the three visitors one last time. "I want you to have these two tokens to remember us by," he informed them. These were a talisman with the edges of the sun engraved as rays that appeared to be of either copper or bronze, and a faded pai sho tile with a flower on it. "As well as your oath."
"Thank you," said Ratana. Now that she understood what the oath meant, she learned how fragile the balance was. She, June and Heidze were protectors, but the more protectors there were for the secret, the less safe the secret would be. If it did break out eventually, Ratana promised herself it would not be of her doing.
"So, what are you all doing now?" Shang asked as he came up behind Wu.
"Going back to the Earth Kingdom," Ratana told the chief.
"Nyla and I will be getting back to what we do best," stated June.
Heidze thought for a moment. "Well, I was in Gangkouz before I set off from there a while ago, but I can't see myself going back there now. I'll find somewhere else..."
Chief Shang exchanged a quick glance and a nod with the Sun Shaman. "It would be a big change for you, but you're welcome to remain among us if you like."
Heidze made brief eye contact with Chang Lei, who smiled back at him. "Thanks, Chief. I might take you up on that....someday. I think I need to stay with Ratana for now, though, in case she needs me," said Heidze. "Maybe to save her from herself," he muttered under his breath.
- King Aisin's name was inspired by Aisin-Gioro Puyi, an emperor of China. Granted, the "Aisin" is actually part of the family name, but it sounded most appropriate for him of all the sounds.
- The king's justification for keeping an upper class well-supported while the lower class struggles is the same as the one given in The Shadow Children series, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.
For the collective works of the author, go here.