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|The Calling Statue|
Previously on Energy Saga
Trouble is brewing in the Fire Nation as new tensions start to threaten the peace Zuko and Aang worked hard to build.. Kaddo learns an unexpected skill in waterbending. The Avatar has a deep conversation with the Council of Elders.
Chapter Twelve: The Calling Statue
Fire Nation Royal Palace, 120 AG
As the windows of the home of the Fire Nation ruling dynasty caught the refreshing glow of the afternoon sun, five youthful figures trotted through the corridors of the giant palace. They were the dignified Zuko, the confident Sokka, the mellow but encouraging Mai, the mighty Katara – as she had in fact been described on occasions past – and last but not least, Aang, the peace and justice-loving Avatar. It was not through the darker interior that they took their stroll together, but through the lined hallways surrounding the courtyard. There, just outside the window and within their sight, were a handful of their collective offspring. At the base of the pond where Zuko held distant memories with his mother, Katara and Aang's daughter Vameira knelt and stretched her arm out over the water, trying to touch the turtle ducks, which swam just outside her reach. Meanwhile, not twenty feet away, the Fire Nation Princess Neinei laughed as Tenzin said something to her with his head turned around. In front of him, he was controlling a miniature tornado with his airbending. The remainder of the younger crowd were not in sight. Soon after arriving, Kaddo had found himself abducted by little girls wanting to play hide and explode. He did not know what he was getting into, as this was not a game he was used to playing being raised in the Water Tribes.
As they passed by the courtyard, Aang turned and spoke to the others. "This place is so huge. Even after knowing Zuko so long I still feel I see rooms I've never been in every time I come."
"Yes, it is much larger that our home in the South Pole. It's probably larger than our entire village, even," Katara uttered in agreement as she stared at her surroundings.
Zuko could not dispute this, so he nodded. But he then added "I think your Air Temples could give this place a good run for its money. I've never seen anything quite like them anywhere else."
Aang smirked with nostalgia. "The Southern Air Temple does have quite the vast collection of sites and hallways."
"I think the Western one has always been my favorite Air Temple," Katara chimed in. "Even though we never spend time there anymore."
Aang turned his nose away from her. "Hmph!. All the Air Temples are nice, of course. But I like the Southern one the best. It has more flavor and character than the rest."
"Flavor and character? If that's what you want to call it," Sokka shrugged at him.
As Aang shot a look in his direction, Katara changed the subject. "Is it really smart for us to have the kids roaming the palace on their own?"
"They're not that young anymore, Katara," Aang told her. "Quit babying them."
"Don't worry, they'll be fine," Mai reassured Katara. "Nothing's going to jump out at them from around a corner. And even if they get lost, one of the guards or servants will show them back to you. Our daughters have never had any kind of trouble."
"That's different - they grew up here," Katara countered sternly to the Fire Lady. "Our kids could easily get lost in a place like this."
Aang decided to nip this tension in the bud by changing the subject. "So where's your uncle Iroh today Zuko. Wasn't the Dragon of the West supposed to grace us all with his presence today?"
"He was, but he never left Ba Sing Se," Zuko answered gloomily. "I received a messenger hawk from him today canceling his visit. Says business is swamping him or something."
"Sheesh!" interjected Sokka. "Won't anybody just allow the poor old guy to just enjoy his retirement?"
"Oh, he's enjoying it quite well, I assure you," continued Zuko. "Trust me, there is nothing Uncle likes more than brewing tea and playing Pai Sho with his most valued and regular customers. The more the merrier in his eyes. People flock to his little Ba Sing Se tea shop from all over the Earth Kingdom – all over world, in fact."
"Is he as well-liked in the Fire Nation nowadays as he is in the Earth Kingdom?" Katara asked Zuko.
"Yes," Mai chimed in. "Well, umm...sort of," she said in a backtrack.
"It all depends on who you ask," explained Zuko. "Those who remember serving alongside him continue to think very highly of him. But some people's memories only stretch so long. His retreat at Ba Sing Se and his 'betrayal' during Azula's coup still stand out in a lot of minds."
"How can people still not be over that?" Aang asked him.
"Changing a government is one thing, but changing hearts and minds is something completely different. If I had to say one way or the other, then I would say he's still mostly well-liked. The men whom he led in battle did not just see him as a great general, but as their Crown Prince in a time when their Fire Lord was much past his prime. Iroh was their future Fire Lord – a leader to them."
"But he never became Fire Lord," stated Sokka.
"No – he didn't," Zuko said, looking down.
Aang reflected silently for a moment. He had been on the receiving end of Iroh's wisdom on two brief but memorable instances. The first was when he left his training with Guru Pathik at the Eastern Air Temple to rescue Katara in Ba Sing Se. At the time Aang had been bitterly torn between duty to the world as the Avatar and his personal attachment – meaning his love for Katara – as a human being. Sometimes still he wondered whether or not he made right choice that day. Perhaps Katara would have been alright without his interventions, since, after all, it was him that everyone was really after.
And maybe everyone would have been better off if he had forced himself to be patient. If he had taken the time to finish his training with Pathik rather than on a whim while in the crystal catacombs. Then he might not have been killed by Azula, the Hundred Year War may have been over sooner and Katara could have saved her spirit water for another occasion.
But whenever such thoughts of the past troubled him, the wise and comforting words of Zuko's uncle rang in his ears.
Perfection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love.
There was much more than good tea and a good laugh to that man. Aang understood why Zuko admired him so deeply.
The second instance was right after the war was over and the gang was reunited at the Jasmine Dragon. This was when Iroh spoke with Aang about the prospect of energybending. Again, Aang felt the conflicting forces behind his duty and his humanity. Iroh had told him that there was value in learning about all his abilities and this was something to pursue. Very basic, this seemed only common sense to Aang. But in this case, he appeared to be striving more for perfection and power. Not only was he bringing back his beloved people – the Air Nomads – but he sought to correct all the unfortunate events of the past. Some that arose from mistakes he himself had made – in this life and in past lives. As he became more and more powerful, he could not help but strive for a more and more perfect world shaped by his guidance. It troubled him now, too, that his world was being tainted by turmoil in the Fire Nation. At least he had the help of his friend Fire Lord Zuko to attend to that. As for energybending, though, Aang could not help but feel that those elusive assailants from unknown origin he had encountered over the years had something to do with it. They were clearly interested in it. Or, at the very least, they were interested in his practicing of it.
As the group turned a corner into another hallway away from the courtyard and the children, Aang's reflections were cut short as Zuko broke the silence. "Why is your family not here, Sokka?"
"Well, Suki was busy and I didn't see a need to drag the kids along with me," Sokka sighed. "I'm mostly in town now because this visit happened to coincide with Piandao's induction into the Vault as a distinguished war veteran."
"Oh yes, I heard about that. Big day for him."
"Excuse me, but what is the Vault?" Katara asked, confused.
"The Vault is sort of a hall of fame and gallery for great warriors here in the Fire Nation Capital. Only the best are honored there," Zuko explained to her. "But given Piandao's record, I can't say I'm surprised."
"Yes. And you are all invited as well, by the way," Sokka added, looking at everyone.
"Oh well sounds interesting," Katara said mildly. "Will you be tagging along for that, Zuko?"
"I cannot," Zuko said, sounding genuinely disappointed. "I have a private meeting this afternoon with Chan, my War Minister."
Aang rejoined the conversation. "You've told me about Chan before. I've never heard you speak fondly of him..."
"Yeah. Didn't you have some unpleasant experience with the guy when you were teenagers," Sokka asked Zuko before Zuko could respond to Aang.
Mai giggled at the mention of this. "Hehe. He did and I was there. But we sure showed him in the end." She had a rather mischievous grin on her face as she finished.
"It's not that – we've both gotten over that," Zuko replied harshly. "It's just he's incapable and advises me to make poor decisions most of the time."
"Just replace him with someone more competent who you can get along with," Katara instructed him matter-of-factly. "You're the Fire Lord."
"Believe me, I want to," Zuko told her with a roll of his eyes. "But there's no one else at the moment."
Fire Nation Capital
Later, Sokka, Aang, Katara and their kids were still in the Fire Nation Capital but far from the palace and the upper section of town. They were on the very outskirts of the city where it was quiet and there were only a few small Fire Nation houses. The purpose of them being there was to meet Piandao before walking a short distance to the Vault with him. They had arrived at the arranged location at the arranged time. Piandao, however, was a little late.
"Zuko seemed to have a lot on his mind today," said Katara solemnly. "You think it has to do with him being Fire Lord and all the rumors we hear of trouble in the Fire Nation nowadays?"
"Oh, he's probably just overworked," said Aang dismissively. "I'm sure that he has it all under control. He's one of the best Fire Lords there's ever been. I'm sure this year's harvest will be better than the last two and things will be back to normal in no time."
"Back to normal? Yeah, right," Kaddo said to everyone. "Tenzin's anything but normal now with all the demonstations and macho talk he's been giving Princess Neinei lately."
"Shut your mouth, Kaddo," Tenzin shot back at his brother. "That's ridiculous. I didn't do any more airbending today than I did any other day."
"Ha!" Kaddo scoffed. "I heard you telling you were so skilled you could bend the sky itself."
"Like you're one to talk," Tenzin snapped at him. "I see you dangling your water whip like its the most amazing feat ever every time you meet someone new! It's like you think you're the ultimate waterbender or something. Even though you're still studying the basics..."
"Settle down now, boys," Aang said to them sternly. "Piandao is approaching us."
And indeed he was. Although his hair had grown grayer and there were more wrinkles on his face, the majestic-looking Piandao seemed as fit and agile as ever as he trotted toward them. His eyes met Sokka's first. "Sokka..."
"Master," Sokka greeted with a bow and a smile. "It's good to see you again."
"It's good to see you, too," said Piandao after rising from his own bow back to Sokka. "I hear much of you these days – Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. I daresay you must have matured into a better sword master than I by now."
"Well, that's setting the bar really high," Sokka responded with a smile he could not help. "But I have been fine-tuning my skills quite a bit lately, so..."
"So where do we have to go now, Piandao," Katara cut him off. Sokka stared at her irritably.
"Well, as you've probably heard, the Vault is like a hall of fame for warriors and swordsmanship. I was offered a commendation now that I'm pretty much retired, although I can still keep it up pretty well," he chuckled like an older Sokka might do. "You might expect such a place to be in a busier neighborhood, but it was built in the outer part to preserve the stable atmosphere around the relics. It's about hald a mile's walk up this path," he finished, pointing.
Katara frowned at this, but she was the only one who did. "Let's get going," Aang said enthusiastically as he led onward with Piandao and the others.
Fire Nation Royal Palace
Zuko twitched slightly as he sat in his chair waiting for Chan to arrive. He felt guilty – guilty for not telling his friends and his wife just how serious a situation he was in. For not mentioning the most recent riots, which had been more large and violent than any to date. And of course, for not mentioning that full-scale war could break out again at a moment's notice. Matters were that fragile now. But Zuko had decided that he could get away with not telling them. He could handle it all. He had to. For his country, for his wife and for his children.
At last, Chan burst into the room, throwing the door open in a rush and carrying a grubby bag with scrolls hanging out at his side. "Sorry I'm late, Sir!" And with that, he placed his bag on the small, rounded table Zuko sat in front of. It fell to a side and a couple of the scrolls rolled out.
Zuko stared at him with widened eyes, but paid no response. Chan bowed respectfully. "It is an honor to be in your presence as always, my Fire Lord."
Zuko subsequently gestured for Chan to rise. At the conclusion of their formal greeting, Chan took his seat beside Zuko at the table. They were in a smaller, more private chamber aside from the main war room and throne room. This would suit their purpose nicely. Hopefully the meeting will be brief, Zuko thought to himself. Then I may still have time to catch up with the others before the day is past. Chan seems fairly ill-prepared.
Unfortunately, though, this would not be the case for him today. "War Minister – your report," Zuko commanded him promptly.
"Yes, sir. Harvest figures so far this year appear to show no notable improvement from last year. What food is available is typically reserved for the elite. This is a practice followed by certain local governments, not the national government. However, many of the commoners blame the national government for their woes."
Zuko knew that in this case, national government meant him. "What is your recommendation?"
"Well, a notice of censure has been issued to the provinces with the highest levels of abuse. It is probably about time to issue another one."
"What?!" Zuko asked him, bewildered. What Chan was suggesting reaked of being too little too late. "We already warned them once so now that they continue to do wrong we should just warn them again? That won't work!" Zuko then calmed himself down. "So, what else?"
"As the common folk become dissatisfied," Chan continued "with the distribution, among other things, they listen to speeches given to them by former war veterans and backers of the Fire Lords who came before you. They shout phrases like 'down with the government'. It is not merely the harvests that they speak of. The poor reputation of the Fire Nation citizens abroad combined with the sentiment that their Fire Lord is more sympathetic to the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes than to his own people..."
"That's not true," Zuko interrupted impatiently. "I consider my subjects' well-being in every decision I make. And I sympathize with all who were effected by the Hundred Year War – in every nation, including this one."
"Of cours, Sire," Chan agreed. "But at the same time, all the people are hearing are these troublemakers' speeches and accept everything that they say as the truth."
Zuko put his hand on on his chin and thought to himself. "And what is your recommendation on this?"
"We should give the feudal governors incentive to collaborate with us and prevent any trouble from breaking out."
Zuko pondered for a moment. "These people need strong leadership. That's what they expect. The cooperation of the local officials must be demanded. The reason that these mongers can influence so many people is that there's a power vacuum and they can fill it in."
"They are filling it quite well," Chan added. "A large riot has just broken out in the village of Hukow."
"It would be wise to send perhaps two divisions to the area. Then we can follow-up by blockading and quarantining the area for an indefinite amount of time."
"What – no! Break up the riot and punish the wrongdoers, yes. But I will not commit acts of war against my own people. The last thing that we need to do is escalate the situation further. That's just what the insurgents want. Chaos and warlordism would spread throught the country like wildfire if we handle this in the incorrect way."
"You can't think like that, you need to be decisive!"
"Don't tell me what I can and can't do!" Zuko snapped.
Chan backed off. "Of course, you are the Fire Lord. This is your decision."
"I think this meeting is concluded," said Zuko coldly.
Chan nodded awkwardly. "Alright – well, you know where to find me in the mean time. I am your humble servant." And with that he bowed and then left.
Zuko did not verbally respond to Chan as he departed the room. How clueless could a person be? His suggestions were all either absurdedly too far or not far enough. This meeting had indeed been a waste of his time. Apart from the incident in Hukow, he had not learned anything that he did not already know. How Zuko wished he had gone with the others to the Vault now. He wished that he could wave all these troubles away somehow. Being Fire Lord had seemed so much simpler and easier when he was first crowned. Now...he just did not know. Something had to be done, but what?
Piandao, Sokka, Aang, Katara and the children stood near the entrance way inside a giant rotunda. A young woman in her early-to-mid twenties sat behind a desk at the edge of the room. Upon noticing the group of people that lay before her, she rose to her feet. "Can I help you?"
"Yes, I am master Piandao," the grizzled old swordsman told her.
"Of course," she said, smiling. "Wait one moment." And with that she turned and went through a door on the other side of her desk.
Aang took a second and looked around the room. It was made of marble, with tan linings tracing the white stone walls. Much of the room appeared to be made of marble. This was an unusual building for the Fire Nation – especially in the Capital.
When the young woman emerged from the door once more, she had an older man with her. He was short and plump, wore traditional Fire Nation robes and a massive gray beard which contrasted with his wrinkly, balding head.
He grinned as he laid eyes upon the visitors. "Master Piandao – and friends. Welcome. I trust you found the place okay?"
"Yep, piece of cake!" Sokka said exuberantly.
"Is that – Avatar Aang, well, what a pleasant surprise," the man added as he surveyed the group with his eyes. "Thank you, Renata," he added back to the younger woman, who sat back down at her desk and began writing something down. "My name is Thandao Zhou – but you all can just call me Tad for short. I am the Vaultmaster – the keeper of this Vault. As you all know, this is Piandao's big day, but you arrived a little ahead of schedule for that. Why don't I show you all around the place some. Would you like that?" He turned to Tenzin, Kaddo and Vameira, who all nodded in response.
The Vaultmaster led them through a giant set of doors and down a long, wide hallway. A large, red carpet stretched across the room.
"So, you're the man in charge around here?" Kaddo asked him curiously. "You're the boss!"
"Yes, yes I am," the Vaultmaster said back to him.
"Kaddo, let Tad do his job," Katara told her son.
"It's okay," he said, brushing the remarks aside. "So, here we honor the greatest warriors of all time. This place has existed for centuries and we have many initiates. Soon Piandao will be among them."
"Is it the greatest warriors from all over the world?" Katara asked him skeptically as she looked around. "Almost all the swords and exhibits here appear to be Fire Nation.
"Well, mostly," he conceded. "After all, we can't help it if our nation has produced the best of the crop on numerous occasions."
Katara was becoming visibly annoyed at his boastful tone. He was clearly biased. Understandable, since this was a Fire Nation institution.
"But we do have some from other nations as well," he added. "For example," he said while pointing to two long blades with Water Tribe symbols on them "there are these. These two swords are hundreds of years old. They were exchanged by Chief Sirius the Thirteenth of the Northern Water Tribe and Chief Natsu the Eleventh of the Southern Water Tribe in a ceremony to commemorate the new alliance between them. In their day the tribes did not have much contact with one another."
"The tribes didn't have much contact when I was growing up either," Katara added coolly. "That was during the Hundred Year War."
Aang shot her a look. Did she really have to stir up trouble here? This was a touchy subject and the man would not change any of his opinions or sentiments now. It was not worth it.
Fortunately, the Vaultmaster ignored her and continued. "It's been quite a while since these blades have seen any combat, but just like waterbending, the swords are stronger at night. The steel becomes strengthened by the moon beams."
"How many swords are here?" asked Sokka.
"A lot. 20,791 to be exact. Those that we don't have room to display we keep in storage."
It took a while for them to tour the building. Tad would stop in front of each sword and tell a story about each one. Aang could tell he was an experienced storyteller and knew how to make it sound interesting. Sokka and Piandao were very intrigued. Aang paid polite attention. Katara seemed like she would rather be someplace else. At last they came to a room filled with statues of warriors on pedestals.
"That last guy was awesome. So was the guy who was inspired by him," Tenzin said to Kaddo.
"Yeah, even if they were Fire Nation," Kaddo said back to him.
"Kaddo come on," his father told him. "The war is over. Don't say things like that. All nations are at peace now."
"And here we have, Brit the Mighty over there and Matrias the Magnificent over here," Tad kept telling them as he pointed around. "He met some notable Water Tribe women in his time."
"Oh, what lovely bones," Vameira said, gesturing up at a bone necklace on a statue of a female warrior with a long sword, a rounded shield and elegant armor.
"Ah, 'Lady Lost' as they used to call her," Tad said of her, fondly. "She was strong and wise."
"Smart enough to win a trivia contest, ya think?" Tenzin asked randomly.
"I suppose you could say that."
As Tad pointed to another statue, going on about how the warrior was swift and agile and some said he had the "legs of a frog," Aang broke with the rest of the group. He felt the sudden and strange urge to walk off in the opposite direction toward one of the farther walls. He did not know why he found himself walking in that direction at first, but then he realized he was being drawn to one of the statues. When he stood in front of it, he looked up at the head and into its eyes. This was a tall, muscular man with armor in a style that he could not recognize. It must be thousands of years old. As Tad had said, many of the items in here dated from long ago. The man himself had sharp eyes, large but well-groomed hair and beard and weapons held neatly by his belt. Aang continued to look up into the eyes of the statue, transfixed by it. Was the statue trying to tell him something? It seemed ridiculous, but now that he thought about it, it might be. He could vaguely hear a voice coming at him. "Aang....Aang," it said. Perhaps the statue was calling out to him. Now he was feeling an overwhelming force on his arm and the voice was growing louder – this had to be the statue trying to give him a message of some kind.
No, this was not the statue. It was Katara. She was grabbing his arm and shaking it. "Aang – what are you doing? Wake up!"
"Huh – what?" Aang said, coming back to earth. He turned to see Katara, Sokka, Piandao, Tad, Tenzin, Kaddo and Vameira giving him strange looks. "What happened?"
"You just walked off and started staring up into the eyes of this statue here. Your mouth was wide open and you weren't responding to anything. We were getting a little worried," Tenzin told him.
"Statue...it was talking to me..." Aang muttered.
"You think that maybe dad's been hitting the cactus juice?" Vameira asked Kaddo under her breath.
"So, who is this?" Sokka asked Tad as Katara let her hand off of Aang and he started feeling awake again.
"That's Avatar Doru Kun of the Earth Kingdom. He lived over two millennia ago. One of the best swordsmen of his era in addition to mastering all four elements."
"Well, that explains it," Sokka said. "He acted like that soon after me and my sister first met him and we went to the Southern Air Temple."
Now that Aang thought about it, this did feel somewhat like being in Roku's presence. He did not expect to find one of his past lives in here. Was this Doru Kun trying to tell him something? Aang did not see himself being able to talk to him directly. It became much more difficult the farther he went back. Talking to Kuruk or Yangchen was more difficult than Roku or Kyoshi. Maybe Doru Kun could pass on a message to him in some other way. The feeling Aang got from him was clearly...unusual.
"What other information do you have on him?" Aang asked Tad.
"Oh, not a whole lot. He's a legendary figure, but its hard to determine what about him is actually true and what's speculation. If you want to learn more about him you could travel to the Cave of the Ancients. He has a shrine there."
"When it comes to Avatars, dad's cool and all. But I personally believe that Avatar Kuruk is number one!" Kaddo was telling Tenzin and Vameira.
"What? Didn't he neglect his duty to the world?" Vameira asked him, surprised. "And the evil spirit stole his wife's head or something?"
"You're such a freak, Kaddo," Tenzin told him. Then he went on to talk about Doru Kun. "So if dad's like the 1,000th Avatar or something – the first being a really really long time ago, of course – what number would this guy be? How many cycles back you think? Maybe twenty-eight? And if there's four in a cycle...that would make this guy...well, I'm not very good at math."
"Avatar lover!" said Vameira.
"You're calling me a freak?" asked Kaddo. "What do you know about Avatars? You're a freak times twenty-one!"
Aang turned to his children. "What is with you today? You all seem to be behaving rather oddly."
"Sorry," said Tenzin. "I've just been getting this weird feeling lately. It's like somehow somewhere people are viewing this dialogue differently. It's like an inside joke we're not in on and it's driving me insane."
"Sounds like you already are insane," Kaddo told him.
"Anyway, this Cave of the Ancients..." Aang continued, turning back to Tad. "What is it exactly."
"Well, it's inside a mountain. It's a really ancient cavern..."
"No, really? With a name like that – you don't say?"
"Shut up, Tenzin!"
"If you're going there, I can find you directions."
"That would be great."
Aang proceeded to follow Tad into a back room where he took out a map and pointed to where it was. He gave Aang further directions and told him a little bit about the cave itself, although he did not know how to get there once you got to the mountain, which was conveniently located several miles from Omashu. That's perfect, Aang thought – I can go next time we see Toph. As he emerged from the back room, he was set on doing this new expedition soon. But Sokka reminded him why they were there and it was soon time to attend Piandao's induction. Aang kept silent throughout this as his mind now lay elsewhere.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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