Chapter 27: Ambivalent Exodus
"Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great." –Mark Twain
"Why did you do all this for me?" he asked. "I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you.""You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing." –E.B. White, Charlotte's Web
Iwao stood out in the hallway, seemingly immobile as a guardian statue. His dark eyes glanced at me with calculation hidden in their depths. He was a difficult, if not impossible, man to read to begin with, yet those eyes always hinted as a shrewd mind. "Iwao," I greeted him, "Will you come into the study?" I turned and walked back into the study, knowing he would follow me. Iowa would not sit, so I turned to face him after walking half-way into the room. Had he overheard my conversation with Satoru minutes ago?
"I know what you want," Iwao said in a monotone voice. His face was faceless, showing nothing, and yet everything. He truly detested Satoru.
"Will you do it then?" I asked, cutting to the chase. Iwao was not the type to beat around the iceberg and neither was I. A small part of me was peeved at the realization he had eavesdropped on my conversations, yet that was rather hypocritical of me in that respect, considering I had recently done the same thing to Satoru and Teruko. Mostly I hoped he did not report every word to Katsu, but I recalled Katsu's claim that he did not. Unless it was a life-threatening or concerning an escape attempt. Iwao opened his mouth to speak and I cut him off, using the one thing I hoped would make him agree. Not that I knew if it would work or not. "Do it for me," I implored him with a hint of a plea. Ocean Spirit, I hated to beg, but for them…just as Iwao hopefully would for me. "Think of it this way," I added slyly. "You'll be getting rid of him."
There was a quick glimmer of pride?...that vanished in Iwao's cold eyes. "I am almost fearful you know me well," Iwao responded placidly. There was a taste of acerbic humor in his tone though.
"So you will do it then?" I queried hurriedly. A tiny smile of satisfaction came to my face, also pleased with the fact that I had been right about Iwao.
"Yes, My lady," Iwao acknowledged. I almost missed the momentary tight clenching of his jaw. "I will do it for you."
Iwao wrote to Katsu for permission and Teruko told her family of the vacation, expressing the desire to have "bonding girl time" as she put if before her upcoming nuptials. Satoru made the plans he needed too, refusing to tell me the details for my own good as he had brushed me off when I had asked. Katsu wrote me a letter himself, received only a week after my conversation with Iwao…
Iwao has told me of your wish to travel to Ember Island with Lady Teruko. I have given my permission, although I will emphasize to you that you must be on your best behavior. There's no need to state the consequences. Please be careful not just your sake, but for our child's as well.
Neither Teruko's family nor mine have property at Ember Island, so you will be using Kuro's home there. He always lends it to Masato or I when we desire to use it. The property is not too grand, but it is comfortable and has a fantastic view. You and Teruko will go for three days and Iwao will be there naturally. Since you are of higher position, technically it is Teruko you are keeping an eye on. I'm sure she will be a good companion and teacher for you. This is a chance for you to observe and participate in life of Fire Nation nobility, just like when you went to the Capital.
I recommend seeing a production by the Ember Island Players while you're there. I'll be home in four weeks. Don't do anything foolish.
After reading his letter, I did not know whether to tear it to pieces or rejoice over the fact that he trusted me enough to travel to Ember Island without him or his family. It would only be Iwao there and Teruko did not know the truth. This trip, along with my previous trip to the Capita; and my newfound freedom of travelling around the island gave me the smallest hope of someday being able to escape. Even though I was pregnant, this secret desire was still alive; flickering in the ashes, but it was there. Nothing could change that.
Two days after receiving Katsu's letter, Teruko, Iwao, and I travelled to Ember Island by way of a public ferry ship that had come to Katsu's dock. Iwao handled the traveling details. There were others on the ferry, a mix of nobles and wealthy commoners. Teruko and I kept to ourselves during the afternoon voyage to Ember Island. Teruko passed the time by regaling me with stories of her own experiences there or stories that she had heard. Even though this trip was a ruse for their escape, I was somehow still excited about the trip and that I would be with Teruko. There was also a shadow of nerves and apprehension overshadowing us. Would it work? For me, I wondered how Katsu would react and if his newfound trust would be shattered. Was I destroying my own future for an escape….for one of them?I tried not to let these thoughts follow me and spoil the short time I had for fun…and for farewells…
We arrived at the one major port at Ember Island, where Iwao had arranged for a comfortable cart with a komodo-rhinoceros at its head, driven by a commoner whom ran this as a business. The driver took us from the bustling town on a road hugging the beach line westwards, where the nobles primarily had their housing. Ember Island was everything I had heard. Beautiful with green rolling hills and astounding beaches, and a serene feeling, accompanied with a passionate breath of life. Teruko was to leave the next day after Satoru had come to retrieve her. I would then write the next day frantically of her disappearance to her parents. Kuro's vacation home was nestled on top of the beginning of the hills that grew higher in elevation on the western part of the island. It was less than a five minute walk from the beach and other houses on the hills each had a measured space between them for privacy, accomplished by brush and trees. Or merely a wall surrounding a house did the trick for a few of them, Kuro's included.
A gate led into the simple courtyard with the house positioned in the right corner. A pavilion around the house led to a small garden on the left of the enclosed property. The house itself was colored and tiled in the usual styles of the Fire Nation. Once inside, I found that the bottom floor was compromised of the kitchen, a sitting room, and two bedrooms, while the top floor had two more bedrooms and a dining room that looked out onto the ocean with opened archways that led to an outdoor patio. Katu had been right.
The view was breathtaking.
One servant had been hired to clean and prepare for our arrival, and to wait upon during our stay. She was a young woman near our age from the town and did this for various houses whenever the nobles came to visit. Apparently she had worked at this house a few times before. I found myself bewildered over my interested in speaking to her, to befriend someone, a complete stranger and who was Fire Nation. It was different with Ran, but a reminder from Iwao and my lessons from Satoru told me I should not socialize with her. Anzu was a servant and supposedly beneath me. The class system here in the Fire Nation often confused and irked me to no end. Never the less, I heeded Iwao's warning I did not want to cause trouble or attract any unwanted attention. Anzu seemed touched by my initial interest in our fist conversation and was friendly, but then again it was her to job to be polite to me. Perhaps I was over-reading it. After Teruko and I unpacked, or at least I did, she proposed that we visit the town to purchase swimwear for myself and then head to the beach….
Teruko made me try on five different swimming outfits before we both found something that satisfied my modesty and her urgings for something fashionable. I had no money on me and I was partially indignant that Iwao had access to Katsu's money, my allowance Iwao informed me that I had always had apparently, but could not physically access. The beach Teruko took us too was one of the most popular ones. It was evening with the sun lowering on the western sky and the golden sands were still warm to the touch. Many people were still out engaged in games, reclining in the sand, or playing in the waves. Teruko had brought a blanket with us and set it out on the sand, not to close to any other group on the beach and near an ongoing game of that had two teams of players tossing a ball back and forth over a net. We both sat on it, enjoying the beach, with Iwao hovering nearby looking out of place in his full covering, unlike the rest of the attendees at the beach.
I nestled my toes in the sand and switched back and forth between watching the nearby game and the gentle waves with a red sky behind it. The sun was starting to eclipse the horizon. Red, I thought bitterly, was even in the sunset tonight. I had not spoken with Teruko yet of what was to happen, both of us I think were too nervous to broach the subject. "Are you nervous?" I asked Teruko quietly, lest anyone overhear us.
She was to the left of me, half-laying on her side with her right arm propped up to hold her head up. "Yes," She admitted in a low tone. "And I am sad that I'm leaving my family behind, but there is no other way we can be together." Her words gave me pause. She had told me before that she was willing to leave her family behind for Satoru. I had met them before and they seemed like a loving family, especially her two younger siblings. They would be devastated, just as I could see that Teruko was barely hiding her own pain. Yet she had said there was no other way and that her father would never let the two of them to be together. Once again the class system of the Fire Nation gave me more reason to revile it. Here it was tearing Teruko apart from her family and most likely condemning her from ever seeing them again. I knew perfectly well the loss of one's own family and the void within me ached for her. "I haven't thanked you yet, Rana. I'm-"
"Don't," I interrupted her, turning my head to look at her kind face. I could see the pain and remorse on her eyes, so like my own were most of the time. Trying to hide and unable to completely do so. "I should be thanking you for being my friend," I told her sincerely and also trying to alleviate her pain. "I didn't know what it was like to have a friend who's a girl near my age before you…" I paused and looked away from her touched face. My throat was tight and I crunched my eyes, blaming the sand inwardly. The void within me ached with every pound in this moment. "I'm going to miss you," I confessed thickly. Moon and Ocean Spirit it was difficult for me to breathe! My head turned to look back at her when I felt her hand touch me on the shoulder. Here I had been trying to comfort her and now it was the other way around, just like Teruko in her kindness. She was now sitting up beside me with a miserable face.
"Sometimes you seem so alone," Teruko said softly with her eyes searching my face as if she would find the truth.
…If only she knew….would she hate me for being Water Tribe?...
"I don't know why that is, but I feel bad to leave you this way-"
"You both deserve to be happy," I cut her off, wanting to leeway her guilt. Our eyes met in a mutual understanding. This was difficult for both of us. "Don't let the guilt of leaving your family or me overshadow this. It's not your fault that any of this is the way it is." She could not change the way her society is run or the fact that her family would not accept her being with Satoru. This way they could start over together and be accepted elsewhere. They could be happy and she did not need to torture herself endlessly. At this realization came to me, Akane's words about myself haunted me…"You would be happy if you just let yourself be."….I could not change what had happened, but I- The thought was instantly and immediately vanquished.
Teruko's next words brought me back to the present, helping to chase my own demons away. "I don't always understand you," Teruko informed me with a strange combination of affection and apprehension. "How can it be that I'm one of the only girlfriends near your age you've ever had? I've noticed things….something I'd never bring up until now. Rana, I'm leaving and I think Satoru knows….you seem conflicted….and…." Teruko's speech had become stilted and troubled towards the end.
I cannot, I swore, Yet…Here she was, and Satoru, both trusting me. Satoru, Akane, And Ran all knew the truth…would it be any different if Teruko knew? She was leaving now, so it was not like she would be here to tell anyone, but it still could be dangerous for her to know. Furthermore, would she hate me? Could I trust her? The question was did I?
Somewhere along the way I had come to trust her. I wanted to tell her the truth. The truth was I had for months. Ocean and Moon Spirit, I would leave it to them I decided. When I looked at Teruko's waiting face, somehow a part of me knew, it did not need to be left to them. "I-I'm not from here," I told her, looking around us nervously. Iwao was out of ear shot, or at least I hoped so. Would he stop me? "I'm not Fire Nation." I analyzed Teruko's reaction every second. Surprise flittered across her face, rapidly followed by comprehension, confusion, and even empathy. There was no disgust. No hatred.
I had a disheartening realization that months ago the single fact that Teruko was Fire Nation would have set my hatred on fire, while ironically it seemed to be the opposite for her. "Where are you from?" Teruko asked me quietly. Here we were discussing secrets on a public beach, while no one here could have been the wiser for it.
"The Southern Water Tribe….I….I was stolen from my home," I told her and I could not keep my voice from breaking at the end like a sea drift iceberg breaking to pieces. "Katsu…he, I guess you could say he saved me from the prisons," I continued on begrudgingly. As much as I detested to admit it that is where I would be right now if not for him. The prisons for the waterbenders were not public knowledge I think , but I may have been wrong about that part. I did know that that Fire Nation children were raised to believe my people to be inferior and beneath them at the very least.
Teruko's eyes widened as she took this all in, connecting and interweaving the chords in her mind. "That explains your eyes," Teruko commented after a long and tense moment. "And why Satoru would not tell me….and why you seemed to hate Katsu at times."
I do not hate him I thought, not anymore. Though I certainly did not like him either. The fact that this was my first thought should have reviled me. Additionally, it seemed I had not played the part of loving wife as quite as well as I thought I had in front of Teruko.
"Do you hate all Fire Nation?" Teruko went on. I could see the waiting look mingled with the expectation of hurt.
"Do you hate the Water Tribe?" I rebutted to make a point.
Teruko frowned at that. "Well, I don't know, I've never…" She paused and stared straight into my eyes. "I do know that I don't hate you and that you are my friend. I know that I'll miss you." My throat was tighter than before. Teruko wrapped her arms around me in a hug. We should both hate each other. Yet, it seemed, that even friendship could overcome nationalities and hatred. It could overcome gulfs that before I would not have believed possible. Who knows, I pondered in wonder, perhaps it could even outlast lifetimes.
We returned back the house and had a rather quiet dinner. Iwao did not say a word to me, so I wondered if he had overheard us at all. I went to bed that night and did not catch much sleep for Satoru would be here early in the morning to retrieve her...
I awoke to a soft hand gently shaking my shoulder and to my name coming from Teruko. My eyes opened from an uneasy sleep to her see standing over me. "Rana, wake up. Satoru is here," She informed me gently. I nodded in understanding and rose from my bed to put on a robe for decency. Teruko offered her hand to me which I took in her comforting hold as she led me down to the inner courtyard. The sun had not yet risen, leaving us in a shadowed light and crisper morning air. Iwao stood in the courtyard stiffly as usual, watching Satoru nearby who stood with several bags near his feet. Teruko led me towards him and I could see in the dim morning light that a single komodo-rhinoceros was outside of the opened gate. "My lady," Satoru acknowledged me, turning my eyes back to him. I stood several feet away from him with Teruko still holding my hand.
"Satoru," I returned, barely keeping my voice sounding strong. "I-"
I was not able to say any more words as Satoru closed the distance between us, pulling myself and Teruko into a tight embrace. He had never dared to touch me this way before, but I was glad that he did. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Iwao had started for me at this gesture, but had stopped mid-step. "Take care of yourself, My lady," Satoru said pensively and likewise stronger them I had heard it before. "We will write to you when we can." It was those last words that he let go of myself and Teruko. The two bags he lifted and tied onto the komodo-rhinoceros as Teruko gave me another hug.
"I'm sorry about what happened to you," She whispered into my ear. The tears came out from my eye's corners, treacherously sneaking their way out. "I hope you find happiness." Teruko let go of me and I could see the tears on her face as she smiled at me morosely. She walked over to Satoru outside of the gate as he lifted her onto the komodo-rhinoceros, and then himself. The beast took off down the road, leaving a dusty trail in the early twilight. Seeing the two of them, two of the very few friends I had here, knowing they would be together and that they had each other, ride off together down that dusty road….
….I had not felt so alone since I had first come to the Fire Nation…
….Nor yearning for what they had while I did not, and the worst part of it was that I knew that I could….
…If only I could let myself….