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July 28, 2013
Ratana would have thought that a well-planted network like the one in Gangkouz should have been able to keep themselves safe from bust, that they would've taken every precaution to secure themselves in enemy territory. However, she had either overestimated them or underestimated the local Fire Nation authorities. Knowing she had to keep acting natural, Ratana didn't linger, lest the guardsman grow suspicious. As it also might arouse suspicion if she suddenly turned about and bolted back the way she came, the earthbender in disguise continued walking straight. Without anyone else from the Earth Kingdom, Ratana would have to form and execute a plan for finding the surviving dragons on her own. Although she was trained in basic battle stealth, she had never used it much in the field, nor had she ever been under cover long periods of time, especially with no end in sight.
The sun descended and the light in the sky grew dim. It was time for Ratana to think of more immediate concerns. At the hideout, she would have been guaranteed a place to stay and a meal for the evening, but now she had to improvise. Going a night without eating she had done many times before, when fighting the Fire Nation in her own country, but she had to have a place to sleep, and she couldn't afford to stay at inns every evening. She thought of camping somewhere outside the city, but then she remembered what the shopkeeper had told her about the wild beasts that looked there. Ratana thought of hunting one of the beasts and cooking it with in her camping stove, which might help mark her territory and scare the others away. However, it also had the potential to earn their ire and draw them closer to her, making her situation worse. And she couldn't sleep with one eye open the whole night. Doing so might not have done her much good, either, as smaller venomous critters would be near-impossible to spot in the dark.
Realizing that she had been walking for several minutes, Ratana stopped and looked at the street she was now on. There were no more large shops or restaurants in this area, and the lights were scarce, static and foreboding. This area, which reminded her of the seedy sections of Ba Sing Se's lower ring, was not where she wanted to be as the night started. Although she was confident she could take on any small-time ruffian on the street corner, she would have to employ the use of her earthbending and expose herself in order to do so. Turning around and going back toward the port wouldn't do her much good, either, as she would be farther away from the edge of town and farther away from the wilderness, if no other option presented itself. Standing around in her red clothes and her manly topknot, Ratana took to staring at her map again, wanting to figure out how to get to Nongkun as soon as possible.
She had barely taken her map out when a faint, raspy voice addressed her. "Mister, might you have any spare change?" Ratana looked down and found a boy of about thirteen or fourteen lying against the wall of the nearest building, his legs sprawled in front of him. The hair that topped his solemn face was short, unkempt and appeared to be as dirty as his sleeveless rusty red tunic and also the few hairs visible on his leg through the holes on his light brown pants. One of the legs was rolled up and covered in a bandage. Lying beside the boy was a long, wooden stick that resembled a crutch. Ratana slowly reached into her pocket, picked out six silver pieces and tossed them down to the boy, who caught them. "Oh, thank you, Mister!" The boy smiled up at Ratana and held the money to his chest.
"You're welcome," said Ratana, glancing back at her map.
"Are you lost?" The boy rose to his feet slowly, going easy on his bandaged muscles below the hip. "You look lost."
"I'm just trying to find where I'm going."
"Where are you trying to go to?"
"I don't know," Ratana told him, folding up her map once again. "I was meeting some friends, but they didn't turn up." She kept her story as basic as possible under the circumstances.
The boy twisted his expression slightly, but still seemed friendly and innocent. "They don't sound like very good friends." Now that he was standing up, Ratana saw that he was considerably shorter than her.
"I don't think it was their fault," Ratana nearly snapped at him. "Anyhow, now I'm just looking for someplace to spend the night." The taller earthbender was about to ask him for advice on that, but thought it would sound rude, as the boy looked clearly homeless to her.
"I understand all about that," he said, confirming her suspicion. "I'm used to doing things one day at a time myself," he added, staring Ratana up and down. "What happened to your leg?"
"It got injured during the war," Ratana answered in a hurry. She tried to make it obvious she didn't want to talk about it, but the boy continued to stare. "What happened to yours?" She reminded herself to come up with a consistent story for every question she may be asked regarding her Nookyazu identity.
"Caught under a carriage wheel," the boy told her in gloomy matter-of-factness. "One afternoon, I was leaning against the wall, minding my business, when one of those dragon moose-pulled carriages came through the alleyway fast and rolled right over it."
A gruesome picture took shape in Ratana's mind. "Oh. What did the people riding in the carriage do after it happened?"
"Nothing, didn't even stop," the boy told Ratana simply, as though he were talking about bad weather the day before. "The tourists and the traders around here use them to get about all the time, and they're always in a hurry." He looked Ratana straight in the eye. "Are you a tourist or a trader?"
"No, I'm not a tourist," she replied. "I'm simply passing through town." It was growing more difficult to maintain secrecy the longer she stayed, as the boy was asking too many questions, and she had other priorities to worry about. "Well, it was great talking to you, but I best be off now."
"Don't go yet, Mister!" her wide-eyed companion exclaimed, putting out a hand and leaning forth on his good leg. "You said you were looking for a place to stay, so I'll help you find one."
"It's the least I could do after you got me fed for another day." An eager grin spread wide to both corners of his face.
"Okay," Ratana conceded. The uncertainty of the area around her remained unsettling. "Do you know of anywhere I might be able to stay around here?"
The boy shrugged casually. "There's always Uncle Wei's Inn. We can give that a try. Here, let me show you." Beckoning after her, they boy began walking, not waiting for Ratana to follow suit.
"Wait," Ratana said in disbelief, rushing after him. "Your uncle owns an inn?"
"Hah!" The boy shook his head, smirking. "He's not really my uncle. That's just a nickname we have for him around here. If he's not sold out some days, he lets us neighborhood kids crash for the night in one of the vacant rooms."
"That's very nice of him."
"He is a nice man, just like you," he said softly as they walked. "I'll tell him you're my special friend, and perhaps he'll let you stay there, too."
"Alright." Ratana returned the boy's grin, now following with intent.
The boy was very pleased with Ratana's new attitude. "Yay, thank you, Mister!" She had to stop herself from correcting him, saying she was "Miss." Having been distracted by everything else that had happened, from the shopkeeper to the busting of the spy ring, she almost forgot that she was still in disguise.
"Lead the way," she said, surprised that the boy was thanking her for this. She was truly grateful for this, and she thought to herself that she might just get her six silver-piece worth out of it. After having a couple setbacks, a night to think things over in an inn was just what Ratana needed.
"So, where are you from?" asked the boy.
"Far away," answered Ratana. "Someplace greener than here."
"The country, then," he acknowledged with a nod. "What do you think of the city?"
"Yeah, it's got it's ups and downs, but it's a good place," the boy told her as they walked. He seemed unusually hurried, but Ratana did not know what to make of it, as it was not every day she met someone like him. "You just have to know how to get around and who you can trust." He stared up at her. "You have unique eyes."
Ratana assumed he was indicating the fact they were green. "Ummm...yeah," she said with a toothy smile through her phony facial hair. "They really made me stand out as a child."
At last they came to the inn, and the boy leaned against his crutch stick before opening the door. Inside it was a larger establishment than Ratana initially expected, having a restaurant and tavern between door and front desk. The floors and walls were made of wood, while the ceiling was held up by circular, concrete pillars lining the front and rear of the room. Behind the check-in desk was a bald, heavyset man with a shaven head who looked like he just got out of prison.
As Ratana was about to ask how the boy had come to know Uncle Wei, he put up his hand with caution. "You'd better let me talk to him on my own first. Like I said, he does this as a favor for us street children sometimes but he can act a bit rough when you first meet him."
Ratana nodded. "Understood." Looking around, her eyes drifted over to a table with a small crowd of men sitting around it. In the center was a four-foot board, with eight mechanical pieces made to look like dragons at one end. After a few seconds, the structures moved up and down and began to slowly make their way across the board at different speeds. When one finally made it to the other side, a bell went off and six of the men sulked while another collected his winnings. The dragons then reset to the side from which they came after the man in the center flipped a switch.
The boy took notice of where Ratana was staring. "Ah, that racing game. I'm an expert at it."
"How can you be an expert?" Ratana scoffed. From what she could tell, it seemed to be pure luck.
"I'll show you when I get back," he told her, smirking. "I never lose!"
Deciding she may as well kill some time, Ratana trotted over to an empty chair, set her bag down on the floor and pulled a pouch of copper pieces from her pocket. As it only cost one copper piece a round, the game was not expensive. To her amazement, she won the very first round she participated in, gaining her some scowls from the others at the table. Despite it's simplicity, Ratana soon got caught up in the thrill of competition.
"Addicting, isn't it?" the boy said, making her jump. She hadn't even noticed him come back. "Anyhow, I spoke with Wei and he says he'll let you and me stay in a spare room, just for one night though." He lifted Ratana's bag off the floor and pointed to the staircase by the front desk, which lead to the upper level. "I'll just help Uncle Wei get your room ready and I'll be right back down."
Ratana was about to say that the bag may have been too heavy for him to carry with his injured leg, but the boy seemed to manage. She turned back to the table, relieved that someone in the Fire Nation was more normal than that creepy shopkeeper she encountered earlier. It was actually surprising that there was a vacancy in the inn itself, considering how crowded it was on the lower level, but Ratana thought to herself that a lot of customers might just come for the tavern. She kept playing, but she didn't win any of the next several rounds. After a while that she noticed some of the dragons seemed to win more often than others and Ratana wondered if the boy had figured that out when he said he always won. It was only then that Ratana noticed realized she had been there for a while. Her pouch, which was full in the beginning, was now half-empty.
Standing up, she approached the desk at the opposite end of the room. "Hi...Uncle Wei. Is my room ready yet?"
"I'm not your uncle," the large bald man sneered at her. "Do you have a reservation?"
"Look if you want a room, you have to pay for it," the man winced at her. "Besides, we're full tonight."
"I was told I already had a room," she told him, confused. "That kid said you had already approved it and he took my bag upstairs." Ratana now realized that she did not know the boy's name.
"What are you rambling about, you crazy drunk?" the man at the counter scowled at her, baffled. "I don't know any kid."
"He was just here," said Ratana, pointing up the staircase. She then paused as she looked down the hall next to the counter and realized there was a back door. Her mind was racing and her mossy-hazel eyes flared up like a searing green flame. "That little brat!" Ratana smashed her fist against one of the nearby stone pillars, sending a crack up and down it toward the ceiling and floor, earning her some stares.
The bald man behind the counter leaned back, then recovered himself. "Get out of here! Now!" His words were needless as the one he had directed them to had already bolted out the back door and onto the crowded street.
Ratana felt stupid. All that time the boy had been nice she hadn't stopped to think he was being too nice. She had been so distracted and relieved to have one less thing to worry about that she had overlooked what should've been obvious. In desperation, the Terra Team earthbender yanked her right shoe off and felt it along the street beneath the street, reaching out with her seismic sense, but the boy was nowhere to be found.
Inside the stolen bag was Ratana's camping gear, her changes of clothes, the map to the dragons, and almost all her money.
- Wei means fake in Chinese.
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