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|Gathering Storm: Part 3|
March 30, 2014
Later on in the afternoon the recruitment rally was in full swing and an enormous crown of people far as the eye could see clustered about the area near the Fire Lord's palace. Once again, Ratana, June and Heidze found themselves pushing and shoving just to find their way around. After elbowing aside several strangers, they found themselves gasping for breath.
June peered through the crowd impatiently. "Thandao Zhou is somewhere around here, and we need to find him and question him about where to find the spot where the Crown Prince fought his dragon."
"I see," stated Ratana. "Finding him should definitely be our highest priority in that case. Now the tricky part is going to be locating an individual person in all of this, let alone we don't know and have no idea what they look like." If anything, the crowd had actually thickened since their arrival, and while it had been a chore to make their way through the crowd before, it seemed impossible now that the rally was in full swing. "How are we supposed to find him, anyway?" asked Ratana.
"Supposedly he'll be close to the stage," answered Heidze. "I saw a portrait of him in his office. He has a balding spot on his head, and a long beard that stretches around all corners of his jaw."
"Great," said Ratana. "Well, let's keep moving then. There doesn't appear to be any sort of shortcut anywhere." For what felt like the better part of an hour, the trio fought their way through the crowd to get closer to the stage at the front of the setting. Nyla was too large of a pet to be allowed up here at this time, so June had left him back at an inn where they had rented a room.
Once they got within fifty feet of the stage, they found another roadblock in their way. A clunky metal chain stretched from one end of the square to the other, separating them from those on the other side of it. A heavyset man held out an arm to halt them from attempting to come any further. "Tickets, please."
"I thought this event was public," said June, exasperated.
"It is," said the man. "For the most part. If you want to stand closer to the stage though, it'll cost you. Those spots are in high demand and if we let anyone have them, there would be chaos."
"Alright, how much for one, then?" Ratana inquired impatiently.
"Sorry, but they're sold out," answered the man. "Now beat it!"
Heidze sulked "Ugh! Just our luck..."
"Now what do we do?" Ratana wondered aloud yet again.
"He's obviously closer than here, so we have to get through somehow," shrugged June.
Although the security in place at the large gathering was tight to say the least, Heidze pointed out that they could weasel their ways under the thick, winding red rope and make their way gradually to the front area, where the stage and the speakers who were chosen would be congregated. As one would expect, the crowd was a tide of varying shades of red, which Ratana and Heidze blent well into, as did June with her appropriate tattoos.
"Say Ratana, isn't your main enemy here?" asked Heidze curiously.
"What do you mean?"
"General Iroh. This is the rally that he's putting together, so I bet he's not too far off from where we are now. He's the one that you're trying to discredit and defame by discover dragons, right?"
"Oh." Ratana had not thought much about that, being as preoccupied as she was with the actual finding of the dragons. She was now as close to him as she had been since she arrived in the Fire Nation. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
"I'm curious to imagine what he will say when he addresses the crowd," stated June.
"I'm fine not knowing," said Ratana. "He'll be the last one to speak, so I'd like to be gone well before he gets up on the stage. Thandao Zhou's the one we're looking for."
"So nervous of seeing your opponent," smirked June. "Never thought I'd see you backing down from a fight, oh mighty Terra Team earthbender!"
"Fighting him was not what I was sent to the Fire Nation to do, even if he is the target of my efforts."
"Hmmm...does it have to be like that, though?" questioned June, brisk. "After all, the point of your mission is to prevent him from attacking Ba Sing Se. Why not just attack him if you're this close? If he's dead, he can't invade your capital."
A nerve was struck in Ratana's pulse by June's calling Ba Sing Se your capital instead of our capital. She was from the Earth Kingdom, was she not? "That's suicide with this many people around. And he's one of the most powerful firebenders and ablest commanders of loyal troops around. As a good soldier, my duty is to confront him indirectly...by finding a live dragon and proving to the world that he didn't deliver them into extinction."
Heidze peered at the heads above his own as they walked by, looking for one who looked like Thandao Zhou. "Well, let's find Old Tad as they called him and ask him where this mountain is, then."
"Fantastic turnout today, Dragon of the West," Thandao Zhou complemented his benevolent host of the day.
"Most thankful you could set aside time from your busy schedule, esteemed Vaultmaster," grinned General Iroh, looking up at the front of the stage before turning to his son. "By the way, Lu Ten, do you remember when you were training in the courtyard and you fought off five of your Master Huo Chung's former pupils? You later recalled that according to our propaganda, five firebenders is the equivalent of ten earthbenders."
"Yes, I remember that," replied Lu Ten. "What about that day, Father?"
"Well, I mentioned it in passing to your grandfather and he liked that line. Therefore, in your speech today, you're to tell that story and tell the audience that you, the young prince of their Nation, are capable of besting ten earthbenders in combat."
"Are you sure?" a surprised Prince Lu Ten questioned his father the Crown Prince. "I also remember you saying it's not wise to underestimate earthbenders."
"And so I did," Iroh confirmed agreeably, albeit regrettably. "Your grandfather though, the Fire Lord, wants it included in the speech, and we are under his command."
"I took a look at the rest of your speech, Prince Lu Ten," the bearded Thandao Zhou butted back into the conversation. "I'm sure you'll do well. Not too well, though, or you might upstage your father. Don't forget that he's addressing the rally immediately after you do."
"As though I could do that if I tried," scoffed Lu Ten. "Have you forgotten who my father is?" Lu Ten's outfit was a paler shade of chalk-red than that of Thandao's robe or Prince Iroh's uniform.
"Of course he hasn't," Iroh chimed in. "He mentioned me in his own address. Your speech was excellent, by the way, Vaultmaster." Tad had already given his speech mere minutes before.
"I'm honored that you thought so, great Crown Prince!" said Tad. "As you know, given my profession, I make it a point of mine to know every old soldier and their story. But for now, your highnesses, I must be off! I regret not being able to stick around for your stage time, but I'm swamped with things to do back at the Vault. Who knows what state the place is in now that I've been away for so long?"
"It's quite understandable," Iroh nodded. "Take care, Vaultmaster Tad!"
"It's so hot out here today," said Ratana. "I never thought that I would be so close to claustrophobic in such an open, yet crowded environment."
"Some guy back there said it was as hot as Ember Island," noted June.
"I always wanted to visit Ember Island," Heidze remarked offhandedly. "I hear it's nice."
"Guys, look over there!" Ratana pointed out, suddenly re-energized. "That's the man who just spoke! The one with the massive beard, though I can't say why it is he's leaving the rally early."
"What does it matter?" scoffed June. "Let's get him!"
"Maybe the speaker on stage right now chased him away," Heidze joked.
"And it always has been and always will be your most sacred duty to represent your homeland, expand our prosperity and take care of the maintaining of the empire your ancestors built long before you crawled in this world," the man on stage projected loudly, though expressionless, as though he himself would rather be someplace else, and that vibe was contagious. His eyebrows were sharp, his hair gray and he sported a messy set of thin facial whiskers. Ratana's first impression was that he was remarkably unattractive, even for an older man.
"Yeah, he sounds like he's giving a classroom lecture," shrugged Ratana. "Anyhow, the Vaultmaster's almost at the edge of the rally. Let's hurry!"
Many guards of the royal procession lined the edges of the square, like they were staring down everyone who passed by. One of them glanced in Ratana, June and Heidze's direction for a fair moment, but quickly redirected his attention to a pair of teenagers engaged in a fistfight and wasted no time in marching to their vicinity.
Just as they turned the corner, June sprung forth and slammed an unsuspectingly alarmed Thandao Zhou against a building. She proceeded to pull her dagger out and pointed it at his throat, holding it mere inches away.
"Wh-what do you want?" a pale Vaultmaster gulped, looking from side to side for help, but finding none because the local guards were in the square themselves. "I don't have any money, I swear."
"June, put that dagger down!" Ratana yelled, storming over behind her and Heidze. "I'm sorry, Sir. We don't want trouble, really. All we want is to know which mountain it was where Iroh had his legendary battle around here."
"I-I don't know what you're talking about," he trembled.
"The one where the Crown Prince fought his dragon."
"Look, if you don't want to tell us, we can make you talk," said June. "We can do this either the easy way or the hard way."
"It's Mount Koven," stated Thandao Zhou. "In the Northwest."
"Thank you," a frustrated June uttered before releasing the panicked Vaultmaster, who scurried off into the distance as quick as his legs would carry him.
"Seriously June, what is your problem?" Ratana bellowed. "We just needed directions, you didn't have to act like you're mugging the poor man. It's like you're drawing as much attention to my quest as you were before our bargain..."
"Quit dwelling on it," June countered. "We got what we need, now let's get going."
"Hmph!" As they walked back through the rally, which they unfortunately had to do in order to get outside the city limits, Ratana noticed something in the delay which seemed to calm her down for a bit. Near the front she spotted a familiar face, albeit in more grand attire than the last time she had seen him. It was none other than Lu Tong.
"What is he doing here?" Ratana thought to herself. "Lu Tong!" she called, enthused. Perhaps he could join them, and she and he could climb a mountain again, as they had last time! He would be a great help, and what a superb coincidence with them both being in the capital at the same time. It did seem she was due for a lucky change in circumstances. Ratana continued to call to him, but she did not seem to be heard.
To her confusion, the dear friend from the enemy nation she had come to know back in Gangkouz ascended the steps of the erected platform just as the dull, elderly man descended. The announcer himself came to the forefront now. "That was Han Shui, the Dragon of Water, ladies and gentleman! And up next, your youthful, powerful prince, the third in line for the throne, Lu Ten!"
Ratana froze. She stared up as Lu Tong took the stage from the announcer and everyone around her began to fade. This...had to be a mistake, she thought. How could the man she had known, and the dreaded Lu Ten, son of the Dragon of the West, be one in the same? This was impossible. Ratana did not feel a thing in her body when she rubbed shoulders with those near her and seemed unnaturally aloof. The only good memories she had during the whole time she spent in Gangkouz were shattered. An inaudible whimper escaped her breath by hairs, the air in her lungs and the blood in her veins ceasing circulation. It was fortunate that she had not had anything to eat that afternoon, for otherwise she would have become even more nauseous. The sudden spinning of the world came to a halt as well, as the people before her stopped moving and the sun itself froze, its rays of light solely shining on her and on the unfathomable sight before her. June and Heidze each said something loud to Ratana, but she no longer had a desire to hear either of them. Reality sunk in with dream that Ratana had back in Gankouz melting away. Lu Tong, or rather Lu Ten's birth status was his destiny. His birth status was his true self. His birth status was his betrayal of her. What she came to witness couldn't be true.
But it was.
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