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|Lest Old Acquaintance Be Forgot|
April 17, 2012
Previously in Air
Iroh attempted to persuade his old friends, the Rough Rhinos, to leave the employ of the Emerald Serpents -unsuccessfully. The Duke and Pipsqueak, undercover as nobles, are slowly succumbing to the light of an eerie lantern and the beguiling voice of Long Feng...
Chapter Fourteen: Lest Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
"I asked Li Fu about Long Feng's past, just like you told me to," The Duke reported.
Ru Yong leaned forward eagerly. "And?"
"He said they were all just overblown rumors. But he went all weird and vacant, and it didn't really sound like he was doing the talking."
"It seems you were right," Iroh mused. "The nobles are just pawns."
Ru Yong frowned at the despicable nature of it all, but he nodded. He looked sharply at The Duke. "Did he try to use it on you, too?"
The Duke couldn't help but shudder at the memory. The voice, the light... "Yeah," he said. "Thanks for the tip, by the way." He glanced up at Pipsqueak. "If not for that, I don't think either of us would be ourselves right now."
Pipsqueak nodded solemnly.
...think of something that sets your heart pounding, Ru Yong had advised them, should the worst happen. Someone you love, someone you hate, something that makes your blood boil! Anything that keeps your mind focused on you.
"I'm only glad I could help," Ru Yong replied.
"There's another thing..." The Duke hesitated.
Ru Yong raised an eyebrow. "And that is?"
"It's about Joo Dee."
Involuntarily, they all glanced at the woman once known to them as the friendly and faithful Cloe. She sat in the far corner, rigid and focused, staring at a blank wall and obliviously awaiting orders.
Ru Yong frowned. "Has Long Feng figured the trick? I didn't think he would yet..."
The Duke shook his head. "As far as I know he doesn't have a clue. But..." He glanced up at the two older men. "I think Long Feng has more of them."
They listened closely as The Duke told them of the nearly identical mannerisms of the female servants.
Ru Yong leaned back, contemplating. "It's possible, I suppose..."
Iroh stroked his beard. "In his stories, Aang has mentioned at least two women sent to them during their stay in Ba Sing Se. Both called themselves Joo Dee, and both were most definitely under the power of Long Feng."
"Any way to know for sure?" Pipsqueak rumbled.
Ru Yong shook his head. "Not that I know of."
"You can't get Joo Dee to talk?" The Duke asked.
Ru Yong looked troubled. "Long Feng isn't as stupid as I first thought. I was able to use his methods to manipulate Joo Dee in the same way he does. Obviously he never really expected someone might figure out his technique. But as a precaution, he seems to have pre-ordered Joo Dee not to answer certain questions, or to ever be too specific." He smirked. "It must have taken quite a chunk out of his ego."
"So what do we do?" The Duke asked.
An unexpected voice broke through their somber contemplation. "I might be able to help with that."
"What are you doing back in Ba Sing Se?" Iroh asked. "Certainly my nephew didn't find your skills unhelpful."
"Nothing of the sort," Tyro replied. Graciously, Iroh had supplied the weary traveler with food and tea before grilling him with questions. "We learned a few disturbing things in Omashu. The Firelord felt the Earth King should know. Being the only Earth citizen, I was the likely candidate."
Ru Yong could contain himself no longer. He had suspected Iroh was involved with some secret mission of his own. Up til now Iroh had managed to keep it and their current work in Ba Sing Se separate, but now it seemed their paths were crossing.
"You mentioned being able to assist us," Ru Yong said, almost casually.
Tyro set down his tea, nodded. "I might be able to find you another Joo Dee."
Ru Yong raised an eyebrow.
"I've heard the stories of Ba Sing Se's fall," Tyro explained. "I've since befriended a retired general who was here at the time. He tells me the Fire Princess Azula found a woman she could trust and set her over the city. A woman who couldn't seem to disobey an order."
Ru Yong slapped his forehead. "Of course! The Supreme Bureaucratic Dictator, or whatever that confounded title was. Why didn't I see it? Azula was in league with the Dai Li; they probably told her everything Long Feng had been up to. A Joo Dee would be the perfect puppet for the Fire Nation to control!"
"But could you find this woman?" Iroh asked. "After all, twelve years is a long time."
Ru Yong stroked at his graying beard. "I'm sure the Earth King wouldn't have let her get far. She was probably captured when you conquered Ba Sing Se."
Iroh blushed modestly, chuckling. "Oh, well, it wasn't just me, of course..."
"It's likely she's still imprisoned," Tyro suggested. "Since I'm reporting to the Earth King and crown-prince Kuei anyway, it's only a matter of asking them."
"You're sure you don't want to come along?" Ru Yong asked again. "It might prove interesting."
Arranging the meeting with the King and crown-prince was an easy matter, since Kuei eagerly awaited any way in which he could assist. There was no doubt in Iroh's mind that Ru Yong would soon be getting all the answers they needed out of this Joo Dee.
Iroh smiled, but shook his head. "I have a little matter of my own I must attend."
Ru Yong eyed him suspiciously. Such matters as Iroh concerned himself with were rarely 'little'. "Be careful," he warned his old friend as he left. "And try not to get into trouble. We're really too old for that sort of thing, you know."
Ru Yong was right to be suspicious. Iroh's matter was far from a small problem; he wasn't even certain he could pull it off. After all, he'd already confronted the Rhinos once, and it hadn't exactly been a happy encounter...This time, Iroh knew, his old friends wouldn't be nearly so friendly.
Iroh decided to mull his problems over a pot of tea. That always seemed to help.
As he was setting the water to boil, the answer to his problems fell right into his lap. It landed, rather painfully, in the form of an unfortunate tea server sent hurtling through the kitchen doors. He collided with Iroh, and dragged the old but fortunately robust man to the floor. The force of the impact slid them across the kitchen until they bumped to a gentle halt against the far wall. Ever wary, Iroh first checked for an attacking enemy. He found none, and so turned his attention to the shaken young man struggling unsuccessfully to get off him.
Iroh chuckled. "Are you all right?"
"S-s-sorry, s-sir," the tea server stammered. He managed to get to his knees, then slumped against the wall.
"Is this your first time airborne?"
The tea server moaned.
Manish strolled leisurely into the kitchen. At least, he appeared at leisure. But Iroh could tell by his tense shoulders and the wild gleam in his eyes that something was wrong. Only the necessary propriety of his station kept Manish cool. "Iroh, sir," he informed with controlled calm, "I'm afraid there's someone to see you."
Iroh rose to his feet, chuckling again. "Usually a visiting friend isn't something people like to avoid!"
Manish hurried to check on his fallen comrade. "I don't think she's any friend of yours!" he said over his shoulder. "I've never seen anything like her. She just barged in and demanded gold!"
"She was trying to rob us?" Iroh asked, incredulously. "It's been awhile since someone's been so blunt..." He stroked his beard. "It's actually quite refreshing. Maybe I'll share a cup of tea with her before I call the authorities..."
"She didn't come to rob us, sir," Manish insisted. "She claims she's here to collect some kind of reward. She says she made a deal with a man in Omashu to–"
"Omashu?" Iroh repeated, instantly alert.
Manish was surprised. "Do you know what she's talking about?"
But Iroh was already gone.
The Jasmine Dragon was completely still. Its guests, equal parts awed and disgusted, stared at this forthright and powerful ruffian. Without breaking a sweat, she had caught a tea server by the lapel and bodily hurled him into the kitchen!
She did her best to ignore them. She lounged at a table recently vacated when she'd stabbed her knife into its smooth surface. She tapped her fingers impatiently, flexing the coiled red snake tattooed on her shoulder. Criminals, runaways, murderers and warmongers; those she could handle without batting an eye. But these haughty rich people made her blood boil. If they forced her to wait much long, she'd start digging her knife into the expensive tapestries.
"June!" came an all too happy cry. "What a pleasant surprise! You're looking as lovely as ever."
June turned, warily. The people who knew her by name were the type to sucker punch you or sneak your drink if you didn't pay attention. She was prepared to face any of these. Her knife was in easy reach and she could dodge almost anything.
The one thing she wasn't prepared for was Iroh.
Granted, it seemed he was only half the man he used to be, but there was no mistaking the tea-loving creep. June would never admit it to anyone, but she sometimes had nightmares like this.
Iroh grinned. "I see you're also surprised."
The expression on her face –a mix of disbelief and horror– drew several muffled laughs from the cowering crowd.
June quickly gathered herself, wrenching her knife from the table, splintering the grains. She held it tantalizingly close to the old man's neck. Loyal employees stiffened, even took a step forward. To her surprise, several of the stuffy nobles did the same.
Iroh, however, was perfectly calm. Amused, even. "You really shouldn't do that."
June barked a laugh. "Why? You think your friends scare me?"
Iroh chuckled. "Actually, it's just rather ticklish."
June scowled. She rubbed at her temple. The people she had to put up with...
"Normally when someone starts tossing my employees through doors," Iroh said, eyes cold, "I'm not so pleasant." He smiled. "But seeing as it's you, I'll let it slide –this time."
"Look," June growled. "I'm just here for my money. Give me my gold and I'm gone."
"I'd be happy to!" Iroh cried. "Only, I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."
June growled again, gnashing her teeth. "I knew I shouldn't have trusted him!"
Iroh smiled amicably. "Why don't you step into the kitchen and join me for a cup of calming tea?"
"No, thanks," June snapped, sheathing her knife in the same manner. "I need something a little stronger than tea."
"Perhaps that –among other things– can be arranged."
June raised an eyebrow. All right, she was intrigued. Could the old man get her gold after all?
The tea shop's patrons stared in wonder as their jovial friend Iroh led the beautiful and bewitching ruffian into the kitchen and out of sight. Just what, they all wondered, had the old man gotten himself into? After all, surely at his age he'd be looking for nice, quiet activities to bide his time.
But then, he was the Savior of Ba Sing Se...
"Ah. The good stuff." June smiled appreciatively, lifting her tea cup to the old man. Maybe he wasn't so bad after all.
It had been a hard journey for her. Too apprehensive about encountering her former employer on the road, she hadn't stopped at any town or village on her way from Omashu. She hadn't slept in anything as comfortable as a bed or had a decent drink in ten days. She downed her first cup in one go.
Iroh was quick to refill it, asking casually, "This man in Omashu..."
"You mean the Firelord?" June chuckled at his surprise, sipping again at her drink. "Wasn't hard to figure out once I spotted you."
"Relax," June said, settling back in her chair. "I only care about my money." Her eyes glinted as she smirked. "For a little extra, I'll even keep my mouth shut."
Iroh smiled suddenly. It wasn't the 'ooh, you dirty rat, I can appreciate that type of haggling' smile she was used to; more of an 'I've just had a brilliant thought' kind of smile.
"Could a little extra buy me some assistance?"
June took another drink. "I don't serve tea."
Iroh chuckled. "Of course not. That would be a waste of your invaluable talents."
June cocked her head, intrigued.
Iroh told her his idea.
June threw back her head and laughed. "You're crazy!"
"Then you'll do it?"
"Not if the sun fell out of the sky." June smirked. "I'll just settle for the gold I've already earned."
Iroh didn't look too crestfallen at such a blunt refusal. It made her uneasy.
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to resort to this, but..." Iroh heaved a great sigh. "What if your reward counted on your assistance?"
June narrowed her eyes. "Are you blackmailing me?" Her voice was low, dangerous.
Iroh looked offended. "What are you implying? You know, as the man standing between you and your gold, you ought to be a little kinder to me!"
June scowled. Then she laughed. "You're just like the other scum I deal with," she said. She threw back the last of her drink and stood. "Alright; let's get this over with."
"Hurry up!" Mongke barked over his shoulder. "I haven't got all day!"
The other Rough Rhinos followed behind him, each astride their komodo rhino. Last in line, Ogodei's mount had been tethered to pull a laden cart.
Mongke turned his eyes back to the road ahead –and pulled up in surprise.
Behind him, Yeh-Lu could not register the sudden halt. His mount's horn crashed into the beast's backside, startling both rhinos and prompting them to hiss and writhe. Soon, all the rhinos had rammed into one another and tempers were not mellow.
Mongke glared murderously at the obstruction in his path. "You again!"
Iroh smiled pleasantly. "Good afternoon, Mongke," he called to him. "My, what a lovely day it is."
Mongke leaned forward in his saddle. "Get out of my way, old man."
Iroh chuckled. "Is a moment of pleasant conversation too much to ask?"
Mongke narrowed his eyes.
Heads began appearing in doorways, at windows. Normally, when the Rhinos came, the inhabitants of this desolate Lower Ring neighborhood cowered indoors, hoping they would be left alone. No one dared challenge them. Could it be someone had finally come to save them?
"What do you want?" Mongke demanded.
Iroh tried to look offended. "Whenever I see you, you always assume I want something!"
Mongke gave him a look.
Iroh smiled. "All right, I do want something."
Mongke –a man of few words– only growled.
Iroh gestured around him. "I want you to leave these nice people alone."
"We've already talked about this," Mongke snapped.
"I'm here to give you one last chance to accept my offer." Iroh's gaze bored into Mongke's eyes. "It really is a good one and I'd be honored to have you perform."
Mongke spat. "Fool!" He spurred his rhino forward. The beast lowered its head, ready to toss Iroh to one side.
Iroh shrugged. "I tried."
As the beast charged close, Iroh leapt onto its horn, nimbly scaling its neck to the saddle where, with one blow, he sent a surprised Mongke sprawling to the earth.
Yeh-Lu reached into his pouch and pulled out a small bomb. He lit it, bounced it once in his palm, then tossed it at Iroh.
A sharp crack rent the odd quiet of the fight. A long, dark whip unfurled, its tip snapping at the bomb in midair, lashing it back toward its master.
The bomb landed in Yeh-Lu's lap. He struggled to leap from his saddle, muttering, "Not again..."
Mongke jumped to his feet, snarling, daggers of flame shooting out from his fists. Leaning leisurely against one of the derelict buildings, casually coiling her whip, a woman he had not noticed before winked at him.
"Now, now," Iroh cautioned, "Don't be hasty."
Mongke fired. Iroh easily sidestepped, batting the blast aside as though it were an annoying mosquitohawk.
After their little brawl at the Broken Barrel, Mongke had given strict orders that if they ever met up with Iroh again, he would be the one to take down the Dragon of the West. But the woman was another matter. Clothed in black, a silver skull clipped in her dark silky hair, a whip and blood red tattoos –this was the kind of woman for which any of them could fall. Today, however, they would have to suffice with felling her, instead. Vachir reached for his bow and Kahchi his halberd.
She seemed unperturbed as they prepared to attack. She smirked. "You boys ever seen what a shirshu can do when its mistress is threatened?"
Vachir and Kahchi hesitated for only a moment. Shirshus were nasty creatures, but they were hard to get hold of, too. Likely, she was bluffing.
Their slight pause was more than enough time for June to call out playfully: "Oh, Nyla..."
The giant beast leapt at her bidding, bounding out of a side street and charging at the two Rhinos. They each managed a startled yelp before the shirshu's paralytic tongue nicked them. Their muscles tensed, spasmodic, and went limp, pitching them from their mounts for a painful collision with the ground.
Ogodei jumped from his saddle, pulling behind him a length of chain. "Not much of a fighter, are you lady?" he spat, swinging the chain. "Hiding behind a beast like that."
June smiled a dangerous smile.
Nyla sensed his presence. She growled, took a step forward.
June cracked her whip. "Down!" she ordered. Snuffling despondently, Nyla reluctantly obeyed, lying down on her stomach. June's dark eyes studied the dark-skinned Rhino. "You're mine."
Ogodei had no idea what he was getting into.
The chain flew at June, rattling sharply. She easily slid under its path, coming up on the other side, knife in hand. This was much easier than a bar brawl. June was accustomed to close combat, hand-to-hand stuff where blows could be easily altered to deflect a changing opponent. She'd never get away with something like this in a fist fight. Bringing the knife down, she drove the blade through a link in the chain before plunging it deep into the earth.
"Hey!" hollered Ogodei. He pulled and yanked at the chain, but to no avail. The knife was buried to its hilt in the packed dirt, and no amount of tugging would bring the chain loose. Glowering and muttering, Ogodei dropped his choice weapon. Readying his fists and baring his teeth, he stalked toward her.
June rose to her feet, smirking. This is more like it!
Ogodei knew he could down the woman with one blow. Not really fair, but she had driven him to it. With all his might, he swung at her. She moved aside. It wasn't a very arduous task for June –she hadn't even broken a sweat yet– but for Ogodei it was a great shock. He had fully expected the next sight he saw would be her lying senseless in the dirt. As shock and the strength of his punch launched him forward, June jabbed him in the side and danced away.
Ogodei stumbled, caught himself, touched his side. For a man with abs of steel, the blow had pathetically nearly brought him down.
June stood easily in her stance, fists ready.
Ogodei growled, angry and frustrated. He struck again, and again June dodged. But this time he brought up a second blow, catching her in the face.
June hurtled back. She'd been watching him as they fought, his expression as he planned out his moves, and she'd thought he was too dense to land more than one blow at a time. Sprawled on her backside, June rubbed at her chin. She wouldn't make that mistake again.
Ogodei advanced before she could rise. June kicked out, catching him in the kneecap. She twisted, spinning up onto her feet. Ogodei howled, falling to his uninjured knee. June punched once, twice, three times: side, side and shoulder. As Ogodei reeled, his head spinning in pain, June swung at the back of his neck with the side of her hand. With one chop, she laid him flat.
As he fell to the earth, June spat blood into the dirt. "That's how I fight," she told the unconscious Rhino.
Mongke groaned. It had been a long time since he had seen Iroh fight so ferocious. He had forgotten just what the old General was capable of. When Iroh had come to the Broken Barrel and asked them to rescind their business with the well-paying nobles who called themselves the Emerald Serpent, his request had ended in a raucous brawl. It was loud, and they broke a lot of furniture, but the Rhinos had been a little too drunk to fight whole-heartedly. Iroh had not countered with near the skill he possessed in his prime. Mongke had assumed that Iroh had merely grown old, but now he knew the truth. Iroh had been holding back.
"All right," Mongke panted. He felt pain in parts of his body he didn't know he had. All around them the earth was scorched and scared. Dying spurts of flame glowed dully as they sputtered out. "If it's the peasants you want left alone, we'll leave them be."
Out of the corner of his eye, Iroh watched June knock Ogodei down.
"I'm afraid it's too late for that," Iroh said. "You see, I've already made a deal here with the lovely June."
Mongke craned his neck just barely far enough to catch a glimpse of the woman. He felt a sudden lump of something in his throat. He realized with horror that it was fear. "What kind of deal?"
"She's a bounty hunter," Iroh explained. "As you well know, there is a substantial bounty on all of your heads."
Mongke stared at him. "You wouldn't."
"I would," Iroh assured him. "I'm afraid you didn't leave me much choice, Mongke. I really wish you had changed your mind and accepted my invitation."
Mongke fumed silently. Forever imprisoned –was that really his fate? "At least let me down!"
Iroh chuckled. "No chance," he said. "It's doing wonders for your complexion."
Mongke's face was nearly as bright a red as the feather in his ponytail. His ankles and wrists were bound together by the extra straps of his saddle. He hung, upside down, over the komodo rhino's flank.
June appeared at Iroh's side. "I think that concludes my end of the bargain."
"And what a marvelous conclusion it was!" Iroh beamed.
June rolled her eyes.
Iroh gestured at the Rhinos. "They're all yours."
June's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And the other part of our agreement?"
Iroh smiled. "Don't worry; I never go back on my word."
- Posted on another Tuesday the 17th. *cue creepy music* Must be some bad juju-ma-gumbo running rampant.
- We're really too old for that sort of thing, you know. This comment of Ru Yong's is a play off Danny Glover's frequent phrase in the Lethal Weapon movies.
- ...only half the man he used to be... -A little reminder of how much Iroh's bulked up. I figure he made an effort to keep the pounds off over the years.
- She hadn't slept in anything as comfortable as a bed or had a decent drink in ten days. -Another play off a movie quote. This one's pretty obscure, from the movie Silverado.
For the collective works of the author, go here.