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November 28, 2014
"What's going on out there?" a skinny member of the Terra Team stood on his tip-toes in a vain attempt to glimpse over the shoulders of those in front of him.
"I don't know," the higher-standing Tooru answered him irritably. "For spirits' sake, Indigo, it hasn't even been half an hour yet. "I'm sure that our partners...I mean, our former partners are just fine."
"Ratana's fine, sure," Indigo half-stuttered in a near whimper of a voice. "But what about Hanbao? I'm so worried about him. I can't bear it. Ow!"
Tooru had punched Indigo, quite hard, in the shoulder. "Sorry, but you needed that. Get a hold of yourself, mate. We have a job to do, and don't forget that it's my back you're supposed to be watching now. How are you going to do that if you're picturing Hanbao in your mind every second?"
"Hanbao's not like you or Ratana," stated Indigo. "He has quite a temper, and unless I'm around to cool him off, there's no telling what he'll do. Half the time I'm protecting him out in the field, I'm protecting him from himself."
"That...makes sense, actually," Tooru admitted as they talked. "Hanbao always seemed like the kind of guy with a short fuse. But Ratana's out there with him. I'm sure that they're both alright."
Not far off from the city of Ba Sing Se itself there lay a small, relatively peaceful Earth Kingdom village. It was one of the handful that the Fire Nation had swiftly occupied in their march from Munn to Ba Sing Se, and a few citizens of the homeland had even accompanied them to further settle the territory. This village was so small that many did not even know what it's name was. The locals had suffered quite a fright when the soldiers of the Fire Nation stretching back as far as the eye could see marched through their village and past them, to the city of Ba Sing Se itself. Most of the villagers doubted they would be returning, as they had their eyes set on a much bigger fish, but found their sense of relief did not last long. As they were officially an occupied settlement now, the Fire Nation army could resupply with them at any time, but there was little foreseeable motivation for them to do so whilst they already had so many supplies. If they did return at some point, it would presumably be later in the Siege of Ba Sing Se, when they had to rely upon their greater supply line more.
Nevertheless, they were back already, not long after the siege just started. The force that had come back was small in number, but they were fierce and ruthless. It appeared that whatever their business that they had with the villagers, they were in a hurry to wrap it up. Their commander must have been putting ample pressure on them to carry out their job there with haste. This commander himself was an older man with graying hair and whiskers. He was about the same age as General Iroh himself, in fact, but he was not the heir to the throne of the Fire Nation.
"Search all the houses!" Han Shui yelled at the top of his longs to his men, who burned some of the houses as they finished, to keep track of which ones that they had gone in thus far. "Don't come out until you've searched every last square inch."
"Y-yes, Sir," a young captain saluted the Dragon of Water as he received his instruction, confused but seeing that Han Shui was in no mood for an argument.
Meanwhile, Han Shui himself surveyed the area and looked over his shoulder, back toward the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se.
"I do hope we are not too late," he whispered to himself. "Iroh may notice our absence if we are not back soon."
Off about fifteen feet from where the Dragon of Water stood, one of his under-officers hastily ripped a bronze necklace from the neck of an elderly Earth Kingdom lady barely half his height. "Is there any more?" he yelled to her aggressively as he placed the necklace he had just snatched into a sack which he carried around his waste. "Wedding rings? Gold? Silver? Anything at all with a precious stone or metal in it?"
"N-n-no," the old lady stuttered at the Fire Nation officer who towered over her. "Th-that's all that we have..."
"If I may ask, Sir," one of the other Fire Nation officers who stood by Han Shui himself. "What is the point of this?"
"The point?" Han Shui rose his voice. "The point is that I have given you strict orders which need to be carried out. That is the point."
"I mean, what does this have to do with our primary goal here?" asked the Fire Nation officer. "I mean, how is this supposed to help us to capture Ba Sing Se? Collecting a bunch of treasure from the locals doesn't seem related to that."
"Never you mind," snapped Han Shui. "I know what I'm doing here, and this needs to be done."
"Very well, Sir," the Fire Nation officer nodded, only barely managing to hide his reluctance.
"Ergh!" Han Shui stared around the village in frustration. "This is not enough! We must tax the Fire Nation settlers as well as the Earth Kingdom colonials."
The younger officer raised an eyebrow at this revelation. "Enough for what?"
Soon, there was a new arrival on the scene who would not back down so easily. "Han Shui, Dragon of Water," the rounded form of the Dragon of the West called from atop the small mound of a hill which overlooked the grassy village.
"G-general Iroh," said Han Shui, his eyes widening. "Wh-what are you doing here?"
"I was about to ask you the same question," General Iroh narrowed his eyes as he approached Han Shui and his men, with Lu Ten and several of his own in tow.
"It's not what it looks like," said Han Shui. "I can explain."
"Ah," Iroh observed after spotting one of the sacks filled with treasure that Han Shui was in the process of having the men under his command fetch for him. "This makes sense, now. Men, return these belongings to their rightful owners at once!"
"Yes, General Iroh," the younger officer near Han Shui saluted the Dragon of the West.
"No," shrieked Han Shui. "You are under my command, soldier. While you serve underneath me, you do as I say."
"With all do respect, he outranks you," the officer told Han Shui, failing to hide a hint of relief and satisfaction at being able to say the words he did.
"No..." Han Shui said, tearing at his hairs.
"I'm afraid that I can't do that," said Iroh, flatly. "You see, when I heard about just how much you owed in gambling debts, I knew that a soldier's salary alone, even that of a high-ranking officer, wasn't nearly enough to cover your gambling losses. Naturally, I knew that you must have had an ulterior motive in mind when you requested to lead the Southern Raiders once again. It appears that I've found what that plan of yours was: armed theft, piracy under the Fire Nation flag. Granted, if you had been back in the southern seas of the southern hemisphere, there would have been little that I could do to stop you. But now, with you under my command, it was only a matter of time before I got to the bottom of what you were doing and put an end to it."
"Yeah," Han Shui paused briefly. "There you have it. You know what my plan was all along. So what's it to you? I'm in no way holding you back from conquering Ba Sing Se and winning all the glory that you traveled to this continent to do. Like I said, this doesn't concern you."
"It does when you tarnish the flag of our nation in the process," clarified Iroh. "With our war effort, we of the Fire Nation spread our prosperity and share it with the world."
Han Shui roared with deranged laughter. "No one in the Fire Nation has been dumb enough to believe that old rhetoric in decades"
"Perhaps there are parts of all of us that have lost our balance," said Iroh. "It is the duty of all who stand on their own two feet to correct them."
"Do you defend these Earth Kingdom citizens now, those who you have come to fight?" said Han Shui. "Did you not come over here to subjugate them?"
"Yes," confirmed Iroh. "But everything must be handled in the right manner or all will be for nothing. What you're doing is the wrong way to go about our conquest."
"Bah!" spat Han Shui. "Who are you to talk to me in that way? You think you're some divine human just because everyone else says so? Lies! I know the truth, and you're nothing but an old fraud like me."
"Han Shui," Iroh's tone and expression became solemn. "Please, stand down. This is over."
"No, it isn't!" shouted Han Shui at the top of his lungs. "We shall have an Agni Kai, oh mighty Dragon of the West," Han Shui said as he stripped off the back of one of his outer robes.
The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation let out a deep sigh. "Very well, but I request that we move away from the village first, so that no bystanders or needless obstacles will get in the way of our crossfire."
"Pah," scoffed Han Shui. "We can fight just fine right here and now. Show me what kind of man you are, General Iroh. Mighty Dragon of the West. Let's see the kind of firebender that you really are!"
- Well, five chapters into this book and I realize I haven't gone back to Heidze yet. I definitely have not forgotten about him, though.
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