|Foundations of a city
Author: Eva aka Pinkfox PM
After stabilizing the Fire Nation the Gaang moves on to Ba Sing Se. Aang, Katara and Toph work in the city themselves, while Sokka and Suki go on an essential quest. Follows after to the Price of Peace. Contains Kataang and Sukka and references to Maiko.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama - Aang & Katara - Chapters: 2 - Words: 18,671 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 12 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 11-01-10 - Published: 10-21-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6414981
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's notes: This story takes place about three and half months after Zuko's coronation and a month and a half after my fic "The price of peace", but before the Gaang visiting the Jasmine Dragon in Ba Sing Se. Actually, the meeting in Jasmine Dragon is in the spring after the Comet's arrival and the defeat of Ozai in my personal timeline. In this fic I refer to things described in "The price of peace", but it is not strictly necessary to read that it. It might be helpful though.
Foundations of a city
By Eva aka Pinkfox
"The first item on the agenda is the alternative proposal of Councilor Xinping for the concept of the treaty between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom." Aang looked down on the papers before him. "Councilor, if I am reading this correctly, you suggest as terms for the treaty the full dismantling of the industry of the Fire Nation and them returning completely to agriculture, thousands of citizens as forced laborers in the Earth Kingdom and in the Water Tribes, another couple thousand of citizens judged and executed as war criminals, marking all fire benders with a brand on the face, three million of gold pieces paid every year as reparations for the duration of five years and loosing minimal 10% of their territory. And these are only the main points of you proposal… I am curious…what do you think what the result of this policy would be?"
"The destruction of the ability of the Fire Nation to wage war once more, Avatar Aang. That is worth everything."
"Councilor Xinping, this also means the loss of millions of lives. There would be a famine and ultimately the complete collapse of society in the Fire Nation."
"It is what they deserve."
Aang stared him for a long time. "Unfortunately I do not share your opinion, Councilor Xinping…"
"But you are the Avatar… You must understand why this is so important."
"Yes I do. But I must remind you of the task of the Avatar… Their task is to maintain balance. Not just to benefit the Earth Kingdom. One nation has already been almost destroyed as a consequence of this war. I am not going to let the balance be damaged any further because of vengeful individuals." Aang took a deep breath. "Councilor Xinping, your proposal has been rejected. Furthermore, your services as a councilor are no longer required. When you were instated on the Counsel of Advisors, the terms were clear: we were to work to a peaceful solution without revenge. You agreed to those terms, but you are clearly unwilling to fulfill them. You continue pushing measures against the Fire Nation that the rest of the Counsel refuses every time."
Xinping jumped up and stormed out the council chamber. Aang met the eyes of General Fong, who stared at him. Aang met his stare without blinking, until the general looked away. "The second point of today is the report of Lady Katara about the causes of unrest in the Lower Ring." Aang gestured Katara to take the floor.
Katara rose from her chair and nodded. "Thank you, Aang." She hid a smile at the shocked reaction of the councilors to her addressing Aang without any title. "When Avatar Aang, Master Toph and I first arrived here, we were asked to assist with the stability of Ba Sing Se. One of the main issues was the great amount of unrest in the Lower Ring. As Avatar Aang asked, I spent the last three weeks researching the cause with the help of some amazing people… And I have to say I am shocked…" Katara looked every councilor in the eyes. "It is not that surprising that there is a lot of unrest… The Lower Ring was the area that suffered the most under Fire Nation occupation and it was there that the most damage was done. Yet only ten percent of money invested in the restoration of Ba Sing Se has been used to improve circumstances in the Lower Ring. This contrasts not too well with the sixty percent invested in the Upper Ring and thirty percent invested in the Middle Ring. The first thing that will need to happen is an adjustment to the division of the funds. I propose that fifty percent of money will be spent on the Lower Ring, forty in the Middle Ring and the last ten percent to complete the truly crucial repairs in the Upper Ring."
The room rumored softly. Katara let them for a moment, then continued. "Now, what needs to be done with this money… let me tell you, a lot. In the Lower Ring there is currently no sufficient housing for all the inhabitants to survive the winter. With the lack of sanitary conditions, general overpopulation and the lack of medical care there is a huge risk of epidemics and with hardly any education available, without even the apprenticeships that were possible before the occupation, the people themselves have no prospects for a better future." Katara paused for a few moments to let everything sink in.
"What do you propose, Lady Katara?"
"I am glad you asked." Katara smiled. "First of all, measures must be takes to improve housing, sanitary conditions, access to basic medical care and education. Details can be found in the proposal that will be handed out after this. Secondly, people have to be able to help themselves. There are many well-educated people among the refugees. There are healers, teachers and skilled craftsmen. Yet they have no way to make a living because the bureaucracy, rules and waiting times before even starting a business or being licensed to work. For example, the guilds demand enormous fees before people are admitted. So the rules will have to be simplified. Third, a large group of people who came here as refugees wants to return to go home. Many come from what now are Fire Nation colonies which will be evacuated this winter. Funds and supplies should be set aside to help these people return home and rebuild their lives. Fourth, measures will have to be taken against the criminal elements in the Lower Ring. This will also increase security in the rest of Ba Sing Se."
Aang looked around, relieved to see most councilors listening attentively. "The details of the Lower Ring Rebuilding Project can be found in here." Aang gestured one of the scribes to hand out the multitude of scrolls. "Since there is a lot to consider, we will discuss this issue again during the meeting in a week and a half. If you have questions or comments, please submit them in writing a few days beforehand, so we can have detailed replies."
The councilors were busy leafing through the proposal, so they didn't notice Aang squeezing Katara's hand under the table and Katara returning a tender smile…
"Come on, Sokka. Time to go! It's already five hours past sunrise." Suki called, sitting calmly on her ostrich horse.
Sokka tightened the last belt on his gear, fastened it on his ostrich horse and swung a leg over the saddle. "It is not my fault this stupid bird decided to bold." He repeated for the fifth or sixth time.
"You are the one who didn't fasten the shackles correctly. Now stop moaning. Katara was right." Suki urged her ostrich horse into a trot. Sokka grumbled once more and did the same. Both were dressed in plain, nondescript brown leggings tucked in knee-high boots and a thick, dark-green belted tunic. Both also were heavy cloaks against coming cold. The only unusual thing about them was the fine quality of their weapons. Suki wore her fans tucked into her belt and the handle of her katana poked up over her shoulder. Sokka's borrowed sword was also worn his back and a boomerang hung on his waist.
"You are the complaining guy." Sokka grumbled a bit more, but wisely said nothing.
"Do you truly think we will find Kuei in this area of the Earth Kingdom? It is quite far away from where he started his travels." Suki asked. They had taken to calling him Kuei in case they were overheard by someone.
"It makes the most sense. There are many small villages and hamlets and the presence of the Fire Nation was never very strong around here." Sokka explained his logic.
"You are right." Suki nodded. Together they trotted trough the cold, but sunny morning. No words really needed to be said.
It was a few hours later when Suki halted her ostrich horse and cocked her head.
"Do you want to take a break again? We only paused…" Sokka fell silent when Suki held a finger to her lips, signaling him to be quiet.
"Listen Sokka. It is almost like I hear some kind of moaning or crying."
Sokka also cocked his head. "You are right. But where is it coming from?" He looked around.
"From over there." Suki gestured and quickly dismounted, quickly tying the reigns to a nearly branch. Sokka followed her example. Then both slowly approached the source of the sound. Suki had her hand on fan, ready to pull it out in case it turned out to be a trap.
When they saw the source, she immediately removed her hand and dropped down to her knees. Before her was a young woman with a piece of a branch poking out of her shoulder. "Sokka, can you get our…" But Sokka had already hurried back to the ostrich horses. "What is your name?"
The young woman blinked a few times, not being able to believe that there was someone in front of her. "Meihua." She croaked.
"Okay Meihua. I need to see what we can do about your shoulder. It will probably hurt." At a weak nod Suki bowed closed and studied the wound. When Sokka returned with the supplies, she looked up. "This is far too complicated for us. If we tried to remove the branch, we would only damage her shoulder more."
Sokka nodded. "I checked the map. There is a hospital in Shekong, about half an hour from here. We can take her there." He also kneeled down and studied the wound also. "Let's make a sling to keep her arm still." Sokka and Suki fixed the sling into place, then Sokka carefully lifted Meihua and put her in front of Suki on her horse.
A few minutes later the dusty road was empty once more.
Aang and Katara watched as the council chamber slowly emptied, the councilors leaving with thick packets of paper clutched under their arms. Finally they were the only ones left behind. "Well, that was quite a meeting." Katara started to gather her scrolls.
Aang had lost the serious expression he had worn during the meeting and grinned. "You think? I only just dismissed a councilor Xinping, you told them practically that they had to spend their money on what they see as 'rabble'... O yes, and we pushed through proposals they really didn't enjoy. Like forbidding private militia's, restricting the possibility to buy of jail time and curtailing other privileges." He stood up and gathered his own scrolls. "I didn't have the chance to tell you this, but I was really impressed with your ideas."
Katara blushed. "I didn't come up with most of this myself. Eighty percent of the idea's and how to execute them was already floating around in the lower ranks of administrators and in the minds of many of the inhabitants of the Lower Ring. The main thing I did was gathering the idea's, looking them over to see if how to combine them and most importantly, making it possible for those idea's to be presented and not to be put away in a drawer because the nobles don't want to invest in what they see as 'rabble'. Just like with their privileges… They don't see that it causes a big part of the unrest in the city."
Together they left the council chambers, heading towards the apartment they shared with Toph. "What are your plans for the rest of the day? I know we have that reception tonight."
Aang looked at the candle that marked the time. "I have a meeting with the Mechanist and Teo in about three hours. For the rest of the time I have plenty of scrolls to read."
Katara nodded. "I have a few of my own scrolls to work through, but I will join you for your meeting. I should be finished by then. If you still have more scrolls after that, I will give you a hand. With a bit of luck, we will have some time to practice our bending a little before we have to get dressed for dinner and that stupid reception."
Aang pushed open the door to the apartment to reveal Toph sitting on the couch of the living room they shared. "Toph, are you finished already?"
Toph shrugged. "Two of my victims stomped out when they couldn't handle my questions. That shortens the list a bit more."
Katara set down her scrolls. "Well, Aang shortened the list one more this morning. He removed Councilor Xinping from the council."
Toph surveyed the air bender. "I didn't expect you would have the balls to kick out a council member, Twinkletoes."
Aang shrugged. "I don't like it, but it had to be done."
Katara snorted. "Don't worry about it, Aang. This man was an idiot and he got what he deserved. If we wanted to, we could have charged him with oath breaking. That would have meant quite a fine and jail time. He got of lightly."
Toph jumped up. "Enough of the political business. It's time for lunch and the cook promised rock cakes."
Katara laughed. "Okay, let's get lunch."
"Here we are." Sokka pulled the reins on his steed and jumped down. Behind him Suki did the same and then she carefully handed of her burden to Sokka before dismounting herself. A few people were already heading towards them. "We found her on the side of the road. Where is the hospital?"
A young man stepped forward. "Come with me, warrior. Dong, Chul, take care of their mounts and put them in a paddock." Two other young men stepped forward and accepted the reigns from Sokka and Suki. "This way." Suki looked at Sokka and shrugged before she followed. Sokka did the same.
"Healer Song, we have an injured woman here who needs your help." The young man called as soon as they entered the wooden building.
A young woman with long brown braid looked up from where she was grinding herbs. "You can put her down on that table over there." She pointed out the table and headed to wash bowl to clean her hands.
Sokka set the injured woman down on the table and looked at their guide. "Thanks…"
"My name is Kim. Your friend will be in good hands with Healer Song. When you are finished here, come to the house with the blue shutters. I will show you then where your ostrich horses are."
Suki nodded. "Thank you, Kim."
Song was inspecting the wound and asked: "What happened?"
"We don't know. We found her by the side of the road about half an hour west of here. She said her name was Meihua." Sokka explained.
"Well, it is an ugly wound, but with a bit of luck I will be able to get the branch out without damaging her shoulder any further." Song started to cut the tunic away around the wound and covered the unconscious woman's torso with a sheet for modesty. When she was done, she stood up and called over her shoulder. "Kuei, can you stoke up the fire? I need to prepare my surgical instruments."
A young man with glasses and a long braid entered the room, carrying several logs in his arms. "Sure Song. No problem."
Sokka could only stare…
Suki looked back and forth a few times between her gawking boyfriend and the young man who was currently building up the fire. "I take it that is the guy we have been looking for?"
Sokka could only nod.
Katara knocked once and poked her head around the door of Aang's office. Aang looked up from the scroll he was studying. "Are you done already? You were fast."
Katara grinned. "I was lucky. I was supposed to get some more scrolls with estimates of how much different set-ups for the projects are going to cost, but the team who is putting that together needed one more day. I have to make up for it tomorrow though." She took a seat on the other side of Aang's desk, which was large enough to work on it with two people. "I came across Toph. She was also almost done. So give me one of the scrolls and the faster we can spend some time outside."
Aang grinned and handed her the next scroll from one of the piles. "This are all kinds of requests. This basket is for the rejected ones, this one is for the maybes and this is for the approved ones." Katara nodded and started reading, occasionally making a note on why a scroll was rejected or approved.
When both were finished Aang grabbed the bell pull. Within a few moments a secretary knocked on the door. "Yes, Avatar?"
"I have a number of requests here. These are the denied, these are approved. I need the appropriate replies drafted, so I can sign them."
"I will send them to the appropriate scribes." The secretary took the baskets and left as quickly as he had come.
"Anything else?" Katara asked.
Aang checked the hour candle in the corner. "We have about half an hour before Teo and his dad arrive. I have a letter from Zuko I thought we could read together." Katara nodded and Aang pulled out the scrolls. "Shall I just read it out loud?"
"If you want. Summarizing is also fine. I can read the details later."
Aang scanned the first lines. "He hopes things are going well here. He's getting things worked out with his council and so far Toph seems to have spot on with picking the right people. There is only a criminal investigation going involving his naval advisor, something about dereliction of duty during the war. He doesn't know if it just a ploy against his advisor or a serious affair, but he is already discretely checking out other advisors."
"Wouldn't Jeong Jeong be an option? Okay, he deserted, but Zuko pardoned him, he has the necessary knowledge and we know we can trust him more or less without Toph questioning him."
"I don't think Jeong Jeong wants to. You know how he thinks about fire bending and the Fire Nation military especially."
"That is true." Katara conceded. "Still, he would be a good candidate."
"You are right. Can you help me remember to have a word with Iroh about this tomorrow or the day after?"
"Of course. What else is he saying?" Katara leaned forward.
"As he predicted, the traditionalists are once more having a conniption…"
"So that means he finally announced what Mai's role is going to be? They need to loosen up." Katara grinned
"She has started attending meetings about the issues she will handle after their marriage to prepare. But that is not the only thing. Because of the economical situation many more people were being indentured, so he forbid all new contracts for now. But the thing that has them really angry is Zuko's announcement to experiment with… jury involvement in court!" Aang put down the scroll, a stunned look on his face.
Katara sat up, also surprised. "Wow, I really didn't expect that one. The idea has been mentioned in many books, but I don't think it ever has been tried in practice. Did he ever talk to you about this?"
Aang shook his head. "No. I saw some scrolls about it on his desk, so I knew he was interested, but I never thought he would want to put it in practice… I am curious to see if it works though."
"It could also blow up in his face." Katara pointed out.
"He won't know till he tries it. I will ask him to be careful and to take it slow though. Things are just starting to stabilize in the Fire Nation and too many changes at once can bring more unrest…"
"I agree with you. Did he write anything else?"
Aang picked up the scroll again and scanned the remainder of the text. "Just some details of things we have been working on… O, he and Mai set their wedding date." Aang grinned.
Katara also had a big smile on her face. "When?"
Aang checked the scroll once more. "Three days after the summer solstice. He asks me to officiate. He wanted to tell us in person, but he was worried that by the time we saw each other again at the spring talks, other plans would have been made. And finally, he doesn't want us to say anything against Iroh. Apparently Iroh will be visiting in a few weeks and they will tell him then."
"Of course. That is some good news at least…" A knock on the door interrupted her.
"Your appointment is here, Avatar Aang."
"Show them in."
Aang and Katara had moved towards a corner off Aang's office with a couch and comfortable chairs. Now they were seated there with hot tea and a plate of things to nibble on. They had chatted about the new project at the Northern Air Temple to restore some things to their old state.
Finally the Mechanist looked at Aang. "It is not that I don't love to talk to you, my boy, but I am guessing you didn't invite us here just to catch up."
"You are right. I wanted to talk about some of your designs." Aang looked a bit hesitant, not quite sure where to start.
"About which designs are you talking?"
"The supply trucks you designed for the invasion. And Sokka told me you had invented something he called a steam shovel. Sokka said it could move rubble far faster than human hands can. They would be very helpful in rebuilding the Earth Kingdom since there are not enough benders to do even half of what needs to be done."
"That is true, my boy. That is why I designed the steam shovel. The issue is that there is no place in the Earth Kingdom that can produce them. The factories were all dismantled and blown up by the Fire Nation."
"I know of a place where they can made."
"What are you talking about, Aang? Are some of the factories finally repaired?" Teo spoke up.
Katara was the one to reply though. "Aang is not talking about factories in the Earth Kingdom. We are talking about factories in the Fire Nation. There are several places there where tanks were being made. According to Sokka they can start making supply trucks and steam shovels with only a few adjustments." She thought for a moment. "It would also help many of the most vulnerable people in the Fire Nation. They all lost their jobs when the factories closed and have no income. The owners of the factories have enough reserves."
The Mechanist looked thoughtful. "I understand what you are asking. But I am entirely confident in just giving the designs to the Fire Nation." He turned to his son. "What do you think, Teo?"
"I don't know, dad. I can tell you I trust the Fire Lord, but I am not sure about the owners. But Katara is right about one point. I would help many vulnerable people there. When Haru, chief Hakoda, the Duke and I traveled through the Fire Nation after we left the Western Air Temple, we saw that some people there were victims just as much as many people in the Earth Kingdom."
"We don't need a reply directly." Aang said. "Just think about it. If there are any things we can do to increase your confidence in giving, or selling, the designs to the Fire Nation, we can always consider them."
The Mechanist nodded. "I will. I understand what you are trying to do, Aang, and I agree with you. It could be a way to help restore both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. But I can also see where many things can go wrong."
"We know. We want to work out a solution that can help both sides without disadvantaging one side or putting them in jeopardy." Katara declared.
Sokka and Suki watched as Song pulled several scalpels and other instruments from the cupboard along the walls. She also directed two helpers to carry Meihua to a small room to the side. Kuei was still busy at the fire place, putting a kettle above the flames in which he was heating something that smelled alcoholic.
"Do you think he recognized you? He really seems to avoid looking our way." Suki asked in a low voice.
Sokka studied the king kneeling at the fire, trying not to be obvious. "I think he did. But I am not sure."
Song turned towards them. "I will busy here for a while. Why don't you go to Kim's house and come back after dinner time. I should be done by then. Kuei can show you the way."
"That is not necessary. We can find the house ourselves." Suki protested.
The man by the fire had stood up and righted his back. "It is no problem. I will show you the way. Come with me." Suki looked at Sokka who shrugged and both followed Kuei.
Once they were outside and a small distance away from the hospital, Kuei looked around, obviously checking for people who could overhear them. Then he turned towards them. "I was wondering if someone would be send to find me. Despite all what happened, it is good to see you again. Who is your companion?"
Sokka studied the man for a moment, surprised at the more self-confident posture and tone of voice in the man before him. "This is Captain Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors."
Suki bowed her head. "It is an honor to meet you, you majesty."
A quick grin stole over the man's face. "Just call me Kuei here. Nobody knows who I really am and I would like to keep it that way. Now, let's go get your things and we will go to my house. There we can talk."
When they entered the small house that Kuei was using Sokka was greeted by enthusiastic licks in the face, courtesy of Bosco. Suki laughed as Sokka grumbled and even Kuei smiled when he ordered the bear back to his place. "Do you want some tea?" Sokka and Suki nodded and he put a kettle on the fire.
A few minutes later they were all seated around the wooden table on simple benches. Kuei took a sip and asked: "Why have you come here to find me? From what I have heard, the Council of Five and the Council of the Advisors are governing Ba Sing Se now, with the help of the people who freed the city. And the Avatar is head of state now."
Sokka shook his head. "Aang is only acting as head of state that because there is no other solution. What more have you heard about the situation in Ba Sing Se?"
"Not much actually. We are fairly isolated here. We heard there was quite some damage, but that it is being repaired."
"The truth is that Ba Sing Se is very unstable at the moment, but it is hidden. There are issues both at the top and the bottom. At the top there are several factions who are all fighting for a bit of power. One group wants to use their power to punish the Fire Nation for the war, others are using the money for rebuilding to better themselves as much as possible and another is really trying to do the right thing. Part of the problem is that there is no one to unite them or someone to rally around. With issues at the bottom I am referring to the situation in the Lower Ring. It was here that the most damage was done during the occupation, but only a small percentage of the help has gone there. So the people there have nothing, have no hope and the situation only needs a spark to explode in rioting." Sokka explained
The man on the other side of the table was silent for a few moments. "I know my duty, Sokka. But how am I supposed to bring all those people together? I don't have that much experience. Long Feng handled practically everything."
"But you don't have to do this alone. Aang and Toph are currently in Ba Sing Se trying to create a stable, reliable Council of Advisors who are aiming for a peaceful resolution with the Fire Nation and who are honest in wanting to rebuild Ba Sing Se without wanting to better themselves. Katara is working with several officials to determine what needs to be done to help the people in the Lower Ring. General How has been very good in what he does… If you decide to return, the Avatar will stay until the situation has been stabilized." Suki explained. "And if you return, it will also have a symbolic effect. It will give people some form of continuity. For some people you are also a person to rally around."
Kuei was silent once more, obviously thinking. "What if I decide I do not want to return? What will happen then?"
"We have been working on a few backup plans, but we don't know what plan would be the best. But even if you don't want to return, we ask that you come back so you can formally abdicate and hand over your power for an idea of continuity for the people." Sokka replied.
"I will think about it."
"That is all we ask." Suki replied, clearly feeling that pressuring right now wasn't going to help." Suddenly someone knocked on the door. Kuei got up and opened the door to find Song standing outside.
"So there you are. I have been looking all over the village for you. Meihua should be fine. She is sleeping peacefully now."
"Thank you, Song. Would you like some tea?" Kuei asked.
Song shook her head. "No, I have to head home. My mother has dinner ready and I have several scrolls from the governor to read through." She looked at the two guests. "She told me to ask you to join us for dinner." She looked back to Kuei. "There is plenty if you want to join us too."
Sokka and Suki looked at each other. "We would love to join you."
Song looked back to Kuei. "I am also coming." He replied. "Sokka, Suki, why don't you join her now? I will have to change first."
Both nodded and gathered their cloaks and weapons. Song stood tiptoe and quickly kissed Kuei on the lips. "I will see you in a few moments." She quickly left.
Sokka and Suki followed her, a faintly stunned look on their face. "Why do I have a feeling we have stumbled across another reason he might not want to return?" Suki spoke in a low voice.
"I think your feeling is right."
Katara checked if the comb in her hair was fastened securely one more time before she left her room to join Aang and Toph in their common room. When Aang spotted her, his eyes widened and he blushed. "You look amazing."
Katara smiled. "Thanks." Katara was dressed in a form-fitting, brocade sea green qipao with a mandarin collar, cap sleeves and calf length skirt, which was slit on both sides till mid thigh. It was embroidered with pale pink sea shells and silver waves and it was worn with flowing silk pants underneath. Her hair was done up in a French roll with a comb with pale pink sea shells and she wore long, dangling ear rings with the same shells. "You look nice too."
Aang looked down to his formal monk robes, the same style that he had worn on Zuko's coronation. "Thanks. It's what I always wear."
"Okay, enough of the goopy stuff. We need to get going." Toph interrupted. She was wearing a slightly more decorated version of her normal outfit.
"We are coming." Aang offered Katara his arm and escorted her out of the room, following the impatient Toph.
Aang looked around, trying to find Katara. She had been hauled off by some nobles who had idea's about who was to lead the proposed medical clinics in the Lower Ring.
"Avatar Aang." Aang looked around to find two giggling girls before him, dressed in the heavy dress and hair pieces favored by the Ba Sing Se nobility. "We wanted to ask you something."
Aang sighed and pulled up his friendliest smile. "What can I help you with?"
"Do you think the Earth King will return one day?"
"I don't know, but I hope so. Why do you wish to know?"
"We were wondering if you would be willing to introduce us to him. He has not taken a wife, has he?"
"Not too my knowledge." Aang sighed and withstood the urge to scratch his head as he listened to the girl prattling on.
"… very accomplished. I have studied tea ceremony, calligraphy, poetry, flower arranging, playing the lute, traditional song and dance and etiquette and…"
"I am sorry, but I am afraid I have to steal the Avatar away. Councilor Longyan wishes to speak to him." Katara interrupted.
"I will certainly keep your request in mind." Aang once more pulled out his most charming smile and escorted Katara away. Once out of sight, he sighed. "Don't they have anything else on their minds then marriage?"
Katara giggled and shrugged. "Some do."
"I am glad you are not like that. Was it just a trick or did we really need to talk to someone?"
"I was just a trick." Katara lifted an eyebrow when Toph joined them. "I thought you would have left already."
"I would have, but a nice surprise is coming. I want to know all these featherheads are going to react." Toph smirked. "By the way, you have all the matrons clucking how indecent your dress is."
Aang smiled at Katara's expression. "And their daughters?"
"They all seem to like it."
Katara rolled her eyes. "Great, that means at the end of the winter everyone will be dressed…"
"Quiet Katara. Here comes the surprise." Toph turned toward the big doors. "Three, two one…" At one, the doors were thrown open till they banged against the wall and the Kyoshi Warriors marched in. They were dressed in full armor, face make-up and their weapons were at the ready.
"We are looking for Avatar Aang, Lady Katara and Master Toph." The one in front spoke.
Aang pushed through the stunned nobles, followed by Katara and Toph. "I am here. Why have you come?"
"Our captain heard you needed some help here. She send us to help you in any way you need." The leader, known to the Gaang as Mikoto spoke. She winked at the group.
Aang smiled back. "I am honored to have the Kyoshi Warriors on my side again." He gestured to a man standing to the side. "This is Pang, the seneschal of the palace. He will arrange for some rooms to made available and we will meet in the morning to discuss how you can help."
"We will see you tomorrow morning." As one, the Warriors turned and marched out, Peng trailing after them.
"That was a nice surprise." Katara struggled to keep in her laughter. "Did you know they were coming?"
Aang smiled also. "Suki mentioned the possibility in her letters, but I didn't know they were actually coming." Both turned to a smirking Toph.
"I knew they were coming and arranged for them to get in the city. I thought it would shake everything up a bit."
"As if we aren't causing enough of that already…"
"Thank you for the fine meal." Sokka thanked his hostess after having emptied three plates of roasted duck.
The elderly woman smiled. "It is a delight to cook for someone with your appetite, Sokka."
Everybody laughed and Song stood up from the table. "I am sorry, but I have some scrolls to read from the governor."
Suki smiled at her. "You work for the governor?"
"Not really. I helped to set up the hospital here in the village and I help to run it now. I have been giving advice how to start and run similar hospitals in other villages." She gave Kuei a quick kiss and left.
Kuei also stood up. "I will help you clean up."
"That is not necessary. Now, I can see you have much to discuss with our guests here. Go on and talk." She shooed them firmly out the door.
Kuei looked at Sokka and Suki and gestured them to follow him to his house. "I guess we have some more things to talk about."
When they were seated once more around the wooden table, this time with a flask of warm, spiced wine, courtesy of Sokka, Kuei waited for a reaction.
"I am guessing Song is another reason you are doubting your return to Ba Sing Se." Suki ventured carefully.
"You are right. If I were a simple farmer in Shekong I would have asked her to marry me long ago. But she would never be accepted in Ba Sing Se as my wife."
"How do you know that for sure? Things are changing. This could be one of them." Sokka pointed out. "From what I saw, she actually would have something to offer instead of the airheaded noble girls in Ba Sing Se. She is obviously educated, good at organizing if I look at the hospital and the fact she is advising the governor, not afraid to take charge…"
"But the point is moot if she doesn't want to come with you." Suki pointed out.
"You are trying to tell me that I have to tell Song who I really am, are you not?" Kuei sighed when he saw Suki nod. "I will add that to the list of things to think about."
"Why don't you point out the guest house where Song's mother was talking about? I am pretty tired." Sokka looked like he wanted to protest, but he kept silent a Suki's hard look.
Katara sat up suddenly when she heard the door of her bed room open. She raised her hands, ready to bend, only to lower them when she recognized Aang. "Aang? Is everything alright?"
"Can I stay with you tonight?"
When Aang came closer, his eyes seemed wet in the moonlight. "Of course." She pulled back the sheets and scooted to the side to allow Aang to crawl in. Then she laid back down. Aang climbed in and Katara pulled him close. "Nightmares?" She could feel him nod against her shoulder.
After a while Aang's breathing started to calm down. "I am sorry to bother you." He spoke finally.
"You know I don't mind. And besides, I joined you twice last week because I was having nightmares."
"I wish I could just sleep with you always. I like it and I hardly have nightmares when I am with you."
"I want to do that too." Katara was silent for a moment. "Why don't we just do it? I also sleep much better when I am with you."
Aang was stunned that she would actually consider it. "I want to. But I also don't want to get chased around by your brother or father when they find out."
Katara snorted. "My brother does not have any right to speak. He always sleeps with Suki. If he does start chasing you, I have a good excuse to practice my water bending against him. And my father…" Here she hesitated for a moment. "He will just have to trust my judgment. If he trusts my judgment on how to deal with the Fire Nation, he should also trust me on this."
"Are you sure that it will not influence you? You know what your father is working on… with the Venerable Woman title…"
"I have read the requirements... And if they want to make a issue of us sleeping together…" Katara shrugged. "We already end up together more than half the time because either of us has a nightmare."
"You are right." Aang yawned. "Ready for sleep?"
"I would like my goodnight kiss first." Katara had a mischievous smile on her face.
Aang also smiled. "What my lady want, my lady gets." With those words he leaned up on one arm and kissed her.
"Well, I hope the message arrives soon."
"It should be there sometime tomorrow. I just hope it arrives safely."
"Ouch." Loud cracks sounded from Suki's back as she stretched. "I think my back is trying to tell me that it will never grow used to riding an ostrich horse. I can do acrobatics and spar as much as I want too, I can even ride an eel hound for a whole day, but a few hours on a stupid bird puts me down." Suki complained.
"I thought I was the complaining guy?" Sokka grin only widened at Suki's glare. "You know what, lie down and I will give you a massage."
Suki looked over her shoulder. "Where did you learn how to do that?"
"From a healer in the Fire Nation. She helped me when I was having trouble with my back while my leg healed. She explained some basics." He dug through one of their saddle bags. "And I bought some special oil for sore muscles in the last village." He looked up at his stunned girl friend. "Take your tunic of and lie down."
Suki stared at him for a moment longer, but removed her upper layer of clothing and her sarashi and laid down on the bed. Sokka took a moment to remove his tunic and boots, pulled a sheet over her legs to keep them warm and then opened the jar of oil to pour some on his hands. He rubbed his hands to warm the oil and started smooth the oil in her skin with light strokes from her lower back to her upper spine and then moved his hands outwards and down again.
Suki sighed. She felt herself starting to relax as he moved his hands along her spine, over her shoulders and down her sides. She winced a bit when he started to use a little bit more pressure around her shoulder blades and started squeezing it firmly, almost wringing the muscle. He used his thumbs to find all the knots and bumps and massaged them till they disappeared. He then focused on her lower back, before ending with more smooth strokes over her back.
"How did that feel?" Suki hummed her contentment, while Sokka grinned and grabbed a piece of cloth to wipe away the excess oil. He quickly put the oil away and washed his hands. When he returned, his girlfriend was leaning up on one arm and with the other she gestured him to join her. Sokka quickly shucked his pants and joined her.
"I thought the message was supposed to relax you."
"Oh, I am very relaxed… Relaxed enough to need some other things." With that she pulled Sokka in a kiss.
Two days later a scribe entered the common room with a sealed scroll case in her hand early in the morning. "There is a message for Avatar Aang and Lady Katara."
Katara and Aang looked up from the drawings they had been studying and Katara took the case. "Thank you." The scribe bowed and left the room. Katara looked at the seal on the case. "It's from Sokka and Suki."
"Let's hope it is good news. But let's finish this first." Aang gestured to the drawings before him.
"There is nothing I can say about it. I understand water, but I know nothing of dams. I just don't want to spend another day like yesterday again." A dam near the city had threatened to break and flood large parts of the Outer Ring. She and Aang had spent most of the day bending back the water enough for the bending engineers to strengthen the dam to last the night. Now they were looking over the emergency plans to repair the dam. "Doesn't any of your past lives know anything about building dams?"
Aang scratched his head. "Not really. But it seemed clear and logical how the Chief Bending Engineer explained things. I think we should sign it off."
"I think you are right. Besides, we have many more things to do." Katara grabbed the pencil and signed the document, then passed the pencil on to Aang for him to do the same.
Aang did so with a flourish and pushed the scrolls away. "Let's see what your brother has to say." Katara cracked the seal on the case and pulled out the scroll.
"I think he must have some big news… he also sealed the scroll and he even brushed ink on the edges so we could see if it had been opened." She broke the last seal and read the message. "I was right…"
"What does he say?"
"They have found the Earth King in a village called Shekong, in the west part of the Earth Kingdom. They have explained the situation to him and he is not unwilling to return, but there are some things stopping him."
"For one, he is very insecure about his ability to lead the city. Suki explained to him that we were busy putting in place people he could trust. The second problems is… he has fallen in love. Sokka says he likes her, though, and that there is more to her then to many of the noble airheads in the city."
A grin stole over Aang's face. "Did he say that literally?" Katara rolled her eyes. "He did…" Aang turned serious once more. "Does he tell something else about her? I say we find some excuse to invite her here if that gets King Kuei back here."
Katara read the last part once more. "Her name is Song and she is a skilled healer. Apparently she helped to set up the hospital in her village and is advising the governor on how to do the same in other villages. Suki says that she is very kind, but with a core of steel underneath."
Aang looked thoughtful and Katara could see various idea's flashing through his eyes. "Have you already found someone to lead the building of the clinics in the Lower Ring?"
Katara caught on his train of thought. "Not yet. But even if I find someone today, I can still invite her to assist with the effort. I will send a note today. I will also send one to Sokka and Suki, outlining what we intend to do."
Aang nodded. "Then I have to get going. I have an appointment with Iroh in twenty minutes and we agreed to meet in the Jasmine Dragon."
Katara checked the hour candle. "You are right. I have to get to my study. I have several council members with questions about the Lower Ring Rebuilding Project coming by." She leaned over and briefly kissed Aang on the lips. Then she got up and left, her blue silk skirt swishing around her ankles.
Aang looked after her for a moment, fetched his glider from his room and left the palace through their balcony to head to the Jasmine Dragon.
"Avatar Aang." Iroh nodded politely when Aang entered his tea house.
"General Iroh." Aang nodded back and took his usual seat in a private corner. Other customers could still see him, but not hear anything.
"Not anymore." Iroh clarified his word with a gesture to his green robes. "Would you like some tea?"
Aang grinned. "I would never say no to your tea, General." At Iroh look, he laughed out loud. "I have an idea. I stop with the General and within these walls I am just Aang. Not Avatar Aang."
Iroh matched his laugh. "That is a deal." A server delivered a pot of tea and two cups to the table. "You said you had some things you wanted to discuss?"
Aang took a sip of his tea. "That's right. Did Zuko write to you about the criminal investigation against his naval advisor and his idea's for jury trials?"
"He did. You have some concerns about those two things?"
Aang nodded. "If Zuko has to dismiss his naval advisor, I wanted to suggest Jeong Jeong as his advisor."
"You know his opinions about fire bending and the Fire Nation military."
"I do. But I was wondering if it wouldn't be possible for Jeong Jeong to meet the masters. I believe he is more than worthy."
Iroh looked thoughtful. "I have considered the idea before, but it never was the time. But you may be right in the fact that now is the right time. But that won't change his opinion about the military."
Aang shook his head. "I am not saying this just so he might become a possible naval advisor. He deserves this as a person also."
"Very well. I will consider the idea some more…" Iroh sipped his tea. "You were also worried about Zuko wanting to experiment with jury trials."
"I am. I am very much in favor of the idea of jury trials, but I worried now is not the right time. I cannot oversee how the people are going to react. He didn't write what exactly he was planning though…"
"How do you think the people are going to react?" Iroh raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
Aang gathered his thoughts for a moment. "The traditionalists, as we have been calling them, will react negatively. I suspect they will use this only as more ammunition for their cause. I know there are groups who wish for change. They will probably react positively, but from what I know their number is very small… But to be honest… I think most people don't really care if they will be able serve on a jury. With the economic crisis most people are worried about putting food on the table, keeping a roof above their heads and keeping their children and themselves clothed…" He looked at Iroh who nodded for him to continue. "I think Zuko should focus first on trying to remedy that crisis. If he succeeds in that, I think he will gain far more support and give him far more of a platform to launch new revolutionary idea's. It is one thing to reinstate things for the past, like Mai's future role in the government, or to protect vulnerable people, like forbidding new indenture contracts. It is a whole other thing to just launch an idea like jury trials in a war torn nation."
Iroh was silent while he considered Aang's words. "You underestimate yourself, Aang. I think your view of the situation is almost spot on." He paused to gather his thoughts. "The traditionalists, as you call them, will probably reacted fiercely against the idea. What makes them more of a risk is the fact that they have started to organize themselves. Since Zuko has lifted the moratorium on forming new organizations, they have formed a group. They call themselves the Phoenixes. They are mostly supporters of Ozai and his ideas. I have warned Zuko to keep an eye on them. On the other hand, groups of people who want change have also started to organize. They call themselves the Reform Movement. Many members are young idealists, most of them very intellectual. Many lack practical experience in the world though and they can be somewhat… overenthusiastic. I have taken the liberty to arrange for a way to provide them with some… guidance."
Aang looked surprised. "How did you manage that?"
"Many ideals of the Reform Movement are very close to the ideals of Piandao. He has met with several smaller groups near him and they respect his suggestions." Iroh picked up his train of thought. "Most of the people in the Fire Nation are not just worried about trying to survive. They also have to learn to think and speak freely. For most of their lives they have all lived in fear of being arrested when they spoke or wrote something that went against the narrow path they were supposed to…"
"Avatar Aang! Avatar Aang!" One of the Kyoshi Warriors hurried inside, clearly out of breath.
Aang stood up, immediately alert. "What is wrong, Junko?"
"They arrested Ty Lee for her role in taking over Ba Sing Se." she spoke in a low voice.
"She was pardoned for that. Is she still in jail?" Aang asked sharply.
"Not anymore. But that is not all. They also flogged her. Mikoto and Katara managed to get her out before the damage was too severe, but she is pretty badly hurt. Katara ordered her floggers arrested and she is taking care of Ty Lee in the palace infirmary. She asked us to meet her there."
"Go Aang. I will speak to Zuko about my concerns when I visit and I will consider your other request." Iroh stood up, urging Aang.
Aang nodded and hurried after Junko.
Aang and Junko found Katara, Mikoto and an injured Ty Lee in a side room to the palace infirmary. Mikoto looked up when they entered, but Katara remained focused on her work.
"Is she okay?" Junko asked.
Katara looked up from her work. "She will fine after she has had some time to recover. We gave her something for the pain and there should be no scarring." Junko let out a sigh of relief.
"Junko, why don't you go and tell our sisters that Ty Lee will be okay. Then ask Yuri to come here to sit with her." Mikoto suggested. "She knows the most about healing and want someone to keep an eye on her." She explained to Aang and Katara. Junko nodded, saluted and left.
Aang in meantime had headed over to Katara. "Do you need help with healing?" Concern was clearly noticeable on his face and his voice.
Katara shook her head. "No, I don't think so. We were just in time to stop them before they caused severe damage."
"It looks bad enough to me." Ty Lee's back was mass of bruises, red welts and a few open wounds.
"Most of the skin is still intact. It will hurt pretty bad, but if the open wounds don't get infected, she will be fine. With a bit of luck, it will not even scar."
Aang turned to Mikoto. "What happened?"
"Chief Padong of Inner City Security insisted on registering our names, birthplaces and that kind of stuff. When Ty Lee mentioned her name, she was immediately pushed to the ground by three men and taken away. I alerted Katara and she went with me to the jail to get her out. She had a copy of Ty Lee's pardon with her. It took some talking, but finally they took us to her cell. They had her tied to some frame and were just raising the whip again. We got her out and to the infirmary." Mikoto explained.
"I ordered the arrest of men flogging and of Chief Padong. They will be waiting in your office when we are done here." Katara bended the water back in the bowl. "Mikoto, can you help me? We need to sit her up so I can bandage her back." Mikoto leaned the sedated Ty Lee against her shoulder while Katara gently placed bandages on her open wounds and wrapped them around Ty Lee's torso. "That is done." Both young women carefully put her down again. Aang had led in an anxious Yuri.
Katara gave her some quick instructions and informed that she would be back in a few hours. If something changed, she could ask one of the healers in the infirmary or send for Katara.
Inside Aang's office they found three chained men, a furious Chief Padong and four guards. Aang took a seat behind him desk while Katara stood at his side.
"This is an outrage. I am not going to be arrested on the orders of a fourteen year old girl. I will not…"
"Silence." Aang stood up, fury sparkling in his eyes and the tone of his voice made the man stand at attention. "You will not speak that way of Lady Katara. Not while it looks like you had a young woman flogged without a trial, a chance to defend herself or even to hear her charges... Now, first, why was Ty Lee arrested?"
"For taking part in the overthrow of Ba Sing Se and the attacking and imprisoning of the Kyoshi Warriors, sir." He answered.
"Were you aware of the fact that Ty Lee of the Fire Nation was pardoned for those crimes?"
"Then why did you arrest her anyway?"
"I had orders from Councilor Xinping to arrest her."
Aang turned to one of the guards. "Have former Councilor Xinping arrested and taken to jail on charges of treason." The man's eyes widened, but he saluted and hurried away. Aang turned back to Padong. "Arresting is one thing. Why the flogging?"
"I was not aware of any orders to flog her. My orders were arrest her and alert former Councilor Xinping of her arrest."
Aang nodded. He then turned to one of the guards. "Who signed the authorization to flog the prisoner?"
One of the men stepped forward. "Former Councilor Xinping, Avatar Aang. My men and I protested against the orders, knowing something wasn't right, but Sergeant Lao threatened to charge us with dereliction of duty. I do know he is Xinping's nephew."
Aang studied the men closely and the other two with him. Finally he nodded. "Remove their chains and arrest Sergeant Lao. Until Master Toph or Ty lee has the chance to confirm your story, you will be confined to your quarters." The men bowed and were escorted away.
Finally only Padong, Katara, Aang and one guard remained. "Why did you follow the order while you knew that Xinping was removed from the Council of Advisors?"
"I owe him a large sum of money. He threatened to take our house and make my family homeless. I have two young children and a pregnant wife." Padong explained, still standing at attention.
Aang looked to Katara for a moment and she gave a almost unnoticeable nod. "Very well, you will be under house arrest until your story can be confirmed. A guard will posted at your door all the time."
"Yes, Avatar Aang." The remaining guard escorted him away.
When they were finally alone, Aang looked at Katara and let out a deep sigh. "Learning to master three elements in a year and defeating the Fire Lord were almost easier than this."
Katara didn't say anything, but simply pulled him into a hug.
"Kuei," Song poked her head around the open door. "You said you wanted to talk to me. What is going on? You spent most of today locked up with our guests."
Kuei sighed. "I have a lot to tell you. Do you know who they really are?"
"I thought they were refugees looking for a new place to live." Song sat down next to him and grabbed his hand.
"They come from where I used to live, searching for me. Sokka is from the Southern Water Tribe and Suki is the Captain of the Kyoshi Warriors. Both helped the Avatar stop Fire Lord Ozai."
"They work with the Avatar? Why did they come to look for you?"
"I am needed back home." Kuei was quiet, trying to find the words.
"Where is home? And what do you need to there that you are needed so badly that you were sought after by friends of the Avatar?" Song squeezed his hand. "I always knew you had some secrets. If you want to tell to me, that is okay. If you don't want to tell about it, that is also okay."
Kuei covered her hand with his other one, so that he cupped her hand in the both of his. "I used to live in Ba Sing Se… as the Earth King."
Song started to laugh, but surprise took over when Kuei didn't join her."You are really the Earth King? You are not joking?"
Kuei shook his head, still not saying anything. Song took a few deep breaths, trying to find some measure of calm. "And you are telling me because you have to leave?"
"I am needed there at the moment. There is a chance I can come back…" Kuei took a deep breath. "You can also come with me if you want."
Song sucked in air. "Come with you? To Ba Sing Se? As what? Do you want me to stay there also…"
"I want you to come with me as my friend… But I hope you will stay there, first as my betrothed, later as my wife and queen… But I also have to be honest… I don't know if they will accept you and how things would go if they don't… but if you want to stay here or you are Ba Sing Se and you decide you don't want to stay, I will stay in Ba Sing Se only until a solution has been found, then abdicate and come back here to you."
"Um." Song just sat there, trying to find the words. "Um… I think I need some time to think."
"I can imagine. Take all the time you need. But will you let me tell about my life before I came here? I want you to know the whole truth." Song nodded and Kuei told about how he had lost his parents at age four, how he had been excluded from the government and been lied to by Long Feng. He told he about how he lost himself in his hobbies and in Bosco and how Aang and the others had pulled his out of his comfortable world. Finally he told about the takeover of Ba Sing Se and how he had decided to travel the world.
When he finished his story, Song gently pulled her hand back and stood up. "Thank you for trusting me with your story. I love you, Kuei, you know that. But… I need to think if I can be what you need me to be."
"I don't need you to be anything. I need you just to be yourself."
" Just let me think." Song repeated. She kissed him on the forehead and left him alone.
Song wandered through the village, not really going anywhere. Questions danced through her mind. 'What if she went with him? What would be expected of her? Would she even be able to herself?'
" You look like you had a rock dropped on you." A voice suddenly spoke from her side. Song spun around. "I am sorry. I didn't mean to startle you." Suki stepped from behind a tree.
"Captain Suki? What are you doing here?"
"It's just Suki. I saw you and I figured Kuei told you. I also figured you might have some questions you didn't feel comfortable asking Kuei."
Song thought for a moment. "How bad are things really in Ba Sing Se? We hear so little here. What would we be facing if I came along?"
Suki immediately noticed the 'we' in the last question and fought to restrain her smile. "Much of how things are going in Ba Sing Se are hidden. We did that to prevent panic from breaking out. But I can give you a short overview."
Song listened attentively, making mental notes of the situation. "But what good could Kuei do? He told me he never had that much power."
"His return would be a sign to the people that things were returning to normal. It would give them a sense of continuity and someone to rally around." Suki explained.
Song was silent for while, trying to gather the courage to ask her most burning question. "But what could I possibly do? He asked me to come with him, even to marry him and to be his queen. But what does that mean… what would be expected from me?"
"Is this about what Kuei would expect from you or what the Earth Kingdom would expect from you? The first one I can't help you with. You should ask him that. And to the second… I don't really know the details. I am guessing they would expect you to bear a heir. Some of the noble women in Ba Sing Se are content with children and organizing their households. Others are more involved and even have their own businesses… But above all, I think you might need to find your own way with all the changes that are going to come. I know that in the Fire Nation the Fire Lady would typically act as hostess and organize the household. But the future Fire Lady, Mai, will be a part of the government and she will handle the administration of the schools, hospitals, orphanages, museums and artistic institutions among other things."
"So…" Song sounded thoughtful. "For example, I might be able to work on improving medical care in villages."
"I don't see why not. Maybe there are some other things that are important to you and where you would like to work on. But keep in mind, I am not exactly sure what will expected of you." Suki warned her.
"Kuei said I might not even be accepted as queen."
"That is also a possibility. But I think if they see you together, you will gain support from all kinds of places. You already have the support of me and Sokka. He thinks most of the noble girls in Ba Sing Se are airheads. You were a pleasant surprise. Coming from him, that is a compliment."
"Thanks Suki. But… you hardly even know me."
"You have already shown many qualities that make you a good leader in my eyes. Just think about things and if you have further questions, Sokka and I are always willing to answer them." With those words Suki left Song under the tree where they were sitting.
The next morning Aang, Katara and Toph were up early. They had planned to help out in the Lower Ring that day, but now they needed to get in a meeting first about the situation with Xinping.
"I talked with Chief Padong and the guards. They are both tell the truth." Toph confirmed.
"We searched Xinping's office in the palace and his mansion." General How interjected. "We found an order to flog Ty Lee and the contract between Chief Padong and Xinping. And that was not the only thing we found… general Fong was also involved in this. We are not sure how deep, but we are searching his house and office. He is arrested and will be placed in jail until we know more."
Aang nodded. "Did you find anything that pointed in the direction of the purpose of all on this?"
"We did. Apparently the idea was to cause a diplomatic incident between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation so that the peace process would slow down. It would give them the time to find new ways to oppose it." General How explained. "Does the girl want to press charges against them?"
"When I went to treat her back yesterday evening, Ty Lee was still sedated. I will treating her back again after this, so I can ask or you can come with me and ask." Katara explained.
"What will they be charged with? If Ty Lee will not press charges or they won't be punished enough, then I will have them extradited to Kyoshi Island. The laws there are not kind to people who attack Kyoshi's chosen warriors without proper justification." Mikoto had only listened carefully till then.
"I doubt they will come of lightly. Currently Xinping is being held on the suspicion of treason and it looks like we have the evidence to charge his at least with conspiracy against the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Lao will at least be charged with the unlawful torture of a prisoner in his care and we can prove it. Both offenses carry the possibility of lifelong prison sentences." General How explained.
Mikoto nodded. "I will wait the. At least until I have spoken with Ty Lee and till I have heard what their punishment will be."
"He Ty Lee, how are you doing?" Katara asked when she entered her room, followed by Aang and Mikoto.
"I have been better." Ty Lee smiled, but her voice sounded strained and pain shone in her eyes.
Katara took a seat on the edge of the bed and felt Ty Lee's forehead. "She is a little bit feverish." She looked at Aang. "Can you ask one of the healers for a packet of fever herbs and some hot water? Mikoto, can you fill that bowl with fresh water? I need to do her back again. When you get back, we will have to remove her bandages." Mikoto and Aang did what she asked and Katara turned back to Ty Lee. "Did they give you your pain killing herbs?"
Ty Lee shook her head. "I didn't want them. They make feel all fuzzy headed and sleepy."
Mikoto returned with the bowl and set it down on the bedside table. Katara helped Ty Lee to lean against Mikoto once more and started to unwrap the bandages, wincing every time Ty Lee let out a soft moan. Finally, her back was bare and Katara surveyed the results so far. The welts still looked an angry red, but none of them looked infected. Deciding to leave Ty Lee where she was, she gave Mikoto a sheet for Ty Lee's modesty and bended the water from the bowl. The moment the cool water touched Ty Lee's back, the acrobat relaxed.
"Katara.." she heard a soft whisper and saw Aang poking his head around the door. "Does she also need the painkilling herbs?" Katara nodded and Aang disappeared back in the main infirmary. A moment later he returned with two damping mugs and he put them down on the bedside table. Then he disappeared again and came back with a small bowl of rice congee and a spoon. "Can we shift her a bit? I will see if she will take a few bites."
Katara pulled her hands away, while Aang and Mikoto shifted Ty Lee. Then Katara returned to work and Aang picked up the bowl of rice congee. Fifteen minutes later Ty Lee had been nearly bandaged and was slowly sinking in a deep sleep courtesy of the pain and fever herbs.
"Avatar Aang." Junko hurried to Aang side. "We have spotted several disguised councilors in the crowd. I think they have come to see what you are going to do. I suspect there are many others here also. Mikoto mentioned she thought she saw someone who might sympathize with Xinping and his cronies."
Aang wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had been blowing ash out of a group of houses that couldn't seem to be cleaned in an effort to stop the coughing and other symptoms the inhabitants had developed. "Thanks Junko. I will keep that in mind."
He looked around to see what they had reached today. Councilor Longyan had complained about the gap between the people and the politicians of the city and explained his theory that this was also why there was so much unrest during the ill fated meeting where he had to remove Xinping from the Council of Advisors.
In response Aang had scheduled a day when he, Katara, Toph and any members of the Council who dared to come, would help people in the Lower Ring. So far, only two councilors had shown up to help. But with their help and many others they had cleaned away most of the rubble, repaired damaged houses, cleared out several wells and many other necessary things. Several benders under Toph had been asked to bend huge water towers in which water could be kept fresh.
"Avatar Aang, Lady Katara and your bison are coming. And there is a huge bubble of water above her. Are you sure it is not going to fall and splash us all?" One of the children who was running around ran up to him and pulled at the leg of his pants.
Aang looked down on the dirty face on the little boy. "No, it's not going to fall and splash us. Let's put the water in the towers so your mom can give a bath tonight." He said with a smile.
The little boy frowned. "I don't want a bath." Then he ran off like Aang would grab him and hand him off to his mother to have the aforementioned bath.
Aang grinned and stood up straight, thinking. The original plan had been for him to join Katara on Appa after she had bended a large amount of water from Lake Laogai and brought it here, but the presence of many of the councilors made him change his mind. He waited until Katara and Appa were close enough and he closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, his eyes and tattoo's lit up with the telltale blue glow of the Avatar State. Almost immediately the wind picked up and formed a sphere of twisting air that carried Aang high above the houses. Instead of joining Katara on Appa, he took the bubble of water from her and it spiraled around and around above his head, forming a twisting dance of small streams of water. Suddenly, he brought his arms down and with that movement the water separated in thirty different streams, each one spiraling through the air to fill one of the water towers. With thirty water towers filled, Aang slowly lowered towards the ground to the enthusiastic applause of the crowd.
"What was with all the showing off this afternoon?" Toph asked as they were seated in their common room that evening.
"It was different from what he had agreed on." Katara commented. "Not that it was a problem."
Aang opened his eyes. "Junko came to me just before you arrived, Katara. She told me many disguised councilors and officials were in the crowd. I figured that while many of them had heard about the power of the Avatar State, they never had seen it in action. We might have caught Xinping and general Fong, but I am sure there are many more with similar idea's. My hope was that the demonstration would scare them of a little."
"Hum… That is actually pretty good thinking, Twinkle Toes." Toph scratched her ear. "From the rumors I heard, you certainly made an impression."
"I just hope it has the effect I want it to have." Aang shrugged and switched subjects. "How was Ty Lee doing this evening, Katara?"
"The open wounds are starting to scab over and everything was less red and swollen. If I continue treating it, I hope she will able to get up and around at the end of the week."
Aang stared into nothing for a few moments. "We might have uncovered a complot against us, but the price was far too high..." His voice sounded sad.
"I know, but now we are more alert and we might be able to stop them before friends are hurt." Katara soothed him.
A tender smile stole over his face. "You are right." A large yawn made his jaw crack. "I am going to bed."
Katara smiled. "I will be joining you in a moment."
Song stared at the small black scroll case that the post master of Shekong had delivered. It carried two wax seals. On one side was a seal she recognized immediately, the seal of the city of Ba Sing Se. On the other side was one she didn't recognize, a pattern of waves and a half moon stamped in blue wax.
"Who send you a message?" Her mother peeked over her shoulder.
"I don't know. The message is from Ba Sing Se, but it has a seal that I don't know."
"Open it up, then you will know." was the practical reply.
Song shrugged and pulled of the top of the small case. She pulled out the small scroll and opened it. She read the text, then blinked and read it once more.
"What does it say?"
"It is from someone named Katara in Ba Sing Se. She says she is in charge of a project to improve conditions in the Lower Ring and that she is looking for an advisor who can advise her in how to set up small clinics on several places in the ring."
"Isn't that what you have been doing for the governor? Maybe he recommended you." Her mother was silent for a bit. "Are you going?"
"I doubt it was the governor who recommended me… I need to go and talk to someone." With that she shot up from her chair and headed to the small guest house where Suki and Sokka were staying.
Suki opened the door when Song knocked on it, immediately noticing the scroll that Song was holding. "I am guessing you have a few more questions. Come on in."
Inside Sokka looked up from where he was sharpening his sword. "He Song. How is Meihua doing?"
"She is fine. She was walking around a bit with a sling around her arm this morning."
"Do you want some tea? And please, sit down." Suki pulled a cup from a shelf and poured some tea from a small pot. She sat the cup down in front of Song and took a seat herself. "What was it what you wanted to talk about?"
"I received this scroll today…" She showed it. "And I am thinking this is not a coincidence."
"Can I see it?" Song handed over the scroll and Suki quickly scanned it. "We thought you might have some questions about this."
"Katara's message?" Suki gave a nod. "She wrote to us also that she had asked you to come as an advisor. And before you ask, it is not just an excuse to convince you to come to Ba Sing Se. She really can use your help. You have a kind of experience that is difficult to find in the city." Sokka explained.
"But she also thought it would make it easier for you if you just traveled with us as an potential advisor at first. You would have the time to get used to Ba Sing Se before all people were looking at you as a potential queen. It would also give you a chance to prove yourself if you want too." Suki continued.
"Song, slightly more than a year ago Katara and I were just plain villagers. I hunted and Katara did the traditional women's work of cooking, sewing, washing and all those kind of things. When we started traveling with Aang and even more after the war ended, we suddenly thrown in positions of responsibility when everybody looked at us for advice. It can be a bit daunting at first, but we learned quickly. If you decide to go, we all be around to help you with that."
Suki looked at her man with obvious affection. "Often you can be kind of… thick, but sometimes you surprise me with your sensitivity."
"He, I am a warrior. I don't need to be sensitive. I leave the touchy feely stuff usually to Katara and Aang. They are far better at it than me." Sokka protested.
Song giggled. "Thanks for answering my questions… And giving me even more to think about…"
Suki quickly sobered. "I know you will make the right decision, Song."
Song wandered around the village, once more lost in thought. Finally she came to a decision and almost unnoticeably her feet carried her to the Kuei's house.
"Song, I had not expected you." Kuei explained once he opened the door.
"I have made a decision Kuei. I will be coming with you to Ba Sing Se. But I can't promise yet I will stay. I have to see if I can be who I am there and if that is the person you need at your side."
"What changed your mind? I seriously had the idea you had already decided to stay here. Was it Katara's offer? Sokka told me about it this morning."
"I helped that I just wouldn't be… tagging along…" At Kuei's stunned look, she quickly continued. "I know that wasn't your intention, but that is how it felt for me… But the thing that made me decide the most was that if I didn't try it, I would always regret it and wonder what things would have been like if I had gone."
"I am very glad you have decided to come with us." Kuei stood up and pulled her close.
Song relaxed in his embrace for a few moments. "When do we leave?"
"Well, Aang, I am sure you didn't think of this when you did your little show yesterday."
Aang looked up from the draft peace treaty that would be discussed at the spring talks. "I didn't think about what?"
Katara leaned in the door opening, looking annoyed. "You have some fan mail with more than a dozen request s if you would like to escort them to the next formal. One even wrote that she would bring you more influence and connection then 'being associated' with a water tribe peasant would."
Aang had to fight to keep to keep a smile of his face. Katara's jealous side didn't surface often, but when it did, it was with a vengeance. "Unfortunately none of them can offer what you can." Aang left his desk and pulled Katara to the couch in the corner, closing the door with a bit of wind and pulled her in a hug. "You do know you are my forever girl, don't you?"
"I am being stupid." Katara sighed after a few moments.
Aang shrugged. "Not really. Remember how I reacted at that Fire Nation Gala at the end of stay there… when several of the boy were... very forward, especially after you and Sokka received the Order of the Blue Dragon and practically became nobility."
A small smile stole over Katara's face and she pulled away from Aang, though she still remained close. "That note just hit me in wrong place."
"Were there any reactions you did like?" Aang teased her gently.
Katara suddenly perked up. "There were several notes from the councilors. Although there were still many questions and many suggestions for adjustments for the Project, it looks like it is going to pass! Along with a number of donations and offers to volunteer from all layers in the city."
Aang nodded. "That is very good news… That reminds me. We have scroll from Sokka and Suki." Aang airbended the small case from his desk and pulled out the note. "Here."
Katara took the note and quickly read through it. "They are coming back with the Earth King and Song! And they should be here pretty soon." She put down the scroll on the table. "What now? General How and the two of us have practically been running everything. How are we going to fold in the Earth King? We are not going to stay here forever."
"I already thought about that. We start with the Earth King joining us for a many meetings as possible and paperwork as possible. Then we will start turning over things."
Katara nodded. "That sounds like the most logical idea… On that area… one of the people who has been working with me… Jing-Mei is her name. I think she will be a good candidate to take over the oversight over the Lower Ring Rebuilding Project once we leave. After the proposal is definitive and accepted by the Council, I will start shifting over responsibility to her, if she is willing. Toph has had a few conversations with her about why is she is doing this and according to Toph she is trustworthy."
"I think I have met her a few times. A bit quiet, but very capable. Why don't you invite her to the Council meeting as a scribe as a start?"
"I will. And with return of the king, let's discuss that this afternoon when we have our meeting with General How. I am sure he has some ideas about how we should handle that."
"I am going to miss you, mother." Song hugged her mother.
"You don't have to worry about me. The people of Shekong will look after me well enough. And if you do decide to stay there, I can always see if I can move there. Now, go say goodbye to the people of the hospital." Song smiled, teary-eyed, and headed to the group standing before the hospital.
Kuei took her place. "I will do my best to look after her."
The older woman leaned up and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Song knows how to look after herself very well. Just do your best to make her happy."
Kuei pulled a letter from his pocket. "This will explain some things. Please don't share it with anyone else."
"I will. Now, go say goodbye to the others. The king nodded and headed off to say goodbye to the other people he had lived with for several months. No one, except Song, had been told of his real identity. All they knew was that he was needed back home. That was the purpose of the letter: that Song's mother would know the truth at least… and the fact that her daughter might end up as Earth Queen.
Sokka and Suki stood in the background, waiting besides their ostrich horses and Bosco till everyone was ready to depart. Kuei helped Song on the box on the small cart and then jumped up himself. Suki and Sokka mounted there steeds and moved off, the cart loaded with several things from both Song and Kuei followed, with Bosco lumbering besides them.
Two weeks later people lined the streets of Ba Sing Se, at some places eight or nine lines thick. More people hung from windows, stood on balconies or were perched on roofs. Today was a celebration: the Return of the King.
People craned their necks to see if the palanquin of the King was already approaching. But no, first they had the opportunity to view three regiments of marching Royal Guards in their formal dress uniforms, the Kyoshi Warriors in full dress and makeup, followed by plain wooden litters which held the Council of Five and the Council of Advisors.
Finally the Royal Palanquin followed. The wooden contraption was gilded and hung with silk curtains, but to their surprise they were open, so that the Earth King could wave at the people. Bosco ambled behind the palanquin.
After the Earth King were various litters with dignitaries from the other nations. Aang, despite his protests, traveled in a litter draped with orange and yellow cloth. He wore his formal monk robes and smiled and waved at the people.
Directly after him followed a litter draped in white and blue, holding Katara dressed in a cobalt blue silk full skirt, choli and half saree, edged with golden embroidery. To everyone's surprise she was accompanied by an unfamiliar girl with a long brown braid and a green and white silk hanbok. Katara waved at the people, while the other girl mostly looked around with large eyes. Behind them followed Sokka in the full Wolf Armor of the Southern Water Tribe and Suki in her Kyoshi Warrior dress and makeup, both seated on magnificent ostrich horses.
The final litter, before another regiment of Royal Guards in dress uniform, was draped in red and belonged to General Iroh, representative of the Fire Nation. He didn't want to participate at first, but at Aang's request and Zuko's pleas he finally acquiesced to their request. He was not only the highest ranking representative of the Fire Nation in Ba Sing Se, but also the leader of the liberators of Ba Sing Se.
On the largest square in the city, located in the Middle Ring, the procession halted and the crowd was surprised to see the Earth King leave his palanquin. He was joined on the stage by the various councilors and the foreign dignitaries. The crowd, a mix from people from all the three rings in Ba Sing Se, murmured, but fell silent when a gong was struck.
The Earth King stepped forward and addressed the crowd: "People of Ba Sing Se, I am overjoyed to return in your middle. Much has happened since I walked these grounds for the last time. Our city has been occupied and has been liberated. Much has changed… like the disappearance of the Dai Li. But with all the changes, we have to change also. We cannot return to the old ways. We have to find a new way of doing many things. We are still healing, still rebuilding. We all wish for peace. There is much that has to be done… But I will be working on this with the help of the Avatar, many of his wise friends, my councilors… And hopefully also with all of you!"
It was soft at first… but a few moments later the crowd was cheering as one.
"Song, I would like you to meet Jing-Mei." Katara spoke at the feast that evening to celebrate the Return of the King. "Jing-Mei will be taking over the Lower Ring Rebuilding Project when I have to leave. Jing-Mei, this is Song, the advisor on the medical clinics."
"Lady Katara told me a lot about you, Mistress Song. You were advising the governor of the Western province how to establish small clinics in each village? How did you determine which level of medical care was necessary in each village?"
"Please, just call me Song. We started off with charting which level of medical care was already available in each area…" Katara smiled as both young women moved off, both quickly lost in a discussion about the medical care in the Lower Ring.
"Why are you smiling like a Pygmy Puma?" Sokka sidled up besides Katara.
"Oh, I just introduced Song to Jing-Mei. They seem to be getting along well and since they probably will be working together after we have to leave, I am smiling."
"He Katara, what is this what I am hearing about you and Aang sleeping together?"
Katara rolled her eyes and punched him in the arms. "Not here, Sokka! The matrons cluck already enough about my 'scandalous clothing'. I don't need any rumors about me 'sleeping' with Aang." She dragged him to a somewhat quieter corner. "Look, we just found out that both of us hardly have any nightmares when we are together."
"Besides, you have no right to speak about anything, Sokka. I know you and Suki share a bed."
Sokka looked like he wanted to say some more, but finally he sighed. "Fine. But I don't want to see it."
Katara rolled her eyes. "Fine." She moved away from her brother to Suki and Ty Lee, who were talking about Ty Lee's arrest.
"But my back is almost healed. Katara still works on it every day, but that is mostly to prevent scars. I am fine and I don't want any charges pressed."
"But still… what will happen to the ones responsible?" Suki sputtered.
"They will get what they deserve, Suki. All three are looking at life in prison and hefty fines. They have found so much evidence that a conviction is almost sure. Chief Padong was suspended for a month." Katara spoke, a placating hand on Suki's shoulder.
"Why did he get off so lightly? And the men who actually flogged her?" Suki protested.
"He was being blackmailed and threatened by Xinping. And the men doing the flogging? They protested against their sergeant, but were threatened with dereliction of duty and they were shown an official order."
"Suki, each of them came to infirmary when I was recovering and apologized for what happened to me. I was forgiven for the mistakes I made in the war. How could I not do the same?" Ty Lee explained.
"If you don't agree with the punishments, Suki, you can always extradite them to Kyoshi Island. But wait and see first."
Suki nodded. "Alright. I will." She took a deep breath and centered herself. "By the way, congratulations with getting your project past the council. How are things going?"
"It is going well. The first small projects are actually getting started and I am getting the framework into place, so we can start the rest of them. Jing-Mei is turning out very well." Katara told proudly.
"Excuse me, ladies?" Suddenly Aang showed up. "I was wondering if the Lady Katara would be willing to dance?"
Katara giggled and held out her hand. "I would be delighted." Aang escorted her away among the giggles from Suki and Ty Lee.
"Mistress Song, might I speak with you for a moment?"
Song looked up from her conversation with Jing-Mei when the Earth King suddenly appeared at her side. "Of course, your Majesty. Excuse me for a moment, Jing-Mei."
Jing-Mei's eyes had widened when the Earth King had shown up. "Of course." She hurried away.
Kuei escorted Song to the same quiet corner Katara and Sokka had spoken in earlier. "What do you think of Ba Sing Se so far?"
Song smiled. "I like it. I think I can be really useful here."
Kuei nodded. "Good. Because I wanted to ask you something…"
Song frowned. "What?"
"Would you be alright if I announced my intention to marry you in a few moments? Right here on this feast?"
"Because I have spent most of the evening mobbed by young women wanting to become my wife. Because every councilor I spoke to asked about the requirements I had in a wife so they could start searching for one. But you are the only one I want."
Song closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm herself. When she had reached a modicum of calm, she looked deep in her own heart. She loved Kuei and wanted to be at his side… "Yes." She said softly.
"What did you say?" Kuei couldn't believe his ears."
"I am saying yes. Announce your intention to marry me."
Kuei smiled and stepped away to grab a metal chalice and fork that went with the tiny snacks served. He hit the chalice a few times and waited till the large room quieted. He stepped on the small podium in front of the room. "I know this is somewhat unusual, but I wanted to make an announcement. This afternoon I was speaking of change. That we would have to change… In my time away from Ba Sing Se I have changed myself. And one thing I discovered was that I would choose my own wife." He waited until the room quieted. "While traveling I met a wonderful young woman with a strong spirit and a kind heart. We fell in love…" Kuei held out his hand to Song for her to join him on the stage. "I introduce you to my intended wife, Song."
The room erupted with talking and even a few shouts.
The Gaang stared at each other around the room, stunned at what had just occurred.
"This is outrageous!"
"What is outrageous about this, Councilor?" Aang asked, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to ward off the headache that was building behind his eyes. The discussion about the Earth King's announcement had been raging on for three days. "Two people met and fell in love. What is outrageous about that?"
The Earth King, Song, the Council of Five, the Counsel of Advisors, Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph and Suki were sitting around the table, finally trying to get to a satisfactory solution for all. Aang was leading this meeting since the Earth King was the subjects
"His majesty should have consulted us before committing this…"
"Outrage. You have used the term a few times now." Sokka commented drolly from where he was doodling on a piece of paper.
Aang sighed and interfered before the councilor could go of a the young Tribesman. "Okay. We have been talking about this for three days… Three days that could have been used to more useful things, like speculators buying up large supplies of beans, rice and cabbage, the three mainstay's of people in the Lower Ring and a very important part of the diet of the people in the Middle Ring. They hold on to the supplies to drive up the prices… But you are arguing because His Majesty didn't consult you in his choice of a wife. We are going to come to a solution right now. We have heard all the arguments several times. Is there anyone who has a new idea to offer?"
"I have one more thing to consider, Avatar Aang." Katara spoke up.
"Yes, Lady Katara?"
"Three weeks ago Councilor Longyan spoke about a gap between the people who decide the fate of this city and the ordinary people. Mistress Song, no offense meant, is a young woman from the ordinary people and knows from her own experience their needs and wants. This could be helpful in trying to bridge the gap."
"Thank you, Lady Katara." Aang looked around the table. "Anyone else?"
"I know this is unusual, Avatar, but I was wondering if I might speak." Iroh, present as an observer from the Fire Nation, spoke up.
"Of course General Iroh. Your wisdom is always valued." Aang couldn't resist to poke some fun.
"I received a letter from Fire Lord Zuko this morning. I have informed him of the situation. He says he would be delighted to receive Mistress Song in the Royal Palace as Earth Queen. He recommends her for her kind and generous spirit."
"Thank you for your kind words, General Iroh, but I don't believe I have ever had the honor of meeting Fire Lord Zuko." Song answered with a confused look on her face.
"I will explain after the meeting."
"Thank you, General Iroh, for your contribution. Anyone anything else?" Aang once more looked around the table. After it remained silent, he spoke: "From now on I only wish to hear solutions. And not the solution of sending Mistress Song back to Shekong. We have already seen there is not a majority for this proposal."
It remained silent for a long time. Finally Councilor Longyan folded his hands. "I believe I have a suggestion, Avatar Aang."
"Go ahead, Councilor."
"As I have indicated before I cannot support a betrothal between His Majesty and Mistress Song. At least, not yet. This is not because I don't approve the union itself and I believe we should not stand in the way of true love. The circumstances when Mistress Song and His Majesty formed their attachment are very different from how they are now. I know Mistress Song has been informed of the duties of a Earth Queen and how much work there is to be done. But I say the time has been too short to really know if this is what His Majesty and Mistress Song want."
"What would your solution be then?" Aang asked.
"I spent last night researching the betrothal ritual that is used between the Earth King and his intended bride. It actually consist of two rituals, the commitment and the actual betrothal, that were once joined together. There is no reason not to separate them again. I propose that His Majesty and Mistress Song participate in the commitment ceremony. Mistress Song will become the Lady Song and with all the duties and privileges of a betrothed of a Earth King. For one year she will remain in the city, working as an advisor to the Lower Ring Rebuilding Project and learning everything she needs as Earth Queen. If after one year both are still willing to be married, the full betrothal will take place with the marriage following within three months after it."
The council chamber was silent, everyone considering the merits of the idea. Finally Aang spoke up. "I could agree with this, if both His Majesty and Mistress Song are willing to accept it."
Everyone looked at the Earth King. "I would accept this proposal, if every other attempt to find me a bride are stopped."
Then all gazes shifted to Song, who swallowed at all the looks. "This proposal is acceptable to me. I will be glad of the opportunity to learn before I have to do everything."
"It is time for a vote." General How spoke. He passed around a note to everyone with voting rights. "Please write yes or no, fold your note in the prescribed way and put it in the box in the middle of the table."
The only sound that could be heard were the scratching of pens. One by one the notes were put in the box. Finally Sokka, having no voting rights, pulled out the box and shook it vigorously. Removing the lid, he pulled out notes on by one and read the vote out loud while Aang kept score on a chalk board for the purpose.
"It is decided. The proposal is accepted and the commitment ceremony will be performed in three days." Aang announced.
"General Iroh, you told me you would explain where I had met Fire Lord Zuko." Song headed directly in Iroh's direction after the meeting.
"So I did. Please have a seat." Both sat down while the councilors left the room, while the Gaang discussed something in another corner and the Earth King looked through some papers. "I am actually surprised you have not recognized me."
"You met both me and my nephew before. Only then you knew us as Muushi and Li."
Song reacted with shock, but managed to keep her voice low. "You were the ones with the White Jade? You stole our ostrich horse."
Iroh looked at the floor, ashamed. "I am afraid that was true. My nephew was going through a difficult time and I didn't always manage to guide him well. He asked me to convey his regrets and his shame to you, until he is able to do so in person."
"I see…" Song was still shocked that the refugees had been the exiled prince of the Fire Nation and his uncle.
"This is not attempt to make it up to you, but he has request of you. He wrote that you told him that your father was taken away by the Fire Nation with the other men of your village. He asks if you would be willing to give your father's name, home village, description, special skills and other information that might help to find him. The Fire Nation Military kept a detailed registers of all prisoners taken and Zuko has currently people going through the list to give as many people as possible about their loved ones."
"I will write you a description this evening and send it to you. My mother wishes for news about her husband… even if it is bad news. Please thank Fire Lord Zuko for being willing to look into this."
"I will." Song smiled at him for a moment, then left her seat and headed to Kuei, looking over his shoulder at the paper he was studying…
"Looking forward to going back home?" Aang asked as he air bended the saddle upon Appa's back.
Katara looked up from the various bags before her. "For some things, yes. For some other things, no."
Katara looked thoughtful for a few moments. "I want to see GranGran and dad again. I look forward to showing Master Pakku the new moves we developed. But I don't look forward to being treated different by everyone I know and I don't want to be excluded from the political side of things."
"I don't think you have to worry about the last one." Sokka said as he dragged his bags to last pile. "The protesters in the Water Council were mostly from the Northern Water Tribe. Dad won't exclude you." He surveyed the bags in front of Katara. "Wow, did you bring your whole wardrobe?"
"No. Most of it are blankets and other winter things made from Appa's fur for Aang. You know he doesn't like to wear furs. I left most of my formal wear here. I will need it anyway for the spring talks when we are back here in six weeks. So I just have my winter gear, some normal clothes and one or two formal outfits." She started tossing the cloth filled bags at Aang, who fastened them on the saddle. "Did you say goodbye to Suki?"
Sokka got a faraway look in his eyes. "I did. We will see each other again at the spring talks."
"Didn't she want to come to the South Pole?" Aang called down from Appa.
"She did. But she had to many things to do. She is going to turn over captainship of the Kyoshi Warriors to Mikoto definitively." Sokka looked around him quickly. "Though Mikoto has been writing with Oyaji about creating some kind of special honorary leadership position for her."
Aang jumped down from Appa and cushioned his fall with some air. "That is a nice idea." He tossed the final things in the saddle. "Everything ready to go?"
Katara and Sokka looked at each other. "I think so." Katara finally said. "We have said goodbye to everyone. We have all our gear." Sokka nodded his agreement.
"Let's go then." Aang took his place on Appa's head, while Sokka and Katara climbed up to the saddle. Appa, yip yip." With that the sky bison took off in the direction of the South Pole.
Katara looked down on the city as they flew over it. "We managed to do a lot, but do you think it will really be enough?"
"What do you mean, Katara?" Sokka asked, obviously confused. "The Earth King is back on his throne and happily committed. There are two councils in place that we can trust, as far as we know. Whole the city is rebuilding and not just the Upper Ring. These things do take time."
Katara shook her head. "It is not that. Did we only patch up the obvious wounds or did we really change things? Can Ba Sing Se really be rebuild if so many of its foundations are rotten through? Did we go in and change that foundations or did we just change the surface? Will things go back to the way they were now that we leave? That is what I mean."
Aang looked over his shoulder. "We will back here in six weeks. Toph is staying to keep an eye on things. And I like to think we changed some foundations. But you can't do everything at once. That is why we patched up the wounds of the rest so the foundations can be done when everything is ready for that. That will come in time…"
A few more authors' notes:
The ideas for the government duties for a Fire Lady were borrowed from SCWLC's Proposal series. Thank you for letting use it! For the Venerable Woman thing, see my other fic: the Price of Peace
For a photo of Katara's outfit for the Return of the King and the feast where Kuei announces his intentions: http:/www(dot)utsavsarees(dot)?icode=SLLVT4
For a photo of Song's outfit for the same event (Just without the red ribbon and the white gloves), see: http:/en(dot)wikipedia(dot)