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|Old Man Walks Into a Bar|
March 20, 2012
Previously in Air
The secrets of the Emerald Serpent begin to unravel. Meanwhile, in Omashu, the Gaang's meet with their 'friend' turns out to be a trap of the Guild. Only the sudden appearance of June saved the friends from a sound beating and kept their secret safe.
Chapter Eleven: Old Man Walks Into a Bar
The Broken Barrel Tavern
Five men sat at the table, each more vicious and formidable than the last. Countless mugs stood upright or lay askew, all with hardly a drop left. As always, they sang. And if someone interrupted the surprisingly beautiful song, he was introduced to their own artistic variations on pain.
"May I join you?"
The old man's kind question interrupted a perfectly harmonized note. With the suddenness of a shattered bowl, the five men fell silent. As one, they glared up at this brazen new-comer. One actually growled.
Iroh shook his head sadly. "It is usually customary to greet a new face with a smile, or perhaps a friendly 'hello'." He smiled broadly. "After all, a smile brings a ray of sunshine to the soul."
"In a place like this," the man snarled back, "Such a sunny disposition can earn you an ugly scar."
Iroh belted out a joyous laugh. Without invitation, he sat opposite them. "You were never one to mince words, Colonel Mongke," he chuckled.
"It's no longer Colonel," Mongke spat, feathers in his ponytail quivering. "We defected, as if you'd forget. The Firelord still has bounties on our heads."
"As if anyone could ever collect," a second man growled. The crown of his head was bare of hair, yet somehow he managed to maintain a full beard.
Mongke smirked. "But not for lack of trying." His eyes narrowed at the old man. "Why are you here? What could possibly bring the great General Iroh to the lowest den of scoundrels in the Earth Kingdom?"
Iroh sat back in his chair, slipping his hands into his sleeves. "I wanted to talk to you about the Emerald Serpent. I understand the organization hired you to do some of their dirty work?"
Mongke snorted. "There always seems to be someone in need of our...unique services."
Iroh shook his head sadly. "Such heartless hostility seems a waste of your talents."
Mongke scowled. "Hey, what you call heartless hostility, I call working for a living. We don't all have luxury accommodations in the Upper Ring, you know." Mongke squinted suspiciously at the old man. "What does it matter to you if we harass a bunch of peasants, anyway?"
Iroh spread his hands. "I have a lot of friends in a lot of places. I was hoping that, if I asked nicely, you might be inclined to leave them in peace."
Mongke raised an eyebrow. "How nicely?"
Iroh grinned. "Pretty, pretty please?"
Mongke threw back his head and roared with laughter. The other Rhinos followed suit. "Don't insult me, Iroh! The job pays handsomely and I admit I enjoy the work. It makes me feel young again."
Iroh nodded sympathetically. "Ah, youth..."
Mongke nailed him with a sharp gaze. "You can't honestly expect us to drop a job just because you ask us to."
"We'd never get work again," the dark-skinned tenor named Ogodei interjected. "They'd think we were 'unreliable'."
Iroh nodded. "I suppose you must earn your keep. That is why I'm prepared to make you an offer."
Mongke raised an eyebrow. He leaned forward, intrigued in spite of himself. His eyes danced with visions of gold pieces and bejeweled weaponry. "What kind of offer?"
Iroh cleared his throat. "How would you like to perform in my tea shop?"
Mongke snarled. "You come here to mock us?!" He leapt to his feet with such force it shattered his chair against the wall.
All activity in the tavern ceased. Heads turned toward the outburst, shocked anyone would dare challenge the short-tempered leader of the Rough Rhinos.
"Such admirable voice talents are no joke!" Iroh cried, insulted. "Do you think I'd let just anyone sing in 'The Jasmine Dragon'?"
A ferocious fire-ball was Mongke's response.
Iroh slid out of his chair with agility that belied his age, cleanly avoiding the missile. A few quick hops and he managed to evade the three flaming arrows Vachir let loose as patrons dove for cover all around.
The masked Yeh-Lu dealt out explosives at Iroh's feet, while Ogodei bounded over the table, swinging his long chain.
Iroh danced away from the bombs before they exploded. As the chain lashed at him, the old man whirled his arm, catching the steel in mid-air and winding it up his bicep. "It's a good thing I've kept in shape," he muttered, taking a deep breath. He lunged from his neutral stance and the energy in his body coursed down his arm, bursting out from his palm as flame. Fire scurried up the length of metal, emblazoning it an angry red, before spitting in the face of his attacker. Ogodei shied from the flames. Iroh slipped his arm from the chain, allowing it to jerk back in the Rhino's face.
But Iroh's work was far from over. Vachir had another arrow nocked; Mongke was prepared to charge, an arch of flame encompassing him; Yeh-Lu fondled another toy, trying to distract Iroh as Kahchi, halberd poised to strike, attempted to circle behind.
Iroh caught the leg of the table with his foot, effortlessly kicking it at Yeh-Lu, whose harshly armored body collided with Vachir, throwing both their aim off. Kahchi moved for a sneak attack. The attack was far from silent to Iroh's well-trained instincts. He whirled, kicking up and stomping down, trapping the spear shaft underfoot. Kahchi stumbled to an abrupt halt.
With a furious cry, Mongke charged, fists blazing. Iroh rounded on him, the heat in his core surging up his throat and spewing out in his trademark breath of fire technique. Mongke barely deflected the onslaught and retreated.
The Rhinos recovered more cautiously this time, strategically maneuvering to their best advantage. Iroh made no move to stop them: he didn't even seem to mind.
"You really shouldn't be so insulted," Iroh said easily. "It's a wonderful opportunity. And I would pay you for the honor, of course. Such beautiful voices as your own really should be enjoyed by all. What do you say?"
Mongke snarled, pumping a fist of fire at Iroh's head. Iroh ducked the missile and glanced back at the charred crater it left in the wall.
"Is that a tentative 'maybe'?" he inquired, looking back to Mongke.
"Get out!" Mongke bellowed, calling off his men. "And tell your friends they've just earned themselves an extra visit from their favorite tax collectors!"
Iroh glanced between the Rhinos, but he could see there was no point in arguing. "Oh dear," he murmured as he made his way out of the tavern. "I thought they would be honored with such an invitation..."
"We were beginning to worry," Tyro said as Zuko quietly slipped through the crowd beside him.
"Did you handle June?" Katara asked.
Zuko nodded. "She won't be bothering us anymore."
"How did you manage that?" Aang wanted to know.
"I paid her off. And I managed to buy us some time. She agreed to chase down some of the Gauntlets to give us a head start, so they should be out of commission for a while."
Tyro chuckled appreciatively.
Aang and Katara exchanged concerned glances. "We've got another problem," she said. "We discovered who sent them after us. His name's General Fong. He commands an army outpost close by."
"A general, eh?" Tyro grunted. "This keeps getting better and better."
Zuko couldn't agree more. How far did the influence of the Guild spread? How many more generals and lords dangled in its grasp?
"He has Omashu surrounded," Aang said. "He sent in a bunch of his soldiers with the excuse of flushing out some 'trouble makers'."
"Us," Tyro guessed.
"King Bumi kicked them all out," Aang explained, "But they've set up outside the gates and now they're searching everyone coming out of the city."
"Hmm," Tyro mused. "Could we pay someone to smuggle us out?"
Zuko shook his head. "There's no one to trust. Who's to say they wouldn't turn us over to Fong's men?"
Aang listened as his friends futilely devised and discarded plans. He fingered the tile Bumi had given him, remembering his words. They were certainly in need of help now, but if all four of them went in search of the Order's aid in evading Earth soldiers their carefully guarded secret would be shattered. Even if no one was told details, they would know something was going on. He gazed unseeing into the distance as he mused over the dilemma. Something caught his eye, tacked to a notice board and fluttering in a gentle breeze. As he focused on it, the breeze died and the paper stilled. It was a sign, he realized, and perhaps in more ways than one. Aang started for it.
"Aang?" Katara called.
The three friends stared after him in concern. What was he doing? They watched as Aang pulled a poster down and headed back towards them.
"What is it?" Katara asked.
Aang was holding the poster against his chest so they could not see what it said. He let out a slow breath. "I have an idea," he said finally.
"Great!" Tyro said. "Let's hear it."
Aang produced the tile. "Bumi gave me this, in case we needed some help."
Zuko took the tile and examined. "The Order of the White Lotus." He frowned. He knew from his Uncle and Jeong Jeong that most of the Order had settled down after the war. He wondered what help they could provide, and how many questions they would ask when they gave it.
Aang seemed to read his thoughts. "Bumi advised we keep a low profile."
Katara glanced at them all, especially Zuko with his obvious Fire Nation complexion. "I don't think we'd count as low profile."
Aang chuckled. "You're right. That's why I think only one of us will go to the Order for help."
Katara crossed her arms and eyed him suspiciously. "And who do you think is going? I'll tell you right now it won't be me. You boys would get into too much trouble if I weren't around."
"Whoever gets out of here," Zuko said slowly, "Should take Appa and fly back to Ba Sing Se. Someone should warn Kuei about Fong's allegiances."
"My thoughts exactly," Aang agreed.
Tyro heaved a tired sigh. "Enough beating around the bush. I guess you three want me to go."
"You are the only Earth citizen," Aang pointed out. "If you ask for aid from the Order, I don't think it would even raise an eyebrow."
Tyro admitted he was right. "How do I get a conference with the crown prince? I can't just waltz into the palace and ask, you know."
Zuko smiled "Find my Uncle; he'll get you in."
"And afterwards," Katara put in optimistically, "Maybe you could go out and look for your son."
Tyro chuckled wryly. "I don't know if that would be such a good idea."
Katara frowned. "Why? Is something wrong?"
Tyro winced, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Oh, Haru's been having a tough time back home," he said. "I'm not exactly a spring komodo-chicken, you know. The older I get, the more they expect Haru to take my place."
"Isn't that good news?" Katara asked. "Haru would make a wonderful leader!"
"Aye, that's what I think. But I don't know that Haru does. I don't even know if he's interested. The trouble with Haru is that he's too conscious about what other people expect of him, and not conscious enough sometimes about what he wants." Tyro shook his head and sighed. "I'm afraid I've been pressuring him to make a decision. Some time on his own might help him clear his head. Besides," he said with a wry chuckle, "I doubt he'd let himself get into any trouble. He should be fine."
Aang and Katara exchanged uncertain glances, but Tyro did not seem to notice.
"But enough of my woes," the old man went on. "It's off to Ba Sing Se for me." He hesitated. "There's just one other thing...I don't know how to fly the bison."
"It's really simple," Aang said. "Just two words:
"Yip-yip," the three friends chorused in unison.
"Just watch out for his tongue," Zuko cautioned.
Tyro frowned doubtfully, but he nodded. "What about you three?"
They turned to Aang expectantly.
Aang plastered on a big smile to reassure them, but they could tell it was fake. "We have another way out." The corner of Aang's smile twitched. "You're going to think I'm crazy," he cautioned, "But I think it will work."
Zuko and Katara exchanged dubious glances. "And what is this brilliant plan?" he pressed.
The smile slipped down Aang's face. He sighed. "You're not going to like it."
Katara grimaced, visions of underground sewers and awkward disguises flashing through her mind.
Slowly, Aang turned the poster so his friends could see it.
At first, Zuko thought he was caught in a nightmare. He stared at the poster and all color drained from his face. His heart plummeted in his chest. "No way..." he moaned.
Katara stared first at the poster, then at her husband. She shook her head in defeat. "You really are crazy!"
"Think about it, guys," Aang insisted. "It's our best chance."
"That's a really sad thought," Katara said.
The poster was a colorful play advertisement. In large letters, it read, Puon-Tim presents: The Boy in the Iceberg!
In Ba Sing Se, Gorou the Earth King sat on his throne, gazing about the room with disdainful eyes. On his right sat Kuei on whose right, in turn, sat the prince's wife. Tora was graceful, sweet, poised –and above all Gorou's favorite niece.
"I'm glad you'll be taking over soon," he croaked in his hoarse, crotchety voice. "This place is an eyesore."
"You may not find it beautiful, uncle," Kuei said. "But it is imposing and regal. That is what a throne room is meant to convey."
A messenger bent down by his ear. "Your majesty," he said quietly.
"Speak up!" Gorou cried. "I can't hear you!"
Flustered, the messenger's voice rose to a shout. "Your majesty! There's been word from the coast, sir! There have been skirmishes in ports."
"There are always skirmishes in ports," Gorou barked. "That's what sailors do, son. They skirmish!"
The messenger shook his head. "These are different, sir. It's the Fire Nation; they're stirring up trouble."
"Fire Nation, eh?" Gorou grunted. He cocked his head at the prince. "Wouldn't have anything to do with you, would it?"
Beside Kuei, his wife spoke softly. "I told you not to trust them. Are you reconsidering your treaty now?"
Kuei glanced at Tora. She was very beautiful, with fair skin, lustrous hair, bright eyes and a smile men would die for. She was, he knew, by no means a stupid woman. But could she be right? His frown deepened.
- This chapter title is one of the author's favorites. Being a lover of corny jokes, anytime something/someone 'walks into a bar', she's prepared to burst into hysterical laughter.
- This is the first appearance of the Rough Rhinos who, despite being stripped of title and country, stubbornly insist remaining the 'Rough Rhinos'.
- This is the first time we see the current Earth King, Gorou.
- This is the first time we see Kuei's wife, Tora.
A special author's commentary can be found for this chapter in my blog.
For the collective works of the author, go here.