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|Confrontation: Part 1|
January 26, 2014
As Nyla's feet pounded on the ground, so too, did June's heart beat, with adrenaline-pumped anticipation. After crossing the ocean and traveling for many miles over a few short days, June had hardly slept a wink, but that mattered not. Soon, she would be within range of her target and as tired as she had become, that did not avert her. She was nocturnal, and an early riser, just like Nyla was. One could say that her ways had become more closely aligned to that of Nyla over the years than with that of her fellow man. She slept in his patterns, she could win an arm-wrestling match as though she wielded the strength of a shirshu and she tattooed herself with ancient signs associated with the shirshu.
The main essential that she lacked was the ability to smell where she needed to go, anywhere in the entire world. But that was no matter. June did not have to have that ability because Nyla already had it. It was her job to do the dirty work once Nyla had brought her to her target. Separate, June and Nyla each had their own strengths and shortcomings, but together, they were an unstoppable, inescapable team that no one on Earth could be safe from once they had been targeted. The only ammunition required for them to unleash themselves upon that individual was something with that individual's scent upon it, as those who had a vendetta with them often did.
Lu Ten searched through the crowd at the festival for the better part of an hour, but in vain. It would seem that Rang Xue had indeed given him the slip, as she stated that she would have to in the end. In fact, she had been trying to leave Gangkouz, leave him, since before he invited her out for another cup of tea. Perhaps pretending to see something or someone familiar and then running off was the best way she could think of to smoothly cut her ties with him. What was boggling Lu Ten now was why she had decided to do so. After all, they had a great time the previous day, and she had not seemed in a hurry to go when they had reached the summit of the dragon spirits mountain.
Another thought entered the mind of the young Prince of the Fire Nation. It was possible that she left due to him disclosing he had a secret he was about to reveal to her. If she had stayed, he would have disclosed his true identity as Lu Ten, son of Prince Iroh, grandson of Fire Lord Azulon, sire of their nation, the Fire Nation. Of course, there was no way that she could have predicted that ahead of time unless...she recognized him somehow. Strangers recognized Lu Ten by his face every day, and even if Rang Xue did not recall his image at first, she could have recognized him later on.
When Lu Ten's uncle Ozai had married his aunt Ursa, Prince Ozai, Lu Ten's father's younger brother, had cut off his bride from all contact with her family and former life. It was ridiculous for Rang Xue to think that, as they had neither been romantic nor intimate together, but still the prospect may have set her teeth on edge. Ozai had followed the older traditions of the Fire Nation Royal Family, just like his father before him. General Iroh had not followed suit, allowing Lu Ten's mother to see her own family, and Lu Ten would be the same way when he met his bride.
All of a sudden, Lu Ten's train of thought was interrupted when the door to Old Kao's apartment burst open. "Top of the morning, Lu Ten," called the new arrival. It was none other than Lu Ten's father, clad in his military armor and clutching heaps of scrolls in both hands.
"Oh," said Lu Ten, slightly startled. "Hello, Father."
"I hope you didn't find yourself too bored in my absence," said Iroh, resting himself in one of his cousin-in-law's seats.
"Not at all. I had my ways of keeping myself occupied."
"Well good. Now, you'd better be prepared for what's coming next."
"You still haven't told me how the meetings went."
Iroh laughed heartily. "The meetings went superbly! Why else would I say you'd better be prepared for what's coming next?"
"You always do say to prepare for the worst when the time comes."
"Smart boy, but that's not the case here. I have laid out the basic strategy of our looming attack on Ba Sing Se, and the other generals agree it is quite ingenious. In fact, they're ready to accelerate the process, which means you and I have more work to do."
"What will we be doing now?" asked Lu Ten.
"For starters, we're raising that army we need for the invasion," explained Iroh. "As I've said before, it'll be all volunteers, and that means we have our work cut out for us. You, I, and a handful of my right-hand men will be touring the country, beginning with the capital. Granted, with that many right hands, I'd be something like a canyon crawler."
"We're going back to the capital now?" asked Lu Ten, astonished. "Wow, what a waste of time coming here."
"Hey, these things come up," stated Iroh. "We leave at once!"
"I see," said Lu Ten.
"Unless you have someone you need to say goodbye to," said Iroh, noticing his son's look.
Lu Ten, however, shook his head. "Nope. There was, and I was going to introduce them to you too, but they're no longer around."
Iroh smiled broadly. "Well, let's get going then!"
Ratana had gotten lost for a while after she finally caught up with the same boy who had stolen her bag a few nights prior. She had found herself on a street which she was not accustomed to during her brief time in Gangkouz, so she did not know where it led to or what it was close to. Indeed, she had asked other passersby for directions a few times, but none of them gave very good directions. After following the first step to whatever directions they gave, she would always have to ask someone else for directions, who would sound as clueless as when she asked the first time, and leaving her right back where she started.
Eventually, Ratana took to wondering in one direction only, which after the good part of an hour, led her back where she started, literally, to the harbor where the boats docked in the port settlement. Great. Now she was exactly at the opposite point in the city to the one where she needed to be. Letting out a deep sigh, Ratana began walking the other direction, toward the entrance of the town to the wild, where she would depart this accursed city once and for all. Well, almost accursed. Not all of it had been bad. As she passed by the shops she had seen a few days ago, she noticed that the once where she had seen the dragon sculptures a few days ago was now vacant. Nothing but darkness sat behind that abandoned window now. Days later, the thought of the creepy shopkeeper still sent a chill up her spine, and his unexplained disappearance was equally odd. She smirked at the possibility that he had gone out of business after scaring off all his customers, but that would be farfetched to happen in such a short amount of time. Ultimately, Ratana of the Terra Team merely shrugged it off and continued forward.
Reaching the main gate to the city, Ratana saw guards stationed on either side, but did not find them in the least intimidating. Even if they had been a threat, the guards seemed too busy to notice her by the looks of it. The covert earthbender trotted slowly from the orderly disorder of the city streets to the wild disorder of the outside wilderness, where her feet, still in connection with her native earth element, albeith a softer kind, could sense danger coming from any angle.
Ratana was heightened to her senses when she could feel a giant unseen entity looming many yards away. Her seismic sense informed her that this thing was coming in her direction from the treeline of the forest. And by the heartbeat associated with it, it appeared hostile. Springing into fighting position long before she caught her first glimpse of the attacker, who remained hidden for the time being, Ratana rushed forth to confront this unseen and unknown threat like any good and proper earthbender would. The feeling in the ground indicated that it was a large creature that would be emerging, like Speedy the komodo rhino the previous day, though the movements were precise as though a human were at work.
Then, it came. Ratana glimpsed a long, twirled snout emerging from the trees with an unknown, possibly hooded person riding atop it. Ratana's first thoughts were that it was some kind of bandit coming to loot her, though she was surprised, even if it was the Fire Nation, that such a thug would attack her so close to a major town. The proximity of the settlement did not hold this person back, whom a few seconds later was revealed to not be hooded, but to be a young woman with long hair, dark clothes and a tattoo riding on the back of some hideous creature that accompanied her.
"Ngh!" Ratana grunted as she dug her foot into the ground and erected a small mound of earth beneath the creature, not large enough to be deciphered as an earthbending attack from a distance by the townsfolk.
"Great, there goes our surprise attack," the mysterious woman on the mount said matter-of-factly to herself. Ratana spotted her beedy eyes narrowing in unison with the creature she rode, and also saw that she apparently had bizarre taste in tattoos. "Funny, I thought she was supposed to be dressed as a man. No matter, let's kill her and be done with this."
Ratana ducked as the woman charged on her shirshu and swung her whip over the earthbender's head. "How did she know?" Ratana wondered aloud, heart pounding. Her mission was supposed to be top secret and this assassin knew she would be here and also knew of her prior assumed identity as Nookyazu. She obviously had an informant of some kind or had really done her homework. If she and her employers knew of Ratana's identity, did that mean that others in the Fire Nation also knew of her mission? Ratana would have many questions to ask once this fight was over with, and thus made a mental note to entrap the woman alive. As the beast could not talk, she could take more liberty in fighting it.
As June pounced a second time, Ratana darted back toward the walls of the city, certain that she would not be followed into a public atmosphere, or at least that her opponent would be slowed down. This was not the case. Barely listening as the guards at the gate called after her for her unruly behavior, Ratana, moments later, was able to hear those same guards being charged and knocked over over by the woman and her beast as they entered behind her.
This assassin was undoubtedly not playing around. Knocking over stalls and lampooning through crowded streets was no deterrent to this assailant. Whomever had hired this assassin must have paid her well, Ratana thought. Either that or she had a personal interest in stopping her from finding dragons. Judging by the red tattoos, one possibility was that she belonged to some secret Fire Nation organization.
Ratana ducked the whip a few more times and turned the corner of several side streets. There was no way that Ratana could conceivably outrun the shirshu but what she could do was throw it off its trail and confuse it. Even this was in vain though, as the beast met her at every corner.
Soon, they were back in the streets of the festival again, near Khomin Square. The crowd parted and screamed as they glimpsed the same woman chased by city guards days before now being chased by an unknown woman on a shirshu. These were incredible lengths the assassin was going to not to let her target out of sight. Suddenly, a second whip emerged, this time, a long one that resembled a pink snake. The giant animal was swiping his tongue for Ratana's feet, but Ratana barely managed to leap over it. The tongue, on its followthrough swing, made contact with a middle-aged man in the crowd instead. The hapless bystander fell to the ground, cringing. Just to make things better, Ratana now knew that this creature could paralyze people with its tongue.
At last, Ratana turned about in the middle of the festival and faced her opponent. Being one of the most basic tenets of earthbending philosophy, both Brawki and Ratana's mother had trained her to face any foe head-on. "So you want to play rough, huh?" With that, she whisked her right arm around and a miniature boulder was flung from the stones of the street in the same motion, knocking June off of her ride and leaving her shirshu in a confused panic.
Ratana could not help but smile to herself at the maneuver, but did not pause to revel in her victory for long. She stared about the street to notice several faces staring at her in awe, as though curious if she knew what the mysterious woman and her animal had been doing there. But then, Ratana's chest began to ache, her heart pounding fast once more. Now she realized that their expressions had nothing to do with the assassin that had been wreaking havoc in the middle of their town.
"That lady just earthbended!" exclaimed a small child, clinging to his mother's clothes.
Her very insides crumbling, Ratana had never felt so exposed in all her life. "Uh-oh." This was even worse than when she was in the triad's hideout.
- The greeting Iroh gives Lu Ten is the same one Lu Ten gave to Ratana last chapter.
- Lu Ten's line about wasting travel time coming to Gangkouz only to return to the capital where they were before is similar to Kaddo's line in Shifting Gears. Also, in both instances, their fathers had just been in a meeting.
- Ratana's experience asking for directions in a foreign place is similar to some of the author's own life experiences.
- "Earthbended" would normally be "earthbent", but like in , this was changed on account of the words being spoken by a child.
For the collective works of the author, go here.