AS CRAZY AS BUMI
Chapter 6: Distressing
Tui and La, give me strength, Katara prayed just before entering the grand hall where the international peace summit was about to convene for the day. She already knew going in that this was not going to be a good session:
She hadn't been able to talk to Aang at all before the meeting, to relay to him the news that Zuko refused to evacuate the remaining Fire Nation colonies, as well as his valid reasons for that refusal. She hadn't seen Aang since early yesterday morning, when they'd had breakfast together in their guest wing's dining hall, before the session when the Firelord had made his announcement. After talking with Zuko and discovering his reasons for refusing to forcibly evacuate all those families, to punish children for crimes their ancestors had committed, she'd gone into town to look for the Avatar herself and hopefully talk to him before anyone else could
But she hadn't found him anywhere, though she'd been sure he was in Omashu because Appa was still in the royal stable. She'd checked every bakery and sweets shop she could find, and sent word through every station in Omashu's earthbending mail delivery system, but nobody had seen him all day. Then when she'd finally trudged back to the palace after night had fallen, she'd found out that while she'd been out looking for him, Aang and Mai had come back from spirits-knew-where, taken Appa out of the stables and left the city entirely!
She'd also found out from the palace staff that when the Earth Kingdom representatives couldn't find the Avatar, they'd started looking for her instead. Katara was ashamed to admit that she'd ignored all the messages left for her and just stayed in her room, hoping desperately that Aang would be back from wherever he'd gone in time for breakfast, so they could talk… but he'd never shown.
This wasn't fair! At first she'd been proud to represent the Avatar at the summit, but it had become obvious over the last few days that most of the Earth Kingdom representatives didn't really respect her, didn't see her as capable of standing in for the Balance between Nations; all they saw when they looked at her was a waterbending girl. She needed Aang here, talking to them; they respected the Avatar himself, at least for his power to bend all four elements! But now she'd have to try to come up with and negotiate some sort of compromise between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom over the fate of those colonies, all by herself…
But then, it hadn't been fair for Katara to have to take on her mother's duties all by herself when she'd still been a child. Life wasn't fair most of the time, was it? Not until people worked together to make things fair for everyone. Recognizing that truth and acting on it, was what separated adults from whining children. Katara took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and walked into the summit assembly.
She was right; it was very, very far from a good session.
Even before they'd officially started, the atmosphere in the room had been so tense, so charged and foreboding; the last time Katara had felt the air like that had been at the Agni Kai, just before Azula had bent lightning right at her. She found herself scanning the room for firebenders who were capable of generating lightning, but Azula was still locked up in an asylum according to Zuko, Iroh was far away in Ba Sing Se, and Ozai's power had been stripped from him. The only firebender here was Zuko, and he wasn't the threat today… all the Earth Kingdom people glaring at him, they were making the atmosphere so foreboding. Zuko was just sitting at his table, his back straight and head unbowed but carefully focused on the papers in his hands.
Bumi's minister Bian called the meeting to order, but before he could even begin to recap the previous day's session and discuss that day's agenda, the Earth Kingdom people were on their feet and shouting for Zuko to explain himself, to recant what he said, to answer for his crimes, etc. etc. After their shouting went on for over a minute and Minister Bian gave up trying to talk over them, Firelord stood up… very slowly and carefully, to show it was not a move to attack.
Then—maybe he hadn't really meant to do it, perhaps it had been subconscious on his part—Zuko glanced at Katara. Like hawkgulls watching fishermen at the docks, the Earth Kingdom representatives followed his gaze to her—and then they started shouting at her instead! "Where is the Avatar? Why did you send him away last night?" "What does the Avatar have to say about the Firelord's perfidy?"
She recoiled from their shouts at first—and felt ashamed of herself for it; then she straightened her spine and stiffened her shoulders again. She said firmly and clearly, "I did not send the Avatar away from Omashu. I ask you to remember that the Avatar is more than the Balance between the Nations; he is also the Bridge between our world and the Spirit World. Even during the War, he was more than once called upon to deal with spirits, and even called away by spirits. His whereabouts are currently unknown, but I ask you to trust that he is on a mission of great importance, and that he will return to the summit when he is able."
She'd practiced that speech at least three times before leaving her guest quarters that morning, and was both proud and a little ashamed of it. Not one word of it was a lie, but all together it implied that Aang was away dealing with something more important than the summit, trying to mitigate or prevent some spirit-related catastrophe, when she really had no idea what he was doing right now. All she could do was hope that he really would return soon, and that her little speech wouldn't come swimming back to bite her in the blubber.
Then she launched into the speech she'd worked on much harder and longer than her excuse for Aang's absence, late into the night and again when she woke from her troubled sleep before dawn; not because she wanted to technically avoid lying, but because this was important. "While the Avatar is currently occupied with other matters, as his representative at this summit, I can assure you that he will take the issue of the Fire Nation colonies very seriously… but he also has high regard for Justice. And the
Avatar understands very well, the difference between justice and revenge. Justice is what is needed to restore peace and the balance of the world, while vengeance will upset the balance further and return us to war. Do all you delegates present here at this summit, understand the difference between vengeance, and justice?"
She paused, giving them time to think about the difference between the two concepts, and hoping against hope that one of the delegates would stand up and start pontificating on vengeance and justice, and perhaps lead the assembly to the right conclusion about the colonies without her having to say another word.
Unfortunately, her prayers weren't answered. Toph's father, the representative from Gaoling, frowned at her and said for everyone to hear, "Don't think to lecture men who are far older and wiser than you, girl. If you have nothing useful to say, then let us return to calling the Firelord to account for his actions, and for his heinous greed in keeping land that does not belong to his nation!" as he turned his glare back on Zuko.
"But I do have something useful to say," Katara said firmly and quickly, before Zuko could speak up. "Evacuating the older colonies, those that have been present for generations, would not be justice for the families living there now; the children and even their parents who have known no other home all their lives, and would stand to lose everything they have ever known if evacuated by force." She saw both her father and Chief Arnook look first startled, and then thoughtful, and she knew her words had reached them. Encouraged, she continued, "We must consider-"
"What?!" shouted one of the delegates from Ba Sing Se; the one who'd almost started a fight by bending Avatar Kyoshi's statue at Zuko yesterday. "You side with the Firelord now, instead of the Avatar? Changing your tune to please whoever's present and powerful; you're no better than a whore! The Firelord's whore!"
For a moment, Katara could only stare at him, too shocked and hurt to even think of a response. He'd called her a-?!
Zuko had quietly sat down while she'd been talking, letting her have the floor, but now he surged to his feet with his fists clenched. "How dare you talk that way to Master Katara?! She is not just a great waterbending master, but a woman of impeccable character!"
But his jumping to her defense wasn't helping at all; it only reinforced in the Earth Kingdom delegates' minds the connection between them, and made it sordid and ugly; as ugly as the mutters she could hear from their tables: "Whore…" "Firelord's whore…"
But all those mutters were abruptly silenced by the roaring surge of water, drawn from every vase and pitcher in the room, that knocked the first Earth Kingdom delegate flat on his back just before slapping gags of ice over the mouths of the rest of them. And Katara hadn't done it; still speechless, she turned to see Master Pakku on his feet, his age-lined face livid as he snarled, "No one says that about my student and granddaughter!"
"And my daughter!" her father growled, angrier than Katara could ever remember seeing him before, as he vaulted clean over his table and began stalking towards the Ba Sing Se table. He was unarmed as per the summit rules, and a nonbender, but only a fool would say he wasn't dangerous. "The next person to say even One. Single. Word about Katara will get my-" And then he got cut off, by the chest-high wall that abruptly rose up out of the floor in front of him, just before King Bumi popped up out of the floor right behind him.
"Chief Hakoda, my apologies, but I must remind you of our agreement to refrain from violence in these chambers," Bumi said formally and very seriously, as he laid a hand on her father's shoulder. Hakoda scowled, but turned to the city-king and gave a short nod of agreement, so Bumi turned to the Water Tribes' table and said, "Master Pakku, withdraw your ice, please." Pakku also frowned but complied.
The century-old king of the city stood tall in the middle of the room, giving the entire assembly a look of disapproval as he declared, still uncharacteristically solemn, "It's plain to see that just one day wasn't enough to cool some people's tempers. So I declare today's session is also at an end; we will reconvene tomorrow at the usual time."
Bumi's utter lack of his usual snaggletooth grin and snorting laughter must have unnerved the Earth Kingdom delegates even more than it bothered Katara, because no one protested; they just quietly gathered their papers, with many uncertain or suspicious looks at the aged ruler, and silently left the chamber.
Zuko gave Katara a look of distressed apology, probably feeling sorry he'd dragged her into this mess. But before he could come over and say anything, both her father and Gran-Pakku came over to her table and basically hustled her out the nearest door, casting red-hot glares over their shoulders at the Earth Kingdom delegates all the while.
Once they were alone in the passageway leading to the wing with the Water Tribes' guest rooms, Hakoda turned to his daughter and said quietly, "Katara, you don't have to attend tomorrow's session; if you'd like to take a day off to-"
"To do what; to hide?" Katara cut him off, glaring and clenching her fists. "To let those—those bigoted, hate-filled idiots think they've shamed me?! To just let them win, and think that-that vicious name-calling is all they have to do to shut down anyone they don't want to listen to? I'm going back in there tomorrow, Dad, no matter what!"
"That's the spirit!" Pakku said approvingly. "Your grandmother would be proud of you."
Hakoda sighed, looking rueful. "You're right; I'm sorry for suggesting it. I just… you're shaking, seal-pup, and your hands are colder than ice."
"I know," Katara muttered as she looked down, ashamed of herself for her reaction. She'd survived sea battles, erupting volcanoes, battles with spirits like Wah Shi Tong… She'd even faced down Azula, for spirits' sake! Why was she letting a room full of hateful old men get to her?!
"I need to go do some bending," she finally said decisively. Waterbending always cleared her head, and helped her focus.
"Need a sparring partner, granddaughter?" Pakku asked, his brow furrowed with concern.
"Thanks, but I'm going to ask if I can get a couple of palace guards to serve as sparring partners; I think facing off against earthbenders might help right now." Her dad gave a grim smile while nodding his understanding, as Katara kept to herself the thought that it was almost a shame that they didn't allow physical violence in the summit meeting. Taking on all those Earth Kingdom delegates and collectively beating the slush out of them, would make her feel a lot better.
The palace majordomo took her to the captain of the palace guard, who took a quick poll of his troops and found a few earthbenders who'd always been curious about what it would be like to battle a waterbender. The guard captain gave Katara four volunteers for sparring with, and an hour in their training arena.
After half an hour of hard bending, Katara finally felt that she'd vented enough, and called a halt to the sparring session. The four veteran guardsmen didn't complain about the early ending to their session; they were too busy trying to be stoic and not complain about all the damage that one teenaged girl had done to them. Katara somewhat sheepishly apologized for being so hard on them, and healed all their bruises, strains, etc. before heading back to her guest suite.
Soon after she returned and got cleaned up from her bending session, she had a visitor; to her surprise, it was King Bumi himself. "Greetings, your majesty! Er, did I hurt one of your guardsmen more than I'd thought when I was sparring with them? I healed everything they admitted to…"
"Eh, no, they needed some toughening up," the king said with a wave of his hand. "First, Katara, I'd like to apologize on behalf of my countrymen, for the way they treated you today… Though I can't actually apologize for them, as technically the Ba Sing Se delegates are not my people. But you can be sure the Earth King will hear about their behavior."
"Well, thank you for at least wanting to apologize for them," Katara said wryly. "Hopefully they'll be better behaved tomorrow." Though she privately doubted it.
"But the second reason I'm here is to ask you to pass something on to Aang, when he returns from wherever he is. You see, since Aang and I are old friends, I've been checking on what could perhaps be done to restore the Air Nomad nation. Obviously we need a lot more airbenders," as he gave her a suggestive wink and leer (which were even more disturbing than normal, coming from such an old man!) "but we also need to restore their culture; it's not just bending ability that makes a nation, after all."
Katara nodded agreement, thinking of all the traditions of the Southern Water Tribe that had nothing to do with waterbending. Bumi continued, "So I'd thought about asking among my own people for volunteers, who are willing to move to one of the old Air Temples and swear to an entirely different way of life; to live as Air Nomads and eventually help teach young airbenders to become Air Nomads. But before asking for volunteers, I need to be able to tell them just what they were volunteering for."
The aged king then held up a satchel of scrolls as he continued, "So I dictated to my scribes everything I could remember of what Aang told me about life at the Air Temples. And then I had my people do more research on customs that Aang hadn't told me about, or that he might not even have known about, since he was still a child before the start of the war. They searched our own city libraries for scrolls on Air Nomad culture, and we sent off to the University of Ba Sing Se for more information, since they boast of having the biggest library in the world."
"It's not actually the biggest, but it's the biggest one that people can still get into," Katara interjected wryly, thinking of Wah Shi Tong's library, as she accepted the satchel of scrolls. "Thank you for doing so much on Aang's behalf, and I'm sure Aang will thank you too when he returns!"
But after handing them over, Bumi tapped the satchel with a gnarled old finger, a frown wrinkling his face even more than usual. "The thing is… I'm not sure that some of these scrolls are accurate. They were all accompanied by the usual courier's seal verifying that the scrolls weren't tampered with en route, the scribes' oaths for completely accurate line-for-line copying of the original text, and the original scholars' oaths that they personally verified what they wrote about. But Aang never talked to me about several of the customs described on these scrolls from the Ba Sing Se University's library, and some of their contents are… Well, perhaps you'd rather read them for yourself," Bumi sighed. "But when Aang returns, show him the scrolls and ask him which of them are true, and which scroll is a complete quicksand of a lie."
And with that, the aged king turned and left, while Katara rubbed her chin and pondered the satchel of scrolls in her hand. She knew a few Air Nomad customs, just from traveling with Aang for a year and a half, but there was a lot she didn't know about his culture. But if Bumi thought that some of these scrolls were full of lies, then she probably shouldn't look at any of them before Aang came back to verify them…
…Oh, who did she think she was fooling? Bumi's words had made her curious, she didn't have anything else to do today after the summit session had ended so early, and she had no idea when Aang was coming back; it was time to start reading! Katara got herself a drink of water, settled into a comfortable chair, and pulled a scroll out of the satchel.
The first scroll was one that King Bumi had dictated to a palace scribe, filled with his own reminiscences of childhood visits from Aang and his guardian, Monk Gyatso. Considering the hijinks that Bumi and Aang got into whenever they were together, Katara wasn't surprised to read that the scroll was mostly about the pranks and jokes that Air Nomads liked to play on each other and their friends in other nations. There was also a description of airball, the game that Katara remembered seeing an arena for at the Southern Air Temple.
The next scroll was from Ba Sing University, judging by the seals on the casing. The summary on the case was that it was the second of two scrolls written by Professor Xang, a Foreign Cultures scholar, concerning his time at the Eastern Air Temple during their weeklong Spring Equinox festival, 206 years ago.
The scroll started on the last day of the festival, and Professor Xang gave a beautiful description of the closing ceremony that the Air Nomad monks and nuns had held; he even included a transcription of the lyrics to their song about spring turning to summer, babies beginning their journey to childhood, and children beginning their journey to adulthood. Katara couldn't help smiling when she read about the ceremony's finale:
Xang wrote "All the guardians who had brought children to the temple for choosing their sky bison companions, were given large and multicolored leather bundles, which I was told were 'saddles for beginning riders'. The saddles proved to be much smaller than those worn by the mature bison as well as more colorfully dyed, and they included a pair of extremely long rope leads. Then all the children who had been brought to the temple for choosing came out, each one carrying a small straw basket adorned with flowers and containing exactly four apples. I was told that the children had spent all morning making the baskets, with the aid of the Eastern Air Temple's resident nuns. The baskets were set at the feet of their monk and nun guardians, next to the saddles.
"Then the abbess of the temple blew a great horn, and the great mother bison of the local herd came gliding down out of the clouds, with their calves clustered around them. Once they landed in the clearing, the mothers gave each of their calves a lick on the forehead, and then nudged them towards the children who had chosen them as companions on the second day of the festival. The children greeted them with glad cries, while hugging as much of their already large bodies as could be managed.
"Then the eldest nun of the temple, an aged woman named Dagmola, gestured to the massive set of wind chimes that hung by the entrance to the temple, and airbent a breeze through them to play a particular sequence of notes that I recognized from the song that all the adults had sung earlier; the notes for the verse about children beginning their journeys to adulthood. When the sequence finished, the guardians picked up the saddles, while the children picked up the baskets of apples and fed them to their new companions. The sky bison calves happily ate them, baskets and all, while the children petted them and while their guardians strapped the saddles onto their backs. Then each child was picked up and set into the beginner's saddle, buckled into place with straps, and given a sack that I was told contained a small waterskin and some nuts for snacks on the journey. Then the long rope leads were tied to the saddles of the guardians' adult sky bison, who had been patiently waiting for them.
"The aged Dagmola created another breeze that played a new series of notes on the chimes, which matched the notes sung during the verse about babies beginning their journey to childhood. And with that note, the Zephyrs from yesterday's ceremony were brought out in large padded baskets that I realized were cleverly designed infant carriers, and handed to their assigned guardians."
"Zephyrs?" Katara said aloud, puzzling over the word. Didn't that mean a small breeze? Then she realized from the rest of the sentence that it must have been an Air Nomad nickname for their infant children; aww, how sweet! Just as Water Tribe families sometimes called their young children seal-puppies. The Air Nomad babies must have been brought to the temple for some ceremonial blessing, like the one that Water Tribes had for their babies; each family brought their infant to a tribal gathering when they were two months old, to be formally blessed by the chief and welcomed into the community. Katara smiled again and continued reading Professor Xang's words:
"The guardians leaped up into the saddles of their own mounts and carefully secured the baskets there, and then nodded to the Eastern Air Temple's leading nun. She blew her horn one final time, and with many calls of 'Yip yip!' ringing the clearing, all the sky bison rose into the air, the children laughing and shouting atop their new mounts, and departed for their respective temples.
"That concluded the Eastern Air Temple's Spring Equinox Festival. It was time for me to depart as well; I thanked Abbess Jetsunma for granting me the privilege of attending their festival, and gathered my notes and luggage to depart. The abbess had already arranged for me to be given a ride back to Ba Sing Se with a middle-aged nun named Kamala and her mount Amma. But to my surprise, I had a fellow passenger in Amma's saddle; a five-year-old girl named Kailan.
"Kailan said little to me, seeming very sad and clutching a cloth toy lemur to her chest, while a satchel containing her few belongings sat at her feet. Kamala explained to me very briefly that she was being taken to an orphanage in Ba Sing Se, the orphanage run by the Abbey of Oma with whom they had a longstanding arrangement for such matters, because Kailan had failed all their tests for airbending ability."
"What?!" Katara gasped aloud, nearly dropping the scroll in shock. A girl had been kicked out of the Air Temple, disowned by her parents, just because she couldn't airbend?!
Four months ago, after checking in at the Fire Nation capital to see how Zuko was doing and tell him how the evacuation of the first three colonies was going, at Sokka's request they swung by Master Piandao's estate for a visit. Sokka wanted to see how his sword-master was doing, and then explain to the master how he'd lost his Space Sword in the Air Fleet Battle and to ask if there was enough Space Metal left from the meteorite to make another sword.
Master Piandao had cordially welcomed them in for tea, and told Sokka that he'd already heard from Iroh what had happened to Sokka's sword, and he believed that there was just enough metal left. Then during the visit and the forge work, the conversation had somehow turned to families and fathers, and for some reason—Katara couldn't remember why now—Sokka had asked his master about his fondest memory of his father. Piandao had responded, "I don't have many memories of him at all, but I suppose the fondest one would be when he gave me a small set of toy soldiers for my third birthday."
"Oh, I'm sorry; did your father die when you were a child?" Katara had asked in concern.
Piandao had replied matter-of-factly, "Oh no, he lived until I was thirty-seven years old. But when I was six years old, my parents sent me to an orphanage in Shu Jing, because they couldn't bear the shame of having a nonbender child; they were both firebenders, you see."
Sokka's squawk of outrage would have outdone an entire flock of hawkgulls, but Katara's hadn't been much quieter. Yes, bending was a great gift from the spirits, but what parents would be so hard-hearted, so evil, as to shame and abandon their child just for not having been given that gift?!
Piandao had calmed them down and assured them that being sent to the orphanage had turned out to be far better for him than he'd thought as a child, that he was a far better man now than he would have been if he'd stayed with his parents. But Katara had privately decided that Piandao's parents' cruelty had been another symptom of the—the disease of aggression and firebending-is-superior attitude that the Fire Lords had been spreading for over a hundred years. Zuko sure had his work cut out for him, fixing all the things that were wrong with the Fire Nation. Only the Fire Nation had such emotionally damaged people that they would abandon a child just for being a nonbender…
But according to this scroll, they weren't the only nation after all. Some of the Air Nomads had done it too?!
Well, people like Hahn of the Northern Water Tribe and Long Feng of the Earth Kingdom had proven that bad people could be found in any nation. And perhaps like Master Piandao, little Kailan had ended up having a better life far away from her unloving parents than she would ever have had with them; at least, Katara hoped so.
It was still a shame, though, that she had ended up going to an orphanage in the Earth Kingdom rather than being adopted by another Air Nomad family. In the Water Tribes, if a family ended up with too many mouths to feed and care for during the lean months, the chief was almost always able to find another family willing to adopt one of the children for their own.
There wasn't much more to that scroll, just Professor Xang noting that Kamala intended to conduct airbending tests among the orphans at the Abbey of Oma after she turned Kailan over to them, and then a description of what the Earth Kingdom landscape had looked from high in the sky on the journey back to Ba Sing Se. Katara finished reading the scroll, rolled it back up and put it in its protective casing, and then rummaged through the satchel for another scroll by that same professor. The heading of the scroll had said it was the second of two, so the first scroll must have covered the first few days of the Spring Equinox Festival…
She found the right scroll after only a little searching, opened it and settled back to read some more. She was right, the scroll started with Professor Xang's arrival by trader caravan at the Eastern Air Temple just a day before the festival was to start. He had been welcomed by Abbess Jetsunma as an observer and promised full access to their festival, after swearing an oath that he would strictly observe and not interrupt anything, for any reason.
Professor Xang had recorded the many events of the festival: First, a welcoming feast for the visitors from the other Air Temples and all around the globe. The professor had noted that while the female visitors came in all ages, the male visitors were all children between the ages of seven and nine, and their elderly guardians; there were no monks between the ages of ten and fifty. When he'd asked why the other monks from all the ages in between had not come to the festival, the abbess had told him simply that it wasn't appropriate for them to visit at this time; male children between ten and sixteen years of age did not visit the nuns at all, and monks of sixteen and beyond would visit during the Solstice festivals.
The day after the welcoming feast, there had been a sky bison choosing ceremony, where the children who'd been gathered from all the Air Temples were invited to choose their lifelong companions from sky bison calves that had just been weaned and were ready to leave their mothers. Katara smiled while reading about the antics of the sky bison calves, trying to imagine their gentle giant Appa being so small and cute… well, perhaps not small, as the professor said the calves were already the height of the average man. But still, the thought of a smaller and saddle-less Appa doing barrel rolls in the sky and sneaking into a storeroom to gorge himself silly on apples was endearing.
Professor Xang had noted that there were in addition to mothers with infant children, there were several heavily pregnant Air Nomad women present in the Eastern Air Temple, and both pregnant and nursing women were referred to as 'bearers' by the monks and the older nuns. Three bearers had given birth during the week of the Equinox festival; the professor had not asked to witness the births (there were evidently limits to what he would do for the sake of knowledge), but he'd noted that a quartet of nuns had played music on flutes and drums continuously during the hardest part of labor.
The head musician had explained to the professor that their playing gave the birthing women a rhythm to focus on, to aid in the birthing process. The music also helped to mask any noises of pain made by the bearers themselves, that might disturb the serenity of the temples. Katara thought back to the three births she had helped her grandmother midwife back before Aang had come out of the iceberg, and little Hope that she'd helped bring into the world on the journey to Ba Sing Se, and thought that playing music during the birth might actually be a very good idea. She'd have to include that in the letter she was already writing to Gran-Gran, for Gran-Pakku to take back home with him.
Then Professor Xang wrote about an event that took place on the sixth day of the festival, the day before the end; the abbess had declared the Sending of the Zephyrs. The children were all sent out to play with their new bison friends, and the abbess had suggested the professor should go watch the children, but he'd reminded her of her promise to let him observe everything. She'd finally agreed, on the condition that the professor stay in the background and make neither sound nor gesture to call attention to himself until after the ceremony was over.
After the professor had once more given his solemn oath to strictly observe, and tucked himself into a corner to watch, a small gong was sounded and several women filed into the room, all carrying babies that looked to be about a year old. When the children's names and destination temples were called out by the abbess, the women handed the children over to the monks and nuns from the destination temple. Most of the mothers simply handed their infants over, gave them one last affectionate brushing of hair or kiss on the cheek, and then turned away.
But one mother, a very young nun named Bayarmaa, at first refused to hand her infant son over to the monks of the Northern Air Temple. She'd been visibly reluctant to join the lineup of bearers in the first place, and when her son Anil's name was called, she first hesitated, and then tried to run from the room still holding her baby. But two older nuns who'd clearly been expecting trouble blocked her from leaving.
The two older nuns and the abbess first took Bayarmaa over to a far corner, talking in words too low for the professor to hear, while all the other monks and nuns in the room tried very hard to occupy themselves with other matters and not listen in. Then the abbess finally gave the young mother a small flask of something to drink; when Bayarmaa tried to refuse the drink, they insisted, one of the older nuns almost pouring it down her throat. Bayarmaa stayed in the corner with her son, while the abbess went back to calling out the names of the other infants and their destinations.
Ten minutes later, the abbess once more called out Anil's name and his destination, the Northern Air Temple. This time one of the older nuns who had stayed in the corner with Bayarmaa reached down, plucked the baby from her arms and walked him over to where the monk was waiting. With a glassy-eyed stare from whatever drug they'd given her, Bayarmaa watched them take her son without further objection or struggle.
Professor Xang had tried hard to keep a scholarly detachment from what he'd witnessed, but from the words he wrote on the scroll Katara could easily discern the dismay verging on horror that he'd felt just then, bound by his scholarly oath to not intervene; the dismay verging on horror that she felt herself, just from reading his words. How could they just take that woman's baby away from her?! And how could those other women… How could they…
It all had to be a lie! It had to be—anti-Air Nomad propaganda, that Fire Lord Sozin had somehow snuck into the university's library by using spies or something! It had to be a lie! Katara almost ripped the scroll to shreds on the spot, but caught herself at the last second. There was a lot of other cultural information on the scroll, and there was a good chance that at least some of it was true; she'd learned the hard way over the last year of the war and in dealing with politicians since then, that the really skilled liars mixed their lies in with truths to make them more believable.
Rather than destroy the scrolls now and risk losing important information for rebuilding a lost culture, she would wait for Aang to come back, just as King Bumi had said earlier. Aang would read the scrolls himself, and then he could tell both her and Bumi how much of this information was true, and how much was just a big hateful lie…
On the way back from Sàn Mèn, Mai had suggested to Aang that they detour to that valley a little north of their route and ride the hog-monkeys again, since riding them had been such fun a few days ago. The sky was clear with a few breezes, great riding weather, and Mai thought maybe a little distraction would help Aang's mood; he was still feeling just a little sick inside from what he'd done to the Dú Hài spirit a few hours ago, to stop him from poisoning people's crops.
Aang had agreed that he could use a distraction, so they'd made the detour... but that turned out to be a mistake, sort-of. Limping back to where Appa was waiting, Mai said ruefully, "I think they remembered us from the first time."
"Yeah," Aang agreed, gingerly testing his right arm to be sure it was still working okay; he was sure he'd be showing a lot of bruises by the time they got back to Omashu. "This time they sure seemed ready for strange people grabbing them and trying to ride them; they put up one heckuva fight."
"But no bones broken, right?" as she gave him another concerned glance.
"Right," as he gave her a thumbs-up in return.
"And how's your head?" she asked as they walked up Appa's tail into the saddle.
"Huh? I'm fine; when I got knocked against the tree it only got my arm and right side, not my head. Is your head okay?"
Mai smiled at him, a wry and kind-of secret smile, before saying, "I'm fine, it's mostly just my left leg. I'll be staying off the tatami mats for a few days, but that's it."
"You should come see Katara when we get back, and let her heal it," Aang suggested while picking up the reins. It wasn't until they'd left the valley and were heading straight for Omashu again that he realized what Mai had really been asking about, when she'd mentioned his head; she'd been asking if he was in a better mood now than he had been before. And he was; if nothing else, those raging hog-monkeys had definitely gotten his mind off their trip to the Spirit World!
He kept that reasonably good mood for the rest of the trip back, but his bruises were really aching by the time they reached Omashu that evening, and Aang was really looking forward to Katara giving him a water-healing session. It was nearly all that was on his mind as he said goodnight to Appa in the stables, and Mai at the entrance to the Fire Nation guest wing; she said that she should check in on Zuko first and see what he'd been up to for the last two days, and then maybe see Katara in the morning. But the look Aang saw on Katara's face as soon as he stepped into the parlor of their two-bedroom suite told him that something really bad had happened, that was a lot more important than a few bruises. "What happened to make you so upset?" he blurted out for a greeting.
"Never mind what happened to me, where have you been?!" Katara demanded. And then before he could tell her about Sàn Mèn and going to the Spirit World, she went on, "Never mind, you can tell me later, but right now I need you to read this!" as she shoved a scroll in his face.
The scroll had Ba Sing Se seals on it, and for a second Aang's heart dropped straight down to his feet, knotting up his guts along the way. Spirits, had the Earth King actually gone and declared war on the Fire Nation now, in revenge for all the damage that the other nation been done during their war of conquest?! Plenty of colonists and Fire Nation generals had sworn that's what he would do next, but Aang had always reassured them that King Kuei was a nice man, who would never dream of doing such a terrible thing…
But it wasn't a proclamation from the Earth King at all; instead it was a scroll from Ba Sing Se University. A history scroll, about his people! Aang read it eagerly, and felt an aching nostalgia over the scholar's description of the Spring Equinox festival. He'd chosen Appa at the Spring Equinox festival he'd attended after he turned seven years old, and they'd been together ever since…
Trying to get her mind off that Equinox Festival, Katara had read all the other scrolls in the satchel, and found lots of innocuous information. One scroll had been full of recipes for a typical Air Nomad diet, listing some of their favorite vegetarian dishes and drinks. Another scroll had given descriptions of the festivals for each of the four great winds, which were all nice enough; they featured some ceremonial skits and lots of food, music and dancing, like many of the festivals in her tribe. Another scroll had described some of the beautiful art and music that could be made with airbending; from using precise gusts of wind to play melodies on wind chimes and wind harps, to creating flowing, moving pictures in the air using colored smoke.
But then she'd read another scholar's account from 150 years ago, of his conversation with two teenaged Air Nomad boys on a midsummer day. Two boys who were still flushed and excited from their first Summer Solstice festival that they'd attended a few days before, and who had gladly told him all about it…
'Seeding'! That scroll claimed that the men of the Air Nomads went to the Eastern and Western Temples during the Solstice ceremonies to breed with the women there, like they were no better than female tiger-seals in season, and then left them! Flying off without a care in the world for the children they'd just sired! That scroll absolutely had to be a lie, because no culture would ever tolerate such behavior! Any man of the Water Tribes who did that, would be hunted down by the girl's family and gutted like a fish!
Katara had been pacing her suite for hours since then, unable to focus on anything in her agitation. She still wanted to freeze that scroll inside a block of the very coldest ice she could manage and then shatter it, scroll and all. And she would, right after Aang got to look at it and see what sort of hateful lies Firelord Sozin had been spreading about his people; it would probably hurt him, but he deserved to know about the propaganda Sozin had spread to try to justify genocide.
Then Aang finally came back, and Katara immediately shoved the first scroll about the Spring Equinox festival at him, to get his verdict about how much of it was truthful and how much was sheer lie. After he confirmed the lies, then she'd tell him about where he could find the other scroll, which had landed behind the couch when she'd thrown it across the room. Aang could probably fish it out easily with an airbent wind; Katara knew that if she touched it again, it would be to destroy it.
She focused on Aang's expression as he read through the scroll; after a few minutes he glanced up, noticed her watching him and asked, "This is just about a Spring Equinox festival; how could this make you or anyone so upset?"
"Have you finished it yet?" she demanded.
"Not yet; I'm only up to the fourth day, and this guy describing the music they played for the bearers giving birth."
The word 'bearers' sent a jolt of alarm through her, but Katara only said grimly, "Keep reading."
Aang gave her a wary, worried look, but kept reading. And just two minutes later, he saw it; she could tell by the sad frown on his face. Thank Tui, it really was a lie, she thought with relief, before saying aloud, "Bumi brought that and some other scrolls here so you could verify them; tell is which parts of each scroll are true and which are lies."
"Well, this particular festival happened almost a century before I was born, and I've never even heard of any of the people that were mentioned by name, so I can't guarantee what really happened and what didn't," Aang said thoughtfully as he rolled the scroll up and put it back in its case. "But everything this professor described up through the fifth day of the festival seemed accurate enough; it matches what I can remember from my own journey to the Eastern Air Temple with Monk Gyatso, when I got Appa The sixth day, though…" he shook his head.
Feeling a little calmer now that she knew the scrolls really did have some lies scattered through them, Katara was about to apologize for her rude behavior when he'd walked in the door earlier and ask if he'd eaten yet, when Aang spoke again. "I was outside with the other kids during the Sending of the Zephyrs ceremony, but Gyatso told me about it afterwards, when he showed me the Zephyr we'd be taking home with us. And no Air Nomad bearer would ever behave as selfishly as that Bayarmaa did."
Now that he'd finished reading the first scroll, Aang figured he would ask Katara to heal his bruises and then ask if she wanted to have dinner with him, before reading any more scrolls. But just as he said, "Would you mind hea-" he was interrupted by Katara nearly screaming, "Selfishly?!"
Eeep! He hadn't seen Katara this mad since before Zuko had changed his ways! Backing up a couple of steps, Aang replied nervously, "Well, yeah!" What had gotten into her?!
"And how was she selfish?!" Katara demanded, stomping towards him. And for a second Aang could only stare at her, surprised and appalled; couldn't Katara tell? Wasn't it obvious?! Bayarmaa's baby Anil had been a boy!
All the boys went to either the Northern or Southern Air Temples to be raised, while the girls went to the Eastern or Western Air Temples; that's the way it had always been! For Anil to stay with his bearer at the Eastern Air Temple, would mean that he'd grow up the only boy in the whole place. He'd be surrounded by girls, yeah, but there'd be nobody else around for doing boy stuff! Nobody to have peeing-for-distance contests with, or teach him how to airbend your farts after eating broccoli-kale, or any of the other stuff that boy Air Nomads did but girls didn't… That sounded like a pretty boring and lonely childhood in Aang's opinion, and it had been selfish of Bayarmaa to be willing to deprive her baby of so much fun growing up, just because she wanted to keep him with her.
But before he could even begin to explain all that, Katara stomped even closer to him while shouting, "And I suppose you think the men were being generous when they went to the nun's temples for the Solstice festivals?!"
"Wait, what?! I've never been to a Solstice festival! I wasn't old enough to go to one, before I went in the ice!"
But that fact didn't stop Katara at all. "But do you know what went on at those festivals? The 'seeding'?!"
"Well, yeah, but-"
"That's disgusting! And cruel, to treat all your women that way!"
Aang was sore, he was hungry, and now his girlfriend was attacking his people; he'd had enough! He scowled and shouted back, "It is not cruel!"
How could Aang possibly be defending such horrible behavior?! But now he was shouting at her, "If any nuns don't want to participate, all they have to do is leave the temple!"
"Oh, so they have to leave their own homes if they want to avoid being raided with the rest?" as she glared at him. Gran-Gran had never wanted to talk about it, but Hama had told her what had happened to the women in the Fire Nation raids. Waterbender women were captured and taken away, like she had eventually been captured. But nonbender women had been raped and left bleeding in the snow, for the other women to find and comfort if they could. And then the tribe's healers would grind up some of their precious stores of coil-tree bark, to make into the tea that prevented pregnancy and ensure that no unwanted fire-babies were born the next year…
But Aang bellowed back at her, "It's not like that! The nuns are there willingly! They let the men seed them and leave, and then they-"
"That's what whores do, Aang!" as Katara found herself actually shaking with rage. After what the Earth Kingdom delegates had said about her that morning… She didn't even realize what she was doing until the vases of flowers nearby shattered and the water arced across the room, to become ice-spears hovering between them and pointing at Aang as she shouted, "I'll never be anyone's whore!"
Aang scowled and whipped his hand out, and an airbending slice shattered the ice spears. But even as she reformed them, he grabbed his staff and headed straight for the balcony, shouting over his shoulder, "I'm leaving! I'd rather stay with the hog-monkeys than with you right now!"
"Good riddance!" she shouted after him. And it wasn't until after he'd slammed the balcony doors behind him and glided away that Katara realized what had happened—or what hadn't happened—and slapped her palm to her forehead. "Idiot! Katara, you're an idiot!"
She'd been so caught up in those scrolls and their argument, she'd forgotten to tell him about Zuko's determination to retain all the older Fire Nation colonies, for the sake of the families there!
To be continued
Author's Notes: First, readers who have read my other stories and have good memories may have recognized some sections of Katara's reading material; one passage was lifted straight from the fifth chapter of my story "Promises to Keep", though I added to it considerably here. I've mentioned in other author notes and other stories that I did a fair amount of world-building for the world of ATLA before I began writing any of my stories, extrapolating from what we all heard the characters say and saw on the TV screen/DVD sets. I use that shared background for all the "Missing Moments" drabbles, nearly all my oneshots, and all four of the multichapter stories I currently have running. The only details that differ from story to story are exactly what happened to Ursa, and just what Mai's parents are really like.
Second, readers who haven't read my other stories and have issues with how I portrayed the Air Nomad culture here, are strongly advised to check out the three-pages-long author's note I left at the end of chapter 7 in "Promises to Keep" which is basically a treatise on their culture and on bending in general, as extrapolated from the show and from an interview with the show creators.
This portrayal of Air Nomad culture obviously conflicts with what's been seen of Aang's family in Legend of Korra, wherein Aang's son Tenzin has a typical nuclear family. But I'm pretty sure that sometime after finishing ATLA's first season, Mike & Bryan realized that if they ever portrayed the Air Nomad culture in full, they'd be crucified by huge numbers of politicians and public speakers as well as other "Family Values" proponents all over the USA, and their show would be yanked off the air post-haste. Even in 2015, an unfortunately significant percentage of the population is still against gay marriage and gay couples raising families; think of how many people would wig out about a show portraying an entire culture that flat-out rejected the concept of the nuclear family!
In jumping straight from the end of the war and Aang and Katara's very first mutually-consenting kiss, to seventy years later and their three children not just grown up but middle-aged to gray-haired, we missed out on probably 95 percent of their relationship. Sometime in the years before their marriage, probably after Aang found himself not just explaining but defending some facets of Air Nomad culture to a few shocked Air Acolytes, I'm sure Aang and Katara had a long and serious discussion about the culture he'd been raised in, about where they were going in their relationship and what each wanted or expected from the other, as well as how their children would be raised. And they finally settled with Aang agreeing to let them be raised Water-Tribe style, with just a few Air Nomad philosophies mixed in; the same way Tenzin is raising his family in LOK. But in this story, Katara learned about two of the most basic principles of Air Nomad culture in the worst possible way; from scrolls that included descriptions of two of their unwilling victims.
And finally, for those readers who think the EK delegates' reaction was over-the-top and completely unrealistic: Ohh, don't I wish. Unfortunately, it's been proven again and again throughout history that when women start saying things that men don't want to hear, or when a woman achieves or is reaching for a position of authority, many men will react by publicly attacking the women's character and reputation, casting the vilest accusations in order to shut them up or discredit them. And yes, it still goes on today to some extent. "Gamergate" is an excellent RL example, but if you'd rather explore a reference that's not such a hot knotted mess, check out the 2000 movie "The Contender".