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|On the Road|
March 11, 2014
"After having infiltrated the pirates and lived amongst them for several months, our hero finally found himself closing in on his goal," said Ratana. "But there was one catch. The pirates forbade any outsider from entering their lair and seeing the way to their secret fortress, hidden in a forest on one of the world's most remote islands. So, before they would invite him to accompany them, they handed him one of their sharpest blades and told him to gouge his own eyes out in front of them! Knowing the importance of his task at hand, the hero accepted their offer and made the sacrifice as dictated to him."
"Yowza!" exclaimed Heidze, leaning over the wooden table as Ratana recounted the old story she had remembered from childhood.
June, on the other hand, was not looking at them, and had instead taken to polishing her dagger the moment the trio had arrived at the small town restaurant. "Ummm...why didn't they just blindfold him?"
"Because...ummm..." Ratana preferred June the silent, disinterested onlooker to June the critical spectator. "Well, obviously, he could peek under it...and that's not the way the story goes! Anyway, once he was brought before the pirate king, he announced his true intentions and declared that he was there to recover all that the pirate king and his minions had stolen from his people. The pirate king laughed, and asked what a blinded vagrant could possibly do to oppose him. He responded with an impressive display of earthbending ability. As the pirates closed in on him, he shot rocks in each of their directions. They were astonished at how he knew where to strike without his sight."
"How did he?" asked Heidze.
"His connection to the earth," explained Ratana. Reminiscing of a piece of back home in the middle of a foreign nation, this Terra Team earthbender rarely flew solo, but was now separated from her partner and the rest of her flock. "His great-grandparents had been present when the legendary earthbender Oma had united two feuding villages under the threat of her earthbending, and he had trained his whole life to be able to earthbend at such a level. Like a badgermole, he needed not his own eyes, for his seismic sense pointed him wherever he needed to be at any one time."
"Just by being an earthbender?" questioned Heidze, notably more skeptical.
Ratana nodded. "Yes. Not many earthbenders could accomplish what he had, even today. Once he defeated the pirates and searched deeper into their fortress, he discovered that gold and great wealth were not all they were hiding. There, underground, he found his long lost love, whom he never expected to see again after their brief time together had been cut short. Now being reunited when they least expected it, they returned to his kingdom together with all the riches that the pirates had plundered from them over the years."
"Is that it?" June inquired as she looked up. "Finally, now we can order! I'm starving. What was the point of that, anyhow?"
"It's supposed to emphasize the importance of patience and being in tune with the element we bend," answered Ratana.
"I don't get it," said Heidze, blinking. "I may not be an earthbender, but it seems pretty crazy that one can actually see without seeing through it. And how did the pirates not know better than to let him into their lair on invitation? Had they never encountered an earthbender before?!"
"Don't forget that this was only a few centuries after the dawn of earthbending," Ratana stated calmly. "They wouldn't have been used to seeing bending like his every day."
"Whatever," Heidze scoffed as he rose from his seat and wandered toward the door. "Still sounds pretty crazy to me. I think I'll walk around town for a while; I don't have much of an appetite."
A few minutes later, the waitress had brought two platters of classic Fire Nation steak with stir-fried vegetables over for Ratana and June, who now sat alone at the table. Once they were both served, Ratana reached for her chopsticks and took her time selecting her first bite. June, meanwhile, seized a portion of the steak in both hands and gobbled a chunk from the center, the juicy sauce rubbing off on both her cheeks.
"You must think me unladylike," remarked June matter-of-factly. "I guess that I'm not like most women you've met, but don't expect me to pamper up for your sake!"
Ratana, on the other hand, shrugged off her companion's off-handed comment. "It's strange to say, but I don't know very many other women. The Earth Kingdom military is very much a guy's environment. If my mother were here, though, she wouldn't approve of your manners, if that's a consolation prize."
"Huh? What do you mean, consolation prize?"
"Come on, June," Ratana rolled her eyes. "With all your sassy remarks, you're just begging to get a rise out of people."
For the first time that day, June leaned over the table and glared at Ratana. "Watch your mouth!"
"Heh, and I thought that's the reaction you wanted from me," Ratana chuckled triumphantly as she set her utensils down. "Now, about what you said last night, what did you mean by it?"
"What did you think I meant by it?" June countered irritably.
"I just don't see how the Earth Kingdom army would be after me. I've devoted my life to serving our nation's cause."
June grasped one of her unused chopsticks and twirled it about, much like she had done with her dagger the previous evening. "It's not complicated. Someone in the army, a higher up general or commander by the looks of it, wants you dead."
"You're so confident, yet you say you never met with them yourself."
"No, they sent a messenger to the bar where they could find me," June continued. "A man dressed in brown. The seal on the document the carried was good enough for me to know they were reliable, though. They were the real deal, and I knew they would meet their end of the bargain. You, I think will meet your end of the bargain I later made with you. You seem honest, but I'm not sure yet."
"I just don't see anyone in the Earth Kingdom army hating me that much," said Ratana. "I don't get along with everyone in my unit, but I don't see any of them wanting me dead."
"What about high-ranking officers?"
Ratana pondered for a minute. "Well, I did have a confrontation with Quan Jing, the Colonel of my outfit, after our failed attempt to recapture Gujuhmin from the Fire Nation. But it couldn't have been him! He was one of the ones who sent me on this mission in the first place!"
June snickered just above her breath. "And how exactly does that make it less likely?"
"Of course he wants me to succeed," Ratana raised her voice. She put her hand in the air and began a list with her fingers. "How is that even a question? He organized a way to send me into the Fire Nation on this lone mission..."
"Deep into enemy territory," June added.
"...with a false identity to travel under..."
"A wanted man's identity."
"...to a base where other Earth Kingdom spies had gathered in the area...."
"A busted spy base in a city that was nowhere near where you were supposed to be headed!" June finished in triumph.
"He didn't know that they had been rooted out!" Ratana snapped in defense, but then her face grew pale. "Actually...Sung pointed out that they had been rooted out, but one of the other commanders corrected him..."
"And who was that?" asked June, twirling her chopstick once more.
"I could've told you that," she remarked slyly. "That must've been a pretty bad confrontation that you had with him before you left. On top of everything else, he sent an assassin after you! This Quan Jing guy sounds like he really did not want you to return."
"Now that I think about it, it would really ruin him if I exposed his conduct at the battle," Ratana pondered aloud. "Negligence, cowardice, disobeying direct orders and reckless endangerment of those under his command. Spirits, that's more than enough to put him behind bars!"
"Well, now that you've wised up to the truth, why don't we finish up here, get on a boat back to the Earth Kingdom and you can thank me by paying me the rest of the money you promised?" snickered June. "Sound like a plan?"
"No," said Ratana, crossing her arms. "I'm still not done with my mission."
June rolled her eyes. "Ugh! Come on, Ratana. Do I need to spell everything out for you? He probably made up the part about there being dragons!"
"Maybe...probably," Ratana conceded. "There's still the rumor from Nongkun, though."
"Like I said, he made it up!"
"He wasn't the only general that knew of it," Ratana shot back. "If the others had heard of it before, that means that the Nongkun rumor is at least somewhat legitimate and worth investigating. Even if it turns out to be false, I swore I would come back with either proof of the dragons or confirmation of their demise."
"I don't believe this!" retorted June. "From the moment I met you, you were foolish enough to go along with this, but even after I've opened your eyes, you're still set on following up on your wild boar-goose chase suicide mission! That's taking it to a whole 'nother level. You are truly...something else..."
Ratana hung her head, her morale floundering, but her resolve kept intact. "A lot is at stake here."
June shook her head. "People say much in small towns, but that doesn't make any old rumor credible. That's what it is, a rumor. On the remote chance that this rumor turns out to be true, how exactly are you going to prove that dragons exist?"
"Well, you can't just take an entire dragon back to the Earth Kingdom, can you?" June pressed. "What sort of proof can you take back with you that would halt the invasion of Ba Sing Se? Proof that would be so convincing not only for your people, but for the Fire Nation! Enough for them to disgrace their old general because it's so undeniable?"
Now Ratana had even more difficulty keeping her resolve up. "I-I haven't actually thought about that yet. With everything else going on, I've been either distracted, or trying to stay alive, or get closer to the destination, that carrying out that essential piece hasn't even crossed my mind..."
"You see?" June flared. "This is impossible!"
"That doesn't mean I won't think of something along the way, though. Remember, you're being paid double, so be patient!"
June cracked her arms, scowling. "Double might not be worth it at this rate..."
- Just to refresh your memory, June was offered 300 gold pieces in Chapter 19: Gangkouz: Part 2, but in Chapter 29: Confrontation: Part 2 she lied and told Ratana that it was 1,000.
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