Rina sat in class, rubbing her knuckles, hoping the action would stop her from outright wringing her hands in view of her classmates. How had everything gone downhill so quickly? Over the course of mere days, Lady Izumi’s bloodbending had been revealed, the former Firelord herself had been arrested, and something (she had no clue what) had happened to Mica and Prince Shyu to keep them out of school today.
She’d gone over the mover again and again in her head, wishing Varrick would invent some way that people could watch movers in the privacy of their home. She was pretty sure…almost 100% sure…that she hadn’t been one of the people visible in that footage of Lady Izumi’s training session. Nor had any of her friends. She’d discovered through her involvement with the “Fire Nation Honor League” that while people with her abilities were still not common, she was certainly not alone in the school, either. Four other bloodbenders attended Hira’a High–one a junior like her, one sophomore and two freshman.
And all of them were unfortunate enough to not only have deadly bending abilities that everyone was terrified of, they were also burdened with Mrs. Shiro’s political science classes in one form or another.
“Quiet down, everyone!” she said, rapping her pointer on the edge of her desk. The command couldn’t get more redundant. It was first period, and everyone was way too tired to be engaged in conversation right now. The noise did get a few extra students making dreary eye contact, and apparently, that was enough to satisfy Mrs. Shiro’s ego for the moment. She plopped the pointer down on the desk.
“As you know, it is my goal to help you understand the political system in which you live, not just as an abstract concept, but as a real, tangible thing that affects your everyday lives.”
She smiled and looked over the class as if she expected to be complimented for her efforts. When no flattery came forth, she cleared her throat and continued, “We’re going to try a little…experiment. In light of recent events, I would like each of you to compose a speech on the ethics of bloodbending.”
Rina jolted up. She also smacked her foot on the chair in front of her and bit down hard on her lip to stop from yelling out and drawing attention to herself. Thankfully, though, the rest of the class was too involved in what Mrs. Shiro had just said to take notice of her.
“You mean, you want us to make a speech on whether or not bloodbending is evil?” one students asked. “Isn’t the answer to that kind of, um…obvious?”
Mrs. Shiro gave a sly smile. On her make-up-heavy face, it was both gross and creepy. “I leave it to each of you to determine which side of the issue you will take. Obviously, there is some debate to be had or our esteemed Firelord would have taken an official position on the topic by now.”
Rina slumped in her chair, trying to keep her feet away from where she might randomly kick things. Mrs. Shiro using the class to push her political opinions was nothing new. What was new was them hitting so close to home.
Great, now if I don’t want to get called out for being some bloodbending sympathizer, I have to give a speech about why people like me are evil.
She could do it. She’d faked enough in her life to pull it off. Even so, as Mrs. Shiro passed papers detailing the time requirements of the speech and when each person would have to deliver it, Rina really wished she didn’t have to fake things. Just this once. She tore a sheet from her notebook and scribbled the same message four times:
“End of 3. Cafeteria. Meet to discuss the Lady.” Then, when no one was looking, she discreetly creased the paper, on one side then the other until she could tear it into four pieces without making noise. Everyone in her group was expected to check their lockers after first period. As long as they all held to that commitment, she at least wouldn’t have to worry alone anymore.
As soon as third period was over, Rina hurried to the cafeteria. It was empty of staff (all of them working in the kitchen), and she was happy to see that her four fellow bloodbenders seated at an abandoned table. With no food to lure anyone else in, it was the perfect place for private meetings.
“Okay, we’ve got five minutes here; let’s keep it brief,” the junior, a guy named Kuzon, said to the group. Rina might have been the oldest, but that in no way meant she wanted the leadership position. “So, what do we think?”
The two freshmen guys exchanged glances. They had no relation to each other, but seemed so in sync that they got dubbed “the twins” all the same. “What do we think about what?” one of them asked.
“Lady Izumi,” Rina said, holding up a copy of what she thought had been a pretty clearly worded note. “Where did the footage of her come from? Did she know she was being filmed? And if so, did she approve its inclusion in the mover?”
The twins didn’t have an immediate answer, so the sophomore of the group, a girl named Sapphire, stepped in, “I say no. Izumi was Firelord when all of us began taking her classes. If she wanted us persecuted, she could have done so at any time.”
“Not to mention,” Rina added on, “that I don’t see her getting herself arrested on purpose.” The words sent a shiver down Rina’s spine. She had heard reports that Izumi had not resisted arrest and marveled at them. If someone came to haul her off to jail, she wasn’t sure she’d be so calm about it.
“So then that brings us to our next question,” said Kuzon. “Who exactly filmed that footage? What was their goal?”
“Varrick filmed everything else for the mover,” one of the twins pointed out.
“No, he filmed the interviews,” said Rina. “He used plenty of other sources.”
“What other sources? We trained in a private room in the palace! Either we were betrayed by someone in the royal family, someone on the palace staff, or the guy with the giant camera that wormed his way into the palace.” He held up one finger for each possibility, waving the middle finger that had gone up for Varrick like it had some sticky goo he was trying to shake off.
Kuzon rubbed his chin. “Lady Izumi is one of us,” he said. “Both her family and her staff are fiercely loyal to her. Varrick is a possibility, but we need more information. Is there anyone we know who has a connection to the man somehow?”
Rina sat up from leaning her elbows on the table. “What about Mica?” she asked. “Bolin and Tenna’s kid?”
The twins both stared at her like she’d suggested they all try to teach themselves metalbending. “Mica? You’ll trust her with our secret? The one who crashed Firelord Iroh’s coronation?”
“And the one who defended me when Kaiden was being a complete jerk,” Rina countered.
Kuzon raised his hand. “The bell’s going to ring any second; we don’t have time to argue. Everyone in favor of bringing Mica to our next meeting, raise your hand.”
Rina and Sapphire both did so. Kuzon nodded. “Those opposed?”
The twins raised their hands at the same time. Naturally.
“Hey, you didn’t vote,” Rina observed, nodding at Kuzon.
“I know,” he said with a smile. “Because I have a way of getting a little more information before I make a decision.”
“Oh, yeah? And what’s that?” Rina asked. Or at least, started to ask. The bell sounded loudly in the hallway and drowned out her voice when she was halfway through her sentence. Doors to classrooms swung open, and students filed out–laughing, calling out to their friends, and generally making the private meeting feel quite the opposite.
“I’m in the same political science class as Mica,” Kuzon said when the bell finally died down. “I’ll hear her speech about bloodbending this Wednesday, and I’ll make my decision then.” With that, he grabbed up his backpack and exited the cafeteria, blending seamlessly in with the growing crowd.
Iroh had read the histories of the Fire Nation quite thoroughly. He remembered in his grandfather’s personal journals how Zuko had actually sought out the advice of Ozai, the man he’d worked so hard to defeat. At the time Iroh read it, he thought that Firelord Zuko must have been insane. Now that he didn’t have his grandfather or his mother, or anyone else with any knowledge of ruling a kingdom to talk to, he understood the sentiment.
Iroh needed advice. He wandered towards the living room, hoping to clear his head. As he approached the end of the staircase, he thought he heard piano music playing. Nothing complicated, just a few basic chords. Perhaps Kiki practicing when she thought no one was looking? He peered around the doorframe to find that it was Nanami at the keys, with Iroh’s wife Yuki standing at the side, listening.
Nanami was, he supposed, a servant of the royal family in the stricter sense. But she was so much more than that. She had saved not only Zuko and Izumi’s life, but her assistance might have helped prevent the death of countless Fire Nation citizens. She had been a constant source of advice to Izumi, providing her with blunt opinions and advice on how common citizens perceived her actions.
Actually, Iroh thought, that might be exactly the type of advice I need right now. He walked into the room, not loudly, but enough that he drew the two women’s actions. Nanami stopped playing immediately and looked embarrassed, while Yuki hurried over and embraced her husband.
“Iroh, love, are you okay?” she asked.
No, Iroh wanted to shout, How am I supposed to be okay with everything that’s happened? But he smiled at her and said, “Yes, fine. I’ve got everything under control.”
She could tell he was lying, of course, but it was Nanami that called him on it. “Forgive my honesty, your highness, but that’s a load of garbage.”
Yuki looked stern at this comment, but her ire wasn’t directed at Nanami. “My thoughts exactly,” she said to her husband.
Iroh sighed and took a seat in a chair covered with thick white (and undeniably fake) fur. “Fine. I’m lost, all right?” he said, burying his face in his hands. “The laws against bloodbending are rigid. If Mom is convicted, there’s a thirty year minimum sentence.” His throat tightened on his next words. “She’ll die in that prison.”
He looked up at the two women. Yuki looked sympathetic, but Nanami seemed far less so.
“Izumi knew all that when she let herself be arrested,” the voidbender said, hands on her hips. “She did what she thought was best, and quite honestly, I agree with her choice. The royal family has kept secrets for far too long.”
Iroh wasn’t sure how to take that. He looked at his wife to gauge her reaction, surprised to find her nodding in agreement. “She’s got a point, you know,” Yuki said. “Even in our family, we haven’t been honest with each other.” She shook her head. “It eats away at me. Poor Shyu not even knowing about your mother’s bloodbending and then seeing this mover–”
“He knew,” Iroh said. “She told him right before he left.”
“Oh.” Yuki straightened, and Iroh immediately knew he’d said the wrong thing. Or at least, said a neutral thing way too quickly. He almost followed up with, “I’m sorry I didn’t mention it to you earlier,” but somehow that felt like it would only make things worse.
Yuki shook her head. “I know you’re under a lot of stress, Iroh,” she said, not unkindly. “But you’ve got to pick a direction and go forward, or you’re no good to anyone.” She stood and walked out of the room with Nanami in tow. Iroh stood alone, somehow feeling even more lost than before. His mother’s words echoed in his mind: “You think protecting people means hiding things from them, but you couldn’t be more wrong.”