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|Record from Gujuhmin|
June 19, 2014
The building with the archive of documents from past missions was not underground like the main base of the Terra Team. The space of the barracks was limited and the archives had grown vast over the years, especially over the past century when skirmishes against the Fire Nation were common. It was located in the same town where Ratana had met a merchant from Kyoshi Island shortly before the attack on Gujuhmin, which the document in question was a record of. Fortified and heavily watched, it was set up like a library, except that it was closed to the public and hardly anyone had authorization to access it. The guard was changed at intervals throughout the day. There would be an opening at around midnight by which an intruder, if clever, would have an opportunity to slip in and acquire something covertly.
When the guard in front of the multi-story building was changed around midnight, the guard on duty left his post and the replacement was delayed by five minutes. This had usually been the case for the past several years. It seemed that those who ran the facility did not suspect a break-in to take place during the middle of the night. Tooru, of course, was one of the few who knew of this information. Normally only the caretaker and the current guards on duty knew the exact schedule. However, in his days prior to joining the Terra Team, Tooru performed routine patrols and other mundane tasks for the local regiments. As he awaited the news of his pending promotion to the elite squad, Tooru also spent some late nights guarding this very building. Those had been long nights of not knowing whether he would become a part of the Terra Team or not, and had been anxious for an answer to whether Brawki's training had paid off. Since this was not all that long ago, Tooru still knew a couple of the guards on duty, and as there had not been a break-in in years, he doubted they would have reason to believe tonight would be any different.
Once the first guard departed his post and the coast was clear, Heidze seized the moment and picked the lock on the front door, then entered the hall. At Tooru's instruction he crept up to the second floor, and then to the third door on the left. The interior of the building reeked of dust, and Heidze was forced to put a finger under his nose in order to extinguish the sound of a sneeze that might be just loud enough to give him away. Like the prisoner section of the Sun Warrior city that seemed so far away now, the passage was essentially windowless, save for the narrow one in the corner. And there was no hanging candlelight. Therefore, it was with great strain to his eyes that Heidze scanned the dates of the documents within the past year by month and by day. At last, he was nearing the one for Gujuhmin from the date Tooru supplied him with.
Before they had come here, Tooru had offered to use his earthbending to provide an outside distraction should Heidze be taking too long inside the building, but Heidze had resolved to decline this offer. His time on the streets of Gangkouz had taught him that discretion was of the essence in jobs like this, and the cleanest way to fulfill it was to be in and out like he was never there. That's also what the Huoxilong bosses always told him, too. Fortunately, the object that he sought was not one that was likely to missed, amidst the hundreds of shelves stashing thousands of similar-looking scrolls. It would only be noticed if someone else was looking for it at the same time.
When he finally had the scroll in his hand and made to leave, Heidze froze in his tracks. From around the opposing corner, a light was coming, similar to those guiding lights of flame bent by the Sun Warriors when traveling through deserted tunnels in their own city. But there was no firebending here. Instead, it was an elderly man carrying a candle, his long, white beard stretching nearly to his waist. Breathing as quietly as possible, Heidze scurried to the outer face of the shelf, which obscured him from view. Realizing this must be the caretaker, Heidze remained hidden by the shelf he had been looking through just moments ago. Clutching a leather-bound book, the caretaker surveyed the shelf and was working his way toward the other side, where Heidze was.
Given that this operation had already gone several minutes past what was originally expected, Heidze thought of the risk that Tooru might have grown worried and decided to work up a distraction after all. At that moment, though, the caretaker paused in the scribbling of his pen. Then he scribbled again, harder than before, but the frustration began to show on his face. The pen had run out of ink, first smudging, then making only faint marks and now would not make any mark no matter how vigorously it was drawn over the page.
The caretaker exited the room, louder than he had originally entered. Heidze's sigh of relief did not last for long, though. Peering out the window, the short boy noticed that the guard was back in place and that Tooru was not far off. Spotting Heidze in the window, he held a finger to his mouth. Heidze snorted in his mind, as though such a gesture would be necessary to keep him silent at a time like this. Meanwhile, Tooru was tip-toeing over to where the new guard paced back and forth. It looked like discretion was quite out of the question now if Tooru was planning on knocking out the guard.
But that was not what Tooru was planning. "Hello Wang," he uttered with a perhaps-too-flamboyant wave of his arm.
"Tooru, what are you doing here?" the previously-silent guard jumped in astonishment at the unexpected disruption.
"I just left the tavern," Tooru lied to his apparent acquaintance. "Half-price on boulder ales, would you believe it?"
"Pah!" Wang scoffed. "You shouldn't be looking for nightlife in a quiet market town like this. Ba Sing Se is better. In fact, you should probably enjoy the fun parts of the city while you can, given the Fire Nation's impending attack."
"Indeed, that's no secret now. We'll all see quite a lot of Ba Sing Se when they arrive." The Terra Team earthbender stole a glance up to the window where Heidze was gradually easing himself out, hanging by his finger tips, his feet still a distance from the ground. Tooru yawned loudly and stretched his arms in the air, waving one in front of his mouth. In response to these movements, a mound of dirty earth sprouted up below Heidze's feet, which Wang, facing the opposite way, could not hear any noises over Tooru's excessive yawn.
"Tired?" asked Wang.
"A little," said Tooru. "You're shift's almost over, right? How about joining me for one last round before crashing?"
"You must be quite loaded if you forgot that my shift only just started," said Wang. "How much have you had?"
"I don't know," said Tooru. "Lost count. Maybe I should head back to the barracks, now that I think of it. Take care, Wang."
"You too, Tooru. Stay out of trouble, unlike that partner of yours."
"How goes everything?" Quan Jing inquired to his loyal guest, in the private confines of his office within the Terra Team's compound.
"Everything is taken care of," Taigang informed him. "I convinced a few of my colleagues that Ratana's mission on her own was contrary to the Terra Team's nature and they seem to believe the rumor that she acted out at you because she couldn't deal with her own failure. Some of those who might've spoken in her favor at the court martial are now less likely to do so."
"Good," stated Quan Jing. "You know the whole truth and you take my side anyway. That is wise of you."
"I take the big picture into account," said Taigang, knowing what his superior officer wanted to hear.
"As do I," said Quan Jing. "Just like when I was younger and my father and my brother were killed in the same battle against the Fire Nation. They were my family and I did have the chance to save them both during that engagement. However, I knew that I would be a more competent commander for the local militia than either or them, who had carelessly let the Fire Nation break our lines in the first place. So, with a heavy heart, I allowed them to meet their fate and subsequently followed in their stead. Many would find that disgusting and underhanded. When fighting a war, though, troublesome means have to be justified by our eventual end...of victory."
"I understand," Taigang told his colonel. "You were the best for the position, and it was for the greater good. I don't find that underhanded or corrupt. And even the best of commanders make mistakes from time to time."
"It just had to be Ratana that was close by," said Quan Jing. "If it were anyone else that I had to get rid of, I would've simply assigned them to the front line in the harshest of conditions and the worst of areas. But she would have the gumption to survive that ordeal. With her, it was more complicated. That's why I seized the chance for the mission upon hearing of the Nongkun rumor."
"What would you have done if she had been victorious, Sir?" asked Taigang. "If she actually had found a real dragon and proof that it existed."
"Don't be stupid," Quan Jing retorted. "Dragons are extinct. Everyone knows that. Whatever happens, she must not succeed in her court martial. The trial must be as swift as possible. I don't want too many people coming forward with talk of her so-called heroism at Gujuhmin. She'll undoubtedly want revenge at this point. Some dare to say that I cower from a conflict, but if there's anybody who can win this war for our side, it's me. That may sound selfish, but none of our other commanders in the region can be trusted to handle that responsibility. General Sung sure can't. I listen and wait for the right time to seek conflict, with my neutral jing."
"Of course, Sir," stated Taigang. "We'll make sure everything goes according to plan."
- The town where the building with the document is located first appeared in Chapter 5: At the Marketplace.
For the collective works of the author, go here.