Chapter Twenty-Eight

The Limestone River shimmered in the morning sun. Meira leaned over the railing, awed by the stark beauty of the shifting water. If she reached out with her bending, she could pull a globe of water up from the surface and let it swirl around her. She didn't try—the Dai-Li who had accompanied her had, very politely, forbidden her from bending until after she arrived in the city. Apparently, they were worried she'd try to escape.

They were right to be cautious. She'd considered running a hundred times since she'd been taken.

Meira had agreed to the terms, although the idea of going even a day without waterbending made her uneasy. Bending would do her little good here, in the middle of unfamiliar territory, outnumbered by earthbenders, miles away from her sister, from Sora, from anyone who knew her. Where could she run when walls of limestone loomed over her like walls in a prison cell? I'd be caught before I could even leave the water, she thought.

"Princess," a voice said behind her. She turned, recognizing one of the Dai-Li agents. She thought his name was Tam. "We have an hour of travel left before we dock in New Haran. With your permission, I can order the servants to gather your possessions from your room."

"That won't be necessary. The only things I brought with me are items you and your colleagues purchased at the docks in Republic City."

Tam paled but maintained eye contact. Meira stood, not waiting for a response. "I shall gather my things on my own, if that's all right." She cast a longing glance at the water below, then started for her chambers. Despite her lack of supplies, she'd been given the largest room, on this boat and on the ship they'd used to travel from Republic City to the inner part of the Earth Kingdom. Personally, she preferred this watercraft. Like the canoes of the Northern Water Tribe, this vessel was small enough to maneuver effortlessly around obstacles. Back home, those obstacles had consisted mostly of ice. Here, stones stuck out of the water like jagged teeth, as if threatening to devour them.

Once she reached her room, she grabbed her pile of dirty clothes and stuffed them into her suitcase. Apart from those and a few other essentials, she had nothing. No personal items, nothing to remind her of home. She didn't even have her water-skin because she hadn't been wearing it when she'd been taken from Sora's apartment.

With a sigh, she went back on deck and waited, staring at the river as they neared their destination. She kept expecting something bad to happen. Unfortunate events seemed to be a running theme of her life now—from pirates, to declarations or war, to finding out she was engaged, to being ripped away from the few people who had shown her kindness in Republic City . . . But nothing bad happened. Nothing except for their steady progress toward New Haran. The limestone walls pulled away from the river that had been named for them, and as they went around a bend, New Haran rose on the horizon. She gaped, stunned by the size—even Republic City had been smaller than this. Walls which she knew to be circular from her geography lessons looked almost straight due to the immense size of the city. Only when her eyes traced the edges did she see the curve more clearly. The outermost wall blocked her view of the streets and people, but skyscrapers shot into the air, far taller than the walls New Haran and its predecessor Ba Sing Se were known for. One glimpse told her that Republic City had nothing on this.

"Magnificent, isn't it?" Tam asked, standing a bit taller as he studied the royal city. "A monument to human achievement."

I think I'm going to faint, she thought, but mercifully recovered before she could embarrass herself. They called Ba Sing Se the city of walls and secrets, she thought. What must this place be like?

Their boat continued down the river another few minutes before reaching the docks. To her surprise, the docks were not part of the city, but existed beyond the outer wall. "Why not just have the city touching the river?" she wondered aloud.

"King Haran ordered this city built at the beginning of his reign so that it would have room to grow," Tam explained, smiling. "If he'd allowed it to be built too close to the river, the construction of new walls would have been that much more difficult for the building teams."

"New walls?" she echoed.

"Yes, of course. Whenever the city's population grows too large, King Haran orders another ring to be built. With as many earthbending construction teams as we have, the new wall can be crafted in just a few weeks. The new ring then becomes the starting place for those who don't meet the requirements to move into the inner rings." Tam paused, tilting his head thoughtfully. "I suppose he will have to order another ring built to house refugees, now that we're at war."

Meira looked away. The war. How much would it change the world? Such a conflict hadn't been seen since Sozin's War. Would this last a hundred years as well? Would the normal state of the rest of her life be one of strife and political maneuvering?

The swiftness and skill with which the captain and crew docked their boat impressed her, and barely five minutes after they settled on an empty dock, Tam and the other Dai-Li agents formed two lines and led her onto the shore. All around them, men with arms like pipes carried crates and sacks and pushed carts holding the same. Surrounded by so much activity, it took Meira a moment to realize that someone awaited her on the shore. He wore an outfit made of white and green silk. From where she stood, Meira thought the buttons looked gold, though they were more likely some less valuable metal. Most people wore gold as jewelry, not on their clothes. Then again, the Earth Kingdom is famous for its mines. And if that's real silk, maybe those buttons are real gold.

The man smiled, his dark green eyes catching the sun for just a moment. As he bowed, his light brown hair fell over his forehead. He had a superficial resemblance to Sora, though only enough to make Meira feel a stab of grief. "I trust you had a safe trip, Princess Meira. I am honored to meet you."

"Thank you for receiving me, Lord . . ." she said, starting to bow.

"No need for titles. I'm not a lord, anyway." He glanced toward the Dai-Li agents. "Thank you for ensuring her safety. We've set up a Sato for you to return to the city."

"Yes, sir." Tam turned to his men and gestured with one hand. The two lines merged into one, and the Dai-Li filed off toward their assigned Satomobile.

"Princess, if you would come this way," said the man in the silk shirt. She followed him to a more luxurious Sato parked on the side of the road. "Do you have need of anything? A drink? Something to eat?"

She shook her head. "The servants on the boat took care of my needs quite well." Almost too well.

"All right, then." He opened the door for her, revealing two booths, each facing each other, with pull-down tables in the center. She slid into the seat facing forward, then blinked in surprise as her escort sat in the opposite seat and closed the door. "We'll be heading straight to New Haran from here. It's normally about a ten minute affair, but with the influx of new residents, it might take as long as half an hour. I hope this won't be a problem."

"Not at all."

"Ah, good. Driver." He gestured toward the front, then relaxed into his seat as the Sato started forward. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning back against his seat and inhaling slowly. As the tension drained out of his face, his age seemed to drop. On the dock, she'd assumed him to be in his mid-twenties, perhaps closer to thirty than twenty-five. Relaxed, he looked no older than twenty-one or twenty-two.

"So," he said, opening his eyes. "You are to be betrothed to the younger Earth Prince. What do you think of him?"

She decided to stick with the safest reply. "I haven't met him. I'm afraid I don't know enough to judge him."

"But you must have heard stories. News travels so quickly now that television has become widespread."

"We didn't have television in the North Pole. We preferred written word."

He raised an eyebrow. "No TV at all?"

She shook her head, wondering if she should feel ashamed. Her father had scorned technology—said it was too impersonal for such a close-knit society—and the tribe had followed his example. They imported books, materials, and luxury items, but electricity simply hadn't come to the North Pole. One day, she thought ruefully.

"What do you do all day without TV?" her escort wondered, looking out the window. He seemed strangely at ease, considering how reverently the servants on the boat had treated her. To her, his casual behavior suggested either a lot of experience dealing with nobility or, despite his aversion to titles, a noble heritage. Already, I'm being played. But what's his game?

In answer to his question, she said, "I practice my waterbending or attend to my duties. I would assume any future leader would be too busy to spend much time watching television."

The man's smile widened. "Perhaps. Although, it does seem that royalty would have the right to take time for themselves whenever they wish, provided there is no overwhelming pressure to do something else."

She shrugged. "If I finished my duties for the day, I walked around the city to see what I could do to help my people."

"Which is a reasonable action when you only have control over one city and can justify spending time with lower-ranking citizens," the man said, nodding.

Meira stiffened, her eyes narrowing. "I would think spending time with your people—regardless of rank—would be a vital and honorable use of time for any future leader. You cannot lead people who do not know and respect you."

Her escort looked up. The smile had vanished from his face, replaced with a startled expression. He fiddled with the collar of his shirt, rubbing one button between his thumb and forefinger. "Interesting."

Her eyebrows knitted together. "What do you mean?"

"In the Earth Kingdom, it is generally believed that a king has more important things to do than tend to his subjects. Things like drafting laws and creating war strategies. The Earth Kingdom is too vast for any man, even a king, to interact with all his people. That's why we have a noble class to deal with the commoners."

She frowned. She didn't like the way he said "commoners," as if referring to a faceless crowd or numbers on paper. "My father always taught me that a good leader is someone both seen and respected by their people."

"And the Earth Kingdom's royal family is both seen and respected—on TV, in newspapers, in parades, and at festivals. They speak to the Earth Kingdom at large. Why should they spend time speaking to someone in the streets who isn't likely to assist with their goals when they can reach thousands of people in minutes through a prerecorded speech?"

She sat back, saying nothing. She couldn't deny the logic of it—with as many people as the Earth Kingdom had, the royal family could not possibly address everyone as an individual—but it still bothered her. So impersonal, she thought. They are strangers to their people just as much as I am a stranger to the Earth Prince.

"Have I offended you?" her escort asked, the smile dropping off his face.

"No," she said after a moment's consideration. "I do not like the attitude you claim the royal family has toward the 'commoners.'" She couldn't quite manage to hide her annoyance at the term. "But you have dealt me no personal insult, so why should I be offended?"

He regarded her for several seconds, then sat back. "You have an interesting way of looking at things, Princess. Tell me, did you know every peasant in your city up north?"

Her fingers curled. "No," she admitted. "But I do make an effort to meet as many of them as possible, in person, for a one-on-one conversation."

"But I'm assuming your other duties—waterbending practice, political dealings, event planning—take precedence over these conversations."

She fidgeted, then turned her head to glare out the window. "I hardly see how any of this is your concern. I did not come here to discuss philosophy—I came here to cement an alliance between my people and the Earth Kingdom in preparation for this war."

"It's a bit late for preparation. The war's already started."

"Yes, with a sneak attack on the Fire Nation during their most vulnerable moment. I'm quite aware."

His eyes widened, but his grin did not return. He leaned forward, laying his hands on the edge of his seat. "What would you have done in our position?" His voice was quiet, controlled. "Send them a letter saying, 'We'd like to go to war at your earliest convenience'?"

"I'd hardly call war a solution to anyone's problems."

He opened his mouth, then snapped it shut, leaning back. She did the same, reining in her frustration. Anger did no good in political settings—cold logic was much more effective in a debate. The air between them cooled, the tension dissipating. Her escort broke the silence first, his voice calm, polite. "I didn't expect the princess of the Northern Water Tribe to be so frustrating."

She paused, trying to call a retort to mind so she could deliver it in the same cool tone he'd used. But it occurred to her that she still didn't know his name or his station, and therefore couldn't make any oblique comments about how his upbringing had fostered such a confrontational attitude. "You haven't given me your name," she finally said. "I thought I should ask, just so I can better know the people of the country I'll be marrying into."

He studied her for a moment, his expression unreadable. Then he sighed, shoulders sinking as he turned his head once again toward the window. "I am Prince Yumao, third heir to the throne after my elder brother Yoru and his son, Omashu. My father, King Haran, currently rules the Earth Kingdom. I am engaged to Princess Meira Fuyu, daughter of Chief Narue of the Northern Water Tribe and Lady Zora of the Fire Nation."

All the air rushed out of her lungs. She felt as if she'd stepped over the edge of a cliff and was now locked in free-fall, plummeting toward the ground too quickly to react. It took a long moment for her to speak, and when she did, her voice shook. "You're . . . You're the prince?"

"That's correct."

Oh my. At once, she started dissecting everything she had said over the past few minutes, searching for any unforgivable faux pas. I should have been more careful about what I said, she thought. I've denounced practically everything he's told me since we met!

"You look a little pale," Yumao remarked. "Are you sure you don't want something to eat?"

I have to marry this man, she thought, staring blankly at him. Suddenly, the prospect of being engaged to a prince seemed all too real, as if every positive argument for marriage she'd ever heard had been a fairytale. "I . . . I think I just need a little air."

"Very well. Driver, roll down the window, please."

"Yes, sir." The back windows lowered with a mechanical hum, allowing fresh air to flow through the Satomobile. Meira leaned back, closing her eyes and letting the wind buffet her face.

"I should apologize," Yumao said, drawing her attention back to him. "It was wrong for me to keep my identity from you, but I wanted to see how you would react to me without any of the usual formalities."

She nodded, not trusting her voice. Now, knowing his royal status, she could see hints of it in his bearing. He'd spoken frankly, as if unconcerned about the weight of her title, and he hadn't seemed at all challenged during their debate. Even his clothes, made of such fine material, should have indicated a higher rank than she'd judged when she'd first seen him. He'd concealed his identity with ease and played her the way a skilled musician played a violin. I will have to be very, very careful in the coming weeks, she thought.

Once she'd recovered enough to respond, she said, "I think the first hurdle we need to get over involves being honest about ourselves around each other."

"That sounds fair." His face softened. "What would you like to know?"

She considered that for a moment. "What's your favorite color?"

Yumao stared at her for a beat, then threw his head back and laughed. "My favorite color? Really?"

"It's a simple question." Safer to start with easier questions and move to more sensitive ones.

"Very true. All right. I suppose I should say it's emerald green, since that's the Earth Kingdom's national color, but the truth is, my favorite color is gold."

"Favorite food?"

"Komodo chicken."

She raised an eyebrow. "Isn't that a Fire Nation food?"

"Isn't gold a Fire Nation color?" he countered. At her look, he leaned back, arms sprawling against the back of his booth. "As it happens, I like the Fire Nation. My sister was going to get married to a man from the Fire Nation, you know. Before he killed her, that is."

She did know—Sora had told her all about the event, told her his own father had been the nobleman accused of killing Lady Sil. What a small world, she thought, chilled. "I'm sorry."

Yumao shrugged, but couldn't quite manage a carefree smile. "It's been over a decade now. You'd think my father would have forgiven the Fire Nation, but time has only allowed his hatred to turn from an inferno to a glacier."

She frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Infernos burn hot and destroy great swaths of land, but they can be tamed by water, weather conditions, and a lack of fuel. Glaciers creep along gradually, crushing everything in their path, but are so dense they're practically unstoppable. Even with a team of waterbenders, it would take an enormous effort to melt a glacier. My father no longer wishes to burn the Fire Nation to ash—instead, he wants them under his control, at his mercy. He wants to be the glacier at the edge of their nation, always threatening to crush it, forcing people to obey his will or die under the force of it. He is not looking for destruction, but for domination."

Meira repressed a shiver. "That sounds awful."

Yumao shrugged. "He's always been like that. Kings don't destroy what they can use." His eyes darkened. "He'll win, you know. It won't be like Sozin's War, where the Fire Nation's superior technology allowed them to dominate and control us. This time, our capabilities are equal in that regard. And we have the numbers. If the new Fire Lady is smart, she'll surrender soon."

Cousin Taemin, she thought, heartsick. "Countries have won against worse odds before."

"True. But their victory, at this point, is unlikely." He lifted his head to look at her. "You have people you care about fighting for the Fire Nation, don't you?"

"I do." Zelda. Taemin. Even my parents will be helping the Fire Nation in their own way.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Yumao said. "I hope nothing bad comes of them."

Why do you care? she wondered, eyes stinging. You don't know them. You don't care if they die.

She felt a soft pressure on the back of her hand and looked down to see Yumao holding a cloth handkerchief toward her. She scanned his face, waiting for him to say something, but he was looking out the window, his gaze faraway. After a moment, she took the handkerchief and used it to wipe her eyes.

"How much longer until we reach the palace?" Yumao asked the driver.

"About ten minutes, Prince Yumao."

Meira looked out the window, startled. She'd been so absorbed in conversation that she'd hardly noticed the world passing by beyond her window. Looking out, she realized that she was well into the city, the sidewalks on either side of the street crowded with people of all ages and types. Many wore striking outfits, exposing so much skin that Meira wondered how they did not freeze. Others did the opposite, donning colorful costumes, jewelry, and adornments. The people here are even more striking than the buildings! "Wow," she whispered, then clamped a hand over her mouth. It was unseemly to show such inexperience.

"I can give you a tour of the city if you'd like," Yumao said. "I'm sure you'll want a tour of the palace first, though, since you'll be living there. We have to go see my father as well."

"That would be very kind of you," she said automatically. "But wouldn't you rather just send me out with an escort? You must have more important business now that there's a war going on."

"Considering we'll be married before the month has passed, I think I could make time for it." All amusement seeped out of his expression, making him look somber. For a time, he said nothing more, just stared out the window. Only after their Sato stopped did he seem to come back to himself a little. He held out a hand for her. "Come. I'll take you inside."

Hesitantly, she took his hand, allowing him to help her out of the Sato. As she got to her feet and looked around, her eyes widened. After the splendor of the city, she'd have thought her sense of wonder would have settled at its highest level. As she took in the palace, however, a wave of awe crashed over her. Four wings spread out from the rectangular building, each as long as the Whitewater Channel in the North Pole. Gardens lined the walls, overflowing with flowers of all varieties. The greenery, a novelty even after weeks away from home, still amazed her. She'd seen little enough of it in Republic City, and much of her passage to the Earth Kingdom had involved traveling over the sea, which she was already familiar with.

But, as with everything else in New Haran, it was the sheer size of the palace that made her gawk. How can anyone live here? she wondered. Visitors must walk for hours trying to find their way around!

"You'll get used to living here," Yumao said, as if reading her mind. She looked over and saw him staring far down the path, toward a set of magnificent emerald doors. As he started forward, he released her hand, and she looked down, blushing as she realized she'd forgotten to let him go after he'd helped her out of the seat. She hurried after him, eyes skimming over the gardens. The flowers made geometric patterns. She recognized the Earth Kingdom insignia, a square inscribed inside a circle like the Earth Kingdom currency, and various other shapes. Surprisingly, she saw flowers she'd seen in textbooks as being native to the Fire Nation. Fire lilies had been arranged in a flowing, hourglass shape, topped with pale pink blossoms surrounded by deep purple flowers. As the shapes and colors assembled in her mind, the figure they were meant to depict became clear—the flowers had been organized to look like a woman in a red dress. Interesting, she thought.

After over a minute of walking, they reached the doors. "Are these real emeralds?" she asked, eyes widening at the translucent green doors.

Yumao chuckled. "No. It's made of jennamite."

She stared at him. "But isn't jennamite . . ."

"Rock candy," he said with a smile.

"You're telling me that the front doors of the royal palace are made of candy." She studied his face, gauging his sincerity. "You must be joking."

"After I promised to be honest with you? Meira, I wouldn't dare." Grinning, he laid his hand on the door. "This particular specimen isn't well-suited for candy. Your teeth would shatter before the rock did. Rather, this is what jennamite candy looks like before it's mined for edible particles. It doesn't grow, and it doesn't taste sweet." He pushed the door open, nodding toward the doorman. "Would you please take our bags back to my chambers?" he asked. "I'm taking Lady Meira on a tour of the palace."

"Certainly, sir." The doorman grabbed a cart from the room next to the door and placed their bags on it. "Is there anything else I may do to serve you today?"

"No, thank you." Yumao stepped forward, then turned back to look at her. "If you thought the jennamite doors were interesting, wait until you see what else we have here."

He seems so . . . carefree, she thought. But just a few minutes ago, he looked miserable at the thought of marrying me. What's he playing at? He let me believe he was no one, but he's a prince. He must an excellent manipulator. I need to be careful.

"This is the main foyer," he said, gesturing around the room. "It's got paintings and sculptures and stuff that makes the palace look impressive to visitors, but it's nothing special." He started up a flight of curving stairs, gesturing for her to follow. She trailed after him, admiring the art despite his assertion that it was nothing special. Perhaps because he'd claimed it was nothing special.

"The palace has three floors, not counting the towers, which have more," Yumao continued. "The throne room is on the second floor. That's where the king will be."

"The king." He doesn't refer to him as "Father." The distinction seemed important, but what did she know of Earth Kingdom customs? Perhaps such distance within the royal family was normal. "Do you see the king often?" she asked, fishing for information.

"Every evening at dinner, if he's not otherwise occupied. Sometimes I run into him if we're working on the same project, or we cross paths in the hall, but not often."

"So, you only see him once a day?"

"We're busy people. We both have duties to attend to, and I'm an adult, anyway. It would be strange if I did see him more often." The coolness in his response tipped her off to some omission. Perhaps they don't get along. That could be useful.

"So, how would you say your relationship with your father is?"

Yumao paused mid-step. Meira froze behind him, worried that she'd overstepped her bounds. After a long moment, Yumao turned to her, his expression grim. "I detest him."

Her eyes widened.

"We've never gotten along. I was a defiant child. Troublesome." His expression darkened. "But we're family, and family is in very short supply lately, for us."

There's so much I don't know! Meira thought, frustrated. I'm missing too many dots—I can't make a picture with what I have. "What do you mean?" she asked carefully.

Yumao cocked his head to the side, then quickly righted it, as if the movement had been nothing more than a twitch. "Well, you see, the royal family has a bit of a succession crisis right now."

"What kind of crisis?"

"There are only four of us. My father, my brother, my nephew, and myself. No cousins, no other siblings or uncles or aunts. Just the four of us. If we die, the royal family ceases to exist. That's why my father was so relieved to find a match for me. He . . . He expects you and I to start producing children as soon as possible."

She flinched as if someone had shattered a glass right next to her ear. This isn't just a political marriage, she thought. I'm part of a breeding program! She swayed slightly, lifting a hand to her forehead. "Oh." Her voice seemed to come from far away.

Yumao's eyes found hers. He approached, taking her hand. "I wish it didn't have to be this way. But my days of defying my father are over. Come." He tugged on her hand. "Let's go see the king."

Author's Notes:

First, I'm sorry for the long wait on this chapter. I graduated from high school, but I'm working at a coffee shop now, so time is (and will probably always be) a rare commodity for me.

Also, I need to explain a few things about the culture/geography bits in this chapter. The first is my choice to shorten the word Satomobile to Sato. The reason for this is because language is fluid—we don't call cars "automobiles" anymore, so I thought it made sense for the Avatar world to leave behind the clunky word Satomobile in exchange for a simpler word, especially since it's been 130 years, time-wise, since the events of Legend of Korra. I know I haven't referred to Satomobiles as Satos in previous chapters (I chalk that up to my discovery writing, but you could call it a lack of foresight, if you wish), but I will be referring to them, in general, as Satos for the remainder of the story (I might catch the earlier inconsistency in a later edit). As for the geography, I'm borrowing about half of the Avatar world's geography from canon, and I'm making up the other half as I go. There are a few reasons for this, the foremost being that it would be rather improbable for the geographical/geological features we saw in A:tLA and LoK to be the only geographical features in this universe, and frankly, when you get right down to it, it's not a whole lot of material to work with for a story of this scale. So I'm adding locations, cities, and such as necessary. I hope this hasn't confused anyone (if anyone has even noticed). I hope you've all enjoyed the chapter regardless of these changes, and thanks, as always, for reading and reviewing.