I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Midday in the Firetown street market, and the scene was alive with colors, sounds, and scents, bustling and generally cheerful. Summer was still technically a few weeks away, but the weather had been unusually fine this spring, and the Fire Nation's favorite season felt like it was already here for its expat and descendent communities in the United Republic's capital.
At the corner of Wang and Fire Streets, a young woman alighted from the crosstown streetcar line and stood for a few moments on the sidewalk, just taking in the vista. She was a foreigner in these parts, but didn't carry herself like a tourist in spite of the large backpack and smaller leather bag she carried. Her clothes were nondescript, comfortable and rugged for traveling, and her expression as she regarded the street market was one not far short of delight.
Anne Cross (sometimes known as Juniper, inevitably amended to "Juni-chan" by various of her friends who knew of her connection to a Japanese-rooted martial art) felt a marked sense of accomplishment at her arrival, and not only because it marked the culmination of nearly three days of non-stop traveling. Unlike her last visit to Republic City, which had been an off-the-cuff trip arranged on the spur of the moment by a personage important enough to make that kind of thing fly with the local authorities, she'd done everything up properly this time, from the perspective of the Republic's extensive bureaucracy. In the inside pocket of her light jacket, she carried a Zetan passport, newly stamped by the Borders and Ports Agency officer at Central City Train Station, and an elaborately sealed and countersigned form licensing her to carry the sword that rode alongside her pack on her back, its tsuba gaily decorated with the yellow paper tape of a Republic City Police Department inspection bond.
(She found the "inspection bond" concept interesting, and pleasantly enlightened, on the part of the local police force. She'd been in places where civilians' weapons were required to be peace bonded, that is, secured in some way that would prevent them from being readily employed. Her Katsujinkenryū oaths were... not compatible with that practice. RCPD inspection bonding, on the other hand, left the blade readily accessible in an emergency; it simply ensured that if she did draw it, that fact would be readily apparent to any officer sent to investigate whatever followed.)
Anne checked her watch, which she'd set to the giant clock on the Central Station concourse before departing: 12:24 in the afternoon. Time for lunch, and the bustle of the crowd in the market showed it. As she walked down Wang Street toward the center of the market, she looked around with interest at the façades of the buildings and the market stalls around her. In the two and a half or so months since she'd last been here, almost all the damage from the battle her firebending instructor had fought against a member of the Agni Kai triad had been repaired, and repaired so well that Anne couldn't tell by looking where most of it had been.
She spotted the café where she and Azana had been lunching when the incident had started, down at the end of the block. She considered stopping there for lunch, but decided to press on to the Fire Lord Zuko Bending Academy first. She'd pay her respects to Master Ito on her return to his domain, as roaming martial artists had done of old, and see whether Azana was there. She knew her sifu and Karana were in town - their next road game wasn't until the end of the week - and there was a chance one or both of them might be training at the Academy instead of down at Shiro Shinobi Arena.
Just as she thought it, though, Anne realized she was looking at Azana. Elegantly dressed, as always, in dark reds and black, she was standing a dozen or so yards away, browsing at a market stall where they sold hair ornaments and whatnot. Anne only had her in a sort of three-quarter rear profile, just the angle of her jaw and one ear visible, but the straight fall of her black hair on that side was unmistakable, as was something intangible in the set of her slim shoulders.
Anne nearly called out to her, but she was still a bit far away for that to be practical, and before she got close enough, another idea had struck her. She wasn't tired - she'd gotten plenty of sleep on the train - but she was a little burned at the edges from all the travel, and in that slightly punchy state, it suddenly seemed like a fine idea to see if she could slip up behind her sifu unnoticed and perform what one of her classmates at Harkness Street High School back in New Avalon described as a "ninja attack hug".
The first part went perfectly; she slipped into position quickly, efficiently, and silently, using both the skills she'd honed trying to stay inconspicuous during her time as a runaway and the bits of the art of stealth Kaitlyn-sensei had taught her as part of her training. Katsujinkenryūka were samurai, not ninja, but Kate knew a thing or two about being unobtrusive, and about moving through a crowd without causing a disturbance. In the year or so she'd been Kate's student, Juniper had so far not developed her teacher's power to cloud the mind, and her telepathy was far too weak to imitate the effect, but it did provide some usefully heightened awareness of her surroundings in situations like this.
As she readied herself for the final spring, Juni relied on both that sensitivity and her developing zanshin to warn her of danger. Sensing none, she sprang -
- and realized a quarter-second too late that the woman onto whose back she was in the process of springing was not Azana. Just as Anne committed to the move, the browsing woman turned to look at something farther along the market stall's counter, so that Anne got a first good look at her profile. Even at this close range, she did very much resemble Juniper's firebending sifu - she could have been Azana's sister, maybe a year or two younger - but she was plainly someone else.
Anne had just enough time to think, Uh-oh, before she was aboard. While most of her mind was going into belated panic mode, some weirdly detached and nonchalant part wondered exactly what this total stranger's reaction was going to be. There was, in this setting, the distinct possibility that another fight was about to break out.
However, to her distinct surprise, what happened immediately following her flagrant and provocative invasion of a complete stranger's personal space was... nothing much. The woman didn't even seem to notice at first. She kept doing what she was doing, picking up the item she'd been reaching for when Anne sprang as if nothing had happened; only once she had it in hand and was examining it did she remark blandly,
"I seem to have discovered another of your clade, darling."
"I can see that," someone replied from somewhere off to their left. Blinking, Anne turned her head to see another woman who appeared to be in her early twenties, wearing a sundress in a cheerful, summery pink-and-white floral pattern. She was grey-eyed and friendly-looking, with long brown hair in a braid (She's like the local version of me, Anne thought irrelevantly), and she regarded the scene with a wry little grin.
Still acting more or less on instinct, Anne performed a quick surface scan with her empathy, about the only part of her low-grade telepathy she could extend outside her own head; what it told her was that these two, whoever they might be, seemed to be genuinely amused by what had just happened.
Juni slid off the strange woman's back, blushing furiously but giving her an unsure-but-game grin all the same, and said, "Uh, wow. I'm sorry! I thought you were the friend of mine I'm here to see - I'm really, really time-lagged right now, I've been kind of traveling for about three days and... look, I'm sorry, can I buy you a coffee or something if you'd like an apology?" Her travel-crisp brain was briefly unable to repress a thought of how Azalynn would apologize to this poor woman, and she giggled sheepishly and rubbed at her cheek with one hand. "I'll stop talking now before I get myself in more trouble."
The woman who looked like Azana smiled a little wryly and said, "No apology is necessary, and besides, I never drink coffee after noon; it makes me edgy. I was just starting to think that it might be time for a bit of lunch, though, if you'd care to join us."
They went to the café where Anne and Azana had tried to have lunch once before, which had, like the rest of the street, been put back in working order with great skill since Juni had last seen it. Their waiter wasn't the same one they'd had that day, though. She wondered whether he still worked there, poor man, after being frightened nearly out of his wits by the experience.
She could read a bit of the menu this time, having applied herself diligently to the study of written Japanese with some light neural-write assistance in what little free time she'd had during the fourth school quarter. Kokugo looked, as it sounded, a little archaic to someone trained in Galactic Japanese, but Juni found it workable enough, at least at this level, to figure out which of the appetizers had been the one Azana ordered that day and order it again. Her lunch companions ordered the same thing.
Once the waiter had gone back inside to relay their order to the kitchen, the woman Anne had inadvertently molested interlaced her long, slender fingers before her like a mandarin and said matter-of-factly, "We're fairly intimately acquainted, you and I, for people who don't even know each other's names."
Anne felt herself blushing again and applied her training in concentration not to let herself look down at the tablecloth. "Uh... right. Sorry about that. I'm Anne. Anne Cross." She headed herself off before she could add automatically, "Journeywoman of the Asagiri Katsujinkenryū," which would have seemed a bit pretentious in this setting, but was unable to stop herself adding with a crooked smile, "My friends call me Juniper."
"Hmm," said the woman with a smile, one of her neatly trimmed eyebrows rising in an elegant expression of intrigue. "I take it you're from the 'big universe', Juniper?" she inquired.
"Uh, yes. I'm..." Juni considered the finer details of the answer for a moment. Where was she from? Orron IV hadn't felt like home when she lived there, much less now, but she hadn't lived anywhere else long enough to feel justified in saying she was "from" there. She gave the phrase up as useless and said instead, "I live in New Avalon."
"Oh hey," said the woman in the sundress. "We have a place in New Avalon too, though we're almost never there."
"If I seem like I'm stalling," said the black-haired woman with that same little smile, "it's because I'm trying to decide whether to tell you who I am, or who I am. The former would be easier. The second might be more interesting." Her smile became a little sly, her bright amber eyes twinkling mischievously. "Do you like interesting, Juniper?"
"I..." Juni hesitated, then decided, Ah, what the hell, I'm already in whatever this is up to my neck and replied with her crooked grin, "I love interesting."
The mysterious woman's smile broadened, showing very white and even teeth. "Excellent," she said. "In that case, permit me to introduce myself properly." She didn't rise, but straightened herself in her chair so that she could perform a seated bow, bringing her hands together in a firebender salute. "I am Fire Princess Azula. I have the honor to be Minister of the Imperial Center and Chief Surveyor of the Royal Mirrors to my great-niece, Her Candescent Majesty Katara the First, Lord of the Fire Nation, and I am very pleased to meet you." Then, gesturing to the woman in the sundress, she went formally on, "May I present my wife, Princess-Consort Ty Lee, Countess of Boiling Rock."
"Nice to meet you!" said Ty Lee with a wry grin and a little wave.
Anne looked from one of them to the other, trying to gauge whether they were making fun of her; then her K-ryū etiquette training kicked in and she returned the salute, anyway. What she intended to say was the full "of the Asagiri" etc. that she'd left off before - it seemed only fair - but what came out when she opened her mouth was,
"I thought you were dead."
Azula regarded her expressionlessly for a moment, then laughed, a clear, merry laugh that drew glances from all around them.
"I get that a lot," she said. "But no, one way or another, I've never quite managed it."
"I was for a while!" Ty Lee put in brightly. "It wasn't really that bad, considering."
"At any rate," Azula went on, "explaining all that is a bother, so generally I just go by my 'big universe' name." With a smaller, more ironic bow and no bender's salute, she added, "Captain Sarah Inazuma, H/V Phoenix Queen. My first mate -"
"If you know what I mean," Ty Lee put in with a saucy wink.
" - the incorrigible Ty Lee," Azula continued without breaking stride. Seeing the vaguely stunned expression on Anne's face, she said, "I hope we haven't piled it too high for a first meeting."
"I did kind of set the bar high," Anne admitted absently.
"I'm a little surprised - you've evidently heard of us, but you're a foreigner," Ty Lee pointed out. "I didn't think 'Personages of the Hundred-Year War' was exactly a hot topic for visitors from the 'big universe'."
Anne blinked, pulling her scattered thoughts together, and said, "Well... I guess I'm sort of a special case. See, I'm a firebender - kind of - and my teacher is... you might call her a student of history." She unconsciously touched the leather bag at her side as she went on, "Sifu Azana gave me a bunch of books about that period the last time I was here, and I made sure to read them all before I came back."
Azula's intrigued eyebrow went up again. "She sounds very interesting, your firebending teacher. And," she added with an arch little smile, "I have to say I envy her slightly, if she's the person you took me for."
Anne blinked, unsure how to read that remark, and then realized that was exactly Azula's intent and blushed slightly once more. "Eheh... sorry about that," she said again.
"Oh, no apology is necessary, I assure you," said Azula. "Cases of mistaken identity should always end so well."
"What did you mean you're 'kind of' a firebender?" Ty Lee wondered.
They ended up talking right through the meal, first about Anne's rare metapsionic talent and how it, at the very least, enabled a workably close emulation of firebending; then about how she had met Azana; and from there (via mention of Avatar Korra) to a brief recap of the convoluted paths that had taken Azula from Dìqiú to the "big universe" and back again. When at last they parted, two and a bit hours later, it was on friendly - even mildly conspiratorial - terms, with slightly vague but encouraging promises that they would see each other again fairly soon.
On her own again, her head faintly buzzing with all that she had just unexpectedly discovered, Anne walked toward the other end of Firetown, where she could check in at the Zuko Academy and then catch the streetcar line that would take her to Azana's neighborhood. Along the way, she made a mental note to see about picking up a mobile phone that would work here, since her Avalon Telecom one obviously wouldn't.
Ah, well. If she'd called ahead, she never would have made the mistake she'd just made, and then what? Life was a strange series of collisions and connections.
I wonder if Azana would even believe me if I told her who I just met, she mused with a smile.
She caught up with the Fire Ferrets at Shinobi Arena, where, she was pleased to learn, her team challenge coin still got her admitted to the backstage areas without any questions asked. The three were hard at work in the practice gym designated exclusively for their use, carrying out a complicated triangular drill with an emphasis on footwork and mobility. Anne perched herself on a water barrel by the door and watched for perhaps ten minutes before one of them noticed her.
"Hey, there she is!" said Karana, the team's waterbender, with a broad grin. "We were starting to wonder if you were going to get here today."
"How was the trip over?" earthbender Xiang Wan asked, returning the earth disc he'd been about to use to the stack.
"Long," said Anne, hopping down from the water barrel, "but I don't mind. I like trains - they're the only truly civilized form of land transportation."
Azana laughed. "My late father used to say that sometimes," she said. "And he was an armored cavalry officer in the Fire Army for forty years, so he knew a thing or two about land transportation." She took a towel from the stack on the table along one wall, draped it around her neck, and crossed the room to exchange bows and firebender salutes with her student. "You're looking well, Juni-chan. Have you been keeping up with the exercises I gave you?"
"As best I can without anyone to practice with," Juni replied. "How's your season going so far? We don't get the Major League Bending results on the New Avalon Cornet-Sci's sports page."
"We're 16 and three," said Karana. She paused to help herself to one tail of Azana's towel, scrubbing at her face and hairline with it, then let it fall and added, "And we got totally robbed on one of those three by the refs in Xinjiang." She rolled her eyes. "Road games. What're you gonna do, right?"
"Sixteen and three, that's awesome," said Anne.
"Best record in the Western League, so far," said Xiang Wan, "but it's a long season, and Omashu is catching up with us."
"Our last game of this homestand is tomorrow," Karana added. "Against Red Sands, should be a pretty good game. Then we get two days off and we're in Gaipan on Friday."
"I should let you get back to practicing, then," said Anne, but Azana wasn't going to let her get away with that.
"Get changed and you can join us," she said, indicating the door to the dressing room off to one side. "We'll find out just how sloppy you've gotten with no other firebender in town to keep you honest," she added with a wicked little smile.
Anne tried to give a put-upon sigh and a reluctant, "Yes, sifu," but the grin she couldn't keep off her face rather ruined the attempt.
Ninety sweaty but satisfying minutes and a nice shower later, the four of them hit Chow's for dinner. Over dumplings and soup, Karana asked whether Anne had been out to Air Temple Island yet.
"No, I went straight to Firetown from the train station," she said.
"Is it just you this trip?" Xiang Wan wondered.
Anne nodded. "Kaitlyn-sensei is out west somewhere - a town called Sakuragaoka, I think - doing her summer student teaching. Corwin took her straight there from New Avalon on Saturday, and before they left she told me to make my own way here. 'You're a journeywoman, it's time for you to do some journeying,'" she quoted with a wry smile.
"That must've been stressful, considering," said Azana, diplomatically not specifying aloud what she was considering.
"The first part was," Anne acknowledged with another nod. "But I didn't have any trouble getting to Zipang, and once I was on the train in Saikyō it was all good." She grinned and added, "That's one of the reasons I like Republic City so much - I can breathe here. How about you? Any more trouble with the Agni Kai?"
Azana shook her head. "Not so far. I'm fairly sure they're keeping an eye on me - the way I ended up dealing with Kaiten will only have heightened their interest - but they haven't tried to make contact."
"They're probably afraid of you," Xiang Wan mused. "I know I would be in their position."
"I think they have their own problems at the moment," Karana put in. "Or, to be more specific, a problem. Five letters, starts with K, ends with your triad's sekrit clubhouse burning down," she added with a malicious little grin.
"We don't know Korra had anything to do with that," Azana chided her.
Karana snorted. "Right, it might've been Fire Lord Katara," she agreed sarcastically.
"Be that as it may, between that and the pressure the Comet Task Force is putting on them and the Red Monsoon, it's likely the Agni Kai's leaders are too busy to worry about personal grudges... for the moment," said Xiang Wan judiciously.
"So if you haven't been out to the island yet," Karana said, jumping back to a previous track, "you don't know Corwin's still out in Sakuragaoka." At Anne's querying glance, she explained, "He stuck around for a few days to help his sister get settled. He's supposed to be back tomorrow."
"Oh, good," said Juni. "Then I'll get a chance to see him before we leave town."
"If you check with Utena or Anthy tonight, they can probably tell you which train he's coming in on," Azana suggested.
"That sounds like a plan," Anne agreed.
Lunchtime, and Anne sat at a table in the Firetown Market Café and considered what to do with the unaccustomed burden of a free afternoon. With Azana and Karana off dealing with MLB league business, the most obvious thing to do would be to make her way up to Mount Weitang to see what Corwin and the gang there might need in the way of manual labor. At the game the previous evening, she'd heard encouraging reports from him, Anthy, and Nyima about how well the project was progressing, and she was sure they could find something to do with a pair of unannounced hands - but, it occurred to her, how she would get all the way up there on her own was an open question. She didn't mind walking, even uphill, but at this point by the time she got there they'd probably all have left.
Mulling it over, she turned to the next page in the copy of the Republic City Tribune she'd found at the table. This was the City section, which (if she was honest) was not the most interesting part of the paper, but it was still good to get a feel for what was going on in town, and she was diligently trying to take an interest in the doings of the City Planning Board and the Water and Power District Commission when a small item near the bottom of the page caught her eye.
REPUBLIC CITY, LIUYUE 8 - The United Republic Office of Records and Vital Information is pleased to relate to the public that world-wide electronic integration of vital records, long anticipated by the bureaucrats of the Six Nations, has at last been achieved. Maximilian Chin Yongmin XVII, Supreme Civil Servant of the Republic, explained the significance of this technological achievement to the Tribune.
"In the past, citizens of the Republic in search of genealogical records were only able to trace their lineage back to, at best, the founding of the Republic," said Master Chin. "In those earliest records, they might find some indication of whence their forebears came to the Republic, but to search further would require a long voyage - possibly more than one. For instance, a Republic citizen whose ancestors came from the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom would have to go to Caldera City and Ba Sing Se, respectively, to undertake further research there. Now that all the nations' bureaux of vital records are connected by the lightningweb, however, that is no longer necessary."
Asked why the project, which was first proposed more than fifty years ago, had taken so long to complete, Master Chin would say only that there had been unexpected complications with the information systems, and that he was not an engineer.
"The important thing," he said, "is that the system is now fully operational. With the trouble and expense of searching all the capitals of the world for this information removed, people will be able to discover their heritage who would never have been able to spare the time or money to investigate it before. My colleagues in the other capitals and I are very pleased. We are using the technology of the future to provide a more comprehensive view of the past."
The Office of Records and Vital Information, located in the south wing of Republic Hall, is open for inquiries by members of the public from 8 AM to 6 PM, seven days a week.
Hmm, thought Anne. She read the article again, then smiled and folded up the paper, arranging it neatly for the next person to use the table.
When she arrived back at Azana's apartment at six-thirty, Azana and Karana were already back from their afternoon at the Western League's offices. They had the night off, but an early flight to Gaipan in the morning, so a quiet evening in was the plan.
"I'm back," she called from the foyer as she took off her shoes and stood them next to Karana's boots.
"Hey, kiddo," said Karana from the kitchen area. "You're just in time to not get a vote about dinner. Fried noodles and my dad's five-spice arctic hen," she said with a grin.
"Works for me," Anne agreed. "How did your league whatever go?"
Karana rolled her eyes. "Same old. Pretty much every year, somebody tries to get the Refs' Commission to strike Rule 74, and every year we have to go to the league president's hearing on it." She shrugged. "Kassa and his new flunkies were there." She angled her head toward the bathroom door. "'Zana's showering off the cooties now." She noticed the document tube Anne was carrying and gave her a curious look. "Whatcha got?"
"It's how I spent my afternoon," said Anne; she put the tube down on Azana's desk, then hopped up onto one of the barstools facing the kitchen island. "A little surprise for Azana-sensei."
"Oh? Now I'm definitely intrigued," said Karana, and she went back to work prepping dinner. As she worked, she and Anne chatted lightly about the day, the upcoming Fire Ferrets road trip, and such matters.
Presently Azana emerged from the bathroom, casual-but-elegant in an old-fashioned Fire Nation yukata (like a bathrobe, but classier), her long black hair down and slightly damp but perfectly combed. Seeing Anne, she smiled and inquired how her afternoon had gone.
"It was very productive," said the girl with an enigmatic smile. "Karana tells me yours was a bit trying."
Azana chuckled. "Spending any time near Kassa usually is," she said. "Still, I survived, and so has Rule 74 for another season, so I suppose, as Korra might put it, I ought to take the win."
After dinner (which was fabulous, as Karana's cooking very generally was), Anne and Azana cleaned and put away the dishes, after which the three adjourned to the living room and listened to the evening news on the radio. From her spot on the loveseat by the wall, Anne had Azana in profile, in her usual chair next to the telephone stand, and Karana stretched out full-length on the sofa at right angles, her feet toward the loveseat with Pabu sprawled blissfully on her stomach, getting a comprehensive scritching.
She found the relaxed domesticity of the whole scene pleasing, much as she relished the quiet evenings in the front room of Kaitlyn's Christie Avenue townhouse or the living room of the Wildwood Road house on Tomodachi before them. Despite the fastidious tidiness of Azana's home, spending time there had none of the regimented coldness that had marked Anne's childhood on Orron IV. Reflecting on this apparent paradox, she decided it was because Azana wasn't repressing anything with the neatness of her home - just the opposite, in fact. There was no rigidity in it; it was simply an expression of her naturally orderly spirit.
Into that order, Karana's equally natural casualness injected a lighter element. The unstudied way in which she sprawled on the couch, for instance, with one of her feet hanging off the front to rest on the floor, was entirely unlike the way Azana would've reclined on a sofa. Rather than seeming out of place, though, the difference in her personal style made her seem more as though she belonged there - not disharmonious but complementary. They were a little like Kaitlyn and Juri in that regard, Anne thought: superficially mismatched, but fundamentally compatible on a level that trumped appearances.
When the news finished, RCR went straight into the evening's episode of the very popular, absurdly-long-running radio drama The Yuyan Archers. Azana, who had disliked the program since childhood, got up to shut off the radio. While she was up, Anne went and got the document tube off her desk.
"I have a little surprise for you, sensei," she said with a grin.
"Oh?" said Azana, looking intrigued. Karana shuffled Pabu to her shoulder, bounded up from the couch, and came over to see too as Anne uncapped the tube and withdrew a rolled-up document from it.
"Do you remember when we met, and I asked you if you were related to Fire Lord Zuko? You said you didn't think so, but you couldn't be sure." Azana nodded. Her grin broadening, Anne unrolled the document and spread it out on the kitchen island. "Well, I found out today that you are, but not the way you might expect."
Once unrolled, the document proved to be a genealogical chart, meticulously drawn and labeled in the distinctive, precise brushwork of a professional clerk. With a fingertip, Anne traced from Azana's name at the far left, across several generations, and then tapped her finger upon one name a bit to the right of center.
"One of your great-great-great-grandmothers on your father's side was Zuko and Azula's half-sister Kiyi - Princess Ursa's daughter from her second marriage," Anne explained, indicating the royal siblings' names above Kiyi's and their mother's one place farther to the right. "Which means you're not related to Ozai or any of the Fire Lords before him..."
"Oh good, that probably means you won't get the crazy," Karana quipped.
Suppressing a giggle, Anne tracked her fingertip farther to the right and tapped another name, this one written in red ink. "But see who Ursa's grandfather was?"
Azana's eyes went wide. "... Oh my," she said quietly.
"Hah!" said Karana. "Quick, what time is it in Caldera City? I've gotta tell Shinzen about this."
"Where did you find this?" Azana wondered, running her own fingertips gently across the paper, from Avatar Roku's name back to her own.
"I saw a thing in the paper about all the vital records offices finally getting online together," Anne explained. Behind them, Karana went to the telephone, picked it up, and dialed. "So I went downtown this afternoon to see what I could find out. It took me an hour or so to figure out how to use the system, and a couple more to dig up all the records. Master Chin helped with the scroll," she admitted.
Despite her astonishment, Azana chuckled. "That's like him," she said. "He must have been thrilled to find a young person taking such an interest in genealogy."
"Yeah, he was," said Anne.
"Shinzen? Karana. No, it doesn't matter what you were in the middle of, you gotta hear this."
"Well." Azana stood looking silently at the scroll for a few moments longer, then said, "I had no idea. Father must not have known, either; he never mentioned it. I wonder if Zurin knows. My half-brother," she explained to Anne's curious look. "Father's son with his first wife. We aren't especially close - he's more than thirty years older than I am - but I think he'd be pleased." She smiled, a little nostalgically it seemed to Anne, and added, "He's an honorable man."
"I know! Right?"
Azana glanced back over her shoulder, her smile becoming less nostalgic and more indulgent, then turned back to Anne. "A schoolmate of ours - Prince Shinzen, Fire Lord Katara's cousin. And, evidently, mine as well," she explained, looking slightly surprised at the realization.
"Seriously. Good thing you didn't ask her to marry you."
Anne raised an eyebrow; Azana chuckled and said, "As a youth, Shinzen was sometimes... impulsive."
Karana wrapped up the call, hung up, and turned a gleeful grin to Azana and Anne. "He claims not to be surprised," she said, rolling her eyes. "Says he always suspected there was something special about you."
Azana laughed. "Smooth talker."
"As ever," Karana agreed. She glanced at her watch. "Welp, I guess Pabu and I oughta head downstairs and get packed, then crash. See you crazy kids in the morning." She hugged first Anne, then Azana, adding a quick but clearly loving kiss for the latter. "G'night, Juni. Night, Princess." With a laugh at the newly discovered appropriateness of her long-standing pet name for Azana, she let herself out and locked the door behind her.
Azana waved as her partner left the apartment, then turned to see Anne giving her a thoughtful look. "Problem?" she wondered.
Anne smiled. "No. Just thinking. Do you like it? I was a little worried about... you know... ruining the mystery, but I figured something like that, you'd like to know."
"The risk with spoiling a mystery," said Azana judiciously, "is that the truth will turn out to be disappointing. In this case," she went on with a smile, "one certainly can't say that." Then, gathering her student into an embrace, she added quietly, "It's amazing, Anne. Thank you. I'd never have suspected."
"You're welcome, sensei," said Anne.
"Now you'd best get ready for bed," said Azana pragmatically when the moment had run its course. "It's not a terribly long flight to Gaipan, but we need to be at the airport fairly early."
Anne suppressed a slight sigh - back to business - and, still smiling, took herself off to the bathroom. Azana carefully rolled up the scroll and tucked it away in the tube it had come in, then placed it on the shelf above her desk before she got started converting the sofa for the night.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
in order of appearance
Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Anne Cross
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
EPU Usual Suspects
E P U (colour) 2015