"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted."
- David Scott (American astronaut; commander of Apollo 15;
seventh man to walk on the Moon), quoting Plutarch
Long ago, in the early days of the Chun Tai era, Avatar Korra helped the six nations of our world find a new balance among themselves. The world of Dìqiú entered a peaceful age of invention and discovery... but then everything changed when we discovered the world beyond the Veil.
Now, in the new galactic age, it has become the Avatar's duty to seek balance between her homeworld and the universe beyond - and thanks to her careful efforts, life in Dìqiú carries on without traumatic upheaval...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Legacy of Korra, Book 6: Galaxy
A Fire to be Lighted
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
Legacy devised by
Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2013, 2014 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Table of Contents
Xinqiliu, Bayue 29, 279 ASC
Saturday, August 29, SY 2398
Shu Jing, Fire Nation
After playing a significant part in the end of the Hundred Year War, Master Piandao, the great swordsman-scholar, converted his country estate in Shu Jing into an elite private school. Weary of war and national rivalry, he wished to show that knowledge, self-improvement, and cultural refinement were not the exclusive preserve of any one country or creed. His mission was to offer the finest education available to the most talented youngsters in the world, regardless of their origins or circumstances.
As the sixth generation of Master Piandao's family, we are proud to carry on his mission today. Every year, following a rigorous and competitive admissions screening process, fourteen of the most academically gifted eleven-year-olds from around the world enter Piandao Academy, to spend seven years receiving the finest education we believe it is possible to provide. No expense is spared in developing and refining the curriculum, providing the facilities, and supporting our students as they grow and learn.
Academic performance is the only criterion for admittance to Piandao Academy. Neither national origin nor economic circumstance will ever be permitted to stand in the way of a youngster who has shown him- or herself ready, willing, and able to excel. This was Master Piandao's pledge, and it remains ours today.
So welcome to Piandao Academy! You have much to learn, but you have already shown that you love learning, and so we hope you will find that this is the place for you. I look forward to seven happy and productive years with you.
In the great hall of what been Master Piandao's grand house, and was now the Academy's main building, stood a young girl in a brand-new school uniform, carrying a duffel bag. She finished re-reading the headmaster's missive, folded it up, and tucked it away in the inside pocket of her tunic, consulting instead the small card which had come with it in the mail. On one side, this informed her that she had been accepted as a member of Form Four, the new school year's incoming sixth-grade class. Not for the first time, she wondered why four. Surely it should either be Form One, the first-year students, or Form Six?
No matter. Form Four it was, also known as the graduating class of 287. The important information right now was on the other side of the card, anyway, as this informed her that her lodgings were in this building, Piandao House, on the third floor of the west wing, room number 44. That pleased her, for no better reason than that she was whimsically fond of multiples of eleven.
She put the card away, shifted her grip on her bag, turned, and was nearly run into by another student, hurrying past with a harried-looking manservant in tow. The manservant was carrying a number of bags, including a strangely shaped case that must have contained a musical instrument; the student, a boy of about the girl's own age with slicked-down black hair and an irritable mien, carried nothing at all.
"One side, peasant," the boy growled, in lieu of any kind of apology for nearly knocking her down. His manservant gave her an apologetic look with just his eyes, while the rest of his face remained stonily expressionless as they passed.
"That didn't take long," she mused, then shrugged and crossed the great hall to the west-wing stairs.
Once off the stairs, she found (somewhat to her delight) that the third floor was a maze, its corridors taking odd and unintuitive turns, the numbers on the doors she passed seeming to conform to no particular indexing scheme she could divine. It took her a few minutes to find room 44, which turned out to be between 37 and 21, and across the hall from 16. When she entered, she found that there was another student already there.
The other girl was slim, slightly taller than the one who had just arrived, black-haired, and had very fair skin. Hearing the door open, she turned to look, fixing the new arrival with eyes of a clear and distinctive amber. She also had a very distinctive hairstyle: her long, straight hair was mostly worn rolled into a bun at the nape of her neck, but her bangs, nearly long enough to reach her neck, were loose and neatly parted so that they came to points on either side of her chin and framed her very pretty face.
For her part, the person this girl saw entering the room was a little shorter and a bit more ruggedly built - not fat by any means, nor lacking in the graces that were, at their age, starting to differentiate the girls from the boys; but sturdy-looking, with slightly broader shoulders than usual. She had skin the color of hot cocoa, a casual gamine haircut a shade or two darker, and eyes that were startlingly blue against them both, set in an open, honest face that looked as if it were accustomed to doing a lot of smiling.
It smiled now, showing very white teeth, as its owner said, "Hi! I guess we're roommates. I'm Karana."
The black-haired girl put her hands together in front of her, left hand upraised above right fist, and bowed slightly. "My name is Azana," she said.
"Nice to meet you," said Karana, making a slightly different gesture in reply - her right fist enclosed loosely in her left hand. Then, taking a close look at her new roommate, she grinned a little wider and said, "Oh wow, nice eyes. Firebender?"
Azana considered her reply carefully. The Hundred Year War was a long time ago, but there were still those who were wary of firebenders, or worse; and many of those were from the Water Tribes. Particularly the southern one, which the Fire Nation had very nearly wiped out during the war. She wondered which of them this girl was from - it was obviously one or the other, unless she came from an expat family in the United Republic - but then told herself she was being foolish. Not everyone had an ulterior motive in asking questions, and this girl, in particular, didn't seem as if she had an ulterior bone in her body. The first part of the remark had sounded like the sincerest compliment.
Mistrusting foreigners is your mother's way, she reminded herself, it's not your way. Besides, you're going to have to trust your roommate; you live with her now.
So she nodded and said, "Yes. Are you a waterbender?"
"You betcha," Karana replied. "Hey, that's cool. Maybe we can find an earthbender and start a club. There's gotta be at least one in this place, right? Probably no airbenders, though. Oh well. It'd be great if we had an Air Nomad kid here, they're good times." She took another couple of steps into the room and looked around. "Wow, this is classy. Did you pick a bed yet?"
Azana looked around the room, as if not having considered its classiness factor yet. To be honest, it didn't strike her as much different from her bedroom at home. A little bigger, its rectangular proportions slightly closer to square, and there were two of everything, but the finishes and fabrics, the style of the furniture, and whatnot were all very similar.
The two beds stood against different walls of the room, and Azana could see where the choice between them might become a topic of contention for some roommates: One was under the window, the other against the lefthand wall, their head ends nearly adjacent at right angles. She didn't have any particular preference, though, and seeing an opportunity to be accommodating, she said, "No; you can have the one by the window if you want it."
Karana glanced thoughtfully at her. "Sure you don't mind?" she asked. "You were here first."
Azana smiled. "Only by about a minute, and besides, it really doesn't matter to me, so if there's one you would prefer over the other, please take it."
"Well... OK, thanks," said Karana, trotting over to drop her bag on the bed, then plunk herself next to it. "I do like a sky view at night," she allowed, leaning back to look up and out the window. The bed creaked slightly, causing her to straighten up and then, with a broad grin, bounce experimentally. "Hey! Springs!"
Azana eyed her thoughtfully. "This is a novelty?" she wondered.
Karana's grin became a little sly. "No springs on the beds in my house," she said. "Mom and Dad would keep us all up at night."
Azana blushed and busied herself unpacking her suitcase into the wardrobe at the foot of the other bed. "I... see."
"Sorry, cheap shot," said Karana, lying back with her arms outstretched and her lower legs still hanging down the side of the bed. "It's really because that's just not the way we do it in the South Pole. We use leather straps across the frame. Not a lot of metal to be had down there, so we don't waste it on stuff like bedsprings."
"You're from the Southern Water Tribe?" Azana asked. "I had wondered."
"Yep!" said Karana. "I come from Senna. That's Avatar Korra's hometown," she said proudly. "She's my next-door neighbor! Not that she's ever home, but still. Mom and Dad look after her house when she's away." She hitched herself up on her elbows to grin at her roommate. "You don't believe me, do you."
"I might," said Azana, returning a more moderate smile as she finished her unpacking. "I don't know you well enough yet to be able to tell."
"It's true, though," Karana assured her. "We have a key and everything. I sleep over there sometimes when I can't stand being cooped up with my brothers any more. Not that that's gonna be a problem here," she added, looking around. "This room's bigger than our living room, let alone the room Atausiq, Bori and I sleep in."
Azana closed her wardrobe, turned, and climbed up onto her bed facing Karana, folding her legs under her in seiza. Arching an eyebrow, she said, "You sleep with your brothers?"
Karana's face went slightly red under her brown skin. "Well, not sleep with them sleep with them, I mean, we all have our own beds. And now that Tausi's older he sleeps in the living room a lot of the time. I guess you get to be 14, you're too good to room with your little sibs any more," she added, rolling her eyes. "How about you?"
"I don't sleep with my siblings, no," Azana replied with a slightly mischievous twinkle.
"No, I mean, have you got any," said Karana.
Azana shook her head. "No, I'm an only child."
"Oh. Wow. Huh." Karana's face took on a thoughtful look, and after a moment she shook her head. "Nope, I tried, I can't really even imagine that."
"It's very peaceful."
"Sounds boring to me. And lonely." A thought seemed to occur to her. "So you've never shared a bedroom before now?"
"No," said Azana, "I never have. Hopefully I don't snore," she added with that little twinkle again.
"I'm pretty sure I do, but not very loud," said Karana dubiously. "Well, here's hoping, right? You've already been a lot nicer to me than the first classmate I ran into. He nearly trampled me in the lobby, called me a peasant and ran off. I imagine he'd have told his butler to give me a good thrashing if the guy hadn't been busy carrying every suitcase in the world," she added with another eyeroll.
"Ah. That must have been Prince Shinzen," said Azana thoughtfully.
Karana looked puzzled. "Who?"
"Prince Shinzen," Azana repeated. "The Fire Lord's younger brother's son, so not in line for the throne, but you wouldn't know it to speak to him. We're slightly acquainted," she explained, almost apologetically. "Or rather, I was introduced to him at a reception ball in the Capital last spring. Mother was very pleased to learn that he'd be starting at the Academy this year. She hopes I'll 'make his acquaintance' now that we're schoolmates, by which she means she confidently expects that I'll graduate as Princess Azana. Or, even better by her lights, marry him in my fifth or sixth year and drop out of school without finishing. Too much education is bad for a young woman's prospects, after all," she added, a trifle acidly.
"... Ah," said Karana, slightly discomfited. "So, uh... where are you from? Caldera City?" she wondered.
"No; Shu Jing," Azana replied matter-of-factly.
Karana blinked at her. "Uh... we're in Shu Jing."
"I mean... the school is in Shu Jing."
"Sooo... you live in the same town. Your parents live here. Your house must be... what... no more than two or three miles away."
Azana nodded. "You will have passed it on your way here," she said. "The big white one with the red roof, just before the turnoff to the mountain road."
Karana blinked again, remembering the house. "That's not even a mile from here. You could walk to school."
"I know," Azana repeated.
"Huh. Well, OK, then," said Karana. Dropping the subject, she rose from her bed and got started putting away her things as well. This didn't take long - she didn't have very many - and she finished in time to watch Azana unpack her second bag. This contained a portable computer and various odds and ends to go with it, as well as a selection of pens, pencils, and other office supplies, all of which she arranged neatly on and in the desk nearer to her bed. The last item to emerge, wrapped in a towel for protection, turned out to be a framed portait of a handsome, slightly fierce-looking young man with a truly outstanding specimen of a facial scar, covering an area like the palm of a hand around his left eye.
Karana, standing behind Azana's desk chair and a bit off to one side, considered this as Azana placed it on her desktop, angling it so that she could see it while she sat there working if she turned her head a bit.
"Cute guy," she decided after a few moments' consideration. "Shame about the eye, though. Who is he?"
Azana turned and gave her a judicious look, trying to figure out whether she was being teased. The curious expression on Karana's face was as guileless as she'd been right along, though, so Azana decided to take the question at face value and replied,
"This is Fire Lord Zuko."
Karana looked puzzled. "Oh," she said, and then, "Why do you have a picture of a dead Fire Lord?"
Azana thought about her answer for a moment, then explained, "When I was born, my grandfather took me to a Fire Sage rōshi - a holy woman - to be blessed in the old style. She gave him this and told him that if I kept it near me always, Zuko's spirit would watch over me." She gave a self-deprecating little smile and added casually, "I don't think that's really true, but I've gotten used to having him around." With an inquisitive tilt of her head, she asked, "Do you think that's weird?"
Karana shook her head. "Not really. My father's a doctor, and he has a lucky coin he got on a trip to Ba Sing Se when he was a kid. My brother Bori asked him one time, if he's a man of science, why does he carry that old coin around all the time? 'You can't believe in that superstitious junk.'" She grinned. "And Dad said, 'Well, son, they tell me it works whether you believe in it or not.'"
Azana laughed. "Oh, I like that," she said. "I'll have to remember that."
They had the weekend to get the lay of the land and figure out where everything was (and how to get to it and back from it, which in Piandao House was often the bigger challenge). On Monday, promptly at nine AM, instruction began.
Within a week or two, Karana had learned that her graduating class was called Form Four because the rotation of forms had begun when the school first began operating. The first group of students to enter were Form One, and Form One they remained, through all seven years of their schooling; and when they graduated, the first-year students entering in the Academy's eighth year were the new Form One, and so on. Just for fun, after learning that, she sat down one night with a perpetual calendar and worked out whether that reconciled with the year the school's letterhead maintained it had been founded in, and discovered to her satisfaction that it did.
To her delight, Azana didn't think there was anything particularly strange about that wanton act of nerdery, and their friendship progressed without a hitch. By the end of September, all of Form Four were becoming friends, which was part of the intent in keeping the class sizes small and arranging matters so that they did almost everything, from lessons to dining to PE to Selected Afternoon Activities, together. The idea, never stated in so many words but plain from context, was that each form would in effect become a kind of family, blunting the sting of homesickness and short-circuiting the usual sort of internecine warfare that stereotypically plagued larger, less intimate boarding schools.
For the first couple of weeks, it looked like the fly in that ointment would be Prince Shinzen, who was, just as Karana had found him to be upon their first meeting, haughty and difficult. He had a tendency to regard his acceptance to this, the most competitive junior/senior school in the Fire Nation - possibly the world - as a sort of exile to the hinterlands, and wasn't shy about letting his peers, if not the faculty, know about it.
The matter of Prince Shinzen came to a head at lunch on the second Friday, when the prince - unable to sit off by himself thanks to the way the tables were arranged in the refectory - grimaced at his bowl of soup and pushed it away, remarking ostentatiously,
"I don't know how you people can live this way."
By this point most of their classmates had decided that the only safe way to deal with Shinzen was just to let him vent and not engage with him. Karana, on the other hand, frowned at her bowl for a second, then looked up and said,
"What's your problem? It's perfectly good five-flavor soup."
Shinzen rolled his eyes at her. "Yes, well, I'm sure it's all very well for you, who grew up gnawing on seal eyeballs, but for those of us from the civilized world it's all a bit rustic."
Karana snorted. "First time outside Caldera City, huh?" she said.
"Hmph!" Shinzen replied, turning up his nose. "No, we've summered on Ember Island since I was a boy."
Karana's eyes went all big and round. "Ooooh, get you, the world traveler," she said.
Shinzen scowled at her. "Oh yes, by all means, laugh," he said sarcastically. "Before you came here, how far had you ventured from your igloo, or teepee, or whatever it is you people live in?"
Karana shrugged, her face going thoughtful. "Hmm, well, I suppose you have a point. I haven't been to Caldera City or Ember Island. Compared to my next-door neighbor back home, I've hardly been anywhere at all."
(Next to her, Azana gripped her soup spoon tighter and focused all her will on not bursting out laughing, as Shinzen took the bait.)
Shinzen folded his arms and looked superior. "Hmph," he repeated. "Well, there you are, then. You're hardly in a position - "
As if he hadn't spoken, Karana went innocently on, "Just Nanisivik, Sanirajak, Ba Sing Se, Gaoling, Republic City, and about half the Spirit World," ticking off each place on her fingers as she named them.
The prince's face darkened, as he began to suspect he was being made game of. "You expect me to believe that?" he asked dismissively. "Rubbish."
Karana narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you implying I'm a liar?"
"I didn't think there was anything of implication about it," Shinzen retorted.
Karana shot to her feet, hands flat on the table. "OK, that's it, pal. You and I are gonna settle this South Pole style." She stuck out her right hand. "Give me your hand."
"I beg your pardon?" Shinzen demanded indignantly.
Karana shook her head. "Too late for that now, give me your hand." Shaking her own insistently in the air, she bored into his eyes with hers and repeated slowly, "Give. Me. Your. Hand."
On her feet next to her roommate, while all their classmates looked on in curious puzzlement, Azana leaned and murmured in her ear, "Karana, what are you doing? If you start a fight you'll be expelled."
"'Sawright, trust me," Karana muttered back with a little grin. As Shinzen, compelled by his own curiosity as much as her imperious will, got to his feet and extended his own hand, Karana took it and maneuvered it into a strange sort of clasp, their fingers curled together like the coupling on a train. "OK," she said. "You ready for this, your worship? So as not to commit lèse-majesté, I'm only gonna use my right thumb."
The prince arched a puzzled eyebrow. "Your right thumb?"
"The left one's way too powerful for the likes of you," Karana explained.
Shinzen sneered slightly. "Do your worst, snow savage," he replied.
Karana grinned fiercely. "Oh yeah, it's on now," she said, sounding pleased as anything. "Get ready! One! Two! Three! Four! I declare a thumb war!"
The other twelve members of Form Four, as well as a number of students from other forms and several faculty members who saw the commotion and gathered round to watch, all had to agree that Shinzen put up a good fight. Once he figured out what they were doing, he grasped the basic premise of the game quickly and gave it his best effort - but his best effort came to naught against the superior experience, the wily cunning, and the mighty right thumb of Karana of the Southern Water Tribe. Within two minutes she had him figuratively on his knees, sweating and muttering as he tried, without a hope of success, to extricate his own thumb from its predicament.
"Say it... " said Karana, her grin becoming sly.
"Ngh! Hmph! Never! Nnrgh," Shinzen grunted, struggling fruitlessly. "Augh!" he added as she applied a tiny bit more force.
"Say it!" Karana commanded him sharply.
He kept resisting for a few moments longer; then, his shoulders sagging, he accepted the inevitable and bowed his head in capitulation, mumbling,
"... your thumb fu is best."
Karana released him and held both hands aloft in triumph while he slumped back into his seat. "Haha!" she cried as the spectators applauded. "How you like me now? How you like me now."
There were no more difficulties with Prince Shinzen after that; indeed, he bore up under his humiliation gallantly, and before the fall break his haughty front had crumbled entirely, revealing itself as camouflage for homesickness and dismay. Once he got over that, he became part of the group, his academic strengths and weaknesses fitting neatly into the overall mosaic of Form Four. Gifted in classical languages and weak in math, he made a natural study partner for another of their classmates, a boy named Chou from the eastern Earth Kingdom, who was a mathematical genius and rubbish at verbs.
The 279-280 academic year unrolled as smoothly as a carpet, the days following one on another with the easy regularity of a ticking clock, broken up only by the irregular cycle of holidays. Azana and Karana both stayed on for the fall interval, during which the residences didn't close; they spent the week catching up on various work they had to do, writing letters to (geographically) distant relatives, and talking long into the night across the three-foot right-angle gap between the heads of their beds. In this way, Karana learned that Azana's parents both came from old Fire Nation military families - soldiers on her father's side, sailors on her mother's - and that her father, Izuno by name, was a retired general in the Fire Army.
During the winter holiday, when they had to leave so that the Academy's facilities team could carry out routine maintenance, she met the general, and found him kindly and charming in almost perfectly inverted proportion to his much younger wife. Azera, Azana's mother, and Karana took an instantaneous dislike to each other, and the atmosphere in the big old house by the mountain road was distinctly frosty for the one evening the latter spent there before catching her flight back to the South Pole for the holiday.
They resumed course naturally enough when the spring term reunited them, though. Azana apologized for her mother's unpleasantness, Karana apologized for her imperfect forbearance, and the matter was buried. No further invitations to the house were extended to Azana's roommate, but then, Azana seemed to be going out of her way to avoid going back there herself most of the time, so that was no great hardship; and having met her mother, Karana could no longer blame her for that.
The spring interval showed how far Prince Shinzen had come in his assimilation into the class, as he invited all of them to spend the week at his father's seaside villa on Ember Island, vacation retreat of the Fire Nation's great and good. The royal household seemed somewhat unprepared for an invasion of 11-year-olds, but at least they were all relatively mature, very scholarly 11-year-olds, so havoc was kept to a minimum and a fine time was had by all. True, Karana did almost cause an international incident when she decided to teach Shinzen to surf and he nearly drowned, but he was the first to admit that it would've been his own fault for not following instructions.
Upon their return to school from break, the students of Form Four found an exciting new development awaiting them; for this was their first spring term, and so their first meeting with the Academy's regular springtime guest lecturer.
She was a tall, thin woman of ambiguous middle age, with iron-grey streaks in her thick brown hair but a largely unlined face, and she moved with an easy, efficient grace that stirred still-sleeping instincts in certain members of the class. Gold-rimmed pince-nez gave her a serious, scholarly air, but the grey eyes behind them were given to twinkling without much provocation, and she had a ready smile of the kind that made it difficult to be nervous in the vicinity.
Also, there was a wide blue tattoo in the shape of an arrow on her forehead, revealed by the way she wore her side-parted bangs, and she was dressed in robes of saffron and crimson; and so, though there were none in the student body, Karana got her wish to see an Air Nomad at Piandao Academy after all.
"Good morning, everyone," she said, standing at the lectern normally occupied by Form Four's designated teacher, Professor Zhou. "I am Master Shespa. Headmaster Changdao has asked me to visit your class for a few days and tell you a little bit about my people, the Air Nomads." She smiled around at the room, then went on, "Let's start by getting a feel for what you already know about us. Does anyone want to start us off? Tell us something you know, or think you know, about Air Nomads."
Chou put up his hand hesitantly. "Uh... you're all airbenders?"
Shespa nodded. "That's true, very good."
"You're all vegetarians," said Prince Shinzen positively.
"Also true!" Shespa agreed with a smile. "Two for two. Anyone else? Yes," she said, nodding toward perky little Kiko at the back.
"My uncle told me once that you're a lot of fun at parties, but I'm not sure what he meant," said Kiko brightly.
A few of the class's more mature members giggled slightly at the faint blush that rose in Master Shespa's cheeks as she cleared her throat and said, "Ah. Well. We'll come back to that..."
Before they knew it the school year was ending, with final examinations and chamber-orchestra recitals and all the usual trappings of academic springtime, and the little campus buzzed with the news that - as she tried to do at least once in every graduating class's career at the Academy - the Avatar was going to speak at Commencement.
Xinqiliu, Liuyue 5, 280 ASC
Saturday, June 5, SY 2399
Everyone in the student body knew what Avatar Korra looked like, of course; for all that she never sought celebrity, in her position she could hardly avoid it, and her image was all but inescapable. Few of them had seen her in person, though, and even fewer had ever seen her in an academic gown and mortarboard before. She seemed to know that she looked a bit weird in such a costume; after her introduction by Headmaster Changdao, she stood at the lectern in the Academy's chapel-cum-assembly-hall and gave them all a wry little smile, as if to say, I know, right?
Like all the great graduation speakers, she opened with a joke:
"Normally I'd start with an anecdote from my own school days, except... I... actually wasn't allowed to go to school when I was a kid." Korra glanced around with a comically exaggerated look of discomfiture, which got a giggle from her audience, and then brightened with an oh-yeah-I-know look and declared decisively, "So, uh, don't do what I did! Go to school!" Then, with a frown, she muttered, "Except you already did, you're graduating - tell you what, I'll come in again."
So saying, she turned and left the stage, to gales of laughter from the students and a mixture of the above and bemusement from their parents. A moment later she bounded back onto the stage, grinning, and said as if she hadn't already been there, "Thank you, Headmaster Changdao. It's an honor, as always, to be asked back here. Every time I wonder if I'll ever hear from you again."
Changdao laughed, bowing, along with his students; then the room quieted and Korra stood looking at the graduating class. "Wow. Look at you guys," she said. "Unlike me, you look like you belong in those robes. But like me at 17, you're probably wondering, OK, so, now what? And, well, I have got a few things I can tell you about that... "
After the ceremony, as Karana led her past a little knot of Form 7 students, Azana overheard one of them say to the others, "The thing I like best about her is that she's so genuine."
"Come on, 'Zana," said Karana, tugging at her hand. "Hurry up or we'll miss her."
"Are you really going to - " Azana began, but then they broke through the crowd of parents and whatnot at the front of the hall, emerging into the clear not far from the table where Headmaster Changdao, the Trustees, and the other dignitaries had been sitting. The headmaster was standing by the end of that table now, chatting amiably with Avatar Korra. She looked up at the approach of Azana and her roommate, then smilingly excused herself and turned toward them.
"Gran-gran!" Karana declared happily, releasing Azana's hand to propel herself into the Avatar's embrace.
"Don't call me that!" Korra replied, in exactly the same cheerful tone, as she grabbed the youngster up in a hug. "Hey, kiddo, how've you been? Your dad says you're not writing enough, so that must mean they're keeping you busy," she added with a grin, setting Karana back on her feet.
"They sure are," Karana agreed. "But I like it. I'm doing really well! It'll be good to get home for Glacier Spirits, though. Are you going to be there this year?"
"You bet," said Korra. "In fact, your mom asked me if I'd bring you down with me. Save them some airfare. What do you think? You can come to Republic City for a few days and then we'll head down on the Polar Star."
"That sounds awesome!" Karana said, nodding with a big smile. "You're the best, Gran-gran." She turned and indicated Azana, who was standing and regarding them with look of faint disbelief. "I want you to meet Azana. She's my roommate. And my best friend! And she didn't believe me when I told her I know you."
"Er... I didn't not believe her," Azana qualified a bit lamely, quailing slightly under the Avatar's gaze.
Korra grinned and made the Water Tribe salute. "Eh, not a problem," she said. "People are always namedropping me in vain. Hard to know who to believe. Hi!"
"Um... " Not sure what to do with her own hands, Azana settled for offering the Fire Nation salute in return, then plucked at her school uniform's skirt, thinking it might be appropriate to drop a curtsey at this time. "I'm very pleased to meet you."
"Likewise!" said Korra cheerfully. "You and Karana are best friends, huh?" Her smile became a little bit nostalgic. "That's great. Everybody needs at least one."
"Can Azana come to the Glacier Spirits Festival with us, Gran-gran?" Karana inquired. "Please? She doesn't eat much and she's very quiet," she added with a mischievous grin.
Korra laughed. "Sure, why not?" she said, but Azana shook her head.
"I'm... very sorry, Avatar... " she said hesitantly.
"Korra," said the Avatar. "C'mon, you're Karana's best friend, right? We don't have to stand on ceremony. Just don't call me Gran-gran and we're good," she said, mussing Karana's hair.
"Oh. Uhm... all right... Korra," said Azana, blushing furiously now. "I... " She shook her head and got hold of herself with an effort. "I'm very sorry to have to decline your generous invitation, but I'm afraid my mother would never agree to let me go as far as the South Pole." She hung her head, embarrassed. "I was barely able to convince her to let me go to Ember Island, and only then because it was Shinzen inviting me."
Karana made a dismissive noise. "So just go, what's she going to do, come down after you? She has a problem, hey, Gran-gran's the Avatar. She's gotta deal with it. Right, Gran-gran?"
Korra gave the younger waterbender a sentimental smile. "Sorry, kiddo, doesn't work that way," she said. "I don't stick at kidnapping if the situation's desperate enough," she added wryly, "but not being allowed to go halfway around the world on vacation isn't exactly tyranny when you're 11. Much as it may feel like it." Then, seeing Azana's slightly miserable nod of agreement, she offered, "I'm happy to go talk to your mom, though, if you like."
Azana shook her head. "No... no, thank you, Av - uh... Korra. I don't think that would help." Wincing apologetically, she added, "Mother isn't... um... your biggest fan."
"Ah," said Korra with an understanding nod. "Well... sorry to hear that, but believe me, I know how it goes. The invitation's open, though. Maybe sometime when you're older you'll be able to swing it, and we'd love to have you anytime."
Azana smiled, wanly but genuinely. "Thank you," she said. "It's really been an honor meeting you."
"You know the old saying, any friend of Karana's," replied Korra, smiling. "Great meeting you too. I'm sure we'll be seeing each other again."
"I have to go and get my stuff together," said Karana. "Where should I meet you?"
"On the sports field," Korra said. "Ikki brought me over, so it's the bison express back to the city for us."
Karana grinned. "Awesome. See you there in a few minutes. C'mon, 'Zana, you can help me pack, anyway."
As the two girls crossed the courtyard from the chapel to the main house, Karana couldn't resist giving her roommate a little smirk and saying, "See?"
"I never said I didn't believe you!" Azana insisted. Then, softening, she added, "She seems really nice."
"You were expecting her not to be?" Karana wondered rhetorically.
"I wasn't expecting anything," Azana said. "I didn't know. Is she really your grandmother? You didn't mention that."
"Nah, I just call her that to get her goatadillo," Karana said cheerfully. "'Cause she looks so much younger than Mom, but acts like her mother sometimes. She's actually really old, nobody knows how she does it. She likes you," she added brightly. "I can tell."
By this time the circuitous route to their room was so ingrained in them that they could follow it without even really paying attention, and as they did, Karana went on, "Are you sure you can't come with us? Glacier Spirits is soooo much fun. Everybody in Nanisivik is dressed up, and the spirits come out and put on a show, and there's games and food and we all play hockey together and oh it's just awesome. You'd have such a good time. And you wouldn't have to go home for, oh, weeks. You could meet my parents. And my brothers! Tausi will just ignore us, he's way too cool to hang with the little kids any more, but Bori's nice."
"I want to, Karana, I really do, but you know what Mother's like."
"That's at least half the reason why I want you to come!" Karana argued, pushing open the door to their room.
"If we push her too hard, she could go to the Headmaster and ask for you to be given a different roommate," Azana said.
"I'd like to see her try!" declared Karana, thrusting out her jaw pugnaciously.
"No you wouldn't," Azana told her. "Because she might be able to make it happen, and if she couldn't, she might take me out of school altogether."
Karana stared at her. "She would do that? Pull you out of the best school in the world? But you're kickin' tail here, girl! The only person in our form with better grades than you is Chou, and that's because he's some kinda freakin' wizard!"
"I know," said Azana, not boasting, but acknowledging the fact. "But you know full well that Mother doesn't really care if I get an education anyway. In fact, she's never been entirely comfortable with the idea. She thinks being too clever will hurt my marriage prospects."
"Pff. Only if you wanted to marry somebody who likes 'em dumb," Karana scoffed. Then, giving her a dubious look, she added, "Uh, you don't, do you?"
In spite of herself, Azana giggled, just as her roommate had hoped. "No," she said. "But the fact of the matter is, I'm only here because Father used all his influence over Mother to get her to agree, and the balance of power in their marriage is always unstable. If we give her too much trouble, Mother may decide that getting her way is worth making him angry. So no. I really wish I could, it sounds absolutely wonderful - but I can't go to the South Pole this summer."
Karana sighed, her shoulders slumping. "OK," she agreed glumly. "I guess when you put it that way. Spirits, your mom's a bitch."
"Karana!" said Azana, faintly scandalized.
"Well she is," Karana insisted doggedly. "But if I don't make her mad at you, you'll be back for fall term, right?"
"If Father and I have anything to say about it, yes," Azana said.
Azana nodded. "I promise."
"Your word as a fellow bender?" Karana persisted.
Azana sighed slightly and made the firebender salute, saying with an audible I-am-humoring-you air, "I give you my word as a fellow bender that I'll see you in the fall. Unless Mother banishes me to Chameleon Bay or something," she added wryly.
Karana's sigh was noisier, a gusty sound of discontentment. "I guess it'll have to do." Then, seizing her roommate in a hug, she said, "Take care of yourself, Azana. I meant what I told Korra. You're not just my best friend now, you're the best friend I ever had."
Azana blinked, surprised, as she returned her friend's embrace. "I... yes," she said, closing her eyes. "Thank you, Karana. I... I feel the same."
Having gone their separate ways with the closure of the Academy for the summer holiday, the two occupants of Piandao House Room 44 exchanged letters relentlessly throughout the recess. All the members of Form 4 kept in touch with each other, just as the school's administrators hoped would be the case when they set out to make each form a coherent, family-like unit, but Karana and Azana took their correspondence to new and heroic lengths.
Karana's letters, so fat they threatened to burst the seams of mortal envelopes and had to be fitted with so much postage they could have been the starting point for a respectable Southern Water Tribe stamp collection, were packed with cheerful news of the goings-on in the South Pole community where she lived. There were the romantic misadventures of her elder brother Atausiq, who was just reaching that age where a boy starts thinking about selecting a mate, but is ill-equipped both mentally and spiritually to undertake the project; the comings and goings of the area's various notables, none of whom Azana had ever heard of; her own adventures, helping her physician father operate their hometown's only medical practice, hunting the game of the frozen wilderness with her mother, teasing her bookish younger brother Bori.
Azana's were less action-packed, and seemed to consist mainly of lists of books she'd read, performances she'd seen at the Shu Jing Opera House, and chores performed. The highlight came in mid-summer, when she spent two weeks in the house of her maternal grandfather, a retired United Forces admiral who now operated a firebending school in Republic City. Despite Azana's manifold differences with her mother, her love and respect for that difficult lady's father were obvious from the way she wrote of him in her letters. He was the one who had recognized her as a firebender and trained her in the art, and her admiration for his skill and reverence for his wisdom all but jumped off the pages of the letters she wrote from his home.
When Form 4 reconvened at Piandao Academy in the last week of August, they were all present and accounted for. They spent the weekend between move-in day and the first of classes gathering in common areas and each other's rooms, happily, noisily catching up on developments. After a cheerful reunion (jubilant on Karana's part, somewhat more reserved but heartfelt on Azana's), the girls of Room 44 resumed their easy, companionable ways as if the interruption of the summer holiday had never happened.
They might have gone on like that indefinitely, bumping along as best school chums of a relatively ordinary stripe, eventually graduating and going their separate ways with fond memories and occasional letters; until, in early October, came the storm.
Xinqisan, Shiyue 6, 280 ASC
Wednesday, October 6, SY 2399
The first indication that anything was unusual was Prince Shinzen's attire.
Normally, like everyone else at Piandao Academy (apart from the occasional guest lecturers), he wore the academy's standard uniform, black and red, with bits of gold trim and the Fire Nation's distinctive stylistic flavoring. The clothes he turned up for first period wearing that day were similarly colored and largely the same in theme, but much more elaborate and ornate, with a lot more gold and even a few bits of lightweight, purely decorative armor. The outfit looked more like a military uniform than anything one would wear at a school, even one as solemnly conscious of its role as the Academy. It didn't have the Academy seal on it anywhere, either, but featured a prominent Fire Nation insignia at the closure of the jacket's high collar.
The prince's classmates regarded him curiously throughout the morning classes, but no one had the time or opportunity to ask him about it until lunchtime, when Karana and Azana noticed him leaving the great hall by the front door instead of heading for the refectory.
"Hey! Shinzen!" Karana called to him. "Where are you going all dressed up like that?" she wondered.
Shinzen's expression was uncharacteristically solemn as he replied, "One of my uncle's former generals, who retired to Shu Jing, has died. As the nearest member of the royal family, I have to go and pay our respects at his funeral."
"Oh," said Karana. "That's too bad. I - wait." She blinked and turned to Azana, a look of dawning alarm on her face. "Is there more than one retired Fire Army general in Shu Jing?"
Azana's face, not very ruddy to begin with, had gone almost white. "... I don't think so," she said quietly. Then, with a mumbled apology, she turned and all but ran for the west stairs.
"Where's she going?" Shinzen wondered, puzzlement plain on his face.
Karana watched her roommate disappear up the stairs, then turned to the prince and said, "The general. Do you know his name?"
Shinzen transferred his puzzled look to her. "What?"
With an exasperated sound, Karana grabbed his shoulder and gave him a little shake. "His name," she said intently, staring him in the eye. "Do you know it."
Visibly clueless as to why it could matter to her, he frowned and said, "Izuno. Why?"
Karana's face fell. "Aw, no," she murmured, looking back at the empty stairs.
"I don't understand," Shinzen admitted.
Rounding on him again, Karana snapped in exasperation, "She's his daughter, you idiot."
Few people, even now, could have gotten away with addressing Prince Shinzen in that fashion, but after their original contretemps the previous fall, which had broken the ice between Shinzen and the entirety of Form 4, Karana was one who could; he let the insult pass altogether and gave her a wide-eyed, horrified look.
"Oh," he said, then went on a little plaintively, "I... I didn't know."
Karana glared at him for a moment longer, then sighed and patted him reassuringly on the shoulder she'd shaken before. "I know you didn't," she said.
Shinzen still looked confused. After a moment's thought, he asked, "But why didn't she know already? That he had died, I mean. The news had to make its way through the High Command, to the Ministry of War, up to my uncle before I was ever told. It can't just have happened today. It doesn't make sense."
"I don't know, but you'd better go," Karana told him. "You don't want to be late."
The prince gave her a troubled look and seemed on the verge of demurring, but the official vehicle was waiting; this was a matter of state, his attendance a direct command from his uncle the Fire Lord. He went reluctantly, his expression apologetic. Karana watched him go, making sure he didn't turn back partway across the courtyard, and then turned and ran upstairs.
She navigated the maze to Room 44 in record time, bursting through the door to find Azana just in the act of hanging up the telephone on Karana's desk. With that done, she threw herself face-down on Karana's bed and lay there, clutching her roommate's stuffed polar bear dog, her slim body wracked with sobs. Karana crossed the room and sat on the edge of the bed, her hand on Azana's back, and remained silent, letting her get the worst of it out. The sight of her best friend in this state rattled her; Azana was usually so cool, so collected, so in command of her emotions, that to see her completely broken down this way was shocking even when she knew the cause.
Karana knew she was lucky. She didn't have a favorite parent; she was very close to both her mother and her father, considering them among her best friends in the world. With her father, she shared a certain intellectual vibe, a love of learning and literature; with her mother, a delight in bodily vigor and physical pursuits. By contrast, sometimes it seemed like the only things Azana shared with her mother were her slim, black-haired good looks, her talent for firebending, and a certain coolness of tone that crept into both of their voices when they were annoyed.
Everything else, from her own love of books and knowledge, to her subtle sense of humor, to her quiet kindness, she could trace to her beloved father. General Izuno's only fault, so far as Karana had ever been able to tell, was that he was so devoted to having peace in his house that he rarely made any serious attempt to rein in his abrasive, opinionated, and often (in Karana's view, anyway) wrong-headed young wife, with the result that Azera often ran roughshod over him and their only daughter.
Karana had met the old gentleman only once, and had liked him very much, apart from feeling that he really ought to stand up for himself and Azana a bit more. She didn't know exactly how old he was, only that he was much older than Azera, who was his second wife. Old enough that he was retired from the Fire Army, and had been for most of Azana's life; she had only dim memories of his last months of active duty.
And now, evidently, he was gone.
Azana cried hard for five solid minutes, then seemed to pull herself together with an exercise of will. Turning onto her back with one arm still around the stuffed dog, she wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and mumbled an apology.
"Hey, no, you've got nothing to be sorry for," said Karana, taking her free hand. "Nothing at all."
"That was Mother I was getting off the phone with when you arrived," said Azana softly, her red-rimmed amber eyes gazing blankly up at the intricate plasterwork on the room's high ceiling. "She's very upset."
"Well, I can imagine," Karana began, trying to be as sympathetic as she could. She didn't like Azera very much, but the woman had just been widowed, after all; but then Azana went on in the same subdued, matter-of-fact tone,
"I wasn't supposed to find out until Fall Interval. She's a bit cross with the Fire Lord for notifying Shinzen. And herself, I suspect, for forgetting he was here."
"... Oh," said Karana lamely. The awkward feeling passed quickly, however, replaced by a surge of anger as it registered on her what Azana had just said: that her mother had not intended for her to learn of her father's passing for three weeks. How cold was that?
"Ouch," said Azana quietly. Karana glanced down and saw that she'd inadvertently clenched her fist on her roommate's hand in her sudden fury; hastily she released it.
"Sorry," Karana mumbled. "I just... spirits, that's cold." She shook herself slightly, then tried to push through it by saying briskly, "Well, c'mon. Better get ready for the funeral - "
"I'm not going," Azana interrupted her.
Karana blinked. "What?"
"Mother refused to request a pass for me to leave the grounds from Headmaster Changdao," Azana explained. She turned on her side, her back to Karana, so she could gaze out of the window. "It appears I'm not invited."
Karana rose to her feet, so astounded that for a moment she could only sputter and blink. "Wh - but - y - no." She shook her head. "No. That is UN, ac, frickin', ceptable." She put a hand on Azana's shoulder. "Come on, get up. We'll ask him ourselves."
Azana let herself be rolled onto her back, but made no move to get up. "Have you read the handbook?" she asked without rancor. "Without Mother's permission, he can do nothing about it."
"Then we'll go without asking him," Karana shot back. "This isn't a prison. Azana," she said pleadingly as her roommate made to roll toward the window again. "Don't just tune me out like that. This is, this is important." She knelt down by the bed and put her hands on Azana's upper shoulder. "This is your father's funeral. I know how you feel about him. I know how I'd feel if my dad died. You'll hate yourself forever if you just let it go by." She shook her head. "I can't let that happen. Please, Azana."
Silence; but then, slowly, Azana turned over, sat up, and swung her feet off the edge of the bed.
"All right," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "Let's go."
The grounds of Piandao Academy were far from fortified, but they were fenced, and normally students seeking to leave the premises had to pass through the front gate. This stood open during the day, but the caretaker, old Fat, was usually somewhere in the vicinity, on the lookout for anyone who might be trying to skip out on a class or activity and go into town without authorization.
A metalbender would have had no trouble enlarging any of the gaps between the fence's wrought-iron uprights and slipping out that way, but unfortunately there were none in the student body at present; no earthbenders at all, in fact, which had disappointed Karana when she learned it, the previous year. She, Azana, and Prince Shinzen were the only benders among the present students, which had struck her as a bit of a sorry showing until Azana reminded her that the usual bender-nonbender ratio was about one in a hundred; so three out of ninety-eight was already something of a statistical anomaly, particularly as they were all three in the same form of fourteen.
None of which got them any closer to the other side of the fence... except for the turtleduck pond out in back of the greenhouses. Screened by those outbuildings from the main building and the front gate, and just near enough to the fence, it provided all the raw materials an enterprising and talented young waterbender needed to provide an ice ramp up one side and down the other. The hard part was putting the water back in the pond from the far side of the fence, the better to delay discovery of their escape.
"If we do this," Azana observed before they departed, "we'll probably be expelled."
"And if we don't, we'll regret it for the rest of our lives," Karana replied. "You for not going, and me for not making you."
"You don't have to come with me," Azana pointed out.
"Yeah, I do," Karana replied. "C'mon. We'll be late as it is."
They ran across fields and meadows, jumping fences and ditches, following Azana's lead toward the Shu Jing cemetery. This was a distance of about a mile from Piandao Academy, and fortunately, mostly downhill. Two athletic twelve-year-olds had no particular difficulty making the trip in good time, even considering their need to arrive in less than completely bedraggled condition.
At the cemetery's edge they stopped for a moment, caught their breath, and composed themselves, buttoning up their uniform tunics and tidying each other as best they could. Azana took her hair down from its accustomed bun, combed it quickly out with a pocket comb, and then bound it up into a more elaborate, formal folded knot, higher on the back of her head. There wasn't much to be done with Karana's shorter, coarser hair, but she at least was able to borrow Azana's comb and wrangle it into a reasonably tidy center-parted pageboy. Then, with one last long look at each other and a silent, shared nod, they turned and entered the grounds.
The funeral wasn't hard to find; it was the only one happening in the cemetery that day, and Azana knew well where her father's family's cenotaph was, having visited the markers of his parents with him on a few occasions. It was a fairly small gathering. Apart from his wife and daughter, and a son from his previous marriage, General Izuno had no surviving relatives. His funeral was attended only by his widow, a few close friends (both from his army days and his retirement years), Prince Shinzen, and an honor guard from the Fire Army fort in nearby Jang Hui, which included the Fire Sage chaplain performing the service.
As she and Azana approached the gathering, Karana could see that they weren't too late: the chaplain was still making her opening remarks. General Izuno's body, decked out in the dress uniform he had worn every year on Remembrance Day and at no other time, still lay atop the bier, his pyre yet unlit.
They made a little bit of a stir, two young girls in their school uniforms - one an obvious foreigner - arriving on foot in the midst of the service. At the sight of them, the chaplain faltered, looking surprised. Several of the general's friends recognized his daughter and glanced at each other, as if startled to realize that she hadn't been present all along.
Because they had arrived from behind and slightly to the left of her, Azera didn't notice them at first, until the reactions of the other guests tipped her off. Turning, she recoiled in shock, but before she could speak, one of the uniformed Fire Army officers - a tall, greying man with a fairly impressive salad of decorations on his chest and the collar tabs of a colonel - smiled sadly at them and made the fire salute.
"Azana," he said. "I'm so glad you could make it after all."
"Thank you, Zurin," she said cordially, returning the salute. Then, turning to the chaplain, she bowed to her as well, saying, "I apologize for my tardiness, rōshi, as well as for my inappropriate dress. I had - " (here she gave her mother the tiniest of sharp glances) " - very little notice."
The Fire Sage nodded understanding, and without saying another word about it, she resumed the service while Azana and Karana took up places next to the man who had first greeted them.
Karana had never been to a Fire Nation funeral before; it wasn't that different from the way they did it at the South Pole, except that they'd have done it on the beach and the bier would have been in a boat. The words were different too, and mostly in Kokugo, which she didn't understand. She maintained a respectful silence and kept still, figuring she was least likely to commit an offensive faux pas by accident if she just didn't move or speak. Luckily, there didn't seem to be any places in the ceremony where those attending were expected to do either.
After the Fire Sage's benediction, various of the general's friends and colleagues spoke, in fond and glowing terms, of his intersections with their lives. He had, if these people were to be credited, been a well-loved officer in his day, responsible for making the careers of many talented officers in their turn, and most of those here felt they owed him their chances to excel in the Fire Lord's service. During these remarks, she learned that Colonel Zurin was Izuno's son by his first wife, and so Azana's half-brother, albeit a good thirty years or more her senior.
Azera, she noticed, said nothing. When her turn came to speak, she just dabbed at her eyes and made a deferring gesture to the chaplain, apparently too overwhelmed to say anything. Karana caught herself wondering cynically whether she were really so broken up as to be speechless, or simply didn't have anything to say, and then chided herself for her coldheartedness.
Azana spoke last; her voice was quiet, but controlled, as she told those assembled of her love for her father, recounting a couple of anecdotes from her childhood, one of which Karana hadn't heard before. Then it was over, and the chaplain was talking in Kokugo again, saying what sounded unmistakably like final remarks.
When she'd finished, she turned to Prince Shinzen and bowed to him, saying, "Your Highness, if you would... "
Shinzen looked across the gathering at his schoolmates, then shook his head respectfully and replied, "I hardly think that would be appropriate, rōshi. General Izuno's daughter is a firebender. The honor, and the duty, are rightfully hers."
Azana looked surprised, then grateful, as the Fire Sage turned to her and repeated the gesture. Moving slowly, she stepped forward, squared herself before her father's bier, and stood for a moment to collect her thoughts.
Then, with a single sharp kiai, she struck a letter-perfect firebender's stance and launched a bolt of flame into the base of the structure, igniting the kindling meticulously stacked there. Within moments the whole thing was engulfed, and General Izuno's funeral pyre blazed into the sky, committing the old soldier's body back to the eternal flame.
Azera held herself aloof from the rest of the group, observing a widow's dignity, until the fire had burned down and the group had begun to disperse, filtering out toward the cemetery gates. As they approached the gates themselves, Karana saw that she was waiting just outside, her face darkening with fury, now that she no longer felt she had to hold it under rigid control for propriety's sake.
Taking Azana's hand, Karana considered their options. There wasn't any other readily evident way out of the cemetery other than past her, and if they diverted along the fence looking for another exit further along, it would be pretty obvious they were just trying to avoid her. On the other hand, she really didn't know whether she could be responsible for her actions if, as she suspected was about to happen, Azera sought to take her daughter to task for having the temerity to attend her own father's funeral.
In the event, they were saved from having to deal with it by the sudden appearance of Prince Shinzen, who seemed almost to materialize at Azana's left, opposite Karana.
"Take my arm," he murmured. Azana gave him a puzzled look, then did as instructed, slipping her left hand into the crook of his right elbow, her other still holding Karana's hand.
As they passed through the gate and drew even with Azera, she fixed her daughter with a wrathful look and opened her mouth to speak, but before any sound could emerge, Prince Shinzen said in a calm and respectful tone,
"I hope you will excuse us, Madame Azera, but the General's daughter has had a very trying day. We must be getting back to the Academy at once." Without a trace of irony, he went on, "I think you'll agree that at this moment, she needs her friends around her."
Azera blinked, her thoughts and anger scattered to the breeze by the shock of being addressed so pointedly by the prince. "Er... why... yes," she replied. "Yes, of course, Your Highness."
Shinzen inclined his head. "Good day to you, Madame Azera," he said politely. "I'm very sorry for your loss. Please accept my uncle's sincerest condolences as well. General Izuno was a fine officer."
"Ah... thank you," said Azera, and then she stood and watched, utterly at a loss, as the three students walked away.
Once they were well out of earshot, heading back up toward the school by the road this time, Karana said quietly, "OK, I have to admit, that was pretty awesome, Shinzen."
"Thank you," said the prince.
Not a word was said by anyone when they arrived back at the Academy. The three went straight to the Form 4 common room on the ground floor of Piandao House, which had once been Master Piandao's library, and sat quietly with their thoughts until the afternoon classes ended and the rest of their classmates began to arrive. They had plainly heard from somewhere what had happened, and though no one spoke of it, their quietly supportive presence helped Azana bear up until dinnertime.
As they were crossing the great hall toward the stairs after supper, Azana and Karana - still hand in hand - were met by Headmaster Changdao. Before he could even speak, Karana said,
"It's my fault, sir. I made her do it."
Changdao's expression was hard to read at the best of times, but now it was nearly impenetrable, the perfect pai sho face of an accomplished master. He ignored her profession of guilt entirely, focusing instead on Azana, as he said,
"I'm very sorry to hear about your father, Miss Azana. General Izuno was well-loved in this community. If there's anything I, Professor Zhou, or anyone else here can do to help you through this time, please don't hesitate to ask. Professor Zhou has agreed to excuse the two of you from your classes for the rest of the week."
"Th... thank you, Headmaster," said Azana hesitantly. "I... " she trailed off, not sure how to put the next part.
The headmaster smiled, a little sadly, and said only, "A clear oversight on your mother's part. We needn't speak of it again."
"Thank you, sir," said Karana gravely. Unable to make the Water Tribe salute without releasing Azana's hand, she bowed like a Kyoshi Islander instead, her arms at her sides.
"Thank you, Miss Karana," Changdao replied, and she wondered what for as he took his leave of them and disappeared into his office.
In the event, they took Thursday off, but returned to class on Friday, having decided together on Thursday night that there was nothing further to be accomplished, healing-wise, by staying holed up in their room. Better to return to the comforting academic routine, with all their friends around them. Professor Zhou took their appearance for morning classes without comment, apart from a spare, slightly sad little smile and a nod of acknowledgement.
At lunch, Headmaster Changdao appeared at Form Four's table and quietly drew Azana away to his office, indicating to Karana as she started to rise that she should stay where she was. Azana was gone for no more than ten minutes, and seemed quietly preoccupied, but not further distressed, when she reappeared. Karana didn't have a chance to ask her what had happened until that evening, after supper, when they returned to their room to get started on their homework.
"What did the headmaster want to see you about?" she wondered, seating herself at her desk.
Azana sat down on Karana's bed and picked up her roommate's stuffed polar bear dog ("Li'l Naga", according to the tag on its right hindpaw), then replied pensively, "It was Doctor Bulao, Father's solicitor. They read his will this morning."
Karana regarded her thoughtfully. After the events of Wednesday, it didn't surprise her that no one had thought to notify Azana about the reading of her father's will, or invite her to attend it, but Azana didn't seem particularly angry or upset about it - more as though she were trying to take on board some surprising revelation. Karana didn't prompt her, but sat and waited for her to get to it in her own time.
Azana considered her next statement for a few moments, then looked up at her roommate's face and said, "He changed his will last winter. Added a... I can't remember the word. An amendment."
"Codicil?" Karana suggested.
"Yes. That." Azana mulled the matter over for a few seconds more; then, hesitantly, she smiled and said, "I don't know how it works, exactly, but Doctor Bulao says he made it so Mother can't take me out of school."
Karana blinked. "Was she going to?"
"I thought she might," Azana admitted. "You know I was only able to come because Father insisted. With him... gone," she said, her voice quavering faintly, then recovering, "there was the possibility that she would put a stop to it. If nothing else, I expected she would refuse to pay the tuition any longer."
"Headmaster Changdao wouldn't kick you out if she did that," Karana said positively. "My parents could hardly afford this place's normal rates, I'm here on a scholarship. And you're smarter than me," she added with a wry smile.
Azana nodded. "That's probably true," she said, then blushed and added hastily, "About the headmaster, not... the last part." Karana giggled, winking, and gestured for her to go on. "But after all, I'm only 12. She could just withdraw me. She'd have to send me to the state school in town until I'm 15, that's the law, but after that... " She shrugged, still hugging the stuffed dog. "You know how she feels about girls and education."
Karana scowled. "Just because she never bothered getting one herself..." she grumbled, leaving the rest unsaid.
"Yes," Azana agreed glumly. Then, brightening again, she said, "But as I said, Father arranged it so that she can't do that. I don't know how - I think it has something to do with my half-brother Zurin, who you saw at the funeral. He's the executor of Father's estate. There's a trust as well, and some other things, but I wasn't really paying attention by that point," she admitted. "I was so afraid when I went in there that it would be for the headmaster to tell me I had to leave. I nearly fainted when I found out it wasn't that."
Karana all but lunged from her chair, embracing her roommate so vehemently that they both fell over and sprawled on the bed, and Azana was startled to realize that she was actually weeping.
"What's wrong?" she asked, dismayed. "This is good news. ... Isn't it?"
"Of course it is, don't be a dope," Karana blubbered. "That's why I'm crying. Don't you know anything?"
Azana tried to eye her, but she was too close, so she got an arm under her and hugged her back instead, replying with a quiet smile, "I guess I don't."
Then, closing her eyes, she shed a few tears herself, adding silently, Thank you, Father. Your last gift to me... I'll never forget it.
As they had the previous year, Azana and Karana stayed at school during the fall interval, a couple of weeks after the funeral. It was only a week, not enough time for it to be worth Karana's while (or the cost of the tickets) to fly home to the South Pole and back, and Azana was hardly interested in going back to that big old house with her father gone, and only her increasingly estranged mother and the servants for company.
That led to something of a quandary in December, when the winter holidays arrived. She would have to go somewhere, since the Academy's residences would be closed. Unlike the previous summer, though, there was nothing to stop her from accepting Karana's eagerly tendered invitation to come south with her. Azera still technically had legal custody of her, but with her position already weakened by her late husband's efforts to secure Azana's future education, she capitulated easily enough. Azana guessed her mother didn't really want her rattling around the house any more than she wanted to be there anyway, so for once their desires were aligned.
Even as that suited Azana's purposes, it also made her sad. On the long flight to the Southern Water Tribe, she wondered whether the only thing that had even made them resemble a family in the first place was her father's adamant desire that they be one. Did her mother actually love her? Or vice versa, come to that? She would have liked to think they did, and it was just that a fundamental personality conflict kept them from being friends, but at times like this, she wondered.
Xinqisi, Shieryue 16, 280 ASC
Thursday, December 16, SY 2399
Nanisivik, Southern Water Tribe
The funk didn't survive long after they arrived, though. At Chief Hakoda International Airport in Nanisivik, they emerged from the plane into bright sunlight and the clean scent of cold salt air. The South Pole's capital was a seaport, built at the confluence of two fjords, and the weather was clear and mild. The sky was an astonishing shade of antarctic blue, one Azana, raised in balmy Shu Jing, had never seen before; as she stood on the tarmac looking up at it, she realized it was very nearly the color of Karana's eyes.
"What do you think?" Karana asked. "Pretty good, right? And this is only the airport. Wait'll you see the nice parts of town."
In the terminal, they were met at baggage claim by a big, burly, cheerful man with his greying brown hair pulled back in a collection of heavy plaits, and his impressive beard done up in several more. This man - who looked even bigger than he was because of the bulky fur parka he wore - virtually engulfed Karana in a bear hug on sight.
"Welcome home, little bear," he said, then set her back on her feet and grinned at her. His teeth, like the rest of him, seemed slightly outsized, as if designed for a larger animal and then repurposed into a man instead. His eyes were a slightly greyer blue than Karana's, like wet slate, and they seemed to spark with a combination of intelligence and merriment.
"It's good to be back," said Karana, grinning back. "Dad, this is my best friend, Azana. 'Zana, I want you to meet my father, Nanuruq."
Nanuruq turned his grin on Azana, and for a second she was slightly afraid that she was going to get the same welcome as Karana (not that it would have been unwelcome, but she feared for the shape of her backbone afterward); but instead he stuck out an enormous mittened hand, into which her own vanished altogether, and squeezed warmly but not painfully.
"So we meet at last!" he declared. "I've heard so much about you. We missed you at the Glacier Spirits Festival last June!"
"I, er... thank you... your honor?" said Azana, who had suddenly realized she didn't know how to address him. He was a doctor, the only one in the village where he lived, but Karana had told her that he was also the village angakkuk, a Southern Water Tribe religious-slash-legal office she had rather vaguely described as somewhere between a Fire Sage rōshi and the local justice of the peace.
"Please! My daughter's best friend - just call me Nanuruq," the doctor insisted. "Come - let's get your bags and find something to eat. Twelve hours on an airplane, you must be starving."
Azana decided not to point out that they'd been served a fine lunch on the plane; it would have seemed rude somehow, and besides, that had been hours ago.
Nanuruq insisted on carrying all the luggage, festooning himself like a pack animal and making a game of it. Azana guessed he would have had no trouble shifting all of Prince Shinzen's baggage for an entire school year by himself, never mind the two small bags apiece she and Karana had packed for this trip. They caught a taxicab into the city, Karana's father tipping the driver extra to take them past some of the highlights, and came eventually to a handsomely appointed restaurant.
The cuisine of the Southern Water Tribe - Piandao Academy's own efforts at which had sparked the famous confrontation between Karana and Shinzen last year - was weighted heavily toward seafood, but as an islander herself, Azana had no trouble that that. She always rather looked forward to Water Tribe days in the school refectory, and from the original source, as it were, it was even better.
Replete, they took another cab on another little tourist ride around the area, and ultimately arrived at a hotel that was easily as grand as any Azana had ever seen in the Fire Nation, albeit in a very different style.
"We'll stay here tonight and head to Senna in the morning," Nanuruq explained as he led the way across the cavernous marble-floored lobby. "The ride up Pangniqtuuq Fjord is best experienced with eyes fully open," he added with a grin, winking at Azana and tipping his head toward his drowsy-looking daughter. Azana couldn't help but smile. She was feeling a little draggy herself, and, glancing at the clock on the wall by the reception desk, she realized why.
"Is that ten o'clock at night?" she wondered.
Nanuruq looked at the clock, then nodded. "Yep," he said, pressing the button to summon the elevator.
Azana frowned thoughtfully and turned to look out through the glass frontage of the lobby at the street. Yes, in fact, she hadn't imagined it, it was still broad daylight outside.
Karana's father saw the look and laughed. "You're in the land of the midnight sun now, my dear," he said cheerfully. "It won't be dark in Nanisivik again until February - and then for only a few minutes."
"Oh," said Azana. She had known, of course, that it was summer (or soon would be) in the Southern Hemisphere, but the fact that the lengths of day and night were so distorted this close to the poles was something she had read once in a book and then partially forgotten.
Nanuruq installed his daughter and her friend in the room adjoining his, remarking cheerfully that it was probably the last time they were going to have entirely to themselves for a while, and bade them goodnight as he closed the connecting door. Azana turned to make some remark or another to Karana about what a kind man her father seemed to be, but when she did, she saw with a smile that her roommate was already asleep, stretched out full-length on the bed nearer the window, still fully dressed in her school uniform. As she sometimes did when Karana fell asleep at her desk, Azana watched her sleep for a minute, then gently woke her and persuaded her to put herself properly to bed.
She woke early the next morning, to find the room still dark, the heavy drapes drawn against the perpetual summer sunshine, and quiet but for Karana's gentle snoring. Smiling, she got quietly out of bed, took a shower, dressed in nondescript civilian clothes, and went out to get some breakfast and explore the area around the hotel a little.
The neighborhood was just coming to life, with shopkeepers out rattling the shutters of their shops open and the proprietors of cafes setting out the sidewalk tables that, even in this chilly climate, people evidently expected to find. Azana bought a thing like a square donut and a paper cup of cocoa at one of them, then ate one and drank the other as she strolled down the street, looking curiously into the windows of shops to see what sorts of things were on offer in the southern capital.
"We do a lot of handicrafts," Karana had explained to her once, during one of their long late-night conversations about this and that and everything. "We were hunters and fishers for a long time before we ever took up farming or trading, and the impulse to make our stuff ourselves is still really strong in our culture."
What Azana saw in the shop windows of downtown Nanisivik seemed to bear that out. Almost everything there was handmade, or at least hand-finished - furniture, pottery, clothing and textiles... she even looked into one shop and saw a team of three people building an old-fashioned radio, two making the cabinet while another soldered its electronic guts together at a nearby workbench.
The one that really caught her eye, though, was a jeweler's. She passed it twice, once on her way to the end of the block and once back, and then returned to it a second time after disposing of her empty cocoa cup in a corner bin. The items in the jeweler's window were all beautiful, all obviously wrought by a skilled and loving hand, and they all that that unique design language she had come to associate with the Southern Water Tribe from its architecture and Karana's rarely-seen civilian clothes - lots of blue and white and silver, with intricate wave- and knot-like motifs in the carving and engraving.
One item, in particular, caught her eye. She'd seen it on the way out, again on the way back, and had returned to the window specifically to look at it a third time. It was among the simplest pieces on display, but also the handsomest, so elegant in its simplicity that the very fact made it outshine some of the more elaborate pieces around it in Azana's eyes.
Without really thinking about it, she went inside and bought it on the spot.
Karana was in the shower when Azana got back to their hotel room. She emerged from the bathroom, dressed in fur-trimmed trousers and a dark blue short-sleeved shirt, while her roommate was taking off her coat.
"Where'd you go?" she wondered.
"Just out for a walk," said Azana. "And a bit of window shopping."
Karana grinned. "Did you see Atuuniq and Sons? The radio shop?"
"Yes, I did," said Azana, smiling. "They were making one of those old-fashioned cabinet sets. Fascinating to watch them work."
"I love that place," Karana said. "When I was little I wanted to work there, but you have to be part of the family." Then, with a little smirk, she added, "The youngest son is cute, but I don't know if I wanna be a radiomaker that bad."
Azana giggled. "Professor Zhou didn't cover that in his lecture on career preparation," she said, and the two girls laughed together.
"Time is it?" Karana wondered, looking around her roommate at the clock on the stand between the beds. "Eight-thirty. Dad'll be knocking for us anytime. Better get packed up."
"Karana... " said Azana tentatively, before her roommate could go back into the bathroom and start gathering up her things.
"Yeah?" Karana asked.
Azana hesitated, a mild blush building at the bridge of her nose, and then said, "I... I got you something. To thank you for everything you did for me when Father died. For making sure I went to his funeral. And just... " She paused again, blushing a little more, and finished, "Just for being Karana."
Karana smiled. "Aw, you didn't have to do that," she said. "I was happy to help, you know that."
"I know," Azana agreed, "but I wanted to. I saw it while I was out for my walk and it just... seemed right." She took the slim box the jeweler had put her purchase in out of her side pocket and presented it to her roommate. "Here. I hope you like it."
"Ooh, what is it?" Karana asked, accepting it with both hands. Then, not waiting for an answer, she removed the lid and looked at what was inside. At the sight of it, her eyes went wide, color rising in her face as well. Looking up from the box, she met her roommate's eyes and said, "Azana, it's beautiful."
"I'm glad you think so," said Azana, and then she was slightly surprised when Karana thrust the box back into her hands and turned around.
Gathering up her brown hair, which had lately gotten a bit shaggy and reached just short of shoulder length, Karana held it away from her neck and said eagerly, "You have to put it on me."
Azana thought that was slightly odd - surely she knew how to put a necklace on herself - but it was a simple enough request. Removing her purchase from the box, she placed it around Karana's slender throat, gently making it fast at the nape of her neck with the flat bow knot the jeweler had taught her when she bought it. Karana shivered slightly as Azana's fingertips brushed her ticklish neck, making certain the necklace was centered properly; then Azana withdrew, and Karana let her hair fall and reported to the bathroom mirror to admire herself.
The necklace was a simple choker, a band of sturdy blue fabric about an inch wide, and its only embellishment was a round piece of polished crystal - some pale-blue gemstone that looked a little like sea ice - affixed to the front with a single link of gold chain. The face of the gem had been carved with the waves and crests of the ancient symbol for waterbending, similar to the Water Tribe's national insignia, but older and more elaborate. Uncomplicated but beautifully made, it fit perfectly with her locally-flavored civvies, and the pale blue of the gem in front complemented the deeper blue of her eyes. It looked like it had been made specifically for her to wear - or she to wear it; one or the other.
Bounding back out of the bathroom, she caught Azana up in a laughing hug that turned her almost completely around and toppled them both over backward onto the nearer bed. Azana was a little surprised, but gratified; she'd hoped her friend would like it, but she hadn't envisioned a reaction like this.
"Thank you," said Karana, still hugging her, then repeated, "It's beautiful."
"You're welcome," said Azana, slightly at a loss. "I'm glad you like it."
There came a sharp rapping at the door then, and Nanuruq's muffled voice inquiring, "Girls? Are you awake? It's about time we got a move on... "
"Almost ready, Dad," Karana called back, relinquishing her roommate with one last squeeze.
Azana had a fine time in Senna, the little village where Karana had lived all her life. It was a compact and pleasant community, a few hours' sail up a spectacularly craggy fjord from the capital and then an hour by arctic camel from a little fishing station on the coast. Apart from the houses, which were sturdy stone-built structures clad in sod and snow, often partly underground, there was a town hall fronting onto a broad expanse of public square, a few small businesses, a schoolhouse, and a post office. It was possible to walk from one end of town to the other in about five minutes. Even in high summer it was cold, snow- and icebound, though the sunshine was pleasant and the temperature not too low for comfort if you dressed properly.
She had heard many times as a young girl that Water Tribespeople, particularly southerners, were still prejudiced against Fire Nationals even nearly two centuries after the Hundred Year War's end, but Azana saw no evidence of that. Karana's relatives and neighbors were all very pleasant and welcoming to her, apparently wishing for nothing other than that she should feel at home in their community. The only one who didn't was Karana's elder brother, Atausiq, and he wasn't hostile so much as indifferent. Having just turned sixteen, he was more interested in his friends than his little sister's, and had his own activities to pursue. Even if he had been inclined to be unpleasant, he wasn't around enough to accomplish it.
Karana's mother wasn't at home when they arrived; instead, there was a note on the kitchen table reading, HUNTING. BACK WHEN I'VE GOT SOMETHING. K. Neither Nanuruq nor Karana seemed to find this in any way surprising, and Karana's younger brother Bori, who was all of ten, appeared to be getting by just fine on his own when they arrived. He was a quiet, thoughtful, scholarly boy, more interested in books than mischief. Azana liked him immediately, though he seemed to find her a bit frightening.
Karana's parents' house was quite small, just three rooms without counting the bathroom: a common room with a hearth at one end that served as kitchen, dining room, and living room, and two bedrooms, one for Nanuruq and his wife, the other for all three of the children. Azana had been told about it many times, but she had never really grasped just how compact it was until she was actually there.
"Where will I sleep?" she wondered once Karana had given her a tour, which took about twenty seconds.
"Well, we've got options," Karana replied. "Tausi's not home much, so you could have my bed and I'll take his. Or the couch. Or I could build us an iglu out back. Or we could go to Gran-gran's."
Azana blinked. "Avatar Korra's? Is she home?"
"I don't think so," Karana said, "but Dad has a key, and she doesn't mind if I camp out there sometimes, as long as I don't make a mess."
"Hmm," said Azana thoughtfully. She wasn't sure if she was comfortable with that idea. Yes, Korra had been really nice to her when they'd met the previous June, but still, she was the Avatar, and there was something about borrowing her house when she wasn't even home that struck Azana as a bit weird.
Atausiq blew in at around dinnertime and announced that he wasn't spending the night someplace else for once, though, and as she was even less certain she wanted to experiment with iglu living on such sort notice, she decided that they might as well try it. Nanuruq handed over the key without any questions when Karana asked him after dinner, simply telling them to have a nice night.
The Avatar's house, right next door, was very similar to the one Karana's parents lived in, with the same three rooms in the same basic layout, only the room that was the children's bedroom at Karana's was configured as an office or study at Korra's. It was decorated in a similar style, too, except with occasional elements from other cultures: Fire Nation light sconces, Earth Kindgom planters, some odd items that Azana assumed must come from the Air Nomads - subtle reminders that the person whose home this was called all the world her country.
There was only one bed in the remaining bedroom, but it was quite large, bigger than their own beds back at Piandao Academy put together. At bedtime, Azana found herself standing next to it in her nightdress, bemusedly regarding an object which sat leaning up against the headboard.
"...What is this?" she wondered.
Karana finished buttoning her pajama jacket, looked, and grinned. "What's it look like?" she asked in reply.
"It... looks like a plush doll of Avatar Korra. Except it's blue and almost lifesize," said Azana.
"Well, there you go, then," said Karana, walking around her to fall into the doll's lap. "It's a blue, giant Gran-gran."
"... Why?" Azana wondered, now utterly bewildered.
"Beats me!" said Karana happily. "I asked her once, she said it was a present from her father a long time ago. Something about an inside joke. She's really snuggly, though. Of course," she added with a smile, "the real thing's pretty good at that too. Lots of practice."
Two days after they got to town, Karana's mother reappeared, walking into the yard that morning with a dead gazelk about twice her own size strapped to her back. She was a fine-boned and wiry woman, so small she looked like she could have hollowed her husband out and lived inside him, but she appeared enormously strong. She heaved the carcass onto the skinning bench behind the house with a casual sort of ease, like Azana would've shown tossing her bookbag onto her desk, then turned and grinned at the wide-eyed girl standing next to her daughter.
"Hiya," she said. "You must be Azana. I'm Kejna. I'd shake your hand, but... " She shrugged, her grin turning wry, and indicated her general state of blood-streaked griminess. Turning to her daughter, she asked, "Karana, would you run and tell your father to get the stove going, please?"
"Sure thing, Mom," said Karana. "C'mon, 'Zana, you probably don't want to stick around and watch the next part," she added, and seeing Kejna turn back to the bench and draw a huge, scimitar-bladed knife from a slot in one end of it, Azana was reasonably sure she was right about that.
"That was your mother?" she asked, astonished, as the two girls entered the house.
"Yep," said Karana. "Isn't she awesome?"
Nanuruq was occupied for the entire day cooking his wife's catch, filling the house with amazing scents and generally making it impossible to hang around there without suffering actual spasms of hunger. Karana and Azana spent the day outside instead, the former teaching the latter how to use snowshoes as they hiked to a ridge outside of town that afforded a panoramic view of the whole village.
"In wintertime, this is the best place to come to see the Southern Lights," Karana said. "You can't see it from here in daylight, but the Spirit Portal is right over that way," she said, pointing in a direction almost exactly away from the village. "In the dark you can see it for miles, especially around the winter solstice. The spirits come out and dance in the sky. Sometimes I just lie here," she said, indicating the sloping face of the ridge, "and watch them for hours."
"You told Shinzen once that you'd been to the Spirit World," said Azana, suddenly remembering.
Karana nodded. "Mm-hmm. Gran-gran's taken me a couple of times. There's another Spirit Portal up north - if you have the right guide you can go from one to other in just a few minutes. Not that there's anything in the North Pole worth the trip," she added with an eyeroll.
"What's wrong with the North Pole?" Azana wondered.
"Oh, nothing! It's really nice. It's just that the Northern Water Tribe lives there," said Karana sardonically. "Did you know they still think they own the South Pole? Seriously, if you ask them, they'll say Chief Aariak is just a sub-chief and she'd have to do what 'Great Chief' Inarik says, if he could be bothered to give her orders." She shook her head. "Like to see them try. Jerks."
Azana eyed her silently. Until that moment she'd been unaware that there was any basis for contention between the Water Tribes, or that Karana had an opinion on the matter. Their conversations had been extremely wide-ranging of an evening, but they'd never wandered into political territory. After fuming for a moment, Karana noticed her silence and smiled, slightly embarrassed.
"Sorry. Ranting," she said. "It's just that... I'm sure there are plenty of nice people up there? Somewhere? But I've literally never met anybody from the North who wasn't a complete tool. Honestly. They've all been like your mom." Karana blinked, as if just realizing she'd said that last part out loud.
"Well," said Azana dryly, "that certainly doesn't recommend them," and they both laughed.
They reported back to the house at seven for supper, to find the table all but groaning under the weight of a giant roast of gazelk and all the trimmings.
"Hey, all," Karana called as she and Azana took off their coats. "Wow, Dad, that smells amazing." She looked around the room. "No Tausi?"
"Out with the gang," said Nanuruq, arranging the last of the dishes.
"More for us," said Karana cheerfully.
Since the last time Azana had seen her, Karana's mother had had a bath and a nap. She looked even smaller without her heavy hunting furs on, almost childlike next to the bustling bulk of her husband, but for the grey beginning in her long, twin-plaited hair and a slight weathering of her face. Azana noticed that Karana looked a lot like her, particularly around the eyes, which were the same bright blue color.
Now, rounding the table, she gave her daughter the hug her blood-spattered hunting attire had precluded before, then leaned back and regarded her with a thoughtful air.
"Where'd this come from?" she wondered, touching the necklace Karana wore.
"Azana gave it to me," said Karana with a happy smile.
Kejna considered this for a moment, looking from her daughter to the girl's slightly puzzled-looking friend, then grinned at the latter, kissed the former on the forehead, and said, "Well, as long as you're happy, sweetie."
What in the world does that mean? Azana wondered, but no explanation was forthcoming as Karana's mother came over to her, administering the handshake she'd promised earlier. She had powerful hands, which wasn't a surprise after having seen her heave that gazelk carcass around earlier, but her grip was judiciously firm.
Dinner was as amazing as it smelled. Apart from certain items of seafood, Azana was reasonably sure she'd never eaten anything that had been alive more recently than the gazelk, and she had already discovered on previous days that Nanuruq was a fantastic cook. She wondered vaguely, with parental cooking like that on offer at home, how it was that Karana had been so ready to fight for the name of the Piandao Academy kitchen staff. Their efforts were workmanlike and honorable, to be sure, but this... this was art.
That "night", for variety's sake, Karana followed through on an earlier proposal and used her waterbending skills to construct a small, domed snow house in the open area beyond the back yard, after which they dragged out some blankets and furs, and a couple of battery lamps, and camped for the evening. Azana had been a little dubious about this idea, but once they were installed she found she quite liked it. The iglu was cozy, and much warmer than she would have expected for a shelter that was basically made out of ice. There was a pleasant sense of security, like a burrowing animal might've felt, particularly once they'd hung up one of the furs to close off the entrance and seal out the bulk of the midnight sunshine.
"So," said Karana in the dim quiet. "How do you like my hometown?"
"I love it," Azana said. "Everyone's been so nice."
"Except Tausi," Karana quipped.
"Except Tausi," Azana allowed, "but even he's just been... not interested. I can handle not interested," she added with a wry smile. "Thank you for inviting me."
"You're welcome anytime. Mom and Dad really like you. So does Bori, even if you wouldn't know it."
"I think he's a bit scared of me," said Azana.
"Probably. You're a girl. Girls are scary," said Karana with a giggle. Then she shut off the lamp next to her, snuggled down into the heap of furs and blankets that served for a bed, and said, "Better get some sleep. Solstice tomorrow! Summer's more low-key, I mean, it's no Glacier Spirits Festival, but still - good times. G'night."
Azana shut off the light on her side and mirrored her roommate's position, curling up back-to-back under the furs. "Good night, Karana."
After the winter holidays, Azana and Karana - already the best of friends - became practically inseparable. Had they been a little older, many of their friends would probably have suspected them of having become a couple in the wake of their October trial, but not quite yet - and besides, the truth was deeper and more complicated than that. Later in their lives, they both would know many ordinary couples who knew each other far less well, and cared for each other far less deeply, than they did.
Regardless, they already had been identified in their schoolmates' minds as a team, like Prince Shinzen and Chou or Kiko and Hitomi. After December, their image in Form Four's collective consciousness became welded into a single unit. There was a brief fad for calling them by a single composite name (which fluctuated through a few permutations before settling on Kazana), but it died out after six weeks or so in favor of a less precious blurring of the usual phrase, "Azana-and-Karana", into one long word.
In the springtime, Prince Shinzen announced that he wanted to fund another spring interval expedition for all of Form Four and was seeking suggestions as to where they should go. A few wanted to go back to Ember Island again, having had such a great time there last year, but Karana suggested that - if he was paying for it - they should all go to Senna for another of the seasonal festivals, which happened to fall within the break that year.
The Ember Island supporters were a bit dubious about the idea of going to their classmate's rural hometown, well below the antarctic circle, in southern autumn, to attend something called "the Falling Dark Festival", but Karana's cheerful insistence that it was the second-best holiday of the Southern Water Tribe year swayed a few, and the last holdouts were conquered when she let drop the intelligence that the Avatar would be there.
Where Shinzen's family's staff on Ember Island hadn't known what to make of them the year before, the people of Senna had plenty of warning and did the occasion up right, erecting a temporary longhouse in the fashion of their semi-nomadic ancestors in order to house the village's guests in style. The festival, too, lived up to its billing, being a cheerful occasion that was part ancient seasonal rite, part celebration of Avatar Korra's birthday.
Shinzen, who had developed a curious fascination with the Water Tribes since Karana had smashed his dismissive, aristocratic hauteur about "the provinces", went instantly and somewhat embarrassingly native. This offended a few of Karana's neighbors, until they realized that he wasn't making fun of them, just being a spectacularly goofy but entirely sincere fanboy. Eventually Karana's mother and Korra had to sit him down and give him a little talk, after which he ramped it back a bit, but it was still going to take his hair months to grow back on the sides.
After the spring interval, the school year seemed to accelerate, until suddenly it was June and time for another Commencement ceremony. With Form Six graduating, the machinery of the Academy ratcheted forward, and - ka-chunk - the rest advanced one slot, while the class slated to start that fall became the new Form Six. No Avatar at this year's ceremony, alas, but Karana was meant to meet her in Republic City, and then, as the previous year, they would go together to the South Pole by steamship.
And this year, unlike the previous one, Azana would be with them.
Xinqiliu, Liuyue 10, 281 ASC
Saturday, June 10, SY 2400
"Ready to go?" Karana asked, zipping up her travel bag. Their itinerary was much more leisurely now than it had been at the winter holidays, when they had had to go straight from class to the airport, so they were leaving their school uniforms behind and traveling in mufti this time. She was dressed much as she'd been in winter, in baggy, fur-trimmed trousers and a short-sleeved shirt, its open neck showing off the necklace Azana had bought her in Nanisivik. She'd pick up the heavier gear she would need for the southern winter in Republic City, and had advised Azana to do the same, so both girls had packed light.
Azana finished arranging her own things, closed her suitcase, and turned to her roommate with a smile. Karana occasionally kidded her that her civilian clothes looked like uniforms too, with fitted shirts and either knee-length skirts or dressy slacks (the latter today), but she did have to admit that Azana looked sharp that way.
Nearly thirteen - both their birthdays were in July - the two girls were markedly taller now than they had been when they met, but in virtually the same proportion to each other, so they barely noticed. Now, regarding each other in their unaccustomed civilian garb, they shared a grin, and each knew what the other was thinking without either having to say it.
"Ready to go," Azana confirmed, nodding.
"Then let's hit the trail," said Karana, shouldering her bag. "Next stop, Republic City!"
Xinqiliu, Wuyue 15, 285 ASC
Saturday, May 15, SY 2404
The Spring Social: The time of closest alignment between the two secondary schools of Shu Jing, when the junior and senior students of the town's state high school traditionally hosted their counterparts from private Piandao Academy to a formal dance and reception. For the students from Piandao, generally outnumbered about three to one by the regionally aggregated community of Shu Jing High, it was a chance to spend an evening outside the walls of their academy and expand their networks a bit, while the youngsters from the state school regarded it as an opportunity to find out just what lurked within those imposing walls outside of town.
The occasion was usually a success, thanks to the concerted efforts of both faculties and Shu Jing High School's Student Activities Committee. In the forty years or so it had been happening, there had never been a serious incident, and there didn't look like being this time either... but not everyone was having a good time.
Karana, for instance, found herself mildly-to-moderately miserable within an hour or so of showing up. She had suspected she wouldn't enjoy the occasion, simply because she wasn't much for formal school dances in general. Piandao Academy held two internal ones per year, and after the first one she'd stopped going. She didn't own the right kind of clothes or know how to wear them, and while she was accomplished at some forms of dancing, the odds that it would be appropriate to haul out a qilaut and commence a proper Southern Water Tribe drum dance with it at such a function were slim at best, even if she had one.
The problem only worsened as she and her schoolmates entered their teens and the problems of romance, theoretical and practical, began cropping up. While she was friends - in many cases, very close friends - with all her classmates in Form Four and a good many students in the neighboring forms, she was attracted to very few of them, and none so strongly as to make her think it was worth the risk of acting on it. This made the courtship aspects of such occasions, growing ever more significant as they all advanced into adolescence, superfluous at best and dangerously irrelevant at worst; another reason to avoid them altogether.
It had been put to her that it would reflect badly on Form Four if any of them were to decline this invitation, however, and certain of her friends promised that she would warm to the occasion once she got there. So here she was, dressed up like she was going to someone's wedding, standing off to one side, and wondering vaguely why it made her feel slightly ill to see her roommate Azana dancing with that one senior from Shu Jing High. Azana was from Shu Jing, born and raised there, and so most of these kids were at least acquaintances of hers from primary school. It stood to reason that she'd mix with them most readily of all, and Karana certainly didn't grudge her roommate a good time just because she wasn't having one; but all the same, she couldn't quite bring herself to watch.
She waited until she absolutely could not bear the tedium and that weird, unidentifiable feeling any more, then slipped away and went back up to the Academy, reasonably confident that she'd shown the flag long enough for honor's sake. There was no one in the Form Four common room when she got back there, naturally. She selected her favorite of Master Sokka's books from the bookshelf, installed herself in the corner armchair she liked by the fireplace, and tried to read.
After twenty minutes of limited success, she was slightly surprised by the arrival of someone else. Without a word, Prince Shinzen entered the common room, crossed to the fireside, and threw himself down in the chair across from her with a sigh, unfastening the high collar of his Fire Army dress uniform as he did so.
"You're back early," said Karana, putting the book aside. "And you sound like I feel," she added wryly.
Shinzen rolled his eyes. In the last couple of years he'd grown like a stand of bamboo, more vertically than horizontally, and was now a tall and rangy young man with the distinctively bushy eyebrows and slightly unruly dark hair of his family line, the latter kept firmly under control with an industrial-strength topknot tie. Slumped in that partly-sprung armchair, he seemed even more leggy than usual, his knees nearly even with his chin.
"I never liked formal occasions much to begin with, but now that Cousin Katara is here, there seems even less point," he said. "She's the center of attention, and she likes it that way. It takes all the pressure off me, except from a certain breed of industrious young ladies. And their mothers," he added with a rueful smile. "One point in favor of the Academy - with very few exceptions, our parents are nowhere in sight."
"Ha, wow," said Karana. "Imagine the headlines. 'Shu Jing's Most Eligible Bachelor Wishes the Girls Would Just Leave Him Alone'." She shook her head, smiling.
"Like all satire, it's rooted in uncomfortable truth," Shinzen admitted. "At any rate, Katara's not old enough for the Spring Social, and so I suddenly found myself back at center stage. I'm afraid it all got a bit too much." He raised an eyebrow at her. "What about you? I'm surprised to see you here. I know you're not a big fan of dances generally, but this is a special occasion, and you're usually in favor of those," he added.
"Oh, sure, special," said Karana sarcastically. "It's real special to stand in one corner of a school gym and watch your best friend dance with some dude whose name you don't know. Sign me up for hours and hours of that."
Shinzen looked surprised. "Karana," he said. "Are you jealous?"
"No," Karana replied at once. "Don't be a dope. I'm not some psycho chick, I don't think I own 'Zana or anything. Even if we are roommates. And best friends." Unconsciously, she touched the necklace at her throat. "And we've been engaged since we were 12," she mumbled.
Shinzen blinked at her. "... Come again?"
"Did I say that last part out loud?" asked Karana, sounding genuinely startled. Her face went crimson through her dark skin. "I, uh... it's a long story. Actually that's a lie, it's a really short story, but... " She gestured vaguely. "We should probably not get into that."
"As you wish," said Shinzen, sounding faintly offended. Karana sighed. Even after all these years, the prince was still a little touchy about some things, and being considered unworthy of a confidence was one of them. Like all members of his family, he could get ever-so-slightly obsessive about others' perceptions of his honor.
"All right, fine, but not here," she said, rising.
They went to the top of the Academy's belltower, from which the changes of the academic day were rung; no danger of that happening on a Friday night. From here, a person could see for quite some distance into the surrounding countryside. Even the lights of Azana's mother's house, where she had refused to live since her father's death four years before, could just be made out in the distance if one knew where to look.
Sitting on the tower's low perimeter wall with her feet hanging down, her chin resting on her folded arms atop the iron railing, Karana explained about the first time she had taken Azana to her home in the Southern Water Tribe, that first winter break after General Izuno died. How Azana, out window shopping in the capital city on her first morning there, had bought a piece of jewelry on a whim and presented it to Karana, to thank her for her friendship and kindness through that difficult stage of her life.
"Of course she didn't know it was a betrothal necklace," said Karana. "She still doesn't, as far as I know. And technically she didn't make it, so depending on which angakkuk you ask it might not even count anyway. She just thought it was pretty and it would suit me, so she bought it for me. I knew that, I've always known that."
She turned her head to regard Shinzen, who sat beside her, listening with silent attention. "And it doesn't diminish the gift in any way," she insisted. "I need you to understand that."
Shinzen nodded gravely. "I understand," he said. Then, producing a small metal flask from within his unfastened dress coat, he offered it to her.
Karana took it, looking curious, and unscrewed the cap. "What's this?" she wondered, then sniffed experimentally and drew back, coughing. "Whoa."
"Caldera City dragon brandy," Shinzen said.
Karana eyed him. "Isn't that illegal if you're under 18?"
"Hello, Prince Shinzen here," said Shinzen sardonically. Then, with a slight smile, he said "My father sent it to me for 'medicinal purposes'. You sound like you could use a little."
Karana almost jokingly accused him of trying to get her drunk so he could take advantage of her, but managed to prevent herself from saying it. He would definitely take offense at an accusation like that, even one obviously made in jest. She sniffed the liquor suspiciously again, wincing at its acrid bite. Then, with a what-the-hell shrug, she took a drink.
It wasn't really that bad as a liquid; it burned a bit going down, but didn't make her gag or cough, and the sensation of spreading warmth when it hit bottom was really very nice indeed - worth the sting of the fumes in her nose at the beginning. She took another for good measure, then handed it back.
"Thanks," she said. "That's not bad." She smiled as the second hit sent another wave of warmth rippling through her center. "Oo, yeah, I could get used to that."
"I told you it was medicinal," said Shinzen, taking a drink of it himself. "Mind you," he added dryly, "I don't know how well my royal prerogative would stand up if Headmaster Changdao caught us."
"Well, we'll have to be careful, then," said Karana. "Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. It doesn't diminish the gift in any way." She touched the necklace again, a sentimental smile flickering across her face, and went on, "This is my most treasured possession. You know I almost never take it off. And even though I know she doesn't know what it means... even though I'd never be so presumptuous as to hold her to it... even though I'm not sure I'm even really attracted to her that way... " She sighed, folding her arms on the rail and putting her head down on them again. "I guess I just enjoyed the idea that somehow I was hers and she was... mine." She chuckled darkly at herself. "I know, right? Talking about non-presumptuous."
Shinzen considered the matter seriously for a moment, then said, "Maybe you should tell her about it sometime."
Karana laughed hollowly. "Ha, sure, that'd work out fine. 'Oh, hey, 'Zana, by the way, you should probably know that I'm feeling weirdly possessive of you lately on account of you accidentally proposed marriage to me when we were 12, and it really hurt my feelings when you let that guy take you to the dance like that.'"
"Well," Shinzen allowed, "you might want to put it more diplomatically than that, but... " He took another swig of brandy; she held out her hand for it, had another slug herself, and handed it back.
"Ahh, I dunno, man," she said. "It's a silly, childish thing, but... I guess all this time I kinda cherished it, y'know? A little secret that I could hold next to my heart. Like it was fate or something. Like it meant that... 'Zana and me, we were life mates, and whatever happened, we'd always be together."
Shinzen slid a little closer on the wall and put his hand on her shoulder. "Karana," he said. "If you feel that strongly, then... 'that way' or not, you should tell her about it."
Karana turned to him, her face glum. "I'm scared, Shinzen," she admitted in a small, vulnerable voice. "I'm scared that it would all go wrong if i did that. That she'd think I was being weird. Or creepy. Or weird and creepy. That I was expecting something from her that she might not be willing... or even able... to give. Then we wouldn't be buddies any more. We'd be... this other thing, this not-quite-thing, and it'd never be right again." She shook her head, looking out at the night again. "I'd rather hide it than risk that."
She sighed. "At that age, I didn't understand what marriage even was, really. You know? What it meant. Just that I could see my parents were really happy in theirs. And... I wanted that for myself. For us - for her, because her parents never had it, and mine did, and I wanted her to see how amazing it was. It made me feel so good that I was able to make her happy when she was so miserable. I just... " She sighed again and closed her eyes, a tear leaking down one cheek. "I just want her to be happy."
"That... " Shinzen coughed, his voice catching in his throat, and tried again. "That might be the most beautiful thing I've ever heard," he said.
Surprised, she turned and looked at him again, and saw a tear making its way down his own face. "Shinzen," she said.
"I knew you were brave, and I've long suspected you had a noble heart," Shinzen went on. "I didn't realize it was so noble it could even trump your courage. I'm reasonably sure it would be the most beautiful thing Azana's ever heard, too. But if you dare not tell her... or if she's fool enough to reject you, which I very much doubt... then you could always do me the very great honor of agreeing to be my wife."
Karana stared at him for a second, then burst out laughing, her gloomy mood wiped away by the sheer hilarity of the suggestion. She laughed for almost a minute, the tears running down her face now born of mirth, until finally winding down with a long, slow sigh.
"Oh, man," she said. "Thanks, Shinzen. I needed that. Man, you really had me going for a second there." She reached and gave his shoulder a friendly shove, then blinked as he didn't react to it. Looking more closely in the dark, she saw that he'd gone all stony-faced, like he did when he thought someone might have impugned his honor. "... Oh," she said.
"Perhaps I should leave you with your thoughts," he said stiffly, extricating himself from between the railing and the wall. "Good night, Karana."
"Shinzen, wait," she said, scrambling up and darting to intercept him before he could reach the stairs. "I'm sorry, OK? I wasn't laughing at you. Or, well, I was, but it was because I thought you were joking and you wanted me to. I wouldn't have done it if I knew you were serious. Come on, you know me better than that."
Shinzen paused, relaxing a little, but his words were still deliberate and a little stilted as he replied, "Why would you assume I would joke about a thing like that?"
"Uh, because I didn't think you could possibly be serious?" Karana asked in reply. "I mean... " She hesitated, gesturing vaguely. "I mean how could you possibly be serious? Do you remember the first thing you ever said to me?"
"I was eleven!" Shinzen burst out, his stiffly offended façade falling away.
Karana giggled. "So you do remember," she said, giving his shoulder another push, and this time he responded to it, rocking back on his heel and smiling a little in spite of himself.
"I've changed my opinion since then," he said. "I've changed a lot of my opinions, and in large part I owe that to you. You're the one who first opened my eyes and showed me what a parochial ass I was. How much more of the world there was than just the Capital and Ember Island. I'm preparing for my uncle's diplomatic service now, you know, because of you... " He cracked a wry little smile. "... and the lesser of your thumbs."
She chuckled, a little more soberly, at the memory, then said, "It's a long way from losing a thumb war to proposing marriage."
"I know," said Shinzen. "But that's how far I've come." He took her hand. "That's how far you've brought me."
"I... " Karana shook her head. "No. Shinzen, I'm sorry, but there's... there's just no way. I respect you too much to sugar-coat it. I like you a lot - you're one of my best friends - and I'm glad you think I've made such a difference in your life, but there's no way I would ever marry you."
Shinzen considered that, then arched an eyebrow and asked wryly, "Would it be putting you on the spot to ask why?"
Karana sighed. "You really want me to do this?" she asked.
"On the whole, I think I'd rather know," the prince replied.
"OK, then. Basically, there are three reasons. A, I know I don't like you that way, sorry, but I don't. B, you couldn't pay me to sign up for the princess thing - no way, no how. And C," she added with a dark little grin, "your father would have us both killed, if your mother didn't get us first."
Shinzen snorted, amused in spite of himself. "There is that," he conceded. He sighed. "Ah, well. It was worth asking."
They went downstairs and made their way through the dimly lit, mazelike corridors of the school to the Form Four students' bedrooms, in the west wing. The building was dark and quiet; the students in the lower grades had all retired, and the others weren't back from the dance yet.
They reached room 44, the one Karana had shared with Azana for six years and would for one more yet, and paused at the door to take their leave of one another.
"Well... good night, Shinzen," said Karana. "Thanks for cheering me up... even if you didn't entirely mean to. I'm sorry I laughed at you."
"It's all right," Shinzen replied. "Forget it." Tilting his head thoughtfully, he asked, "Are we still good?"
Karana grinned. "We're still good," she said.
"You don't think I'm weird? Or creepy?"
Shinzen's teeth showed in a little grin of his own. "Well, there you are, then."
Karana gave him a puzzled frown, then blinked as she realized what he was getting at. "You son of a - " she sputtered. "Was that all just to get me thinking about - "
"No," Shinzen assured her. "I was quite serious. That was an... unexpected side benefit." He took her hand and, bowing in his most princely manner, kissed it. "Good night, Karana."
"Oh, c'mere," she said, and hauled him into a hug. "G'night, Shinzen. I'll see you in the morning. And... thanks again."
The luminous dial of the clock on Karana's bedside stand said it was two hours later when she woke again, at the fall of a dim rectangle of light across the head of her bed from the opened room door.
"'Zana?" she mumbled. "Is that you?"
"Sorry," said Azana, standing barefoot in the doorway with her shoes hanging by their ankle straps from one hand. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"'sOK," Karana said, sitting up and blinking. "I kind of hoped you would."
Azana put her shoes down by the door and shut it behind her, cutting off the low hallway light, then turned on her desk lamp at its lowest setting to give her enough light to undress by. "When did you leave the dance?" she wondered as she made her way out of her complicated formal dress. "I didn't see you go."
"You were pretty busy slow dancing with what's-his-face," said Karana, trying and failing not to sound bitter.
Azana paused, glancing at her, then finished taking the dress off and hung it in her wardrobe. That done, she padded across the room in her slip and sat down on the end of Karana's bed. Just enough moonlight filtered through the half-closed blinds on the window overlooking the bed for her to make out the basic outline of her roommate's face.
"What's wrong?" she asked. "You sound upset. Did something happen after you left?" She sniffed thoughtfully at the air. "Is that brandy?"
"No. Yes. I mean it is brandy, but nothing happened after I left. Well, nothing major. I mean, Shinzen asked me to marry him, but I said no."
"Oh." Azana blinked at her in the gloom. "What?!"
Just like that, it all came pouring out of Karana, starting with her brown study in the common room and ending with the aftermath of Prince Shinzen's spur-of-the-moment marriage proposal, along with everything in between. At the end, Karana wept silently in the dark, not daring to even open her eyes and see Azana's reaction, certain that she had just wrecked the best and brightest friendship she was ever, ever going to have.
She jumped, uttering an involuntary sound, as a cool hand touched her neck, fingertips sliding across her throat to touch the carved gem on the front of her necklace.
"I found out what it really was two years ago," Azana said quietly. "For a while I wondered why you never told me of my mistake. Then I remembered something your mother said. Do you remember? She asked you where it came from, and you told her I had given it to you... "
Karana chuckled, the sound half a sob, since she still didn't know whether she should be crying. "And she said, 'Well, as long as you're happy, sweetie.' I remember." She sniffled. "That's why she's the best mom ever."
"Yes she is," Azana agreed. "Since that very day, even though I didn't understand that exchange for years, I've wished she could be my mother too."
"Well... she kind of... can be?" said Karana hesitantly.
"Once I realized that," Azana went on as if she hadn't said anything, "I thought about it for a while, and I finally came to the conclusion that if I had inadvertently asked you to marry me, and you not only hadn't disabused me of my mistake, but told your mother about it with such pride in your voice and such a smile on your face... who was I to go back on a thing like that? At best it would be wretchedly dishonorable of me."
Karana blinked, wiping at her tears. "Azana... what are you saying?"
"I'm saying... I don't know exactly what I'm saying," Azana admitted. "There are certain aspects of marriage that I don't think either of us was fully cognizant of at 12, and I'm not sure where I stand on those matters yet."
"Well, no, me neither," Karana conceded.
"But I do know that a big part of it is about love and trust, being able to count on each other, and making each other happy just by being together. All things that my parents never had, and yours enjoy every day." She smiled slightly - Karana could just make it out in the dark - and took both of her roommate's hands in hers. "As my half-brother Zurin would say, I'd be a damnable scrub to turn up my nose at that just because I'm not sure about the details." She looked Karana in the eyes, her smile becoming a little sly, and added, "I am not a damnable scrub."
Karana gazed at her for a moment, eyes going wide; then tears flooded them again for entirely different reasons. She lunged forward, throwing her arms around Azana, and both fell over on the bed.
After weeping happily on her shoulder for a few moments, Karana raised her head to look at Azana again and asked her, "What about what's-his-face?"
"Ikeza?" Azana replied, arching an eyebrow. "I hardly think he need enter into our calculations. He tried to kiss me without permission at the end of the dance, and I smacked him so hard his father probably felt it. I doubt he'll ever speak to me again." Noting the startled look on Karana's face, Azana worked her near arm under her and gave her a squeeze, remarking dryly, "It was only a dance, 'Rana. You're the one who was thinking about her marriage prospects tonight."
Karana sniffle-giggled and put her head down again. Presently their awkward position - half-sitting, half-lying with their legs still hanging off the front of Karana's narrow bed - grew too uncomfortable, and they rearranged themselves so that they were stretched fully out, side by side. There was just enough space, so there they lay, quiet and comfortable, until Azana demonstrated that she wasn't planning to go anywhere by tugging the covers over them both.
"I don't know exactly where we go from here," she said quietly.
"Neither do I," Karana agreed.
"I know this much, though," Azana continued. "Wherever it is... we'll go there together."
"Together," said Karana. "I like that. 'Zana?"
A pause, the barest hesitation, and then, "I love you."
Azana smiled and kissed her once, very gently, very chastely.
"And I love you, Karana," she said. "Good night."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Legacy of Korra, Book 6: Galaxy
A Fire to be Lighted
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
Legacy devised by
Philip Jeremy Moyer
Korra created by
Michael Dante DiMartino
and Bryan Konietzko
E P U (colour) 2014