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May 17, 2013
A riveting game of Pai Sho was taking place on an otherwise-ordinary afternoon between Ratana and her partner. As usual, Ratana was winning, since Tooru was relying on his usual strategy of trying to distract her and make her look away from the board so that he could switch the pieces around. Granted, this had worked the first time he tried it, but in the countless times since, Ratana had caught onto him. No matter how many times she assured him that this would not work and that he needed to learn to legitimately play the game, Tooru had persisted.
The awkward contest of the skills and the wills was cut short by a sharp knock outside their door from one of their fellow Terra Team members. "You're to go up front," Taigang informed with unexplained bitterness. "There's been a summoning to the conference room."
"After the disaster at Gujuhmin, I wonder what's in store for the Terra Team next," Tooru lamented, stretching his legs and rising to his feet.
"It's not for the Terra Team," Taigang clarified, shaking his head and leaning upon the earthen doorframe. "Just you, Ratana."
"That seems odd," Ratana voiced, raising an eyebrow and persing her lips.
"I'll come along anyway," volunteered Tooru, matter-of-factly.
"No, they only want her," Taigang hissed with resentment. "The message was explicit about that."
"Why only her?" asked Tooru, surprised.
"Yeah, why only me?" Ratana asked, equally baffled.
"I don't know." Taigang rose his voice reproachfully. "Apparently, it's something none of the rest of us need concern ourselves with. Now, you'd better hurry up. Sung and Quan Jing are already waiting for you...and they've got company."
Now just as irritated by Taigang's standoffish attitude as this unexplained focus on her, Ratana pulled her hat over her hair and ears before trotting down the hallway with unease. At the end of their hallway, a civilian greeted her. It was a court page from Ba Sing Se, from the looks of his attire. Though wondering what this outsider was doing in their barracks, Ratana kept her thoughts to herself as the man escorted her down the opposite hallway to a door beyond General Sung and Colonel Quan Jing's offices, which she had never been in.
When she was ushered inside, Ratana entered to find a tall, smoothly-curved desk with five seats from above staring down at a single chair four feet below, on the ground. The Terra Team woman gulped to herself as she realized this was the kind of place she would expect a court martial to be held.
Sitting in the central seat was a younger middle-aged man with many black hairs hanging from his chin to form a thorny, upside-down cone. From first glance, Ratana knew he was familiar to her, though she had seen him only once, at the Earth Kingdom capital. Only three years ago, this man, General How, was promoted to Head of the Council of Five. Thus, he was the highest-ranking man in the Earth Kingdom military. A shocked Ratana kept eyeing him, wondering what How could possibly want with her. The first chair on the right was occupied by How's fellow General Sung and in the first chair on the left sat Colonel Quan Jing, who made eye contact with Ratana and nodded. At the far ends were two other colonels she did not recognize.
"Welcome, Ratana," General Sung offered her a hushed and urgent greeting. "Please sit," he added, gesturing to the single small wooden chair before the five men. Ratana complied.
"What we're about to discuss here today must remain strictly confidential," General How cautioned her.
She acknowledged his statement with a terse nod. "I understand."
"We've received word that the enemy is planning to mount an attack on Ba Sing Se," How informed her.
Though she fought to keep her face straight, the feeling of absurdity at the notion reached her mouth. "That's a bold move, even for them." Ratana managed to quell her laugh into an extended grin. She resolved not to dwell on the thought, as her ability to remain serious was limited.
"I thought the same," Sung boasted skeptcally. "That's why Ba Sing Se is so named: because it is impenetrable. If they dare go for it again, we'll deal with them as we've done before. Nothing can breech our walls."
"With all due respect, general, this is no laughing matter," the colonel on the far right interjected, tilting his head sideways.
"Colonel Yina is correct," Colonel Quan Jing reported, projecting his voice across the room. "The officer in charge of this invasion is garnering an enormous force. It's all volunteers this time, and they will be some of the fiercest firebenders and warriors we've encountered."
With that, How finally continued his briefing, the extended interruption now over. "Now, that brings us to why we asked you here, Ratana. The Fire Nation attack is to be lead by General Iroh: one of their most seasoned commanders, famed as the vanquisher of the last dragon in existence. Furthermore, as Crown Prince of their nation, he is the future Fire Lord. Perhaps you know of him?"
"Of course I know of him," said Ratana.
"Well, we've heard a rumor that one of those might actually not be true," Quan Jing said slowly.
"Which one?" asked Ratana, curiously taken aback.
"There have been whispers from the Fire Nation settlement of Nongkun," How responded, raising his eyes. "About the last dragon still being alive." It was clear that he had been as surprised as anyone else would be to hear this story.
"Dragons are extinct," scoffed Ratana. "Everyone knows that!"
"We have reason to believe the Nongkun rumor holds more merit than the other rumors before it," said the other colonel on the far left.
"Exactly as Colonel Ersi said," Quan Jing chimed in again.
"That's all very interesting," Ratana commented, calming herself down, her hands grabbing her knees. "What exactly does this have to do with Ba Sing Se?"
"That brings us to the mission we've resolved to entrust to you," How went on. "Ratana, you must go to Nongkun yourself, investigate the rumor and bring back proof that dragons are still alive."
"Ah, now I see." Ratana curved her mouth sarcastically. "Let's see if I got this plan straight. When the Fire Nation attacks Ba Sing Se with their vast legions, we'll confront them head-on, and say 'behold, our proof that dragons exist!'" Sung bobbed his head slightly back and chuckled at Ratana's statement while Quan Jing shot both of them a subtle frown.
General How, though, remained unmoved. "You're missing the point," he said. "When you bring back evidence that Iroh's grand tale is false and expose him to the world as a fraud, he'll be disgraced and ruined in the eyes of his people."
"Then, with its champion scandalized and branded as a failure, the invasion will be called off," Quan Jing echoed How's sentiment with enthusiasm.
On the other hand, Sung harbored some reservations regarding the scheme. "I'm not so certain I can give my approval for this," he said hesitantly. "This sort of investigation deep inside enemy territory really isn't what Ratana's trained for. Why not send one of our covert agents who's more prepared for this assignment?"
"Ratana has been trained in basic stealth," countered Quan Jing. "It's a requirement to join the Terra Team."
"Yes, but as you very well know, that's not their primary skill," Sung shot back.
"They are trained in it for times like now for when they can use it." Quan Jing articulated himself in a stable, composed manner, neither raising nor lowering his voice in the process. Nor did he emulate the dull monotone of a schoolhouse lecture. "But that's only part of the equation. In the distinctly possible scenario where Ratana encounters a live dragon, her bending talents will protect her much more than discretion will, as will her agile movements and quick instincts."
Sung slowed down, but continued to display doubt. "True, but the Terra Team practices coordinated combative earthbending. Here, she'll be on her own, with no team."
"Once she arrives in the Fire Nation, it will be fairly straightforward," Quan Jing reassured. "We have a reliable espionage network planted in the coastal city of Gangkouz. Our Earth Kingdom spies there will have the means and resources to get her across the country to where she needs to go."
Sung rose both his eyebrows. "I thought they were rooted out."
"No," denied Quan Jing. "They're as active and intact as ever."
"Hmmm," Sung pondered, resting both elbows on the curved table and stroking his chin. "What is your opinion on all this, Ratana?"
"I will go to Nongkun and find proof of dragons there," Ratana declared, standing up from her seat and offering all five other faces in the room her most determined look. "You can count on me."
"Excellent!" Quan Jing grinned, clapping his heads together.
"How am I going to sneak into the Fire Nation, though?" Ratana inquired, sitting back down.
"You won't exactly be sneaking in," Quan Jing clarified. "We've gone to great lengths to arrange for you to enter through the proper channels."
"We're sending you to the Fire Nation colony of Guangcheng, where you can board a ferry bound for the Fire Nation under a false identity," said How. "From there, you can follow the assigned directions to travel from Gangkouz to Nongkun. Here are your papers."
"Nookyazu, that's a strange name," Ratana giggled as she clutched the document that General How had handed her. "Even for a woman from the Fire Nation."
Sung twiddled his thumbs and broke eye contact with the young Terra Team member. "Yes. Well, about that..."
"Wait a second," said Ratana. "Is this a guy's identity!?" she exclaimed in shock, her eyes and mouth widening all at once.
"In order to make it as realistic as possible, we obtained the real papers of a real Fire Nation citizen," explained Quan Jing. "The actual Nookyazu disappeared recently, but he's your height and weight, so it's a perfect match."
"This has got to be a joke," said Ratana, still staring down at the paper in disbelief.
"Just style your hair into a fashionable top-knot," said Quan Jing. "We'll provide you with some baggy clothes, and you should use something nice and tight to restrain your cleavage. In the meantime, try to talk in a deeper voice than your normal one."
"You're joking, right?" asked Ratana, almost pleading. "Please tell me you're joking."
General Sung shook his head. "We even got the right kind of fake beard for you to wear."
- Now you know where "Book 1 - Dragon" comes from.
- Gangkouz is the same Fire Nation city mentioned at the end of the previous chapter by Iroh and Lu Ten.
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