|More from Firebender896||Action/Adventure||PG||None|
When Rokan finally arrived at the harbor-village outside the Fire Nation's volcanic capital, a soft drizzle of rain had begun to fall. Civilians darted about, ducking under tents and into shops. Merchants evaluated the severity of the coming clouds and with whispered curses began to close up their stands. A faint rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.
Rokan could scarcely believe how little things had changed. She was able to find her way about the narrow streets with as much ease as if she had been living there for the past five years. Her insides seemed to be at war; her heart sank and her stomach leapt and flip-flopped. When she passed the metal-working shop she knew her destination lay just around the corner. As if on cue, a flash of lightning lit up the western sky as Rokan laid her eyes on her childhood home. Or at least, its general location.
Clearly no one had bothered to construct any sort of memorial or grave for the innocent people who had passed. On the contrary, the ground which had previously held Rokan's humble cottage now boasted an ornate bath house. A sign written with delicate calligraphy dubbed it "Baht's Baths". The pretty building looked out of place amidst the lower class shacks and houses. Sweet-smelling steam was filtered through finely woven screens on the octagonal windows. A handsome young man in a silk tunic stood at the door, bowing customers inside.
Rokan was so shocked by this transformation that it never crossed her mind to be angered about the desecration of her family's memory. She stood in the street, staring at the bath house in awe. The only thing that distracted her was the rickety cart that hurtled past her, splashing her with mud and dirty rainwater. Its driver didn't even stop to apologize; he merely whipped his ostrich horse and urged it to go faster still.
Why do I have this unnatural magnetism to mud? Rokan thought with a slight grin on her face.
"Can I interest you in a hot bath, Miss?"
Rokan jumped at the voice behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a well groomed, slightly pudgy man of about twenty.
"Um, no thank you. I don't have anything to pay with," Rokan replied.
The man made a scoffing sound and dismissed her words with a wave of his hand. Rokan had to stop herself from coughing at the overwhelming scent of cologne that he carried on his long, golden silk robe.
"No, no, please, it is my pleasure. A welcoming gift to a newcomer," he said jovially, clapping his hand on Rokan's shoulder.
"But I really couldn't—" protested Rokan, attempting to edge away.
"Really, you must! You're obviously new around here, and I'm always looking for new customers! When you start meeting your neighbors, make sure you put in a good word for me, alright?" he said with a wink. Looking toward the boy who stood at the door, he called: "Lu Bo! Show our new customer inside."
"Yes, Master Baht." The boy flashed Rokan a charming smile, and Rokan noticed how identical it was to that of the man. Before she could ask any questions, she was ushered into the elegant bath house.
"See to it that our guest has the best of everything. And make sure someone washed her clothes," said Baht with an air of disgust, flicking a clump of mud off of Rokan's shoulder.
Lu Bo bowed to Baht and beckoned for Rokan to follow him.
"My brother has only recently opened this bath house, but already we have many clients."
"Oh, so Baht's your brother? How many years are there between you two?" asked Rokan, glancing at the furry-robed people milling about.
"Two years," Lu Bo said simply.
Rokan's foot caught on the smooth stone floor and she stumbled. Lu Bo caught her by the arm and steadied her, but she shrugged off his grasp.
Two years...how 'bout that, Taiko?
Lost in her thoughts, Rokan barely noticed that they had reached their destination. Lu Bo bowed her inside a small steamy room where a hot bath lay prepared in a marble tub.
"When you are finished, or if you need anything at all, ring that bell on the bath's edge there. Drop your clothes down that chute on the far wall and I'll see to it they are replaced."
"Oh, I thought Baht said I would just get these cleaned. I don't have any money to buy new clothes, and I certainly don't want to leech off your brother's good will anymore," said Rokan quickly.
Lu Bo waved his hand dismissively, a characteristic movement so reminiscent of his older brother. "Don't worry about it. It's nothing," he said kindly. "Now, you wash up," he said with a blush, nodding to the steaming tub. And with that, he ducked out, sliding the opaque screen door shut.
Rokan stared at the hot bath, almost disbelievingly. This bath house was so different from every other location she had been to. It bore an air of calmness, comfort, and relaxation. As she walked to the chute where she was supposed to dispose of her clothes, she noticed how the slightest shift of her feet on the floor seemed to echo in the absolute silence. A ringing sound came up in her ears, and she found that she almost enjoyed it. As Rokan pulled her vest off over her head, she suddenly became aware of the severe tenseness in her neck and shoulders. When she bent down to pull off her boots, she felt every single bruise she had ever received. It struck her how tired she was, and when Rokan settled herself into the soothing warm water, she couldn't help but tip her head back and doze.
Subconsciously aware that she was not alone, Rokan jerked awake in time to see a small statured girl scurry out of the room, leaving behind a pile of fresh clothes and a bundle of fluffy towels by the bath side.
Sighing contentedly, Rokan pushed herself up and out of the tub and took refuge in the soft folds of what wasn't a towel at all, but a pale yellow robe. Absentmindedly fingering the silk ribbon trim on the hem, Rokan bent down to examine her new clothes.
After being sure she was sufficiently dry, Rokan dressed. Baht's kind staff had generously provided her with brown pants and leather boots that rose mid-calf. A sleeveless red tunic was belted with a thick gold band, and she had been given black fingerless gloves that reached to just before her elbows. Finally, Rokan had been given a sign by which to flaunt her nationality with the traditional golden armbands of the Fire Nation. Rokan dressed in these clothes and looked at her distorted reflection in the pristine marble floor. After so many months spent in her Earth Kingdom garb, it struck Rokan how very Fire Nation she appeared.
Another thing that was apparent to Rokan was the fact that her hair had grown long in the past few months. Her bangs now hung almost to her chin. Taking a golden strip of cloth, Rokan pulled all of her hair back and once again tied Taiko's white cloth about her brow. Glancing at the shiny floor again, she saw not Zoai, not the confused child in the Swamp. She looked older, calmer, and wiser. She looked...ready.
Sliding the thin papery door open, Rokan stepped into the sleek hallway quietly. Following the same route on which Lu Bo had taken her nearly an hour before, Rokan made her way to the front door. Baht was speaking to a richly dressed woman, bowing as she handed him a purse of gold coins.
"Wonderful service as usual, Baht. I look forward to coming again," the woman said with a smile.
Baht seemed so shocked by her generous compensation; all he could do was bow even lower. The woman smiled and glided out the door with calm poise. Her aura of regality made even Rokan feel a little self-conscious as she plodded towards Baht with strong, grounded steps. Baht rose from his groveling posture and started as Rokan stepped in front of him.
"I can scarcely recognize you with all that mud washed off," he jested.
His smiled faltered as he took in Rokan's new apparel.
"I—who gave you those?" he asked, gesturing to the fresh clothes.
"Your brother did. Where is he, actually? I'd like to thank him," Rokan replied, glancing around for the slender figure of Lu Bo.
"Lu Bo is waiting on a very prestigious client at the moment. I'm sorry, I'm not usually one to be so strict, but I'm just trying to promote my new business," he said politely. "I'll tell Lu Bo of your gratitude."
Rokan smiled and clasped her fist beneath her hand, bowing as was the custom of the Fire Nation.
"Thank you so much for your kindness."
Baht shook his head dismissively and bowed her out the door, closing it rather quickly behind her. Rokan thought little of it, as the rain was still falling. The wind had begun to blow as well, sending droplets of rain into her eyes. Rokan had begun to walk away from the Bath House when a sudden curiosity spiked in her mind. She turned and squelched her way through the mud behind the Bath House. In the back of her mind, she knew there was little chance of her finding what she sought, but a spark of hope still flared inside her heart.
The rear side of the Bath House was nothing special. Vents beneath the eaves released sweet-smelling steam into the air, and a small shed stood crookedly on the mud. A small garden was in the process of being planted, and there was a small trowel left on a rough grey rock.
Crouching down in the mud, Rokan took the trowel and began to dig. She must have dug down three inches before the trowel hit a surface that wasn't mud or stone. Using her hands to wipe away the dry dirt, Rokan saw the edge of a wooden beam, rotting and blackened. Shaking, she reached down and touched it gingerly. It crumbled to ash the moment her fingers met its surface. With her other hand, Rokan pulled off a rotted chunk of the corner and stood.Welcome home, Rokan, she thought bitterly.
Somewhere in the distance, a woman screamed. Rokan flinched, unsure of whether it was a scream of one being attacked or just a fright given to one with a weak constitution by a spider-rat. The silence that followed made the back of Rokan's neck prickle. Still holding the piece of wood in one hand, she slowly drew her katana. Her golden eyes scanned her surroundings and the looming crater that was the Capital. Off in the distance, smoke was rising, billowing into the grey sky in a great black cloud.
Rokan clenched her fist, reducing the chunk of beam in her hand to ash. The wind scattered it from between her fingers and she stared at the remains of her home as they were blown from her sight forever. Rain dripped into her eyes and Rokan glanced back at the cloud of smoke. Was there a child there, running away from his burning home?
Rokan brushed her hand on the leg of her pants to rid her palm of the ashes. A roll of thunder shook the ground as a forked tongue of lightning tore across the sky. Rokan trudged toward the volcanic mountain, unsure of what she was going to do. All she knew was one thing: she was tired of ashes.
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