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May 1, 2014
It was another regular training session for the Terra Team, and while an exhausted Tooru was already craving a shower, he also knew that the most trying part of the exercise was still before him: the commanding officer's personal evaluation. Generally, Colonel Quan Jing was always serious about making sure everyone on the team could hack it. Those who failed to met his standards faced severe retribution. Those who met his standards got to survive until another day when they would soon be tested again. Even those like Tooru, who had been part of the squad for years, were not exempt in any way. Ratana alone seemed to pass again and again without much difficulty, but the coveted star player of Quan Jing's team was still in the Fire Nation for what now felt like forever.
Naturally, given his usual luck, Tooru was among the last in line. The poor soul before him had been grilled for half an hour over various aspects of his earthbending style while he dreaded his own turn.
But now, his time was upon him. "Tooru, I was watching you closely today," Quan Jing bellowed in his direction, his eyes directed not at the one he addressed but at the scroll he was scribbling on with his pen.
"Yes, Sir," gulped Tooru.
"The bulk of your performance today was...satisfactory," stated the colonel, now looking at Tooru. "But your hurling was off, perhaps by only a little, but still pushing the boundaries of what we can afford. As for your new partner, how do you personally believe his training went today?"
Though he remained rigid, Tooru still managed to raise an eyebrow to this. "He seemed to do okay, but my assignment with him is only temporary, is it not? Ratana's my true partner, and I'll resume training with her when she returns."
Quan Jing blinked for a few uncomfortable seconds. "Of course. Well, I have important matters to attend to now. Just remember to focus more on your hurling next time. Dismissed."
As he withdrew his salute, Tooru could hardly believe his luck as he stared after Quan Jing, who had seemed in an unusual hurry today. Despite being one of the men who sent Ratana on her mission in the first place, Quan Jing appeared to have forgotten that fact, and Ratana wasn't easily forgotten. Tooru thought that maybe she was right and Quan Jing had been on a slip since Gujuhmin. Perhaps that was the case now.
For the past several weeks, Tooru had been troubled by many thoughts. A lot was out of place around the headquarters of the Terra Team since Ratana left. To make matters more annoying, everyone else was bombarding him with questions of her mission and her whereabouts, as though he knew much more than they did. Well, he knew somewhat more than they did admittedly, but he could not share all the details with them. Brawki had entrusted him with more information about her mission - the fact that she was hunting dragons. It was against the elder earthbender's better judgement, as Tooru had previously reneged on Ratana's trust by telling Brawki. Of course, Tooru knew that Ratana was being extra careful and that Brawki knowing was not a major problem to her, only the fact that it was "need-to-know." But Brawki was unfair and Ratana was the first hypocrite. After all, the mission was supposed to be only known of by her and the officers who sent her, but she herself had broken that trust and told Tooru she was going to the Fire Nation.
Tooru let out a deep sigh. The Terra Team, the elite protectors of their kingdom and the sacred group that they were, were meant to work together, as a group, to be able to trust and rely upon one another. This atmosphere of confidentiality was the antithesis of that. Furthermore, Taigang had been showing off more than usual in Ratana's absence and the commanding officers were disturbed, too.
All this would be more than disturbing on its own, let alone with the lingering rumors of an attack on Ba Sing Se. Whispers of a gathering storm and a push for recruitment within the Fire Nation for an upcoming invasion could only linger for so long before reaching the Earth Kingdom. If the Fire Nation was allowing this to be known, they must have the confidence, the audacity and the strength to mount the expected attack soon. If this was the case, then trouble loomed ahead. There was also the possibility that the Fire Nation was deceiving them or allowing the Earth Kingdom to have the information on purpose, but Tooru could neither dread that nor allow for wishful thinking at a time like this, being the soldier that he was.
Another thing was, Tooru did not know how the Fire Nation planned to get such a vast army close to Ba Sing Se in such a short amount of time, let alone how they expected to hold out longer than their Earth Kingdom counterparts. The areas surrounding the city were also of free Earth Kingdom territory and the army would most likely endure many hardships battling through them. In his younger years, Sifu Brawki had been commended by the 51st Earth King by serving in the defense of Ba Sing Se during the Fire Nation's last great bid, which fell quickly. Sifu Brawki had explained to Tooru just the other day that he thought General Sung should have used the time when things were relatively quiet to regain ground on lost colonies when they had the chance. As Sung was the general in charge of the Terra Team, this was not for Brawki to say. Now, they had to think about defending themselves from an impending invasion and they no longer had that option on the horizon. Whatever his plan was, General Iroh must have a grand plan to think he could break through the walls of Ba Sing Se after every attempt the Fire Nation had made in the past had failed.
"Has Uncle Ozai decided to come to Ba Sing Se as well?" Prince Lu Ten asked his father while unpacking in their shared royal suite in Fire Fountain City.
"No," General Iroh told him as he placed his travel tea kettle that he had brought from the capital on a nearby stool. For the next several days, the pair of them were going to other cities around their nation to draw up even more recruits than they already had. Meanwhile, the men they had already gathered were preparing themselves for the battle soon to come. Given the grand scale of a serious attack on Ba Sing Se, they would have one of the grandest fighting forces in the history of the Neverending War, rivaling even the one that ravaged the Air Temples three generations prior. "He's staying in the Fire Nation Capital."
"Such a powerful bender as he would be valuable at a time like this," remarked Lu Ten. "Besides, he's your brother."
"I'm sure he has good reason for why he's needed more back home," Iroh dismissed this concern mildly but firmly. "Anyhow, I have my son accompanying me on this, so I'm not worried about anything going wrong."
"If you say so..."
"Your uncle is just playing the part that's called to him," Iroh continued. "Like the body that is made up of different limbs and organs, all of one's people must depend on each other to exist. One's own roots while building a nation such as ours. You'll have to take note of that when you are Crown Prince. Throughout history, rulers have taken being strong at home for granted when expanding their borders, and paid the price for it. It's important to learn from past mistakes, just like how the Fire Nation's past attempts at the Earth Kingdom capital all failed."
"Speaking of that, is it a matter of concern that the Earth Kingdom anticipates an attack now?"
"Not necessarily, my dear boy. They don't have too much time to prepare themselves, but through this window we can see what their reaction will be ahead of time, and decide our own reaction accordingly."
"How much is that?" June asked Ratana, looming over her like an energized buzzard wasp as she oversaw the Terra Team earthbender counting the money she had won in a nearby village by challenging strangers to games of Pai Sho at a local restaurant.
"Seventeen gold pieces and six copper pieces," Ratana informed her, nonchalant. The sun was barely creeping over the skyline behind the trees of the nearby woods, but the quartet were wide awake now. June, Nyla, Heidze and Ratana were all early risers, however little else they had in common.
"Ugh!" groaned June. "I suppose that's fair enough for now. Let me pocket that profit and we'll see if there's somewhere else we can stop on our way back to the ports."
"No," said Ratana. "You may have five of the gold pieces. That's it for now."
"Are you trying to stiff me!?"
"No," said Ratana, much calmer than her ally. "I'm simply being practical. We'll need some of the money for our travels, particularly as there's four of us to feed now, and I already paid you most of the money originally allotted for my expenses here in the Fire Nation."
"That seems fair," Heidze chimed in before June could counter. "After all, she only got paid one hundred gold pieces to kill you, and you're paying her two hundred. You've taken a substantial chunk of that off already, so you'll have the rest in no time."
"Shh!" Ratana rose her finger to her mouth in haste. "Do you want everyone to hear that??" Furthermore, she was uneasy that Heidze now recalled June telling him a larger sum than she actually had. The Terra Team earthbender would have corrected him herself if the actual price on her head were not much greater than both what June told Heidze and what Heidze told himself.
"Relax," Heidze attempted to steady her. "We're in the middle of nowhere. No one's going to hear us talking about you buying her off."
Ratana narrowed her eyes uneasily and wiped the dust off her knee-caps, which had only just been in the grass. There may have been ticks on them, and Ratana always hated ticks, having been bitten in the back of her leg once growing up, when she had made a mistep in her earthbending practice and fell down, only to get that appaling nibble and deal with the nuisance of the hanging creature from the spot for the next few weeks. Another quirk that bothered her was the tongues of certain animals in a category to which Nyla belonged. With Nyla though, there was the added possibility of him paralyzing her by stunning her with his sloppy weapon. Despite her past experience with komodo rhinos, neither Ratana nor Nyla had taken a liking to one another yet.
"Well, let's not waste any more time," declared Ratana definitively, peering at the grassy hill that they had to ascend next. "To the Earth Kingdom we go. Wait here for now while I check that the coast is clear. There may be Fire Nation battalions in the area, and they may still have an eye out for us for our actions back in Gangkouz."
June stretched both her arms in the air and cracked her knuckles. "Knock yourself out with that, but Nyla would be able to smell them easily if they were near. And I'll finally get the rest of my payment," she smirked. "Both of us can thank our stars for that," she joked, though Ratana shared no pleasure in her kidding.
"Right," Heidze chimed in just as the earthbender disappeared over the hillside. "She can then tell her people that the Dragon of Fire actually did kill his dragon."
"Ummm..I think you're mistaken," said June. "Crown Prince Iroh's title is the Dragon of the West, not the Dragon of Fire. The Dragon of Fire is the Fire Lord's title." She then paused and narrowed her eyes, disapproving of the direction that the conversation was heading. "Maybe you should shut up, Heidze. If you know what's good for you."
"That can't be true," said Heidze, ignoring her glare. "Hisoka said the other night that the Crown Prince was the Dragon of Fire. That was when we were on the mountain where he killed it, at the base. Now that I think of it, he also said that the Crown Prince was a teenager when he fought the dragon and that he himself was a small boy when it happened. Given how old Hisoka looked, Iroh must be really old himself. But that can't be right either," he added, confused. "The Dragon of the West killed his dragon only twenty years ago. Hisoka couldn't have been a boy that recently..."
"What does it matter?!" snapped June. "Maybe Hisoka aged poorly and maybe General Iroh aged well. The point is, Iroh slew the dragon on that mountain. End of story."
"No, not end of story," Heidze rose his voice in defiance. "Hisoka also said the Crown Prince's son accomplished the same feat he did. That would mean Lu Ten also killed a dragon, which he didn't. His father did. There's only one possible answer, then. The Crown Prince that slew the dragon on Mount Koven was Fire Lord Azulon, and his son who killed the last dragon is General Iroh, the current Crown Prince."
Right as June was opening her mouth again to say something threatening, Ratana came to rejoin them. "The coast is clear. It may have seemed like a tedious precaution to you, but you only have to be wrong once for disaster to take hold. Anyhow, let's get going."
"No," Heidze interjected. "Ratana, Hisoka said that the Crown Prince from Mount Koven wasn't the Dragon of the West. It was the Dragon of Fire."
"What? Are you sure?"
"Yes," reaffirmed Heidze. "That means that the dragon that Iroh hunted is still out there."
Ratana's eyes widened. "That settles it. We're not going back to the Earth Kingdom, at least not yet. The original plan is back in place. It's on to Nongkun!" The Terra Team earthbender felt the warmth of new hope inside her, hope that she had taken for granted, having lost it and regained it again. Her mission had not failed after all.
June, however, was not taking to the news with enthusiasm. "Why waste more time if going to Nongkun will most likely take you to the same conclusion you've already arrived at? This false flag was a beacon that would've led you to accept the truth, but you're still pursuing this venture that was never a good idea in the first place."
Ratana shook her head. "Whatever the odds, whatever Quan Jing's intentions were, whatever I have to face in order to uncover the truth, it is my duty to see this through to the end. We're not all that far from Nongkun now, so it's time to get to the investigation I originally set out for."
And with that, she was back on track.
- "Like the body that is made up of different limbs and organs, all of one's people must depend on each other to exist." This is based on a Hindu proverb, which uses "moral creatures" instead of "all of one's people," but when referring to Ozai, the former seemed way too out of place.
- This was originally going to be one of the shorter chapters, but ended up being long for a DSV chapter, with just over 2,500 words.
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