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|The Answer to Everything|
August 14, 2012
Previously in Air
Mai and Ursa have been 'persuaded' to leave the Palace for the safety Mai's parents' estate can offer. Ayame and Tutor Gouitn have arranged a play date for Sakura and Ursa without giving the girls any say in the matter.
Chapter Thirty: The Answer to Everything
Ursa and Sakura sat in awkward silence. Ayame and Mai had been present to graciously greet their young visitor, but after the tea was ordered Ayame quickly swept her daughter out of the room with some trivial excuse to leave the two girls alone. In awkward silence.
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" Ursa said suddenly.
Sakura quickly dipped her head. "Yes, your majesty."
Ursa fought the impulse to scowl. It certainly wouldn't make her look very friendly, and she wanted to be friends with Sakura. But she wasn't sure Sakura liked the idea. It was obvious she was uncomfortable. The only reason she was here was because Tutor Gouitn –even Ursa's grandmother– hadn't given her a choice. And it was all for Ursa's sake, so even if it wasn't her fault she couldn't help but feel guilty.
Ursa determined that Sakura would have fun –and she knew just what to do. When the servants brought the tea, Ursa snagged the opportunity to talk to Yuki. The bodyguard bent down to the Princess' level.
"Yuki, I know you're here to protect me, but–"
"No, your majesty," Yuki cut her off. "I can't leave you alone."
Ursa's sweet face grew suddenly determined and serious and Yuki was hard pressed not to smile. "But Yuki, look around. There's no way anyone could get in. And you'd only be just outside and there's a hundred soldiers outside anyway and..." She looked up hopefully. "Please, Yuki?"
Yuki's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Is that why you specified this room? To get me out of here?" The Princess had been very specific: The room in the middle of house, please, with all the green furniture and no windows. Yes, that one.
Ursa tried to look innocent but she couldn't pull it off. Instead, she sighed a small sad sigh. "It's hard enough making new friends without a bodyguard's shadow to add to the mix."
Yuki scowled. But there was a twinkle in her eye. "I'll be right outside," Yuki reminded. "Just call if there's any kind of trouble."
Ursa beamed. "I will!"
"A single strange noise and you come and get me." Yuki glared sternly at her charge. "Understand, Princess?"
Ursa nodded energetically. "'The key to understanding is heart-felt listening'."
Yuki left with the servants, smiling and shaking her head.
Sakura was surprised. "Isn't your bodyguard supposed to stay with you at all times?" She blushed suddenly, realizing she had spoken out of turn. "At least, that's what Gouitn told me."
Ursa smiled. "She'll be just outside the door. It was getting a little crowded in here."
Uncertain, Sakura smiled back.
Ursa, as host, quickly poured her guest's choice of tea and recommend an accompanying pastry. This was something that she was very good at, thanks to Uncle's refined culinary influence. She had learned how to hold a tea cup before she could speak full sentences. After Ursa poured her own tea, she settled down, determined to start an enjoyable conversation.
"So..." she began. "What do you like to do?"
Sakura bit her lip. "I...like to read..."
Ursa warmed her hands around the cup, even though it was summer and the weather was beautiful, the sensation of cupping your hands around a tea cup was too comforting to dismiss. "What do you like to read about?"
Sakura frowned suddenly. She glanced about uneasily and finally shrugged.
Ursa sipped at her tea to hide her frown. Getting Sakura to start really talking could be challenging. But Ursa didn't give up easily. "I suppose it's an influence of Gouitn."
Sakura did not answer immediately. The corners of her mouth dipped in a frown. "I suppose."
"Sakura..." Ursa hesitated, fiddling with her teacup. "Do you mind if I ask how you're related to Gouitn?"
Sakura winced. "I'm not related to him at all," she said quickly. Her voice was pained. Instead of friendly conversation, somehow Ursa had managed to aggravate an old wound.
"I didn't mean to pry," Ursa apologized.
Sakura tried to shrug it off. It shouldn't hurt that much. "It's okay, your majesty. It's not your fault you don't know. Gouitn and I aren't related, but he raised me after–" Sakura paused. Her eyes glistened with tears.
Ursa set her cup down, regretting that she'd even asked. "Sakura, you don't have to tell me."
Sakura shook her head. She wanted to say it. She wanted her to know. "My parents were killed, just days before the war ended. I was only a baby."
It felt as though a dagger had plunged into Ursa's heart. She reached out and took the girl's hand, fighting back sudden tears of her own. "I'm so sorry, Sakura."
Sakura looked at Ursa's hand for a moment. Then she looked at Ursa's expression –it was so sincere and sad. And Sakura was deeply confused. The Princess barely even knew her. Why would she care so much?
"Thank you, your majesty" she said finally, soft, uncertain.
Another moment of silence passed, this time not so much filled with awkwardness but reverence.
"I like to read about the Air Nomads," Ursa volunteered finally.
Sakura looked surprised.
"I've seen pictures of what their Temples used to look like," Ursa went on dreamily. "They were so beautiful..." Her eyes clouded. "It's sad that Aang's the only one left." Her smile quickly returned. "But he says that, someday, the Nomads will inhabit the Temples again. He's working on restoring them right now! The Temples, that is. His friend, the Mechanist, is a genius! He makes all kinds of inventions. He's been helping Aang. He says the Southern Air Temple is almost completely restored!" Ursa cradled her tea again. "I want to see it some day."
"That sounds nice, your majesty."
"You really don't have to call me 'your majesty' all the time."
Sakura shifted uncomfortably. "It's appropriate, your majesty."
"Even..." Ursa bit her lip. "Even if we were friends?"
Sakura started. Friends?
Ursa knew then. She sighed. "I'm sorry you were dragged over here."
"I mean, I wanted you to come over, because you seem really nice, but I would want you to come because you wanted to, not because Grandmother and Tutor Gouitn made you. After all, you catch more flies with honey than with hot pepper."
Sakura set down her tea cup. She wasn't quite sure what to say. She had been pressured into coming, which she didn't enjoy, but she also wanted to come, hadn't she? She would figure out later why the Princess was calling her a fly. "I'm glad you said so, your majesty," she said carefully. "But the truth is ... I did want to come."
Ursa cocked her head. "Really?"
Sakura managed a small smile. "Really, your majesty. Gouitn talks about you a lot."
Ursa blushed. "It's mostly true."
Sakura laughed. "I always wanted to meet you and your brother–" She stopped suddenly, covering her mouth. How stupid! "I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean to–"
"It's okay," Ursa said quietly.
Sakura shifted uncomfortably. "You must miss him a lot."
Ursa nodded. "But Dad will bring him home soon, so it's okay."
Sakura averted her eyes. "What's he like, your majesty? Your brother?"
Ursa smiled suddenly. "Roh-Roh is the sweetest boy in the world. Everyone says so." He would follow his sister around constantly; he was practically her shadow. "He likes to explore, too. We explore all the time." Her eyes suddenly brightened. "Do you like to explore, Sakura?"
"Well..." Sakura hesitated. "I don't know. I guess."
"I think...I think I want to show you something, Sakura." Ursa bit her lip. She glanced around the room. "Just a second." She jumped to her feet and raced to the door. Carefully, she slid the lock silently into place. A chair tucked beneath the door handle provided an extra layer of security. Anyone who tried to get it would have to work very hard for it.
Satisfied with her work, Ursa returned to Sakura.
"You must first be sworn to secrecy," Ursa said solemnly. She placed one fist under the wrist of the opposite hand.
Sakura copied the movement, decidedly nervous.
"You must swear to never reveal what I am about to show you," Ursa commanded. She hesitated. "Unless you feel you really have to. If it starts tearing you up inside and makes you lose sleep, then I wouldn't blame you for telling my mother or Tutor Gouitn."
Sakura glanced about uneasily. "You're making me nervous, your majesty."
"Sorry." Ursa flashed an apologetic smile. "But I really, really want you to keep it a secret. Not even Roh-Roh knows about this. Not yet. I was going to show him, but..." Ursa's face fell. She swallowed hard, and forced a grin. "I'll show you!" She grabbed Sakura's hand and led her to the far wall.
Sakura studied the wall for a moment. There was nothing at all extraordinary about it. She turned back to Ursa. The princess was still grinning, which made Sakura wonder if she was quite sane.
Ursa giggled. "Watch." She produced a palm of flame.
The spark of fire surprised Sakura. She flinched, but managed to keep her footing.
With her free hand, Ursa moved aside part of a tapestry. She pointed at small indentation, barely visible on the wall. "See that?"
Sakura squinted. She tried to look closer, but she refused to lean closer to the fire. "What is it?" she asked instead.
Ursa smiled. "It's a Fire emblem."
Sakura frowned. "What's it doing there?"
In reply, Ursa laid her flaming hand over the insignia. The heat of the fire sank into the indentation. The emblem blazed bright red, jumping out against the cream.
The wall creaked. An outline appeared and, with the sound of stone grating against stone, the hidden door slid back.
Light from the room cast a dim glow into the dark opening. It did little to illuminate the passage, but it was just enough to reflect the metal rungs of a ladder leading down into the black depths.
Sakura gasped in awe.
Ursa grinned. "Do you like to explore, Sakura?" she asked again.
Sakura glanced at the opening. She was standing in the doorway of a secret passageway. Wasn't there only one real answer to that question?
The Princess concentrated on her fire burning. She said that she had several accessible lanterns placed throughout the tunnels. She then handed Sakura a piece of scribbled paper.
Sakura squinted at it. "What is this, your majesty?" she finally asked.
Ursa frowned. "It's a map."
It was a crude map.
"The first thing we need to do," Ursa said as they'd stepped into the passage, "Is find a lantern. I marked all the places where I left lanterns on the map with an 'x' so it should be easy to find." She lowered her flame so Sakura could get a better look at the map. "Which way do we go?"
"Um, left. I think. Your majesty."
Ursa smiled. "I'll make you a deal. You can call me 'your majesty' all you want in public –every other word if you have to! Just not when we're alone."
Ursa could see Sakura's smile in the flickering flame. "Okay. Deal, your–" She stopped herself and blushed.
"You could call me Ursa, instead," Ursa tried hopefully.
Sakura giggled nervously. "One step at a time."
"Yeah, I thought so."
Reading the map was not easy for Sakura. Ursa wasn't the best of artists and it didn't help that she had often used clay for lack of ink. They went in circles, backtracked, and stopped several times for long moments as the two girls struggled to decipher the piece of clumsy cartography. Finally they reached the closest 'x'; Sakura was surprised how far out it was.
"Where's the lantern?" Sakura asked.
"Well," Ursa said, shuffling her feet cautiously along the floor, "It should be just beside the door."
But there was no lantern. They walked the passage up and down. They bent down, carefully feeling along the floor and even the walls.
Ursa finally straightened. "Hmm. I wonder if I left it inside somewhere..."
"Should we take a peek?" Sakura asked.
Ursa frowned. She didn't want to admit it, but she wasn't entirely sure where they were. They had to be somewhere on the Palace grounds because that was the only place she'd ever left a lantern. But beyond that door could be a private room or an open corridor.
"Is there another 'x' close by?" she asked.
Sakura examined the map. "No," she said.
Ursa's frown deepened. That was odd in itself. She was certain she had placed a lantern every five doors or so; she remembered working it out in her head so she would never have to travel longer than three minutes, the limit to how long she could maintain a flame. She had already had to stop twice to regain her energy and she was pushing this flame longer than was comfortable. She needed a lantern.
"We'll have to check, then," Ursa said. "I'll go first and make sure the coast is clear." She felt along the wall for the catch.
Sakura felt a flush of excitement as the door swung open. Ursa cautiously poked her head in. She glanced both and ways before stepping out. She waved Sakura forward.
It was a dimly lit corridor. As Ursa closed her fist to squelch the flame, Sakura glanced around curiously. It was hard to see anything. There was no one in sight or sound. The air was stale; it felt almost dead. Sakura shivered.
Ursa cast about quickly. There were a few rooms where she had hidden lanterns, but always carefully concealed. This corridor was barren. A chill raced up her spine.
Something was wrong.
Sakura ran a finger across the wall as she wandered farther down. It was coated with dirt and dust. Where were they? They couldn't possibly be in the Palace. She squinted against the darkness. Along the corridor were rooms, so many of them, each one empty and forgotten. Cobweb curtains swayed limply in the breeze of their movements. Their small footsteps echoed like thunderclaps down the silent hall.
Ursa's nose wrinkled in concentration. She knew she knew where they were; it was so eerily familiar. She just couldn't quite remember. "Can I see the map?"
There was no reply.
"Sakura?" Ursa turned to find her, but her friend had drifted farther down the hall.
An unexpected panic seized Ursa by the throat. "Sakura, wait!" She raced after her friend and caught her by the arm.
A small yelp of surprise escaped Sakura. She turned to Ursa and the Princess' eyes were wide. "What's wrong?"
"We should go back," Ursa said breathlessly. "I...I'm not sure where we are. We should–"
Someone chuckled. The sound was cold and lifeless, eerie in the abandoned passage. Ursa and Sakura froze.
"Ah, so here is the child. I wondered when you would come."
Ursa's fingers tightened around Sakura's arms. That voice...Her heart pounded in her chest. She knew exactly where they were now. Of course. How could she be so stupid?
Sakura's skin prickled with goose mite-bumps at that voice. She glanced quickly at the Princess and was not comforted by the hunted look in the girl's eyes.
Slowly, they turned toward the sound.
In the long corridor, there was only one occupied room. Inside, sat the Old Man. He was as unkempt and forgotten as the rest of the corridor. Ursa often wondered how long the Old Man had lived down here.
He appraised them with a smile that was neither pleasant nor hostile. Once tall, he was stooped now with age and weariness. His arms were folded against his stained and tattered tunic. The lack of sunlight had given him the face of a ghost, set with the wrinkles of time. His gray hair and beard were streaked with the brown it once was.
Ursa gulped. "You...were expecting me?"
The Old Man nodded. "Some whispers reach even to this abyss," he told her.
He glanced at Sakura with his cold eyes. Her skin crawled, as though a thousand beetle gnats had converged upon her flesh.
Those ageless eyes turned back to the Princess. "I've heard rumors of something terribly exciting happening in the Palace." His tone was gentle, but mocking. "I don't suppose you'll tell me?"
Ursa tensed. Sakura felt the Princess' hands fall limp and she reached for them, holding them tight. This man...this man was cruel. She could feel the oppression in the stale air, the dark humor in his merciless eyes. They shouldn't be here. They should go back. "Princess..."
Tears stung at Ursa's eyes. "It isn't exciting," she protested, her voice trembling. "It's horrible!"
The Old Man raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
His voice was so calm, so calloused...Ursa turned away.
"It has something to do with the Prince, I believe," the Old Man prodded.
Ursa whirled back in surprise.
The Old Man chuckled. "I see it's true, then."
Ursa gritted her teeth. Somehow, he always managed to pry something from her. She could never say a word and still he would get what he wanted.
The Old Man closed his eyes and smiled with pleasure. "Finally," he sighed, "Some justice has reached the Firelord."
Ursa stared at him in horror. How could he say that? Roh-Roh was a six year old boy, taken from his family, and he called it 'justice'? Sakura's hands tightened around hers protectively.
The Old Man watched them, his lips twisted in that lukewarm smile. For an instant Sakura was the sole scrutiny of those eyes; they seemed amused by her, the Princess' little friend. She thought she would crumble under that gaze but it was quickly reverted to Ursa.
"Run along, Princess," he taunted, "Back to your world of frills and sweets. Run along, before something happens to you."
Ursa gulped. She did not want to stay a moment longer. In fact, Sakura was slowly pulling back, trying to draw her away. But Ursa refused to flee. She resisted her friend's pull and steadily returned the Old Man's gaze. She stood tall, straightening her shoulders and fought –despite the dirt, grime and tears– to look every inch the princess she was.
"My brother won't be gone forever," she told him coldly. "And the people responsible will be caught."
Amusement glittered in the Old Man's eyes, but Ursa ignored it. Doing her best to keep up the charade, Ursa slowly made her way back to the tunnels. She did not give in to her own desire to flee, but forced her feet to move at a steady but confident pace, Sakura at her side.
The Old Man's laughter echoed around the corridor after them.
In the safety of the tunnel, Ursa sank to the floor, sobbing. Her heart pounded, beating like a band of drums in her ears.
Sakura could do nothing but watch. The encounter had shocked her, too. She stood woodenly beside the Princess as she wept. She didn't know what to say, whether she could comfort her. Finally, as the tide of tears began to ebb, Sakura whispered, "Who was that?"
Ursa took a shuddering breath. Her hands were covered in dirt, but she wiped at her face anyway, erasing the burning tears. She had to pull herself together. She couldn't believe she had fallen apart like that with Sakura here. But then, Sakura was her friend, wasn't she? If family could see her fear, couldn't friends be allowed to see her crumble?
"It was the Old Man," she said softly. It was all the explanation she had. Like the dust, he seemed to be a discarded fixture. It was possible no one beside herself knew he even lived there. She rarely visited the Old Man. He was the only person she had ever met through her tunnel excursions. The Old Man was tricky, always toying with her like an owlkeet with a meadowvole. But this was the first time he'd made her cry. He was a cruel man to do that to a child.
Sakura wanted to know more, but it was clear the Princess had nothing else to offer. She bit her lip.
"Can I see the map, Sakura?"
Sakura quickly fished it out and Ursa took it gently. She rubbed her fingers together for a faint spark to see by. Soon she understood. "Oh."
Sakura slowly crouched beside her. "What is it?"
Ursa tried to laugh, but her voice was hoarse from crying. "I was wrong," she said. "I marked the lanterns with a flame symbol. See?" Her throat tightened. "The 'x' means danger." She shook her head. "I knew I should have made a legend..."
The sparks on her fingers sputtered out and they were left in darkness once again.
"I'm sorry, Sakura." Tears choked Ursa's words. "That was stupid of me. I should have remembered. I should have checked."
Sakura considered. That man had scared her; she was still trembling. But what the Princess needed now was a distraction, not guilt. Sakura smiled. "It's okay."
Ursa sighed. "No it's not. I–"
"Ursa," Sakura insisted, suddenly grinning, "Don't worry about it."
The Princess stopped. Even in the darkness, Sakura knew she had gotten a smile in return.
"We should really find a lantern now," Sakura said. She heard the rustle of clothes as Ursa rose slowly to her feet. "Then maybe we should head back. You could probably use some tea."
Ursa laughed softly. "Tea is the answer to everything."
- We see here that the Answer to Everything is not the number 42, as Mr. Douglas Adams has proposed. No, it seems Iroh held the answer in his steaming cup all along. No wonder the lovable uncle is so wise.
season! It is that wonderful time of year again, my freaky darlings. All ye go forth and vote!
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