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|Gangkouz: Part 2|
July 20, 2013
Outside one of the many trading towns in the Earth Kingdom lay a crowded tavern. The atmosphere inside was loud, boisterous and drafty. The waiters and waitresses continuously served brews to their patrons, many of whom were not the kind to cross. Into this scene with nearly-broken tables with marks on them topped by pipe smoke whisking across the stained wooden floor, a silent, solemn figure emerged. This dark-skinned man in brown oozed throughout the rowdy atmosphere until he came upon a youthful, slender woman leaning against the back wall of the establishment.
"I hear you're good at what you do," said the unkempt man in brown, without any prior greeting. "And even better at keeping secrets."
The woman in black he addressed surveyed the new arrival up and down, sizing him up. "Whatever it is, you can't afford me," she scoffed, turning about as though to walk away.
"I am not here for myself," he clarified. "I was sent to find the right person to entrust with a high-profile task. Such a job will pay quite handsomely, I assure you."
"And what sort of job is that?" the woman in black inquired nonchalantly, looking over the back of her shoulder, a red, spiraling tattoo revealed on her exposed upper arm.
"It's a woman from the Earth Kingdom, but she's traveling in the Fire Nation at the present, disguised as a man."
"Hmmm...interesting. If it involves going overseas, it's going to cost you extra. Where is she to be delivered once the job is complete?"
"You can deliver the prize from your hunt directly to my employer," the man in brown instructed flatly. "No need to bring the entire body, though, just the head will do."
The woman he had found in the bar narrowed her eyes. "Is this job bounty-hunting, or assassination?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, it does," she told him with a dirty look before abruptly marching off. "You and your master can find someone else!"
Not giving up, the persistent man in brown hurried after the shady woman in black. "Is it ethical qualms you have? Personally, I find that hard to believe."
"It's a riskier trade to be a part of," she clarified, turning her head back as she continued to make her way toward the bar area. "One's more likely to get stabbed in the back. Old clients have a tendency to become new enemies, which is bad for business. Also makes it harder to get paid. Some say they want an assassin, but what they really want is a full-time gang mercenary. I stick to bounty-hunting. The jobs are upfront and you know what you're getting. I don't know anything about you or your master other than he wouldn't come in person."
"The one who sent me is a very busy man," he told her as they arrived at the bar and he stopped in front of her, opening an official-looking scroll and brandishing it and the seal upon it for her to see. "This is my employer, June."
"I see." June softened her expression and took a closer look at the document like she doubted its authenticity at first. "Is his compensation as handsome as his title?" asked June.
"Very," the sly man assured with a nod. "He's ready to pay you two hundred gold pieces."
June, however, was not satisfied. "Do you know whom you mock?" But then she softened her expression once again. "Double it and you have a deal."
With a phony frown, the man shook his head at her. "I was only given two hundred fifty by my master, so I can't give a copper piece more than that."
"Not my problem," June shot back at him, her eyes full of scorn. "If you want my services, you have to pay my price. Unless you want to tell your employer you failed."
"How about three hundred, then?"
"Done," June accepted, crossing her arms and smirking as she leaned against the rim of the bar. "I'll need something of hers so that my shirshu and I can track her down."
"Not a problem." After finishing the deal, the man in brown waited a few more minutes until June departed the scene, preparing for the long journey ahead of her. Then, he turned to the barkeep and projected his voice to the men beside him. "Drinks on me!"
"Are you sure that's wise?" the bartender asked him as he polished one of his dusty mugs. Always the nosy one, he had been listening in on their conversation. "She just made you spend fifty gold coins out of your own pocket."
"Trust me, I can afford it."
After getting past the guards and toward the center of town, Ratana came to an area with shops on either side of the street. Being that it was still early in the day, she thought about looking inside some of these stores in the land of the enemy. Although she was not looking for souvenirs, Ratana was curious to see what they were selling, and all the money she brought from the Earth Kingdom was spendable here. Around three hundred years ago, the currencies between the nations were kept entirely separate, and individual provinces in the Earth Kingdom also had their own local means of exchange. This went undisturbed until steam-powered transportation created an influx of new interaction between the nations. Shortly after she halted the peasant rebellion and founded the Dai Li, Avatar Kyoshi summoned the leadership of the four nations to an international financial and monetary conference. Henceforth, the gold, silver and copper pieces in throughout the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom were given standardized value and weight, and could be used anywhere in either nation, even though the shapes remained distinctive. The Water Tribes, not having many precious metals at the poles, didn't see what they had to gain from the agreement, and therefore did not participate. Water Tribals often still avoided traveling to the Earth Kingdom, since most places wouldn't accept their money. Likewise, the Air Nomads also stayed out of it.
Luckily for Ratana, the fact that they had been at war with the Fire Nation for nearly a century had not disturbed this establishment. Even though she did not like the idea of people relying on an Avatar to bring answers to their troubles, it seemed to suit her now. She was not concerned by the rounded shape of the money she brought. There was such a variation in the colonies, that it wasn't that unusual to come across Fire Nation-shaped coins even in the free regions of the Earth Kingdom. Ratana did not know exactly how much currency of Earth Kingdom origin was in circulation here, but she certainly wasn't worried.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ratana spotted a shiny golden sculpture in one of the nearby shop windows. Although she was making haste to the spy hideout, she decided that there would be no harm done in sparing a moment to alleviate her curiosity at this place, and she limped her way in.
"Welcome," the shopkeeper greeted her. At first, he appeared about half a head shorter than her, though he slouched and therefore might have actually been closer to her height. His outfit consisted of a dark crimson tunic and what appeared to be a bison-like headdress one might expect to find in the Water Tribes, and his face bore light maroon tattoos with sharp points on either of his cheeks. "How can I help you today?"
"Just browsing," Ratana said, trying to make her voice sound deeper than it was. She hoped to herself that she wouldn't have to hold up conversations like this one for too long, as it would strain her throat muscles to keep it up continuously. "I noticed that statue in the window," she added matter-of-factly, pointing in its direction.
"Ah, that's a good old specimen there." In his forties or fifties, the peculiar man was not elderly, but his words rang with years of knowledge and experience. "You know, the earliest firebenders considered the dragons their brethren. They worshipped them and regarded them as spiritual brothers. Are you a bender yourself?"
"Yes, I am."
"Well then, I have a few items in stock that might interest you," said the man, smiling. "In the back you'll find training firebending scrolls, with moves all the way up to the master level. And here's another artifact I have in stock." The shopkeeper proceeded to lift a copper statue of a dragon more bizarre than the one Ratana spotted through the window. This one had one long tail with many heads sticking in all directions, their eyes fierce and their mouths wide open. "Dragons were never quite like this when they existed. It's supposed to depict a dragon spirit, but it's more of a work of art, really," he stated dully. "It's still pretty fun to use, though," he added, indicating a small opening at the rear. "If you firebend through this hole, the fire shoots out all the heads at once. Come on," he added again, gesturing for Ratana to punch forth. "Try it out, send some flame through. Don't be shy!"
"Ummm...that's okay, I'll take your word for it," Ratana told him, stepping back. "So you seem pretty interested in dragons. Did you hear about the new sighting of them near Nongkun?"
"I did," the man said, now slightly more serious. "Whether it's true or not, I hope it helps our people reflect on where they come from more."
"Yes, I quite agree." Ratana was relieved that she had so far been convincing enough as Nookyazu to be able to blend in as well as she had. All that repetitive limping and putting up with the fake beard was paying off. "Do you think it's really true that dragons still exist? Would you know where to find them?"
"Why are you so eager to go chasing after the rumors?" the grimacing shopkeeper questioned her.
"I'm not really chasing. I've just been traveling around a lot lately and I'm looking for new places to go. I just came to town through the forest inland from here, so I'm not sure how long I'll remain in Gangkouz."
The man blinked his eyes twice. "The forest? You obviously haven't gotten out much. No one ever goes in that forest. It's filled with armadillo bears, wild komodo rhinos and tiny venomous critters that could kill you with a single bite if you make but a single misstep."
"Oh," said Ratana, looking side-to-side uncomfortably. "Well, I must have gotten lucky, then. No one told me it was so dangerous. Like I said, I'm from out of town."
"Hmph! Even so, the forest by Gangkouz is known all across the Fire Nation," the shopkeeper informed her. "It's famous for being one of the most dangerous places in the nation. The army themselves avoid it." He was now less excited about Ratana's presence than when she had walked through the door. About to say something else, he closed his mouth again. The shopkeeper gazed with his own amber eyes into Ratana's green ones. "Did you say you were a firebender?" the man asked her, his hypnotic amber irises penetrating Ratana's thoughts. Their faces were so close that his hot, hazy breath soiled on her cheeks.
"Y-yes, I said that I was a bender." Ratana could've kicked herself for how weak the words sounded when they came out. "Of course I'm a firebender!" was what she should've told him, but she was so put off by everything about the man - his voice, his gaze, his stare - that this was all she could manage under the circumstances.
The man blinked his eyes slowly, then shifted his gaze. "Of course," he added, dark grin spreading across his face. "What other kind of bender would you be in this land?"
"You'll have to leave now," the shopkeeper told her, now frowning. "It's closing time for the day. I'm sorry you couldn't find what you were looking for."
Ratana left without another word. Unable to get the shopkeeper out of her head, she tried diverting her attention to getting to the hideout where her fellow countrymen were based. Once she arrived, her fellow spies would be able to find much-needed answers of how to go about fulfilling her mission. She would know more about the Nongkun rumors, how to make sense of them, and how to go where she needed to be. However hostile everything around her was, Ratana would not be on her own for long.
As instructed, she entered into the central square of the city of Gangkouz, then turned a sharp left down the second offshoot street from the port. Walking onto the block past Crimson Sun Avenue, she smirked, knowing that she was close to her destination. But Ratana's smile faded as she spotted an extensive, rectangular black pile of ash between two constructs where another building might have stood. Noticing two Fire Army spearmen surveying the area, she sensed trouble. Carefully, Ratana maintained a low profile, walking at a slow pace past the pair of guards, not looking at them but taking in every word they were saying.
"So, this is where the Earth Kingdom spy nest lay," one remarked tersely to his companion.
"Indeed," his more-experienced partner confirmed. "With a hideout this blatant though, I can't believe they weren't discovered sooner."
"Well, they're all gone now," his comrade said as he shrugged. "I heard they all wished they were dead before their wish came true."
"How foolish of them - to think they could sneak into our country without us knowing and somehow undermine us from within."
- Yep, that's June and Nyla that'll be coming into play.
For the collective works of the author, go here.