Sweltering rays beat down upon a parched and cracked earth, and the heat sizzled in the air like chicken-bacon in a pan. A thick, oily sweat dripped from the ostrich-mare's beak, and she shook her head, fluffing her neck feathers in an attempt to cool down. The rider in drab brown breeches and a wide-brim sedge hat on her back fared little better. She's usually so resilient in the heat, Zuko thought, wiping his brow miserably.
His pearl dagger, hot as molten steel in its sheath in the fold of his tunic, tapped rhythmically against his sternum with every rocking step of his mount. The blood throbbed audibly in his temples, singing at the same pitch as the crackling heat. His mother's words—a world away—still rang in his ears.
Never forget who you are.
He hadn't forgotten, but it hadn't done him much good. The disgust in Lee's eyes was burnt into his heart. If my name isn't who I am, then…who am I? Who could I ever be?
So absorbed was he in these thoughts that he almost didn't notice the distinct clank of Fire Nation armor until the foot-soldiers rounded the corner of the nearest outcropping.
Reining his mount hard to the right, he spurred her down the slope, pebbles spraying from beneath her clawed feet, and into the trees, where pulled her up sharply. Her feather-tipped ears were pricked and her eyes wide in alarm. Zuko stroked her neck reassuringly, and she had the sense to remain still. Beneath the trees, the heat was even more oppressive. A fly buzzed by Zuko's ear, and he resisted swatting at it.
The battalion was large, and it was a miracle they had not seen him. They had three battered tanks, and the noise of them alone was enough to cover any sound his ostrich-mare made for the next several minutes. Where they were going, Zuko couldn't be sure, but near the tail of their company were seven telltale boxes pulled in the back of two carts. Earthbending prisoners, Zuko thought, and a string of memories sprang unbidden to his mind.
Just thought someone ought to tell you, your son's battalion got captured.
I think you would really like my brother, Sen Su.
There he is! I told you he'd come.
Zuko scanned the last ranks of the company, spotted several chained men in Earth Kingdom browns and greens, and felt a stab of pity in his heart. There's nothing I can do, he thought as the company continued their march, Even if Sen Su is in their company, I couldn't hope to fight my way through all of them. I would die or get captured myself, for nothing.
His heart sick, he resigned himself to slipping off through the trees.
The battalion marched on, dusty and oblivious.
Dusk fell, and with it the heat fled the earth. The air was cool and the moon bright when Zuko swung from the saddle to a little hillock shrouded with enough shrubbery to hide him from the casual passerby. His ostrich mare dropped her head immediately, cropping at the grass with a blunt, serrated beak.
Drawing the parchment-wrapped dried pork-chicken from the bundle slung over her shoulders, Zuko broke some off. He collapsed with his back against the nearest tree, chewing ravenously.
While he ate, he scanned the darkness. He had detoured only an arrow-distance from the road, fearful of losing it. He was unfamiliar with this area of the Earth Kingdom, and there were towns along the road. Until he picked up the Avatar's trail again, he couldn't afford to give up his only reliable source of food and news.
A flash of yellow eyes in the moonlight alerted him, and from the shadow of a nearby tree trunk lurked a dark shape. It clambered down to a low-hanging branch, where the moonlight struck its rusty fur. A fire ferret, Zuko thought, eyeing the lean and mean-looking creature. Fire ferrets were native of the Fire Nation's tropical islands, but were used by the army for their incredible sense of smell. Trained, they were often able to sniff out underground bunkers and tunnels created by earthbenders.
This one doesn't look trained, Zuko thought as the animal leapt lightly to the ground, sniffing the air. It looks starving.
Zuko appraised the pitifully small bit of meat he had left, contemplative. His ostrich mare emitted a nervous chitter, fluffing her feathers.
Never forget who you are.
With a sigh, Zuko pulled it from the paper and tossed it toward the ferret. Its dark beady eyes glimmered as it watched the meat fall to the ground, bearing tiny, yellow pointed fangs.
In a blink, it shot forward, snatching the scrap up in its jaws, and disappeared into the underbrush with a flick of its striped tail.
Feeling strangely empty, Zuko crumpled the parchment paper in a fist and snapped his fingers to set it alight. He watched unblinkingly as the paper smoldered into ash.
Settling against the tree trunk with crossed arms, he closed his eyes.
He awoke to the shrill whinny of his ostrich horse, and a curse of a voice not his own.
His dao swords were in his hand as he gained his feet, bleary-eyed and groggy. A man in brown clutched the shoulder feathers of the ostrich mare. Reacting on instinct, Zuko jumped forward and seized the man's tunic, jerking him down to the ground. The ostrich horse squealed and jumped, but was held fast by the reins Zuko had tied over the nearest tree branch. The man he had confronted covered his face with his arms and shouted for mercy. It was the high-pitched voice of a youth.
"Who are you?" Zuko demanded.
"Please don't kill me," the youth pleaded, scrabbling backward in the dust before Zuko stepped on the leg of his breeches to prevent him running. "I—I only meant—I'm sorry—"
The faded brown uniform the youth was wearing pricked Zuko's memory. "You're a soldier."
The youth lifted his gaze. His face was drawn and dirty, but his eyes…his eyes were unmistakably familiar.
"I'm sorry," the youth babbled again, "I escaped a Fire Nation attack. My unit was captured, and I was unconscious. I woke up yesterday in a bush with this bump on my head and only dead men around me. I lost my weapon and I have no food or water. I just wanted to find the nearest town—to report to—to someone who can help. And to…to go home."
Zuko's good eye narrowed suspiciously. "How do I know you're not just a deserter?"
"You don't," the youth replied solemnly, "You have every right to kill me if I am, but please, just trust me."
Zuko said nothing in reply. The youth's expression reminded him vaguely of the hungry fire ferret, frightened and lost.
"What is your name?"
Ah. Zuko's hope deflated, but he wasn't about to abandon an injured man with his enemies less than a day behind them.
Never forget who you are.
He lowered his swords. "I'll take you to the nearest town. We'll leave immediately. You're on your own after that."
Xuesen got to his knees and lowered his head, his hands palm-up on his knees in the Earth Kingdom's traditional pose of surrender. "Thank you! I am sorry I tried to steal your ostrich horse. I know I don't deserve your help."
Zuko sheathed his sword over his shoulder. "Don't mention it." He took hold of his mare's reins and untied them from the tree branch. He interlaced his fingers, palms up, to give Xuesen a boost. "Get on."
The youth obliged him, and Zuko swung up after began their long, dark trek in silence.
"So, Xuesen. A family name?" Zuko asked conversationally.
"Yes, after my grandfather," the youth said, "But my family calls me Sen Su."