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|A Serpent in the Grass|
January 24, 2012
Previously in Air...
Zuko's son Roh-Roh has been kidnapped by a gang of Earth rebels known as the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. As Zuko and Aang enlist the help of Kuei, a mysterious enemy plots from the shadows...
Chapter Three: A Serpent in the Grass
"I'm sorry, Master Ru Yong, but Iroh isn't here at the moment."
Ru Yong's dark face clouded. It alarmed the head tea server, Manish, and he wondered what could possibly be so important to the Pai Sho master.
"Do you know how long he'll be away?"
Manish shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir. Iroh was called away by important business. I have no idea when he'll return."
Ru Yong sighed. He stroked at his beard; black, confidently streaked with gray. "Hmm..."
"Perhaps you could leave a message for him?" Manish ventured.
Ru Yong's eyes flashed dangerously. Manish flinched, surprised by the sudden, suspicious probing of the normally friendly nobleman.
Ru Yong saw the shock cross the server's face. He forced himself to calm down and smiled apologetically. "It's something I'd rather discuss with him in person," he explained carefully.
Manish nodded slowly. "Perhaps you would like to wait?"
Ru Yong cast his eyes about the room, gaze jumping from table to table, face to face. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but that only made him more suspicious. His frown deepened. Look at you! So paranoid, jumping at shadows...
"Yes," Ru Yong said finally. "Yes, I think I will."
Manish led Ru Yong to an empty table –there were never many– and seated the nobleman. "Would you like some tea to bide the time, sir?"
Ru Yong chuckled. "How could anyone in their right mind refuse a pot of the best tea in Ba Sing Se?"
Manish smiled. "How indeed, sir."
Ru Yong was brought a pot of tea, and a plate of cakes beside. He savored every mouthful of the delicacies. It was nearly an hour when he'd finished them all off, interrupted frequently by friends or acquaintances stopping by to chat. The Jasmine Dragon's atmosphere was friendly and conversational, but today it did little to soothe Ru Yong's mood.
Manish was not stupid. He could see the nobleman was nervous and anxious to speak with Iroh. He related this to his comrades, but not for use as idle gossip. Ru Yong and Iroh were good friends and the employees of the Jasmine Dragon were fiercely loyal. The tea servers stayed alert, casting about for anything suspicious.
Ru Yong declined a second pot, instead roaming the Pai Sho tables for the next hour. He won every game. Still, Iroh did not arrive.
The day grew late and the sun began to sink.
"I'm sorry he hasn't returned," Manish apologized as Ru Yong paid.
"So am I," the nobleman replied somberly. "Please tell him I stopped by, that I must speak with him."
Manish nodded, pleased by the large tip the nobleman handed him. "I will, sir. Shall I have him call on you tomorrow?"
Ru Yong shook his head. "As soon as he returns," he said firmly. "I don't care how late it is."
The hairs on the back of Manish's neck stood on end. He inclined his head. "Of course, sir."
"That's him." Terra pointed at the aged nobleman.
Smellerbee and Longshot exchanged quick glances. They often did that, Terra noted. No one else could decipher the communication that passed between the two friends, but pass it did. At first, this prolific use of non-verbal communication concerned her, but the two had proved themselves loyal to the cause.
"He is called Ru Yong," she explained.
Smellerbee frowned. "I've heard of him," she said softly. She looked confused. "Doesn't he help the people from the lower Rings?"
Longshot nodded, just once.
Terra snorted. "Ru Yong is a hypocrite! It's true that he offers work and money to any who will accept such charity." She ground her teeth. "But he has also befriended the Fire Nation invaders. Don't you know that The Jasmine Dragon belongs to the Fire general, Iroh?"
"The Savior of Ba Sing Se?" Smellerbee pointed out.
Terra scoffed. "Mark my words, he will help bring about our downfall."
Longshot's eyes narrowed.
Smellerbee wasn't any happier. "And...you want us to send Ru Yong a 'message'?"
Terra grinned. "Exactly. Tell him the Guild wants him to back off."
Neither Longshot nor Smellerbee grinned back.
Terra frowned. "Is there a problem?"
Longshot and Smellerbee did not reply, but glanced at one another.
"Should I get someone else for this mission?" Terra demanded, suddenly cold.
Smellerbee knew this so-called important 'mission' was just a petty task to pawn off on the tenderfoots. She glanced at Longshot; he knew it too. No matter their previous experience, Terra obviously expected them to work their way up.
Smellerbee slowly drew out her khukri knife. "Of course not," she said, running her thumb over its crooked blade. "It will be our pleasure."
"Good." Terra's smile wasn't exactly pleasant; she didn't like people who questioned orders. "When you finish with that, we'll give you some Serpentines to keep an eye on."
"Ru Yong came in looking for you today."
"Oh?" Iroh asked, wondering why Manish had led him into a corner to whisper this piece of news. He had only just returned from their audience with Kuei. Aang had gone to meet Katara, and Iroh had firmly ordered Zuko to rest. He could see his nephew was tired. Tired and troubled.
"He seemed quite agitated, sir."
"Ru Yong? Agitated?" Iroh had never seen his friend so much as nervous.
"He wishes to see you immediately."
"It's quite late. Perhaps it would be best to wait until morning."
Iroh started in surprise at the outburst.
Manish flushed. "It's just..." He cleared his throat, his physiognomy returning to its customary calm. "Ru Yong made it clear time was not an issue. He wants to see you now."
"Hmm..." Iroh mused, intrigued. "Very well then."
There was a knock at the door. It was a very recognizable knock –sharp, loud and impatient.
"Come!" Ru Yong called gruffly. It was late and he was very tired.
Ru Yong did not look up as one of the grand doors to his study swung open. "So, finally come then?"
"I'm afraid not," a voice replied. It was a gentle voice, lulling and persuasive. Honeyed words floating on a tranquil tide...
Frowning, Ru Yong looked up. He gasped. His eyes opened wide. "What-"
A flash of brilliant light cut him off.
Iroh knocked for the fourth time, four times as hard. The door had not been closed tight and finally it creaked open.
"That's odd..." Iroh cautiously stepped into the grand hall. Most of Ru Yong's servants retired considerably early, allowed to return to their families in the late afternoon. The only exception was Ru Yong's housekeeper, who had no family. Iroh peered down either corridor, but there was no sign of her.
"Hmm..." Iroh stroked his beard. He made his way slowly toward the study where Ru Yong was bound to be.
Still, the silence and emptiness of the grand house bothered Iroh.
"Hello?" he called into the darkness. The words echoed down the halls, skidded against the walls, and bounced back at him. "Is anyone home?"
Again, no reply.
Iroh tucked his arms into his sleeves, continuing on his way. He began to hum a favorite tune, 'The Girls of Ba Sing Se'.
A loud crash cut him off as he reached the closed study door.
Iroh's face clouded. "Definitely a bad sign." He pushed the door open. The sight that greeted him was so unexpected, Iroh was momentarily stunned.
The room seemed virtually untouched. Everything was in its place, save one vase that had fallen from a shelf and shattered on the floor. Ru Yong sat in his chair, looking at Iroh. No, not looking. Ru Yong's eyes were vacant, staring straight through Iroh into nothing.
Standing on either side of the limp nobleman were two intruders.
On the right, holding a slack bow, stood a tall young man with a long face partially obscured by a straw hat. To the left, a knife clutched tight in her fist, a young woman with freckles and dark eyes, her short untamed mop of hair bridled by a kerchief.
The door thudded softly closed behind Iroh, breaking the silence.
Longshot and Smellerbee started at the sound. They looked up and, seeing Iroh, paled.
Smellerbee glanced down at Ru Yong's sightless stare, then back up at Iroh. "This isn't what it looks like," she insisted, holding up her hands as if to ward off a blow. She noticed the knife she held and quickly lowered it.
Iroh nodded slowly. He tucked his hands into his sleeves as he took in the whole scene. Longshot still had not drawn the bowstring taut and his watchful eyes flickered from window to window.
"I didn't think so," Iroh said, coming forward. "What happened?"
Smellerbee was obviously relieved. She shook her head. "I don't know. We found him like this."
Longshot stepped aside to let Iroh examine Ru Yong. Iroh leaned down, looking his friend in the face. No recognition sparked in Ru Yong's eyes. Iroh waved his hand before his face. Nothing. Ru Yong was still breathing, and his mouth slowly opened and closed, as if trying to form words that wouldn't come. Iroh's face darkened.
"What's wrong with him?" Smellerbee asked softly. "Is he in shock?"
Iroh shook his head. "No," he replied. "I'm not certain what it is..." He stroked his beard, thinking. "Although..."
Iroh hesitated. "I've heard of something like this," he said finally.
Longshot watched Iroh carefully, waiting for him to continue. Smellerbee was less patient.
"What, Iroh?" she demanded.
"First, tell me what the two of you were doing here," Iroh said, not unkindly. "I take it you were successful getting into the Guild?"
Smellerbee and Longshot both flushed in the dim light, embarrassed. They shared a quick look before Smellerbee explained.
"We were sent on a mission," she said. "The Guild knows Ru Yong's your friend, therefore a friend of the Fire Nation. We were ordered to deliver a...message."
Iroh raised an eyebrow.
"We weren't going to," Smellerbee said quickly. "We knew that if we told Ru Yong we'd gone undercover he'd play along. After all, he knows us." Smellerbee gestured at Ru Yong's slumped figure, staring into nothing. "But we found him like this."
"And there was no one else here?" Iroh asked.
Longshot shook his head.
"We checked," Smellerbee added. "It doesn't look like there was anybody in the house."
"Odd..." Iroh mused. Where was Cloe, Ru Yong's housekeeper? Had she already retired? That wasn't like her. "I'll need to send for the housekeeper," Iroh said. "We should move him somewhere else and have him examined by a professional. There's not much I know about healing."
Smellerbee and Longshot exchanged a glance. "You don't think it was an accident, do you?"
"No," Iroh said. "It's too much of a coincidence." His eyes clouded. "He came to talk to me today, about something important."
Smellerbee nodded. "We saw him outside the tea house. What did he say?"
Iroh shook his head, frowning darkly. "I wasn't in," he explained. "That's why I came here tonight."
"What do you think happened to him?" Smellerbee asked again.
Iroh smiled at his young friends. "I'm not certain yet. Give me some time to investigate. If I know Ru Yong, he's left me something."
Longshot placed a hand on Smellerbee's arm. She nodded, allowing him to lead her to the open window, asking, "How much time will you need?"
Iroh thought. "Can you meet me tomorrow night?"
Longshot nodded once before they disappeared into the darkness.
'Ru Yong' means brave scholar..
'Physiognomy' is the most recent addition to the author's vocabulary. Dumas is responsible for this, as the author just read one of his novels for the first time. He uses 'physiognomy' with stunning frequency.
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For the collective works of the author, go here.