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March 4, 2017
The three long-braided ponytails were the most difficult of all. Ratana had initially wanted hair loopies, but Hasida had insisted that the multiple ponytails were more "stylish" for her, at least by Northern Water Tribe standards. Even if Northern Water Tribe society usually kept to themselves, that habit broke whenever their own traveled outside their bubble on top of the world and explored the other continents. With all the wasted time on the hairstyle, Ratana barely noticed how long it took to put on the makeup that accompanied it, let alone the garments in various shades of blue that enveloped her body now.
At the close of her last encounter with them, the Dai Li had made it abundantly clear that she could not be caught by them within their territory again, or there would be dire, final consequences for her. Naturally, Ratana stood out more in Water Tribe attire than Earth Kingdom attire while she made her way through the streets of Ba Sing Se, but she figured that the Dai Li would not be expecting her to come in dressed like she presently was, so it was for the best. There were healers and warriors from the Northern Water Tribe stationed at the Outer Wall. Every Dai Li agent within the impenetrable city would be aware of that. They had even been briefed by the Inner Authorities on the importance of not mentioning the war within the walls. Hasida herself had confirmed that to Ratana.
It was not the first time she had taken up a foreign disguise when traveling, though it was the first time that she had done so when traveling through territory of her own country. When she had been in the Fire Nation, she donned Fire Nation attire and called herself Nookyazu until her cover under that man's identity was blown and proven ineffective. Here in the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, she was a waterbending healer by the name of Kutanei, a name that Hasida had told her sounded more like a native Water Triber's than Ratana did.
But the bulk of Ratana thoughts were not on her disguise right now, or even the fact that the Dai Li had her on their watch list. She was on a mission, and Lu Ten was her target. Back when she knew him as Lu Tong, and even when the Fire Prince was her prisoner, he had played and toyed with her. It was not merely for the good of her nation that she had to end him now. It was also personal. She had been made a fool of by him, and if she was going to retain her respect of her underlings, she could not allow him to get away with that. Any thought of how Lu Ten might be better than the image she had in her mind had to be chased from her head forthwith. Only by removing any notion that Lu Ten was not the enemy she made him out to be would she be strong enough to finish him off. In many ways, this job was even harder than finding extinct dragons or dueling Quan Jing.
This was an enemy that got inside Ratana's head as well as fought her on the battlefield. She found herself wishing for a moment that she were fighting King Bumi once again instead of tracking down Lu Ten.
This, on the other hand, was doable. She merely had to clear her mind and fight like it were anyone else. Above all, she must not listen to anything Lu Ten might say to her. That might tempt her to be emotional rather than rational, and ultimately lead to her undoing.
But for now, the problem was tracking him down. Ratana had very little to go off of, and she found herself looking about trying to find where she could begin. Whatever he was doing in Ba Sing Se, he must be hiding somewhere. Therefore, she would start by checking some back alleys.
However, she had barely made it a few paces down the first side street off the main roadway when a voice halted her from behind.
"Hey there sugar," the scruffy, unkempt man called to her after lurking behind a corner. "What's a foreign babe like you doing in a street like this?" he uttered as he began advancing in her direction, his disgusting hormones permeating through his toxic breath.
Lu Ten had gotten hardly any sleep, but he was not tired in the least. Being out in the field during open war and having a job which he had to get done always tended to have that effect on him. So far, apart from some unnecessary risk, everything had gone as smooth as clockwork. Once Rang Xue – not Rang Xue, Ratana of the Terra Team – had left him for the party, knocking out the two so-called guards had been easy, stealing an Earth Kingdom regular army uniform from storage had been easy, getting on the train had been easy, and getting into the main city, through the Lower Ring and into the Middle Ring had all been easy. But now he had hit a roadblock, for the rookie uniform he carried had only gotten him so far as the Middle Ring, and he did not have permission to go to the Upper Ring. If only he had stolen a Terra Team uniform instead, Lu Ten told himself. But, on second thought, perhaps that would not have been a good idea after all. The members of the Terra Team as individuals were recognizable and familiar to many, so even in the Dai Li-controlled metropolis someone might have noticed he looked out of place wearing their colors and symbol. Claiming that he was a new recruit to the squad would also have drawn suspicion.
No matter, though. He was a well-trained soldier, used to stealth and to getting his job done regardless of whatever obstacles turned up in his way. It simply meant that he would have to find some other way to get himself into the Upper Ring. And then, the real hard part of his mission would begin. Not only would he have to get into one of the most high security, "no entry" parts of the Upper Ring, but he would be dealing with one of their most veteran earthbenders who was, in addition to being the top general in the whole of the Earth Kingdom, no shabby warrior in his own right. Under the best of circumstances he would have the element of surprise on his side and Lu Ten would of course do everything to the best of his ability to see that he had that, but one could never predict the future as a fortune teller would when it came to missions deep into enemy territory like this. He was certain that the Terra Team woman he had once called Rang Xue knew that well after her journey deep into his country. Whatever that had been for. Anyway, he would have to plan for the worst of circumstances also, as he might not be able to catch General How off guard. It may be hard to restrain him, impossible even, without alerting too many Earth Kingdom troops to rush to the scene than he could possibly handle on his own. His father of course wanted him to bring the Earth Kingdom general of the Council of Five back alive as a prisoner, but his first cousin once removed the Grand Sima Lizen had given him other ideas.
Ratana hastily yanked out the dusty, battered wallet and took a peak inside. "A few bronze pieces....well, that'll get me something small to eat at any rate." And she needed her energy now for what was to come.
The Captain of the Terra Team could not help but smirk at the irony of the ruffian having been useful to her now even if he presumed himself a threat earlier. It was hard to picture a man like that making such a high-pitched squeal of a scream when her rock smashed against his skull, and the sound of the shriek concerned Ratana that it might have attracted more unwanted attention. Clearly he did not know who it was that he approached, for Ratana's would-be-assailant was doomed from the moment that he picked her as a target.
"Are you ready for this mission, my prince?" Lizen had asked him after the meeting where his father the Dragon of the West told him of the new assignment.
"Yes, of course," Lu Ten told him, though he averted his gaze when he said this. "Or as much as I'm going to be. I mean...yes, I'm ready. I'm sure that it'll be a piece of cake."
"You don't sound so certain." Prince Lizen, the new governor of occupied Munn, chuckled. "General How is not merely a strategist to be reckoned with, but quite a fierce bender. I'm sure that you have given some thought to what you might have to do when you encounter him, right?"
Lu Ten averted his gaze again and twiddled his thumbs awkwardly. "My father instructed me to bring him back alive as a prisoner. However difficult that might be, I must carry it out like that. As the Dragon of the West said, it is dishonorable to sneak in and kill an enemy commander off of the battlefield. It is one thing to take a man prisoner, but true killing should be on the open field of battle alone."
"I know perfectly well what the Dragon of the West said tonight," said Lizen. "But I also recognize what is at stake for us in this mission, and I believe that you do as well."
"I prefer to do things the honorable way, like my father."
"Your father is an honorable man," said Lizen. "But that might be his downfall at times."
"Do you denounce him? He is your commanding officer as well as mine, and not to mention the future Fire Lord of our nation."
"No, no," said Lizen, waving this objection away, or at least pretending to. "He is a great leader, a superb commander, and a good man. However, he is not infallible. Even the great General Iroh can make mistakes sometimes, and if the time comes as it has now it is up to the rest of us to rectify those errors. You must realize that doing everything his way might not be possible."
"The temptation to not do it his way would be strong," admitted Lu Ten, still holding his ground. "But that is why he had to trust me with this mission. I'm his son, and he trusts me to do the right thing for him."
"Yes, but is what he wants really the right thing? You're a smart young man, and you have brains. If it becomes impossible to take How alive, you must kill him then and there. The important thing is to take General How out of commission so that he can no longer make trouble for us as we continue our effort to take his country's capital city. At the end of the day, you are being sent by your father on this mission so that you can bring results."
"Are you saying that honor does not matter at all, and that only results do? Because throughout his military career, my father has been one of the most vocal opponents of such thinking." Lu Ten was feeling guilty for even taking part in this conversation.
"And rightfully so," said Lizen, putting an arm around Lu Ten's shoulder. "There are many commanders who if left to their own devices would do terrible things to get what they want on the battlefield without ever considering the cost. But you must realize now that you're a grown man, that the other extreme is no more sane than that. Honor and results are both noble ends to many, but when it comes to warfare, reality demands a mixture of the two. You can understand that now, even if your father might not quite as easily. For now, you just worry about doing whatever you have to do in order to secure General How's incapacity, and let me worry about your father. We're all family, so I will do my part. Even if General Iroh is furious at you for killing How, I can talk to him for you and in time he will accept that what you did was for the best."
All the same, Lizen's reassurances aside, Lu Ten would much prefer to take How prisoner and not go against his father's wishes, if it was possible. Honor was still important, perhaps even moreso than results. And he did not need another thing to feel guilty about. Lu Ten felt awful, awful for deceiving Ratana the way he did, but he had no choice. His mission had fell behind schedule enough as it is, the more time that he spent cooped up in the Earth Kingdom military encampment on the Outer Wall.
She was his enemy, but just the thought of her made him dream of the idea of a better world, where they would not have to be enemies of one another.
Furious with himself, the Fire Nation prince shook his head violently. He could not permit himself to entertain such treasonous thoughts, especially at a time like this. He had a job to do.
In a mere few blocks he would be at the gates which separated the Lower Ring from the Middle Ring. Once he jumped the tricky hurdle of getting into the Middle Ring, he would be another step closer to the Upper Ring, and then to the section of headquarters where General How worked. There was another potential problem at hand, though, and had been nagging louder and louder at Lu Ten since the moment he escaped from his captivity. It was only a matter of time before somebody was sent to come after him, and it was in his interest to change his disguise yet again as soon as possible.
- As the title indicates, both Lu Ten and Ratana are on a solo mission this chapter.
- They're also both in disguise, which is reflective of how they met, and familiar territory for Ratana in particular.
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