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CAUSE SOME TROUBLE
CHAPTER 21-- THE SEARCH BEGINS
CHAPTER 21—THE SEARCH BEGINS
Zafirah sat quietly in her tent for a while, lost in her thoughts. She wasn't any closer to deciding what she was going to do when she and her tribe reached Ba Sing Se with Kuei.
"I guess it wouldn't hurt anythin' to go and stay in the city for a couple weeks, maybe," she said under her breath. "But if I decide not to stay after that… Could I even do that?" She groaned and buried her face in her hands. This was more or less the same circle she'd been going around in for days. Sometimes it took detours, but it always came back to the same frustrating, stupid place.
"I can't stay there forever and I can't leave the tribe behind," she muttered; she'd lost count of how many times she'd told herself that. Fighting down the lump in her throat, she got to her feet and stormed out of the tent. I'd better go and make myself useful before I go insane, she thought sourly. It was sunset already, she noticed; they'd be setting up dinner. Looking around the quickly darkening camp, she spotted her brother leaving the cooking area and hurrying towards the makeshift shelter where their sick and wounded kin were resting.
"Hey, there you are! You feeling okay?" Basam asked.
"'M fine," she said quietly. "They need any help with the food over there?"
"They're just about done, but I'm sure they'll find you somethin' to do," he said. "I'm bein' sent off for healer duty." Zafirah nodded and started to walk past him, but he put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. "We'll find a way to solve this thing with you and Kuei," he said gently. "There's gotta be an answer."
"Yeah, I hope so," Zafirah muttered. She reached up to squeeze the hand on her shoulder, then kept on walking towards the cooking spot. Next to the fire she spotted Aimu, a man who'd been a friend of their parents, and jogged over to him. He put her to work dishing out bowls of rice and spicy pig-chicken curry to the first few people lining up to eat. As she was handing a bowl to a woman named Fairuz, she noticed a squat, dark shape trundling down the path from the village towards their camp. She shaded her eyes with her hand to see it better.
"Huh, that's weird," she remarked.
"What is?" asked Fairuz.
"Bosco's comin' back, but Kuei's not with him," Zafirah said.
"Bosco?" Fairuz echoed. "Oh, that strange bear creature! Is it really that odd for the animal to be coming back without him?"
"Yeah, it kinda is. They hardly ever go anywhere without each other," Zafirah said distractedly. She excused herself and went over to the bear, who was growling quietly in a way that gave her an uneasy feeling in her gut. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Kuei at all since earlier, she realized. "C'mon, Bosco," she said, absently patting the bear's head. Together, they went off to find her brother.
After asking around, she found him bandaging injuries. His patient at the moment was Jamila. "Hey, Zafi!" she said, doing her best to hide a wince as Basam put salve on a stitched-up cut in her left leg.
"Hey there, Jamila," she said, smiling at the girl. "I'm gonna have to borrow my brother once he's done with your leg."
"Pssh, by all means, take 'im!" The girl waved her hand dismissively. "He's doin' nothing but torturin' me, anyways."
Basam chuckled and shook his head. "It'd go a lot smoother if you didn't squirm so damn much," he chided her. He tied off the bandage and sat back on his heels. "And there we go, all done." Then he stood up and moved a few paces away with Zafirah. "What's up?" he asked.
"Have you seen Kuei around lately? Bosco came back from town without him," she said.
"He did? That's weird," Basam remarked.
"Yeah, that's exactly what I said."
"How long's he been gone?" he asked.
"He left a little bit after we got here. Remember all of us takin' a look at that rock wave? Just after that, he said he wanted to go ask about it," Zafirah said.
"That was hours ago," her brother said with a frown.
"Yeah, I know. Let's go into town and see if we can find 'im," she suggested. They quickly told Sha-Mo of their plans and took to the road leading into town from their camp, with Bosco at their side. The bear trotted along next to them, turning his head and growling at them like he was telling them to get a move on and pick up the pace.
Zafirah hugged her arms around herself as they walked. There was a chill in the air; autumn was coming, after all, and they were pretty far north. If Kuei had been there, she knew he'd have put an arm around her to keep her warm. She tightened her arms around her torso and walked even faster.
Night was falling fast, the few lamps in town already being lit as they arrived. As soon as they set foot in town, Bosco broke into a slow lope. Zafirah and her brother had to jog to keep up, and now the uneasy twisting in her belly was impossible to ignore or shake off as just her overreacting. She rarely saw the lazy bear this agitated. From the corners of her eyes, she could see a few people walking along the streets giving them strange looks. She couldn't blame them: they must've made a damned odd sight.
All of a sudden, Bosco skidded to a halt, his black nose to the ground. Basam stepped forward and bent down, picking something up. He straightened up and faced towards Zafirah, an alarmed look in his eyes that gave Zafirah a horrible feeling.
"Zafirah, look," Basam said grimly. He held his hand out; a pair of round eyeglasses, their lenses cracked. A chill went up her spine that had nothing to do with the coming autumn. She grabbed the glasses from him and clutched them in her hand. Looking around hurriedly, she spotted a shopkeeper sweeping the doorway of his store. She rushed over to him with Basam and Bosco right behind her.
"'Scuse me!" she called, waving to him as she reached him. "Hey, excuse me!"
The shopkeeper looked up at her. "Yes, can I help you?" he asked.
"There was a guy here," Zafirah said, her voice shaking. "He was about this tall, dark hair, pale skin. He was wearin' these and he had that animal with him," she said, showing him the glasses and pointing to Bosco. "You seen him?"
"Hmm," the shopkeeper hummed slowly. Zafirah gritted her teeth in frustration. "Yes, in fact, I did see him. A bounty hunter came through here and picked him up a while ago. If you were hoping to claim him yourselves, you're too late," he added, glancing dubiously at the pair of them.
"A bounty hunter?" she exclaimed, horrified. "H-how d'you know that? What makes you so sure?"
"She passed through here once before with a couple of Fire Nation men," the shopkeeper said, scorn in his tone.
"So you saw him get snatched up by a bounty hunter… and no one did anythin' to help him?" Zafirah yelled.
The shopkeeper shrugged. "I didn't think there was any need to, and I'm guessing everyone else on the street thought likewise."
"No need? No need?" she echoed, clenching her fists. She seized the front of the man's tunic, pulling him down to her level. "What Spirits-forsaken reason made you think that?"
"Bounty hunters are usually after criminals! Why in the world would I think he needed help?" the man replied sharply. Zafirah bristled, winding up for a good yell, but Basam's hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"D'you remember what the bounty hunter looked like?" he asked.
"Of course I do," the shopkeeper replied, eying Basam warily. "She had black hair, and she was wearing all black, as well. It's her animal I remember best, though. It was some sort of big, hairy beast with a tongue like a whip. That thing must've been poisonous or some such: one hit from it and that young man hit the dirt like a sack of radishes."
Cold fear gripped Zafirah's heart and she let go of the man's tunic with numb hands. "One more question," she said faintly. "Which way did this bounty hunter go?"
"East," the man replied, dusting off his tunic. Zafirah nodded and turned away from him. Basam grabbed her arm with one hand and gently put the other one on her back. Together, they walked away from the shop. Bosco let out a low, mournful whine as he followed them.
East, Zafirah thought. Towards Ba Sing Se. She clenched her fists, determination rising inside her.
"So what's the plan now?" Basam asked quietly.
"Well, one thing's for damn sure," Zafirah said, her voice hard. "We're not goin' back to the desert just yet."
Kuei drifted into consciousness, his head swimming. He hadn't even realized he'd blacked out until he woke up. It was sunset, that much he could tell—how much time had passed? Was this the same sunset of before he'd been captured, or had he really lost an entire day? He was in a forest, too, and sitting on the ground, propped up against a tree trunk with his hands and feet still bound. The ropes and rough bark scraped against his hands as he tried to shift into a more comfortable position. The bounty hunter sat nearby, cooking a skewer of meat over a small fire. His stomach growled at the savory smell, but he ignored it.
He opened his mouth to speak, but found it too parched to get words out. He cleared his throat and tried again. He could only get one word out: "Why…?"
"Right to the point, I see," the woman replied in an off-handed way, not taking her eyes off of her dinner.
"Who put you up to this?" he croaked. "Was it Long Feng?"
"My my, you're just full of questions that I have no incentive whatsoever to answer," she replied.
Kuei chuckled humorlessly, a dry sound that crackled in his throat. "It couldn't possibly do any harm to tell me," he pointed out. "It's not as if I could run away. You'd only catch me again."
"That's true," she agreed with a proud smirk. "Fine, if you really want to know that badly: there's been a warrant for your arrest for ages. Really, I'd say it's surprising that no one else beat me to the punch, but that'd imply there's someone out there who could beat me."
"Who put out the warrant?" he asked.
"The Fire Nation—who else? But there's been a change of power in Ba Sing Se, or so I've heard, so I'm going to take you there and sell you to the highest bidder. How's that sound?" she asked, voice laced with fake pleasantness.
"Delightful," Kuei replied sardonically. Then, in desperation, he said, "Please, don't do this. Whatever money they're offering you, I will double it when I get my throne back. Please, I'm begging you, let me go."
"Not on your life!" June retorted. "With the gold I'll get from you, I could retire! Not that I would, of course, but I could do it."
Kuei looked down, defeated. A sudden memory resurfaced, of something else the Avatar and his friends had told him. In recounting their adventures, they'd mentioned a bounty hunter—a woman who rode a shirshu. "You're June, aren't you?" he asked.
"I see you've heard of me. Good. A lady's got to maintain her reputation, after all," she said.
"And I've heard of your mount, too," he went on, feeling unusually spiteful at that moment. "Why did we stop? Is the legendary strength and speed of the shirshu not all it's said to be?"
"I was hungry," June replied flatly, her one visible eye narrowing. "And now I'm tired of listening to your chatter." She dug a black-tipped dart out of the leather bag at her side and stood up, stepping over to him. She paused, standing above him with her head tilted. He felt a tinge of fear, worrying that he'd gone too far. "It's too bad," she said musingly. "You're a lot cuter than most of my bounties."
He only had a moment to feel discomfort at the idea of his kidnapper flirting with him, and then June crouched down and sank the dart into his bare upper arm. He felt the sting of the needle tip and then darkness overtook him.
As the twins stumbled back to the Janan Tribe's camp, it was Jamila who spotted them coming and rushed over to them.
"Did you find yer buddy?" she asked, giving them a smile that fell from her face a moment later. "What's the matter?"
"He's gone," Zafirah said angrily.
"Ya mean he left? That's awful rude of him!" Jamila exclaimed, appalled.
"No, he didn't leave on his own. He was kidnapped," she replied, her voice low. Her fists were clenched at her sides so hard that her knuckles popped.
"A bounty hunter took him away," Basam explained in a heavy tone. He stroked Bosco's head, the bear whining softly.
"Oh," Jamila said, eyes widening.
"D'you know where Sha-Mo is?" Zafirah asked.
"We need to talk to him," Basam added. Jamila nodded and took them to their chieftain. As they told him about Kuei's disappearance, a deep frown creased his face and he tapped his chin thoughtfully.
"Do you know why this happened?" he asked.
"I've got a few ideas," Zafirah replied darkly. "He had some enemies back in Ba Sing Se—"
"A fellow by the name of Long Feng," Basam interjected. "To put it shortly, he's been controlling Kuei for most of his life."
"In fact, it was this Long Feng guy who's responsible for the Fire Nation snatching Ba Sing Se like they did," Zafirah added.
"Or it could've been the Fire Nation, I guess," Basam said. "We did do a whole lot to piss 'em off this summer. They could've put out a warrant before the Fire Lord got defeated."
"I see. I take it you won't be coming back to the desert with us, then," he stated.
"We can't, not yet," Zafirah said regretfully. "Me and Basam are the only ones that can help Kuei. He's got no one else."
"Hmm. It's odd, isn't it? A man born into such power, left with so few friends in the world," Sha-Mo mused. "I understand what you're saying. If there's anything we can do to help, just say it."
"Thanks, Sha-Mo," Basam said, bowing his head respectfully to his chieftain.
That night, they sat with their tribe for one last meal together. Once everyone had their food, Sha-Mo stood up and waved for silence. All eyes went to him as he strode over to Zafirah and her brother, who stood up. He stretched out a hand to each of them. Zafirah and Basam clasped hands with each other and their chieftain as he began to talk.
"I'm sad to say it, but fate must divide our tribe once again," he said solemnly. "Our brother and sister must part ways with us to search for their friend, who has no tribe to rely on, as we do. Please, join me in asking the Spirits to keep them safe on their journey." Zafirah felt a lump in her throat as the people of her tribe stood up and joined hands. Basam gave her fingers a tight squeeze and she squeezed back. They stood in peaceful quiet for a few minutes as the tribe sent their prayers to the Spirit World in silence.
The next morning, the twins packed up their things and headed out towards the road with Bosco, only to find their way blocked—the entire tribe stood in front of them. Jamila stepped out from the crowd with a sad smile.
"We all just wanted to say good luck to ya," she said, hurrying over to hug Zafirah.
"Thanks, Jamila," she said, giving the younger girl a tight hug. Suddenly, she remembered something that she'd been worrying about the night before. Pulling away from the hug, she looked down at the brown bear sitting patiently beside her, and then back at Jamila. "D'you think you could help us out with something?" Zafirah asked, feeling a little stab of guilt for what she was about to say.
"Sure, anything," Jamila replied.
"Could you keep an eye on Bosco for a while? Just till we find Kuei," she said.
"You're not takin' him with you? I mean, isn't he gonna want his pet back once you find 'im?" she asked, forehead wrinkling in a frown.
"We can't," Basam said, shaking his head. "We were talkin' about this last night."
"We gotta move as fast as we can," Zafirah said regretfully. "This isn't gonna be easy and I know Kuei'd want Bosco to be safe more than anythin'. So, how about it?"
"Of course! I'll take good care of him, promise," the younger girl said.
"Thank you," Zafirah said, relieved. This isn't like when those Fire-freaks had Bosco during the eclipse, she told herself. He'll be better off here than with us right now.
"We're gonna miss you all so much!" Basam said tearfully as he hugged Jamila too. "It's just not fair—we finally found you guys and now we have to leave the tribe again."
"Yeah, but you'll come back after you find your friend, right?" she asked hopefully.
"Right, yeah," Zafirah said, trying not to sound as uncertain as she felt. Jamila fell into step with them as they walked towards the rest of the tribe, who parted to let them through. Others popped out of the group to say their goodbyes—all their friends and relatives and people they'd grown up with. Then they were through the group, with only the empty road in front of them. Zafirah looked back, gazing over the faces of her tribe, and saw Bosco ambling towards them.
"You stay here, Bosco," said Basam, crouching down next to the bear and petting his head. Bosco whined in confusion. "Don't worry, Jamila's gonna make you feel right at home!"
Zafirah squatted down next to Basam and stroked the animal's thick fur. "Wait here for us, okay? We'll find him, don't you worry," she said as confidently as she could manage. The two of them stood up and watched as Bosco sadly went back to Jamila, who scratched behind his ears comfortingly. Zafirah's heart stung with sorrow as she turned away from their tribe, their family, and started down the road with her brother.
"How should we go about this, Zafi?" Basam asked, turning to her.
"I wish I knew," she replied. "We know they were headed east, so this woman is probably takin' him to Ba Sing Se. I guess we just go east, try to pick up their trail. You heard what the shopkeeper said about her animal—somethin' as weird as that, people are bound to remember seeing it passing by."
"Uh huh," Basam agreed. After a few more steps, he suddenly nudged her shoulder. "Hey, maybe we should find our own bounty hunter! I'm sure someone'll know who this woman is."
"Sure, maybe. Let's just hope we can afford it," Zafirah replied grimly.
As they walked, they passed by a fancy-looking door with an elegantly dressed man standing out front.
"Would you care to hear your fortunes read?" he asked in a smooth voice.
"No thanks, I'm good," Basam replied. "Uh, thanks for offerin', though!"
"Hold on," Zafirah said, pausing midstep. She walked over to the man, fists on her hips. "You don't know where we could find a bounty hunter 'round here, do you?"
An hour later, they found the shady-looking tavern that the elegant man had pointed them towards—close enough to Makapu to be fairly convenient, but far enough away for the town to still look respectable. The two Sandbenders paused at the door, nodded to each other, and stepped inside. They'd barely gotten through the doorway before they had to duck to avoid a flying chair. It smashed on the wall next to the door.
"I like it already," Basam remarked, grinning.
"Yeah, just like home," Zafirah replied sardonically. She grabbed Basam's arm and they started weaving their way through the crowd. She wasn't exactly sure what they were looking for, so she hoped they'd know it when they saw it. Eventually, though, Zafirah got tired of walking around aimlessly; and besides, a few people were giving them weird looks. It didn't bother her too much, as she was used to the rough-and-tumble cantina back home, but she really wasn't in a brawling mood.
"Let's just go and ask the bartender, or something," Basam suggested, obviously thinking the same thing as her. She bobbed her head in agreement and they made their way over to the bar. The heavily-scarred man behind it eyed them appraisingly as they walked up and leaned against the battered wood counter.
"Can I help ya?" he asked, his voice gruff.
"Maybe," Zafirah said. "We need a bounty hunter. I know there's some here, so could you just tell us who they are?"
"Who says there's bounty hunters here?" the bartender rumbled.
"You really expectin' me to believe there's not?" Zafirah retorted.
"C'mon, mister, don't go playin' dumb," Basam added with a smirk. "Me and her, we're not exactly new to places like this," he added, gesturing to the pair of them.
The mountain-shaped man eyeballed them again. "Supposing I did know of some bounty hunters around here," he said slowly. "What'd you be wanting 'em for?"
"Same thing everyone wants a bounty hunter for—we need to find someone," Basam said, crossing his arms.
"And why would this someone of yours need finding?" the bartender asked.
"I'm not goin' into all the little details, but he didn't do anythin' wrong, if that's what you mean," Basam replied.
"Our friend's gone missin' and we're gonna stay right here till you point us at someone who can help us find him," Zafirah added, jabbing a finger at the bartender.
He stared at her and then chortled heartily. "Okay, fine," he said, shaking his head. "Ain't no messing around with these two!"
"Just tell us what we need to know, all right?" Zafirah replied, narrowing her eyes.
"Sure, sure," the bartender said, wiping his eyes with the back of his meaty hand. "See that guy with the hook hand over there?"
"Uh, which one?" Basam asked dubiously.
"The guy with the bald head."
"That still doesn't narrow it down much," Basam pointed out.
"The one with the nose ring!"
Basam squinted off in the direction the bartender pointed. "Ah, okay, I see 'im now."
"That's Guozhi, he's your man," the bartender said.
"Thanks," Zafirah said with a short nod. They pushed their way in between the packed tables until they reached Guozhi, who glanced sideways at them with a baleful glare.
"Yeah?" he muttered, turning his attention back to his mug of ale.
"We need some information," Zafirah said.
"Information about a bounty hunter," Basam added.
"Hmm. And how much are you willing to pay for this here information?" Guozhi asked, sparing them another sideways look.
"That depends on how good the information is," Zafirah shot back.
"This bounty hunter we need to know about is a woman," Basam said. "Word has it she has dark hair, wears black clothes, and has some kinda monster that she rides around on with a poisonous whip-tongue—"
"Hold on just one second!" shouted a voice behind them. Zafirah and Basam turned to see a woman standing behind them. She looked to be about their own age, with chin-length black hair that stuck out messily from underneath a cloth cap. Her clothes were fantastically mismatched and there was a large sword strapped to her hip.
"Uh, hello," Basam said nervously. She ignored him and stepped closer to the two of them, turning her narrow-eyed stare on each of them in turn.
"A monster with a poisonous tongue, you say?" she asked.
"That's what we were told," Basam said.
"Well, I'll be damned," the woman said under her breath. "That's June you're looking for!" She grinned at them, gold-capped teeth flashing. "So tell me, what's that bounty-stealing wolfbat up to this time, hmm?"
"She took our friend," Basam explained.
"And we want him back," Zafirah added with a scowl.
"Is that so?" the woman said, still grinning. She stepped between them and clapped them both on the shoulders. "The name's Jingfei, and I'm exactly the lady you wanna be talking to right now. C'mon, let's go over here and have a chat."
Jingfei guided them over to a table in the corner, where she plopped down onto one of the rickety wooden chairs and shouted for a pot of tea from the bartender.
"I ain't yer servant, come and get it yerself!" the bartender yelled back. Jingfei heaved a sigh and strode over to the bar to get her teapot and three cups.
"Here, tea's on me," she announced, sliding cups over to the twins. They each reluctantly took one after glancing warily at each other. Once the bounty hunter had poured herself a cup and tasted it, she sat back in her chair and stared evenly at the twins. "Now, let's hear you tell me all about this little problem of yours."
"This woman—June, I guess, grabbed our friend from the town of Makapu," Zafirah began.
"Any idea why?" Jingfei asked.
Zafirah shared an uncertain look with Basam. "I'd rather not say," she decided.
"Fair enough, fair enough," Jingfei said. "And which way did they go?"
"East, most likely towards Ba Sing Se," Basam told her.
"Okay. And now for the big one: how much money you got?" The bounty hunter leaned forward eagerly.
"Not much," the twins said together.
"Damn, too bad," Jingfei muttered. Zafirah's heart sank, but then the woman gave another gold-toothed smile. "As it turns out, though, I'm in a generous mood right at this particular moment. See, that Spirits-be-damned June pissed me off but good a few months back—stole a big bounty right out from under me. And if there's one thing I'm real good at—besides bounty hunting, naturally—it's carrying a grudge. I'll do this one free, just to get back at that cheat!"
"Really? You'll do that?" Zafirah asked, torn between suspicion and a swell of hope.
"Yeah, sure! I never say nothing that I don't mean," Jingfei proclaimed with a grand sweep of her arm. "Not only will I get you your buddy back, but I'll track him down twice as fast as anyone else—if not faster!"
"That's exactly what we need," Basam said, smiling. Glancing over at him, though, Zafirah could see a kind of tightness in his smile that hinted at the same suspicion she felt.
"Fantastic. Let's get going, then!" The bounty hunter flipped a few coins onto the table and ushered them out of the tavern.
As they followed her, Zafirah leaned over to her brother and whispered, "You think we can trust this girl?"
"I don't see that we've got much of a choice," Basam replied, shrugging helplessly. "What're the odds of anyone else offerin' to help us for free?" Jingfei took them around to the barn behind the tavern and flung open the doors, striding inside and leading them to a stall near the end. A loud snort echoed from inside it and something pawed at the high, wooden door.
"What d'you have in there?" Basam asked curiously.
"Oho, you'll see!" Jingfei said smugly. She unbolted the door, flung it open, and cried in a singsong voice, "Rei, mama's back!" A tall, brown-furred animal stood inside, its head bristling with long fangs and massive antlers. It growled and nuzzled her ear, making her laugh.
Zafirah gaped at it. "What in the…"
"This, dearies, is a saber-tooth mooselion," Jingfei said proudly, stroking the animal's snout. "I raised 'er from a cub all by my lonesome. Rei took a few bites outta me a time or two, but oh, was it worth it! You oughta see the looks on people's faces when I ride up on this beast."
"'S too bad Kuei's not here to see this," Basam murmured to Zafirah, smiling admiringly at the mooselion.
"Yeah," she agreed sadly. We'll find him, she told herself firmly. She didn't like going along with this woman they'd just met, but it was better than nothing. She had to believe that this would work; she'd already lost her parents, she'd very nearly lost her brother, and she wasn't about to let Kuei die, too.
The twins stood back to give Jingfei room as she got Rei saddled up and all of her supplies in place. Then she helped the two of them up into the saddle and swung up in front of them, turning Rei towards the stable door.
"Hold on tight, kids!" Jingfei yelled. She nudged Rei with her heels, snapped the reins, and off they rode.
In a little less than a week, the walls of Ba Sing Se appeared on the horizon. He could just glimpse it through the sparse forest that overlooked the city to the west. Under any other circumstances, Kuei might have been awed by the shirshu's boundless speed and stamina, but now he only resented it. Kuei felt a surge of dread as he spotted those gleaming white walls from his perch on June's saddle, not knowing what awaited him within.
As it turned out, his return to the city would be delayed a while longer. He couldn't help but be glad for that, even though his present situation wasn't any better than whatever would greet him inside the city. June halted her shirshu a couple hours' travel from the outer wall and set up camp. They were on the edge of the sparse forest, providing tree cover for June's little hideout.
"You don't mind waiting here a bit, do you, Your Highness?" June asked mockingly as she unloaded him from the saddle. "I've got some business to see to in the city."
"Of course, go right ahead," Kuei shot back icily. The latest dose of shirshu venom had worn off enough for him to speak, although he was still tied up well enough to make escape impossible. He worked his wrists futilely within their restraints, ignoring the twinges of pain as his sore shoulders and arms protested.
"Good, I'm so glad we see eye to eye," she replied in an overly sugary voice. Kuei supposed crossly that the imminent payoff in her future had put her in a good mood. She dragged him into the tent that she'd set up and then turned and left with a taunting wave. He heard her tell the shirshu to guard him and then she was gone.
June had no intention of walking all the way to the outer wall, even though she'd left Nyla to keep an eye on her bounty. Luckily, she spied a farmer heading towards the city along the main road—which she'd carefully avoided on her way thus far. The man riding the cart had been only too happy to give her a ride after hearing the sob story she'd cooked up.
As soon as she got to the Lower Ring, she ditched the farmer and took off for her destination: the seediest tavern she could find. Now that the Fire Nation had been kicked out, she'd have to find out who was in charge now—and if there was one thing she knew, it was that seedy taverns were the place to go for the most honest answers about what went on in a town.
It didn't take long to find a likely place, a shabby-looking establishment with an appropriately ominous name: The Burning Bridge. She pushed open the front door, heedless of the bits of cracked and peeling paint that stuck to her fingers, and strode into the tavern's dimly lit interior. After a quick glance around, she headed towards the bar at the back of the room. In a place like this, the bartenders were the gatekeepers of all the dirty secrets and juicy scraps of information that passed through their bars. The ones who knew what they were doing heard and saw everything. She took care not to walk too fast or too directly; it wouldn't do to look like she was on a mission. If anyone else figured out she was bringing in a bounty, she might have to fight for her reward. Not that she thought she'd lose or anything, but she'd hate to deal with the hassle of it. When she reached the bar, she slouched against it carelessly.
"I'll take a wheat beer," she said to the heavyset woman behind the bar. The bartender nodded silently and filled a tankard for her, sliding it to her. June dropped a coin onto the counter and picked up her drink.
"Long journey?" the bartender asked, eying June's dusty clothes.
"I've had worse," she replied. June took a long swig from her drink before getting down to business. "So, I hear those Fire freaks finally got driven out."
"Yeah, and about damned time, too!" roared the man sitting to her left. "Still don't know why we didn't run those bastards outta here the first week!"
"Sure," June replied dryly. "I bet that would've worked out just fine." Ignoring the tough guy next to her, she turned back to the bartender. "What's the story now that they're gone?"
"Not much to tell. You lookin' for work?" The grim sidelong look that the bartender gave her made June chuckle darkly. No hiding anything from this one, she thought.
"Suppose that I am," she said. "Anyone you could recommend?"
"There's some folks in town you could talk to, sure. They used to be real powerful around here; word is they're headed back up in the world again now that the Fire Nation's out."
June sipped her wheat beer and slouched against the bar. "I'm listening."
Kuei gritted his teeth in frustration as he struggled uselessly with his ropes, as he'd been doing for the past couple of hours. The rough fibers dug into his wrists and ankles, but he paid no attention to the stinging—or to the ache in his limbs from having been tied up for so long. The shirshu lifted its head and turned its eyeless face towards him. If he hadn't known better, he could have sworn that the damned animal looked just as smug as its owner.
"Mind your own business," Kuei snapped at it, but then he sighed grimly. "I suppose I am your business." Exhausted, he slumped back against the tree trunk that June had left him propped up against. Something jabbed against his already sore wrists, making him wince. Then, fueled by a surge of renewed energy, he twisted his hands around to get a better feel of the object. It was a stick, he realized, thick and pointy at one end with thorn-like bits sticking out from it. An idea struck him and he maneuvered the stick between his bound hands, heedless of the thorns pricking his palms and fingers. Wriggling around so that he was lying on his side, he bent his knees to pull his feet up behind him and pushed the end of the stick into the ropes around his ankles. He dragged the stick back and forth like a saw until his hands cramped from the effort.
After a couple more hours of alternately working and resting, he looked up sharply at the sound of footsteps crunching on the dirt nearby. He dropped the stick when he saw June striding towards him with an unsettlingly self-satisfied smirk on her face.
"Welcome home, Your Highness," she said in a sing-song tone. "Guess what? I've got some of your buddies waiting for you back in the city. Wouldn't want to keep 'em waiting, now, would we?" He felt his blood run cold as he realized what was happening: she'd found her highest bidder. "C'mon, let's go, your subjects await you."
Kuei just lifted his chin and glared at her, unwilling to give her the satisfaction of seeing him panic or beg. June whistled to herself as she hauled him up off the ground, clearly in a good mood at the prospect of a payoff. She quickly gagged him, flung him over the saddle and covered him with a cloth tarp before leaping up into the saddle. The shirshu lurched up from the ground and took off at a lope towards the city. Kuei clenched and flexed his fists as the animal ran, still pulling against his ropes with all his strength and wishing fervently that he'd kept hold of that stick. June probably would have seen it and taken it away, anyway, he thought. He shifted his feet again in frustration and all of a sudden, he felt something give. The ropes had loosened! Pulse pounding with abruptly renewed hope, he paused to make sure June hadn't noticed him shifting around. If she had, she gave no hint of it.
They reached the city quickly. Kuei couldn't see the Outer Wall itself with the tarp covering him, but he could see the ground below them darken as they passed into its shadow. He listened for the sounds of activity all around them—the creaking of cartwheels, the chatter of male and female voices, the noises of animals— and then realized that with the gag in his mouth, it wouldn't even matter. He didn't hear a single noise, though; the road was quiet aside from the shirshu's shuffling footfalls and June's cheerful whistling. June reined in the shirshu after a while, bringing the animal to a halt. By twisting his head around, Kuei could just barely see the stones at the base of the Outer Wall from beneath the tarp.
"Are you June?" asked a deep, male voice from somewhere ahead of the shirshu.
"I certainly am," June replied. "And you must be the guy whose name I'm not allowed to know," she added dryly.
"That's right. Follow me," said the man. The shirshu started walking again at June's urging, darkness falling over them as they passed through a tunnel in the Outer Wall. Kuei heard the tunnel close with a low rumble behind them as they emerged into daylight on the other side of the massive wall. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, gathering his courage and waiting for the right moment to seize his last chance at freedom. It had little chance of working, he knew that. There was no way he could outrun the shirshu and his hands were still bound behind his back, which would make things difficult. Even so, he had to at least try. He'd be damned if he'd let them take him down quietly!
They trudged through the rural outlying area beyond the Wall for about an hour, by Kuei's guess. All he could do was watch the tall grass swaying around the shirshu's clawed feet as it walked. Finally, they came to a halt; Kuei couldn't see where they were, of course, but he heard the hollow thunk of knuckles rapping on a wooden door, followed by the creak of the door swinging open.
"This is the bounty hunter?" asked another male voice.
"That's me," June said. "Let's get this over with." She dismounted, her boot-clad feet appearing in Kuei's view as she dropped to the ground. As she reached up to whip off the cloth tarp, he drew a deep breath—this was it! The tarp flew off of him with a rustle, the sudden sunlight blinding him as he took his chance. With a sharp kick, the shredded ropes around his ankles snapped and he wrenched his body hard to the side. He rolled, slid down the shirshu's hindquarters and tail, and hit the dirt hard. His pulse thumped as he rolled again and scrambled to his feet, the last scraps of rope falling away as he bolted away through the tall grass. "Hey!" June hollered, infuriated.
Kuei vaguely heard one of the men berating her for not tying him up better as he sprinted off, but he didn't pay them any mind. He was too busy being grateful for the physical training he'd gotten over the last few months, to be able to run like this! At any moment, though, the shirshu would catch up with him and recapture him. And yet, he didn't hear the animal's heavy footfalls behind him…
He had only a second to realize that he wasn't being followed before the ground opened up beneath him. With a shocked yell, he tumbled down into darkness belowground. The yell turned into an agonized howl as he hit the ground legs first and a jolt of pain went through his left leg. The impact knocked the breath out of him, leaving him dazed. Then a voice spoke up somewhere in the darkness nearby—a horrible, familiar voice that brought him back to his senses.
"You didn't really think that would work, did you? That was truly foolish, even for you," the smooth, deep voice said. Kuei lifted his head and glanced frantically around what he now saw was a narrow tunnel, searching for the source of the voice. He spotted the man a few feet away; he was half in shadow as he stood at the edge of the pool of light streaming down from the hole overhead, but there was no mistaking him. Nor was there any mistaking the green and black uniforms of the men behind him.
"Spirits be damned… no…" Kuei groaned hoarsely.
"You ought to have stayed away, Kuei. You shouldn't have returned," Long Feng said gravely. Then, to his agents, he said, "Bind him, take him away." The Dai Li agents approached Kuei, staring dispassionately down at him as they bound his limbs in stone. He didn't bother begging or trying to reason with them. Instead, he stayed silent as they slipped a cloth sack over his head. He succumbed to the pain in his leg, blacking out.
When he came back to consciousness, Kuei was still underground. He knew that he had to be, because the cloth sack had been removed from his head and he recognized the stone passageway that the agents were carrying him through. The Council of Five had opened up the secret entrance to the prison beneath Lake Laogai shortly before the coup; he had toured this very tunnel with his generals mere months ago. It seemed that the Dai Li had restored the place.
They brought him to a cell in the furthest corner of the prison. A deep sense of horror and misery overcame Kuei as they swung open the heavy door and tossed him in. The iron door slammed shut with a resonating clang and its locks clunked into place, sealing Kuei into the dank blackness of the prison cell.
Till next time, guys! I'm trying to get back into the habit of writing; I can't say when the next chapter will be ready, but hopefully it won't take five months this time. Hahahaaaa... yeah, sorry again about the long hiatus.