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|Reading Tea Leaves|
Feb. 7, 2012
Previously in Air
Firelord Zuko, Avatar Aang and Katara are in Ba Sing Se, incognito, ready to begin their search for Fire Prince Roh-Roh, kidnapped by the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. Longshot and Smellerbee have ventured into the Guild in the hopes of learning information and Iroh has discovered a coded message hidden in Ru Yong's chambers...
Chapter Five: Reading Tea Leaves
To the great dismay of many loyal patrons, The Jasmine Dragon, finest tea shop in Ba Sing Se, was closed for the day.
"First, let me thank you all for coming." Aang stood at the head of the shop, looking over the people seated around tables. Every one of them was his friend, and they'd dropped everything to respond to his plea. He knew he could trust them all. "I know you're wondering what the big emergency is," he went on, "But I'm not the one who's going to tell you. And I have to warn you, a certain level of secrecy is necessary."
There were many frowns. They didn't know what to make of all this.
The Duke raised his hand. The past twelve years had made him wiser, but unfortunately not much taller. "Is that why the Firelord's going incognito?"
"In-co-nedo?" Due whispered to his short and stubby friend. "What's that mean, Tho?"
"I think it means the Firelord ain't wearing any clothes," Tho replied, scratching his head in puzzlement.
"Well that's just plain silly," Due scoffed. "How would he know that? The Firelord's all the way in the Fire Nation, i'nt he?"
"That's right," Aang told The Duke, tempted to laugh at the swamp dwellers. Aang glanced at Zuko. They wanted to put the disguise to a second test. It took many of their friends several moments to recognize him. Some of them evidently still hadn't figured it out.
"So it's safe to assume this emergency is related to the Fire Nation." That was Tyro, rubbing his chin with a scowl of concentration.
Zuko stood. "It is. And I, too, would like to thank you. I'm sorry about all this secrecy, but it really is necessary."
"I hope this isn't about another invasion," Hue said, scratching absently at his bare shoulder. "Vines are hard to come by in a big city like this."
"An invasion?" Yu cried in alarm.
Xin Fu leapt to his feet, pounding his fist into the table. "If it's an invasion you want," he bellowed, determined to outdo his long-time rival, "I will personally crush the bones of every enemy to stand in your way!"
The room exploded in an uproar of shouting and arguing. Aang glared at Xin Fu and wondered, for the hundredth time, where in the world Toph was.
Iroh raised his hands for silence. "I suggest you let my nephew speak."
Grudgingly, the room fell silent once more. Aang took a seat, giving Zuko the floor.
"I'm here to ask for your help," the Firelord began. "I've been threatened by a rebel organization here in the Earth Kingdom. As you might know, this is not the first threat the Fire Nation has received. But this time..." Zuko paused to steady his voice. "They call themselves the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet," he said, "And they demand nothing less than the full surrender and dismemberment of the Fire Nation."
Murmurs and gasps ran rampant in the room.
"They're quite ambitious," Hue scoffed.
"Yes," Tyro mused. "Especially for such a new group. I've certainly never heard of them. Has anyone else?"
No one had.
It was Master Yu who finally asked the important question. "How do they hope to gain all this?"
Though he tried to hide it, Zuko's fear and fatigue were clear. He took a deep breath. "They kidnapped my son, Iroh."
A stunned silence fell on the normally joyful tea shop.
"When did you start receiving the threats?" Tyro asked.
Zuko shook his head. "This was the first."
Tyro frowned. "They sent the Fire Nation no warning?" he asked incredulously. "None at all?"
"No," Zuko replied. "Things have been peaceful, only a few Fire rebels causing mischief, but that's not unusual."
Master Yu stroked his weak mustache. "Curious..."
Not to be bested, Xin Fu slammed his fist on the table. "Scum!"
The Duke piped up. "That explains the disguise. These guys probably have their eyes peeled for you."
Zuko nodded. "The Guild demanded no Fire Nation citizen set foot in the Earth Kingdom. So, yes, it's safe to assume they're watching."
Aang smiled ruefully. "They also demanded that the Avatar swear not to interfere."
"And yet" –The Duke couldn't help a smile of his own– "You're both here."
Zuko held his head high. "I refuse to bow to their demands," he declared. His will seemed to give and his shoulders slumped. "But I won't let them have my son, either. I've come to find Roh-Roh and take down these rebels." He looked over those gathered, many friends he had gained on the eve of the greatest battle in history. "But I can't do it alone."
Murmurs rippled through the room, but in the glances they shared it was clear what the consensus would be.
Finally, Tyro stood. "Any scum who would stoop to stealing a child deserves to be flushed out."
Choruses of agreement flooded over Zuko, bringing him a strange sense of relief. They were willing to help him, but perhaps more comforting was their infuriation at Roh-Roh's kidnapping.
"What will the Guild do when they discover the Firelord has left his Palace?" Yu asked. "Surely you cannot hide that forever, especially if this Guild is keeping an eye on the Fire Nation."
Aang grinned. "He's already thought of everything."
Zuko smiled, but it was mirthless, made of steel and determination. "Even if they are watching the Palace, they won't realize I'm hunting them down until it's too late. I left the Fire Palace –and the rest of my family– in the protection of the Kyoshi Warriors. I've also put an imposter on the throne."
"Isn't that usually a bad thing?" The Duke pointed out.
"This imposter protects me," Zuko explained. "By posing as the Firelord, he is proof that I haven't left the Fire Nation."
"Leaving you free to look for your son," Tyro realized.
Zuko nodded. "Anywhere I have to."
"So..." The Duke glanced around at the others. "What do you want us to do?"
"The Guild isn't going to be easy to find," Zuko told them. "We know almost nothing about them."
"So you want us to find them." Pipsqueak pounded his fist into his hand and grinned. "And infiltrate."
Iroh spoke before Zuko could reply. "I'm afraid we have already infiltrated them."
Everyone turned to Iroh in surprise. None was more shocked than Zuko.
Iroh glanced at the many eyes upon him and beamed a sheepish smile. "It wasn't long before Longshot and Smellerbee figured out something was wrong." The two former Freedom Fighters had been in his employ for nearly eleven years, ever since he'd rescued them from an irate merchant convinced they were thieves. All of Iroh's tea servers were loyal and trusted friends, but none so much as Longshot and Smellerbee.
The Duke perked up at the mention of his old friends' names.
"I had just tried to pry information out of some old friends when they confronted me," Iroh said defensively; "I was exhausted!"
Zuko smirked. "That's because most of your old friends want to kill you."
"I'm afraid I told them everything," Iroh admitted. "The next morning I found that the two of them had vanished. The only thing they left behind was a note, saying they'd gone to join the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet to learn what they could." He blushed. They'd also said it was to repay him for all his kindness.
Iroh turned to Zuko. "I didn't tell you before because I didn't want to get your hopes up. Who knew if they could even find the Guild? Or if they'd get in?"
"I have faith in them," The Duke declared.
"Your faith is well-placed," Iroh said. "I've just heard from them. They managed to infiltrate the Guild. Being new recruits, they haven't been told much, but they've gathered that the Guild isn't just in one place, but is spread out in pockets throughout the Earth Kingdom. The rest of you should start looking for them; it's possible some pockets have more information than others, or that some are perhaps more lenient. The one here in Ba Sing Se appears to be very large, but Smellerbee doesn't think it's the head of the organization."
"Have they learned anything else?" Zuko asked softly, his heart pounding in his ears.
Iroh stroked his beard, frowning. "Not concerning plans for the Fire Nation," he said carefully. "It seems there's something called the 'Emerald Serpent' working against the Guild, and Smellerbee and Longshot are being used to deal with it."
Katara spotted a silver lining. "Do you think this Emerald Serpent would help us?"
"Ah, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend', you mean?" Iroh chuckled. "In some cases that's true. But unfortunately not this time."
"Another enemy to deal with," Yu pondered aloud.
Iroh was quick to reassure his nephew. "You have enough to worry about!" he cried, almost happily. "And this problem concerns only Ba Sing Se. Merely a turf war, as I understand it. Leave it to me, Zuko."
"But–" Zuko tried to protest.
Iroh raised a hand for silence. "You just concentrate on finding my namesake," he said, gentle but firm. "Besides, I won't be on my own. Longshot and Smellerbee are still working to gain their leader's trust, so they'll be able to assist me. And I've just discovered that an old friend has been digging around in all this as well!" Iroh neglected to mention that his friend was currently in a mysterious catatonic state with no means of communication. It wasn't something his nephew needed to know. "And you were planning on leaving someone here, weren't you?"
Aang and Katara exchanged a glance. "Toph," they said simultaneously.
"I promised her she could infiltrate the bad guys' secret organization. After all, she loves to surprise the bad guys." Aang laughed.
Katara sighed dramatically. "She probably won't be too pleased..."
Iroh chuckled. "Oops."
Xin Fu and Yu had suddenly gone quiet. They glanced at one another with something very near fear in their eyes.
Yu cleared his throat. "Ah, where is Miss Bei Fong?" he asked apprehensively. Beside him, Xin Fu ground his teeth and clenched his muscles, refusing to give in to panic.
Katara and Aang had to fight back a laugh. It was no wonder the two earthbending masters were worried. They had the misfortune of bumping into Toph during the victory celebrations in Ba Sing Se all those years ago. She would have pummeled them then and there, but Aang managed to convince her it wasn't the best way to celebrate peace. Instead, she set before them an ultimatum. Aang had just commissioned The Mechanist to restore the Air Temples to their former glory and he needed manpower. So the two experienced earthbenders could either volunteer for this life of public service, or attempt to survive the trip home to Gaoling with Toph as their traveling buddy.
They'd both opted to serve The Mechanist.
Tyro spoke up. "That is something I would also like to know."
Aang frowned, his arrowfied forehead creasing with concern. "We have no idea where she is," he admitted. "She was supposed to be here today."
There was a moment of contemplative silence. The friends glanced uneasily at one another.
"I'm worried about them," Katara finally announced, since no one else would admit it. "Toph may not be the most polite or punctual person, but I'm sure she would have sent some kind of a message if they were delayed."
"Do you really think they're in danger?" Hue asked. "After all, how much trouble could the little mite have gotten into?"
Xin Fu and Yu grimaced. Aang and Iroh laughed. Even Zuko smiled a little.
"A lot," Katara assured.
The ripple of laughter managed to wash through the tense crowd, providing a little relief. It left only Pipsqueak and The Duke unaffected; the two were busily whispering to one another.
The Duke finally stood for attention. He had to perch on his chair to be seen, but Aang caught sight of his short waving arms.
The Duke held himself high, arms crossed purposefully. "Pipsqueak and I volunteer to stay here in Ba Sing Se," he declared. "We can help Iroh and hang around in case Longshot and Smellerbee need someone to bail them out." He nodded firmly, as if to prove the task were as easy as he made it sound.
Aang glanced at Iroh. "What do you think?"
Iroh smiled. "I always welcome assistance. I just have one question."
The Duke readied himself for a challenging trivia.
"How are you at serving tea?"
This time the laughter came a little easier and Iroh knew it was something everyone could use.
A pounding on the shop's door rose above the merriment. Iroh sighed, rising from his seat. "I'll get it. Carry on."
He bustled to the door, muttering, "It's a simple courtesy to let a man enjoy his day off! Can't people read signs anymore?!" He only opened the door a crack, raising his voice for the impatient customer on the doorstep to hear. "We're closed!" he called cheerfully. "But we will welcome you tomorrow for a cup of the finest tea in Ba Sing Se!"
"I'm not here for the tea!" the man hissed, shoving a scroll through the small opening before running off down the street.
"How odd..." Iroh studied the dwindling figure. He was robed in shapeless dark browns, with a wide-brimmed straw hat pulled low over his eyes, and a large hood pulled up over that to obscure the rest of his face. His feet, as they fled down the spotless street, were bare, dirty and bandaged.
"What is it, Uncle?"
The room was quiet now, as they realized something had happened.
Iroh closed the door, locked it, and turned to his nephew. He held up the sealed scroll. "I'm not sure," he said. "But that messenger didn't look as if he wanted to be seen."
Iroh opened the scroll and began reading its words aloud. "In the Broken Barrel pub, you were too loud and careless with your questions. I overheard your desire to find the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. I know where they are –at least, some of them. It is not safe to speak in public. In fact, with matters concerning the Guild, nowhere in Ba Sing Se is safe. If you and your friends really want to find them, go to Omashu and wait for Gorak at the abandoned cabbage cart in the east market."
Iroh rolled the scroll back up. "It's signed, A friend."
"We could certainly use one of those," Zuko said.
Iroh, if it's taken you too long to decode this message, perhaps you're getting too old for such business. Perhaps I am, too, if I think it's a smart idea to hide it so obscurely.
Iroh quickly realized it was a day for mysterious messages, and 'obscure' did the scroll from Ru Yong's Pai Sho table justice. Iroh had tried to read it immediately, but discovered that its message was in code.
That evening, after all plans were settled and friends bedded down for the night or safely on their way, he led Pipsqueak and The Duke quietly into the kitchen to await the arrival of Longshot and Smellerbee. The four old friends had a very short reunion before they set about deciphering the message –or trying to. The clever coding soon sapped all their attention.
It was several hours before Iroh tried a combination of two ciphers used by the Order of the White Lotus. The jumble of words still didn't make any sense and Iroh would have given the idea up, until Longshot pointed out that the scroll was the identical size as a wall hanging in Iroh's kitchen depicting various wonderful tea leaves. Since Ru Yong intended the message specifically for Iroh, the trick made sense. The three combined strategies unlocked the message, but doubled Iroh's apprehension. What could his old friend have discovered to think such precautions were necessary?
Of course, Ru Yong's message continued, providing little reassurance, if you're reading this, there's a good chance I won't be getting any older...
The message didn't get better from there.
My apologies for getting this up so late. Crazy day. I will be posting a commentary of this in my blog, but probably not until Thursday. Thanks for your patience and your continued reading. Enjoy!
For the collective works of the author, go here.