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|Valley of the Ancient City: Part 4|
May 29, 2014
The sun rose with lustering fragrance over the civilization that had honored its existence above all else and in much the same way for millennia. But today was an unusual day it began for them, different from most others. Having been in secrecy for so long, they were now more unaccustomed to outsiders than ever, even though they had encountered several in such a short span of time. First, they had taken notice of that young long-haired drunkard from Nongkun, whom had not actually reached the Sun Warriors' civilization itself, but had made it close enough that their scouts picked up on his presence. Since they rarely saw outsiders so close nonetheless, it was presumed that he would dominate discussions on the subject for years to come, but that was not the case.
Just the other day, one of their booby traps had encountered a random visitor who happened to be an adolescent boy all by himself by the looks of it. However, there was another whose appearance was even more peculiar. It was almost never that the Sun Warriors received a non-firebending visitor from another of the four nations, let alone one that the Fire Nation was at war with. Curiosity loomed the air for an explanation of the how and the why behind her, but at the behest of Chief Shang, the topic remained hushed up.
Unlike these particular outsiders, many of their like in the past had not made it deep enough to discover the existence of the contemporary Sun Warriors. The majority were either turned around or claimed by the many assorted traps that lay in their way. Others were able to explore the archaic city substantially, but did not find the more secluded district in the corner of the valley, where the contemporary Sun Warriors now resided for the most part, still clinging to their old ways and long-held traditions, but no longer numerous enough to fill the vast metropolis they had once. It was ages before any of them were born that their secrecy from the rest of the world was decided upon, to carry out and do their own part in preserving the balance, for the Sun Warriors knew many things of which those they called "outsiders" were ignorant.
It was not one of the bounty hunter's favorable moments, and that was surely an understatement. Shortly after she and Nyla parted ways with Ratana and Heidze and she assured them that she would not possibly run into danger as they might, she had done just that. Indeed, it had been barely a couple of minutes before she came face to face with a booby trap, which startled Nyla and shook her from the shirshu's back. Luckily, that had not injured her for long, and she and her pet both proceeded on foot. Considering what had just happened, they should've been more careful. Almost stupidly, they encountered yet another booby trap: a small set of thorny spikes that had been triggered by her tripping on a rope. This time, it was June who was startled first and she selflessly shielded Nyla from further harm, her fall earning a sprained ankle and a harsh cut near her foot.
Not long afterward, Nyla had reacted to something else: the scent that emitted from the bag that his owner had entrusted to Ratana. It was as though the stars had aligned when both pairs ran into trouble not long apart from one another. June had herself to attend to and could not concern herself with her target and the young brat who accompanied her, but given the events of the days past, she still felt the need to take action.
Since June herself was in no condition to ride or to run, she sent Nyla out on his own. Nyla was one that she could trust for this, to look after both himself and to do whatever it was that needed to be done. June hoped that he would manage to protect Ratana, her payer, at the very least, even if something happened to Heidze. In the meantime, she was free to recover as she needed and saw fit. Fortunately, she had bandages leftover from when the group lost the majority of their supplies when they got separated from the Nongkun residents following the rocky avalanche. It was most likely for the best that they were not present now, as they were simply slowing up the group and they had no real purpose for staying with them once they already knew where they were going.
Having her life saved by a target of hers had created a debt that June longed to rid herself of, for it was an uncomfortable irritant. It would have been far easier for Ratana to have saved herself and proceeded without further restraints in her quest. Then again, June and Nyla had been assets in the past, so they could be called closer to even. The youthful bounty hunter had received a fair portion of what was owed so far, but she still held out hopes that Ratana's supposed bank account in the Earth Kingdom would cover the rest of it, despite the earthbender showing that dishonesty at times was not beneath her, which contrasted with her high-and-mighty persona. If there was no light at the end of that tunnel, June did not know what she have to do then, but her patience had already worn thin.
"Rise and shine my brother," one of the Sun Warrior guards playfully told the other.
"The sun's already been up for hours, idiot," the other guard shot back. "I've already risen and shinen!" His eyes, however, told a different story.
"Like Koh you have! Rulong, you're practically dosing off all over again now. Why didn't you get any sleep last night? Don't tell me you were ogling Chang Lei again."
"You're imagining things, Dalong," Rulong managed to rise his voice a few notches, despite his lack of energy. "And what's it to you if I was?"
Dalong's response was halted by the arrival of someone else to the scene. "Good morning, ummm...Sun Warriors." Heidze had left the campsite he had constructed for himself and was now wearing the blanket from Gangkouz that Ratana had entrusted him with around his waist, having run short on other clean, dry clothing.
"Good morning," Dalong greeted him with sour cynicism. "What brings you here today, outsider?"
Unlike Rulong, whom he had gotten no more sleep than the previous evening, Heidze maintained his usual energy. He was a morning person. "I was wondering if you'll permit me to see the prisoner."
"Why?" Rulong raised a guarded eyebrow. "I thought that you bore no connection with the earthbending woman."
"That's right," said Dalong. "You said the other day that you did not know her when the esteemed Chief Shang asked you if you did."
"And I don't," Heidze reassured them. "I merely want to look into the eyes of the one who they say came to do you harm. All you Sun Warriors seem like such fine people in the little time I've been around you."
Dalong exchanged a communicative stare with Rulong prior to answering Heidze's request. "You may not see her," he told the boy with a firm tone. "The chief still has more that he wants to know of her, and she's reserved for his own interrogation until her fate is determined. Just be glad you're not in there with her. You're lucky that the shaman Wu judged you favorably."
Disheartened, Heidze accepted that he had no choice but to leave for now and attempt to return later. He exchanged a curt nod with Rulong and Dalong before turning about and walking back out the long, stony hall, away from the room where his companion Ratana was currently being held. As he was not a firebender like many of the Sun Warriors, he relied on the torches for light in this hallway.
"That's a rather long skirt for a boy," Heidze heard a feminine voice say to him as he marched back into the outdoors. It was the girl from yesterday, the one who had pointed a spear at Ratana from behind. Her braided hair, longer than most of the Sun Warriors', flowed in the gentle outdoor breeze as she spoke. "Then again, I admit I have no idea what's in fashion for outsiders these days. Although, some of the elder men and women were staring at it when you walked into our borders this morning."
"Huh?" Heidze voiced, baffled at her comments. "Oh, do you mean the blanket?"
"I suppose so. Granted, blankets are traditionally used to cover your body while you're asleep, not cover your waist when you're awake. I presume outsiders have taken to wearing them differently in the years since they last visited here, which was a few years before I was born."
"What did you mean when you said the elders were staring at it when I walked into your borders?"
"They were intrigued by it," explained the girl. "It was like they've seen it before. If that's the case, I can begin to see their point. The designs engraved on it resemble some of our own. That pattern was fashionable for our weavers around twenty years ago."
"Well, it's not from here," Heidze informed her, somewhat defensively. "R-, I mean a friend of mine gave it to me." Luckily, he was able to stop himself before exposing that he knew Ratana. "She said she got it from a friend of hers in Gangkouz, who got it from his family. Unless his family in turn got it from you people, I don't see there being a connection."
To Heidze's relief, the girl with braided hair merely shrugged and did not pursue the matter further. "Maybe it was a coincidence then." She then proceeded to lift a nearby drum along with the accompanying sticks and carry it away from the building and in the direction of a wide open area where others appeared to be gathering.
As she walked away, Heidze hurried his legs to keep up with the new girl with lustrous, braided hair. "So, what are you doing now?"
It was a few seconds before she answered him. "Preparing."
"Preparing for what?"
"For one of our ceremonies."
"I see," said Heidze. "Is there anything that I can do to help?"
"Not really. I think we're all set. The ceremony's due to begin soon and the whole tribe's going to be there."
Heidze took note of these latter words, wondering if the whole tribe meant also the two guardsmen who watched over Ratana. "I could get that drum for you."
"I've got it," she reassured him. "Thanks anyway."
"Okay, I'll get that other one back there then."
"It's alright. There's only the one left, and I can come back for it."
"Nah, this'll save you the time," Heidze told her eagerly, before hustling back to where she got the first drum and bending down to pick up the second. When Heidze tried to lift it, however, he felt as though it was rooted to the ground as a tree would be. It took a few moments before it would budge, and while he managed to yank it from the ground for a bit, it soon collapsed back to the ground again. The drum was heavier than it looked. Panting, Heidze turned to see the braided girl balancing a similar drum with both her hips, still walking toward the open area. Relieved that she had not witnessed his moment of weakness, he ran to catch back up. "On second thought, why don't I just take those drumsticks for you. That'll make it less awkward to carry the drum."
"Fine," the girl told him, stopping just long enough for Heidze to take the sticks off the base of the drum. She was clearly well-trained and used to carrying these instruments.
Heidze scratched the back of his neck, his stomach churning. He tried to remember back to the recent trip he took to Ember Island, which had been his dream spot to visit for a long while. Now he was liking this place, better. "You...have a nice personality." The blushing boy from the streets of Gangkouz could have slapped himself in the face after saying this.
To Heidze's surprise and relief though, the girl showed him a toothless smile. "Thanks," she said. "You do, too."
- This is one of few chapters where Ratana, Lu Ten and Iroh do not appear.
- The blanket which Lu Ten gave Ratana in Chapter 27: Separation, was originally given to Iroh during his last visit to the Sun Warriors.
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