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The Mountain Prince

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I. Tenzin

I was twelve years old when I first learned of the Rebellion that was raging across the Southern Earth Provinces. I had heard snippets of it here and there of course, because even despite the best efforts of my lady mother and her iron will over the servants, the loose tongues of whispering courtiers in the hallways were a more difficult beast to control. 

My grandfather had been the one who told me, a knowing look in his eyes as if he knew that no one else would have dared (likely for fear of risking the ire of my parents). From him, I learned of the tyranny of the Earth Kings, whose cruelty would even shame the followers of the great heretic Laghima. I learned of how the villains in Ba Sing Se had bewitched the previous Avatar, and of how my great-grandfather Firelord Sozin and the mountain clans of the Air Islands had taken it upon themselves to restore the balance of the world by liberating the Earth King’s subjects from his oppression. Finally, I learned of how greedy warlords in the South, so used to the patronage of their Northern neighbours, had risen up in a foolish attempt to crown one of the exiled Earth Princes.

We had all been rather confident back then that the war would finish soon, and frankly that opinion was rather justified. Ba Sing Se was securely in our hands, thanks to the wisdom of Crown Prince Iroh, and given my father’s close friendship with the independent King of Omashu it seemed unlikely that Gaoling’s treachery could reasonably last that long.

But upon the inevitable fall of their cities, the rebels escaped northwards into the arms of their Sandbender brethren. And when brave Prince Lu Ten and the troops under his command marched to meet them there, they were swallowed by the sands of the Si Wong desert. Eventually, days turned into months, and months turned into years, and the war continued. 

As madness continued to rage across the tumultuous Earth provinces however, and the Water Tribes continued to isolate themselves, the other two nations enjoyed a prosperity never seen before. As long as Fire Nation ships patrolled over the Mao Ce Sea, and Air Nation troops watched over the skies, our citizens were free from worries. The earlier marriage between my mother, the granddaughter of Fire Lord Azulon, and my father, the Avatar and adopted heir to Shoken’s Throne, had further cemented this. The births of myself, and my siblings Kuzon and Noriko before me made it practically ironclad.

The years of my childhood, many of which were spent divided between Caldera City and the Potala Palace in the Southern Air Islands, were pleasant and joyful. My parents, despite the arranged nature of their marriage, were united through both their similar backgrounds and their compatible differences. Where my father supported his wife’s passion for bending, despite Azulon’s disapproval of her pursuits, my mother gave him a sense of personal attachment which had been denied to him under the circumstances of his upbringing. 

But Avatars were born to act, not to rule, and eventually the atrocities happening in the East had grown too much for my father to merely stand and watch. Not long after my eleventh birthday, my father left to join the war, taking along with him several of the mountain clansmen as his adopted ancestors used to do. 

It’s been quite a while since my siblings and I last saw him. I take care not to mention him often, at least not in public, because the topic of my father is perhaps the only subject which seemed to rob my mother of the confidence which was so characteristic of her. We knew only that he was somewhere across the world, fighting rebels, dark spirits and the like as was his duty as the Avatar. 

I am almost sixteen years old now and with the guidance of my regents in the Council of Elders, I’ve slowly taken upon the responsibilities of a Prince of the Air Nomads. It won’t be long until I reach manhood (seventeen in my nation) and all the burdens attached with the title. More time spent with my subjects. More time with Kuzon and Noriko, who have already started their duties. Less time with my mother’s servants, who irritatingly seem to watch my every step.

In a week’s time, a gathering will be held where I will be introduced to several of the leading families across the Southern Air Islands and its dependencies. Slightly unorthodox for my people, as it was only first started during my brother Kuzon’s ascension to manhood, this is one of the new practices which my mother has worked to introduce from the Fire Nation court. 

As I look into my glass mirror, a recent Omashuan invention which I received from King Bumi just last year, I pondered over the impression that I sought to make during my introduction. What type of Prince did I want to be? While I lacked Kuzon’s natural sense of charisma, or even Noriko’s mastery over spiritual knowledge, I had strong opinions about what I wanted to achieve. I was the one who was closest to our adoptive grandfather when he still held Shoken’s Throne after all, and no one could doubt that Gyatso had been one of the greatest leaders in the history of our nation.

When the day finally arrives, and a servant is sent to fetch me for the ceremony, I find myself more than ready. Dressed in my finest robes, their yellow shade one of the last legacies from the days before Shoken and his heirs dismantled the ancient monasteries, I looked every inch the image of a proper prince.

Mother is there to greet me in the hallway, her golden eyes authoritatively sliding over me before she nods in approval. 

“You look just like your grandfather,” she murmurs, and I smile in thanks towards her. Ignoring the part of me that wants to ask whether she thought I looked like Father as well, I offer her my arm before nodding towards the servant to open the door that separated us from the great hall that held my future subjects.

As we glide inside, Mother breaking apart from me before I reach the dais, I glance over at the horde of people bowing towards me. A quick scan reveals what I expected— each of the Southern Nomadic Clans seem to have sent representatives, in addition to several of the villages that dotted across the once-powerful Chin territories. As I sit upon Shoken’s throne however, I note that one of the groups appears radically different from the rest. Pushing the thought aside for now, I nod towards Elder Tashi to let him know that I am ready to face the music.

As the procession begins, and each of the representatives come forth to speak privately with me, I do my best to personalise my introductions. A compliment here, a charming smile there— their proximity to Gyatso’s palace and attentions meant that the Southern Clans required more attention than the others, and I was careful to ensure that they saw me as a continuation of the old order rather than a symbol of the Fire Nation’s increasing influence. The fact that I looked more Air Nomad than my siblings probably helped as well.

Hours passed by, and the line eventually thinned out. After a fascinating discussion with Jinju of Whaletail Island, whose father Jinju Senior had turned out to be one of the warriors who followed my father during his campaign, I finally come across the unorthodox group which had my caught my attention earlier. 

Where the other representatives had come with grand gifts and an escort of retainers, including even the clans of the Chin Peninsular, this group (if they could even be called that, considering that it was merely an elderly gentleman and what seemed to be his granddaughter) had brought nothing noteworthy. Only a bouquet of golden and silver flowers was presented towards me, respectful enough to constitute a tributary offering but questionable nowadays given the state of prosperity the nations enjoyed.

And even worse, while the old man seemed submissive enough, the girl seemed as if she was almost glaring at me. 

Doing my best to keep my expression straight, despite the unexpected nature of this meeting, I listened carefully to Tashi’s words. 

“Lao of Clan Beifong,” are the words that he croaks and I find myself having to put extra effort into making sure the smile on my face does not shift into an awkward grimace. The continued existence of the Beifongs and the other Earth nobles who had participated in the early rebellion are a bit of a sore topic in court. Only Father’s persisted intervention had spared them from the frankly rather cruel fate the Firelord had sought for them, and even then, the families had had most of their possessions seized as punishment for their disloyalty. 

Just the fact that the Beifongs even dared appear was enough to undoubtedly set some tongues wagging, and a brief look at my scowling mother made me realise that she would probably be the worst of them. Duty calls however, and I nod for them to come forward. 

“Friend Lao, thank you for the gift which you have brought me. Your presence in court is a welcome one, and your continued loyalty will be remembered.” A grateful smile stretched across the man’s lips, but his eyes and tight body language betrayed the discomfort that he undoubtedly felt.

“You are too kind, my Prince. Gaoling is yours, and we are ever grateful for your continued mercy.” Glancing somewhat nervously to his companion (who it appeared, was still finding it difficult to properly smile at me), Lao finally introduced her. “I present to you my granddaughter, Lin.”

I turn to her and offer my most charming grin, which to be fair, had seemed to be enough to calm the nervous debutants from the earlier groups. Pale green eyes and harsh cheekbones stared back towards me.

Seconds pass, and as the light sneer on her face remains, the flicker of irritation that I had felt earlier sparked itself into a raw fury. Thankfully, the gentle but admonishing touch of Mother’s hand on my shoulder is enough to remind me to swallow down my frustrations.

Moments before her actions could genuinely be considered a formal insult, the girl finally bowed towards me, her scowl receding into a pinched but sufficiently polite smile. “My Prince.”

Glancing upon her now, free from the childish sense of indignation that had flared earlier, I found myself suddenly mesmerised by her. The way that she held herself, as if she was the one in control of the situation, regardless of the fact that she was facing the people that had almost brought hers to ruin, was fascinating. No one else had ever dared attempt anything similar to me before.

Nodding briefly, I glanced up at Elder Tashi to let him know that I was done with today’s proceedings. As he wrapped things up, and ushered everyone away from the Great Hall, I snuck a look at the Beifong girl as she and her grandfather bowed and left (the latter almost relievedly).

As I stand before the mirror again, hours after the end of the gathering (which honestly had went about as well as I could have hoped for), I find that for the first time my thoughts have betrayed me.

Where today’s successes should be the only thing on my mind, pale green eyes are what stare back at me.