Chapter 1: In Search of Golden Peaks

posted June 9, 2009

Fog shrouded the water around him, turning the landscape into forested islands rising from a sea of clouds.

Some of them probably are islands, Zuko thought to himself. He gripped the railing tightly, the metal cold even through his gloves, and stared out into the fog. Waves lapped against the ship's hull as it moved through the water, and Zuko found himself both relishing and hating their slowed progress into port. He itched to arrive at his destination at the same time he wanted the shipboard interlude to continue.

Zuko narrowed his eyes, trying to see through the fog to the mountains he knew rose above the hilly islands around the ship. The dark green trees faded to grey against grey in the gloom, shifting and appearing between fogbanks. Before the fog had descended yesterday, he'd spent the long hours aboard just staring up at the peaks, which seemed to stretch into the sky itself. The landscape had grown larger, wilder as they'd traveled south, away from the gentle ridges and basins surrounding Ba Jin Hu. They called to him, both foreign and somehow familiar, as if this was where part of his soul wanted to be.

Maybe this means my search is about to come to an end, he thought, and then with a surprising suddenness, the ship's prow seemed to slice through the fog and emerge into clear air. Zuko looked back as the stern emerged from the fogbank, which appeared as a fluid wave rolling down the hillside from the mountains. Ahead of the vessel, now in bright sunlight, the islands and inlets were a deep green against sparkling blue waters, and far ahead Zuko could see bright towers marking a harbor entrance.

He breathed in deeply, let it out, and waited.

Fog shrouded the woods around her, drifting in and out of the trees and appearing as wraiths that reached after her with damp fingers as she walked steadily down the trail.

You have nothing to fear in these woods, Katara told herself. She hummed under her breath, an ancient song she barely remembered, and kept her steps light but firm. An eagle called nearby, chuckling shrilly through the fog, and Katara felt an irrational surge of relief that she was not the only creature who stirred in the woods this afternoon.

The trail branched, the tall signpost looming suddenly out of the fog, and Katara felt glad to be coming home. This expedition should have been easy, but her charges had been difficult. Spoiled city brats, the lot of them, she thought with disgust. At least they wanted to "navigate" their own way out of the woods. She hoped she'd be hired on as a guide to another trip before the search began for their bodies.

Then guilt struck her for the dark thought, and she sent a silent apology to the gods of patience and mercy. Of course I would go find them, she reassured herself. I can't abandon people who need me.

Katara came to a bend in the trail and saw the fog brighten beyond. Her footsteps quickened and suddenly she was out of the cloud, sunlight warm upon her face. She set her pack down by the side of the trail and stretched, gazing down on the landscape tumbled below her. From here, she could see the little town spread out in the distance, the harbor beyond it and farther still a ship steaming towards the protected waters. She focused, narrowing her eyes to scan the docks, straining to make out the details of each small vessel; she frowned at the absence of one in particular. She brushed it aside and shouldered her pack again, continuing her journey towards the town.

Home, Katara thought despite herself, savoring the feeling of life in the woods that surrounded her, the faint bustle of the town tickling her senses even at this great distance.

The town spread out ahead of him, rows of rough wooden buildings built above muddy streets. Zuko took in weathered storefronts beside newer establishments, jammed together in a loose parody of the cities he knew. People and animals walked the streets, stood at street corners, rested on porches and benches. The air smelled like salt and mud and the freshness of the woods; like sweat and cooking and stale drink.

The man behind him jostled Zuko and the spell was broken. He stepped forward onto the gangway and down onto the creaking wooden wharf; his trunk waited there, piled haphazardly atop other luggage. Zuko made sure that its tag, marked with his name and the name of the inn, was still securely attached, then tipped the baggage handler to ensure extra care with it. He stepped to the edge of the wharf and pulled a worn piece of paper from his jacket pocket. The words were firmly lodged in his memory, but he re-read them anyway. In his own hand, he'd carefully copied part of his uncle's last letter, which read:

East of the setting sun

A windy place

With white caps on the water

Where wolves prowl

And dragons nest

Below that, more hastily scrawled, was:

Golden Peaks Lodging House, Skaguak

Seek out the Wolf

Satisfied, Zuko carefully tucked the paper back into his pocket and looked back down the wharf to the town. The mountains rose up above it, blue-green and grey against the brown and gaudy buildings, already shadowed as the sun dipped below the towering horizon.

"Hey mister, do you need help finding your way around?" Startled, Zuko looked down to see a young boy grinning up at him. "I'll be your guide for a nickel."

He tried to keep his expression neutral, but the boy's eyes widened as he saw the scar that stretched across Zuko's face, the mark of shame burned into his skin. The boy took a small step backward, his thoughts clear across his face: he regretted his offer to this scarred stranger with the haunted look. Sighing inwardly, Zuko turned back to the town. "I can find my own way."

Katara breathed in a sigh of relief as she spotted the rough wooden arch set over the path. Welcome to Skaguak, Golden City of the South, she knew it read, still standing where some forgotten optimist had erected it decades ago.

Katara smiled to herself, adjusting the straps of her pack to shift the weight lower on her hips. The gold may be gone, she thought, but a hot bath sounds more valuable right now, anyway. She stepped forward, through the gate, and the path widened out into a broad dirt road. The temple's spire rose, elegant, over the shacks and cabins that edged the town and Katara set out towards it, thinking of her bath, a hot meal she didn't have to prepare herself, and a soft bed.

Zuko walked with slow purpose along Water Street. Skaguak's boom-town glory had long faded, leaving an odd collection of buildings, lots, and people behind. He passed the steamship booking office, a tiny building squatting at the edge of the wharf, and then glanced along the waterfront. Fishing boats moored in haphazard rows in front of a cannery, built over the water on pilings and rank with the smell of gutted fish. Beyond it, log rafts bobbed gently in the water, anchored to buoys and awaiting the big towboats to take them up the coast.

The breeze shifted slightly and the smell of fish and tide flats strengthened; Zuko turned away from the waterfront and stepped onto the boardwalk edging State Street. A general store, two taverns, an outfitter, and a machinery distributor crammed together along the narrow avenue, second-story windows showing the apartments built over the shop spaces. Men and women hurried along the streets, and as Zuko passed another tavern, he saw only a few patrons inside at this hour.

Front Street looked much the same, with a broad muddy street edged by wooden boardwalks and a jumble of buildings. A few horses and mules stood tethered to posts, waiting patiently as the afternoon deepened. Zuko noted a tailor's shop, a post office that advertised "Now Offering Wire Services" on a faded wooden sign, another general store, three more taverns, and a haberdashery. He saw the spire of a temple – the Eastern Earth Order, he thought – looming over the buildings as he continued down the block.

The buildings grew more orderly and well-maintained as Zuko neared the temple. A stately building with ornate windows and a neatly-lettered sign reading "Skaguak Opera House" stood opposite a fine brick structure advertising "Clean Modern Rooms – Stay a Night, Stay a Week, Stay a Lifetime."

As he walked, Zuko noted the other people on the street nodding to each other and exchanging greetings. Some of them looked quite rough, as if they had just descended from the mountains that towered over the town, while others could have easily walked down the streets of Ba Jin Hu, or even the great Eastern cities of ten years ago. Several nodded in cool greeting to Zuko, but most kept their gazes away. A stranger, they seemed to say with their glances, and Zuko clenched his hands in his pockets.

Katara walked with purpose down D Street, passing quickly through the rough shanties of the loggers' town. She nodded to the blacksmith's young apprentice, who blushed and quickly looked at his feet, and smiled at the children playing before the creamery. "Katara, Katara!" they cried, running towards her and grasping her overshirt with grubby hands.

She laughed down at them, crouching to pull them both into a hug. "Hello Zhi, Hello Kai. Have you been being good boys?"

"Yes, auntie Katara," they chorused, nodding somberly at her.

She grinned and ruffled their dark hair. "Tell your parents I said hi, and I'll see them soon, I hope."

"You aren't staying?" Kai asked, disappointment in his big dark eyes.

"Not today." She wrinkled her nose. "I need a bath."

They giggled and she stood, giving them a last smile as she continued on her way.

The buildings grew closer together as she walked past brightly-painted houses and the white schoolhouse. Miss Tanak smiled to her from the steps where she held the hands of two pupils – "Auntie Katara!" they called – and Katara waved back, not breaking stride. She passed the dress shop run by the Tai Ping sisters, then turned onto Front Street. The smell of ink and oiled metal hovered around Zhoutang's Print Shop, where the Skaguak Weekly Nugget was produced, and Katara smiled at the two girls peering excitedly into Yang Zi's haberdashery.

She could feel the town returning to life after the long winter, soaking her senses like warm sunlight.

Zuko paused in front of the inn, neat and well-maintained in contrast to the sagging building across the street. A sign over its doorway showed two orange-yellow mountains over the words "Inn;" it looked as close to the "Golden Peaks Lodging House" as he was likely to find. Zuko looked up and down the street, breathed deeply, and pushed open the door.

Zuko waited for his eyes to adjust to the interior, dim after the late afternoon brightness. He looked carefully around the room, noting good-quality but worn furnishings, fifteen or twenty years out of date from when they had been popular in the East. The wide tapestries let little light through the windows, and the dark wallpaper and wooden trim kept the room dim.

Beside an interior door blocked by a curtain, a wide wooden desk sat with a bell atop it. Zuko hesitated, then stepped carefully forward and rang it.

"Coming!" a voice called from behind the curtain. Zuko heard voices conversing, too low to make out the words, then a crash like something had fallen off a table, then loud footsteps. Then the curtain pulled back to reveal a short, slight man with an oversized pair of spectacles perched on his nose. "Yes? I'm Ho Ten. What can I do for you?" he asked.

"I need a room," Zuko replied. "Ju Siang in Ba Jin Hu recommended the Golden Peaks as – "

"You're in luck! We happen to have a room available! I hope it suits you – we really don't have too many travelers like yourself passing through." As he talked, the Ho Ten was busy opening drawers in the desk, shuffling through paper and clearly hunting for something. "We hardly have enough travelers to justify keeping a fine inn such as the Golden Peaks, not since the boom ended, thirty years ago now – not that many of them would have stayed at the Golden Peaks. At least not this Golden Peaks – they were eager for the real thing; trying to claim a stake and find their fortunes. Ah!" Ho Ten seemed to find what he was looking for; an oversized key, dangling from a ring with a large metal tag. "Room nine! My favorite – you're lucky it's not occupied. We have a few long-term residents here, folks who need a place to stay while they're in town and don't mind reserving it when they're not." He thrust the key at Zuko, who took it reflexively.

Through-out this long explanation, Zuko had tried to nod at the appropriate intervals, hoping that Ho Ten would show him his room soon. "My trunk?" he asked, when the proprietor stopped his chatter to scribble something in an open logbook. "I had it sent from the steamer –"

"Ah! It arrived a short while ago, and a very fine trunk it is, though it looks a bit worn. You must have been traveling for quite some time, Mr…"

"Souzin," Zuko supplied.

"Mr. Souzin," Ho Ten repeated. "Well, I hope you're here to stay for a bit – Skaguak might be a little out of the way, but it'll grow on you if you let it." He disappeared back through the curtain, and Zuko shortly heard loud scraping noises. He winced, then carefully schooled his face back into a neutral expression as Ho Ten re-emerged, dragging the trunk behind him.

"How long do you intend to stay with us at the Golden Peaks, Mr. Souzin?" Ho Ten asked, leaving the trunk beside Zuko and returning to the desk. He trailed his finger down to the log-book entry he'd started, then paused expectantly.

"I don't… really know," Zuko responded. He felt suddenly weary, tired from far more than just the journey to Skaguak.

"Well, I'll put you down for tonight and tomorrow, and then we'll see after that," Ho Ten responded, scribbling in his book.

Zuko nodded, relieved, and fished his wallet from his jacket pocket. "How much?" he asked.

"For a friend of Ju Siang… fifteen!" Zuko counted out the coins and dropped them into Ho Ten's palm. The man beamed and slapped the keys down into Zuko's open hand. "Welcome to the Golden Peaks, my friend! I hope you will enjoy your stay in our fine city."

Katara stopped briefly at the sheriff's office, a narrow building squeezed between the saddler and Uruk's General Store. She pushed the door open and leaned inside.

"Katara!" Suki cried, leaping up from her desk. Katara stepped fully into the room in time to return Suki's hug. "How was it?"

"Worse than usual. I'll tell you about it later – I really need to catch a bath before anything else." She paused. "I didn't see…"

"He's supposed to be in later this week," Suki reassured her. "He sent me a wire from Kanikek saying that the Southern Wind is doing great, and he hopes to make good time coming back in."

Katara sighed in relief. "Thanks, Suki. You know how Sokka is with his new toys, and that thing seemed totally untested."

"Oh, I know. He said it works like a dream." Suki hugged her again, then patted her back. "Don't let me keep you from your bath. I'll see you soon."

Katara smiled and nodded, then stepped back outside. The long southern afternoon stretched towards twilight as she ducked into a narrow alley between Uruk's store and the Down South Outfitters. She pulled her key from her pack and fumbled a bit as she reached the back door. The latch was stiff and the hinges rusty, but inside, the Golden Peaks was quite luxurious, well worth the monthly rent for a comfortable place in town.

Katara hummed to herself, thinking of the new iron bathtub, and stepped into the back hall.

Zuko fumbled with his trunk, trying to wrestle its bulk up the narrow staircase. Ho Ten had promptly disappeared after handing him the key – not that Zuko would have asked for or accepted help with his luggage, once delivered. He pushed the trunk up onto the landing, then maneuvered it around to the next flight of stairs.

He'd long practiced the philosophy of packing only what you could carry and it had served him well these past years. The servants and porters he'd grown up with were a distant memory, and he took comfort in his self-sufficiency as he pushed the trunk up the stairs.

He tried not to think of how lonely it could be.

Katara hopped up the cramped back staircase, the weight of her pack forgotten as she neared her room and the bath. Home, she thought, then wondered when this creaking lodging house with its odd proprietors had become "home." Home should be elsewhere, she thought, but then crushed the idea and the images that rose with it.

She opened the door and stepped into the top-story hallway.

Zuko heaved his trunk up the last flight of stairs, settling it with a satisfying thunk onto the hall floor. Dimly, he noted the pattern on the carpet – it was good quality, but the center was worn and frayed from years of footfalls. He fumbled for the key he'd pocketed, then stepped down the hall to find his room –

– and walked straight into another person.

Startled, Zuko looked down into vivid blue eyes and he reached out to steady the woman before he realized he'd moved. His fingertips met her shoulders and he felt an almost physical shock, like the static before a winter storm, and he stared at her as she stared back, knowing that it was both the beginning and the end of something.