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|An Invitation to Dinner|
April 22, 2013
Ratana was not happy, for this night off was not exactly so. Having been looking forward to a sporting game of earth soccer with the guys after their regular evening sparring drills, she was instead doomed to travel halfway across the southern Earth Kingdom in a large, cramped carriage. Although she was packed between a chubby, unshaven man on her left and a skinny, middle-aged woman on her right, the only sound she heard were the footsteps of the ostrich horses and the rolling of the wheels outside. The crowd inside this carriage included a peculiar wide-eyed fellow with a corncob sticking out from his mouth, and they were not a conversational bunch, so Ratana was alone with her thoughts. She was off to dine at a fine estate, and she was looking forward to it about as much as she might look forward to fighting the Fire Lord with both her hands bound.
As General Sung had informed Ratana, due to her decisive role in recapturing a Fire Nation colony in the Earth Kingdom, she had been sentenced to being the guest of honor of a wealthy nobleman and noblewoman for a formal dinner and luncheon the next day. Since the man was a committed financier of their war effort through buying bonds and funding tank production, he desired a few perks along the way, so Ratana, as one of those who made the headlines, could not be allowed to refuse such an invitation.
Although some, like her fellow Terra Team member Taigang, wouldn't believe so, Ratana took no joy in the glory and attention she received at a time like this. Her entitled hosts probably thought this would be something else they shared in common, but really it was another reason why they were as different as could be. This nobleman likely thought himself as much a contributor to halting the Fire Nation march of destruction into their country as Ratana was, even though neither he nor his wife had seen action in their lives. Perhaps there was a place for these people and they really were useful in some way, but she detested them regardless.
Despite her lack of enthusiasm about the destination, Ratana welcomed the fresh air, and she almost tripped stepping out from the carriage. One half of an hour prior to arrival, the gentleman to Ratana's left had released a scent foul from the bowel that had been frustrating her nostrils ever since. But the sense of relief did not last long as Ratana set her eyes on Gaoling and the servant that had been sent to meet her.
"You must be Ratana," the smooth-haired, smooth-mannered servant greeted while smiling and bowing. "It is an honor to be in your presence. Please, let me escort you."
Begrudgingly, Ratana followed the servant to a walled-in manor constructed like any other large private home in this region of the kingdom, with curved slats on the roof above the flatter walls. There was a flying boar crest above the entrance that signaled this was the residence of Lao and Poppy Beifong. Even before she had met them, the exterior of their house screamed out "privileged, prosperous and pompous."
It turned out to be five who sat at the table that evening: Ratana, her two hosts, an unusually-relaxed earthbending "master" by the name of Yu, and a grayish green-eyed girl of about four or five years. The child was Toph, Lao and Poppy's young daughter, and she was blind. Dinner consisted of dumplings stuffed with a rich filling Ratana could hardly stomach, stringy noodles, and a steaming bowl of hot soup.
"It is always a pleasure to welcome such a distinguished war hero under our roof," Lao voiced from the head of the table, looking in the direction of Ratana. "With so many reports of the Fire Nation gaining ground, the times when we take it back are great days indeed."
Ratana cringed as Lao uttered the word "we" as though he played some unseen part in it. "Thank you for your hospitality, Lao Beifong," she responded cordially, the coolness of her voice barely subtle enough not to be picked up on. "I am merely doing my duty. My comrades in the Earth Kingdom military are out there every day, giving it our best. We can only rely on each other." She dipped her head down slightly to taste a mouthful of soup, which nearly burned her mouth. "And the Northern Water Tribe," she added as a dull afterthought. "When they can spare the time."
"I see," Lao nodded his head, in superficial intrigue. "What about the Southern Water Tribe?"
"I hear they have nearly no waterbenders left," Poppy chimed in.
Ratana shook her head. "There are none left now. The final southern waterbender was slain last year - Chief Hakoda's wife. It was said that she was a courageous woman who met her end with dignity while defending her family." As she finished, Ratana smiled admiringly, wishing that she had the chance to meet the woman she spoke of.
"How brutal things are in less-developed cultures," Poppy said with a faint scoff. "Defending the hearth and defending the homeland are not roles that respectable women should involve themselves in." But as Poppy took another bit of noodles with her chopsticks, her eyes widened. "I don't mean you, Ratana! You're...umm...an exception."
"Thanks," Ratana said, peering side-to-side. "I guess."
"Careful," Lao warned cautiously as he gestured to Toph beside him. "We have a pair of sensitive ears here."
"The war hits a lot of people hard," Ratana responded. "Aren't you up to date on everything that goes on?"
"Well...yes," Lao answered shakily. "I keep my tabs on the outcomes of battles and the latest military-industrial developments. The more personal stories, though, can be quite...unsettling."
"Well, shall we move to the living room for dessert, then?" Poppy smiled as she made her suggestion, eager to keep things moving. At her words, everyone rose from their chairs and followed suit.
"That woman could not have been that much of a master of her art if she went down so easily," Master Yu said aside to Ratana as they made their way to the living room. "What belt was she at?"
"I don't know," Ratana told him, narrowing her eyes. She could tell that Master Yu was about as experienced as Lao and Poppy were. Her eyes lit up once again once she saw what was for dessert. "Sugar tarts, what a nice surprise," she told her hosts as she took her first bite. They were not the best she'd ever had, but still quite tasty. "What kind of seasoning did you use?"
"I really don't know," Lao retorted. "Our cook uses this and that, but it's no concern of ours, as long as it's up to standard. Come to think of it, I'm not sure this was a good choice for desert tonight. It looks too fattening. Years from now, when our Toph comes of age, she'll be presented to the younger men in high society, and we'll have to be sure she can fit into her dress for that occasion."
Fortunately there was at least one at the table Ratana kept on good terms with. "I'm an earthbender, too!" exclaimed Toph, the Beifongs' young daughter. "Could you show me some moves?" she asked eagerly..
"Toph, stop pestering our guest," Poppy scolded across the table, narrowing her eyes that her daughter could not visualize. "She's a very busy and very important woman."
"Yeah, I can show you," said Ratana, putting down her dessert and standing up.
"I don't think that's a good idea," Lao said uneasily. "It sounds too unsafe to try such advanced bending around a blind girl."
"Lao," Poppy said, putting out her hand. "Ratana is a master. I'm sure that she knows what she's doing."
"You have nothing to worry about, Mister Beifong," Ratana reassured him. "I'll keep a close eye on her."
"Fine," said Lao. "But don't stray beyond the courtyard."
Ratana held the little girl's hand and walked into the breezy night air with her as they emerged from the warm, candle-lit house. The lavish courtyard outside the Beifong mansion was just sizable enough for some practice earthbending.
"Looks like we both got away from that one," Toph said with a giggle.
"Heh, yeah," Ratana said, smirking. "How did you know? You can't see my face."
"You're calmer now," remarked Toph. "Can we go by the tree?"
"What tree?" said Ratana, now surprised. "Huh? How did you know that was there?"
"The shaking in the ground," Toph told her. "It's how I know where things are."
"You use seismic sense, then," said Ratana. In her years of training, she had learned of the skill. When she put her hand on the earth and listened closely, she could locate objects which were otherwise hidden to her, and she could also count on it to sense the movements of opponents. However, to be able to see without seeing, let alone read what people were thinking, was something else altogether. "You're something special, indeed."
"Thanks!" said a smiling Toph.
"Maybe not everyone understands you, but I feel that you have the makings of a great earthbender," Ratana stated to the little girl as she let go of her hand, realizing it was unnecessary.
"Excuse me," interrupted a burly man in a plated uniform and a conical Earth Kingdom hat from behind them. "Master Lao sent me for extra protection." His boldness faltered, though, as Ratana glared straight at him. A seasoned fighter and member of the elite Terra Team, she was obviously much more capable than he and no more protection would be added with his presence that was not already there. "Very well, it's probably not needed," the man said timidly as he turned about and reentered the mansion, feeling emasculated.
"Earth is a stubborn element," Ratana said as she turned back to Toph. "You have to be stubborn yourself - and ultimately part of it - to bend it." She proceeded to stomp the ground and erected two lengthy earth columns underneath each of their feet and launching them into the air. Toph laughed heartily as they soared through the air and Ratana moved her arms about once more and brought a slanted, downward-sloping wall out from the ground which both she and Toph landed on. She proceeded to shoot smaller stones out from the edges one at a time, and then Toph rotated her foot on the slide and sunk the wall behind them back into the ground.
Later on, Ratana curled her fingers and made thousands of tiny particles of soil rise up from beneath the grass and spiral into a small tornado around her body. A few seconds later, Toph mimicked the motion and created a dirt tornado of the same size. However short or long it really was that Ratana and Toph were in the courtyard together, as time always quickens when one is having fun, their time was over all too soon.
"Toph, it's time for bed!" Lao shouted over from the doorway in a turbulent, exasperated voice.
"It's okay," Ratana told Toph as she let her brown whirlwind fall back to its grassy floor. "We can earthbend more tomorrow morning."
"I'm sorry, but we actually have to cut your stay short." Lao pointed at Ratana, his voice shaking. "We have some important business to take care of, so you'll have to leave first thing. Now, if you'll follow me, we've had your room prepared."
Ratana nodded, getting the message. "It was really great to meet you, Toph," Ratana whispered aside to the girl as they went followed inside after Lao.
"Thanks," said Toph, looking downcast. "Will you come back sometime?"
"I'm not sure I'll be welcome here after today," Ratana told her. "With your natural gifts, though, I'm sure you will learn well someday. The way you use see and shape the world around yourself reminds me of the badgermoles, the original source of earthbending, and you have the heart and soul of a great earthbender already."
Ratana caught an early morning carriage back across the kingdom and before she knew it, she was at her base once again. There, she found her Terra Team partner standing by the doorway to their room. "You're back early," Tooru commented to her, somewhat surprised.
"Yeah, I guess I am," Ratana relayed to him with a light shrug.
"How was your time with the Beifongs?" Tooru asked with a flat mout.
"Meh," Ratana replied nonchalantly. "Lao and Poppy are a couple of typical upper-class stiffs. I like their daughter, though. The girl's got spirit. I just hope those parents of hers don't squeeze it out of her by the time she's older."
"I see," said Tooru, his mouth flat and still . "Well, you're back just in time, actually. All the Terra Team is to report up front at once."
"What for?" asked Ratana. She would have expected her partner to have made a witty comment or joke upon her return, but he appeared quite solemn.
"I'm not sure exactly," Tooru told her. "Whatever it is, it sounds pretty big."
- I just realized while watching Team Avatar discuss the original sources of bending in The Firebending Masters that Sokka suggests that the original source of firebending is jumping into a volcano. Interesting that I noticed that now, given the premise of the story I'm writing.
- The use of the carriage for public transportation was inspired by the use of them in the Old West, as can be seen in numerous films.
For the collective works of the author, go here.