I'm sorry for the long wait between chapters. I don't really have a good excuse (at least none that would make up for a break this long), but I figure not many people are still following this story, so I'm guessing the long time between updates is going to go largely unnoticed. Anyway, I'm working on reducing the number of stories I have going at the moment, but it's a long process, and there are no guarantees that I'll get to the next chapter anytime soon, though I will finish this project eventually. Either way, I plan to do a read-through of this story over the next couple days in an attempt to get back into it, as well as re-familiarize myself with all the little details and plot threads I've already laid out. With luck, I can pen the next chapter in a more timely manner and get this story moving again.
"The throne room is through here," Yumao said, standing in front of a pair of elegant stone doors. Princess Meira stood beside him, her expression blank, controlled. She hadn't spoken or smiled since he'd brought up the necessity of producing another heir for the Earth Kingdom. "The king spends four hours here each morning, and two hours more after dinner, maintaining the Earth Kingdom. I suspect his schedule will become less predictable now that he's devoting so much of his time and attention to the war."
Meira said nothing, only folded her hands in front of her. Yumao nodded to a Dai-Li agent, who then used his earthbending to open the doors. Voices floated out into the hallway, one stern, the other beseeching. A king and his citizens, he thought, stomach twisting with tension. Meira followed him into the room, moving with the grace of a dancer. Or a master waterbender, he thought. If we walk too close to a mop bucket, she could probably kill me. Best not to forget that, he decided. The war had already stirred up political unrest—the assassination attempt on Yoru at the gala proved that.
His father glanced up as he entered, but returned his attention to the nobleman begging at his feet. Curious, Yumao watched the scene unfold.
"Please, my king, another month. All I ask is another month, and the supplies will be at the city gates. I swear it."
"You have two weeks," King Haran said. "If you cannot bring me what I need in time, I will cancel our contract and find a more reliable manufacturer."
"But Your Grace, we have already manufactured everything you asked for—we just need to assemble it and send it to the city. Please, without this contract, my company could go bankrupt. I would lose all respect among my peers."
"That is not my concern."
Yumao saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Already on edge, he jumped before he realized Princess Meira had walked up to his side. Her eyes—a pale blue that bordered on gray—narrowed. "Shouldn't the king help that man?"
So optimistic. Yumao fidgeted. Optimistic people made him nervous. Unlike cynical people, whose self-serving tendencies made them dangerous but predictable, optimistic people were either blind to suffering or hopelessly addicted to seeking justice. "The king holds a great deal of power over the nobility," he said quietly. "If he wishes to deny one nobleman something, that is his prerogative."
"But why the rush?"
He hesitated, unsure how much to tell her, then decided that if she really wanted the information, she could find it easily enough without him. "That nobleman comes from up north, near the iron mines. The company he's worried about manufactures guns."
Meira paled. "But . . . But then why is he worried about going out of business? The war . . ."
"The thing is, he's not worried. He knows he'll be able to turn a profit over these next few months. I imagine the real reason he's here is to remind my father of his existence, and to acquire an advantage by setting a precedent for manipulating royal business contracts." Self-serving and manipulative, he thought. But familiar.
"But the king's not giving him any ground to stand on."
At least she catches on quickly. The corner of his lip turned up before he could stop it, and he had to focus to make his face settle into a neutral mask. He didn't want his father to see him taking anything lightly. Not now. "The king does not bow before his subjects."
The discussion ended, and the nobleman walked away, shoulders stiff. Yumao tilted his head back, looking up at his father. The king gestured for him to approach. Yumao stepped forward, relieved that Meira followed him without a word. When he reached the middle of the room, he pressed his knuckles together and bowed. "Father," he said, voice neutral. "I present to you Princess Meira Fuyu of the Northern Water Tribe."
"Excellent." The king stood, stepping down from the dais to study Meira at eye-level. Yumao peeked through his bangs and watched her meet his gaze, bowing once before dipping into a graceful curtsy. He blinked in surprise. The subtle positioning of her hands, the way she slid her right leg back and inclined her head while tilting her chin up just slightly . . . It was a textbook Earth Kingdom style curtsy.
"It is an honor to meet you, Your Grace."
"We are honored to house such a distinguished guest. We hope that, in time, you will find yourself as much at home here as you would in your city of birth. Son, you may rise," he added, almost as an afterthought. Yumao stood, keeping his shoulders square, his face forward. "Princess Meira, I only wish we had met at a less stressful time. I would have attended to you sooner, but my last visitor's business related to the war we now face. I am sure you understand."
"I do. You must have been very busy in these past few weeks. It is a privilege to meet you in person."
The king chuckled. It was a pleasant laugh, soft and regal. Yumao had found that his father excelled at faking emotion when it benefited him. "I suppose we could speak to each other at length about the mutual honor it is for us to meet one another, but I think we'd best try to get something done before the day ends. Lin, if you would." He gestured to a woman in servant's robes. Yumao recognized her face, but he'd never paid her much attention. She didn't stand out. Few servants did.
"My lady, it would be my pleasure to serve as your guide and escort through the palace, if you would permit me."
Surprise lit up Meira's eyes, and for the first time, she looked uncertain. "I . . . was rather under the impression that Prince Yumao would be escorting me around the palace."
The king stiffened, then relaxed a moment later. "That is a splendid idea. Certainly, we should allow the two of you to spend some time together, given the immediacy of your engagement. Yumao, I trust you'll arrange a proper course for the princess."
He gulped, hearing the warning beneath the words: No ill behavior. "I will do my best."
"It's settled then. Lin will accompany you in case you require anything, but she will be discreet." The last words rang with command, and Lin obediently stepped into Yumao's shadow, her footsteps as soft as if she were walking over ash instead of stone. "You are dismissed," the king added.
Yumao bowed. Meira curtsied, again in Earth Kingdom fashion. He wondered how long she'd had to practice to get that curtsy right. Most Earth Kingdom noblewomen couldn't do it with such grace. Yumao extended a hand, palm up, and after a moment, she laced her fingers through his and allowed him to lead her out of the throne room.
He felt a lot better once the doors closed behind them, even with Lin standing in his shadow. He suspected his father had assigned her to him so he would have an extra set of eyes and ears studying the princess. And studying him.
"Where shall we go?" he asked Meira, pasting a smile onto his face. It reminded him of his father's easy laughter in the throne room, and he hoped Meira couldn't see the falseness in it.
"Anywhere is fine."
"All right. Let's start with the basics." He started walking, his hands still laced with hers. His hand felt too warm, and the point of contact made it impossible for him to forget that soon they would be married. A cold lump of dread settled in his stomach.
"This is the medical wing," he said, pausing at the end of one hallway and waving as several nurses nodded in his direction.
"Why don't they bow to you?"
"The nurses. They just nod when they look at you. I thought they would bow."
"I've asked the staff not to bow to me except under very formal conditions."
He paused, glancing at her. "I don't know, exactly. I guess I never thought I deserved it."
Meira frowned but said nothing more. He suspected she disapproved—she'd likely been subjected to such formalities all her life, so his insistence on avoiding them probably seemed odd to her. Then again, she did mention interacting with commoners as she fulfilled her royal duties. All that bowing would get in the way, so there must have been a point where it ceased to occur so often.
"Brother," a voice called. Yumao turned his head to see Yoru exiting one of the rooms in the infirmary. Yoru stopped as he saw Meira. "Is that your future wife? Because if she is, you're a lucky man—she's not half as ugly as mine."
Oh, spirits. "You should not speak of Lady Xing in such a way."
"Ah, she can't hear me." Yoru crossed the distance between them, surveying Meira as he might study a wild eel hound he wanted to buy. "You look lovely, but green isn't your color."
Meira looked down at her dress—a deep, forest green gown that managed to look both elegant and completely ill-suited for her. "I prefer blue and white," she said.
"Water tribe colors. I'd say you'd look better in red, but that's so . . . Fire Nation." Yoru smiled lazily. "Maybe bronze. She'd look good in bronze, don't you think, Yumao?"
"I wouldn't know."
"He has abhorrent taste in clothes," Yoru said to Meira, lowering his voice enough to give the illusion of a private conversation even though he was quite obviously within Yumao's earshot. "The serving girls have to pick through his wardrobe every night just to make sure he has proper attire for the morning. It must be tiresome."
"Yoru . . ."
"I am sure his taste isn't so awful," Meira said. "At the very least, he must approve or reject what his servants choose for him, and that requires some understanding of style and color choice."
Yoru's eyes widened. He grinned. "I like you already. Yumao, if you'd ever like to trade wives—"
"Don't even go there."
"Fine, fine." He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I won't. I do have to speak with Xing about the next gala. She made it sound incredibly important that I be by her side this time. What a bother." He rolled his eyes. Yumao said nothing. "Farewell, brother. I hope to see you married before I leave for war, but I wouldn't count on it now that I've recovered."
Meira cocked her head to the side, but Yoru disappeared around a corner before she spoke. "Recovered from what?"
"Someone tried to poison him at the last gala he attended," Yumao said, lowering his voice. "We know one of the servants was involved—someone had to give him the poisoned wine—but we haven't apprehended the assassin yet."
"So there's a killer walking through these halls right at this moment?"
He smiled. "Quite possibly, although we don't know for certain whether she's killed anyone else yet."
"Yes, she. That's about as specific as we can get, based on what we remember." He sighed. "There are so many people to keep track of in this palace. The assassin may not have even been one of our servants. Or, if she was, then someone else, possibly someone within the palace, ordered her to poison my brother."
"Does it frighten you?"
Meira paused, then nodded.
"Try not to worry about it," he told her, smiling. "More likely than not, whoever ordered the assassination attempt did so knowing that medical attention would arrive in time to save Yoru's life. It was meant to stir up trouble and intrigue, not to kill." Probably.
"You seem very . . . unconcerned." Meira frowned. "Does this sort off thing happen often?"
"Not often, no. But what else can be expected with war looming on the horizon?" He sighed, turning to the servant his father had assigned to follow them. "Lin, if you would send for tea. I'd like to spend a few minutes speaking with my . . . bride . . . in the Teardrop Garden."
"As you wish, my prince." Lin hurried away, her footsteps so light that he could hardly hear them.
When Lin was out of earshot, Yumao turned to Meira. "Come with me." He headed in the opposite direction he'd sent Lin, then took a sharp turn into one of the sitting rooms.
"Is this your way of evading your servants?" Meira asked.
"One way. When you're the fourth most important person in the Earth Kingdom, you learn how to slip away unseen. Besides, Lin will be able to find me if she needs to." Reaching the opposite end of the sitting room, he scanned a bookshelf, searching for the switch hidden on the second shelf. He found it behind an old history book and flipped it, stepping back as the bookshelf slid to the side. "Secret passages. Every good palace has them, and everyone who lives here knows about at least some of them."
Meira hesitated on the other side of the entrance, and Yumao beckoned her. "The door only stays open for a short time."
Eyebrows pinching together, she stepped across the threshold. No sooner than they met up in the passage did the bookshelf slide shut behind them, shrouding the tunnel in darkness. "Follow my voice," he whispered. "There will be lights farther down."
"Secret passages," Meira muttered behind him. "Naturally."
"This way." He shuffled down the passage, fingertips tracing the stone walls so he wouldn't bump into them. When the wall to his right suddenly disappeared, he turned. "A few more steps," he told Meira, "then take a right." He glanced over his shoulder, catching the faint light from the glow-crystals in the hallway beyond. When he heard the princess's footsteps echoing through the passage, he started moving toward the light. "Just keep walking. We're almost there."
"Almost where?" Her voice was loud in the silence, and wary.
"To the part of the tunnel where you can actually see where you're walking," he told her, squinting as the glow-crystals became more distinct. They walked about fifty meters before the ambient light became sufficient for him to see Meira's face. The glow-crystals gave off an eerie blue light—Earth Kingdom scientists had yet to develop crystals that could produce other colors, though altering the distribution of minerals in the crystal could change the shade of blue somewhat. But these passages had been carved early in New Haran's history, and though the city wasn't old by any means, Yumao doubted that anyone would bother placing new crystals in the secret tunnels, no matter how eerie the light.
"Wouldn't it have been more prudent for you to bring a lantern?" Meira asked, her voice stiff.
"Yes, but what's the fun in that?" His smile wilted when the princess's eyes narrowed. "Very well. We'll only walk through the well-lit tunnels from here on out."
"Good." She tilted her chin up, following him as he turned down another corridor. He'd had these passages memorized since childhood, and though he didn't use them as frequently as he once had, the familiarity had not deserted him. Meira had no trouble following him, although she did occasionally frown when the passage dimmed.
"This city was only built a few decades ago, meaning that these passages haven't been around very long. So why is the lighting so inconsistent?"
"The light—or lack thereof—is a sort of map," he told her. "I could explain in-depth what the different light levels mean, but for now, I think the fact that they are brightest near the center of the palace and grow dimmer as you get farther away will be sufficient for you to find your way around should something happen."
"Do you expect something to happen?"
So many questions. He sighed. "Not at the moment, no. But my brother was poisoned not long ago, and it wouldn't be so surprising for someone to target you, now that you're going to become part of the royal family. Nobles thrive on that sort of thing."
He turned, surprised by the intensity of her reaction. "What do you mean?"
"The idea of people flourishing, in any way, because of treachery and deceit. The idea that the nobility—who stand just one step below the royal family—could not only tolerate someone targeting the royal family, but actually enjoy it. How can a nation so great and powerful be made from such low, amoral nobles?"
Yumao stared at her, his eyebrows pulling together. "Is it . . . not like that where you come from?"
"Of course it isn't!" She flung her arms outward, as if physically throwing aside the thought. "In the North Pole, we are a community. We all work toward a common goal, whether it be survival or vitality."
"And what happens when someone goes against that goal?" he said, perhaps a little more sharply than he'd intended. "What do you do when someone high up in the hierarchy of your perfect country fails to uphold those goals and values that supposedly matter to your people?"
She opened her mouth, then snapped it shut, shoulders stiffening. Then, slowly, she said, "Those people, when they do appear, are banished from the tribe."
"Banished," he repeated flatly. "You just tell them to pack their things and paddle a canoe to whatever chunk of ice they might find beyond your borders."
"We do no such thing! They are given three days to gather their belongings, plus provisions to survive on until they can find safe harbor elsewhere. They are not merely cast out in a canoe." Her voice had weakened slightly, as if she'd realized that she'd only confirmed his statement, albeit with prettier words. "We are not so savage as to strike out at our own leaders," she continued, seeming to gather her resolve as she spoke. "If a leader shows themselves to be unfit for their position, the other leaders in the tribe convene and vote on whether he or she should be removed from that position, whether it be the place of chieftain or one of the council members."
He frowned. He'd studied water tribe politics, of course, which meant he was familiar with the structure of their government and their customs for choosing leaders. He also knew that, although the title of chief was mostly hereditary, it could be revoked if the current chief proved unsuited for the role. But it all seemed too idealistic. It relied on the ability of the other leaders to reach a consensus about the character of one of their own, while acknowledging that hereditary titles meant little if the person in question could not fulfill their duties. If everyone in the world could be so trusting of their leaders, he thought, then it would be a beautiful system.
"I concede that your political system is less cutthroat than mine," he said. "I can see how such a thing would work in a smaller setting, where every leader can be closely monitored, judged, and influenced by their peers. But the Earth Kingdom is too vast for such a thing to work here. That is why we have a royal family—one with kings that cannot be ousted from their position without abdicating the throne or dying. A monarch with absolute authority may be assassinated, but until that day, they have final say over the affairs of the kingdom. Without that unbreakable, central authority, the whole kingdom would shatter like a pot of clay dropped from a tower window.
"Just think," he went on, wandering down the tunnel, toward the southern end of the palace. "Just think what would happen if every lesser king in the Earth Kingdom were to have the authority to go to war," he said. "If, for example, Omashu's king decided to attack the Fire Nation, and Ba Sing Se's king wanted to continue trading with the Fire Nation. Rather than coming to a consensus, the two kings would argue until their disagreement became so fierce that they instead went to war with each other. An Earth King—which, mind you, is separate from a regional king, as Earth King Kuei and King Bumi of Omashu were separate in the days of Sozin's War—maintains the position of highest authority, and can therefore act as a third party and decide what the best course of action is at a given time. An Earth King unifies the nation, and if he is seen as having anything less than absolute control over his reign . . ." Yumao shook his head. "You can see why it must be solely a hereditary title. Merit and morality changes from person to person, and from situation to situation, but a position based on one's bloodline is nearly irrevocable. And there are times, whether you want to accept it or not, when having a leader takes precedence over having a good leader."
Meira's eyes narrowed. "I think you're wrong," she said, her eyes becoming as cold as the city she'd been born into. "Giving someone absolute authority will result in a tyrant for a leader, even if they've been groomed for that position since birth. But if a leader knows their title can be taken away, they will remember that it is their duty to do what is right for their people, even at their own expense."
Yumao felt the back of his neck flush with anger. "Did you just call me a tyrant in the making?"
"I did," she replied sharply. "And if you cannot see how easily you would become one, then I fear for the future of this kingdom and the rest of the world." She turned away. "Take me back to the surface. I would prefer to have Lin guide me through the palace."
The insult stung. Yumao wanted to rebel against it, to prove in some way that he was no tyrant, that he would never become one, even if he did take the throne. But he had too long nurtured his habit of bowing his head when faced with a challenge, and he found himself doing the same now. "There's a door at the end of this corridor that leads into another sitting room," he said, taking the lead. "I'll send a servant to fetch Lin for you."
"You'll want to make the rudder smaller," Yuuto said, gesturing to the scaled-down airship. "If you make any part of the airship too bulky, it won't fly evenly."
"Will the engines be able to compensate?" asked one of the engineers.
"For the rudder?" Yuuto asked. "Of course. By changing the output of the engines, you can steer the craft without a rudder." Spirits, the Fire Nation practically invented airships. How could they not see something so obvious?
"Why even have a rudder, then?"
"Because," Yuuto said, frustration leaking into his voice. Firebenders. Honestly. "Because in the event that the airship is required to perform aerial feats above and beyond the specifications of normal passenger aircraft—which it will be, if it's going up against Earth Kingdom airships—you need the rudder in order to make sharper turns."
The engineers muttered in voices too low for him to hear. After a moment, Chief Engineer Alza glanced up at him. "That's all we need from you today," she said curtly. "Go back to your quarters."
Are all Fire Nation people this bossy? he wondered, forehead wrinkling. Spirits, the queen—the Fire Lady, he corrected himself—had personally given him the ultimatum that had landed him here: assist the engineers with building better military airships or be executed for espionage.
At least she'd offered him full citizenship if he complied. Once he proved himself a reliable engineer, he'd be granted a new name and all the appropriate documentation to make him a citizen of the Fire Nation. Which, in a way, would mean he wouldn't technically be a traitor to the Earth Kingdom, since his new identity would make it so he'd never been a citizen there. "Aside from the details about never seeing my family or home again, this is turning out great," he muttered, allowing the soldiers Fire Lady Taemin had tasked with watching him escort him back to his chambers. They both looked over at his mutterings, but neither made any comment.
He got the sense that they didn't like him all that much. Which was only logical, since his people had very recently bombed the Fire Nation. Of course, by helping the Fire Nation build military airships, Yuuto was helping them return the favor, so really, these guards ought to be happier with him.
Or maybe he'd just spent a solid twelve hours with a bunch of squabbling engineers who looked at him like he was some stupid kid, and the exhaustion was making him illogical.
They reached his temporary chambers—the finely furnished rooms where he'd been more or less imprisoned before the Fire Lady had made him choose between being a traitor and being dead. "Thanks," he murmured to the guards, hoping that a little gratitude would ease their disdain for them. But they just looked at him, faces concealed by their plated helmets, their eyes invisible through their tinted visors.Well, at least they haven't killed me, he thought, opening the door.
The sheets had been stripped off his bed and burned in the fireplace, leaving behind only a few scraps of embroidered fabric and a pitifully small pile of ashes. His pillows had been slashed with what he assumed to be the tip of a spear, then tossed on the floor so the stuffing spilled out of them. The lamp on his bedside table lay in shards next to the pillows. A glance into the bathroom revealed that the mirror had been shattered, the towels slashed by the same blades that had destroyed the pillows.
Yuuto sighed, glancing back at the soldiers standing in the doorway. "I don't suppose either of you would know anything about this?"
Neither said a word.
"Wonderful." He sat down on the edge of the bed, glad that no one had thought to slash the mattress while they were destroying everything else. "Unfortunately, I'm afraid all this effort is wasted. I am far too tired to be bothered by the lack of proper sheets, and those pillows were too slippery anyway." His eyes flickered back to the soldiers, searching for some reaction, some involuntary twitch. Their stillness, if anything, seemed more incriminating. "I must say, if this is a hate crime, it's much tamer than I'd have expected. If this is the worst the Earth Kingdom has to fear from the Fire Nation, it's no wonder the Earth King decided to attack."
"You take that back!" one of the guards snarled, raising his spear. The temperature shot up ten degrees in a second. At least one of them is a firebender, Yuuto thought. That could be useful to know.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice dripping with insincerity. "I didn't mean to criticize your attempts at ransacking my room. I'm sure that if you'd had more time, you'd have come up with something much more threatening than some burnt bedsheets and broken glass."
Neither of them denied their role in destroying his chambers, which either meant they were too dull to realize they'd been accused of such—not likely, since any soldier good enough to be tasked with guarding the palace would be intelligent enough to realize they were being accused—or they were proud of what they'd done here. Well, at least I'm not dead, Yuuto thought, sitting on the edge of the bed and stripping off his boots.
"He's just some dirt-faced traitor. Forget him," said one of the soldiers. A female soldier, which surprised him. It was difficult to tell when they were wearing armor, and neither of them had actually spoken to him before now. What a strange country this is, he thought. A military structure that puts men and women together in teams instead of separating them into different divisions.
It hadn't been like that in the Earth Kingdom. There, female soldiers were a rarity, and typically came from the more liberal splinter-kingdoms like Omashu or the Si-Wong Desert, where gender roles were less strictly enforced. Yuuto didn't have anything against women being soldiers, but it still struck him as odd that the Fire Nation had a fully integrated military. That's one area where the Fire Nation might actually be superior to the Earth Kingdom, he thought, frowning to himself. Was it wrong to think that the Fire Nation might be a better place, in some ways, than the Earth Kingdom? True, he'd soon have citizenship here, but he'd only chosen to help the Fire Nation under threat of death. Surely it was wrong to wish his own country could be more like this one while the two were at war.
It doesn't matter, he told himself. The only thing you should be worried about is keeping yourself alive. He looked over his destroyed bedroom, thought about the viciousness of the attack. The Fire Nation was the enemy. They were barbarians. He had to remember that.
He feared what would happen if he forgot.