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March 12, 2017
Fortunately for Lu Ten, after hours on the run, the answer to his clothing problem seemed right around the corner, or rather, right up the street. In the midst of a crowded marketplace was a merchant with a small goatee was selling cabbages, and beside him was a portly gentleman running a costume cart, with no patrons currently occupying him.
"Excuse me," Lu Ten said as he approached the merchant. "I'd like to by an outfit."
"How many gold pieces do you got?" asked the seller.
"I don't have any money with me."
"Then beat it."
"Well, I don't have any money, but I'll trade you what I'm wearing for one of your outfits," said Lu Ten.
"These are all expensive merchandise," the man scoffed. "What would I want with a soldier's uniform?"
"This is a high quality costume I am wearing, too," Lu Ten uttered without backing down. "See, it looks just like a real army uniform. I'm not an Earth Kingdom soldier, but I bet you thought I was one." Since he added the words "Earth Kingdom," it wasn't a lie.
"Hah! You're a bold one." The seller stroked his chin as he pondered this. "Well fine, there is one costume here I'd be willing to swap for that, but you're not gonna like it."
Having talked her way through the previous checkpoint without much trouble, Ratana was reaching the end of the Middle Ring, and she was well aware that getting into the Upper Ring would not be as easy. She approached a crowded marketplace, with a mass of people forming an almost-wall around the square. It was a perfect spot to go for someone not wanting to be detected.
Out of the corner of her eye, Ratana spotted something hanging from one of the vender stands, something which clearly did not belong there. "Sir, excuse me," she spoke as she approached the keeper of the stall. "Where do you get your merchandise from? I was just curious."
"Are you thinking about buying something?" the man asked the seemingly-Water Tribe tourist, his eyes narrowing. "I don't normally carry anything foreign in my supplies."
"Ummm...yes," Ratana answered on the familiar ground of improvisation. "I wanted to find something appropriate for a local night out on the town."
The man crossed his arms. "I keep all my costumes in my warehouse. Mostly I buy them second-hand from old theater troupes."
"I see..." said Ratana. "Where did you get that one?" She was pointing to one which resembled a regular army uniform.
"That's not exactly typical night on the town material," the man said, raising his voice.
"Well...I'm going to a costume party," she made up on the spot.
"Don't you want something more feminine, then?" asked the man. "If you really plan to go to a costume party dressed up as a woman soldier, I'm afraid you'll look overblown in absurdity."
Naturally, Ratana could not break the cover of her disguise to point out the obvious irony in the uncouth salesman's statement. "I think that I would look just fine in it, thank you very much."
"Very well," said the merchant. "And why do you want to know where it came from?"
"Just to see how authentic it will be," she replied. "I want to be perfectly sure. Now are you going to help me or not? All I'm trying to do is buy one of your costumes."
"To tell the truth, it was not one of my costumes to begin with," said the merchant. "Actually, I haven't held it for very long. Earlier today a young man with a top-knot came by and swapped me it."
"What do you mean he 'swapped' you for it?" asked Ratana.
"Just that," he responded. "He traded me those – the clothes that he was wearing – for one of my costumes. Seemed quite desperate to be rid of what he wore, but it didn't look like something I would ordinarily be interested in. But hey, if you want to wear it to your little costume party, I guess that it ain't a total waste."
"What outfit did you give to him in return?" Ratana asked quickly.
"Huh? Why do you want to know that?"
"Just tell me!"
"Alright, sheesh," the merchant backed down in a mild but sudden mode of panic. "I wound up giving him a wacky purple outfit."
"A wacky purple outfit?" Ratana repeated.
"Yes," he confirmed. "That was designed after a rather infamous garment that the King of Omashu is rumored to possess. It's said that he dons the bizarre piece to test people or play with their heads. That was the least valuable commodity on my stand, and the only one that I didn't judge worth too much for me to trade it for the uniform."
"Where did such a person go after making that absurd exchange?"
"What?" asked the man, surprised to be asked yet another question on the matter. "Well he went thataway." He pointed toward the entrance to the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se.
"Right," Ratana said, nodded in understanding. "Thanks for all your help," she added as she turned and darted in the direction he had indicated."
"You've got to be kidding me!" the man yelled, spitting shaking his fist in a rage. "Thanks for wasting my time."
Now that Ratana knew where she had to go, she would not let a single fraction of a second go to waste. It was no longer the middle of the night, but the middle of the day. By now, everyone back at the headquarters of the Terra Team based at the Outer Wall would know of her disappearance, and chances were highly likely that they would have found out about where she deserted her post to go to. Even though Hasida would never have broken Ratana's trust and revealed the truth, Tooru certainly would have. Regardless of where personal feelings were, he had never been that great at keeping a secret, even at the best of times.
So now the treacherous Fire Prince was wandering around the impenetrable capital of the Earth Kingdom, dressed in something completely ridiculous-looking. That would make him easy for Ratana to find. Moreover, even if he had worn something that was more common, the fact that it was purple of all colors would make him stand out anywhere in any of the four nations, save perhaps for a commune of cactus juice enthusiasts.
Lu Ten had to hustle to make up for any lost time that had built up while he changed into his costume, knocked out a city guard, changed out of the purple mockery, changed into the guard's outfit, moved the sleeping body out of sight, passed by the checkpoint into the Upper Ring and changed back into the purple costume once he found another abandoned alleyway, which were far less common in the Upper Ring than they were in the Lower Ring. Thinking quickly, Lu Ten resolved that wearing the purple outfit, while it stood out fairly distinctly, would be better than the guard's outfit going forward, as the hapless man's comrades would realize that he went missing and that someone was wearing his former outfit once they glimpsed his body naked save for undergarments at the waist.
Naturally, those still at the Earth Kingdom headquarters, including Ratana, would now know that he had left and that he was on his way into the Upper Ring, where his mission lay. At least he was back in his second disguise now, and no one would be likely to recognize his face in the Upper Ring of all places. That meant that he was running out of time.
Ratana had spotted her target in the nick of time, on his way crossing into the Upper Ring. But when she approached the checkpoint, she found she could not talk her way here as she had to get into the Middle Ring. "I'm sorry, but you do not possess the proper transit authorization and therefore you cannot travel to the Upper Ring." The city guard crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at Ratana when she made her request to him for a second time.
"Please make an exception," Ratana said, raising her voice in urgency. "I know that it wouldn't be professional of you to do it, but it's an emergency and I have to be able to go in there. It's more than an emergency...a crisis." If she had not been banished from the city interior on her previous visit, this would have been infinitely more simple and easy for the lone woman on the Terra Team. As a member of the elite squad, she had a right to go freely between the rings. Coming into the impenetrable city in cognito, however, did not grant her any such privilege by default.
"No, no and for the third time, no!" The man grew increasingly impatient with the woman who appeared to be from the Northern Water Tribe. "Whatever supposed emergency you claim to have, rules are rules."
Ratana was getting absolutely nowhere with the city guard, and she spotted a pair of Dai Li agents not too far away from where the checkpoint was. One of them gave her a quick look and then turned away. Naturally, every Dai Li agent in Ba Sing Se would have a sketch of her as someone to watch out for. And if she was caught by the cultural protectors for a second time, that would be it for her.
Once she was a few paces from the crowded corner, Ratana yanked her right foot out of her long boot and felt the cobbled stones on the paved path beneath her feet. Her seismic sense would be her guide. Perhaps she was not as versed as that blind girl that she had met in Gaoling who was gifted enough to see without seeing, but with a little luck, she could bring herself to sense Lu Ten's form when she knew where he was moments earlier and what direction he was walking in. However hard she concentrated, the forms of the objects – especially those in motion – remained fuzzy. It was several moments before she could make out Lu Ten through the haze.
Desperate to catch up to him fast, Ratana found herself running out of options. She had to break through the wall which the guards at the checkpoints would not allow her to pass. Doing so would expose her as an earthbender and an impostor if anyone was looking.
All she could do was wait for the Dai Li to turn their ugly heads the other way and make a bolt for it. Swing her arms around in a swift motion, Ratana tumbled a precise handful of small boulders the wall enough for a hole to come about large enough for her to squeeze through. In the commotion, all of the persons nearby looked in the direction of the falling rocks, but none of them were quick enough to see who had caused the crumbling avalanche. The walls of Ba Sing Se were notoriously thick, so no amateur bender was to blame. Not to mention, it was a capital crime to smash through one of Ba Sing Se's sacred walls as such.
Ratana wasted no time at all in chasing down the streets toward the path that she had pictured Lu Ten walking down. Undoubtedly she was drawing even more attention now, especially with her three ponytails bouncing up and down with every step. She had almost caught up to where Lu Ten was before, and glanced what looked like the tail end of his robe in the distance.
Around the next corner, Ratana grasped Lu Ten in plain sight. She jerked her knee and erected an earthen barrier in his path, and the Fire Prince turned to face her. With their eyes locked, now was the time for Ratana to finish the job. She paused and took a step forward, not preparing herself to bend just yet. After all, by firebending Lu Ten would automatically expose himself as a firebender and write his own sentence, which gave her a slight advantage.
However, a few seconds later, a pair of cuffs fastened themselves to each of her wrists, and the chains which accompanied them were brought back, pulling her upright.
One of the wielders spoke to her. "I thought that you would have learned your lesson," Gitsu said smugly. "Ratana of Gaipan."
"Stop!" Ratana called out in vain. She ought to have pointed out the prince to them TOO, but she neglected to in the heat of the moment.
"Be quiet!" Gitsu barked at her. "Whatever's going on is not your concern now." Up ahead, another two pairs of Dai Li agents came to approach the scene.
Ratana had her opportunity and blown it. In her hesitation, she had cemented her failure, and was now on her way to rot for it.
- The last line spoken by the guard at the checkpoint is one frequently said by Getafix, the druid in the Asterix comic book series.
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