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|A Good Brainwashing|
Feb. 14, 2012
Previously in AirEdit
The Duke and Pipsqueak have volunteered to stay behind in Ba Sing Se to assist Iroh, Longshot and Smellerbee while the others separate in search of the Guild. With their help, Iroh managed to decode a secret message from his ailing friend Ru Yong. And the message wasn't good...
Chapter Six: A Good BrainwashingEdit
The woman was back and her report was not good. Failure was not tolerated. Her fate was sealed, she knew. The dim lantern cast a sickly green glow on her face.
“I am sorry, Master,” she whispered, bowing low. “I was interrupted.”
She could not see in the darkness cloaking him, but her master raised an eyebrow. “I do not accept excuses,” he told her coldly.
The woman pressed her forehead to the cold stone floor.
“…who interrupted you?”
She was surprised by the question. “I’m…not certain,” she replied. “I had only begun the procedure, when I heard a noise at the window. Someone trying to sneak through.”
“And you stayed to confront them,” her master assumed pointedly.
The woman did not move. Of course she hadn’t; he knew that. “I left, master,” she whispered. “I thought it best not to be seen.”
Her master slowly rose. The guard on either side of him tensed. The woman’s heart skipped a beat. He did not look at her, instead stepping past her, as though she did not exist.
“This mission was vital,” he said gently, his tone almost soothing. “Ru Yong knows too much; he could unravel us.”
“I know, master.”
“And yet you failed!”
The woman flinched.
Her master paused to gather himself, turning away from her in disgust.
“However,” he said finally, his voice a quiet whisper in the still room. “You have served me well these past years.”
The woman’s breath caught. What was he saying?
“So I will give you the chance to redeem yourself.”
The woman’s heart surged. “Master, I-”
He raised a finger to silence her. “One chance,” he clarified, his voice devoid of emotion. “And if you fail me a second time, it will be the end of you.”
“I understand, Master,” the woman whispered, trembling.
“Finish it,” he ordered. “By whatever means necessary.”
Her grip on the knife tightened. It was not her ideal weapon, but in such close-quarters it would have to do. There was a chance she wouldn’t have to kill anyone, that she could complete the process. She shook her head. That was a slim possibility.
She crept down the hall. Only slivers of light flickered past the lantern’s shutter to dance on the walls. She couldn’t chance waking someone of the house.
Sneaking into Ru Yong’s residence had been easy enough. There was no constant watch to evade, but then, why should there be? As far as anyone was concerned, an old man’s health had suddenly failed him. Nothing mysterious about that.
Shifting the knife in her grasp, she carefully opened the door to Ru Yong’s bedchamber. There was no light in the room, and only the beams from her lantern cast illumination. Stepping softly inside, she scanned quickly, but she and Ru Yong were alone. She quickly closed the door, and bolted it. No one would interrupt her this time.
Ru Yong lay sprawled on the bed. Pillows had been propped up behind him so he sat up, but his head lolled to one side. His eyes were wide open, shocked and unseeing. She remembered that look.
She glided to his bedside and gently sat beside him. “Hello again, Ru Yong,” she said, honeyed words oozing off her oiled tongue.
She set the knife down on the covers, between him and her. She didn’t need it yet. Raising the lantern level with Ru Yong’s face, she opened the shutter. Light shot blindingly into his eyes, but he did not flinch.
She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to prepare herself. When she opened them again, they locked onto Ru Yong’s with a mesmerizing hold. “You’ve been invited to join us, Ru Yong.”
Ru Yong shifted. It was just a jerk of the arm, but it was a response.
Ru Yong had been floundering for what seemed an eternity. He felt he were weighted with sand and flung into a bottomless pool of mud. He struggled valiantly to keep his head above the surface, but with each passing moment it grew harder and harder.
He wondered how long he could last like this, and immediately disregarded it as a foolhardy thought. He would last as long as he possibly could, and after that he could worry about what would happen.
Images seemed to swirl around him constantly, bleary and taunting. He could barely make them out: friends? Enemies? Or purely a mad man’s ravings?
And, suddenly, one of them cut through the muck and turmoil muddling his mind. A light –bright and piercing– seemed to slice the shrouds that surrounded him.
“You’ve been invited to join us, Ru Yong.”
That voice…He knew that voice!
Ru Yong felt himself jerk involuntarily. He tried to cry out, but found he could not move of his own accord.
“Raise your arm,” came a command from that sweet and luxurious voice.
Ru Yong fought desperately against it, but he could feel his arm rise.
“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. She’d managed more of the process than she’d realized. Ru Yong was helpless in her grasp and now she need only complete the manipulation.
“What is your name?”
Ru Yong willed himself not to respond. He thrashed and kicked and hollered and screamed, but his body refused to react.
Instead, he replied in a voice so dull, “I am Ru Yong.”
Her smile widened. The man’s eyes were vacant, and his lips barely moved, but she was getting somewhere. She studied his dead face, and laughed softly. “It seems you are not so strong of mind after all.”
Ru Yong heard those words and they sparked within him. Mind, eh?
“You will serve my master, Ru Yong,” she went on. “You will do his bidding, no matter what it may be.”
Ru Yong wasn’t listening.
“Repeat after me,” she said firmly. “‘I will serve my new master. I will do his bidding.’”
“I will–” The words were cut off by a violent gasp.
She jumped in surprise.
A vein pulsed in the nobleman’s brow. His lips began to move, soundlessly at first, but soon sounds struggled to emerge, strangled and coarse.
“T…” Ru Yong’s eyes rolled in their sockets. His body shuddered, but he fought on. “…two…”
The woman paled. Fear clawed at her. She clutched the lantern tighter in her trembling hand, pushed it closer to Ru Yong’s face. “Repeat it!” she ordered, desperately. She couldn’t fail!
Ru Yong’s arm jerked up. He caught her wrist, and she cried out in surprise.
She stared in shock as Ru Yong struggled to sit up. He leaned forward, eyes burning into hers.
“Two can…” he winced “play at this game…” His breath came in short rasps as he fought her hold on him. “…Cloe.”
Panic gripped her. She fought to break free, but his grip was too strong. The lantern fell, plunging the room into utter darkness. Scrabbling desperately along the covers, she grasped the knife and slashed out at him.
The blade connected –she didn’t know where– and Ru Yong released her. She bolted for the door. She couldn’t see anything. Something tripped her. She pitched forward, landing with a loud and painful thud.
“You’re not leaving so soon, are you?” someone chuckled.
She didn’t recognize the voice, but it taunted her. A trap! She realized. Master, forgive me!
Two hands –giant hands– lifted her up. Another voice laughed, the sound deep and reverberating. “You ought to stick around.”
The woman was bound to a chair. There were harsh red marks along her wrists where she had violently struggled to free herself, but to no avail. Pipsqueak leaned against the wall, watching her like a dragon-hawk.
She glanced up as Iroh and Ru Yong stepped in. If they were hoping for some signs of remorse, they were disappointed.
“Hello, Cloe,” Ru Yong said evenly.
She gritted her teeth.
Iroh sat before her. “We’d like to ask you some questions.”
Cloe smirked. “I won’t answer.”
Ru Yong’s eyes darkened. “You will if I have anything to say about it.”
This comment amused Cloe. “You have no idea what you’re up against, fool!” she cried. “You’re in over your head.”
Ru Yong threw his head back and laughed. Iroh glanced at him in mild surprise.
Cloe glared at Ru Yong. “How did you manage to fight it?”
Ru Yong did not reply. He simply looked on her with cold, almost pitying eyes.
“No one’s ever fought it off before!” Cloe shouted, thrashing in her bonds. “How did you do it?!”
Ru Yong shook his head. “Several people have managed to escape from it. But I suppose your master didn’t want you to know about that.”
Cloe scoffed. “We let them out. Some people lose their value, you know.”
Ru Yong towered over her, leaning down to look her in the eye.
Cloe, defiantly, met his gaze.
“Thirty years I’ve been tracking this,” Ru Yong said quietly. “I’ve watched people come out from under your master’s thumb. True, some of them simply seem to wake from a daze. But there are others that have to fight, and struggle.” As his voice grew softer, the flame in his eyes burned brighter. Cloe squirmed under that gaze.
Iroh was surprised. Thirty years? Just what was his friend not telling him?
“Where is he?” Ru Yong demanded softly.
“So long and you haven’t been able to figure that out?” Cloe tried to smile, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Ru Yong suddenly frowned. Nothing quite reached her eyes…They were dead eyes. Ru Yong took a step back.
Iroh rose. “What is it?”
Ru Yong left the room without a word.
Cloe smirked triumphantly. “Guess he couldn’t handle it.”
Iroh stood before their unrelenting captive, a harmless old man with kind eyes and a good heart. But as anger began to harden his soft eyes, Cloe wondered how harmless he was after all.
“Why did you come here?” Iroh demanded. His voice was level but unrelenting. “Why pick Ru Yong?”
Cloe looked at him oddly. “He knew too much.”
“Not nearly enough,” Ru Yong said gruffly, stepping back into the room.
Iroh turned to his friend. In his hand, Ru Yong held Cloe’s lantern.
Cloe snorted. “And just what do you expect to do with that?”
His reply was simple: “Learn everything.”
Ru Yong pulled a chair directly before Cloe. He sat, making certain to keep his eyes level with hers. In his hand, he held the lantern.
She looked at him suspiciously. Could he…? No! That was impossible.
Before Cloe could speak, Ru Yong’s words washed over her.
“You’ve been invited, Cloe.”
Cloe’s shoulders slacked; her body went completely still. “…my name is Joo Dee.”
“I must thank you, old friend,” Ru Yong said. “If you hadn’t been keeping an eye on me…”
Iroh smiled. “Someone always needs to keep an eye on you.”
Ru Yong snorted. The two old men and four young friends sat digesting the information they’d gathered and a late snack.
“Did you find out who she’s working for?” The Duke asked.
“Oh I already knew that,” Ru Yong chuckled.
“What?” Smellerbee cried.
“She’s part of an organization called ‘The Emerald Serpent’. It’s all very theatrical, cloak and dagger stuff.” Ru Yong glanced curiously at her and Longshot. “I didn’t know the two of you were so interested.”
Iroh sighed. “I’m afraid we can’t tell you much,” he said. “Suffice to say, Longshot and Smellerbee are doing me a favor involving the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet.”
Ru Yong frowned. “Never heard of them.”
“They’re about to start a turf war with this ‘Emerald Serpent’ gang,” Smellerbee said. “Not that we know very much about it, or anything else.” She kicked at the table leg in frustration. Longshot laid a hand on her arm. The only thing they had been allowed to do was keep an eye on slothful noblemen and try to help the peasants against their hired thugs. Smellerbee’s threadbare patience was wearing thin.
Ru Yong raised an eyebrow. “I take it you joined this Guild for some other reason?”
They exchanged quick glances with Iroh before slowly nodding.
Ru Yong pondered for a moment. “What would happen if the Emerald Serpent was no longer a factor? Would that help you with your goal?”
Longshot leaned forward and Smellerbee perked up, intrigued. “Maybe…What did you have in mind?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Ru Yong said slowly. “But a remarkable opportunity has fallen into our laps. I’ve been chasing this rat for thirty years, and now –with Cloe in our lap– it seems we have the perfect tools to craft his undoing…”
“Who is this ‘rat’?” Iroh asked. “You keep talking as though the Emerald Serpent is just one man.”
“Oh it is,” Ru Yong said. “But this man has many puppets. You’ve just seen one tonight. He was once in control of the entire city but…”
Smellerbee’s chair crashed to the floor. She stumbled back in shock.
The others leapt to their feet. “Smellerbee, what’s wrong?”
She stared at Ru Yong, but it was not his face she saw. “Long Feng,” she whispered. “It’s Long Feng, isn’t it?”
Ru Yong’s face clouded in concern. He nodded.
Smellerbee closed her eyes, trying to block the image of Jet’s face twisted in pain, his teeth coated in blood. Jet, trying so hard to be brave…
Tears stung Smellerbee’s eyes and she raced out of the room.
“It is finished, master.” The Joo Dee known as Cloe scraped the floor in submission.
Long Feng did not rise, but simply nodded. On either side of him, a woman stood. They were dressed identically in loose robes of dark color, made specifically for unhindered mobility. Their hair was pulled tightly back, out of their vacant faces. They remained perfectly still, poised at attention.
“I was able to complete the process,” she told him. “Ru Yong is now your humble servant.”
“Perfect.” Long Feng smiled thinly. “You will continue to guide him as his loyal housekeeper.”
“Of course. He trusts Cloe implicitly.”
“And if he starts to act up…”
She nodded. “I know what to do.”
“Good.” He waved her away. “You are dismissed.”
Relieved, she rose, turned to go.
“Oh,” her master said as an afterthought, “One more thing.” His voice was slick, his words poison. She froze, heart pounding. “You will never get another second chance, Joo Dee.”
She bowed again, slowly backing out of the room. “Of course, master,” she whispered. “I shall never need another one.”
Longshot and Smellerbee had survived years spying on enemies and living right under their noses. They knew how to watch someone. Down the street from where Cloe had disappeared some time ago, the two friends lay flat on their stomachs atop a slanted roof.
Out of the corner of his eye, Longshot watched Smellerbee. He was worried about her. He’d tried to comfort her, lend her support. He tried to help her vent the anger bottled inside. But she wouldn’t let him. After learning of Long Feng’s involvement she had begun suppressing everything from Longshot. Smellerbee wouldn’t even look him in the eye.
Longshot knew exactly what was on his friend’s mind. They’d been together too long for him not to notice. She was consumed by anger, grief and hatred. Smellerbee tried to hide it, and that hurt Longshot. Does she really think I don’t know?
He gazed at his lifelong friend in longing. Let me in, Smellerbee, his eyes pleaded. But she didn’t see.
Below them, in the street, Cloe silently emerged. She glanced left and right, making certain she was not followed. Satisfied, she made her way down the street.
Their mole had been successfully planted.
As one, the two friends stealthily moved after her, hurrying along rooftops, jumping nimbly from one to the next.
Of course, Longshot and Smellerbee weren’t the only good trackers in Ba Sing Se. They did not know that they, too, were being followed.
Terra won’t be pleased.
- The subplot to which this chapter belongs was written separately from the rest of 'Air'.
- It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a villain is not caught or dead, he is up to something somewhere.
- Bonus points and a chocolate chip cookie to whoever knows what quote I ripped off for the above fun fact. ;)
For more 'Air' trivia and commentary on this chapter, see my blog.
For the collective works of the author, go here.