Coming Round
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Journey and Return



Written by

Madam Subclause


Madam Subclause

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Coming Round

Going over the wide sea, Going to bring home victory
Going over the wide sea, but the sea too wide
and the sea broke me, and the sea broke me

It was four days later before the shipment of food and water they had been expecting arrived. As usual, it had been cut. Ren was airing the medical tent, listening to the rhythm of picks and laments drifting across the saltflats. As he started his morning rounds, Mongke came over, yelling that caring for the sick men was a burden, a waste of resources which could be spent on healthy, productive men.

"They're not working," replied the doctor, utterly unperturbed.


"The men. They're too busy staring at your pantomime to work."

Mongke's response was unintelligible, but he stormed off, yelling at the top of his voice to the men to get back to work.

The doctor was surprised by a soft chuckle behind him. It was the new prisoner, whom he had thought asleep. "Mongke. He always was an idiot." The voice was deep and melodious. "Nothing changes, even...." The brief speech ended in a fit of coughing.

"Drink. Drink this," said the doctor, filling a cup with cold tea. The man was nearly doubled up, his long face drawn with pain. Ren waited a moment until the fit passed, then held the cup to cracked lips.

After drinking deeply, the man grimaced. "My ribs.."

"Are probably broken. Not much we can do about it, except try keep you still. So try not to cough," he added wryly as he helped the man sit back against the half-filled sacks that passed for pillows.

Without bothering to open his eyes, the man raised a quizzical eyebrow. "As you wish Doctor. I've also been trying not to die. Will that help?" His tone was a dry as the salt lake itself.

Ren liked this man's attitude. Joking aside, it might just get him through. "Might do. You never know."

"I can hear again. I couldn't hear before."

"Hardly surprising. I think someone jumped on your head. Do you remember waking, a few nights ago? Do you remember getting here?" The man had awoken, crying out in the dark, and would not be helped or touched, only calming when he was sure he was alone. He shook his head.

"Do you know where you are? Who you are?"

"Yes, yes, I ..." the other man started to say, before clamming up.

Ren pressed on a little. "You knew Mongke before?"

There was a long pause. "By reputation only." Ren thought he was lying. Some men didn't immediately want to talk or announce their identity, particularly men who had been questioned under torture. It was of no matter. "Would you mind if I had a little more tea, doctor?"

Ren refilled the teacup. "Here."

As he knelt beside the bedroll, the man opened his eyes and looked, unblinking, at the doctor, causing Ren to catch his breathe sharply at the sight of one amber eye and one of piercing blue.

The man stared at Ren. He cleared his throat. "Please don't misunderstand," he said, his voice low. "I am Fire Nation. But none of these fools will believe that. I'll be thrown off this rock as soon as they spot it. So I am going to need your help." The doctor was struck by the authority with which the wounded man spoke. "Can I rely on you?"

"Yes, yes, of course," Ren found himself saying. He thought for a second. "An eye patch. Plenty of the men have lost eyes."

"I like my depth perception, so no. You must tell them you know me. Fabricate some identity. I won't be sharing my own." Ren was shocked at the casual way this man, so gravely injured, delegated the details of the conspiracy for his survival, demanding rather than requesting. "Please?" he added, as if this was the clincher. But of course it was. You just knew this was a man used to being obeyed, which meant high rank. And no matter how serious his injuries, how questionable his appearance, most of the men would sense rank, and without knowing why, obey. Unless Mongke got to him first.

Ren was still reeling a little when at the end of the day's shift he reported to Mongke that Captain Shi, with whom he had served in the Earth Kingdom, was recovering slowly but better than expected, and should join the work-gangs in his permitted twenty days.

As he walked away, he knew Jee was following him. The light was fading over the lake and he heading out, so they could speak in relative peace.

"You know him? You didn't say you knew him?"

"I ... look... there's something strange about him."

"Strange enough to make you lie about knowing him?"

"What? I... I don't know. Look, why don't you speak to him." It was weak of him, and Ren knew it, but why shouldn't Jee see exactly what he had been dealing with? "It's the oddest thing. He has one blue eye." When he said it, it didn't sound so odd. "And he thinks he'll be killed as Water Tribe."

"Well, is he Water Tribe?"

"How would I know? He says he's Fire Nation," said Ren.

"I've never heard of one blue eye. Have you? Can it even happen?"

"Yes. It can happen. It is rare, but it can. If there have been blue eyed ancestors. If say, his mother was Water Tribe. Why is this bothering you so much?"

"Because I felt as if I knew him."

They entered the tent as darkness fell. The lamps were lit and most of the men were settling for the night. A few offered some hello, one made a comment to the effect that Captain Jee and Captain Ren were a cute couple. Jee just snorted; Ren smiled and shook his head. There was no shortage of jibes from the Army about the Navy and their supposed preferences.

A section of tent was newly closed off by makeshift drapes. It must have happened when he was out. He knew who would be within. He handed Jee the tea pot and a bowl of rice, and coughed loudly. "Captain Shi. I have your food and medication."

From the muffled grunt, he suspected "Shi" had been asleep. Shi was lying on his side, useless hands on the bedroll in front of him. He jumped a bit, and stared hard at Jee, who returned the favour. "This is Captain Jee. He helps me out. I see you've been decorating. A few of the boys help you out?"

"They were very kind," said Shi evenly. Jee said nothing, but poured the tea while Ren knelt and helped Shi sit up.

"I can get his supper," said Jee suddenly. Shi looked genuinely alarmed at the prospect, but perhaps because he was a little put out at this presumptuous man, Ren agreed, and left, closing the drape behind him.

Jee knelt at the man's side, and picking up the rice bowl, worked loose a chunk of rice with the chopsticks. He looked at the face, less bruised, wide eyed. And it hit him.

It was remarkable how a few changes to a distinctive appearance could make someone almost unrecognisable. Shearing a man's hair off would do it, if he had always worn a particular style. Then, if that once brown hair was now utterly white, that made it harder. And strangest of all, the weird blue eye which sat so at odds with its amber companion, now that really threw you. The pallor, the loss of weight, it all made it harder to see the likeness, until you caught him in a certain light, at a particular angle. Then, suddenly it was unmistakable. The hard face and the hostile expression were the same. But how was it possible; what terrible thing had happened to change the man so?

Jee offered a little rice to the man. Shi looked at it as if he thought it might be poisoned. Eventually he took it, like a half-wild animal offered a scrap from a man's hand, chewing and swallowing slowly. Jee offered him some more rice, waited until he was chewing again, then said, "I know you now. I didn't earlier, but I do now." He paused and waited.

Suddenly, Shi was having more difficulty swallowing.

Jee placed the chopsticks in the bowl, and putting it aside, waited for the other man to compose himself a little. "I suppose I should thank you, for the promotion at least. But on the other hand, it is your fault I'm here." He snorted a little. "What am I saying? You probably don't even remember me." He sat quite still, watching the man's face.

After a minute, Shi spoke, slowly. "I do. Remember you. I came onto your ship, told them I was taking the crew. I'm sorry. I'm sorry you're here." He glanced at the rice bowl, then quickly down at his own hands, as if he felt guilty about think of food at a time like this.

Jee had wanted to pity this man, but now he felt only anger. Quietly, so as not to rouse anyone he said, "You don't just get to say sorry. You think I will keep quiet? What do you think is going to happen, eh, when they find out who you are? They blame you, you know. So many men lost. And yet somehow, you survive. You don't deserve to be alive!"

Shi sank back onto the pillow. "Please. I'm going to die here. Please, just let me be." He was whispering. "I can't do this any more..."

Jee felt a curious mixture of rage and glee at the situation. He leaned close to the injured man. "I am going to tell Mongke who you are, and he will throw you over the side, not because you are a stupid, arrogant egotist but because you failed at the North Pole. It will be the wrong reason, but the right end."

He was baiting Shi into responding, expecting to set off a storm of snarling anger, almost as if to dispel any lingering doubts he had as to the man's identity. But instead, the man's face became calm.

"Do it. At least it will be over." The reaction was completely at odds with what Jee had expected. One minute Shi had been persuading Ren to lie for him, but at the first hurdle, he had simply given up.

Jee was angry now, but only at himself. The man was finished, hoping only for a moment's peace before death. Roku only knew what he had been through. But like anyone, if he was offered a little hope, he would cling to it until someone grabbed it away again. Jee was ashamed of himself.

"Look, I'm sorry." No reaction. "I'm not going to tell Mongke. I'll help with your little charade. It's not like you can do any harm up here."

This elicited a harrumph, and a crooked smile. "Wonderful. That could be my epitaph: 'At least he can't do any more harm.'" He glanced at the bowl again, then turned his mismatched eyes to Jee. "So as you're staying, perhaps you'd be good enough to give me some more of that rice. I can't remember the last time I ate."

Jee shook his head in disbelief at the man's resilience, and picked up the bowl.

"Thank you," said Admiral Zhao, with the slightest smile.

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