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Chapter 10 Opportunity
The path down the mountain was steep and treacherous; something Rokan had not experienced in the Fire Nation war tanks. Their tracks still remained, and she followed them as best she could. Her descent was slow; the winter months were coming to a close, and the ice that stiffened the snow had begun to melt, causing her to find unstable footing and sink hip deep in snow.
The ninth time she fell, Rokan's patience snapped. Feeling foolish, she thrust a huge fireball from her palms and sent it searing down the mountainside, obliterating all snow in her path.
"Don't know why I didn't think of that before," she grumbled, heating her hands and attempting to dry her soaked pants.
She didn't really know where she was going, but Rokan figured that Sa Ying wasn't a bad idea. She could reconnect with Commander Mei Lee, and maybe find out where her next mission was. Once safely in the ranks of the Fire Nation military, she could begin her sabotage. Of course, she still had to make it down the mountain.
Rokan paused and stared at the steep cliff in front of her and her heart sank. It looked like she was in for a few days of walking.
At least the scenery is nice, she thought, Really pretty. I never got to see snow in the Fire Nation. Yeah...it's pretty.
By the third day heading down the mountain, Rokan had already melted away most of the snow on the rock face.
"I am so sick of this stupid white slush!" she shouted, blasting fire from her fists to accent her words of frustration.
To Rokan's great relief, the bottom of the mountain was in sight, as were the rooftops of Sa Ying. With luck, she would reach the village just as the first lamps were being lit.
It was easy to see the results of the Air Temple attack when Rokan entered Sa Ying. The great metal tanks lay abandoned in the snow, all of them in desperate need of service and repairs. Mei Lee's headquarters were dark, and loud voices came from the well-lit barracks. Rokan headed towards the barracks, her feet crunching through a fresh inch of snow.
However, before she knocked on the heavy wooden door, she paused, catching sight of a poster tacked to the doorframe. On it was a caricature of her. Rokan chuckled; whoever had been assigned this painting must have had very little to base her features off of. The nose was too long, her face too thin, and the artist had been far too lenient with the size and shape of her eyes and lips.
He made me look like some legendary beauty. And he forgot my headband! She thought, half annoyed, half entertained.
Rokan turned her attention away from the picture and focused on the words beside it. Abruptly, her mood changed from one of slight amusement to complete and utter shock.
"The Fire Nation Military mourns the loss of Rokan, a volunteer soldier who perished in battle against the Avatar and his forces. We remember her bravery and again stress the importance of the Avatar's capture. If you have any information on the Avatar and his whereabouts, you must—"
But Rokan stopped reading there. So...she was dead? And what were all these lies about her dying in battle against the Avatar? She got blown up, and it would have happened anyway even if she had set her own explosives! Rokan looked from the poster to the barracks door and back again. It probably wasn't in her best interest to "rise from the dead" and burst in on a hall of soldiers that all knew her to have perished. But how else was she to get information on the military's orders?
It was apparent to Rokan that she needed a disguise. Nothing too elaborate...a cloak would do. Leaving the barracks behind her, Rokan walked back down the street of Sa Ying. Conveniently enough, someone had left a ragged brown cloak abandoned on their water trough. Feeling that it was too old and worn to be truly missed, Rokan snatched it with ease, slipping her arms through the holes and drawing the hood up around her face. It amazed her how deserted the streets were.
"I guess this whole town just stops running after sunset," she muttered to herself.
A harsh cold wind blew in from the mountains. Realizing it to be too dangerous to try to find lodgings for the night, Rokan found a small space in an alley between two houses. There were crates stacked here, and if she curled up between them and the walls of the house beside her, she was well protected from the whistling wind. Uncomfortable though it was, Rokan was tired from her trek down the mountain, and within minutes, she was asleep. As the icy breeze whistled overhead, Rokan dreamed of snow, her home, and a gentle figure in a wheeled chair.
The sun shone in Rokan's face, blinding her awake. A fresh dusting of snow had settled onto the crates around her, and her hands were numb with cold. Her stolen cloak was stiff with frost and did little to keep her warm now. With some difficulty, she stretched her frozen arms and hoisted herself out from behind the protection of the crates. Her knees nearly buckled when her feet came in contact with the ground, and Rokan winced in pain. The cold of the night had done nothing to aid her burned skin.
Limping, Rokan made her way to the main street of Sa Ying. She planned on looking for an inn or a restaurant where she might find something to eat, but what would she pay with? She hadn't had money in her pockets since her cup of tea in Shu Min.
Guess I'd better stoop to scrounging, she thought with an air of bitterness. However, this might not be such a bad idea; acting pitiful, homeless, and half-starved (the latter two being the truth) she wouldn't be threatened with the possibility of being recognized. After all, the military remembered her as the brave, defiant, rash teenager who looked into the face of danger without a second thought.
As the morning slowly turned to noon, Rokan's impersonation of a desperate beggar increased to the point where it was nearly a reality. Her stomach was empty and her energy low; it was almost difficult for her to drag herself from house to house, snooping around in the barrels for scraps of food.
Luck was waiting for her outside a suspicious shack that leaned haphazardly to the left. There on the ground was a basket of food scraps, no doubt put out for the mangy skunk-dog that was gnawing on the food halfheartedly with a mouth full of only gums.
"Sorry, but you can't eat half that stuff anyway," reasoned Rokan, pushing the skunk-dog away and taking the bowl into her lap. Stale bread and bones were the best the basket had to offer, but they would have to do. Rokan started with the bones, meticulously nibbling off whatever scraps of meat she could find still clinging to the surface. When the bones were through, she tossed them aside and tore into the bread. Within minutes, there were only crumbs which the skunk-dog proceeded to lick off of Rokan's hands and legs. When there were no crumbs left in sight, the skunk-dog rested its small bony head on Rokan's knee. Smiling slightly, Rokan stroked the animal's patchy black and white hair and watched what few people there were pass by.
"...they had word of some sort of monster in the swamps. The Fire Lord is having some of the Yu Yan Archers go and obliterate it."
Rokan's ears perked up and she listened closely as two soldiers began to walk by her.
"We get hardly any action in this place. Makes me wish I was Yu Yan myself."
A harsh wind suddenly blew through the narrow street, biting Rokan's cheeks and chilling her to the bone. The soldiers shivered and wrapped their cloaks tighter about their shoulders.
"Come on, let's go in here...it'll be warmer," said one. To Rokan's surprise, they began to make their way toward her...or rather, the shop to which the porch she sat upon belonged.
The gears in Rokan's mind flew. She didn't want the men to think she was listening in on their conversation. That could get her unwanted attention. But she didn't want to lose them either. She decided to wait patiently on the steps until they had gone into the shop, and then discreetly follow in after them and hope they didn't notice her. Yes, that should work.
"The wind is harsh today, child."
Rokan started at the soldier's voice. She hastily pulled her hood down over her eyes and bent her head toward her chest.
"Yes, it is," she responded quietly, "But I have nowhere to go."
This was indeed the truth, and Rokan could not care less about her lack of shelter. All she wanted to know was where the Yu Yan Archers were headed. However, the soldiers' faces bore expressions of pity. One of them, a man younger than the other, reached out his hand.
"Come inside, then. It isn't exactly first class lodgings, but it will keep you warm for a time," he said. His voice was raspy for one in his prime, and he held his left arm close to his body in a stiff manner, perhaps reminiscent of an old injury.
Keeping her head down, Rokan accepted the soldier's offer and put her hand in his. With little effort, he pulled her to her feet and guided her inside the crooked shack.
Once inside, Rokan wanted to back out and return to her place on the steps. The younger soldier was right; it was certainly not first class lodgings. Rokan wasn't even sure it could keep her warm like he had said. It was a curiosity shop...the worst of its kind. Just by glancing at the dust covered items Rokan could tell that the majority of them had been acquired under suspicious circumstances. A wizen, toothless old man stood behind a splinter-filled counter, greedily polishing a golden basin that was stained with a sickening dark red substance. An aroma of something awful drifted through the air to Rokan's nose. It smelled like rotting flesh...or worse. Trying not to gag, Rokan pulled her sleeve over her hand and clapped her palm over her mouth and nose.
The soldiers seemed unaffected by the stench, and they ambled away, pretending to browse through the moldy collections. Rokan considered following them directly, but decided to shadow them on the other side of the shelves. Just as she had hoped, they had resumed their conversation.
"So the Yu Yan Archers are to be wasted on a mission to the Foggy Swamps?" scoffed the older soldier, a weather-beaten man with snowy whiskers on his cheeks.
"Apparently so. The Swamp Monster has become a bit of a legend in the past few years, but the Fire Lord doesn't believe that it's just a myth, or a monster. His guess is that it's an uprising; a few rebels playing a trick on us."
"But why use the Yu Yan? They could be valuable elsewhere!" Between a matching pair of cracked black urns Rokan saw the young soldier shrug.
"The mission was ordered by a certain General Zhong. I don't know his motives. I do know that the Fire Lord trusts his counsel."
The veteran soldier grunted in disgust.
"Zhong? Zhong still remains amongst the Fire Lord's generals? The Fire Lord must have good reason for keeping that old fool in his council."
"You know Zhong?"
"Know him? I served under him for almost ten years. Long, terrible years...and before that, fifteen short and wonderful ones. Zhong was once a great leader. I respected him like I respected no other man. In fact, I think I looked up to him more than I looked up to the Fire Lord."
"And why do you scorn him so now?"
Rokan witnessed a distorted image of the old soldier shaking his head through a crystal vase.
"Zhong met a pitiful end at the great Siege of Ba Sing Se. The Dragon of the West entrusted him with a mission to break the defenses on the eastern side of the wall. But Zhong was drunk...he had broken into the supplies of the soldiers the previous night, unable to break an old habit. Every single one of Zhong's men died that day, including his own two sons. Zhong survived only because he had managed to hide in the enemy's blind spot, where he slept off his inebriation. It was the next day before Zhong realized his failure. His mind has been troubled ever since then."
Rokan flicked a dead spider-fly off of a carven chest in boredom. She had no desire to hear the depressing history of an addled general. She wanted information on the Yu Yan Archers.
"Maybe Ozai is a fool for sending the Yu Yan Archers away. But I cannot blame him for allowing this old general to do as he pleases. The Fire Lord has more important things to worry about than a Swamp Monster, things like the return of the Avatar. He probably tolerated the mission because it shut the old man up. Besides, it is not all the Yu Yan Archers who are to be sent away."
The older soldier sighed.
"Well, I suppose we must hope that there is indeed a rebel base in the swamps, or else the waste of those select Yu Yan will be for nothing. When do they leave?"
"The Archers depart from the Northern Fortress at dawn, two days from now. Despite the uselessness of their mission, I wish them luck all the same."
The skeptical elderly man scoffed in annoyance, and Rokan ducked behind a rotting wood chest as the soldiers came out to the center of the store. The toothless shopkeeper sprang up from his splinter-filled stool and cast a faded silk shawl that he had been examining to the side.
"Are you interested in making any purchases today, gentlemen?" he wheezed.
The soldiers stalked out of the shop without a word, slamming the door behind them with the aid of the whipping wind.
The shopkeeper snarled and resumed his inspection of the shawl, muttering many unkind words under his breath.
Rokan waited for a few moments to ensure that the soldiers would have gotten a considerable distance from the shop before she came out from behind the chest. The Northern Fortress wasn't far from here; only about a day's journey.
"Interested in anything, little lady?"
Rokan jumped at the sound of the old man's rasping voice. She spun around and raised her arm in defense out of reflex.
The man seemed to have rematerialized behind her, his wrinkled face inches from Rokan's own. A smile that looked more like a grimace spread on his lips.
"Well?""I'm not interested in any of your wares. I have to be going now, excuse me," said Rokan hurriedly.
Turning swiftly, she began to leave the shop, but not before a display of necklaces caught her eye. Hanging from rotting pegs were a variety of pendants and jewels, all covered with dust and corrupted by grime. Some, however, shone brighter than others. The last pendant on the stand was one of these more vibrant pieces. A gilded sun hung off a fine chain and swung back and forth slightly, though there was no breeze. On its surface was engraved a single eye, lidless and wide. Though it was only an ornament, the eye seemed to bore into Rokan's soul. Suddenly she felt more keenly the evil that had engulfed the world through the Fire Lord. Even greater than before was her urge to right the wrongs that had been done to the other nations.
"That pendant...where is it from?" she asked tentatively.
"That? It's an heirloom, centuries old, of an ancient noble family of the Fire Nation. I'm surprised those two soldiers didn't recognize it. Are you interested in, eh, bargaining for it?" The shopkeeper grinned greedily.
Rokan took an involuntary step backwards from the necklace.
"No. It...it has an evil aura about it. I don't want it. And if I were you, I'd get rid of it. Soon."
Turning on her heel Rokan hurried out of the pawn shop, leaving the shopkeeper second guessing his judgment on his merchandise.
Rokan was relieved to be outside and away from that disgusting place. She took several deep breaths of the cold fresh air, clearing her mind of the memories of the necklace and reminding herself that she had a job to do. She would have to set out immediately if she was to make it to the Northern Fortress in time.
Feeling something brush against her legs, Rokan flinched and looked down. It was the skunk-dog from before, looking up at her expectantly.
"Sorry, little guy. I don't have any food," she said sadly, rubbing the animal's scruffy head before leaving the porch.
The wind ceased to blow and a weak winter sun peered out from behind stark grey clouds, warming the air considerably. Rokan smiled happily at the warm light as she felt her chi grow stronger within herself at the touch of its natural energizer. Tightening the charred strap that held her katana in place, she set off down the main street, ready and willing to leave the sad little village of Sa Ying behind her for good.
Just before she reached the crooked wall that marked the boundary of the town, Rokan passed the house from which she had stolen the ragged cloak. Through the window, she caught sight of two figures who looked so alike it was no question of their being siblings. The boy looked about seventeen and the girl perhaps a year younger than Rokan. They were sickly and pale, shuddering near the light of a tiny flame. The boy tried in vain to warm his sister, offering her his own threadbare cloak. Rokan's heart sank; she had stolen this girl's only cloak. It was needed after all.
Not caring if she was recognized for whom she was, Rokan pulled off the cloak and returned it to its former place on the empty water trough before stepping out of the village boundaries and onwards towards her opportunity.
- The pendant that makes Rokan so uneasy is a tribute to , an upcoming fanon by .
- Can you spot the "Easter Egg" in the photo, meant as a tribute to another fandom?
- Zhong's sad story from the 600-day siege of Ba Sing Se is meant to be a reflection on Iroh's own story. However, Zhong demonstrates the sorrows that befall a weaker man; unlike Iroh he never recovered from his sons' deaths.
For the collective works of the author, go here.