There is a legend that circulated in the ancient world, that while Alexander the Great was alive, a captured pirate was brought before him for punishment. Alexander was outraged by the man’s depredations and asked what right he had to trouble the seas. “The same right you have to trouble the world,” the pirate replied. “Only since I do so with a small ship, I’m called a robber; you use a great fleet and are called a ruler.”
—James Romm, Ghost on the Throne
The suite door bangs open.
Standing in front of his wide, ruby-encrusted mirror with two attendants fiddling with the fourteen layers and pieces to his outfit, Haruka doesn’t turn around. “Can’t you knock?” he asks, keeping his eyes on his own face.
A distant, razor-sharp grin hovers in the mirror behind Haruka’s ear. “Do I need to?”
The attendants immediately abandon Haruka’s clothing and drop into deep bows with mumbles of praise, while Haruka, sighing, remains upright. He buttons his undervest himself, sending a look of disdain to the mirror.
“You can rise,” Rin tells the attendants, easy smile on his mouth. They rebound to Haruka, but with one hand on the undervest’s brocade, he waves them away.
“I’ll do the rest.”
They dip their heads, saying slightly out of synchronization, “Yes, Master Haruka,” and back away. Passing on either side of Rin, they bow again and mutter, “Prince Rin.” Without once turning their backs, they exit the suite and shut the door behind them, leaving Haruka and Rin alone.
In the mirror, Rin approaches Haruka’s bed and flops spread-eagled on his back with a whoomph . The springs creak underneath his weight, and wrinkles pop up on the maroon bedspread.
“Ugh,” he groans, staring at the ceiling. “I’m so bored.”
Done with the vest, Haruka ducks into the cupboard perpendicular to the mirror and picks out a long sleeved robe. He steps in front of his own image again, Rin still ironed out on the bed behind him, and pushes his arms through the light silk.
As if seized by a sudden thought, Rin sits up on his elbows, the mattress bouncing under him. “Want to spar with me?”
He’s dressed casually today; a neat, velvety black robe draws a V below his sternum, red trim and sash jumping out, and black trousers tuck into polished hide boots. Neck and spine crooked, red hair hangs loose, tousled with charm and purpose. A gold dragon pendant glitters around his neck, frozen in a perpetual roar.
Reaching up to adjust the fall of the robe on his shoulders, Haruka replies, “Pass.”
“Ah, come on,” Rin complains, pushing off his elbows to sit up perched at the end of the bed. “Nothing’s going on and everyone else is busy.” A wry smile tugs his mouth. “And anyways, you’re the only one who actually puts up a challenge against me.”
“If you want to be beaten, then ask Colonel Mikoshiba,” Haruka remarks, drily.
“Shut up.” Rin’s expression sours, and he grumbles as an afterthought, “He’s been restationed to Ito, anyway.” He huffs and twists his lips. “Fine, I’ll up the stakes. How about we put money on it?”
“Can’t,” Haruka says, fingers tightening the inner drawstring in his robe, “I’m busy.”
Rin squints, skeptical. “What are you busy with? Lazing in your pond doesn’t count.”
Haruka skirts his gaze and says nothing, stepping into the cupboard again to retrieve his gold belt. He busies himself with finding the exact right spot to place it where the robe will flow smoothly underneath, making micro adjustments along his hips and lower waist, and centers the clasp under his belly button.
Rin’s eyes narrow and he studies Haruka in silence for a couple of moments, leaning forward in curiosity, before he sighs and brushes back a lock of hair, his weight settling into his opposite arm. “Jeez,” he says, and it sounds like an acknowledgment of defeat. Understanding silence bridges the two of them, and Rin bounces his leg in agitation for a moment before pushing himself up to stand. “Well, I guess I’ll wander around town, then.” The clack of his boots lead outside Haruka’s vision to the door, pausing only for a second as Rin adds, “See you later, Haru.”
Haruka smoothes out wrinkles. “See you.”
The door wheezes open and snaps shut, and Rin’s footsteps trail away, echoing down the cavernous hall.
Haruka is left with his reflection. His arms fall to his sides, done with playing with his clothes, and he stares at himself. The luscious maroons and golds of his robe overwhelm his image, so violently colorful that what little is exposed of his own skin, eyes, and hair seems unsaturated and lifeless. He looks important, imposing; a young man with power surging his veins, a product of careful education and training, to soon command something of the world. He looks like Nanase Haruka, the fifteenth in a line of cold, calculated business entrepreneurs, the perfectly groomed heir of the trading company that bears the Nanase name.
He does not, however, look like Haru.
Shoes swishing on marble floor, Haruka whips around and exits his suite. He passes through the hallway and the following staircase, geometric red lacquered beams watching him from the ceiling. He escapes out the door to the garden, blinking away late morning sun as he steps outside. Birds chirp from maples, and beyond trim bushes, a small stream dribbles in the distance, stones and moss lining its path. Manicured grass rustles under Haruka’s feet as he plows through a short grove of trees, the manor shrinking only a little behind him, until the trees disperse and he hits a dirt path. A snippet of city pokes up from beyond the estate gates to his left, but he keeps forward, following the path to the large wooden building with NANASE STABLES printed over its entrance.
He steps inside, immediately struck with that familiar, invading smell of musty hay, that which, no matter the strength of cleanser nor the frequency of cleaning, refuses to die. It mingles with soap, forever an unresolved battle in Haruka’s nose. Sniffing with a twitch of his nose, he ambles down the wide corridor, passing orderly stalls containing horses either for show or for racing, and a couple of stablehands bow and greet him from the middle of their work.
The second to last stall on the left comes into view, and his pace quickens just to reach the windowed door. He stops, head and shoulders above the door, and softly clucks his tongue. With a puff of recognition, Kuroime, a dapple gray mare, turns and approaches him. She drops her head through the window, and Haruka reaches a hand and strokes her muzzle, feeling the hot stickiness around her nostrils. He moves higher, smoothing down her nearly white forehead, then slides his palm along the ashy speckles on her neck. Her mane, hindquarters, and legs are all dark charcoal, while puffy rainclouds sponge the rest.
Kuroime allows him to pet her for a little while, but eventually tires and settles back out of his reach with the company of hay. Haruka leans into the door, resting his chin on folded arms, content to watch her and be in her presence. She was his thirteenth birthday gift, and he considers her his best friend (which he reminds Rin of often, just for sport). With her, he’s won a couple of riding competitions at his parents’ request, but lately, he’s done nothing more than take her out on random excursions. She is mild-mannered and deathly loyal to him, as he to her, and she too enjoys his company more than the company of her own.
With the huffs of horses and scrapes of stablehands’ work in his ears, Haruka feels a buzzing calm, his nose adjusted and now unable distinguish the stable’s distinct smell. To Kuroime, he’s just a dust speck, there but not noticed as she chows on her feed. Time passes; Haruka keeps his mind blank.
But inevitably, a voice echoes down the corridor, “There you are!”
Haruka’s head jerks up. The open entrance illuminates Amakata, curled tendrils of hair bouncing on either side of her face as she advances towards him, heels thudding on tile. A smart raspberry colored robe with capped shoulders sways with her gait, just barely grazing the floor. She comes to a stop with folded arms about ten feet away, her youthful face framed by chin-length bangs, the rest of her hair pulled back into a medium height bun.
“Skulking, I see,” she says, pursing her lips. Eyebrows arched, her expression is both parts exasperation and pity, a tight smile stretching her mouth. “Come along, Master Haruka.”
Reluctantly, Haruka peels himself from the stall door. He steals one last look at Kuroime before trudging to Amakata, who waits to move until she’s sure Haruka is coming with. She marches back down the corridor and out into the sun, Haruka a few steps behind, and retraces Haruka’s earlier path back to the manor. As they enter through the garden door and head up the flight of stairs, dread seeps into Haruka’s bones, and he lags behind Amakata’s brisk pace. Her shoes thunk louder on marble as she leads him down the second story hallway, stopping for a second for her to slide open her office door.
After shutting the door behind them, Amakata turns her attention to her small desk, sifting through papers and files. The room reeks of her flowery perfume, laden like a cloud, and Haruka’s eyes sting as he takes his place at the dainty round table.
“Alright,” Amakata says, sitting down opposite him, with sheets of parchment and small portraits in her hands.
Haruka sinks deeper into his seat and swallows down his thoughts.
It begins. Each time, she slides him a portrait and tells him a name he won’t remember. He doesn’t touch the portrait and only glances at it, briefly meeting each girl’s eyes, only to end up staring at the table while Amakata lists stats. A general’s daughter. A magistrate’s. A professor’s. An actress’s. A diplomat’s. Their family worth. The girl’s individual worth. The girl’s talents. Singing. Poetry. Debate. Archery. Bending.
The oldest is just a year younger than him at seventeen. The youngest is fourteen.
Insides knotted and squirming, Haruka notices only one portrait left on the table, leaving, he suspects, the best for last.
“Now,” Amakata begins, flipping the portrait face up, “I don’t think I need to say much about her.”
She pushes the portrait to him.
Kou! her voice corrects in his head.
Familiar maroon eyes glare at him.
Amakata lies her parchment notes down on the table and rests clasped hands over them. “Master Haruka, you know her better than I do, so I’m sure you know your own advantages and disadvantages in marrying her, but may I remind you that currently, she is the only one of your choices above you in social standing…”
Haruka cranes his head to the thin rectangular window, eyes searching for the stream. Its lazy dribbles flicker and reflect the sun and sky, and he stares at it, imagining it rushing over him, covering his eyes, his mouth, his ears, his nose…
“…and should something ever happen to Prince Rin, Princess Gou would become Fire Lord, and considering that she is a non-bender, it is more likely that you would assume the duties of a traditional Fire Lord. In addition to that, there is also the possibility that Prince Rin may be unable to produce heirs during his reign, in which case offspring produced by you and Princess Gou would be next in line. It is entirely your decision, Master Haruka, but you could completely change the history of the Nanase bloodline. After you and Prince Rin are dead, who’s to say whose blood will end up on the throne?”
Fog blots out his thoughts, and the perfume curls its fingers around his throat.
“Excuse me,” he says, pushing out his chair and standing up.
He lurches to the door, innards writhing, and freezes as Amakata barks, “ Haruka! ”
He looks back at her, her face contorted in humiliation at forgetting her place. She inclines her head. “Forgive me, Master Haruka,” she implores, regaining her calm. Her chest convulses with a shaky breath. “It is just that your parents expect a decision from you when they return.”
Limbs alight with dull buzzing, Haruka drops his eyes to the floor. “I’ll decide,” he says, his voice echoing and detached in his skull. “I just need to think.”
Amakata lowers her head more, completely exposing the part of her chestnut hair. “Of course, Master Haruka.”
Without another look at her, he slides open the door. He doesn’t bother shutting it behind him and flees down the hallway, blood roaring in his ears as his feet pound the floor. The staircase whirs by. He escapes to the garden again, this time following along the little stream, careful not to slip on slick stone and moss. The stream leads him back into a circular thicket of trees, and the water opens up into a small pond. A willow on the opposite bank curves over the pond, its droopy green mirrored in ripples. Lilies ride with the current, bobbing lazily.
On the bank, Haruka crouches over the water. His hand dips in and swishes back and forth, testing it out. The pond is a little cool for his liking, not quite warmed by the sun yet, so he flicks droplets from his fingers and stands up. His lungs swell with a great inhale, and in a sharp movement, he lunges forward and shoots a jet of fire out his palm. With a hiss, the fire dissolves as it hits the water, the surface bubbling for a second before settling back into stillness, a tiny trail of smoke spiraling up to the sky. Haruka waits a moment and kneels down again, and this time, the water is warm around his fingers. At least firebending is useful for something, he thinks.
He rises again, and unlike how he dressed himself, he rips his clothes off with careless hands, casting delicate silks to the grass behind. The second he’s completely bare he slips into the pond, the water gurgling in welcome, and his feet brush the rocky bottom as he ducks under. Water presses into his ears, muting sound, movements and splashes foggy and distorted. Bubbles of air flit from his nose and climb to the surface. Too soon he feels his lungs strain, and he must break his head through the surface. He gulps a couple breaths, warm air cool on his now dripping face and hair, and quickly drops back under.
For some time, he’s adrift, deliberately thinking of nothing but absorbing as much water into his skin as possible. The pond is a blanket over reality; the water is silk more comfortable and befitting than any robe he can buy; the earthen walls are ones which he can leave.
However much further into time, a tremble rattles the stones beneath his feet and the water’s placid surface as Haruka is fully submerged. He doesn’t immediately react, not fully registering until the earth groans again with more intensity. His head pops up, parted mouth swallowing air as he scans the grove, looking for the source of the disturbance. Nothing is unusual; the sun hangs a little closer to the west with the passing of time, and his lungs pump heavy breaths, but he’s still alone.
Then— in the distance, in the direction of the city. Crashes. Shouts.
What is that?
The volume flares up and down, wild and unpredictable, and Haruka squints uselessly into the trees. Ears pricked, Haruka tries gather clues, when furious thumps of running come from the path along the stream, moving closer to him.
The head estate guard, Seda, bursts out from the trees and skids to a stop on the bank. She pants, her eyes flashing alarm.
“Master Haruka, come back to the house,” she orders.
Haruka doesn’t move. “What’s going on?”
She does not answer and instead steps to his discarded clothes, bending over to pick them up. “Here, put these back on and come inside.”
After staring at her a second, Haruka slowly heaves himself out of the water and takes the clothes from her hand. He puts them on without drying off, Seda’s back turned to him until he’s dressed. The second he is, she rushes back along the stream, Haruka stumbling to catch up, booms and shrill voices still sounding in the city. They practically run back to the manor, and Haruka snatches a half-second of the city and flashes of fire before he’s ushered inside. Servants and staff huddle on the first floor, the entryway abuzz with speculative conversation.
Haruka overhears a young maid with a round, childish face intimate to her friend, “ I heard it was a coup d’etat.”
With a single look of I will hang you out to dry if you say another word, Seda cuts off the maid mid-gossip and absorbs the surrounding chatter, the staff stilling into wired, unnatural quiet, forty pairs of eyes boring into her and Haruka.
Seda sighs. “Go up to your suite,” she says, waving a dismissive hand to Haruka. “We’ll inform you if there’s something you need to know.”
No you won’t.
Haruka silently accepts the order and trudges up the stairs, dripping hair leaving a trail of water droplets along the floor. His damp robe clings his skin, fragile fabric probably ruined by now. He pads down the third floor hall, the servants resuming the hubbub from below, and enters his room, locking out their voices behind him with his door.
After a few seconds of staring about his room, curiosity pulls Haruka to the window, and he looks out, trying to catch something of the action. His window hangs over one of the distribution factories, an intimidating, sterile building caged by poplars, with the city on the right just beyond the front gates. He can’t see anything past the black arches, but dull thuds and tremors suggest chaos is out of sight. There seems no end to them.
A coup d’etat, huh?
With possible hours alone in here looming ahead, Haruka steps away from the window and to the space in between his bed and shelf, scanning over the scrolls for something to pass the time. His eyes briefly rest on the first place calligraphy award he won in school when he was fifteen. His lips flicker into a smirk. The award hangs there not for his own personal pride, but to annoy Rin, who had burned his third place award to a crisp in a fit of anger and regretted it twenty minutes later. Throughout the years, Rin’s threatened variations of burning Haruka’s copy, shredding it, feeding it to a dog, and chucking it out the window, but Haruka knows it’s all bluster and no action, and he delights in goading him. He shares this hobby with Kou, who sometimes sneaks her second place prize in Rin’s door when she’s bored.
Haruka yanks his thoughts from the calligraphy award and browses the scrolls, fingertips brushing along each distinct parchment texture. Some are nearly white; others brown and crinkled. Some Haruka’s never read; others he could recite word for word. His hand stops on a scroll with a navy ribbon. He plucks it out and undoes the ribbon, letting it drop to the floor. A damp, aged odor wafts as he unfurls the parchment; it’s so worn and old it feels like cloth in his fingers, with familiar smudgy black characters announcing the title at the top. He backs into his bed, settling down into the mattress, and begins to read.
It’s a Water Tribe story by an unknown author; his parents acquired it on one of many trips to the north but showed little interest in other than its collection. A waterbending boy in a small village finds a hobby making ice sculptures. He starts off small with easy, simple sculptures of daily objects, learning as he goes, and he gradually makes bigger, more spectacular sculptures, of people, spirits. They arouse attention, and his family and village shower him with praise. But people begin to request from him: quicker sculptures, more complex ones, more meaningful ones. “You have the skill,” they say, “You should use it to its fullest.” The boy just makes sculptures because he likes to, not to impress anyone or say anything with them, but he wants everyone to be happy and duly takes in suggestions, churning out fast ones, detailed ones, ones related to specific themes. However, for every person he pleases, he displeases another. Conflicting requests and accusations pepper him, so he whips out more and more, for this person, for that person, for anyone who asks. He thinks of what he would sculpt for himself, and nothing comes to mind. So finally, one day, he slashes all of his sculptures to pieces and runs from his village. That’s all. Nothing of where he goes, what he does, the village’s reaction to his final gift and his disappearance.
“And so, forgetting the ruins of his life, the boy set his sights on the horizon and imagined what lay beyond.”
Haruka reaches the last sentence and hovers on it a moment, its cadence ringing in his ears, before his held breath finally snakes out and movement retakes his body again. With dawdling hands, he rolls the parchment back up and grips it in his right hand. He bends over and plucks the ribbon from the floor with his left hand, neatly winding it around and tying it while keeping the appropriate tension to maintain the roll. A sigh flits out his nose, and he stands and approaches the shelf, arm raised to slide the scroll back in its place.
A thought grabs him.
He stares at his hand, fingers coiled around the parchment, blue veins bursting through pale skin, wrist sheathed by silky maroon. Blood surges up and down veins, his pulse tapping faster and hotter. The scroll crackles as his knuckles tighten.
The city sounds as explosive as ever. No footsteps taint the hallway.
What’s to stop you?
The blue ribbon trembles in rhythm with his shaky hand.
The fissure cracks, and Haruka’s swallowed.
He wheels around, fist clenched around the scroll, and flies across the room to his desk. Clumsy fingers fling open his little trunk and dump out his personal stash of gold pieces onto varnished wood. Tossing the trunk aside, he rips open a drawer and takes an empty brown satchel, popping open its unused latch. He scrapes the gold from the desk into the satchel, little plops hitting his ears as mineral meets fiber. Once the gold is all in, minus the few that dropped to the floor in his hurry, he wriggles out a colorful map of the nations and crams it in along with the Water Tribe story.
His mind jumps, and he drops the satchel and lurches to the closet, rooting around until he finds the simple navy robe he never gets to wear. He pulls it out and throws it to the desk, tearing away his cumbersome robes like he’s ripping away a bandage. Intricate, delicate stitching breaks and frays at his hands. When his skin can breath again, he retakes the navy robe and puts it on, his ribcage free underneath just a single layer of durable, practical cloth. He secures the sash around his hips and lets out an exhale.
His hands find the satchel and sling it over his shoulder as he marches to the door. Inching it open, he wills his breath to slow and pokes his head out. Eyes darting from side to side and ears prickling for footsteps, he creeps out of the suite, sliding the door shut behind him. Voices continue to murmur from downstairs. He backs away from the staircase and tiptoes to a room down the hall from his. Years of boredom equal an extensive knowledge of the manor’s secret passes and hideaways, so it takes him no time to slip into a dark, rickety staircase and make it to the ground floor. The passage comes out in a tea room, and with no door leading outside, he pries open a window and clambers out.
His feet meet grass.
Intoxicated with adrenaline, he rushes a circuitous route through the surrounding trees, wanting to remain invisible from those inside the manor, until he finds the back door of the stables. Silence suggests the stablehands have taken refuge in the main house as well. Jostling the finicky door, Haruka cracks it open.
The stable is dark, and soft knickers puff from stalls alongside Haruka’s footfalls. He stops at a stall door and unlocks it. It swings wide.
“Kuroime,” he says, hand extended. “Come.”
“The third time I failed was not my fault—stop laughing , Yasuo—they changed the test, and suddenly there was a section on history! I did study this time for all the honor and position stuff, but how was I supposed to know the seventh Fire Lord of the Oe Dynasty? What the hell?! Who knows or cares? I mean, I don’t think even you know the seventh Fire Lord of the Oe Dynasty, Prince Rin.”
Rin’s hand plays with the dragon pendant about his neck. “Lord Tanyu.”
“Hey, don’t make fun of me!”
Smirking, Rin drops his hand and says, “Read a history scroll sometime.”
Lieutenant Mikoshiba Momotarou bristles and jabs blunted insults, enraged by both Rin’s nonchalant attitude and Lieutenant Yasuo’s unending snickers, until he turns his nose up and folds his arms, stalking half a body length ahead in an attempt to ignore them. Lieutenant Yasuo and Rin share an amused look as they trod behind him, knowing the silence won’t last long.
It doesn’t; soon he’s recapturing the moment when he finally passed the military exam. On the fourth try.
Rin wonders, again, why Momotarou is posted to him as one of his bodyguards. Surely if Rin were in danger, Rin alone could handle the situation better than three of him. He admits he harbors fondness for the hapless Lieutenant, but questions how anyone allowed him in the military and gave him a position where the second most important person in the nation is his responsibility. His lineage must be his passing ticket. General Mikoshiba Hidenori is one of the Fire Nation’s most distinguished living soldiers, showing a brilliant mind for tactics and teamwork, his forty year career still in deep in progress. The elder Mikoshiba brother, Seijuurou, follows in his ranks, recently making a name for himself in an unexpected win in the Shangto Valley against the Northern Water Tribe’s battalion in the ongoing battle for trade routes, and in the past year was promoted to Colonel.
While Mikoshiba Momotarou is… here. A mere Lieutenant, and a sloppy, hasty one at that.
If Mikoshiba Seijuurou is a chip off the old block, then Mikoshiba Momotarou is a dust speck.
Momotarou jabbers on while they pass through the front gates, pausing through a brief security check, and Rin loses track of what topic he’s on. Scorpions? His friend from training, nicknamed ‘Pincer’? It doesn’t matter, because as they follow white cobbles and cherry trees along the palace court, someone steals Momotarou’s attention.
“H-Hey!” he shouts, frantically waving an arm. “Princess Gou!”
Gou’s petite form traipses the path up ahead, clothed in wine robes, her long maroon hair tucked into a sleek bun at the back of her head. She glances back and lifts an unenthusiastic hand in reply.
Momotarou’s arm whips back and forth like a joyous dog’s tail, his face flaming a beet red.
Pressing his fingertips to his forehead, Rin sighs. Momotarou’s futile campaign to get Gou to like him is many parts entertaining, many parts sad. Even if she likes him (and that’s an if the size of Rin’s ego), with his low standing and general lack of achievement, they could never legally be bound by something like marriage.
“Alright,” Rin interjects before Momotarou can assert his idiocy to its fullest, “I’m not about to be assassinated. You two can scram and do whatever the hell you do without me.”
Momotarou wilts, while Yasuo turns on his heel without complaint. Rin stills pointedly as Momotarou lingers in tenacious hope, waiting until he finally slumps after Yasuo, scuffing his shoes along the ground. Shaking his head, Rin sends a sad smile to Momotarou’s slouched back. He turns and breaks into a jog, catching up to Gou’s purposeful pace.
“Yo,” he breathes, jumping beside her. He slows to match.
“How were classes?” While Rin’s time is now divided between bending practice and tutoring, Gou attends the best school in the city full-time.
“The usual,” she replies, readjusting the scrolls braced in her armpit. She flicks him a coy smile. “I got in an argument with Wakatake again.”
He snorts. “What was it this time?”
“Okay, so we’re discussing Lin era philosophy right now, which is all about existence and whether it can be proven or not, and we read this one treatise by some crusty old guy,” Gou begins, waving away her hand, “I forget his name. And this crusty guy said something like, ‘Well, if I can see my hands, then they exist.’ It’s not exactly an airtight argument and I have my problems with it, but you know what Wakatake said?” She kicks aside a pebble. “Teacher Uratsu asked what we thought about it, and Wakatake leaned back in his chair and, in the most melodramatic tone, said, ‘Some two thousand years of philosophical thought came to a grinding halt with this argument.’”
Rin breaks into laughter, tilting his head back. “Ah, he sounds like fun.” He smiles at Gou, lifting his eyebrows. “I imagine you couldn’t just let that die.”
“No,” Gou sniffs, raising her chin. “I may not agree with crusty guy’s argument, but I can’t let Wakatake walk around thinking he’s so much better and so much more intellectual than everyone else, when actually, he skips class all the time and makes mediocre scores.”
“Did Uratsu do anything?”
“She just kind of sat there and let me have at him. I think we’re all sick of him.”
“Sounds like a good day.”
Gou tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Any day I beat down Wakatake is a good day. Anyway.” Sighing contentedly, she focuses back on Rin. “What did you do on your day off?”
“I went to see Haru.”
“Oh? And how is he?”
Rin splays his hands. “Man, I don’t know even know. Something’s up, but he won’t tell me anything. I mean, it’s not like he’s ever been particularly forthcoming anyway, but lately it’s worse. He ignores questions now, instead of just giving vague answers. I think he thinks that if he doesn’t say anything, then I can’t know that something’s wrong. Like I don’t know him well enough to be able to read his expressions.” His lips press into a tired line. “Whatever. I could tell he didn’t want me there, so I left and went into town instead.”
“Hm.” Gou’s expression turns thoughtful. “His parents are off on a business trip in… Ito, right?”
“Yeah, like usual,” Rin sighs, scratching the back of his neck. “Jeez, I guess I’ll just have to let him stew until he eventually comes out with it.”
Facing forward, Gou gives a short nod. “I suppose that’s all you can do.” They fall into easy silence for a couple of strides, the steps to the palace entrance just up ahead, before her voice refills the gap. “Hey, it’s still early; don’t tell me that’s all you’re going to do today.”
“Shut up,” he chuckles, nudging her in the shoulder. “Who do you think I am?”
“A lazy jerk,” she answers loftily. “ I don’t have days off, unlike some people.”
“Hey. I do much more physical activity than you, and the body needs time to rest in order to function properly.”
Her eyebrows arch. “A convenient excuse.”
“I was going to practice bending by myself later tonight anyway .”
They fall into the shadow of the palace’s yawning entrance; it’s a deep, varnished red like the maw of a dragon. Guards bow as they pass. An elaborate carpet from antiquity muffles their steps, leading up into the dragon’s gullet with hazy golden lanterns lighting the way. The chamber splits two ways, wide stone corridors at opposing ends, and directly in front looms an imperial burgundy double door that stretches all the way to the ceiling.
Footsteps come from the right corridor.
“Ah, Rin! Gou!” Their father appears, smiling, donned in business robes. Dark hair unlike theirs is knotted at the crown of his head.
“Father,” the two reply, respectfully.
Crinkled red eyes find Rin’s. “I’m sorry I couldn’t spar with you today,” Lord Toraichi apologizes, clasping his hands behind his back. “Those council meetings get in the way.” He smiles again. “The day wasn’t too boring, I hope.”
“No, Father.” Rin shakes his head. “I know how busy you are.”
“Well…” Lord Toraichi glances to the window, checking the sunlight’s status. “I have a meeting with the generals soon, so maybe we could squeeze something in afterwards?”
A grin pricks Rin’s mouth. “Yeah.”
“It’s a deal, then.” After a breath, he blinks and peers at Gou. “And how was school, Gou?”
Gou slides out her scrolls and clutches them in her hands. “Good!” she chirps.
“Good,” Lord Toraichi murmurs, head bobbing. The window pulls his attention again, and with an apologetic cock of his head, he lays a hand on the burgundy door. “I should probably head in,” he says, voice curling with a smidgen of disappointment. He recovers it and chuckles. “Enjoy your freedom while it lasts, Rin; being Fire Lord involves a lot of meetings.”
At least I’d be doing something useful, Rin thinks to himself, but he nods and laughs. “I’ll try. See you for sparring later, Father.”
“Of course.” His father raises a hand in farewell and cracks open the enormous double doors, the floor shuddering with a thunderous squeal. He slides in the slit and shuts them behind him, a resonant click echoing as they latch.
Rin and Gou exchange a look, and silently both take the left corridor. In similar tempos, they follow along halls and doors until another split comes before them, and Gou takes the right, and Rin takes the left, parting on a casual “see you at dinner.” Rin passes lion embroidered tapestries, flickering torch light coloring their dark patterns, and he reaches the door to his personal chamber. Opening it, he steps through the threshold and presses his shoulder blades into the heavy cedar until it thunks closed. He leans there for a moment, his quiet breaths billowing in the still, exceptionally neat chamber, before he jerks his weight back onto his feet. At his sides, his fingers itch.
His room is wide and tall; a cave of reds and blacks, with murals of battles from throughout the dynasties on every wall. The nation’s heroes have watched over him his whole life, some with eyes of courage and pride, some despair and longing. Wood slats only let in a tiny stream of outside light onto his red and gold couch, while shadows shroud his bed and the rest of his furniture. Ornate cupboards and dressers line the walls, stuffed with garments for any scenario: casual days, trainings, meetings, coronations, wars, mournings. Most of which have never touched his flesh.
Rin approaches a shorter dresser and leans over it, sliding his hand down the gap where it lies parallel with the wall. Blind, he feels around, the dresser’s sharp edge digging into his hip, until his fingers meet what he’s looking for. He snags it and carefully drags it up with a small screech against the dresser, and when it’s free, he sets it directly on the dresser. He sneaks out a couple of knives from a usually unused drawer, and takes his stance halfway across the room. With a single inhale, he lobs a knife.
No one knows he made his own target to practice knife skills. Since his life of training has yet to teach him to wield a weapon other than himself, he plays with knives in his free time. Personally, he thinks it irresponsible and impractical to be the future leader of the nation and never learn forms of combat alternative to bending.
The first throw lands slightly off-mark with a thwack. Disappointed, Rin hurls the second, but it too falls short of center. He retrieves them from the target and tries again. And again. And again.
The target bears many puncture wounds.
Muscle memory overtakes him, knife after knife sinking into the target’s tender fabric.
Mid thirty-somethingth throw, an almost invisible scuff sounds behind him. He freezes, aim off. The knife clatters to the floor. An eerie sensation whispers at his neck, like cat whiskers tickling his nape.
Something sharp pricks his neck.
He slaps a hand to his skin, fingers finding something protruding just above his shoulders. He yanks and places it under his eyes; a small wooden dart with a black tip. Whirling around, he scans his room. He stands frozen in suspicion, blood thumping in his ears.
At the other end of his chamber, a tall armoire looms. An ajar door, wide enough to show a strip of black from within.
Fight wins control over Rin’s body and he surges forward, hands raising to fry someone if needed, but mid-stride, his muscles give out and his legs collapse under him. He crashes to the floor, arms unable to break his fall, bones painfully colliding with stone. Twisted at an unnatural angle, he stares at the tiny window of ground before him.
He can’t move.
Thoughts incomprehensible and swarming, Rin lies there, skin sizzling with sweat, his only movement the unregulated inhales and exhales of his breath. He waits. A minute? Two? He can’t focus to count his heartbeats.
What was in that dart?
A slow creak of the armoire door. Feet step down onto the stone floor and mince around him, flashing before his vision for a moment as unremarkable brown boots. They stop, their owner surveying over Rin.
Questions fill Rin’s throat. Who are you? What have you done to me? What is going on?
If they somehow hear his thoughts, they do not care to respond, and instead, they lean forward, their clothes as indescribable as their boots, face hidden by a smiling gold mask, and with spotless white gloves, they toss a burlap sack over Rin’s head.
Movement gone, vision gone.
Just sound remains.
Bloody crimson smears the sky, orange clots burning closer to the west. The sun falls to the horizon, soon to be swallowed by the earth, but Haruka doesn’t look to the sun; he heads northwest. Kuroime’s hooves plod along the mountain’s dark soil beneath them, carrying him to the crest of the mountain. Instinctively, Haruka pulls on the reins, and Kuroime stops before they can begin the descent.
Haruka twists and gazes over his shoulder.
In the crater, spurts of fire light up the city. He’s too far to feel any shakes of the ground, but he can see them. Smoke plumes swirl from ravaged buildings and houses in the city’s center, but even from this distance, Haruka spies the palace upright and sturdy as always, a walled-in oasis in the desert.
He watches the light show for another moment, hypnotized, before he swallows and slaps Kuroime’s reins. Her weight shifts and she begins the walk down the mountain path.
The city disappears behind the earth. Haruka turns forward.