Chapter 19: The Winter Solstice
"Time is the fire in which we burn." -Delmore Schwartz, "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day," 1937 (Thanks, George)
Early the next morning I had eaten breakfast by myself as I usually did. I vainly tried to ignore the spot where he usually sat. Instead I entertained myself by reading a scroll about the little known history of the Sun People. Apparently they were an ancient civilization thousands of years ago and the ancestors of the Fire Nation. If I ever was able to escape and return to my people, I would know much that could prove useful to my people on the long term. Sometimes these thoughts came to my mind, haunting me like a cruel whisper for I knew the chances to be slim. The dream of escape, of freedom itself, seemed to slip away with each passing day. Yet I held on to that smallest of hopes for someday I would be free. Even if took me years. I looked up at the sound of several people walking into the dining room. Standing at the entranceway stood Akane, Masato, and Ichirou. I knew that they would be arriving sometime today. Last night Ran and I had packed for the upcoming trip with them.
None of them had changed a day of course. It had only been over three weeks now since I had been to their home, yet it felt like it had been months for me. Ichirou was for once dressed in a looser pair and non-formal clothes of his usual red and grey uniform. The staunch black and light red of his new garment contrasted well with his pale skin and black hair. Akane was dressed in her robes, but with a lighter color of a soft brown and red. Masato was dressed in his formal dark red outfit with the usual spikes on the shoulders. I stood to my feed immediately and bowed towards them as they did the same. It was Akane who rushed towards me with a jubilant smile. She threw her arms around me. "Rana!" She exclaimed with pleasure. "I'm so happy to see you!"
"Me too, Akane," I replied honestly after returning her hug. She released me after a moment. I looked over towards Ichirou and Masato. "Hello, Ichirou," I greeted him with a smile. Ichirou looked at me with wide eyes and a pink blush grew on his cheeks.
"Hi, Aunt Rana," He mumbled out quietly. Even though I had stayed at his home for two weeks, he had managed to avoid me or mumble hello and run off on any of our encounters.
"Rana," Masato addressed me with a solemn face. There was a shining in his eyes though. The same eyes as his brother. They did not look at me as the same as his brother's did, but it still reminded me of them. The void ached slightly at this thought.
Soon enough I was on a small ferry with Akane and her family, heading on our way for the Capital. The day was not too dismal for it had not rained yet. There was only a cooler wind and a grey sky. Being on the ferry set me in a good mood though for I felt the waves underneath me and the air tasted like the sea. Ran and I had bidden each other a brief farewell. I would be back at the end of the week. Iwao had come as his silent shadow, and I had not seen a sign of Satoru since my last lesson. Akane and I chatted about what we had missed out on with each other since we had last seen each other. Somehow being in her company drove away the void in ways. I did not tell her about Satoru and Iwao, but I did tell her about Teruko. "You've a new friend?" Akane had said in mock horror. "I never thought this day would come!" Then the teasing had slid away from her hazel eyes, instead replaced by a genuine kindness. "I'm glad of this for you," She had said quietly. "It's always good to be friends with someone your own age."
We traveled by the ferry until mid-afternoon. A few other boats passed us in the distance, but I did not see any of their military ships. The great ones made of metal that drove fear into the hearts of my people. I was relieved to not have seen one yet since the day I had been captured. Finally we reached the Capital and the island it located at. I had learned from Satoru that the Capital lies in the crater of a dead volcano and that the surrounding land is rather hilly all together. I stood beside Akane and gaped up in partial awe at the Great Gates of Azulon as we sailed into the harbor. The Great Gates of Azulon are at the beginning of the harbor. One huge statue towering hundreds of feet into the air was the image of Fire Lord Azulon. Opposing him on opposite sides were two large statues of intimidating looking dragons. These people could make such beautiful things and breathtaking structures, I thought, but yet they are…I paused. The thought had been evil at first, but had turned into….capable of such evil…I wondered what my people would say to me if they knew how my thoughts had betrayed me. Had I become a traitor to my own people?
I continued to gape in awe at the scene before me. There were the docks and buildings that seemed to be many more then I had ever seen before. It was the view that led up the gigantic volcano. The volcano itself was massive and covered in green foliage. The surrounding countryside was rolling green hills and cliff sides. A large path that started out as a plaza at the docks zigzagged up the sides of the volcano, leading into its caldera where the Royal Palace and city laid. Only nobility was allowed into the city I had learned. Any commoners had to be personally invited by the Fire Lord himself, unless they were a servant or such. Iwao was with me naturally, but his presence would not be in need of explanation to most anyways. He had a way of not even being noticed, something I've taken he was trained to do.
Masato led the way down the ramp onto the dock with Ichirou following closely behind. Akane had looked my face and then taken my hand into her own with a quiet smile. We walked down the ramp together as I tried to contain my trembling nerves. Many people milled about the docks attending their own business. My hold on Akane's hand tightened when I first spotted the familiar armor and helmets of their soldiers walking a distance away from us. I averted my eyes away instantly. "It's alright, Rana," Akane whispered to me. "They won't hurt you." I looked over at her face to see it open with concern. My grip did not loosen until we had passed the group of soldiers.
We made our way up to the top of the volcano by transport. A simple, but elegant looking ride drawn by a Komodo-Rhinoceros. I had thought I had been shocked enough by the grand beauty of the place, but I was again taken aback when we had reached the crest of the volcano. Inside the caldera was the Capital City and I had blinked several times in astonishment. The Royal Palace was located in the center of the caldera with large walls closing it off from the rest of the city. I had read that only the elite of the Fire Nation dwelled here. There were grand looking homes and buildingx in the rest of the crater. "Look over there, Rana!" Ichirou told me, gesturing towards a building with a large courtyard. It was located near a small lake. "That's the Coronation Temple and Plaza!" Ichirou held a proud look in his face. He sat on the other side of Akane, whom I was sitting next to. Our ride started to make the journey downwards into the crater.
"Have you been here before?" I asked him. I was a little surprised he had spoken to me. He rarely did.
"Yes," Ichirou announced to me grandly. "Twice, but it's been couple of years since mom and dad brought me here. They say it's because we don't have a house here."
"You don't?" I inquired, turning my question to Akane. "Satoru taught me that the nobility have houses here." I glanced over at Iwao who sat behind me. His face expressed nothing at the mention of Satoru.
"Only those who are important enough or from the oldest families," Akane responded. "We are neither," She said, but I could see the glimmer of the secret in her eyes. The secret of the Suzuki family.
"Where are we staying then?"
"With a family friend," Masato interrupted from the seat in front of us. "He's a childhood friend of mine and Katsu's. We always stay with him when we come to the Capital."
I nodded, wondering who this friend was exactly. I am sure Iwao knew all of this beforehand, so I supposed it to be my own fault for not asking him. We made our way into the caldera going forth through the grand streets. I saw guards not dressed as soldiers, but in a different outfit entirely. One suited for the weather of the Fire Nation. I knew that they had to be a part of the force meant specifically for defending the Fire Nation. There were people on the streets, dressed in clothes that spoke of their wealth. There were a few servants running about here and there, but this place was meant for the powerful and wealthy.
Eventually we halted in front of a smaller villa that was south of the Coronation Temple. A wall surrounded the villa with a single gated entrance into it. It looked similar to the ones around it and there was nothing that made it stick out in particular. Masato had already climbed out and was helping Akane to exit out of the cart. I was starting to stand to get out as well when a man came out of the gate with wide strides. "Masato!" He called loudly. His voice was deep enough to sound masculine, but there was a seductive tone to it. "It's about time you arrived!" Masato held his hands on Akane's waist as he swung her out from the cart. She beamed a smile at the man that approached us. Masato clasped his forearm with the man's before breaking into a hug. I was startled to see such plain affection on Masato's face, something I had only gotten a glimpse of here and there. He was a much more reserved man than his brother when it came to showing emotion openly, but he had always been expressive with his wife and son.
The man in question had to be his friend. He was only a hair width's taller than Masato, but not a looming figure as Katsu is. His hair was in the customary top-knot and decorated with a red emblem of their nation. His hair was true ebony and his clothes were traditional robes in black and red with the two shoulder prongs. I almost blushed when his went to meet mine for I had never seen a man who was so…..beautiful. He truly looked like a seducer of women for his face had all of the right angles. Masato and Katsu could not hold a candle up to this man, but then Katsu was not exactly handsome. This man's eyes were a darker shade of gold, almost a tan color and framed by eyelashes that should have been on a woman. Akane and Ichirou, whom had climbed out of the transport, both bowed towards the man as he pulled out of his hug with Masato.
"Akane, it's a pleasure as always and young Ichirou," He said in greeting, but his eyes were centered on me. I blushed, but could not look away. "So….this is her," He declared with a teasing grin. He walked towards the cart and held out his hand for me. My attempted smile turned into a grimace as I took his offered hand. He swung me out of the cart with no effort at all. I bowed towards him as soon as my feet were on the ground. Satoru would be proud of his efforts in instilling me with Fire Nation custom….if he did not hate me at least. I pushed the thought of him aside. The man before me bowed as well. "My name's Kuro," He told me politely. "Katsu didn't tell me you were so beautiful," He added with a sly wink.
I mumbled a thank you, but was unable to elicit any more than that. "Stop teasing her, Kuro," Masato intervened. He pulled the man's attention back to himself, which I was grateful for. "Why don't you invite us inside like a proper host?" Kuro barked out a laugh and chatted amiably with Masato as he led us inside of his home.
I walked beside Akane in a rather muted embarrassment. He….he had not been what I had been expecting to say in the least. "Don't worry. The affect wears off eventually," Akane murmured to me with a cheeky grin. "He has that affect on everyone the first time they meet him."
"Including you?" I quipped in return, jubilant that speech had returned to me.
Akane nudged me with her elbow, but there was a smile in her eyes. "Naturally," She replied briskly.
"How do they know him?" I queried in puzzlement. He seemed quite different from Masato and Katsu.
"He's been a friend since they were children," She reported. We had now walked into what was a small courtyard in front of Kuro's home. There was a small garden and pond as well, giving the feeling of a miniature heaven. Several servants scurried past us to presumably go collect our things. Masato walked inside of the house through a rather imposing door that stood at the top of a set of stairs. Kuro was beside him chatting endlessly and Ichirou was stuck to his side like glue. I had seen the visible hero worship in his eyes.
"Is he in the military?" I went on as I walked up the stairs.
Akane let out a loud laugh. "Agni no," She sniffled with humor. "I could never picture him doing that. No, he took the other route into politics."
I nodded and wondered what was so amusing about my question. We arrived into the main hallway of his home, which was softly lit by several torches. The dark wood and banners on the walls made me feel as if I were at my own….
….When had it become that name to me?...
Kuro showed us to separate bedrooms and commanded for us to wash up and rest before taking lunch with him. I was given my own bedroom that was next to Masato's and Akane's. Ichirou's bedroom was on the other side of me. Akane told me that Kuro's bedroom was down the hallway actually. He did not have a separate wing for guests like they did or at my…
But his place was of newer and higher expense than ours. That much I could tell. He was also unmarried and by the looks of it between the ages of Katsu and Masato. This was indeed a "bachelor house" as Akane had put it for me. I freshened up in what was a shared washroom and was shown the way to the dining room by a servant. Iwao followed me as he had waited in the hallway with his never-ending patience. When I arrived there it was only Kuro. The other three must be taking their sweet time, I thought to myself. The dining room was simple and grand at the same time. It breathed of expensive, but not overdoing it. There was a low table in the center of the room surrounded by comfy cushions. There were a few decorative pieces along spread throughout the room and a large banner with the emblem of their nation. Somehow I had grown used to the sight of it and it did not send me entry a frenzy of fear as it once had. "Rana," Kuro addressed me with a bow. I bowed in return. He settled himself onto a cushion and gestured for me sit across from him.
I sat down and eyed him cautiously. This man was difficult for me to figure out. How much had Katsu told him? Most likely very little I thought, assuming he did not know the truth about me. He glanced over at Iwao who hovered at the entrance of the room, but said nothing. "So how's the married life?" He drawled with a winsome smile. "It's been what….almost six months now that you've been married?"
Six months? Had it truly been that long since….It seemed almost impossible. It seemed so long ago, yet six months is barely anytime at all. So much has happened since that day….and some things have changed….
"Tiresome," I managed to spit out with a yawn. Kuro definitely seemed the teasing type. He let out a loud guffaw at my response.
"If Katsu were here to hear that!" He exclaimed amused. "Sweet Agni….he did tell me you were a handful."
"What else did he say?" I asked suspiciously. Kuro gave me knowing smile at my words. He paused to pour some tea for the two of us while we waited. I took the offered cup ad held back a grimace at the smell of one their spicy teas I did not like.
Kuro took a sip, prolonging his response. "He told me you are the bravest person he knows….and that was the first thing he loved you for." Kuro said this with no teasing smile or look, but one of complete sincerity. "I've known Katsu all of my life, but I cannot tell you what joy it brings me to know that he is happy again. Thanks to you."
This beautiful man said these words to me. Usually I would have looked away or at least tried to refute his words. I could not say anything. I do not know if it was because I was hypnotized by this man or if because….
"Sorry for taking so long," Masato called out to us as he entered the room. I blinked as my trance was broken. Akane, Masato, and Ichirou had decided to join us at long last. Soon enough I was eating contently and listening to stories from Masato's and Kuro's childhood. Akane and Ichirou had clearly heard these stories before, but still laughed at all the right moments. I heard the stories about their childhood pranks and escapes, ones that included Katsu as well. It was peculiar for….for I had not thought to hear about him in such a way. We were to stay at the Capital for another two days for the next night would be the celebration of the winter solstice. An all night event apparently with fireworks and a large parade. Tonight we were to be at our own leisure for entertainment, though Kuro did offer to take me on a tour of the Capital. Perhaps I should have stayed bordered up in the house, but I accepted his offer eagerly for this place…..though it is the den of the enemy….it had a beautiful allure to it.
After our meal was finished, Akane and Masato took off to….I did not want to ask. Ichirou disappeared before I even had a chance to ask the boy what his plans were. This left Kuro to take me on the promised tour of the city. He led me through the streets and pointed out the important houses of significant families and persons. My favorite was the local gardens open to all who dwelled within the caldera for they were extensive enough and quite beautiful. There were children playing freely there without a care in the world. The children….back….they held the look of adults in their eyes. Here….there was no such look in these children's eyes…
We skirted around the edge of the Royal Palace, whose imposing walls seemed more of a prison to me then to keep the likes of us out. Kuro showed me a glimpse of the Coronation Temple and the Temple of the Fire Sages. It was already entering the late evening when he took me for a climb to western edge of the caldera for his favorite sight, or so he told me. The day had been a beautiful one with a clear sky and few clouds. The sun was setting when we reached the summit of the edge of the caldera and I found Kuro to have been quite right. The sight before me was one of a brilliant orange sunset against rolling green hills and the ocean to the south. It was captivating. Kuro had been the proper guide giving stories and facts about each sight he had taken me too, but now he stood in silence with me as we watched the sunset together. Iwao stood nearby as the silent shadow. I had been the tiniest curious as to why Kuro had not inquired about him, but for all I know bodyguards could be commonplace here.
"This is my favorite view," Kuro revealed with a wink. "It's great place to take the ladies."
I could not check in the grin at his words. He was very much one for humor. I wondered again as to why he was not married. Clearly he was of wealth, position, and not to mention one of the most beautiful men I had ever seen. I had started to gain my ability to be capable of speech around him somewhat. "Not if their running away," I muttered underneath my breath, but to my embarrassment Kuro heard my remark. While he made one incapable of speech, he also had the ability to make you feel entirely comfortable around him. As if you have known him for years. I knew few people who were capable of this, but then again my exposure to a lot of people had always been limited. Even back at…
Kuro chuckled at my words. "Katsu did mention you had quite the mouth."
"How sweet of him," I replied as I tried to keep from rolling my eyes. Kuro gave me a small smile.
"I decided I like you," He alleged in mock formality. "Which is good for you anyways. Did I mention that I am a man of some importance?"
"What do you do exactly?" I asked curiously. "Akane mentioned that you were in politics?"
Kuro snorted at that. "That's a nice way of putting it," He informed me in good humor. "I'm an official who oversees the proper...disposal of the city's refuse."
"You take out their trash?" I blurted out.
Kuro gave me a look of injury that was ruined by the laughter in his eyes. "If you want to put it that way," He responded with a wave of his hand. "But I am the overseer of the whole operation, so I don't actually touch anything."
I was laughing inside the whole walk back to his home.
The next day was spent in leisure for I went with Akane to a spa. Apparently it is a place for women to relax and make themselves beautiful. I found the whole experience to be torturous, especially when they attempted to put make-up on me. Such things were rare and expensive back at….I never let Ran put any on me….
Yet Akane had begged me, so I had relented and let them do a little on me. The look on Masato, Ichirou, and Kuro's face when the next saw me cheered me up a little. Ichirou had blushed and run off without saying a word, while Masato had merely gaped. Kuro was immediately singing me praises that made me blush. That night the streets were alive with booths and games. There was a parade that started down at the docks and came all the way up the caldera. We ate spicy treats that did not agree to well with my stomach. There was some spiced wine that I did enjoy, but after the second cup Akane did not give me anymore. Things had started to become a bit fuzzy around then, but after several hours without the wine it became clear again. My least favorite part was the fireworks shows. I had never seen fireworks before, except for when….
When they had been flaming balls of fire…..destroying our beautiful city….
They had been beautiful, but very loud. Sounding like….
All of the screaming and the crying….ash mixed with snow….
I held Akane's hand tightly during the whole thing, but could not take my eyes away from the brilliant colors that danced in the night sky. They were so beautiful…..yet dangerous….
We all went to bed in the morning hours and slept until the afternoon. That night we dined with Kuro and after Ichirou was sent to bed, the four of us regaled each other with stories into the night. I did not contribute to this much, but was an avid listener. Masato's stories about his travels to the Earth Kingdom I found to be of interest. There was so much in the world I had never seen….and never will….I had been ignorant before, but at least here I had been able to read about such places…..
We left the next morning, saying our goodbyes to Kuro before the sun had broken midday. He had bidden us farwell in his courtyard, hugging Masato and demanding he visit again soon. Akane, Ichirou, and I had bowed to him. Iwao clung to me nearby. He had not spoken a word since we had left...home…Before I went to make my way out of the courtyard, Kuro had pulled me aside for a moment. "Take care of him," He urged me. There was a silent request in his eyes. "He's finally found you after all these years. He needs you."
I looked into his beautiful face and golden eyes. There was something there I recognized immediately, but did not place at the time. I merely nodded for I was incapable of speech….and I did not want to lie to him…yet….who would I be…
I had nodded my head and then fled before he could say more. On the ferry I had leaned against the railing, watching as the island that the Capital was on began to grow smaller. I thought about my trip there and how it had been a celebration of the winter solstice, a day that is also celebrated by my people. I was thankful to the spirits that there had never been a sign of their royalty in public. Yet…..the thing that bothered me the most was Kuro's parting words.
Akane stood next to me in my silence. Masato was off entertaining Ichirou on the other side of the deck, and Iwao was somewhere nearby. The ferry rolled slightly with the waves and I breathed in the salty air deeply. "Why isn't Kuro married?" I demanded, turning my head to look at Akane. "He's rich and well….you know." She pursued her lips and shifted about looking….uncomfortable…
"It's not something we talk about," Akane confessed in a low voice. "It's not socially acceptable, but those of us who are close to him know. And that is few in between to begin with." I still did not catch her meaning, which showed on my face. Akane sighed softly. "He likes men," She muttered. The blood left my face. Men….can do that…? The idea had never crossed my mind that people might….huh….
I did not know what to think. This was something that was obviously not acceptable publicly, but Akane seemed comfortable enough with it. She had acted normal around him. "Does that bother you?" I finally managed to ask.
Akane shrugged and still managed to make it look elegant. "No, but I have known him for a long time," She quietly admitted. "Though in general, I find it rather….disturbing I suppose."
"Weird," I muttered, turning my gaze back to the ocean. "I never knew of such a thing."
"What do you think?" Akane asked me in return, at last being the questioner.
"I don't know," I attested with a frown. "I like Kuro, so I guess its fine. Each to their own, I suppose." At this thought….when Kuro said those words that haunted me now….wanting me to promise to take care of…..There had been that look in his eyes, however brief, one that I become accustomed to…..One of loving someone who does not feel the same….
I wondered if any of them knew, especially if he did…..