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|Unusual Bonds: Part 2|
November 18, 2017
"We're approaching the shores of the Northern Water Tribe continent."
"Excellent," said the commanding officer of the young captain, who was also none other than Iroh, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and firstborn son of Fire Lord Azulon. "After weeks and weeks of traveling, Pip, we're finally going to be on top of the world map." He turned to face his fellow comrade and grinned broadly, undaunted by the cold or anything that the waterbenders might have to throw at him. "The North Pole."
The junior officer on board the ship allowed himself to be at ease in front of the Crown Prince the way he would never have dared to do if he were in front of the Fire Lord himself. "It's been a long journey. Hasn't it?"
"Indeed," said Iroh. Although the cold continued to nibble at his skin even under the thick coats and mittens, it was simple enough for him to warm himself up as a firebender. A small burst of flame emerged in the air and then it was gone a second later.
"Whoa, how did you do that sir?" It was true that it was a fairly basic skill for a firebender to be able to warm themselves in cold weather with their breath, but breathing fire from the mouth was something unheard of, except in legends.
"That?" Iroh repeated, confused at first. "Oh, that's the last technique that Master Huo Chung showed me before we departed the homeland. It's rather advanced, but if you're interested I can try showing it to you when we get back home. Oh, that reminds me – I must remember to write a letter home to my family when I get a chance."
Pip flinched at this ordinary everyday sentence. He was unused to hearing about the head of his nation spoken of so casually. To Prince Iroh, the Fire Lord was simply his father, but everyone else on board the ship was terrified of the legendary Dragon of Fire. The poor comrade of the Crown Prince did not know if he would be more in awe or fearful if he ever stood in the presence of their ruler himself. Iroh himself had been a surprise by how informal he was, not even bothering to correct anyone who failed to call him sir. The heir to the throne also happened to be the only one who never made fun of him for how Pippinpaddleopsicopolis' full name sounded. "What you did just now is like a dragon!" he exclaimed, trying to get onto a new subject. "Your father and grandfather both hunted dragons in their prime. Will you ever go on a great hunt yourself, my prince?"
"I don't know," Iroh said uncomfortably. "My father has pressured me to take a hunt at some point, being family tradition and all. But our people have coexisted with the dragons for thousands of years, and learned our way of firebending from them in the ancient times. There is so much knowledge and beauty in those creatures and now they are getting closer and closer to extinction, thanks to us."
"I see," said the scrawny junior officer. This was clearly not the response that he had been anticipating. "What's that?" He pointed to the small object that the Crown Prince was fiddling with in his hands, passing back and forth from one mitten to the other, left to rght and vice versa. "Is it a good luck charm?"
"This is a special token that a very special person gave to me," said Iroh, now in more cheery spirits. "When I met her, she had a lot to say, and she left me something to remember her by as I commanded my first real expedition in our war against the other nations."
"Her, eh?" Dropping what little protocol and formality remained, Pip pressed his commanding officer further. "If you don't mind me asking, is she someone who you-"
"No, no," Iroh interrupted before he could finish. "It's not a romantic interest, and the time is not arrived for me to marry just yet. She was someone older and wise."
"Like a wise man?"
"A wise woman, but yes," replied Iroh. "She is indeed a wise man who is not a man. When I return home I want to pay her another visit."
"What did she talk to you about?"
Iroh hesitated. "I'm afraid that I cannot say what she told me exactly. Not that I don't trust you, but it is secret knowledge passed down to those who are chosen to wield it."
Pip took a closer look. "It's a pai sho piece!" He was even more shocked than he had been when Iroh exhaled dragon breath.
"Yes," confirmed Iroh. "A white lotus tile."
"Pretty simple gift from someone so wise," the officer remarked. "Wait, now I see! She must be a pai sho expert. That's why you're not revealing what she taught you, so that you can up your game and beat every man on the ship."
"Heh, perhaps," Iroh admitted. This was a fib of course, but he was alright playing along with the idea if it got his comrade to give up on pursuing the subject. "I hope that I will find you again soon, Rina," the Crown Prince uttered to himself inside of his head. "You have opened up a whole new world to me, and I know what you expect. Never will I let you down."
"What's that?" Pip asked in alarn, pointing out in the distance. Something had moved, that much was clear. It was also clear, even though the night was dark, that whatever had moved was especially large. But they were still several hours away from the capital city of the Northern Water Tribe, so they had not expected to spot enemy vessels so soon. "Is it one of their ships?"
"I don't think so," said Iroh. "We may be in Water Tribe waters, but we're still not close enough to their shores to run into their navy."
"Maybe it's a sea serpent."
"Sea serpents don't come nearly this far north."
"Actually I heard that there are certain kinds of sea serpents that do," said Pip. "They even poke their heads up from underneath the ice where it is thin enough for them to smash through."
"I have heard those rumors that you speak of," said Iroh. "But there has never been a reliable report of someone encountering such a beast which is credible enough to hold water. It may just be a local legend that the inhabitants keep alive to scare our invading forces away."
"We're under attack!" the helmsman shouted from the other end of the ship loud enough for both Iroh and his friend to hear. Moments later, the ship came to a halt as a plateau of ice emerged from the seas and trapped it in place.
"Waterbenders!" A panicked Pip seized Iroh's left arm for support in order to remain on his feet. "How is this possible? I thought they wouldn't be this far away from the shore."
"Well, whatever we thought before, we both thought wrong," Iroh blurted as he assumed his battle stance. The enemy force seemed to come out of nowhere, and no sooner had he turned around then he found grappling hooks latched onto the sides of his ship and the enemy boarding party confronted them. "Brace yourself!"
They were unlike any Northern Water Tribe warriors that the Crown Prince had ever seen or heard of. Rather than the traditional blue, they were garbed in dark navy, almost black, and they all wore face coverings. Iroh wondered if this unusual attire was a new enemy uniform for sneaking about in the cover of darkness, but he doubted it. These waterbenders and warriors seemed to consist entirely of men and women – or rather, boys and girls, who were in their late teens or early twenties. Despite the fact that this was his first commanded mission on his own, Iroh could not spot anyone his age or older among the foes. He wondered if they might be pirates rather than military. Whoever they were, they were blatantly hostile and he didn't have long to think it over.
"Don't let your guard down," the Crown Prince said as he punched a few hasty bursts of fire. They were sloppy for him, but that bit of bending was the best he could muster under the circumstances.
"Ah!" An arrow pieced Pip's forehead and he fell lifelessly and instantly to the floor.
"Pip!" The only comfort the horrified crown prince could take was that, while his comrade had reached the unfortunate end countless do in war, at least it had been a clean and speedy death without prolonged suffering.
Once this shock had begun sinking in, everything that Iroh experienced on that vessel happened in a blur. In the heat of the action, he found himself surrounded by no fewer than ten enemies, no fewer than half of whom were benders. They could all have been benders, but it was not known until they used their bodily energy to control the water around them. Unfortunately, Iroh could take in less and less of the scene as he continued fighting. All he had time to do was punch one jab after another, right fist, left fist, and each smaller burst of flame took a toll on his night vision. He continued to punch the darkness in near-blindness for hours, or perhaps one hour, or perhaps merely minutes for all he knew, until he had exhausted himself.
When he caught his breath, Iroh was in the quiet, seemingly haven defeated them all or chased them all away.
But then they returned.
None of these young fighters had training from a master like Huo Chung, and none fought all that well, but they had won simply by stepping back and allowing Iroh to wear himself out for them. Having run out of energy, all that Iroh could do was vow to never make the same mistake again that allowed their dirty trick to prevail. Whether he would have another chance or not was still very much in question. As the attackers closed in around the out-of-breath prince, they knocked him with one blow to the head, bringing him to the verge of passing out. Right before he fell unconscious he heard the nearest four speaking briefly. They consisted of two males and two females, and that was all he could tell.
"Well that's over with now," said female number one. "Let's scour anything of value from this Fire Nation vessel and get it back to our island before we run into our own navy."
"Agreed," said male number one. "Slit this one's throat first. I'll not have him waste any more of our time than he already has."
"No, don't," male number two interjected with a raised voice. "This is Iroh. I've seen his picture before. Remember, I served in the tribal army before leaving to join us."
"Are you sure?" asked female number two.
"Positive," said male number two.
"Such luck for us," female number one spoke again. "We've got a fire prince as our prize today!"
- Like father, like son. Iroh got captured by an enemy in this chapter during a flashback to his younger days when he was not quite as sharp or skilled as we're familiar with. So far he may have seemed like a supporting character at times, but he's essentially a third protagonist of his own part of the story. Granted, it's not as large, but there will be more to come in the next chapters.
- Pippinpaddleopsicopolis is the name Aang gave when visiting Omashu in The King of Omashu.
- Master Huo Chung is an advanced firebending instructor who serves the royal family. He is mentioned here and the only time he has appeared was 89 chapters ago. That was also the chapter in which Lu Ten defeated five other firebenders he was sparring with by himself, and thus the origin of the line that he can supposedly do the same to ten earthbenders, coined by his grandfather the Fire Lord.
- Another homage to the canon I put in here was the appearance of the fire breathing technique from Crossroads of Destiny, though here Iroh just uses it in the cold rather than to fend of Dai Li agents, much less dramatic.
- Arctic sea serpents as described here are something I introduced in this universe in Energy Oasis back when was active, and the second extra-Vortex reference to Vortex in counting .
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