Avatar: The Last Airbender

Zarah (Power Struggle, Chapter 7)

The last coronation Bolin had attended had not gone particularly well. Actually, it was less of a coronation and more of a crazy dictator declaring her intentions to dictate crazily. The only other coronation that had happened in his lifetime was that of Firelord Izumi. He’d been thirteen at the time, less concerned with world politics, and more concerned with which restaurant might be nice enough to donate their scraps so he didn’t have to fish through their dumpster. (He did recall, upon hearing that Lord Zuko was off traveling the world, wondering how much the guy’s autograph would go for in the local market.)

So, in short summary, the coronation of General Iroh was kind of a big deal. The fact that he’d been invited to sit in the front row along with Korra and the rest of Team Avatar was just a nice little slice of extra awesome. He quickly finished off a bag of breakfast pastries (with Pabu’s usual help) and walked up to sit down in his seat. It was an open air auditorium, only a few dozen rows for special guests to seat, but tons and tons of standing room that would probably have to accommodate the whole city and then some. The spot where the new Firelord would be crowned was an elevated stone platform, still a pretty good distance from even the best seats. Red and gold banners were stung like regal-looking clouds against the purple morning sky.

Bolin glanced from side to side. He was the only one there. A bit early, maybe? The ceremonies weren’t set to begin for another twelve hours, but hey, better to be prepared. The sun had been up for, what, a whole hour now? He hung his head. Tenna was still asleep at home in bed. He could just hear her beautiful and insanely sensible voice telling him, “You knew it was a bad idea to come out at the crack of dawn. Now you’re going to fall asleep during the actual ceremony.”

He hung his head, wondering if there was any place around here he could get one of those new-fangled milky coffee drinks. He might need a few.

“Well, well, you one of the Avatar’s friends?”

Bolin whipped around. He hadn’t even noticed anyone around when he had first walked into the open space. But when he looked, he saw a woman in gold and red robes, arms behind her back, smiling at him. She had long black hair past her waist. Bolin guessed she was about the same age as him… which was… well, shoot. It was forty-six now, wasn’t it? That was sorta depressing. And cool. If he had learned anything from being Korra’s ally after all these years, it was that making it past eighty granted any bender automatic awesomeness. So being more than halfway there should have been kind of exciting.

“You don’t talk much, do you?” the woman prompted.

“Erm, no,” Bolin said, rubbing the back of his neck. “That is… I mean… who are you exactly?”

The woman found this question hilarious. Bolin could tell because she laughed so loud, it likely woke up half the palace.

“You’re attending my big brother’s coronation, and you don’t know who am I? Well, I know he doesn’t talk about me much, but–”

“Oh… oh-oh! You’re that little sister of Iroh. Whose name I… totally remem… mem… Marah! It’s Princess Marah, right?”

She laughed again, but at least with the volume lowered this time. “Zarah, actually. But don’t worry. I think my brother mentions me to as few people as possible. Really, the fact that you know I exist is quite the compliment.”

“Yeah, um… what’s up with that, exactly?”

She shrugged. “You could say there’s some… friction between me and the rest of my family.” Then with a smile, she glanced down at her watch. “Opps. Speaking of that, I’m due for a photo session.” She turned to leave and added, “Enjoy the coronation.”

#

When Shyu arrived back at the palace steps, he found his family waiting there for him. His father was dressed in the Firelord’s robes, of course. His mother had on a beautiful red gown that looked a lot like one Shyu had seen in pictures of her wedding day. Kiki was wearing a red and gold kimono (again), and Kaja was dressed in robes that made him look like Firelord Jr. even more than he usually did. But there was another person there, too, and Shyu’s face lit up at the sight of her.

“Aunt Zarah!” he said, hurrying up to meet her. Unlike the rest of the family, Aunt Zarah didn’t care so much for the traditional stuff. She showed it, too. She wore was basically looked like an everyday women’s business suit. And it wasn’t even red. It was deep purple. In the Fire Nation royal family, you didn’t get much more original than that.

“Shyu, come over here next to your sister,” his mother called, with that tone she used when she was basically trying to stop an agni kai from breaking out. “The photographers are waiting.”

Shyu saw the photographers. At least, looking off to the side, he did now. They were all fidgeting with a bunch of levers and gears on their stupid tripods and cameras. He’d had so much of them lately, they’d become like pieces of the background wherever he went.

“Okay, okay,” Shyu sighed. He started to walk up to palace steps where his family was posed, only to notice that his aunt wasn’t following.

“Aren’t you part of the picture, too, Aunt Zarah?” he asked.

His aunt shrugged off the question.

“Our upcoming Firelord thinks I’m… dressed inappropriately,” she said.

Shyu heard his father grunt. “You’re dressed perfectly fine for someone on her way to work as a typist,” he said. “You’re not dressed correctly for a Fire Nation princess.”

Kiki pouted at this comment. “I thought I was the princess.”

Zarah smiled at her niece. “You are, dear. You’re just the young princess, and I’m the old princess. You’ve got the better job, trust me.”

“Oh, good,” Kiki said, all smiles once again. Shyu didn’t make any smart remarks–he couldn’t really think of any, anyways–and went to stand next to his sister. The photographer called for them to “turn this way” and “turn that way” like they were a bunch of trained fire ferrets in a circus. Shyu responded in much the same way, too. Kiki soon whined about how the shoes their mother picked out for her were making her feet were hurt.

“That’s Shyu’s fault,” Kaja said, chin high as the photographer told them to “turn this way again.”

“How is it my fault?” Shyu muttered.

“This way!” the photographer snapped. Shyu turned.

“You were late. She’d been standing in those shoes almost an hour now. Of course her feet hurt.”

“I forgot, okay, Kaj? So just lay off?”

Kaja shrugged. “See, this is why I get the crown and you don’t.”

“That’s enough from both of you!” said Iroh harshly. Shyu lowered the fist he’d had ready to punch Kaja in the face. What a fun photo that would have made.

Just as well their fight was stopped before it started, though. When one person could only thrown punches and the other could throw fire, it never ended well.

The photographer, apparently sympathetic to Kiki’s footware woes, kept the rest of the session brief and said that he still had some unused photos from the day before he could send to the papers along with this session’s pictures. Shyu’s mom thanked him as he left.

He annoys us for two hours yesterday, annoys us again today, and then we thank him? Shyu thought. How does that make any sense?

Aunt Zarah seemed to find the whole scene very amusing. “Y’know, you might have had an easier time with this whole royal life thing if you had stayed in the palace with Mom. Y’know, done the prince thing?”

Iroh looked at her like she’d gone insane. “As opposed to you, running all over the countryside, doing whatever you pleased?”

“I told Mom I wanted no part of being Firelord,” Zarah said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “You’re the idiot who let her talk you into this lifestyle.”

“Because I was the only other choice!” Iroh snapped.

Zarah rolled her eyes. “You’ve always got choices, Iroh. And you’ve got no one to blame but yourself when you make the dumb ones.”

#

A few hours later, the pre-coronation festivities were well underway. Shyu watched a group of servants hurry about stringing banners and trying to find some way to make the spirit vines that wove around Republic City blend in with the very non-green of the Fire Nation decor. He offered to help them once or twice, but apparently, this was against protocol and they asked him to retake his seat. Nanami assured him that they appreciated his offer, but then she too got pulled into the busyness of the preparations. Shyu slumped in a chair in a secluded corner wishing he had a book to read. Or anything really that would help him not feel so out of place. There were few things that discomforted him more than mingling with Dad’s friends. Somehow it always ended in a long discussion of just how exceptional everyone’s bending was. He glanced around to see Suyin shaking hands with Dad.

“Congratulations again on your coronation, your highness. I hope Lady Izumi is still in good health?”

“She is. She should be along shortly,” Iroh said with a nod.

“Hey! Hey, guys!” a grown man’s voice called.

Shyu winced inwardly. The voice belonged to the Avatar’s friend, Bolin. The man had gotten here even before the Fire Nation royal family, which was really weird. Also, he was what… forty years old? Yet half the time, he acted as mature as Shyu’s little sister Kiki. And that was saying a lot.

“Come here!” Bolin called out again. “You have to check this out!” Finally he stepped around a giant statue of Avatar Aang and into everyone’s view. He beckoned behind him to a girl dressed in the traditional clothes of the metal clan, but with a modern-looking ponytail and ribbon to give her hair a bit of rebellion. Shyu felt his face grow warm. Girls were, he hated to admit, still major uncharted territory for him.

“Okay, okay,” Bolin said, standing in front of her. “What shape am I thinking of?” He balled his fists and scrunched his face up.

The girl looked clearly annoyed at whatever trick the crazy guy was trying to pull, sighing and massaging her temples. But then she closed her eyes and seemed to be concentrating on something.

“Square,” she finally said.

Bolin’s face lit up. “You’re right! That is so cool! Try again!” This time he made a humming sound as he scrunched up his face.

“Rectangle,” the girl said.

“Amazing! Okay, okay. One more time.” He hummed particularly loud and after she got that glazed, highly focused look in her eye, the girl raised an eyebrow.

“Something you’re mentally referring to as ‘swirly whirly thingamadoodle.'”

“Super-pendous-total-absolutely-neat-errific!” Bolin squealed.

The girl blushed and smiled. “I told you a million times. I don’t get a visual image of whatever’s in your head. I just get glimpses of words you’re thinking. And only if you’re thinking them over and over. It’s not really any practical use.”

“But it’s still so cool!”

“Dad!” a different girl’s voice broke in, none to pleased. “Will you quit it! That’s so embarrassing!”

She came up beside Bolin, cheeks as red as the cocktail dress she was wearing. Shyu swallowed, suddenly not quite sure where he should look. Lowering his eyes, he got a glimpse of bare legs, strappy gold shoes, and painted toes. Awkward.

He straightened and tried again, making an effort to focus on her face instead, the way his father always told him to do no matter how uncomfortable it made him. She kept her hair short and tousled, which was an odd contrast to the care she had taken with her cosmetics–ruby earrings, red fingernails to match her toes, and just a touch of red lip color. She wore eye liner too, just a touch, to accent her eyes. Not that they needed makeup to stand out. How many people had two different colored eyes?

Despite everything in his brain that said he would no doubt humiliate himself, Shyu found himself wondering if he’d get a chance to talk to her.

“Mica!” Bolin gaped. “What are you wearing?”

Mica snorted, unabashed. “A dress.”

“That, young lady, is half a dress.”

Mica didn’t flinch. Didn’t blush. Didn’t even seem to care one iota what anyone thought of her scandalous attire. Least of all her own father. She rolled her duel-colored eyes at him.

“Really, Dad? You really want to do this now?”

The metal clan girl took the opportunity to slip away. Shyu was actually considering doing the same until Bolin took a step sideways and effectively cut off his retreat.

“Where’s your mother?” he demanded of his daughter. Then a bit softer her mumbled, “I can’t believe she let you walk out of the house in–”

“She’s over with Uncle Varrick talking with the metal clan lady. Suyin.”

Bolin paused. “Wait a minute. Suyin… wasn’t she the one who–” He gasped again and hurried off.

Shyu looked to Mica, thinking perhaps she had an explanation for her father’s weird behavior. But she looked just as baffled as he did.

“Okay, then. Guess that settles that.” She brushed her hands together, like winning an argument with her dad was just another task on her to-do list that she could now check off. She smirked when she noticed Shyu watching. She had a hint of mischief in her smile like anyone could talk to her and she’d listen.

Shyu exhaled slowly. No. No way was he getting himself all excited. Mica was probably just another super-bender who wouldn’t even look his way. He’d heard a host of rumors about her. One that she could combustionbend like her mother. Another that she could lavabend like her father. Yet another said that she could make volcanoes explode by thinking about diet soda under a full moon on a Thursday night.

Well, at least he was pretty sure that last one wasn’t true. But the lack of any concrete info on her bending did tell him one thing about it–she didn’t go showing it off. Shyu smiled a bit. Maybe he could get up the nerve to talk to her, after all.

What would I say exactly? Before he had much of a chance to complete the thought, Mica flopped down in the chair beside him.

“Ugh,” she grunted. “Parents. Can’t believe they dragged me out here.” She stretched out her arm, resting her elbow on the back of the empty chair beside her.

“Yeah… um, mine too,” Shyu replied.

“Really?” She looked him over curiously. “You got in with the early crowd, then. Who are your folks?”

“Uh…” he began. He certainly didn’t want to make her look stupid. But there wasn’t really a non-snarky way to say, my folks include the guy getting the crown.

“I’m… uh… I’m Prince Shyu,” he finally got out.

“Oh, that’s you? That’s cool, I guess.” She folded her arms behind her head, yawned, and stretched out her legs. Shyu stared dumbstruck. Anyone who had met him the past few weeks had at least given him some kind of reaction. Sometimes it was disappointment that they weren’t talking to the crown prince. Sometimes demands to tell his father to “go back to licking President Raiko’s boots.” But just being “cool” with him? That hadn’t happened since Dad’s announcement.

“Um, you did hear what I said, right?” he asked. It sounded moronic as it came out of his mouth and the way Mica raised one eyebrow at him afterwards didn’t help matters.

“Yeah. You’re the prince. You want a medal or something?”

“No,” Shyu said, turning red. “I only… I thought…”

“What? Thought that since you’re royalty and I’m not I should be showering you with attention?”

“No, I didn’t mean that, either!” Shyu cried. Mako and a bunch of security guards looked their way with cautious eyes. But apparently seeing that Shyu was only yelling at Mako’s niece made the man relax. Mako went back to chatting with Ms. Sato and the Avatar, and the security team visibly eased.

Shyu sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. Really. I haven’t had a normal conversation in a while and you took me by surprise.” He dropped his hand to his side. “To be honest, I kinda of miss normal conversations. I’m sorry I botched it.”

She didn’t make any reaction at first. Didn’t even look at him. Her eyes fixed on the elaborate decorations in front of her: the banners, the flags, the gathering choir rehearsing the Fire Nation anthem.

Not wanting to make himself look any more foolish, Shyu began glancing around for somewhere else to sit. But before he could move from his seat, she spoke again.

“Hey. The whole… not living up to your folks thing? I get that.”

He leaned back in his chair. “Wait, you do?”

“Well, probably not the same way you do,” she said with a small laugh. “But I do have a pair of adored-around-the-world actors for parents. That’s gotta count for some amount of pressure, right?”

He smiled. “Well, I mean… it’s not royalty, but I guess it’s close enough.” She gave him a weird look again and his cheeks felt like they were on fire. “That was a joke,” he added quickly.

The clarification sent her bursting into laughter. It was embarrassing, but it seemed a better alternative to insulting her all over again. Shyu felt a little of his old self… the self that hadn’t gotten lost in all this coronation business, coming to the surface.

“So,” he went on, determined to keep the conversation going. “Your parents want you to be an actress, too?”

“Sure they want it. I want it. But it hasn’t really been happening.”

Shyu was about to ask if people just didn’t think her talent measured up to Bolin and Tenna’s, and thankfully realized just how insensitive that was before he actually said it.

“That… stinks,” he finally said.

“You’re flaming right it stinks,” she said. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “I mean, I’d get it if I just couldn’t pull it off. But I’m good. And no one ever gets to see it because of my bending.”

“Your… bending stops you from acting?”

She looked a bit embarrassed at his statement. At least, she stopped staring him down and seemed to take a bit more interest in the floor. Shyu was actually kind of impressed with himself. Usually with any sorts of conversations with other teens, he was the one who ended up staring at the floor.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I mean, if it’s something you don’t want to talk about.”

The suggestion that she could be embarrassed or ashamed of anything seemed to jostle her out of her minor slump. “Nah,” she said, waving away the idea. “It’s not like that. It’s just frustrating, is all.”

Shyu found himself unable to hold back his curiosity any longer. “So, um… how does your bending work exactly?”

At this question, she got a gleeful smile on her face. “Got some open space away from here? It works better with a demonstration.”

Shyu rubbed his chin. He could think of a couple good open-space-type-places around the area, and the paparazzi hadn’t gotten too crazy yet. If he had any plans to wander off, now was probably the best time to execute them.

“Sure,” he said. “Follow me.”

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