Roses of the Valley
Chapter One: A Faulty Foundation
For as long as there has been war there have been those who stand to oppose it. As is expected, not all those who fall within this category utilize the same means to achieve the goal of peace.
There are those that would choose violence, striking to prevent further bloodshed. Yet this is foolish; for violence is able to begot one thing and one thing alone: Itself.
Some would choose neutrality. Yet it must be remembered that those who fight, those who suffer the wounds of battle and the loss of their fellow man, will always frown upon those who chose not to, even if the choice is the most sensible.
There are those who choose to preach of pacifism, to try to enforce their morals upon those around them. Yet preaching to those who have no desire to hear it is nothing more than bullying a man's ear.
To this day, no one can ascertain the proper method of ending wars, of quenching a nation's thirst for conquest. Yet during the height of Fire Lord Azulon's rule, a select group of nobles believed that they had discovered that very thing.
The nobles of the Fire Nation could be divided quite simply into two categories; those who thought that stepping foot on the same street as a pauper was beneath them, and those that understood that the paupers were just as human, with just as many flaws and potential for good.
The former outweighed the latter immeasurably.
If the other Fire Nation nobles had any criticisms of Wen Lan, it was exactly that. Despite the respect she had garnered through her grace and understanding, she would often arrive late to meetings and appointments due to her constant chattering with those that were thought to hardly deserve her time or attention.
Yet to Wen Lan, there was no greater method to guiding her decisions than asking the very people whom had made her family's fortune possible. She well understood that man alone has no power without the aid of others, that it is the responsibility of the powerful to act on behalf of the meek.
It was for this reason that she had no problem walking through the streets at night, the hood of her cloak pulled over her head to prevent anyone from recognizing her. She arrived at the clinic without delay, the streets empty and lit by the half moon hanging high above. She brought her hand to the door, knocking five times with her ring.
From five hundred paces you could tell the ring was of great beauty. It had been passed from daughter to daughter for generations, a new small yet intricate design added to the band each time. The gem was cut in the shape of the Fire Nation emblem, a ruby so pure that a jeweler would give his entire inventory merely to hold it.
A kind female voice answered the knocking, the door still closed between them. "I'm sorry, but we're closed right now. If you need medicine, please come back in the morning."
"The medicine I need is for a friend," Wen Lan answered in a hushed yet gentle tone. This dialogue had been memorized and well rehearsed.
"Is the friend sick?"
"They've been very sick, for years upon years."
"Who is your friend?"
"The Fire Nation."
A moment later the door slid open, a smiling girl on the opposite side. Excitedly, she jumped into Wen Lan's arms. She cared little for the business of the stuffy old men in the other room; she had been waiting the entire night for this particular guest.
"Big sister Wen!"
Her mouth could be seen just under the fold of the hood, her earnest smile having been formed the second she heard the girl's voice. She placed her hands on the girl's shoulders, laughing. "Hello Li Mei, how is your father?"
She looked up with shining eyes "He's doing better now; mother says he'll be able to go back to work by the next full moon!"
"That's wonderful! Please congratulate him for me, and tell him to contact me if there's anything else I can do for your family."
"No no," Li Mei waved her hand from side to side in polite refusal. "You've already done so much, big sister! Someday you have to let us help you instead!"
"Well then, if I ever get sick I'll get medicine from this very clinic."
"Good!" Li Mei smiled broadly.
"Now," she leaned in a bit, lifting her hand to the side of her mouth as she whispered. "How many of those stuffy old men have arrived?"
Li Mei frowned, then whispered back "All of them, and Lord Hu has already insisted on drinking."
She sighed, standing back up and walking into the clinic as Li Mei slid the door shut behind her. She removed her cloak, handing it to the girl.
Wen Lan was beautiful by all definitions of the word. Yet when the other nobles looked at her, their admiration of her features were usually followed with disappointment. She was beautiful, yes. But the combat training that she insisted on having and a lack of sleep she had acquired from working long into the night had robbed her of the image of a graceful Fire Nation female who avoided work. Such was highly attractive to the nobles.
Yet to the people, whom the nobles had little hesitation forgetting about, Wen Lan's beauty was hard to contest.
Her burgundy and brown robes draped her body, her sleeves stretching inches beyond the tips of her fingers. Her black hair was tied back in a knot, forming a somewhat unkempt ponytail. Resting below her neck was the mantle of a Fire Nation noble, something she wore with the utmost pride.
Li Mei slid open the door to the room, five nobles sitting in polite anticipation of Wen Lan's arrival.
"Lady Wen Lan has arrived," Li Mei bowed her head, then closed the door behind her "big sister."
She stepped to the one spot in the circle of nobles that appeared vacant, assuming that it had been left open for her. As she came down to her knees, she nodded her head with a kind but apologetic smile. "My apologies for being late, I had business to tend to at my family's estate."
"Completely unacceptable," Hu muttered. He was old and stubborn, the sort who assumes that they're always correct. If you were to catch Hu in a contradiction or error, he would insist that the conversation wasn't worth his time anymore.
"Ah, Lord Hu, please do not start a needless argument." Shaiming requested. He was something of a pacifist, always smiling and insisting that there was no need for conflict. Yet the truth of the matter was that Shaiming was a coward. This cowardice was trumped only by his desire for power.
"Hmm," Bo noted. This was expected of Bo, it was all he ever said. Words were a waste of time in his eyes.
"Maybe Lord Hu would be more at ease if Lady Wen Lan were to explain why she values her estate more than her relations with other nobles," Heng suggested. If a snake were to manifest itself as a person, it would have done so as Heng. Even his eyes suggested constant coldness and glee, his constant smile crooked.
"That is enough. Heng, do not cause trouble. Wen Lan, apologize to Hu for delaying our meeting. Hu, accept the apology." Chao sat at the head of the room, an old man with experience, tact and wisdom. Out of the group, he was the only one that Wen Lan truly and honestly admired. He was aged; old enough that he had met and often had conversations with Avatar Roku.
"Lord Hu, I apologize." Wen Lan bowed.
"Hmph," Hu grunted.
"Hu," Chao narrowed his eyes.
"Accepted." Hu knew better than to contest Chao.
"Good. Now that we have all arrived, we can begin the discussion." Chao lifted a cup of tea, blowing on it gently.
"What is it we are discussing?" Shaiming asked, this being his first time meeting with the group. He had been invited after one of Chao's servants overheard him voice dismay with the current state of the world.
There was silence for a moment as the group looked towards Chao, feeling it was his right to explain, since he was the one who had started the meetings.
"The end of the war," he answered.
"This is ridiculous!" Hu slammed his hand down on the floor.
"It is the only plan that has been suggested that doesn't have obvious flaws though," Wen Lan explained.
"Yes, but if Fire Lord Azulon were to find ou-" Shaiming started.
"He will not find out if no one in this room tells him," Chao interrupted, folding his arms.
Hu growled. "What you are suggesting is cowardice."
Suddenly, the plan didn't sound so bad to Shaiming.
"Hmm," Bo threw in his opinion.
"Cowardice would be sitting in luxury all day while more families lose their loved ones," Wen Lan glanced towards Hu.
"No, this plan is cowardice! Meeting with our very enemies!"
"It would be cunning if we were to meet with the Earth Kingdom generals to discuss a way to infiltrate and destroy the Fire Nation," Heng grinned.
Everyone looked towards Heng, not sure where that statement had come from.
"…It was just a suggestion?" Heng shrugged, still grinning.
"Which part is it that makes you regard it as cowardice?" Chao looked towards Hu.
"The whole thing!" He snapped.
"Lord Chao, could you review it again? And this time, Lord Hu, please remark why each part is an act of cowardice." Wen Lan suggested.
"Fine," Hu growled.
"Hmm." Bo made a good point.
Wanting to get to it directly, Chao omitted the introduction of his plan and began with the first phase of it. "First, we each leave the Fire Nation on business."
"There, that is cowardice! If we feel we are doing the right thing, then why hide it from the Fire Lord?"
"Do you really feel that Fire Lord Azulon would be content with us leaving in order to make peace with the Earth Kingdom?" Chao narrowed his eyes again.
Hu was silent, searching around in his head for a proper response. He was well aware of the truth of the statement.
"The choice is either not informing the Fire Lord and surviving, or telling him of our plans and being exiled, if we are lucky."
"I find not telling the Fire Lord to be most agreeable," Shaiming smiled.
"So do I, survival beats death." Heng's statement was more philosophy than compliance.
"Fine, I withdraw my complaint of cowardice on that account."
"Very well then. Following this, each of us will journey to a particular Earth Kingdom. There, we will be meeting with nobles to discuss neutrality from the war in those particular areas."
"That is what I don't understand," Shaiming remarked. "What can we possibly offer them that would coerce them to agree to that?"
"We have each been blessed with economic prosperity. We can use that to support the Earth Kingdom towns and villages that agree to comply. This way, they will be able to maintain their wealth both individually and as a whole."
"That makes the assumption that these villages will hold wealth in a higher regard than conflict or principle!" Hu practically spat the words.
"No," Wen Lan looked over towards him. "It makes an assumption that the people will resign to their ultimate desire; peace."
"You really believe that peace is what a person desires most?" Heng grinned a little.
"Yes," she responded calmly, completely sincere in this philosophy.
"But is it not the case that the fire nation would continue to invade and conquer despite some of the nations becoming neutral?" Shaiming asked out of fear of fighting.
"We may be able to prevent such if we successfully gain the support of a few Earth Kingdom villages. If they agree to neutrality and we are able to present this fact to Fire Lord Azulon, it is possible that one of two things will happen," Chao began. "First, he may decide that our method has advantages, and choose to seek further neutrality from the Earth Kingdom villages until their armies fold and return home. Second, he utilizes their neutrality and offers them benefit and status if they pledge loyalty to the Fire Nation."
"Or the third possibility, that he becomes enraged at our cowardice and has us executed!" Hu snapped again.
"Do you honestly feel the Fire Lord would destroy you if you were to approach him with news that the great city of Omashu will not attack his armies?" Chao managed to maintain his calm despite Hu's constant outbursts.
"Hmph," he grunted."
"Hmm," Bo responded.
"So we bleed the Earth Kingdom dry of some of their resources and manpower, then the Fire Nation armies can finish the campaign. I like it," Heng smirked.
"No. What we're hoping for is that the Earth Kingdom armies will return home, not that they die," Wen Lan corrected.
"But what if they choose to fight?" Shaiming voiced his concern yet again.
"What is there to fight for?" Heng shrugged. "The Fire Nation's territory grows more every day. The Water Tribes have fled to opposite sides of the world, and the Avatar is dead."
Chao glared, opening his mouth to correct and berate Heng for such a notion. Before he could speak, he was interrupted.
Everyone looked at Bo in surprise.
"The Avatar. He is not dead. He is waiting." The old man looked up, then towards Chao. "Correct, yes?"
Still surprised, Chao nodded. "Yes. I feel it too."
Wen Lan smiled at the old men, gaining admiration for another in the room in that brief moment.
"Regardless, it is only a matter of time before the Fire Nation manages to end this war. We may as well end it as the lords and rulers of newly annexed Earth Kingdom villages." Heng began grinning again, this time at the thought of having an entire city of subjects.
"I feel you are missing the point of this," Chao looked towards Heng with slight suspicion.
"So, this plan…We all agree to it?" Shaiming was curious as to everyone's current state of mind.
"Yes," Chao nodded solemnly.
"Yes," Wen Lan smiled.
"Sure," Heng was busy with the notion of using Earth Kingdom women as a footstool.
"Hmm," Bo confirmed.
"…Fine," Hu grunted.
"Then when will we enact it?" Shaiming looked back towards Chao.
"I have already arranged for Wen Lan to be dispatched to the village of Bai-Jing. There are many Earth Kingdom nobles there, and I feel she can persuade all of them with her kindness and sincerity." With a smile, Chao looked towards Wen Lan.
Hu, much to no one's surprise, became enraged again. "You already made arrangements for this?! Is this true?!" He commanded Wen Lan to answer.
"It is true that Lord Chao has arranged transport for me to be sent to Bai-Jing, and that I will speak with the Earth Kingdom nobles there in effort to convince them that neutrality may be best."
"What isn't true, then?" Heng could see Wen Lan was avoiding saying something.
There was silence, before she brought her hands to the ground, bowing in the direction of Chao. "Lord Chao, I mean you no disrespect in this, but there is something I must disagree with in your statement."
"Hmm?" Bo was surprised.
"You say that you've arranged for me to be dispatched, yet this implies that I am going only by your own volition. Yet I must disagree, because it is my own choice and desire for peace that guides me."
There was silence as Chao smiled. "Sit up, child."
Following this instruction, Wen Lan came back up to her knees.
He looked upon her, studying her features. She was born to a close friend of his, and had his passion in her eyes. Her appearance was as beautiful as her mother's, yet her heart held the fire of a hundred flames. He smiled again, wishing to himself that she had been born long ago, so that Roku would have been given the opportunity to meet her. "You are right, Wen Lan. Thank you for your correction."
"Hmph," Hu grunted. "Glad to see you are capable of being humble."
"Glad to see you have learned how to hold your alcohol better," she muttered.
Bo smirked, Chao snapped in surprise. "Wen Lan!"
"My apologies, Lord Hu," her apologetic bow was hard to believe, what with her triumphant smile.
Lord Hu was not pleased.
Listening in from outside the room, Li Mei smiled. As she walked down the hallway, she hoped quietly to herself for the safety of Wen Lan, and for the success of the plan these nobles were intending to enact.
"I wish you safe passage," Chao smiled as he turned towards Wen Lan.
She finished reviewing something with the lead of her escorting party, then turned towards Chao with a smile, bowing gracefully. "I thank you for your consideration, Lord Chao."
"I have no doubts that you will be successful in your discussions with the nobles of the Earth Kingdom. But as you do, I ask that you take these travels as a chance to relax and to catch up on your rest."
Her smile had changed from one of endearment to one of touched warmth. She took the old man's head in her hands, lifting his head down to her mouth so as to kiss his forehead. She bowed again. "Thank you for always watching over me."
He bowed in return. "Thank you for always making your parent's legacy stronger."
She was a noble, but in her heart, still a girl. Having completed all pleasantries and polite methods of parting, she wrapped her arms around Chao, burying her face in his chest.
Laughing, he placed his hands on her shoulders. "Go, child. You have much work to do!"
She bowed again, turning and making her way towards the awaiting escort party, made up of personal guards from her family's estate.
"Ah, just a moment," Chao remembered as he reached into his sleeve. "I almost forgot this," He handed her a scroll.
Wen Lan examined it, not sure as to it's meaning. She inserted it into her sleeve to read later.
"Li Mei presented it to me, asking me to give it to you. She would have herself, but she is busy helping her mother with at clinic."
She smiled, bowed again, and hurried towards the party. As she stepped to the front of it, her lead guard turned towards her curiously.
"Glad t'be away from the nobles?" Gang was of average height, slightly stocky in his appearance. He had been employed by Wen Lan's family for years, as evidence by his hair and thick beard, both of which had streaks of gray. He had served Wen Lan a babysitter when she was young, and a bodyguard when she became head of the family's estate.
"I suppose so. At least now I won't have to speak so carefully and properly." Wen Lan had no trouble being polite, yet didn't enjoy it for prolonged periods of time. "I will miss Lord Chao and Lord Bo, though."
Gang smiled as they continued walking.
By the time the Fire Nation capitol had disappeared from their sight, Lord Chao had already been abducted.
The sack was removed from his head, his vision blurred. As he collected himself he recognized the vast room, the wall of fire before him hinting greatly.
Lord Azulon sat at its center, glaring angrily. "You have betrayed the Fire Nation," he began.
Chao was well aware of the situation he had found himself in. The method in which he had been delivered to the Fire Lord was evidence enough that he wouldn't survive the encounter. "No. I have only tried to ease the wounds of this war."
The flames around the Fire Lord began to grow. "You have undermined my absolute rule by making suggestion to our enemies that we as a nation are not united in our goal."
"I have done nothing Roku would frown upon."
"Roku is dead."
"No," Chao looked up, glaring. "The Avatar, he is waiting. And when he returns, he will restore balance to the elements."
The flames grew higher.
"I have held my tongue long enough, Azulon. For too long, I have kept secret a fact that I am well aware of. When the Avatar returns? When he restores balance?"
The flames continued to grow.
"He will start by destroying you." The old man grinned, shedding the last scrap of hope.
"Enough!" Azulon barked, the flames bursting around him as he stood. "Our enemies will now suspect we are cowards. They will lash out stronger than before, and I will strike them down with equal ferocity."
Chao's eyes went wide, unable to shake the feeling of truth behind these words.
"Your goal was peace, to end conflict. Yet the rage your betrayal has caused me, it will inspire a wrath unparalleled!"
He looked towards the floor, muttering quietly, "You will be destroyed."
Having had enough, Azulon whipped his body back, stepping forward as a great wave of fire erupted from his hand, engulfing the upstart noble.
The flames danced along the floor, as Chao's silhouette stepped out from them, his clothes burned, his body unscathed. He looked up towards the Fire Lord, aging though younger than he. He stepped back, lifting his arms. "Did you really suspect that I would gain no strength from my friendship with Roku?"
Azulon stood glaring. Smirking slightly.
Chao's eyebrows furrowed, curious as to why the Fire Lord had suddenly smirked. He turned as he realized it, a moment too late as sharp steel tore through his back.
A sudden coldness. A sudden distance.
Azulon stood calmly, looking towards the body. "You will be rewarded for bringing his treachery to my attention. His wealth now becomes yours to do with what you please."
The figure stepped closer to the light, over the bleeding noble. "What of the others, my lord?"
"They are being dealt with. Their assets will be liquidated, and shall henceforth be property of the Fire Nation."
"But what of Wen Lan?"
Azulon sat slowly, regaining his composure. "She shall be exiled. Should she return here, her death will be immediate. A messenger will be dispatched to deliver this."
"Just exiled, my lord?"
Azulon narrowed his eyes. "Do you feel it wise to question me?"
"No, my lord. I was just surprised."
"My armies are occupied enough. I will not delay them with hunting one foolish girl."
"Very well, my lord."
"You are dismissed," the Fire Lord suggested coldly.
"Yes, my lord," Shaiming bowed, stepping back over the body as he left the great hall. Shaiming was a coward, but this was nothing compared to his lust for power.
"Ha ha, what a shame!" Heng grinned as he spun around, kicking a roof tile towards an oncoming Fire Nation soldier. He continued to spin, lashing his sword out into the chest of the one approaching from the opposite side. He dropped the body to the side of the building before continuing along the roof.
It didn't take much effort on his part to understand what had happened, yet there was a sincere disappointment. He had been planning on giving up the others to the Fire Lord when the time was right, yet it seemed someone had beaten him to it.
He had little time to reflect on it as a burst of flame tore in front of him. He fell to his stomach, rolling along the roof before dropping to the ground and continuing to run. The soldiers blocking his path did little to stop him as he sword continued it's flight, tearing through each one. He rushed to the gate of the estate, slowing as he came to it. He opened the gates, slamming them shut behind him before locking them. He turned to continue fleeing, stopping as he was greeted by a squad of battle ready soldiers.
His sword dropping, he lifted his hands up, shrugging a little as he grinned. "Alright, you got me. I surrender."
He laughed. "What, aren't you going to take me to the Fire Lord?"
"No," the leader answered.
Puzzled, he thought about this a moment. As he realized the situation, his eyes widened, each of the soldiers launching streams of flame at him. He fell to his knees, screaming and clawing around before finally falling, his charred body succumbing to the cold.
Hu's fate was much less glamorous.
"Hmm. So Azulon has found out our plans."
"Yes. The Fire Lord requests that you come with us," the soldier explained as he kneeled before the noble.
He closed his eyes, setting down his pipe. "Yes, I suppose that would be best." He stood, making his way to the door.
Hu, fierce in attitude and skilled in Fire Bending, felt a sudden sharp pain in his back. Within an instant, the world grew distant, then faded to nothingness.
"Think this'll be a problem?"
"Nah," the second soldier answered. "The guy's old and never speaks. We'll just bring him in, then deal with him."
"Good." As the first soldier said this, another soldier was thrown through the entrance to the grounds. The two soldiers turned, readying themselves quickly into a combat stance. Before they could complete the maneuver, two spirals of flame poured into their chests, knocking them back onto the ground.
Bo stepped slowly, glaring as his body smoked with an intensity hardly ever seen in him. He stepped past the two bodies and came to a halt, looking around. Three guards had been dispatched, and he'd already dealt with each. He knelt down by the guards, tearing pieces of their armor off and dressing himself in them. Disguised, he made his way quietly into the night.
At the insistence of her guards, Wen Lan had been riding atop an ostrich horse for the past hour. She reached into her sleeve, opening the slip of paper and reading from it as a small leather bracelet fell from it into her other hand.
"Dear big sister Wen; I'm sorry that I couldn't come out and say goodbye to you myself. I hope Lord Chao remembered to give this to you, he's so forgetful sometimes...Ha ha, don't tell him I said that! Anyway, I know you have a lot of fancy jewelry that you can choose from, so I feel awkward making this for you. It's a bracelet, so that you don't forget me and my family while you're out stopping the war. I really hope that you, Lord Heng, Lord Shaiming, Lord Hu, Lord Bo and Lord Chao have lots of success! The bracelet is leather, but I made little charms for it. There's one for the Earth Kingdom, that's where you're going, right? Then there's one for the Water Tribes, and I made one for the Air Nomads, even though mom says they're all gone…And the last one is the Fire Nation symbol, because that's your home. So don't ever forget me, okay? You have to come back so we can play again. From, Li Mei."
Wen Lan smiled softly, studying the bracelet and putting the letter into her sleeve. She placed it on, holding the reins of the ostrich horse as she continued along, with confidence and hope.