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|Unusual Bonds: Part 5|
March 26, 2018
Unlike in the impenetrable city, within smaller Fire Nation colonies, the war was as commonplace in conversation as the weather. Plenty of the townsfolk used to go to the Lower Ring to purchase supplies in the days before the siege. Meanwhile, in the war at sea, Fire Nation ships and Earth Kingdom ships clashed over the West and East Lakes, and fishermen could no longer safely venture out far enough to get the best catches.
As always, a few caught specimens big enough to feed a full family for a week or more, but increasingly more found a day of fruitless efforts wasted. None of the gossiping townsfolk knew that the man responsible for that recent state of affairs was in their midst today, garbed in modest traveling clothes. Soon enough the Dragon of the West came across the same tea shop that fishermen use to take their daily breaks.
The Dragon of the West did not have to look around that tea shop long to find the one he was meeting that day. Just like himself, the man whom Iroh approached was garbed in a dark cloak, but his blue eyes would stand out more if he had not been going out of his way to not draw any unwanted attention.
"There you are, Pakku," said Iroh. "What brings you to this part of the continent?"
"Same as the last time I was in this very same village," said Pakku, recalling the tale from memory. "The navy was raiding every coastal settlement between Ba Sing Se and Munn for a month before our forces arrived. Since the settlers barely had anything of their own by then, we had to help them rebuild for nearly a year."
"Ah, of course," Iroh said. "I remember that, too. Granted, I was still in Royal Caldera City when that was going on, but I remember hearing all the briefings. Admiral Jeong Jeong was in that report. Now he's joined my expedition that came to the Earth Kingdom capital. I'm sure he has just as much memory of that campaign as you do, old friend."
The northern waterbending master grunted as he scanned the menu. "I think I remember it enough not to require a refresher." The two elder bending masters each ordered a cup of their own tea.
"I see you went with the white dragon tea today," said Iroh.
"Well I have been hearing about it from you for long enough," said Pakku. "It was probably about time for me to give it a go. I just hope that the tea shopkeeper didn't pick from a white jade plant by mistake." Leaves plucked from the white jade plant, which resembled closely the white dragon bush, were poisonous.
Iroh roared with laughter. "Come now, old friend," he said through his chuckle. "Who would make such a mistake?"
"Even the best of us can make mistakes sometimes," said Pakku. "I would expect someone as humble as you to know that."
Iroh sipped his own tea. Jasmine, as was perfect for an afternoon such as this. "So you're defending the villages again?" he said, going back to what Pakku had said he was doing in the area. "I didn't expect that to be the reason when I received word you were about the neighborhood. I'm not making a habit of sharing classified intelligence, but in case you haven't noticed, Ba Sing Se is our target this time."
"These locals never feel safe when the Fire Nation is about," said Pakku. "And who can blame them? The Fire Nation has been terrorizing them their whole lives."
"War puts hardships on us all," said Iroh. "Those of us who are blessed enough can take our minds off of it with the simple things in life. Have you heard from Bumi in a while? He always knows a good joke."
"Last time I spoke to him, he had acquired some new pet he was trying to tame," said Pakku. "I'm not sure I want to know what it is."
"Lu Ten wanted a pet dragon when he was little," said Iroh. "But my grandfather's hunting tradition put a stop to that one. I think he's found a young lady now."
Pakku chuckled. "I remember when Princess Hasida was his age," he remarked. "Every week I would catch her spying on my waterbending lessons, but I never knew which one of my students she had an eye for."
"How do you know she had an eye for one of your students?" asked Iroh.
"Why else would she want to watch my lessons?" asked Pakku, confused. "She's a woman so she's not allowed to waterbend."
"Right," said Iroh, through a sip of his tea, not sounding entirely convinced. "Of course not."
"Per our tribe's traditions, Hasida specializes in healing." Pakku narrowed his eyes and placed his tea cup down on the table. "And do you know what else Princess Hasida has been doing recently?"
Iroh shook his head. "No, what?"
"She has lead a team of healers to Ba Sing Se," said Pakku. "Hasida and the healers are assisting the Earth Kingdom with their war effort by healing the injured and caring for the fallen among those who defend their city."
"I see," Iroh said with a sigh. He could already tell where this line of talk was headed, and the Dragon of the West was not comfortable with it.
"Yes," said Pakku. "In fact, that's part of the reason that I'm down here now."
Iroh raised an eyebrow. "You mean you're going to be healing the injured at Ba Sing Se as well."
"What?" asked Pakku in alarm. "No!" He appeared ready to murder if it was not a friend that he retaliated against.
"Healing is a perfectly honorable charge," said Iroh. "Our people practice our own variant of it, and you will find both men and women among them."
Pakku took a deep breath. "The reason that I'm here is to extract them."
"The situation at Ba Sing Se has grown more serious," explained Pakku. "It looks like a long drawn-out siege with no end in sight. Our people did our part, but now we're going to evacuate them across the siege lines and back to the Northern Water Tribe. They will be needed elsewhere, and the princess' safety is paramount."
"Probably wise of you."
"Indeed," said Pakku. "The ruthlessness of the Fire Nation knows no limits."
"Ugh," Iroh grunted, now with everything out in the open at last. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather talk about literature? Maybe we can play a nice sporting game of Pai Sho? Do we really have to conversation every time we meet? I still remember everything you said the last two times, word for word."
"You have a good memory, old friend," said Pakku. "It has been a few years."
"But what has changed in all that time?" Iroh said.
"You're closer to your birthright," said Pakku. "It can't be long now."
"I'm not about to be Fire Lord," said Iroh. "My father is a picture of health."
"Really?" asked Pakku, skeptical. "I heard rumors he was in a coma."
"Nonsense," said Iroh. "I don't think any coma would be bold enough to strike at my father. He may be old, but look at how old they all say Avatar Kyoshi lived to be."
Pakku was not in the mood to be coy. "Let's not waste time on word games, Iroh. You know as well as I do that the time is closer now than it was years ago."
"Alright, let's say for the sake of argument that I do everything that you wish me to do. Have you heard of the Trance of Solitude?"
"No, but I think I recall Shaman Wu going on about something called that."
"It's an exercise the Sun Warriors make a habit of in their traditions," explained Iroh. "The basic concept is you picture the world according to your core desires and see if its really something worth desiring. So, right after I have my coronation, I do as you, Pakku, would have me do, halt any further assaults on the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom, close down the war effort and reach out with offers of peace to the other nations. Granted, this doesn't solve the complicated question of the colonies at all, but for argument's sake I'll even go the extra mile for you and pretend that just resolves itself and won't become an issue. Suddenly, a broken world will be free, but cut off from the Neverending War which is all that anyone ever known. My people will not accept it."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression the Fire Lord was the absolute ruler of his nation."
"You're not wrong," Iroh conceded. "That is what I will have when my time comes, but a person only possesses that power their civilization gives them as long as society allows them it. There are those who have built their livelihoods and their careers off this war, and turning it all off at once without finishing the goal of conquering the other nations will provoke civil war in our own nation, and the other nations will not be altogether spared, but the difference is I will no longer have any power to tame it."
"There is no need to remind me of the power of the military industrial complex in your nation," said Pakku. "Fire Lord Sozin may have started the war, but it became even more brutal with those who followed in Sozin's footsteps, trying to carve out glory for themselves."
"I know," Iroh admitted. "Too many followed to footsteps to count. The dragons were also casualties of glory."
"We would be much better off if Sozin had never started it all in the first place," said Pakku.
Iroh finished what remained in his cup with a long gulp. "Yeah, you're right," he said.
"Really?" Pakku said, astonished. The bulk of the conversation might ring similar in his memory, but this concession of his friend's was a first. "That's new. When exactly did you come to this realization?"
Iroh paused. "About ten years ago."
"Doesn't that make a difference?"
"And why not?"
"It's a pointless question because the world has already turned exactly as it has, and we can't go back and do it differently. The world cannot get back to the harmony of before the war on its own," Iroh said. "Rather, it must be guided back, just as the Avatar used to guide it."
"Well there you go," said Pakku. "No need to figure out everything about how to fix the colonies or any of the other problem. Simply do your part, stop the war, and let the Avatar handle what he needs to."
"The Avatar is gone."
"He has to be picking the right moment to return," said Pakku. "What more perfect time for it?"
"Perhaps that is what mothers and grandmothers tell children in your country and in the Earth Kingdom," said Iroh. "But you and I are men of the world and cannot rely on such notions. How, I don't know, but it's clear at this point that the Avatar is gone. Maybe Avatar Roku entered the Avatar State before he perished, maybe it was something else, but it doesn't matter. What matters is what we're going to do now that the Avatar has vanished forever. Who is going to guide the world back to harmony instead of the Avatar? The Earth Kingdom, admittedly through my people's doing, is too broken, stubborn and vindicative to rebuild itself or anywhere else. As for the Water Tribes, forgive me old friend, but your isolation and your obsession with tradition leads me to believe you won't rebuild the world, either."
"Our traditions are part of who we are," said Pakku. "You cannot take them away from us."
"No one would take away your tradition if that's all it is," said Iroh. "But some of them don't suit you as you think they may. You'll notice in the Fire Nation we have a multitude of women fighters. I'm sure there's some in your tribe that feel the same way, and as the element of change you ought to be more open to it."
"Bold statements," said Pakku. "What of Sozin's law on homosexuality?"
"I'll work to phase that out as soon as it is politically stable and prudent to do so. Stopping the carnage consuming the world comes first."
"So who's going to guide the world back?" asked Pakku. "You?"
"This war has been terrible, but we will make it the last war." Iroh pulled out a headpiece from his nation, a unique and valuable one, which he showed to Pakku, discretely. "Rina gave me this before she died. Do you know what it is?"
"A headpiece from your people," he said. "Why did Grand Lotus Rina give it to you?"
"In a way, she was returning it," said Iroh. "This headpiece is meant to be worn by the Crown Prince, last so by my grandfather Sozin. Before I met her, you see, I knew nothing that the rest of my people did not, but through giving me this Rina could tell she was passing on something more than an old artifact. Obligation, burden, but also purpose and hope."
"I see," said Pakku. "So you're the one who is going to bring the world back into balance, by finishing its destruction."
"By finishing what my people started," Iroh corrected. "Then I will have the credit of my people and will be able to use the knowledge Rina and others have given me to rule all of the nations. They will find me a different person than my father."
"Rina was very wise, you'll find no argument from me there," said Pakku. "There are those in the order who say we may never find another worthy of the title Grand Lotus as Rina, daughter of Roku was."
"I know," said Iroh. "I wonder that myself. Remember the catch, that anyone who wants to be a Grand Lotus or says they ought to be probably should not be."
"Some say you would be right for Grand Lotus," said Pakku. "I might agree, if only you were not so blind as well as so wise."
Iroh shook his head and waved this criticism away. "Being a Grand Lotus is not my destiny. I know where it is and I accept that not everyone will understand my burden. Maybe Xai Bau will."
"Wow," said Pakku. "What a humble way to declare yourself some spiritual successor to the Avatar, with a rite passed on to you by the daughter of the last known incarnation. I wouldn't hope for any support from Xai Bau. Yes, he is unconventional, but this is pretty much the opposite of what he would want."
"A lot in the world is going to be different," Iroh went on. "Taking the place of the chaos we have now will be the Phoenix Kingdom."
"The Phoenix Kingdom?"
"A second chance for a new world, arisen from the ashes. I will reign and guide for the three remaining nations as Phoenix King. Once I've taught Lu Ten what he needs to participate in my vision, he can watch over the Fire Nation. The world will be united and at peace for the first time since the Era of the Five Great Sages."
"This is all wrong," said Pakku. "You plan to build a world of balance under your thumb, but that reeks of the tired old rhetoric of the Fire Nation spreading their glory and prosperity through war. True wisdom you forget, is building a philosophy that connects one to the overall balance, not controlling or ruling over it. You may think you're setting yourself up to fix your grandfather's mistakes, but in reality you're just setting yourself up to make them yourself all over again. Evil cannot be beaten from within, and if the war machine is as enduring as you say, it won't be tamed by a call from above. Don't get too comfortable once you take Ba Sing Se. My tribesman will resist you with every ounce of breath, including me."
"In that case I hope very much that we take you prisoner instead of ending you when the time comes," said Iroh. "You're right that this will be no easy task, so I could use your help once I'm in charge."
"Hah! Me sitting on your council alongside other men who subjugated my nation? That's something I can guarantee will never come to pass. Bumi wouldn't be with you on that, either. You may have saved my skin once, but-"
"We saved each other," Iroh corrected.
"But if you attack my homeland I am honor bound to fight to the death defending it."
"There will be a lot to do. Once the war is over the work won't be much easier. What will be leftover will still be resistant, the military masters in particular, to say nothing of whether or not they decide to interfere."
"They, who do you mean by they?"
"Oh," said Pakku, realizing to whom Iroh referred. "We haven't heard a whisper from them in generations, so I don't think they would be an obstacle of the balance at this point. What would they want with trying to interfere with your regime?"
"I don't know, but we also don't know what their goal is with anything," said Iroh. "So they might have a motive for causing disturbance. Who knows?"
"For all the stories we have about them, there is not one concrete bit of proof in the Order of the White Lotus' possession that they even exist," said Pakku. "As far as I'm concerned, they're a scary tale like Koh the Face Stealer."
"Don't you believe in Koh, Pakku?" asked Iroh. "I thought that you were a spiritual man."
Pakku hesitated. "Spirits exist, sure, but they're more beyond our reach than most humans would believe by listening to too many stories. You've tried to travel into the spirit world before, have you not?"
"When I was younger," said Iroh. "I meditated and prayed for hours trying to find enlightenment, but if it was meant to be I would've been able to do it already."
"Notice too, how no one ever brings back proof when they supposedly visit the Spirit World," Pakku pointed out. "Have you told your son about your vision and your plan for him in it yet?"
"I have not," answered Iroh. "Lu Ten reminds me so much of what I was like when I was younger, and I envy him in a lot of ways. At some point I will, when the time is right."
"I wonder what he'll say." Pakku rose to his feet. "Now, if you'll excuse me I have business in the area that I must attend to."
"Very well," said Iroh. "I have some as well, an entire siege to oversee. I trust you can find your way, but as the host I should offer to see you off."
"No need," said Pakku. "You are not my host and I am not your guest. This town might be occupied by your people, but this is still all Earth Kingdom soil."
Iroh smirked thoughtfully, but without any humor. "Watch over yourself, old friend."
Pakku turned back to Iroh. "Someday old friend, something will force you to wake up. I'm not sure what it will be, but I will not envy you when it comes."
- Iroh's encounter with Rina when he was younger was previously mentioned in Chapter 100 and referenced in earlier chapters of the Unusual Bonds story arc.
- Xai Bau is the founder of the Order of the Red Lotus.
- The white jade plant, which resembles the white dragon bush, is what Iroh once poisoned himself with in the canon show.
- Flopsie is King Bumi's pet from the episode The King of Omashu.
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