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|An Ode to the Woe-Begotten Bounty Huntress|
The Fugitive: June's whole reason for being where she is.
Kokusho the Rat: Leader of the Rat's Paws and Jugan the Snake's sword enemy. He's ruled from his swamp home for as long Jugan has his forest and against as many people.
Maharaja Kshatriya: One of the most powerful warlords on the continent. He gave June the job she's on now.
An Ode to the Woe-Begotten Bounty Huntress
Today is not a good day. Not in the least.
I never expected I'd miss the war. Honestly, I never thought I'd give so much as a puddle of piss about who took it into their heads to throw their lives at whoever else. All I needed was a whip, a shirshu, and at least one person who wanted to get ahold of another. Three things, not much to ask for at all. Give me those three things and I'm more than happy.
Roll from rathole to rathole as you follow jobs. Hustle the scumbags you do like out of a few free drinks and the particulars on the haunting grounds of the scumbags you don't like. That was the life and I loved it. It's all I've ever wanted. I spit on the politics, the problems, the banality of the rest. Just give me the simple pleasures of a of life of meeting interesting people, overcharging them, meeting other interesting people, and running them down.
Some gold-eyes want the Earth Kingdom? Take it. Some emerald-eyes won't stand for that? Bully for them, enjoy killing each other. The Colonials want their own little country? Hei Bai's breath, man, who doesn't? Wartime or peacetime, I'll make my money. Four nations or five, I'll still make my money. That's how I always figured it. Leave all that dull business of courtiers and commanders to dull people, I've fugitives to catch and a big beastie to feed.
Sure, I enjoyed the end of the war. Who didn't? Everyone wanted to party from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again. People tend to be a bit more generous when they're celebrating in my experience. Especially to a pretty gal with a whip. I don't think I paid for so much as a meal for a week after Prince Angry Eyes' coronation. I'll even admit to being impressed that those little ankle-biters had the stones to take on His Royal Flameyness, let alone win. Aside from my personal foibles for free things and the audacious, I was rather nonplussed. Maybe I see fewer dragons-in-uniform when I'm on the hunt, maybe The Hootin' Hog Monkey starts serving a little less sake. Who cares? A dragon in a red uniform and a badgermole in a green one don't look so different to me and rum was more my drink anyway.
I'll give those gold-eyes one thing: they kept it simple. "We, the almighty and superior Fire Nation, will take over the world and all its lands and peoples." Simple. Easy. It really boiled the world down into two groups: us and them. What "us" and "them" meant was largely dependent on how much you liked the color red, but still. Two groups and the both of them saw me as part of "us". If you weren't a dragon or too friendly with them then the Earth Kingdom considered you one of their beloved children. If you weren't causing any problems for them, the Fire Nation didn't much mind what their new subjects got up to. There are few positions I like to be in more than when every army worth mentioning considers you not worth bothering with. As for those other positions, well, straddling the ever hostile border between the jungle abode of Jugan the Snake, a brutal asshole with a penchant for evisceration, and the swamp warren of Kokusho the Rat, a savage asshole with a penchant for exsanguination, and their fairly unfriendly forces while currying a pricey and unruly bounty is neither the time nor the place to entertain such distracting thoughts.
Looking back on it, the bad old days were sweeter than cactus juice. For me, at least; I won't presume to speak for anyone else. Two sides and the only time either would make the effort to pay attention to someone like me was when they had work. Now we have a dozen kingdoms fighting a dozen wars on a dozen fronts. What's a bounty hunter to do? Let's say I've been tasked by Chucklehead A to track down Scumbag B for Price C. Nice, normal work, right? Get that scent and let him see how much good running will do him. Well, turns out that Scumbag B wasn't just some pig thief. He's a captured lieutenant of some fledgling country's fledgling army. If he makes it back home before I get to him, I've got myself a damned sight more trouble than he's worth. If word gets out that I'm searching for one connected lowlife or that I've taken a job from one side, suddenly I've made allegiances I don't know a damn about. Just to follow him I have to traipse through territory after ever fluctuating territory. And each little nation has its own character. This king might not care, that warlord might demand tribute for passing through his land, and the next emperor might detain all armed strangers at the border.
I can't know when I get a job what fiefdoms I'll be seeing. Some things I can account for, people like Khun Shan and Jeong Jeong aren't going anywhere anytime soon, but in between the military mainstays are more tiny dominions than there are raindrops in a hurricane and they have a habit of falling just as quickly. Perhaps the most irritating thing that can happen is I chase some bastard halfway around the world, take care of all the kowtowing and pay-offs I need to get to him and take him back, then go to collect the other half of my fee only to find out wherever I am is under new management and most of the old management have been summarily executed. That would be less of an issue if most of my jobs weren't usually on behalf of whoever happens to run things where I'm spending my time, but they are and it is. I go out and do all the hard work and these layabouts can't even be bothered with keeping their heads on their shoulders.
Oh yeah, a dozen, dozen domains between me and a mark it feels like most days. And they're all at war with each other. Or at war with someone's ally. Or secretly having their marcher men run midnight raids into a mistrusted neighbor's borderlands. Armies of brigands led by cutthroats clawing each other's eyes out to satisfy their own greed and burning the continent down in the process. But I have no beef with that. It's not my concern what some bandit chiefs and wukou lords decide to do to each other. I'm just a hunter on the prowl. If I had it my way I'd have eyes for nothing but my prey. But their business and my business are content to sit next to each other for now.
There's always some temple to sack or village to raze. You make men do that for long enough and they stop being men. You make them fight, kill, see their friends be killed just for following orders. Every battle they survive and atrocity they commit takes out a little of the man and replaces it with cold, hard steel. Eventually the man gets whittled away to nothing and all you have is a sword. One sword becomes two and two becomes three, sooner or later there's just an army of swords fighting other armies of swords.
Where does that leave me, the innocent bounty hunter? On a good day, it leaves me precisely in the middle. Perhaps not the best place to stand with arrows flying and 'moles trying to out-earthquake each other in every direction, but better than walking around with a target painted on my back. On a good day I'm just a girl with a whip, a pet, and a job; no vendettas, no wars, no army, and no desire to acquire any of the above. Today falls farther from a "good day" than any day I can remember. Today, I'm working under a deadline. Today, my mark is one who has demonstrated an admirable, but frustrating and quite futile, tenacity with regards to his escape and perhaps the chattiest poppyhead ever born of woman. But above all, today I get to tiptoe between a violent and paranoid warlord and his mutually vitriolic neighbor who has the distinction of merely being paranoid and violent.
Kokusho and Jugan, Jugan and Kokusho; ever circling one another other, ever fighting. You could say they are exemplars of Earth Kingdom principles. We're meant to be strong, stubborn and indomitable; able and willing to endure any adversity, are we not? If The Snake and The Rat have any virtues at all, it'd be those. They were warlords before it was in style. Plopped themselves down where they stand now decades ago and they've held their ground ever since. Held it against the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, both with bigger armies and deeper pockets than Rat and Snake combined, and barely broke a sweat. They've withstood The Hundred Year War, the Earth King's undivided attention, and each other and they've done it by being smarter and meaner than anything that got thrown at them. And an awful lot has been thrown at them by now. They don't have the biggest kingdoms or the most powerful armies by a damned sight, but spirits bless 'em if they aren't the most mulishly entrenched packs of swords on the continent.
Between Jugan's boscage and Kokusho's bog lies a pastoral nightmare. It once had a storied name that epitomized its rustic beauty and sublime fury, but that's been all but forgotten for a generation. This divide has been near mystical in its efficacy at staying between the Ratspaws and the Scales of the Snake through all their years of raging at each other. Sure, one or the other might push a few miles past the river, perhaps even hold it for a month or two, but it is inevitable that they each fall back to their respective sides as if the Avatar himself were responsible for holding the balance between them. For all the years of pointless attrition, this river may as well be the walls of Ba Sing Se. Some call it The Grove of the Strange Fruit, the less cryptic know it as The Kingdom of Flies and to the less poetic it is Death's Storehouse, but for those who live close enough to bear the smell it is simply Rot. Its banks are filled with an arboreal entourage, foliage so dense it seems only the water and the leaves have seen the sun. Leaves cover everything, from the tops of the trees to the depths of the water. Leaves and bodies. Men, women, and children. All still, all silent, all dead.
After every battle, every raid, every booze and bor-bor fueled fit of violence they would come here, both sides of the river the same. They would all end up amongst the Grove as a final insult and warning to the swords across the waterway after the tortures were over and the life fled their bodies. They hung rotting from branches. They lay unmoving on the ground, feeding trees and birthing maggots. They floated bloated with the current. When time allowed they were hung alive and tortured on their tress. When time didn't, they were abused in castle dungeons and town squares before being assigned to guard their post. Some trees became so overburdened with macabre fruit that they toppled into the river, leaving their ghastly passengers to hold on by necks and wrists in defiance of the river's might. 'Paws and Scales alike would dam Rot with the leftovers when battles left too many bodies to hang each with care.
Left of where we walk they eye the border impassively with their stomachs split and their guts pouring out. To my right, gaunt and bloodless bodies stare right back. In the river their ranks met and all around was the constant sting and drone of the flies. Cruel leaders breed cruel followers, it seems. Or perhaps they just attract them. I see little practical difference. Either way, the swords on both sides of Rot have earned their reputations for being just as sadistic as their masters.
They say the whole of the grim border is haunted by the souls of 891 innocents who swing, lie, and float here. They say that dark creatures that belong as much to the Spirit World as ours haunt the waters just out of sight of the shore, lurking beneath the mutilated bodies on which they sate their dire appetites. They say the river goes all but unguarded. I've often found "they" to be a foolish and superstitious lot more concerned with passing on the entertaining than the factual. I usually expect "their" words to be two parts rabbaroo leavings to one part fact. So far the part about it being unguarded has proven to be the fact and the more morbid tales the leavings. I can only hope it stays that way.
In the few days between hauling this oaf out of what must surely be Yu Dao's filthiest opium den, realizing I was going to have to head this way to get the job done on time, and arriving here, all I've been able to think about is why three miles of hostile border might be unguarded. At first I thought it might be fear of the rumors of hauntings and Spirit World predators, maybe even the tales being true, but now I know. It's the smell. One whiff is enough to empty your stomach and bring a tear to your eye. Every breeze makes you gag on your own breath. I had to send poor Nyla to find her own way before we could even see the first sentries hanging amongst from tree limbs. The silent spectators of our travels seem to be grisly enough to make my poppy-addled companion contemplate the concept of silence. Now the only sound is the mind-numbing buzz of the lords of this realm. Near enough to the Summer Solstice to make me even consider coming here and hundreds of bodies marinating in the heat, no one wants to guard this river other than the flies and no one has to. The only time anyone gets within smelling distance of Death's Storehouse is when they're coming full force across the water to hurt someone. I'll bet there are watchtowers roundabouts a mile away on both sides keeping an eye out for that and nothing else, certainly not two skulks creeping beneath foul, overripe fruit.
Normally I'd just give the whole canton a wide berth and leave the likes of The Rat and The Snake to bloody themselves to their hearts' content and keep Nyla's nose as far from this mess as possible. This is one of the most important lessons of my profession: the quickest route from one point to another is a straight line, but the most sensible one often isn't. You'd be amazed how many green bounty hunters have died ignoring this maxim. Today I can't afford to be sensible. Kshatriya the Conqueror, Maharaja of the Southern Provinces, supposed Reincarnation of Chin the Great, Lord of the Beasts on the Land and Fish in the Sea, and High Admiral of Absurd Self-Bestowed Titles, offered me this job personally in front of his whole court. He wants it done by the Summer Solstice. He does not suffer failure or tardiness and he is one of the few people in the world with the reach to make me care what they will or will not suffer, so he'll get what he wants or I may as well add myself to the grisly grove above us.
Not a good day in the least, but that's just the nature of the occupation, ain't it? Bounty hunting is as capricious a mistress as luck or the seas; you can't help but love the job just as she can't help but be utterly indifferent to you. Tomorrow may be dicing thousands of yuan about like they were coppers and swilling spiced rum fresh from the islands in the gambling halls of Mo Ce Shi, but today it's pushing a gabby addict through an open-air graveyard at the behest of a warrior king named Warrior King. Just have to keep walking. Today will turn into tomorrow. It always does. I just have to keep walking. And hopefully not blow chunks in front of the mark again, I can't help but feel it subverts my authority. I still have a whip, a job, even a pet somewhere out there; there are worse days to have.
"Keep it moving, fugitive. I want this place to be a bad memory by moonrise."
"Why? I thought you'd relish the chance to taste each meal twice." To think I usually like being right.
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