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|Pomp and Circumstance|
Feb. 28, 2012
Previously on Air
In Ba Sing Se, The Duke and Pipsqueak are assisting Iroh and their old comrades, Longshot and Smellerbee. While trying to learn the secrets of the Guild, they've stumbled onto an old enemy -Long Feng- and found an ally in Ru Yong, who himself has been tracking Long Feng's movements.
Chapter Eight: Pomp and Circumstance
Li Fu looked up, irritated that his tea was being disturbed. By a servant, no less.
"Forgive my interruption, sir," Manish went on nervously, "But you said that if a stranger were ever to come in fitting your, er, criteria I was to inform you."
Li Fu perked up considerably. This was a different matter entirely! "Where, where?" he demanded.
The server hesitated. "I trust there will be a handsome tip involved?" he ventured.
Li Fu waved it away irritably. "Yes, yes," he said. "But where is he?"
Manish pointed to the far corner. "Over there, sir."
The nobleman in question sat at a very exclusive table, with a good view over the Pai Sho corner. At first, Li Fu missed him. He thought perhaps the server was having a good joke at his expense, but as he turned to snap at Manish, the teapot on the table moved. Upon closer examination, Li Fu realized it was not, in fact, a teapot, but the nobleman's hat. He was a very short nobleman.
"He calls himself The Duke," Manish whispered in his ear. "He's been here two days, from what I can tell. He just bought a home in the Upper Ring and it sounds as if he intends to stay."
"Hmm..." Li Fu examined the man carefully. "He's not much to look at, is he?"
Manish found this comment rather ironic, since Li Fu himself could be easily confused with a cow hippo.
"And, really, what Iroh is doing with this décor!" Li Fu muttered, ambling off on a moot point. "Just look at that ghastly statue!"
Manish coughed softly. "That would be The Duke's bodyguard, sir."
Li Fu's eyes widened to comical proportions. Manish fought hard to keep control of himself.
The Duke's bodyguard was a veritable giant, with appendages large enough to knock an ostrich-horse senseless with a quick slap. He flaunted his muscles with a sleeveless shirt and his confident smirk dared anyone to pick a fight.
Li Fu gulped. "Well, uh, thank you for your assistance," he told Manish. He began to pull himself together, gathering his robes and finery about him. He dropped several gold coins on the table, much to the server's delight, and made his way amicably to the duke's table.
"Here he comes," Pipsqueak rumbled softly. "Are you ready?"
The Duke wriggled his nose and upper lip. "This itches." When Iroh and Ru Yong saw the fake mustache, their amusement was clear. Still, he had insisted on it and he was confident it made him look every inch as rich and regal as he was pretending to be.
Li Fu smiled his friendliest smile down on the height-deprived rich man. The sight was akin to a bull-pig with indigestion.
"I hope you'll pardon my intrusion...?" Li Fu tried to stretch the smile up his flabby cheeks.
The duke said nothing, but the giant made no move to pulverize him, so Li Fu sat down. Upon closer examination, he realized the duke was quite young. If he was twenty, Li Fu would be surprised. All for the better, he supposed. If he was so young, could he really have very strong opinions about anything?
Also, he noticed the young nobleman's substantial mustache –thick and elegant, as only a nobleman could grow. It was wriggling about, though, as if it wanted to escape. Li Fu quickly discarded the absurd idea.
"Allow me to properly welcome you to the prestigious Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se," Li Fu gushed. "I am Li Fu, of the very honorable Hondu clan. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance." Li Fu stroked his beard. "...I've been told that you are a duke?"
The bodyguard growled.
Li Fu jumped at the sound. He gulped nervously.
The young duke waved a dismissive hand at his bodyguard. "It's all right, Pipsqueak," he said. He turned to Li Fu with playful eyes. "I'm not a duke, Li," he smirked. "I'm the Duke."
Li Fu's eyebrow twitched in annoyance. "Oh, I, uh, see..." He licked his thin lips. "The Duke. My apologies."
The Duke grinned. "Accepted! ...But if you do it again, I'll have to set Pipsqueak on you."
Li Fu chuckled mirthlessly. "Oh, yes, sir. Very good." But when he glanced up at the smiling bodyguard, he wondered if Duke wasn't joking.
"So," The Duke draped his arm over his chair, "what do you want?"
Li Fu was a little distracted at the thought of his feeble bones between 'Pipsqueak's not so little thumb and forefinger. "Er, sorry?"
The Duke rolled his eyes impatiently. "Obviously you came over here for a reason," he said. "You spent enough time whispering with that servant to know my whole life story by now."
Li Fu swallowed, sprouted his smile again. "Well, you see, I've set myself up as a sort of unofficial welcoming committee. It's a terrible thing to arrive in a new city and not know who one can associate with, isn't it?" He eyed the duke carefully, probing for a reaction.
The Duke gave none, though he had to try hard not to laugh. Li Fu looked ridiculous, leaning one wide eye toward him to watch for the slightest reaction.
"Terrible," he finally agreed. He rubbed at his thick mustache in contemplation, a little awkwardly, perhaps, but he was new at the mustache-stroking thing. "After all, my blood runs pure blue. I have ancestors stretching back to the royals before Ba Sing Se! I don't want to be milling around with a bunch of peasants." He snorted distastefully.
Li Fu's smile was slick as otter-penguins down an ice chute. "Exactly."
Something in his tone must have intrigued the duke. He raised an eyebrow.
"Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?"
"I'd be delighted," Li Fu replied.
Manish was watching them carefully out of the corner of his eye, waiting for the signal.
After they struggled with conversational topics and several cups of tea, Li Fu said, "I know several very distinguished noblemen, Duke. In fact, we're getting together very soon for a little...gathering. Would you like to join us?"
Finally! Ever so slightly, Pipsqueak nodded his head.
Manish smirked and hurried to the kitchen. He poked his head through the door and whispered, "They're in."
"I'm curious, my friend..." Iroh blew on his tea. "How did you manage it?"
Ru Yong bit into a cake, leaving powdery remains in his mostly dark beard. "Manage?"
"To fight off the brainwashing."
Ru Yong delicately wiped his face, mulling it over. "I thought of my father, Iroh."
Iroh nodded slowly. "I've heard that holding on to precious memories will disrupt the process."
"Known many people who've been brainwashed?" Ru Yong chuckled.
Iroh smiled. "No, just heard stories."
"Someone attempted to brainwash my father," Ru Yong said suddenly. "Many, many years ago. Why, I was barely a man when that happened."
As Ru Yong gazed off into the distance, Iroh listened closely. "I didn't know at the time what had happened, of course. I only knew that my father wasn't himself."
"How long did it last?" Iroh asked.
"Not long," Ru Yong said. "A few weeks perhaps, but then he was thrown into a fever. I've theorized he must have been ordered to do something that went against every fiber of his being and so he fought it."
"Did he recover?"
"Only his mind," Ru Yong replied. "His body suffered a great deal and he became very weak. But in thought, he grew only stronger. And he made certain to teach me the way to live."
Iroh sipped at his tea for a moment. "That's when you started investigating."
Ru Yong nodded. "And I haven't stopped yet. And I won't, not until I catch the man responsible."
Iroh's frown deepened. "And you're sure this is the same man?"
Ru Yong laughed. "Positive! Long Feng's conspiracy is virtually the same now as when my father stumbled into it, and I don't intend to let it continue."
Iroh had never met the man, but he'd heard stories. The most heartbreaking he'd only just learned: the tragic death of Jet. He had managed to pry out the small bits Pipsqueak and The Duke knew, and what little Longshot and Smellerbee would tell him. He was worried for the sake of his two young friends.
Manish poked his head in the kitchen, grinning triumphantly. "They're in."
Ru Yong chuckled. "You were right about those two, Iroh. Now we'll see how far this really goes."
Iroh smiled. "And we'll put a stop to it."
So far, The Duke was unimpressed. The little 'gathering' comprised of a score of very wealthy, very old noblemen, complaining about the infringement of the Lower Rings and the growing impudence of hired servants.
The Duke yawned. Pipsqueak stood behind his chair at rigid attention, ready to pound anyone who moved too close. The Duke began toying with his fake mustache. He had considered not wearing it to the meeting, just to see Li Fu's expression. Pipsqueak advised against it. After all, they couldn't arouse suspicions.
"Tea?" a female servant offered, holding up the pot and smiling broadly.
The Duke tried not to shrink back, but it was hard. He shook his head and waved her away. He supposed she was probably nice enough, but something about her set him on edge. She smiled too much.
As Li Fu's over exuberant housekeeper moved away to serve tea to the other guests, The Duke once more caught on to the thread of conversation.
"...slowly sneaking their way into the Upper Ring!" one man exploded.
An ancient nobleman, his fingers so weighed down by jeweled rings he could hardly lift them, rasped. "I heard a blacksmith from the Lower Ring made enough money that he moved his family to the Middle Ring and opened up his own store."
Pompous! The Duke fought the impulse to roll eyes. Instead, he simply raised his hand.
Li Fu smiled his version of a smile. "Ah, yes, it seems Duke has something to contribute."
All the noblemen turned to him.
The Duke gulped nervously. All their eyes on him –boring into him– made him nervous. But, why should he be nervous? As far as they were concerned, he was every inch as proper, pompous and narrow-minded as they were. "Why are you all just sitting around here?" he asked simply.
Li Fu blinked. A couple of the other nobles frowned and huffed at one another.
"We're, uh, not merely sitting," Li Fu managed to chuckle dismissively. "We're discussing."
"Talking, sitting," The Duke waved it away. "Waste of time."
The noblemen were more than a little offended by this. They began to murmur, grumbling so loudly that The Duke had to jump to his feet in order to be heard.
"Sitting here talking won't solve anything!" The Duke cried out. "Why aren't you taking action?"
A dark chuckle penetrated the crowd. Even with all their huffing and shouting, jumping and arm-waving, that soft sound stilled everything.
Slowly, the crowd of agitated noblemen parted to allow this newcomer passage. He stood in the doorway, dark and menacing, with a small smirk on his lips.
"But we are taking action," he said. "The question is, do you have what it takes?"
The Duke stared hard at the man, trying to read his face.
The housekeeper appeared beside the newcomer, beaming broadly. "Long Feng has arrived, sir," she announced, a tad unnecessarily.
- Pomp and Circumstance is a well-known piece of music, often used for ceremonials such as marches and graduations.
- At just under 2,000 words, this is the shortest chapter to date. Quite possibly the shortest in the entire series.
- The scene in which The Duke calmly contemplates the feel of his mustache in the heat of the situation is an allusion to Artemis Fowl and his disguise in The Time Paradox, by Eoin Colfer.
- It is entirely possible that 'Li Fu' is a subconscious allusion to Le Fou, from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, who is a wonderfully silly henchman.
For the collective works of the author, go here.