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|The Avatar's Duty|
It took Aang a while to realize just how much time had passed since he'd entered An Liao. Seeing the city and some of its many rooms and special quarters had taken the better part of the day. Though he couldn't see it, he would guess the moon would be just rising now overhead Ba Sin Se. However at the moment, time was not something he was worrying about. Monk Quanfar looked at him curiously.
"Something troubles you Avatar." He guessed in an interested tone. "That should not be an easy feat." His eyes seemed to pierce into those of the young airbender's. With calculated precision he followed Aang's stare upward to the face of the statue. The corners of the monk's mouth twitched slightly, almost as if in surprise. "Is it this manufactured clump of rock that vexes you so?" Quanfar studied the effigy closely for a moment. "I must admit I cannot see why. Certainly the expression is more than a little off-putting, but then it is only a statue...do you happen to know who it is?"
Aang stammered slightly in his answer. "That is Oguanga...the Demon King." He uttered before his focus retargeted. "Why are you worshipping this?"
"I am not here to worship some stone figurehead!" Monk Quanfar retorted. The sudden stoniness of his voice caught Aang off guard. "Surely you must feel it if I can. I, who am not a bender, still feel the energies that flow through this room. It is...different somehow from the others. All of us feel it, don't we Emiko?" The Monk fixed the Air Nomad woman with an intimidating gaze that caused her quickly to become even more submissive than she had been before.
"Yes..." She nodded in a voice that could not have been heard farther than three feet away. Monk Quanfar nodded in agreement. He turned back to Aang.
"Why are you so taken with it Avatar? Does something cold and dead interest you in this city more than the hundreds of beings who are alive?" He waved an arm in exasperation. "It is nice to see how we stack up in your list of priorities." Aang felt himself growing increasingly annoyed at the attitude thrown off by this stern old man. He involuntarily clenched his fists in frustration.
"The people of this city are the most important part by far." He stated in his most authoritative voice. "That is why I sent my friends back for help...soon the Earth King and his people will arrive to assist you in whatever ways they can. I am merely curious to learn as much of this place as possible while I am here!" He felt his annoyance rising to the breaking point. "And on a further note, when more people arrive my wife will be among them. I hope and expect you to treat her with far greater courtesy than what you have shown to my friends and me up until now!" This prompted the largest change in expression Aang had witnessed in Monk Quanfar so far. For just the flicker of a moment the old man's eyes widened, before withdrawing to slits of disapproval.
"Your wife..." The Avatar heard Emiko murmur in just as stunned a tone off to his side. He couldn't be sure but he thought there was an underlining layer of sadness in the way she said it.
"You...you married?" Quanfar asked incredulously.
"Yes." Aang answered back, almost defiantly. The monk ran his hand over his head.
"To someone in the other nations no doubt." He said at length. Aang raised an eyebrow but nodded. "You chose to defile our blood by mixing with the lesser cultures? Cultures that sat slack jawed and watched as we were almost annihilated unless...unless you sank to the ultimate low my marrying a member of that most hated nation! Tell me Avatar, with whose blood were you going to taint our memory?" Aang couldn't speak. He felt rage, as he had not known in some time, boiling up inside him. Yet before he could speak another voice cut through the air.
"Mine!" Katara shouted. Turning, the airbender saw his wife standing along with her brother and Suki at the opening of the temple, all three of them looked visibly upset. Emiko retreated against the wall as the others advanced into the temple. Monk Quanfar stood where he was with no visible expression or thought on his face other than mild contempt. Katara fumed with anger, her bottom lip was curled in a snarl.
"Pregnant." Monk Quanfar acknowledged after a painfully long period of time. "I see. Your children then were no doubt going to be raised in the Water Tribe? Was that how our breed was to die Avatar? Shivering in caves made from ice!" The old monk shook his head slowly. "Thank the spirits we were spared." He ran his hand over his head before looking them all over again. "Air, water and earth..." He said at length. "What a fine congregation this makes. Excuse me, I'm going to go eat my dinner...while I can still bare to stomach it." He made a gesture of respect to Aang and then swept himself from the room. As he brushed past Katara he suddenly called out: "Emiko, why don't you come with me. I have the feeling you are no longer needed by the Avatar."
Emiko made the meekest sound of acknowledgement and made to leave. On her way out her eyes brushed into contact with Aang's. There he was shocked to see pools of tears barely contained by her eyelids. The Avatar opened his mouth to say something but before he could speak she had vanished out onto the walkway behind Quanfar and mingled herself out of view. Suki was the first to react; she shook her head.
"I always pictured an Air Nomad monk as a person of great knowledge and wisdom." She stated flatly. "But the arrogance that old man put off was completely unacceptable. Not even the slightest nod of respect or gratitude." She sighed in exasperation. "Not like we're the Fire Nation...not that there'd be anything wrong if we were, I'm just saying. If we were Fire Nation I could at least understand why he'd be hesitant to greet us decently."
"Monk Gyatso would never have acted like this." Aang said sadly. "Not even if he had survived the Fire Nation attacks." At this Katara seemed to let her anger go and she put an arm around her husband.
"I'm sorry..." She whispered in his ear. "This must be so disappointing for you." The airbender felt tears building up around his eyes.
"It's all my fault for how these people act..." He answered at length. Katara looked at him.
"No it's not." Sokka argued.
"Aang these people were saved...and from what brief images of this place I've seen it doesn't look like their lives have been too bad." Katara put in.
"Yeah at least they didn't rot in a Fire Nation prison camp for nearly a century like some of the prisoners we freed." Suki added, then she almost as instantly looked away. "I'm sorry I just realized how anti-Fire Nation I keep sounding." Everyone shrugged.
"We know you don't mean it...you work with a whole bunch of 'em" Sokka said, trying to sound cheerful. Suki rewarded his efforts with a slight smirk. A stillness fell within the temple, or rather as close to stillness as it could be. As he stood there with his wife right beside him Aang understood what Monk Quanfar had been talking about. There certainly was more here than eyes perceived. The air felt thicker somehow. It resonated with an energy unseen and unable to touch physically. Mentally, however, it was almost like having a warm blanket about his shoulders on a cold night. Encompassed by it he felt more alive; this room was a gateway to the Spirit World, much like the Oasis at the North Pole. As Aang reflected upon this eyes drifted upward again until they rested upon the face of the statue...then he was ready to leave.
Firelord Zuko was seated at the head dining table along with his wife and son. Sitting along with the Fire Nation royal family was the captain of the zeppelin, a man Zuko now knew as Sying, along with four other upper class Earth Kingdom individuals. One was a banker of some kind from Ba Sing Se, another wrote editorials in Gaoling's main newspaper. As for the other two Zuko didn't know, they were two rich youths traveling together to start a business in the Fire Nation. Details were vague with the two the young Firelord noticed, it was the sister mostly who liked to talk while her komodo-rhino of a brother just sat quietly, eating his dinner and seeing nothing.
"Have you heard the latest on this new proposed tax relief for the Northern Water Tribe on their seal jerky exports?" The banker was asking the journalist.
"It's just one more advantage they'd like to hold over everyone back on the mainland." Replied the news editor knowingly. "They are looking to dig a little deeper into our pockets while building up reserves of their own. They're jealous of Earth Kingdom prosperity, that's what it is. Why everyone knows our economy has fared by far the strongest of any nation these past ten years."
"Garbage..." Muttered Sying casually. "Even if our economy has doubled it's still nothing next to the Fire Nation."
"Don't be so sure my boy." Remarked the journalist, who seemed to be gathering steam in this conversation. "The fallout from the Hundred Year War hit them hardest. Firelord Zuko...how do you propose to rebuild your country's financial prowess in these times of peace? Your nation has made all of its money through military endeavors in the past. With the war over, what will you do now?" Zuko blinked in surprise. He was in the process of eating, his noodles halfway to his lips. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mai grinning mischievously.
"Well I...um" The Firelord began slowly.
"Leave the man alone. I won't have you pestering my guests at my table." Captain Sying ordered jokingly. Then on a more serious note he added. "We are all deeply honored by the Firelord's presence here tonight and I will not have anyone pressing him into an uncomfortable situation."
The Firelord nodded and waved his hand. "You're too kind Captain but it's quite alright."
"Yeah, the Firelord here actually loves talking politics, external and internal." Mai put in; her voice thick with amusement. Zuko shot her a glance. His wife simply looked at him and smiled before turning to Lu Ten. "Lu Ten stop playing with your food and eat it. And sit up straight when you're at the table young man!" The toddler made a face but did as he was told.
"Wow you have that kid wrapped around your little finger." The young Earth Kingdom girl remarked. "I like that. I have my brother the same way. You can't let family screw up every social event you're invited to, isn't that right Toeru?" The giant that was her brother nodded once but said nothing.
"Family..." Scoffed the banker loudly. "Why I have an older sister who's always in my business. Can't run a darn thing inside my home without her constantly sticking her nose in to check up on me."
"My younger brother is the exact same way." Remarked the newspaper editor. "Only his visits all share the same convenient ending where he's somehow short on silver and needs to borrow some." The Captain chuckled and set down the glass he'd just been drinking out of.
"I have six cousins who are like that." He admitted laughably. "Now how's that for family?" A murmur of agreement ran up the table.
"What about yourself your Majesty?" The young girl asked. "You must have at least one family member who's a burden on the family." Zuko felt the temperature drop in his veins. He looked up at Mai who was staring intently back at him. They both saw in an instant flash the white room, the blank walls, and the lack of furniture. In that flash they saw the young woman seated on her bed or by her window. They watched as she gazed vacantly out into space with no expression on her face. They watched the stars go by; the clouds drift overhead, the sun rise and fall, all without any change at all on the blank countenance.
"No." Zuko said finally. "Nobody like that."
"Ah..." The young girl sighed. "Lucky for you then."
At that moment all traces of appetite had vanished in Zuko's stomach. In vain he began to cast around in his thoughts, seeking a reasonable excuse to leave this table and its sudden coldness. Nothing came to him. He was considering just leaving when he noticed that General Matora had appeared at the dining hall door. Perfect, just perfect.
"Please excuse me for a moment ladies and gentlemen but I see a matter that requires my attention." Zuko excused himself from the table. As he stood up he exchanged a quick glance with Mai. Her eyes were searching, trying to get a good read on his mental state. He did his best to reassure her. After that brief encounter he was quickly over to the General, who was in the process of bantering with one of the Earth Kingdom guards. "You need me for something General?" The Firelord asked briskly.
"Only a letter Sire." Acknowledged Matora. "Flown in just now from the Earth King, it was marked as urgent." Zuko took the letter and nodded.
"Very good, come with me to my chamber, I'll open it there." The General looked taken aback.
"But Sire..." He began in a confused tone. "What about the dinner?"
"I'm not hungry." Zuko replied. He already had one foot out of the dining hall.
Aang found himself dreaming, at least that's what he thought he was doing, though he couldn't remember ever lying down. He was sitting on what appeared to be a beach of some lush green island. All around him the surf crashed down in rhythmic harmony and the caws of a few seabirds added to the calming atmosphere. It was serene and he loved it. He put his head back against the cool sand and stared up into the cloudless sky. The only way this could get better was if Katara was here to enjoy it with him.
"Hey there..." Looking to his right there she suddenly was. Stretched out next to him her body gleamed in the sunlight. The Avatar noticed almost immediately that she did not appear pregnant. It was life as it had been before the announcement that had changed everything. Beaming, Aang reached over and ran a hand across her face.
"Hi." He breathed slowly. The waves continued to pound. The birds had stopped chirping. From somewhere behind them in the trees he thought he heard a rapid clicking sound but dismissed it quickly. This was a safe place. He closed his eyes contently. "Where are we?" He muttered aloud. There was no answer. "Katara?" He mused, his eyes still closed. Again no answer reached his ears. Slowly the airbender opened his eyes and looked around, his wife had vanished. There was sign of her on the beach and no tracks in the sand. Nothing to suggest she had ever been there in the first place. The clicking sound reached his ears again.
Aang spun around to face the forest that sprawled over the landscape behind him. "Hello?" He called loudly. "Katara?" The waves had ceased falling. There was nothing but stillness around him now. Then the clicking sound resumed and Aang thought he glanced something large moving, camouflaged in the green underbrush of the trees. Reflexively he shot out his hand to blast a gust of air to reveal the target. Nothing happened, his bending failed him. It was like being in the Spirit World. Quickly his eyes scanned the beach for something to use as a weapon but the sand was flawless and there was nothing to be found.
Panic suddenly flooded his mind. What exactly was this place? Surely it was just a dream, it had to all just be a dream. Aang thought about running into the ocean to escape that infernal clicking when, as unexpectedly as it had started, it stopped. Looking up the Avatar received another shock. A woman stood standing just by the forest's edge, staring at him. Aang had never seen anyone like her. Her hair was long and flowing but more than that, it appeared as if a shower of gold. It gleamed such a dazzling and pure light in the sun that it actually stung his vision to gaze upon it for too long. Her skin too shone as a pearl-colored gem covering her body. The only part of her that didn't completely echo the sun's glow was the faded orange robe that she wore, bound at the waist by a common piece of rope. The airbender found his gaze focused on the robe, it was such a stark contrast with everything else that was just so pristine.
"Am I really so beautiful that the Avatar has forgotten his words?" The woman suddenly asked, her voice flowing like warm honey. She smiled coyly and bowed deeply where she stood. "Do not be alarmed my young airbender. This is not a nightmare." Aang could only be speechless where he stood. When his voice finally returned it escaped in little more than a rasp.
"Is this...is this place part of the Spirit World?" He asked. He fidgeted on the sand. The woman laughed.
"Right to business." She chuckled sweetly. "I can see why the others favor you so Avatar. You are truly very focused." She strode over to him, her feet making graceful shadows of ash in the sand. "The answer is very complicated." She spoke softly at length. "This is a place of two worlds, in nature it is both corporeal and divine...just as I used to be."
Aang nodded slowly. "So what...should I come here for meditation? Is this where I'm to take my next Spirit World journey?" The woman looked at him and suddenly, her face very gaunt. Lines had formed and her eyes appeared as if too wide and bulging for the rest of her facial features.
"No young Avatar. Quite the opposite is the purpose of this vision." She gestured back toward the island, and looking Aang watched in horror as ghosts and shells of people began materializing into view from out of the foliage. They stalked toward him with outstretched arms and mouths open in silent wails of sorrow. The woman grabbed his shoulder. "I want you to make me a promise. Promise that you'll never come to this island, its soul was long ago tainted and there is an evil here ready to take that which is most precious away from you!" At her words a flurry of clicking noises sounded up again from deep within the forest before dying out just as rapidly. "Stay far away my Avatar. Do this in memory of your people..." The woman's eyes pierced into him and through him. They shot inside the fabric of his very being. "Stay away!"
"Aang, Aang!" Katara shook him awake suddenly. The airbender bolted upright, propelled by wind summoned under him. His face darted a dozen different directions at once. "You were dreaming." His wife reassured him. "You dozed off after supper, you just looked so peaceful I wanted to let you rest." She put her arm around him. "But then you started sweating and shouting. It's okay now...I'm here." The Avatar looked at her face. Her eyes conveyed comfort and peace. "Was it a nightmare?" She asked concernedly.
"No." Aang replied, shaking his head. "It was a warning." Sokka and Suki came into view.
"Hey guys." Sokka said. "Oh good, Aang you're awake. Toph and the Earth King just got here along with some guards from the palace, I don't think the old man is taking to them so well." Suki looked worried.
"I think it would be best if you went down there and helped sort things out." She added. "Just to make sure nobody gets too rattled."
"They're all down in the main street area now on the first floor." Sokka went on. "I told them we'd go and get you before any of the talks began."
"Talks?" Katara asked before Aang could.
"Yeah." Sokka affirmed. "Apparently the Earth King is looking to move the Air Nomads out of this glorified cave and back up to real daylight."
"And he seems to be in the mood to do it sooner rather than later." Suki put in. "I think Toph's been hammering him. She probably wants the people out so she can study this place easier."
"Hey leave the woman alone, she just wants to follow her passion." Sokka argued. "If only everyone had her clear line of vision in knowing what they wanted."
"Yeah well usually people can be a bit more complex than that!" Suki snapped. Aang and Katara exchanged a glance. Groaning slightly in stiffness the Avatar rose to his feet. He grabbed his staff and handed it to his wife.
"Well I guess we better get down there then and see what kind of Avatar duties I can perform." He said, trying to lighten the tension that had just very quickly developed.
"Trust me, those skills are going to be needed." Sokka responded as he led the way out of the mess area.
Several floors and flights of stairs later brought the four of them to what looked like an even tenser situation. With one glance the Avatar immediately wished he was still just regulating Suki and Sokka. That had been a lot smaller, and over the years he had learned what to expect from the two's arguments and exchanges of hurt feelings.
Two groups stood separated from each other by a space of about twenty feet. One was the Air Nomads, with Monk Quanfar standing predictably front and center as the leader. The other group was made up of Toph, the Earth King and several officials from the Palace, one of whom Aang recognized as Ce Jian, the Earth King's head of security. A short, muscular man, highlighted from others by his abundance of body hair, the Avatar only knew Ce Jian to appear when things were questionable and they were prepared for them to escalate into violence.
As the group approached both Quanfar and the Earth King turned to Aang with looks of anticipation. Toph ran over quickly to join them.
"There you guys are, we've been waiting but this doesn't look good. The Earth King wants to relocate the Nomads out of here but for some reason their leader doesn't seem too up on the idea. Not sure why, figured you sky dwellers would love the chance to get out and stretch your wings." The blind earthbender whispered all this quickly under her breath.
"Let me talk to him." Aang said simply. "You just tell the Earth King not to make any moves. Monk Quanfar has a short temper."
"Yeah like I didn't pick up on that last time I was down here." Toph remarked. "Okay, I'll get you whatever time you need." With that she returned quickly to the Earth King's side and whispered into his ear. The Avatar looked at the spectacled face, which after a moment met his own and nodded. Then though Aang was careful to note the Earth King exchanged a quick word with Ce Jian as well. He would need to work fast.
"Monk Quanfar..." He called out, stepping up to the robed figure and bowing.
"Avatar." The monk acknowledged.
"I see you have met the Earth King. I hope all is going well between you two wise leaders." Aang tried to put sincerity into his words but they still sounded slightly fake to him. The monk's lip twitched.
"I have just finished speaking with the Earth King." Quanfar remarked coldly. "It would seem that we are to be evicted from our home within one day of our discovery. Is this the peace and hospitality you spoke to me of?" Aang grimaced and thought hard.
"But I don't understand...don't you want to return to the Air Temple? I know you may think it's not safe but I'll be there personally as your protection." Monk Quanfar sighed and ran a hand over his head.
"You don't understand do you Avatar, or rather you do not try to. Come with me. May I show you something, in private?" Even though he had asked in the form of a question, Aang felt like the old man was giving him an order. He felt though that he had to do this, he had to make more of an effort to understand where Quanfar was coming from. With a nod the airbender consented to follow the monk, giving a brief call to his friends that he would return shortly.
He was led a good distance away from the crowd, toward the back edge of the city. Here the river vanished from view into a cave and the rumblings of a waterfall could be heard. Aang stared into the blackness that was the cave; it was the only part of the city that was not lighted be torches. It reminded him exactly just how far down they really were. He was still looking at it when Monk Quanfar veered off to the right and vanished through a door. Aang noticed it was the last on this row of houses. With a slightly nervous step he pushed himself through the doorway after the old monk and found himself inside a giant graveyard.
Here lines of markings outlined the ground where the fallen had been lain to rest. The torchlight gave off a kind of faded yellow luminosity; this was by far the dimmest room. Small crude carvings had been placed in front of many of the grave markers. They were sculptures of people or of animals though Aang was quick to notice that none of the animals looked quite right. They all had a slight mythological appearance to them, even something as plain as a platypus-bear appeared legendary.
"Are you taking a good long look at where we are Avatar?" Quanfar called out suddenly. He was standing a few paces away. "Do you now understand at all? No of course you don't, you're not even looking for an answer." All Aang could do was stare at the old man, he found himself unable to speak. Quanfar nodded slightly before continuing: "You think you are doing us a favor, returning us to the surface. Well here is a question I put to you then Avatar: what is the surface? Can you tell me what it looks like because I've never seen it, nobody here has. There is not one soul living in this city that has any idea of the world outside these stonewalls. The people who could have led us out confidently, they're buried underneath your feet." He ran his hand over his head. "We are a simple people. We have been content to live our lives until you and your...friends show up today and tell us that is no longer possible. Well I suppose they are right. As Avatar it is your job to make sure no nation occupies another's soil, and here we are, literally doing just that."
"But you're doing so in peace." Aang piped up.
"Occupation is still occupation." Quanfar retorted. "By definition we are breaking the law Avatar. So you must choose. Are you going to be an airbender and stand by your people, give us the time and space we need to act, allow those of us who wish to stay to choose if they wish? Or are you going to be the Avatar and do your duty?" Aang felt himself starting to sweat. "You must make a choice Avatar!" Monk Quanfar roared.
"I don't know..." Aang began. "I need time to think!"
"You've had a century of time." The old man retorted. Aang closed his eyes and tried to calm his mind as it raced in his head. Finally he opened his eyes and left the graveyard.
The crowd was still waiting as he returned. Katara, Sokka, Suki and Toph all came running over almost instantly. Aang however, did not stop walking to greet them. He kept right on going. They could only exchange puzzled glances and follow behind. It soon became clear though that the Avatar was not stopping anywhere in the city, he was not moving to address the crowd or heading in the direction of the Earth King. He was heading for the exit.
"Avatar Aang!" The Earth King suddenly called out. Aang froze; his friends did so along with him. "What is your decision? Does the Earth Kingdom have your support or not?" There was a period of silence. Nobody in the hall said anything. Monk Quanfar returned to the front of the crowd with an amused look on his face.
"You'll have to settle this without me." The Avatar stated at last. "I am sorry, but I cannot help either of you." As he spoke these last words tears started flowing from his eyes. Katara instantly put her arms around him in support. A loud uproar went up at these words. Aang buckled in grief but resumed walking.
"It's okay Aang." She said. "You just need some rest and time to think on things." He wished she were right. Maybe some time away would help to clear his head. Right now though he could still see the look of shock and anger on the Earth King's face, even without turning. He could also hear Monk Quanfar's knowing chuckle. The old man wasn't surprised at all. He had wanted this to happen.
For the collective works of the author, go here.