Shang, Po, and Lian followed the guard through the halls, admiring the decor. Shang felt a little uneasy about all the red. He was a fan of green and brown, like the forest. Being trapped in this palace seemed like a nightmare. Being married to someone he'd never even met sounded much worse. As the group passed a large archway, Shang paused to peer inside. He gasped as he watched a pair of Firebenders fly across an indoor arena. The pair was a girl and a teenage boy. The girl appeared to be his age with long caramel colored hair and equally orange eyes. She was tan, but not terribly so and was as fit as any farmer he'd seen. She moved with terrifying grace, her flames licking the area where the younger boy had just been. Shang couldn't help but catch his breath at the mere sight of her.
"Shang," he turned to see the guard and his father staring at him, "you coming?"
Taking one last look at the duelers, he followed the group into a large banquet hall. It was extravagantly decorated, the symbol of the Firebenders adorned the walls on large flags. The table that had been prepared for them was covered with large bouquets of orange and red flowers. And there, at the head of the table, sat the wife of the late Fire Lord.
Lan was a scornful woman who, according to the local gossip columns, married Fire Lord Lu only for his social standing and power. She certainly LOOKED the type. She sneered at the group as they approached, her two attendants placing a hand on each of their swords. Shang swallowed as he met the woman's sharp gaze. Both her hair and her eyes were a soulless black, yet she made up for it with her fiery kimono and make up. Her attendants were dressed in similar colors, though not as decorative.
"This is the Avatar," she said, chuckling, "he does not impress me, Po."
"Queen Lan," Po gave a nervous smile, bowing low, "I can promise you that my son is indeed the Avatar!"
Giving a small "humph", Lan snapped her fingers. Instantly, her attendants leaped into action.
Shang gave a cry of fright as he dodged a pair of swords, "What's wrong with you?"
"I was merely hoping you'd entertain Jia and Xia for me," Lan smirked wickedly, "they haven't gotten their exercise yet today. They're such good girls, you know."
Not bothering to ask which was which, Shang enclosed himself within a stone ball. Instantly the girls began to hack at it with their blades.
"Earthbending," Lan sighed, "such a boring style. Xia," the girl with longer hair snapped her attention to her mistress, "roast him out, would you darling?"
Bowing, Xia sheathed her blade and faced the ball. Making a few swift, yet strong movements, she sent a large stream of fire from her hands. Almost at once, Shang could feel the beads of sweat pouring from his brow. Opening a hole in the top of the stone, he prepared himself to jump out. Jia, however, had other plans. Propelling herself forward by shooting fire out the bottoms of her shoes, she thrust her sword into the opening. Dodging once more, Shang launched himself out of his defense with Airbending. Leaping back in surprise, Jia sent a stream of flames towards him. He easily redirected it with a few air currents.
Now, Lan's interest was caught. She watched Shang as he landed in the decorative pond she had built for her prize fish. Jia and Xia rushed him, using their Firebending to ignite their blades. Taking a deep breath, Shang fell into a meditative state. His breathing slowed, controlling the beating in his heart. He could feel the world around him, relaxing him. The footsteps of the girls lingered closer, their blades crackling with the flames that coated them. He could hear the fish with him in the pool, their tails sending ripples throughout the surface of the water.
Then, the footsteps stopped. Jia and Xia had leaped into the air towards him. At that moment, his eyes snapped open and he raised his arms. In response, the water rose in a large wave. Thrusting his palms forward, the liquid snaked around the two women and hardened into ice. Their fire fizzled out as they were captured.
"Magnificent," Lan praised, clapping and rising to her feet, "simply stunning! You truly are the Avatar."
With a scowl, Shang released Jia and Xia and returned the water to the fish. As he turned around, he jumped in surprise as his two opponents stood before him. He braced himself for another fight. The girls, however, merely gave him kind smiles and bowed low.
"Thank you for the interesting battle," Jia said, "we enjoyed sparring with you, Avatar."
"Yes," Xia added, "perhaps we could do it again sometime."
Giving a relieved smile, Shang bowed back, "I'd enjoy that."
"Now," everyone glanced towards Lan as she snapped her fingers, "onto dinner! Khan," the guard who had escorted the group earlier saluted her, "go and fetch those children of mine. I'm sure they've forgotten about dinner again."
"Yes, my lady."
As he hurried out of the room, Jia and Xia guided Shang and his family to their seats.
"Now Shang," Lan said sternly, "my Song can be a little much to handle. Just be sure to use stern words and she'll remember her place."
"Her place," the boy raised an eyebrow, "forgive me for saying so, but I don't believe anyone has a set place in life."
Lan glared at him, "You are forgiven. Now, to continue what I was saying, as Fire Lord you will have a set of difficult responsibilities. But trust me, dear, the lifestyle grows on you. Plus you'll have multiple generals to help you, attendants at your side at all times, and guards nearly every five feet!"
Sighing, Shang glanced down at his plate. This deal appealed less and less to him. Just then, Khan returned and stood at attention.
"Presenting Princess Song and Prince Chen!"
Everyone turned to watch two young Firebenders enter the room. Shang nearly stood in surprise as he recognized them as the duelists he was watching earlier. Instead, he merely got up and pulled out a chair for Song. Frowning, she took the seat and didn't bother to thank him. As he took his place next to her, he glanced over at Chen. The young prince appeared to be in his mid teens with wild black hair and golden eyes.
"Are you really the Avatar," he asked excitedly, "does that mean a war is coming?"
"Chen," Lan scowled, "let the boy breathe," turning to her daughter, the woman's gaze sharpened, "Song? Aren't you going to say hello?"
Scowling, Song shot to her feet, "I don't want to marry him! I don't even know him!"
"Song," Lan shouted, also rising, "your marriage will give the people hope! They would never follow a woman into battle!"
"Why not," the princess scowled, "I'm as good a fighter as any man!"
Chen rolled his eyes, "Here we go again."
"Marrying the Avatar will ensure our city's survival in any war," her mother continued, "it is your duty as a princess to protect your people no matter what!"
"Wait a second," Shang said calmly, "nothing has been decided yet. Nobody is forcing anyone to marry."
Song gazed down at him in confusion, "But you said....in your letter...you said that if you accepted then you'd come meet me."
"What," now Shang was on his feet, "I never wrote-"
His glare then traveled to his father. Po merely dabbed at the sweat on his brow with a napkin. Lian sunk low in her seat, trying to disappear.
"Dad," the Avatar tried his best to speak calmly, "can I speak with you for a moment?"