Dante was late again.
Akia had been Dante Basco’s editor since the beginning. It had been several years (and over half a dozen published works) since she read his first story by lantern-light and felt something inside her shift, like Dante’s words had shaken something loose in her chest. She knew Dante fairly well, now. She might only know his pseudonym and not his real identity, but she knew his fears, his doubts, his writing style.
His bad habits.
Akia had sent Dante several reminders as the deadline for his next manuscript approached, and yet the date had come and gone and no messenger hawk weighed down with parchment appeared at her windowsill.
It had been clear from the very beginning--when all she knew of him was his delicate penmanship and his clumsy narrative threads and his beautiful, achingly human descriptions--that Dante had a life outside of writing. No one could write about foreign benders, and strange lands, and sucking battle wounds without having lived a full life. And his letters, occasionally penned in a rush, with sentences sloping diagonally down the page, as though Dante had written it while jogging to his next appointment, told her how busy he still was, even now that the war was over.
But Akia had a life, too. She had other writers to follow up with, and a publishing schedule to keep, and readers impatient for more writing to consume after years under Azulon and Ozai’s regime. The entire country was hungry for new literature after years of creative suffocation.
(It was one of the reasons why Akia had hung a portrait of Fire Lord Zuko in her modest living quarters. Her family complimented her patriotism, but fellow artists recognised it as a sign of gratitude towards the young sovereign that had an active role in the sudden flourishing of Fire Nation culture.)
Akia glared out at the pink dusk. Another day was gone, and still she hadn’t received the promised manuscript.
She lit the lantern above her desk, and dipped her brush into ink. She had one more letter to write before she could turn in for the night.
I hope this letter finds you well. I don’t know which province you hail from, but I heard there was a dangerous Dragon Pox epidemic in the Southern Island. Did you, per chance, get caught up in it? I only ask because it is three days past your deadline and I have yet to receive your manuscript, even though you seemed confident you would have it to me on time. Surely, your life must hang in the balance. I can see no other reason why you would have missed your deadline after assuring me, multiple times, you would have it to me on time.
Your hard working editor,
“Oh, fuck,” Zuko said.
The Minister for Education blinked rapidly at him from across the table. “Excuse me, my Lord?”
Her assistant tried to muffle his laugh in his sleeve. Zuko was too busy panicking to be embarrassed about his slip up.
He missed his deadline. How had he missed his deadline?
Akia hated when he did that. He had promised her that he wouldn’t forget his deadline again, but then Aang had mentioned the failings in the Fire Nation’s education system (and the accompanying story about macaroni art and cave dance parties left Zuko feeling faint for days). He’d looked into their curriculum and found an institution full of propaganda and dangerous traditionalism. He got lost in the paperwork and research, and forgot to take breaks, forgot where his manuscript even was--
“My Lord?” the Assistant Minister prompted, sounding worried now.
“I’m alright,” Zuko said, and then stopped. He squinted at the letter again. “Wait. Wait. There’s a Dragon Pox epidemic?”
The letters were squashed together in one corner of the parchment, as though Dante had had limited desk space when penning his response. Though his handwriting was, as always, as beautiful as a trained calligrapher’s.
I’m sorry for the delay. Something alarming cropped up and I had to deal with it immediately.
What do you know about the Dragon Pox epidemic? My personnel don’t have any answers. Is it deadly? How far has it spread?
I have family there. That is why I am concerned. Simply because it was personal, and not because I need to help the people in that region. Do you think the epidemic is because of the large influx of refugees? Could they have carried disease in from the colonies?
I do not keep missing my deadlines on purpose, I swear.
It was a fairly typical response, Akia thought. Rushed and frustrating and occasionally straight-up baffling.
Dante always signed his name abruptly, without a polite send-off, as though his name on its own was an appropriate way to end a letter. Akia had only ever seen very important people do that.
And there was another clue, buried in the confusing dribble: my personnel.
Akia leant back in her chair and rubbed at her temples. She was probably smearing ink over her face again, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.
She had known for some time that Dante was probably someone from upper society. The signs were in his educated wording, his poised penmanship, the little details about court life that Akia had no idea were even real, but Dante assured her certainly were (and were, apparently, very annoying).
Akia stared at the letter. Maybe Dante was nobility or a high-ranking veteran. That wouldn’t stop her from hassling him until he finally sent her his manuscript.
But first, to reassure her writer that she was teasing him and that, as far as she knew, there was no Dragon Pox epidemic.
Why were artists always so high-strung?
Zuko was so sleep-deprived that he almost handed a page from his manuscript to a passing clerk. The poor woman seemed alarmed when Zuko yanked the parchment out of her hands before shoving the right document at her.
“Please file this with the Minister of Fisheries,” Zuko said, before turning on his heel and fleeing.
If anyone, even one of his well-meaning clerks, read The Stolen Prince, knowing that Zuko, the Fire Lord, had written it, then he would have no other choice than to march down to the port in broad daylight and drown himself in the ocean. Just to save his country from the shame.
He needed to get some sleep before he slipped up and accidentally started reading Rohu’s journey to a fleet of Admirals.
One more sleepless night, Zuko figured. He just had to finish the ending. Then Zuko just had to check for narrative errors. Then he could finally send Akia the finished product.
Zuko had thought the final leg of The Stolen Prince would focus on Rohu and Akim’s romance. But then the characters had sailed into Fire Nation waters. The sun outside the palace had slipped beneath the horizon, and both the palace and his mind were silent for the first time in so long, and Zuko had just … written.
All those years ago, before Aang but after the war room, Zuko had started writing as an experiment. A way to testing his own writing skills after reading so many stories (most of which related back to the Avatar in some way or another, of course; historically, it seemed as though people really liked writing about the Avatar). It gave him some measure of control. The people in his stories couldn’t fail or be laughed at or get hurt unless Zuko wanted them to. They were safe.
But he kept writing for this. The mindless bliss of slipping into a world of his creation, seeing the characters unfurl beneath his brush.
He didn’t have time to revise the ending. And besides, he reasoned, Rohu needed to confront her family. Otherwise, she would still be thinking about her father, even after she went to the Capital and received a hero’s reception for finding the stolen Prince and bringing him safely back to the Fire Nation. It was closure. It made narrative sense. And if it didn’t, Akia would tell him. She always did.
Zuko checked the ink was dry, and then fastened the manuscript to a messenger hawk.
He soothed down its feathers. “I’m sorry. I know it’s heavy. Try not to bite Akia this time, okay?”
It affectionately nibbled at his thumb and then took flight, soaring up and over the palace walls.
“Rohu was not that stupid, narrow-shouldered girl anymore--the child that came home stinking of brine and blood, the child that cried and shivered in her wet clothes, the child that took her father’s disdain and disappointment and tucked it beneath her ribs, where it would grow like a fungus, spreading up her throat and leaving behind the ever-present taste of rot.
Rohu had journeyed further than anyone in her coastal village ever dared. She had sailed over the horizon in her ricketty sailboat--stolen in the dead of the night, a necessity that still left her feeling ill--and into Earth Kingdom territory. She had walked the sun-scorching plains, the war-ravaged towns full of mourning people that spat at firebenders, and up into the Arctic tundra of the Water Tribe. And there, she had found Prince Azim, asleep beneath sheets of ice, as still as a corpse but as alive as she was. She had defeated the spirits entrapping him, and then dragged him to safety. She had held the man, her prince, and been held by him.
Why, then, did the sight of the sun-bleached shack, her childhood home, make her feel so small?
Maybe her family would always have this power over her. Maybe this, the taste of rot, the sudden shivering of her limbs, was the real legacy her father always spoke of. Not land, or money, or skill--but an inheritance of fear.”
-- The Stolen Prince, Chapter 12: Homecoming
Akia scrubbed a hand over her face. She had received the manuscript before dawn, and she had been reading (and leaving little corrections in the margin or on a fresh sheet of paper) all day. The sun had gone down. Her eyes were ached from the strain of reading by lantern light, but it was a pain she was accustomed to.
She stared down the manuscript. She had almost finished it, but she had to stop now. She felt as though her mind was going to unspool.
Before, when reading Dante’s writing, there had always been things that stood out. The way he described the overwhelming noise of war, and the slow way a man could die of knife wounds, and the smell of explosives. The detailed account of Water Tribe culture--a civilisation that was, in reality, a far-off blip on the Fire Nation’s awareness. His thorough description of Ba Sing Se in his last story, The Spirit of the Refugee. The educated way he described the Fire Palace in this manuscript …
There were other things, too. Any profit Dante’s writing made--and there was a decent amount, considering his rising popularity--never went to the author. Dante had requested that Akia send all proceeds to the re-settling of veterans and war orphans.
And now, this. A protagonist who left behind her home to sail out into the world, to find and look after a hurt Prince, only for her family to cast aside her hard work, her charitable nature, because they vehemently disagreed with the way she viewed the world. Because of her failings, so long ago.
Akia stood up. Her legs were shaky. Her neck and shoulders ached, sore from sitting hunched over a desk all afternoon.
She hobbled towards the door. Outside, the Capital was a thousand lantern lights. The palace, perched high above, was a distant wash of gold.
She had suspected that her mysterious writer had come from high society, but to think that he had come from royalty ...
But it all made sense. The busy schedule. The delays in responses (because, she realised, the messenger hawks were travelling across the ocean). How had she not realised that?
If someone looked at his body of work, it should be obvious that Prince Iroh, retired General, constant guardian to the young Prince Zuko during his banishment, before he came Fire Lord, was Dante Basco, her mysterious writer.