Finally got the first chapter of the rewritten version up! Yaay! I'm much happier with how this one is progressing. I'm about five chapters into it and loving writing it thus far. There will be about four chapters of just Asuni building up a rapport with Zuko, Iroh, and the ship's crew and establishing her as a character, but then we'll hit the actual series. I think I'm going to do this one the same way I did the Dragora Kyuri series instead of how I did Avatar Amaya series, that is all one story instead of a story for each book. And if you haven't read those yet, please do!
Asuni sat up and stretched as the moon dipped from the sky, the pink colors of sunrise filling the sky, but sunrise was still a few minutes away. She rose and walked to her washstand. A flick of her wrist drew water from the jug and pulled it into her basin. She splashed it up onto her face, washing the sleep from her eyes before changing from a simple robe into her clothes.
Asuni was one of the many cooks who worked in the Fire Palace. At eight years old, she was young, too young to be doing much cooking around the hot stoves. Her mother was a cook until she died, and Asuni had been allowed to stay by virtue of her mother's long years of service. Her father was an unknown, making her a bastard child born out of wedlock.
In a way, that made the kitchens ideal for her. There, no one cared where you came from or who your family was. So long as you worked hard and did what you were assigned with little fuss, you were accepted.
And Asuni was a hard worker. She rose at moonset and dressed in her loose-fitting red pants, slippers, and once-shouldered tunic before pulling her hair back into a tight bun and hefting the buckets and staff from their spot by her door. She went to the cistern, which kept water cool even in the summer heat, and drew up two buckets, carrying them into the kitchen without spilling a drop. She made four trips, enough water for the day, pouring it into the trough in the middle of the kitchen to be drawn on for cooking throughout the day.
Despite the fact that she wasn't supposed to be around stoves, she filled a large pot with water and started it boiling, pushing over a step stool and climbing up onto the counters to pull down an invigorating canister of mint tea leaves kept for personal use in the kitchen. The royals had their own supply of teas, much finer than the stuff the cooks drank.
It would take a while for the water to heat – after all, she was no Firebender that could heat things in a flash – and Asuni enjoyed her free times in the morning when no one was around. With a quick glance out the windows and down the hall to make sure no one was coming, Asuni took a stance in front of the water trough and lifted her hands. The water came up with it and she smiled, turning and twisting the water at her whim.
"You're getting better."
Asuni whirled to see the face of General Lo Shen at the window, looking at her in amusement.
"General!" Asuni exclaimed, letting the water splash back into the trough, scrambling into a low bow.
"Stop that child, there's no need," the General scoffed. "You and I both know it doesn't matter to me how you act when we're alone."
"Yes sir," Asuni replied politely, but she was beaming.
When she'd first met the general three years ago, barely five years old, she'd been terrified of him, and for good reason.
He was an old man, slightly hunched, but with a bulk of muscles that kept him from looking frail. His grey hair was pulled into a topknot with military neatness. His equally grey beard was neatly trimmed into a long point. Thin, cracked lips nestled under a bushy mustache, and dark eyes gleamed cunningly from the shadows of a heavy brow. His nose was broken in at least three places, and he was usually garbed head to toe in armor, a gigantic sword strapped across his back. He might have been a handsome, if aging, man, had it not been for the three lines of scar tissue raking down his face, tugging the outer corner of his left eye and the left side of his mouth down into a sloppy, frowning expression. He also constantly smelled of spilled blood.
"Keep practicing, child," the General encouraged. "Have you any plans for tonight?"
Asuni looked at the man reproachfully. "You know what my plans are, sir."
The General gave a low, coughing chuckle. "Just making sure you remembered."
The sound of opening doors and footsteps made Asuni whirl towards the door that led into the living quarters of the kitchen staff.
"They're awake!" she exclaimed, turning back to the window. "You should probably-"
There wasn't a trace of Lo Shen. He was gone in a flash, silent despite his bulk, and Asuni honestly wasn't sure why she'd expected anything different.
As the cooks began to shuffle in to prepare the morning meal they were greeted by rows of mint tea in steaming cups along one counter and a smiling child beside them. Like every morning, they filed along the counter and grabbed their cups, ruffling Asuni's hair or patting her head in thanks as they passed.
Asuni looked up at the head cook, Rei. She was a heavy woman with a thick iron-grey bun and glowing amber eyes that always made it look like she knew more than she was letting on, and was trying to decide if you were worth letting in on the secret. She always stood up straight and held her shoulders squared. She was the sort of woman that made hardened soldiers run crying for their mother's, and she lordedover the kitchen with an iron fist.
Rei calmly sipped her cup of mint tea, smiling slightly, gold bracelets around her wrists tinkling.
They may have only been cooks, but they had their pride, and the gleam of a gold bracelet wasn't uncommon over the pots, nor was the glint of an earring among the steam.
"You look a bit harried child," Rei observed. "Something wrong?"
"No, ma'am," Asuni replied. Rei looked her up and down slowly and Asuni twitched.
"Huh," was all Rei said before sweeping towards the storage cupboard. Asuni let out a breath of air. If anyone found out she was talking to the General, questions would be asked, and she absolutely couldn't get him in trouble, there was too much at risk for him.
"What are you talking about?"
"I know you took it!"
"I did not, you paranoid idiot! Why would I want it?"
"Idi- Oh, you're gonna pay for that!"
Asuni spun and turned to face the source of the commotion. Her face fell as she saw the water washing over the kitchen, very irritated cooks standing in soaked slippers, glaring at the culprits who had tripped into the central trough.
Hinote and Atsui. They'd never gotten along and they had gotten into their share of fights before, physical and otherwise, but they usually kept it out of the kitchen, and the reason why was standing over them right now, arms crossed, making them feel about an inch tall. Both boys shrank down into the trough.
"Well well," Rei began slowly. "What a way to start the day, eh boys? The sun isn't even up and you've already ruined someone's hard work. Poor Asuni carries in that water all by herself every day and then goes and gets a little extra just so we can all start the day with a nice cup of tea. And I specifically remember her making you something different because you're allergic to mint, Hinote."
The taller one shrunk further into the water, only his head above it now.
"You know what I think?" Rei asked. The two boys shook their heads wordlessly. "I think that you two should take on Asuni's chores for the rest of the day. Maybe if you see how hard she works you'll have a little more respect for all she does. And I think you owe her an apology."
Under Rei's glaring eyes, the two sheepishly crawled out of the tub. Atsui's brown ponytail was sticking to his cheeks and Hinote's buzz cut glistened with droplets. The pair of them dripped on the floor as they approached her, eyes trained on the floor.
"We're sorry," they chorused, bowing deeply.
"It's fine," Asuni assured them, reveling in her little power trip at having a pair of teenage boys bowing to her. "Just don't do it again."
Asuni as sure they wouldn't, not only because of fear of Rei's fury, but because of the fact that Asuni herself, as the youngest member of the kitchen, was also the most beloved. She'd grown up there among the cooks and they were all fond of her. In a way she was like the mascot of the kitchen staff.
"Now mop this mess up!" Rei barked. "And go get more water! Asuni, congratulations, you just got the day off."
"I'll get the water," Asuni piped up. "I don't mind, and that way we can get back on track faster. Besides, I want to at least do something today."
Rei shook her head. "Oh, fine. Hinote, Atsui, I want this floor bone dry before breakfast goes out the doors, got it?"
"Yes ma'am!" They hastened to get the mops as Asuni retrieved her buckets and pole and headed back out the door into the courtyard.
There was a small walkway that led directly from the kitchen to the cistern, but it ran right past the royal gardens. This was out of necessity, as it would have been ridiculously overcomplicated to make the gardeners haul water up from the cistern on the other side of the complex. By virtue of being close, the kitchen was allowed to use the same water source, but they were supposed to make sure they weren't seen by any nobles. After all, the help is to be seen and not heard.
Asuni took a quick glance around, not really paying attention, and started along the walkway.
"Look," Azula whispered to Mai and Ty Lee as the darting figure of one of the kitchen girls appeared between a gap in the shrubbery. She was a little older than them, and was carrying buckets on a pole over her shoulder. She could tell they were empty by the way they were swinging, and that meant she would soon be coming back with full ones.
"Probably one of the cook's daughters, so what?" Mai asked boredly.
"So, she'll be coming back with water in a minute," Azula said as though it were obvious. "If we trip her, she'll be soaked!"
"That seems a little bit mean," Ty Lee pointed out hesitantly.
"So?" Azula chuckled. "She's just a servant."
Mai and Ty Lee exchanged looks. There was no way they were going against Azula on this; she was, after all, the princess. Whatever she says goes, that was the rule they lived by. Sending up a quick prayer for the poor kitchen girl who was about to get drenched, they crept over to the gap in the bushes with Azula, lying in wait.
Sure to Azula's prediction, the girl came back a few minutes later with two buckets over her shoulders, water sloshing and weighing her down.
"What are you doing?"
Azula turned to glare at Zuko, who was crouching behind her looking through the bushes curiously. She smirked a bit at Mai's red face, because he was very close to her, and went back to glaring.
"None of your business, Zuzu!" she snapped at him. She flicked her wrist and smiled as the fire crackled along her fingers.
"Hey, don't-!" Zuko protested worriedly, but Azula had already thrown. The girl, however, had heard his shout. She swung the pole off her shoulders and set the buckets on the ground, not spilling a drop. As Azula's fire sailed towards her, she dropped to the ground, balancing on her toes and palms as if she were about to do a pushup. She glared into the bushes.
"Who threw that?" she demanded angrily.
"You ruined it," Azula snapped at her brother. She shoved through the bushes and the kitchen girl's eyes blew wide. Immediately her posture shifted so that she was on her knees, hands flat in front of her, eyes lowered.
"Your highness," she murmured. "I'm sorry, I didn't know it was you, or I wouldn't have spoken like that."
"You know, I could have you thrown out on the streets for talking to me like that," Azula smirked, standing tall over the prostrate girl.
"I beg your forgiveness, highness, I'm sorry. I didn't realize-"
Zuko looked between his sister, who was clearly enjoying lording over the serving girl, and the kitchen girl herself, prostrate and panting slightly, sweat on her brow. He knew how scary it was to have a fireball fly at you – he'd seen the business end of several during his training – and he felt bad for her.
"Don't scare her!" he protested, moving forwards. He crouched down next to the girl. She looked up at him and then hastily glanced back down. She wasn't supposed to look the nobles in the eye and she knew it. "Uh… are you okay?" Zuko asked unsurely. He'd never spoken to one of the servants directly before. He ordered them around, sure, but he never just talked to them.
"I-I'm fine highness. I'm sorry, I didn't know there were people around, we're not supposed to be seen-"
"It's fine," Zuko assured the girl. "Did she hit you?" He gave Azula a dark look and his sister rolled her eyes, pulling her friends back out into the courtyard to play some more. Mai hesitated, looking unhappily at the bowing servant girl who was the center of Zuko's attention, before following.
"She missed," the girl murmured.
"You have really good reflexes," he praised, and she went bright red.
"Thank you, highness," she whispered, dropping even lower to the ground.
Zuko cocked his head at her. "You can get up, you know."
"I haven't been given permission yet," she disagreed, shaking her head and not raising her eyes from the ground.
"Didn't I kind of just do that?"
She slowly unfolded from her crouch and straightened up onto her knees, hands wringing in her lap. She still kept her eyes trained on the ground.
"I'm Zuko," he said, sticking out a hand to her.
"Everyone knows. You're the prince," she said softly, taking his hand hesitantly and shaking.
"Well I don't know who you are," he pointed out.
Her eyes flicked up. Zuko seized her cheeks, looking into her eyes curiously. Asuni's face flamed and she wondered if she would get in trouble for decking the prince, then quickly smacked herself for even thinking something like that. She hated having to bow to people, it really pricked her pride. That's why she was so content in the kitchens where no one was any better than anyone else, and now she was bowing to that cruel princess and her brother was pawing at her face.
This was quickly turning into one of her worst days ever.
"Is something wrong?" Asuni demanded, a bit more harshly than she meant to.
"You're eyes are blue!" the prince exclaimed, looking into them in fascination. "They're not brown or gold!"
Asuni blinked. He was pawing at her… because she had blue eyes?
"I know," she said slowly.
"I've never seen blue eyes before!" the prince exclaimed, turning her head this way and that to get a better look.
"I'm not a toy!" Asuni exclaimed irritably, slapping his hand away. She paled as she realized she'd just struck a noble, but he didn't seem concerned. Actually, he looked embarrassed.
"Sorry," he muttered. "They're just interesting."
"Thanks," Asuni said slowly. "Sorry I hit you."
"It's fine. I, uh, I should go. I'm supposed to be watching Azula," Zuko grumbled.
"I have to… the water," Asuni said, nodding to the buckets. Moving at the same time, they both recoiled from each other and fled in opposite directions, Asuni back towards the kitchen and Zuko out into the courtyard.
"Where's the water?" Rei exclaimed as Asuni darted in, looking shell shocked.
"Princess Azula threw a fireball at me," she said blankly. "And Prince Zuko said my eyes were interesting."
Rei's eyes widened slightly. "… You can spend the rest of the day in your room."
Asuni waited for Hinote's snores to start, loud enough that they would cover a volcanic eruption. She threw off her covers and rose, padding in bare feet out of her room and down the hall, into the kitchen. However, instead of heading out into the garden, she entered the storeroom. She pushed her way through hanging nets filled with produce and bunches of herbs in the midst of drying.
At the back was a cabinet covered in bags of flour, salt, sugar, and other necessities. Here Asuni stopped, reaching up to grab the pendant at her throat. It was a slim golden disk with a long loop at the top, hanging from a red ribbon tight against her throat. Asuni slid the disk into the tiniest of gaps in the back of the shelves, pushing aside a bag of flour to get at it. Gripping the loop, which was made long for just such a purpose, she turned it. There was a soft click and Asuni eased the entirely of the cabinet out on greased hinges.
Immediately, she was faced with a ladder descending down. Asuni balanced on the top rung of the ladder, reaching behind her to grip the handle on the back of the cabinet. She pulled, and it slid back into place with a click, shutting off any and all light from the outside.
The tube was lit only faintly by torchlight flickering below. In almost total darkness, Asuni descended deep under the palace, climbing towards the light. A minute later her feet hit the ground suddenly, and she turned, blinking slightly at the light from the torches. Knowing that she was running late, she scurried down the tunnel.
At the end she found what she was expecting. A dozen men and women scattered around, some with the regal bearing of nobles, some wearing the simple tunics of palace workers. They were sparring, some throwing elements, others throwing punches, a few trading blows with swords and knives.
Asuni looked up at smiled at the face of General Lo Shen, who was striding towards her.
"You're almost late," he rebuked.
"Almost," she pointed out.
The grunts of strains and calls of triumph were familiar to her, as was the blazing woosh of Firebending. She had quickly become used to sounds that were typical in any training arena anywhere, even secret ones under the Fire Palace.
However, there were a few things here one wouldn't expect. In one corner was a furnace and bellows, as well as an anvil and several other tools of blacksmithing. A woman was pounding away at a piece of glowing metal. In another corner a man was very calmly sewing a silk coat, embroidering around the collar with some difficulty. A few feet away, another woman was struggling with the strings on a qin, trying to tune them. Next to her was a pair playing pai sho, intent expressions on their faces.
This was the training ground of the Royal Guards. Once they were the elite guards of the royal family. However, a Fire Lord whose name had been lost to history disbanded them for using cruel, underhanded tactics in their pursuit of their duty. They had left the public eye, but they still existed, hiding away in secret areas around the Fire Palace, right under the Fire Lord's nose, ready to act if the situation called for it, doing their duty to the country.
Of course, they couldn't do that from inside the palace. In addition to being taught bending, fighting, and healing, they were also expected to be able to hold down cover as anything that might be needed, hence the training in less violent things.
"General." Asuni bowed deeply as Lo Shen approached her.
"Ready to practice your bending?"
"Yes sir," Asuni smiled.
The Royal Guards were, of course, predominantly Firebenders, but they also included a few old families from other bending disciplines who'd come to the Fire Nation centuries ago, their loyalty proven. They'd never had Airbenders before though. Their peaceful nature conflicted greatly with the violent beliefs of the Royal Guards.
"Lieutenant Eiji!" Lo Shen barked.
A tanned boy with black trimmed hair and bronze eyes slipped over. He was dressed in a light vest and thin pants, his standard training gear since it tended to get hot down here thanks to the forge and the Firebenders.
"Yes sir?" Eiji asked, standing with military straightness.
"Spar with Asuni," the General said, pointing to the girl. He leaned to the side as a chain with a three-clawed hook affixed to the end, one of the many weapons unique to the Royal Guards, swung a tad too close to them. The wielder immediately yanked back on the chain, sending the claw flying back to smack into his waiting hand. He immediately dropped to one knee, right elbow resting on his right knee, left forearm tucked behind his back at a right angle, head lowered. This was the bow unique to the Royal Guards, one they only used rarely with officers of much higher rank. Lo Shen bowed this way to no one but the Fire Lord.
To say that the Fire Lords were ignorant of their location was not to say that they were ignorant of the Royal Guard's existence. They knew very well that the Royal Guards existed. The current General always approached the new Fire Lord and made them aware of their existence, swearing fealty. After that, the Fire Lord was free to call on them if needed. When not being ordered by the Fire Lord, the Royal Guards became the silent police of the capital, some of them patrolling the streets or moving beyond the capital and out in to the world to gather information on economy, politics, public opinion, and other things in other nations.
Essentially, they monitored the world and tried to steer the Fire Nation accordingly.
"Why Shito," Lo Shen said, turning around to face the man and smiling pleasantly, a sure sign someone was about to get hurt. "Did you want to spar with me? You could have just asked! Come on, get up!"
There was a unanimous flinch around the room from every member present, winces adorning every face. Several people made eye contact around the room or looked at Shito sympathetically. Lo Shen wasn't General just because of his age, but because he was unbeaten.
That was how Generals were chosen. A new challenger had to be a certain rank of course, Lieutenant or higher, but after that, the challenge had to be answered and the winner took the title. It wasn't to the death, just to the yield, and the challenger could not be punished, so long as they could give a reason why they felt they would be a better leader. Of course if a General died undefeated – as Lo Shen likely would – then it passed not to the next-highest rank, as one might expect, but to the General's next of kin in the Royal Guards, the reasoning being that people learned better from family than from commanders and that honoring the memory of a fallen relative and doing what was best for the Royal Guards as a whole would trump personal advancement and help prevent any attempts on the General.
That meant Asuni would take over. And that was why she'd been training to fight since she was five.
Eiji leapt at Asuni as Lo Shen attacked Shito, who yelped and scampered back. Asuni reached for an urn of water in one corner and flicked her fingers. The water came to her command, hitting the fire trailing from Eiji's foot and bursting into steam, smoothing his flames. The air was filled with mist that Asuni drew back together and lashed at him, the edge sharpened and iced to cut. Eiji leapt over the water and punched three times. Asuni rolled out of the way of the attacks and came up with her water whip lashing for Eiji's ankle.
Opening salvo over, the two continued to fight for almost half an hour, throwing attacks back and forth. By the end they were both lying on the ground panting and gasping for air, drenched in sweat.
"Alright, that's enough," Lo Shen chuckled, reaching down with both hands to help both combatants up. "Eiji, go take a shower boy, you smell. Asuni, hit the books." He jerked his head towards a small door in one wall that lead to a tiny library. There was only one table in a closet-like room surrounded on all sides by scrolls and books, lit by a chandelier overhead. The topics were precise, mostly relating to military history and tactics, weaponry, different styles of bending, and the various standard cover skills every Royal Guard was trained in.
Asuni poured over her Waterbending scrolls and qin fingering charts for another three hours. By that point it was past midnight. She stood up with a stretch and a yawn and placed the materials back on the shelves. She left the library and waved to Eiji, bowing to Lo Shen, before starting up the ladder. She paused at the top of the ladder and pulled the latch on the back of the shelves. They swung open soundlessly and Asuni slipped through into the storeroom, closing the door behind her. Quietly, she crept back to her room and slid under her sheets.