I'll Walk You Home pt. 56
Minh was awake. It took her a second to remember where she was. Then it all clicked into place.
"What?" She asked in a quiet voice, not wanting to disturb the sleeping troops bivouacked around her.
"Zero four hundred Ma'am." The sergeant holding the lantern answered in the same tone.
"Thank you, sergeant…" It took her a moment to remember the name. "…Gok."
He had been a corporal only a few days ago, part of the escort for the VIP from Armadillo/Duck Company, farther south. She had commandeered him and his troopers, after she had read the letter Gok had for her from Blue Eyes. She had promoted him when he seemed to know what he was doing, especially around the VIP. She wasn't sorry she had. He was turning into a good sergeant.
These last few days she felt like she was handing stripes out as if they were paper hats at a kid's birthday party.
"There's tea brewing over in the mess area, Ma'am." The sergeant informed her.
"Thank you, sergeant." She replied standing up.
She had been sleeping on the ground wrapped in her cloak so she took a moment to straighten herself. She felt the sergeant pulling at her cloak, and then brushing it for her. She was about to make a sharp comment but stopped herself. He was just doing his job, she just wasn't used to having help dressing before. He handed her the sword, which she slung on her back and then took her helmet from him, and slipped it on her head.
She felt another tug on the back of her cloak, as Gok straightened the material under the sword. She didn't think she would ever get used to having an orderly/aide, but it came with the rank and she would have to live with it.
"Thank you, sergeant." She told him. "I'll be at the mess area."
"Yes Ma'am." The sergeant bowed.
Minh gave him a quick nod and moving carefully through the lines of sleeping troopers, followed the beacon of the large cook fire.
In the light of the fire she could see that the cook and the cook's helpers were already hard at work getting breakfast ready for the troops.
"Good morning Ma'am." The cook bowed to her when he saw her approach, handing her a cup of strong hot tea. "We'll have a good, hearty meal for them at mess call."
"It better be, Sergeant Xie." She told him. "It may be the only meal they get today."
"It won't be fancy, but it will be good, hot, and there will be plenty of it, Ma'am." The cook assured her. "The troops will have no reason to complain even if it's the last meal they ever eat."
"Nobody dies." Minh said.
It was a phrase that had started in the company during the war. It was said sometimes as a joke, sometimes as a prayer, but most often as a sort of mantra. That was how she used it now.
"Nobody dies." The cook agreed in the same tone.
"Good work, sergeant." Minh said with a nod.
"Thank you Ma'am." Xie said.
As she turned to sit by the fire he stopped her with a cough.
"If I may Ma'am?" The sergeant asked with a small bow.
"Go ahead" She told him.
"I just wanted to say the new uniform looks good on you Ma'am." The cook told her, with pride and a little embarrassment coloring his tone.
They had known each other for years. Since Minh was a corporal and Xie was a cook's helper. They had fought battles side by side, both against the Fire Nation and against the Military Police. They had been friends, but of course that had all changed a few days ago.
Minh stood up a little straighter. She felt silly in this new uniform with all its badges and embroidery. It was strange and uncomfortable to her.
"It's just nice to see someone who actually knows what she's doing wearing some gold for a change. Ma'am." The cook added.
She smiled at the compliment then in her sergeant's voice she told him,
"Shove it up your ass Xie. You ain't gettin' no promotion out of me that easy."
The cook laughed, and she joined him in it.
"Well you can't blame an old trooper for trying Ma'am." The sergeant said.
"And I never will Xie." She responded. "And thanks."
With that, before she got too emotional she turned away and walked to the fire to sit and drink her tea. The cook turned back to his duties shouting in whispers to his helpers.
"Ten hut!" A male voice quietly called as she approached the fire.
The three men sitting on earthbent chairs stood and bowed to her. She felt like a total fraud receiving the salute but she bowed back in reply.
"As you were." She told them sitting down on a free chair.
Two of the men bowed again and excusing themselves, walked off into the darkness.
She looked to the third man, who resumed his seat by the fire.
"All quiet, Lieutenant?" She asked turning her cup in her hands.
"All quiet." Ho answered, he then added with a smile. "General."
"If I ever get my hands on that spoiled little bitch, I'll tear her heart out." She growled out in reply.
"Are you sure it wasn't your blue eyed boyfriend's idea?" He asked her sipping his own tea.
"You read the letter. He wanted you to be the general." She told him. "It had to be that little bender trying to get even with me."
"Well it makes sense." He said thoughtfully. "The city is going to be lousy with generals. Our only chance is if you are an equal or greater rank than they are. It's the only way to get them to listen to us."
"It will never work!" She proclaimed the frustration evident in her voice. "Those Generals in Ba Sing Se will take one look at me and see that I'm a complete fraud. Ho, I'm a sergeant, that's all I am, that's all I ever wanted to be. I look like an idiot in this uniform."
"You look good!" Ho told her. "Don't worry, I'll run interference for you. It's a good plan. It's going to work."
She pulled the letter from the water tribesman out of her robe and unrolled it.
"Do you really think it will work?" She asked, reading the scroll for the hundredth time.
"Yes." He reassured her, reaching out for the letter. "He's good, really good. We can pull this off."
"I hope you're right." She said handing him the letter.
"I am." He assured her. "And with you leading us General, they won't know what hit them."
"I won't know what hit me, you mean." She said ruefully, not convinced.
"You're a general, just do whatever you want." He told her. "It's just like being a First Sergeant, except that everyone is a private."
"I'll try to remember that." She said with an amused snort.
The two officers sat in silence for a time. Ho re-reading the letter, Minh drinking her tea by the warm fire.
"May we join you?" A voice from out in the darkness asked.
The two officers shot to their feet at the voice and bowed deeply in the direction it had come from.
"Senior officer." Ho whispered to Minh.
"Oh fuck!" The new general said under her breath.
"Of course your majesty." She said in her full voice, still in her bow.
"Please sit." King Kuei said walking into the light.
His majesty was in a simple long robe and pants, with his pince-nez balanced on the end of his nose. His companion was dressed as simply with her long hair in a braid down her back.
"After you, your majesty." Minh said straightening, and indicating two of the earthbent chairs by the fire.
Kuei and Yun-Hee sat on the chairs, followed by Minh. Ho added more wood to the fire before sitting himself.
"You two are up early." The young woman observed.
"A good officer is the first awake and the last to sleep, miss." Minh explained to her.
"And obviously you two are good officers." She told the soldiers.
"Who us miss?" Ho asked handing the letter back to his general. "Oh no miss. We're just a couple of mustangs, who try to act like good officers."
"Mustangs?" Yun Hee asked, unfamiliar with the term.
The king looked up to hear the answer as well.
"A mustang is an officer who was raised from the enlisted ranks." The Lieutenant explained.
"I would think that would make you the best kind of officer." The young woman told him.
The two soldiers gave a snort of laughter at her remark.
"Oh no miss." Minh explained. "We're the worst kind of officers. The troops don't like us because we know all their tricks, and we're officers so we're not the same as them. They can't trust us. The officers don't like us since we're just jumped up sergeants in the wrong uniforms. We've never been to an academy and we're not high born. That's why we're the worst kind of officer, we're not enlisted and we're not real officers. We're not one or the other."
"That's just wrong." Yun-Hee told them.
Miss, There is no wrong in the army." Ho told her with a smile.
"There's the right way…" Minh explained holding up her thumb to count one.
"The wrong way." Ho continued holding up his first finger.
"And the army way." The two officers said in chorus, holding up their middle fingers in an obscene gesture, while laughing.
"You've known each other for a while haven't you?" Yun-Hee asked, smiling at the two of them.
"Yeah… A while." Minh answered looking to the ground.
Ho suddenly found his near empty cup of tea very interesting.
The young woman's smile grew even wider, but she didn't say anything.
"Tea your majesty, miss?" Sergeant Xie asked coming into the light of the fire.
Oh, yes thank you." Yun-Hee said looking up.
"What?" The king asked looking up from the fire.
"Tea, your majesty?" The young woman asked in a gentle voice.
"It's just soldier's tea." The cook apologized handing over two cups cradled in one of his large hands, the other held a steaming kettle. "But it's hot, strong and I put some milk in it to take you to breakfast."
"Sounds wonderful." The young woman said taking the cups and handing one to the king.
"Yes, thank you." His majesty agreed taking the cup and smelling it.
"Re-fills?" Xie asked offering the kettle to the two officers.
"Thank you sergeant." Minh told him holding out her cup.
Ho held out his own as the cook filled them.
"Breakfast will be ready soon." Xie told them.
The cook then gave the quartet a bow and moved off into the darkness.
The four sat sipping their tea and staring into the fire.
"Snoozles." Toph whispered.
The young man wrapped around her stirred slightly, but did not wake. Toph didn't know what time it was not being able to bend in the soft wooden frame bed, and she was worried that it must be getting close to morning.
She would have just crawled out of bed but her boyfriend was wrapped around her, and with his long arms and legs it would be impossible to get free without waking him.
"Snoozles!" She repeated with a little more of a command in her voice.
"What?!" Sokka asked awake in an instant, looking around.
"What time is it?" She asked him.
There was a pause as he took in his surroundings.
"Still early yet." He told her.
"Then I better go." She explained.
"Right." He answered.
They lay there for a moment or ten.
"Kiss." He warned.
She raised her head slightly, and then felt his lips gently touch her own. That brought a smile to her face.
"Best get moving." He conceded unwrapping himself from her.
She rolled onto her back and spread her hands on the mattress and lay still for a second.
"Fucking beds." She complained. "I can't feel a thing."
She crawled to the edge and slid out of the bed till she was standing on the earthbent floor. She took her horse stance and sent out a wave of bending.
"Not too many servants up yet." She reported.
Sokka moved off the other side of the bed and began to dress. As he took up his money belt a thought struck him.
"Oh, just remembered, do you want your stomach back?" He asked her.
"What?!" She responded, with no idea of what he was talking about. "My stomach?!"
"Your bellybutton thing." He said pulling the piece of jewelry from a pocket of his money belt.
"Bellybutton thing?" She said trying to figure out what he was talking about.
"Gold dangly thing." He explained holding it out.
"Oh… that." She said realizing what he was holding.
She jumped onto the bed and scrambled across it to his side, jumping down onto the ground.
"Can you put it in for me?" She asked.
She had never actually put it in or taken it out. Toph pulled the bottom tie on her robe and opened it revealing her lower body, covered only with her loin cloth. She had done it without thinking.
"O…kay…." Sokka said trying to keep his eyes on her face but failing miserably.
He held up the piercing and tried to remember how to open it, his large hands fumbling with the small piece of gold. He finally sat on the bed near the glow crystal holder on the night stand to get a better view. Toph heard a quiet click.
"Got it!" He said. "Come over here and I'll put it in."
She moved in front of him holding the bottom of her robe open so he could get at her naval. He opened his legs, and putting the chain between his lips reached out taking her by the waist and pulling her in closer to him. He examined her belly button looking for the hole the piercing went in. His left hand stayed on her waist holding her in place while his right hand explored her stomach.
Toph clamped her legs together to try to quiet the burning tickle that was starting up inside her as his fingers traced circles around her naval.
"There you are." Sokka said in triumph, his finger rubbing the top of her belly button.
Toph inhaled shakily.
Now both his hands were on her stomach. She squeezed her thighs together with more force. She really wanted to rub them together but fought against that desire.
She felt something cold against her skin. She felt a short sharp pain, like a pin prick. Then she heard a little click and a sigh from Sokka.
"That's it." He told her, his hands leaving her skin. "I think the hole closed up a little."
"Yeah the guy who did it said it might." She agreed, closing her robe, and breathing again.
Sokka opened her robe and she felt his lips on her stomach as he kissed her.
"All better." He said closing her robe again, and tying it shut.
"Thanks." She told him.
His hands came to rest on her hips. Her hands moved out and found his face. She tilted it up, and bent down finding his lips with her own. The kiss turned into many kisses. Lips, mouths, and eventually tongues became involved. His hands moved up her sides to just below her chest, then down over the curve of her hips onto her legs then back up under the hem of her robe onto her hips. Her hands moved to the sides and then the back of his head under his unbound hair, pulling his face closer to her own.
Eventually they broke the kiss to catch their breaths.
"Anytime." He told her once he had enough air in his lungs to speak.
"I'll remember that." She told him in a breathy oxygen starved voice.
Toph shifted her hands to his shoulders and pushed him down onto the bed. Then she climbed onto the bed on top of him. As she crawled her knee hit something. Sokka suddenly doubled up hitting her head with his chest and sending her half off of the bed. She clung to the blanket to keep her balance. He rolled over onto his side in a tight ball with his hands clutching his groin.
"OW! FUCK! OW!" She heard him say in a tight strangled voice.
"What's wrong?" She asked full of concern.
It was quiet for a moment.
"Oh… Fuck…" Sokka moaned.
"Sokka?" She asked.
"Sorry…" He finally answered his voice still tight and quiet. "You got me right in the balls, Toph."
"That's bad isn't it?" She asked timidly.
"Really hurts." He explained as he slowly began to unfold himself, his hands still covering his groin.
"Do you want me to kiss them, to make them better?" She asked in all seriousness.
"No!" He vehemently gasped.
"Sorry." She apologized.
"S'ok." He told her, his voice slowly returning to normal as he stretched out on the bed. "It's just you should never offer to kiss a guy's balls. It's a sex thing."
"Oh…" She replied contritely. "So what are balls?"
Sokka sighed. He could really use a cup of tea right now.
Poor Girl was awake. It had been a restless night for her, lying awake with occasional naps. The strangeness of everything was to blame.
For one, the new bed, or cot as Butler Hong had called it. It was much more comfortable than the pallet she was used to, but that just added to its strangeness. Then there were the smells and sounds of the new room. Plus the sound of Miss Cuifen's snoring. It was all strange and… well…, scary to the thirteen year old.
She listened as the low rumbling sound of a gong being rung moved down the hallway outside the room.
She heard Miss Cuifen stir in her bed. The green light of a glow crystal stumbled around the room, leaving most of it still in darkness.
"You awake?" The Grand Duchess' Lady's Maid asked the thirteen year old.
"Yes, Miss Cuifen." Poor Girl answered getting out of bed, being careful to not hit her head on the slanted ceiling.
The servant's room was on the top floor of the house and a portion of the ceiling was the peaked roof of the large building. Her cot was on that side of the room.
"Good!" The older woman proclaimed, getting out of bed herself. "That was the first gong. We have half an hour before breakfast. So wash up and get dressed."
"Yes, Miss Cuifen." Poor Girl bowed.
She shuffled to the wash stand that had been added for her use and poured cold water from the large pitcher into the basin. Butler Hong had also had a small dresser brought into the room for her few things.
"Don't forget to ask Miss Bei Fong for the afternoon off." The older woman told her from her own wash stand. "The young mistress will be going over the guest list with Miss Wu, so she won't be needing you. I'll make sure that Butler Hong gives you that advance on your salary. This will be your last chance to get some proper clothes not just for everyday but for the party as well."
"Yes, Miss Cuifen. I'll make sure to ask her first thing this morning."
"Good." The older Lady's Maid proclaimed.
Miu tried to focus on the letter from her boss. She had read it at least a dozen times since it had arrived from Gaoling, especially delivered by an agent of the Bei Fong's. A very attractive agent, the young woman reminded herself. She shook her head to clear it again. She had not slept since the letter had arrived.
The reason for the lack of sleep was contained in a second letter that had been brought over by a courier from Iroh the retired Fire Nation General. That had caused her to work tirelessly on completing the instructions she had received from Sokka in the first letter. Her boss was really attractive too, she noted, even if he was really young, well not that young actually.
She shook her head again, then took a long drink from the cup of strong tea she had on her desk. She really needed to get some sleep.
"Iroh! You're up early." Katara said as she walked into the kitchen of the house in Ba Sing Se.
"Well it promises to be a busy day, master waterbender." The old general replied. "Tea?"
"Thank you." The young woman replied accepting the cup.
Jing shuffled off the train onto the station platform. It was the first train of the day and this was the end of the line. Day was not quite accurate since the sun was still to rise above the horizon.
The young man made his way to his small shop set up by the side of the road just inside the south eastern outer gate of Ba Sing Se. This was his normal hour for opening his shop, but normally he would have had a good night's sleep, or at least some fun the night before. But last night he had received a summons to the head office of his employer NAT Enterprises.
His boss, Miss Miu, had been frantically giving orders to all of the staff who had been assembled. The Watertribesman had sent instructions and it was up to everyone to carry them out. It had been a crazy night.
And now he was heading to his shop to do his part in the big plan. There was no knowing when the plan would go into effect. It could be today or it could be next week, or it might never be needed, but Jing's job was to be ready.
The young man opened the small shop and lit the small charcoal brazier in the back of the shop to heat water for tea. He was going to need it.
The breakfast had been good and plentiful. Xie had really out done himself, especially considering all the extra civilian stomachs he had to fill.
To Minh the civilians were a total pain in her ass but a necessary pain. She had hired, cajoled, and eventually conscripted every tailor, dress maker, seamstress, well anyone who could cut and sew, as well as enough wagons, animals, and teamsters to haul all of them and their cloth along with the column.
To pull this off Blue Eyes had written that they would need banners, flags, and pennants, as well as royal robes for his majesty, and dress uniforms for the troops. All that required the tailors and the rest. From the letter she could see that the teen had expected her to set up a work shop in My Lot and have all the work done there before starting the column for Ba Sing Se.
Minh agreed with the teen on the need but not the method. If they stayed in the town for a week, word would soon get out that something was going on. And it wouldn't take a master mind to realize who the VIP was once they found out that the civilians were making royal banners.
If someone in Ba Sing Se wanted to stop the return of his majesty they wouldn't need much to wipe out Minh's column if they caught them on the open road. Out in the country her small squadron of cavalry could be stopped by a light battalion of troops from the city.
Her only chance of pulling this off was to get to Ba Sing Se before the news of who she was escorting got there, which meant all the wagons and the civilians joining the column and doing the work on the road. And by taking the Old Road she was far less likely to run into other troops.
Once she had gotten everything together she had moved fast, covering a lot of ground quickly. She had crossed the desert in one night. The Sand Tribes watching from off in the dunes but not interfering. She had pushed everyone on. Late that same afternoon they had moved through the Serpent's Pass using the tunnel described in the letter.
The letter had told her about Captain Hook and his squad. She had passed the note that had been included with the letter, along with a few gold coins, and there had been no trouble. The only pause she had taken were the few minutes she had spent studying the chalk mural at the northern entrance to the tunnel. She would have to ask Blue Eyes what the story behind that was.
Now here she was ready to enter the city, hopefully before anyone at high command even knew she and her VIP even existed.
This meant that she was a week ahead of the tribesman's schedule. He had written that he would have help set up for her when she got to the city. She could only hope that he had time to make his arrangements.
Well she would just have to trust him. He had thought of everything so far, even how to pay for all of this. When Gok showed up with the VIP the corporal, now sergeant, had handed over two heavy saddle bags full of money to the then First Sergeant. Gok had told her that the day the escort left a fat old man with a big white beard had showed up and given him the saddle bags with instructions that they were to be given to First Sergeant Minh in My Lot. They were from a mutual friend Gok had been told.
The saddle bags were full of money, equal to four hundred gold pieces. And Minh had used it to pay for all of this. Well except for the fancy carriage for his majesty. That she had confiscated along with the team of Ostrich/horses, from Hong Fat, who was under investigation for collaborating with the enemy.
As she moved through the troops returning to pack up their bivouac she heard her name called. She turned to see his majesty and his companion standing by their carriage. She approached and bowed to the king and the young woman.
"General…" Kuei began then hesitated.
"Yes, your majesty?" The cavalry woman eventually asked.
The monarch was still having trouble voicing his concern, and looked nervously about him at all the soldiers and civilians moving purposely about him.
Yun Hee eventually poked him in the side. When he turned to look at her the young woman nodded in the direction of the soldier.
"General!" The young man began. "Do you think there will be any fighting today?"
"Not much your majesty." Minh reassured him. "We have less than two hundred troopers and they have fifty, maybe sixty thousand soldiers in the city, so it wouldn't be much of a fight. Our only chance is to move quickly, act like we're in charge, and before they know what's going on get the people behind us so they can't start a fight."
"Yes… I see." Kuei said nodding. "It's just that… I don't want anyone to get hurt on my account. But if there is any fighting… I want to be part of it. I don't want to be shoved out of the way." He indicated the sword in his sash. "I'm not very good with this but I want to do my part."
Minh examined the man before her. He was younger then she was but not by much. He was thin and bookish looking. Not a warrior, nor very majestic. The soldier thought the young woman by his side would be better in a fight than the king would be. Yun Hee had a hardness about her that said she would not shrink back from the hard decisions.
"Your majesty…" Minh finally said. "The best thing you can do is just look like a king leading a triumphal return to his capital after winning a war. The biggest war ever fought. The only way we can pull this off is with some swagger, a lot of guts, and even more bull shit."
"Well General…" The young king replied. "I'll expect you to supply the swagger.
"Yun Hee…" He turned to the young woman and bowed to her. "Has more than enough guts."
"That leaves me with the Bull Shit." He finished pointing with his thumb to his chest. "I was trained as a politician so I have some experience in that regard."
This last was said with a smile. Minh saw the young woman step forward and take the monarch's hand. It was the first time the soldier could remember the king and his companion ever touching.
"You'll do fine." Yun Hee told the king, squeezing his hand. "Better than all of us."
The two shared a warm look for a moment. Then the young woman dropped her eyes.
"We should probably get changed." Kuei said.
"That would be best." Minh agreed. "We'll be moving out shortly."
The newly minted general bowed to the king and his friend, and moved off to find her executive officer.
"Lieutenant Ho." She called, as she walked up to her second in command who was taking reports from the company non-coms.
"Ma'am." The officer bowed to her.
"Where are we?" She asked, returning the bow.
"The company is ready, Ma'am." He answered.
"All right then. Boots and saddles lieutenant." Minh ordered.
"Sergeant, Boots and Saddles!" Ho called out.
"Music!" Sergeant Hu called out.
Minh felt that the phrase was a little out of place. The band consisted of one drummer and one bugler, but technically even if it was just one musician he or she would be addressed as Music.
"Boots and Saddles!" The new First Sergeant ordered.
The drum began to roll and the bugle rang out. Troopers grabbed their gear and moved to their mounts.
Toph stood under the balcony to her bed room, her arms around Sokka's neck as she kissed him one last time.
"I'll see you at breakfast." He told her.
"And I'll feel you." She replied.
"As much as I'd like that, I don't think your parents would approve." He told her, with a little sarcastic chuckle.
Toph wasn't sure what he meant but she didn't have time to question him, so she punched him in the shoulder instead. Stepping away, she tapped the ground with her foot raising the earth and erasing the hole that the young man had been standing in. With a wave she launched herself into the air and up onto her balcony.
"I love you!" He whispered up to her.
"Good!" She whispered back, and turned to go into her bedroom.
Toph closed the window and climbed into her much too soft bed. She planned to get a short nap before she had to be up for the day.
Poor girl hurried, without looking like she was hurrying, along the corridor to her mistress' rooms. She had stayed too long at breakfast and was now a little late. But it had been such a new and exciting experience sitting at the long table, near the head by Butler Hong and across from Miss Cuifen, and having everyone address her as Miss Liling, instead of girl or more often just ignoring her.
The food had been wonderful. She had nearly burned the roof of her mouth on it. She wasn't used to hot food. And the tea had also been hot and wonderful. She moved even faster. She could not be late on her first day as a Lady's Maid.
Miu had her head on her desk. She had finally given up and collapsed in exhaustion. Even the strong tea couldn't keep her up after the excitement of last night.
Iroh sat in his office at the Jasmine Dragon. He had sent out his instructions to the order last night. All he could do now was wait for the reports to come in to him. It was an old story to the retired general. He took another sip of the strong black tea.
"I still think you should go without me." Aang told Katara as they sat at the table of the house in the upper ring eating fruit.
"If you're staying then I'm staying." She replied in a no nonsense tone.
Momo chittered in agreement, while eating a slice of melon.
Appa's growl from the backyard seemed to be saying the same thing.
"I have to be leaving soon." The Avatar sighed. "The Ruling Council is meeting early today."
"Well… have a last cup of tea before you go." Katara recommended.
Jing sipped his tea and studied the list he had just unrolled. He knew that the other NAT shop keepers at all the other gates to the city were all looking at copies of this same list. After all he had helped Miu create the list last night at the head office.
Miu did not know which gate the Big Boss's guest would be entering through but it was most likely going to be Jing's and he wanted to be ready. He took up his dry pen and began checking off the items on the list.
One through three were easy. Number four had been arranged for last night, Ting would be here soon with her Ostrich/Horse. He should probably have some tea ready for her.
Number five might be a problem. He could try and do it himself but it would not be something he was confident he could pull off. He really wasn't good at the sneaking around stuff. He sucked on the end of his dry pen as he thought about the problem.
"Yes!" He exclaimed as the idea came to him.
Little Suyin would be perfect for the job. She was young, only ten or so, but very clever. She was one of the homeless war orphans that lived by the gate, begging, earning, or stealing whatever they could from the people entering or leaving the city. She was smart and fearless. Yes she would do very nicely.
The tap at the door pulled him from his thoughts. When he opened the door he could see in the predawn twilight that, as he had suspected, it was Ting, the reins of her 'orse held lightly in her hand. She was Jing's age, another recent graduate from the university. She was shorter then he was, and thick set, with a pleasant face. He liked her, though they had little contact at work. She was one of the messengers Miu had hired.
"Ting, right on time." The young shop keeper said with a small bow.
"I tried." She replied with her own small bow. "Any chance I could get a cup of tea before I head out?"
"Certainly." Jing answered ushering her into the shop.
"General?" Lieutenant Ho asked.
He and Minh were riding near the head of the column. He could see the high wall of the city in the distance.
"General?" He asked again.
When he still got no response he moved his 'orse a little closer and whispered.
"Yes sir!" The newly promoted officer replied, then blushed in embarrassment.
"Lieutenant?" She amended.
Ho nodded his head toward the wall just beginning to shine in the first rays of the rising sun.
"Right!" Minh said. "First Sergeant Hu, pass the word to uncase the colors and dress the column. We are now a royal guard of honor. Let's make sure we look like it."
"Yes sir!" Hu responded, moving out of line and riding down the length of the column cajoling and complementing the troopers in turn.
Sokka went through the last of his sword forms in the garden. The sun was nearly up and he really should get ready for breakfast. He stood for a moment just idly spinning Spring Rain in his hand, doing figure eights with it. He missed Space Sword.
Spring Rain was a beautiful and a fine weapon, but Space Sword was his. It had been made for him and he longed for the longer grip and the balance and weight of the sword. Well it was gone and he would not regret how he had lost it. Its last act had saved Toph.
Without a pause he swung the sword into his left hand and continued the figure eights, so he could wave to the two guards as they passed him for the third time on their patrol of the estate. They both nodded in reply.
Poor Girl stood in the class room by the door that connected to the bathroom and from there to her mistress' bedroom. She was waiting for the gong to announce the time to wake Miss Bei Fong and prepare her for the day. She was also trying unsuccessfully not to smile.
She had been taught that servants should never display any emotion. It didn't matter if you were happy or sad, or anything else for that matter. You were a servant.
She was still trying to remove the small smile when Madam Wang entered the room. The smile immediately fled from the girl's face.
"Out of the way girl!" The governess commanded.
The girl took a small breath and then launched into her prepared speech.
"Forgive me Madame Wang…" Poor Girl said with a proper bow. "… But Miss Bei Fong said you were not to enter her bed room without her permission. When it is time to wake her I will ask if she wishes…"
The slap stopped her before she could finish. She had seen it coming, but she had been taught from an early age not to flinch, or shy away from a blow, nor to try and defend herself from one. She did not do so now.
She brought her head around to face the governess again.
"I will ask if she wishes to see you…" The girl began again.
This second slap was much harder than the first. The sound of it filled the school room. Poor Girl could taste the blood from her cheek where it had been torn inside her mouth as it had smashed against her teeth.
She took another small breath.
"I will ask if…" She began again.
This slap was even harder than the last. Poor Girl saw small dancing lights in her vision as she tried to keep her feet under her.
"You traitorous little bitch!" Madame Wang growled, raising her hand for another blow. "Out of my way or I'll beat you bloody!"
"I will ask if…" Poor Girl said her jaw clenched.
The next blow was followed by others. First with the flat of the older woman's hand then with the back of the hand. The governess' left hand holding the young woman up by the collar as she struck again and again, until she was panting with the effort.
Finally the governess let go of the girl who fell back against the door she was guarding and slid to the floor, still blocking the way.
"Is there a problem here?" Butler Hong asked from the door to the hall.
"No Problem!" Madame Wang panted out a reply.
"I was asking Miss Liling!" The butler said, with a little taste of acid in his voice.
Poor Girl swallowed the blood in her mouth and taking hold of the door handle with one hand and pushing against the door with the other managed to get back up on her feet.
"I'm fine, thank you Butler Hong." The girl said, bowing towards the man.
"Madame Wang!" Hong called.
The woman turned to him still seething but getting herself under control.
The Butler and the Governess locked eyes. Finally Madame Wang bowed to the senior servant, who answered with a slight bow of his own.
"I believe you are needed downstairs, Madame." Hong ordered.
Without a word the woman bowed and moved quickly out into the hall past the older man.
"I believe it is time for you to wake your mistress, Miss Liling." The butler told the new Lady's Maid.
"Yes, Butler Hong." Poor girl said giving the man a deep bow. "And thank you… for reminding me."
"Nothing to thank me for, Miss Liling." The butler said pulling the door closed behind him as he moved into the hall.
Miu heard the knock on the door but hoped it was just a dream and slept on in her chair. The knock came again, louder this time. She decided it was not a dream and she should answer it. It could be important.
When she opened the door she was surprised to see a handsome young man standing there. He was a little older than she was and looked familiar. She quickly brushed her hair back and straightened her clothes as she searched her sleep deprived brain for his name.
"Master Kang." She finally said remembering the man that had brought the letter from her boss that had started her tumultuous and sleepless night. "Good morning. Please forgive my appearance."
"Oh not at all, Mistress Miu." Kang said with a bow. "I was just stopping by to see if there was any reply to the letter I delivered last evening."
"Well yes there is." Miu said with her own bow. "Please won't you come in and have a cup of tea while I seal it."
"That is most generous of you." The young man said entering the office. "I can only stay for a minute but the tea sounds wonderful."
Iroh was studying his map when he heard the tap at his office door.
"Enter." He called.
It was Master Wong, his manager of the Jasmine Dragon, who entered.
"Forgive me." Wong said with a bow. "But there is a Master Kang at the door who wishes to see you."
"Ah… Excellent please show him in and bring in a tray with tea for both of us." Iroh told the manager.
Wong bowed himself out of the office. The Dragon of the West smiled as he took his seat behind his desk.
"Why Master Kang." Katara said as she saw the young man on her doorstep. "You are as good as your word. I'm sorry I have no reply to my brother, and you have just missed the Avatar. He had to leave early for a meeting, but you are more than welcome to come in and join me in a cup of tea."
She was surprised at the young man's reaction to the suggestion of tea.
"While that sounds wonderful." Kang said, though his face didn't seem to think it was as wonderful as his words did. "And I would greatly enjoy being able to spend more time with a woman as beautiful as you are. I'm afraid I really need to be getting to my office. Perhaps next time we can have a cup together."
"Of course." Katara replied. "You will always be welcome."
Jing nervously gripped the small paper wrapped coin in his hand.
"Suyin." He called to the dirty little girl playing with the other children by the gate.
There wasn't much traffic this early so the children were just being children.
"What?!" The ten year old asked the young man, approaching cautiously.
"A friend has asked me to do a favor for him, and I'm hoping you can help me out." He told her squatting down so there heads would be on the same level.
"Why should I help you?" She asked in a belligerent tone.
"Well…" Jing said, gesturing for her to come closer. "He's a special friend, and he rewards those that help him."
With this last he held up the paper wrapped coin in such a way that only she could see it, and which he had carefully stamped with a black lotus blossom.
Minh was worried. It had been years since she had been to the capital and she had forgotten just how big the outer walls were. They had been watching them grow for over an hour.
The newly promoted general looked to either side of the road. They had passed a few civilians so far, who had stared and talked among themselves, but had cleared the road for them as the column moved steadily along. She had not seen any troops yet, which surprised her.
"No pickets." She finally said to Lieutenant Ho, riding by her side.
"No…" He agreed. "Which could mean…"
"That whoever is in command is more concerned with what's going on inside the city, than outside." She finished his thought.
Ho nodded in agreement.
"We should rest the mounts." The lieutenant said after a time.
Minh had a moment of doubt. Resting the mounts now when they were so close was taking a risk, but they would need the ostrich/horses at their best when they finally did enter the city.
"First Sergeant Hu." She finally called.
"Yes ma'am!" The trooper answered.
"Pass the word. The column will halt and dismount for ten minutes." She ordered.
"Column…" The sergeant called out holding up his arm. "Halt!"
"Prepare to dismount!" Hu called again. "Dis…. Mount!"
"Pass the word to rest and water the mounts."
Minh and Ho dismounted and handed the reins of the orses to sergeant Gok who led the mounts to the side of the road.
"Is there a problem?" The King asked walking over to the two officers, his companion by his side.
"No your majesty." Minh said as she and Ho bowed to the monarch. "Standard procedure. We rest the mounts for ten minutes out of every hour."
"Oh yes of course." Kuei remarked.
They had been on the march for days and the King was well aware of the practice.
"I guess I'm just nervous, being so close now, I forgot."
"Well we're all a bit nervous, your majesty." Ho said with a bow.
"That's why we have the manual." Minh said, almost as a mantra. "So we don't forget the important things, even when we're nervous."
"Ma'am!" Private Nuo, who was up towards the head of the column, called out. "Rider approaching from the city."
The four turned and looked ahead. It was a young woman, a civilian, on an orse. She was cantering up but about fifty strides from the head of the column she stopped. She seemed to be studying the royal banner at the head of the color guard. Then she turned her mount and took off at a gallop back towards the city.
"Now that, your majesty, might be a problem." Lieutenant Ho said.
"Ma'am, should I take my squad after her and bring her back?" Sergeant Hualing called.
"No sergeant." Minh finally decided. "Let her go."
Sokka stood in the dining room waiting for Toph to arrive. Grand Duke Lao had been giving him a rather critical look since he had arrived.
"Young Man." His grace said approaching the tribesman. "I need to discuss something with you after breakfast."
"Certainly your grace." Sokka answered with a bow.
This doesn't bode well. The teen thought. Judging by Lao's expression. He seems pissed about something.
"Miss Liling." Miss Cuifen called as Poor Girl closed the door to the dining room, after escorting her mistress inside. "Let me look at your face."
"It's nothing Miss Cuifen." The girl said as the woman held her chin and turned her head left and right.
Actually it was very much something. Poor Girl's face ached and burned, and the gash on the inside of her cheek was still bleeding.
"Does your Mistress know about this?" The woman asked.
"Oh no, Miss Cuifen." The girl answered. "She didn't ask about it and I didn't tell her.
"Well I guess there are some advantages to being blind." The woman remarked. "You stay here, I'll be right back and we'll see what we can do about cleaning you up."
"Madame Wang!" Miss Cuifen called in a tone that stopped the governess.
"Yes, Miss Cuifen." Madame Wang said turning towards the Lady's Maid.
Cuifen stalked right up to the governess without even the suggestion of a bow.
"Listen to me you dried up old cow." Miss Cuifen told her. "Miss Liling is a lady's maid now, not your little whipping post!"
"How dare you address me in this manner?!" The governess demanded.
"Shut up and listen or I'll dare a lot more." The younger woman told her through clenched teeth. "She is a lady's maid and when you strike her you strike me, and you won't survive if you strike me!"
"Is that some sort of threat?" Wang asked with venom in her voice.
"Yes you stupid bitch!" Cuifen told her. "You have no friends on this staff, and since Miss Bei Fong is no longer your little pet, none of us fear you anymore. So you better watch yourself because one word from me to her grace, or one word from Hong to the Grand Duke and you'll be out of this house and on the road to nowhere so fast, that you'll be raped, robbed, and dead in a ditch before we even have a chance to celebrate your leaving."
Before Madame Wang could respond Miss Cuifen had turned and walked away.
Miu sat at her desk listening for the bell that would announce a hawk arriving in the aerie up in the attic. Below she could hear the rumbling hum of the dry ink pen machine rolling out pens by the thousands. With the new machine she would finally be able to get close to filling all the orders she had.
She had a hard time focusing on the invoices in front of her. When she had taken this job because it had looked like a good idea. Get in on the ground floor of a new business. And she had been right.
But after last night she had to think twice. She hadn't expected all this political craziness and subterfuge. Though she had to admit to herself it was exciting, and a real challenge, and yes, it had been kind of fun.
"It's today!" Ting said, pulling Jing out of his day dream.
The young man was sitting in the display window of his shop, with his note books and dry pens arranged across the counter. After the sleepless night he had been nodding of when the young woman addressed him.
He looked up to see the her leaning down out of her saddle, one hand on the saddle horn the other on the wooden awning over the long open front of the shop.
"Are you sure?" He asked.
"I saw them!" Ting answered with suppressed excitement. "They're about a half hour down the road."
"Right!" He told her. "I'll send the hawk right away, and get everything ready for them."
"I'll ride ahead and pass the word." Ting told him straightening up in her saddle. "Good Luck!"
"You too!" He told her, but she was already away at a gallop.
Jing pulled the prepared scroll out of his bag, filled in the few blanks that were left, sealed it with one of the new paper seals that NAT Enterprises were now selling, and signed it.
Moving to the back of the shop he slipped the scroll into the carrier on the hawk's back and released it from the cage. With a squawk it was up and flying towards the city.
Next he pulled a heavy bottle from his bag. Now he had to find Suyin. He took a breath to steady himself. He found it hard to believe that it was actually happening, and he was a part of it.
He put the bottle in his robe, and left the shop looking for the little orphan.
Toph jumped into the gap left by her mother finally taking a bite of food. The Grand Duchess had been talking non-stop all through breakfast.
Didn't she ever eat? Toph wondered to herself.
"Mother and father I just wanted to say thank you for giving me a Lady's Maid." Toph said aloud. "She's been a great help."
"Well good dear." The Grand Duchess said. "We're glad she is of some use to you, even if she hardly seems fit to be a Lady's Maid."
"About that…" Toph jumped in again, not wanting her mother to go on and on which was her habit.
"She…" Toph was about to say Poor Girl but had caught herself in time, though she couldn't remember the girl's real name. "… Asked if she could have this afternoon off to go into the city to shop for clothes to match her current… position. Do you think that would be alright, Father?"
The earthbender had noticed that her father had been quiet all through the meal, and she wanted to get him involved. It would be much easier to get permission from her father for her plan than it would be from her mother.
She didn't know what was bothering the Grand Duke, but she could feel how tense he was, sitting there.
"What…?" Lao asked pulled from his thoughts.
"Toph was asking if it would be alright if Miss Liling could have the afternoon off to buy some more appropriate clothing in the city." Sokka explained.
"Oh, yes of course." His Grace said, looking to his daughter. "I'll have Hong give her some money out of the household funds, and have the cart ready for her."
"Oh father!" Toph said jumping out of her chair and rushing to Lao hugging him in his chair. "Thank you so much!"
"It's the least we can do." The Grand Duke said hugging her back.
"You know…" Toph said squatting down and hanging on the arm of his chair so he had to look down to see her face. "… I need some new clothes too. None of my old things fit anymore…"
"Master Weimin is making you new outfits." Poppy said from her end of the table.
"I know mother." The blind girl said in her contrite little girl voice, still hanging on her father's arm. "But they won't be ready for weeks. This is the only thing I have to wear. I can't wear the same thing every day."
Sokka tried to hide the smile that jumped to his face at that complaint. During the war, and even after, Toph had worn the outfit she currently had on every day for nearly a year, except when they were in the fire nation, and even then she had worn one outfit the entire time. He knew she was running a scam on her parents. He didn't know what the scam was but he was going to help her with it if he could.
"Well no, I suppose not." Her mother reluctantly agreed.
"So…" Toph said turning her face towards her father again. "I was thinking that I could go into Gaoling with Liling and get a couple of new outfits, just for around the house of course."
She had added this last to placate her mother who she was sure would object to her daughter wearing readymade clothing.
"We'd be together to watch out for one another." Toph went on before Poppy could object. "And Liling could help me get some appropriate things."
"If you want I could go with you." Sokka offered, trying to help out.
"Oh Sokka that's sweet but I really don't want my boyfriend standing around while I'm trying on clothes." The young woman told him.
"I'm sorry dear." Poppy said, not sounding sorry in the least. "But you have the guest list to go over with Miss Wu so you will be ready to greet everyone at the party."
"Well perhaps I can help there." Sokka said, raising his hand self-consciously. "Why don't you give me a copy of the list. I can study it and at the party… Or better yet, give me a copy and give another copy to Miss Liling. One of us, or even yourself, or Miss Wu will be with Toph during the party and we can introduce her to the guests."
"That sounds like a good idea." Lao said, looking at the young man with an appraising eye.
The Grand Duke was puzzled by this young Watertribesman. That was a good idea, Lao had used it many times in business. He would have a secretary sit or stand by him during business meetings and functions, to refresh his memory of who was who.
"I don't see why Toph can't get just one afternoon off." His Grace continued. "She has done everything else we've asked of her, she deserves to have a little fun now that she has returned to us."
"Oh please mother." Toph begged, still clinging to her father's arm. "I'll work twice as hard today and tomorrow. Just let me have this one afternoon off to get some clothes and have a little fun."
"It will also give you the afternoon to do what you need to your grace." Sokka said looking to the Grand Duchess. "I'm sure there are many things you need to do for the party that you haven't had time for."
"Plus it will give you time to visit with your sister." Lao added. "And there will be other guests arriving that will need your attention."
"Well… alright." Poppy finally agreed. "Just this one afternoon."
"Good! It's decided then." The Grand Duke declared. "I'll have the carriage brought round and ready for you after lunch. And I'll tell Captain Wong to have an escort waiting for you."
"Oh! Thank you father!" Toph cried rising up and kissing Lao on the cheek. "But do I really need an escort. It would be bad enough to have my boyfriend standing around but I really don't want a bunch of soldiers watching while I'm picking out certain things, you know."
She gave her father her best embarrassed look at this. Sokka thought she really did make the best Jet.
"Besides, it not like we'll being going anywhere dangerous." She went on, putting some excitement in her voice. "It's just Gaoling and not even the bad parts of town. We'll be in the lady's clothing stores. And we'll have the carriage driver to look after us."
"Well alright." Lao relented. "I suppose that Cai and Sun will be enough protection. But just make sure you take care when you're in the city."
"Oh I will." Toph said with a straight face. "Thank you so much."
She kissed her father's cheek again, and he patted her on the back, his face turning a dark shade at the open expression of emotion from his little girl. Toph ran around the table and kissed her mother on the cheek as well.
"And thank you mother." She told the Grand Duchess.
Toph straightened up and came around the end of the table towards Sokka.
"Woops!" She cried out, slipping slightly and grabbing hold of the edge of the marble table with both hands as she made the tight turn at the corner.
Sokka raised an eyebrow at that. As far as he knew, Toph had never slipped on an earthbent floor in her life. He stood up and took a step towards her, but she was back up and running before he could do more than that.
"And thank you too Meathead." She said while she kissed him on the lips.
Sokka kissed her chastely back. She stood and "looked" at him for a second. He felt a tremor run down his sword, and when he looked down, he saw that Toph had her hand covering the pommel. He looked back to her and raised an eyebrow, which of course she couldn't see. Before he could ask she was already moving away from him.
"Well, I really should get ready for dance practice." Toph said running out the door.
Miu looked up from the paper in her hand at the bell which was still ringing. She jumped up from her chair, ran out of her office and up the stairs to the hawk roost. Sure enough a new hawk was standing on the roost. She could have sworn that the bird had a surprised look on his face seeing her arrive so quickly after he did.
"Hey baby." The young woman said soothingly as she approached the animal.
That earned her a hard look from the bird.
"Sorry, Mister Hawk." She amended bowing to the bird.
Mister Hawk squawked in reply dipping his head to her.
Miu carefully reached out and opened the carrier and extracted the scroll from the bird. His duty done the hawk flew over to the main roost with the other birds and had himself a drink from the water trough common in all roosts.
The young woman carefully read the scroll.
"Awwww Fuck!" She cursed.
It was from the store near the university. There had been a run on the new colored pens at the store and they needed a thousand of each, except for yellow, only five hundred of those, with the next shipment.
Miu nearly tore the order up in frustration. But then she laughed at herself instead. Business must go on.
She was just turning to return to her office when she heard the flapping of wings outside and saw the entry flap push up as a new hawk came into the roost.
"And what have you got for me?" She asked as the bird jumped up onto the bar for incoming messages.
The animal bowed its head and she pulled the scroll from the container, broke the seal, and looked at the contents. The new hawk joined the others and had herself a drink. It had been a long flight up from the outer wall.
Miu read the scroll and just stood there for a moment. Then she read it again.
"Right!" She told the hawks. "You better eat up and drink plenty of water because it's going to be a busy day for all of you."
The young woman turned and ran out of the roost and down the stairs.
Jing was pacing back and forth behind the counter in his shop. There wasn't much space so he could only take about three steps before he had to turn and pace the other way. Every turn he would look at the list on the counter with all the check marks, on it. Number five was still unchecked and it was driving him mad.
He pulled his eyes away from the list and looked towards the gate again. Ting had said they were half an hour down the road. He felt like it had been half a day since she had told him that but he still saw no sign of the procession.
He looked across the road to the shop of Old Lady Ma. She was grey haired and plump, in a simple but nice outfit and she was staring back at him. She smiled and waved. That unnerved him even more. She had a reputation for being a little crazy. She ostensibly sold maps to the city to tourists coming through the gate, but all she ever seemed to do, as far as Jing could tell, was play Pai Sho with herself and the occasional traveler, who might stop and play a game as they entered the city.
He went back to his list and checked it again. Number five was still not checked off.
He looked up again and Old Lady Ma was pointing towards the gate. He looked and saw little Suyin, all skinny arms and legs, hurrying towards his shop.
"Did you do it?" He asked in a whisper as she came up to the counter.
"Of course." She answered darting a look to left and right before pulling the large bottle out of her robe and handing it to him.
He shook the porcelain vessel to determine how much of the contents were left.
"You used almost all of it." He commented pulling the stopper and looking inside.
"The hawks really liked it." She explained in a low tone. "I had to refill the trough three times."
"And none of the soldiers saw you?" He asked nervously.
"Nobody sees me unless I want them too." She said with pride.
"Good work." He complemented pulling out another paper wrapped coin from his robe and handing it to her.
The paper on this one was also stamped with a black lotus, and the coin inside was silver as well, but it was twice as large as the previous one.
Suyin smiled happily as she saw the stamp and felt the coin.
"I may have more work for you soon." Jing told the small girl.
"You know where to find me." She replied carefully unwrapping the coin, she wanted to save the paper.
The much too thin little girl folded the paper carefully and put it in a pocket inside her robe. The coin she added to the first one in a little purse hanging from her neck, and pushed it inside her clothes as well.
"If I'm going to be doing this kind of thing for you I'll need a special name." Suyin said thoughtfully.
"How about the Little Shadow." He said thoughtfully swirling the contents of the bottle.
"No that's no good." She told him rejecting the name. "I know, I want you to call me the Green Lotus. And when you need me just hang a piece of paper from your shop with a green lotus on it."
"The Green Lotus, I like it." Jing said approvingly.
Suyin smiled. She liked the idea of being the Green Lotus. She would fight evil benders and in a few years she'd leave the city and go in search of the Black Lotus. And he would fall in love with her and be her boyfriend and together they would save the kingdom from evil bad guys.
The movement of the bottle as Jing nervously swirled the contents caught her eye.
"What's in the bottle?" She asked him.
She did not want to hurt any of the hawks kept by the soldiers.
"Nothing bad." Jing told her.
He took a quick swig from the bottle and she saw a shudder run through him from his head to his toes.
"Not bad at all." He said in an appreciative tone looking at the label.
"Corporal of the Guard, post number one." One of the soldiers by the outer gate called out.
Minh heard the private up ahead call out for the corporal of the guard. She looked up and down the column. All the pennants and banners were out and there was a fortunate breeze that helped to lay them out and cause them to flutter. She thought it all looked pretty good. Even the civilian carts and wagons had been decorated with flags and bright swaths of cloth. And the civilians themselves where in their best clothes. And considering that they were all tailors and dress makers and seamstresses their best was really very nice.
As she turned to the head of the column she heard the quiet murmurs of the troopers as they dressed their lines and each other making sure their lances were all vertical. She smiled to herself.
"They look good." Lieutenant Ho said quietly. "And so do you."
"Let's hope we fool them." Minh responded in the same quiet tone.
Corporal Lee came out of the guard room and into the passage that was the gate through the outer wall just as the head of the column was entering it.
"What private…." He began to ask, but was stopped by the sight of the large royal banner at the head of the procession.
As a good soldier he bowed to the banner as he had been trained to do. The rest of his squad followed his example.
"Hey sarge?" He called to the leading non-com once the banner had passed. "What unit is this?"
"Royal Household Calvary escorting his highness the king." Sergeant Hualing called back.
Following the color guard Lee could see a general in all her gold braid surrounded by her staff. He and his soldiers bowed as they passed. He had seen quite a few generals in the last weeks here in the city, so the novelty had worn off.
"She looks like the real thing." Private Kwon whispered to the corporal. "Seen some real action."
"You can always tell by the eyes." Lee whispered approvingly in reply.
Behind the general was an elegant carriage. As the carriage passed he saw a young man and an even younger woman. And sure enough the man was in royal robes and even had the pince-nez seen in all the official prints of his majesty.
The corporal and his squad bowed deeply to the monarch, who generously acknowledged the salute with a small wave of his hand.
The procession continued on, but the corporal was already running back inside the platoon headquarters looking for lieutenant Wu.
Jing pointed to the gate where the royal banner was just passing through the wall and into the road lined with shops.
"Look!" He exclaimed, running out of his shop to join Suyin by the road side.
"It's the royal banner!" Old Lady Ma called out crossing the road to join them. "I've never seen it before."
"What's the royal banner?" Suyin asked staring at the large green cloth embroidered in gold.
"It's the emblem of his majesty the king." Jing explained.
Suyin looked at the banner as it came nearer. On each side of the road all the shop keepers had come out of their stalls and were lining the road. The travelers, both those leaving and those entering the city had stopped, cleared the road and were bowing as the great banner passed them.
Jing tugged on her arm, and she bowed when he and Old Lady Ma bowed as the head of the column passed them by.
One of the cavalry troopers detached himself from the general's retinue and rode up to small group in front of Jing's shop.
"Are those dry pens and note books." Sergeant Gok asked.
"What? Oh yes." Jing answered. "Do you want some?"
"I could use a book and some pens." Gok answered, reaching into his dispatch case.
"Here take them." Jing told him handing over a packet of dry pens and one of his better note books.
"How much?" The sergeant asked taking the items.
"Nothing." Jing answered then he added "Long live the King!"
Gok put the book and pens into his dispatch case and bowed to the young man.
"Long live the king!" The sergeant said in thanks as he spurred his orse to retake his place by the general.
Others on the road side took up the call, and soon everyone was shouting,
"Long live the king!"
They all bowed to the young man in the carriage as it drove past them.
"Who's in the carriage?" The small girl asked.
"That's the king." Jing explained.
"I know that!" Suyin told him in an irritated tone. "I want to know who the pretty lady is."
"Ahhh…?" Jing replied, he had no idea who young woman was.
"That's Yun Hee the princess of Chosen." Ma answered, watching the rest of the procession as it passed, and waving to the soldiers and civilians.
"Yun Hee?" Jing asked.
"You know from the song." Ma answered.
"Oh yes!" Suyin cried. "From the Black Lotus Song."
Jing remembered now. He had heard the song a few times. It had come into the city about a week ago and was still very popular, especially in the lower ring of the city.
"Could I have a taste of that?" The old woman asked pointing to the bottle still in his hand.
"What? Oh sure." Jing answered handing over the bottle.
In his excitement he had forgotten that he was holding it. The bottle reminded him and he reached over the counter into the shop to retrieve his list. He happily checked off number five.
Lieutenant Wu looked at the column as it continued to pass through his gate. He hadn't believed Corporal Lee's report at first.
"Are you sure it was the king?" He asked the non-com.
"Yes sir!" Lee answered. "He looked just like the official portrait you have in your office."
"Corporal get me a hawk." The officer ordered turning to hurry back to his office. "Better make it two hawks. I need to send a report to Company Head Quarters and I better send one to Battalion as well."
"Yes sir." The corporal saluted, and then ran up the stairs to the roost.
Lieutenant Wu was just finishing up his second message when there was a knock on his office door.
"Come." He called.
"Ah sergeant Xu…" The officer said as he saw the platoon sergeant enter the room. "I want you to check over these messages before I send them out."
"About the messages sir…" Xu said obviously worried about something.
"What?!" Wu asked, suspiciously.
"Well sir there is a problem with the messenger hawks, sir." The platoon sergeant answered.
"What sort of problem?" The officer asked, starting to get worried himself. "These reports have to go out right away."
"Well… As far as we can tell the hawks are all drunk, sir." Xu explained in an embarrassed tone. "Someone, maybe as a joke, replaced the water in their trough with wine and the hawks can't even walk, let alone fly."
"Ah SHIT!" Lieutenant Lee cursed throwing his pen down on his desk.
"We'll have to send a courier then" The officer said trying to salvage the situation. "When is the next train to the lower ring?"
"Not for another four hours sir." The sergeant said waiting for the explosion.
"Perfect." Lee said in a quiet resigned voice, as he saw his once promising career collapsing in front of him. "Just perfect."
Minh relaxed in her saddle.
"One down." She said to Lieutenant Ho by her side.
"So far so good." He agreed.
The column had cleared the entrance and was inside the wide outer agrarian ring of the city. Ahead she could see the first of the inner walls. And beyond that was the lower ring. This next gate would be the important one. If she could get into the lower ring and his majesty could get the people on his side they would be fine. But if they were caught out here the ruling council could arrest them all or even kill them and no one would even know that his majesty had returned, let alone been deposed.
She thought about the train again. It would be much faster than going by orse back. But if they commandeered the train, they would have to abandon their mounts and most of the column, and would be defenseless once they got to the station ahead. No the only chance they had was to march through the outer ring, even if it did take most of the morning, and keep the column intact.
She looked back toward the outer wall. There were people following them now. Civilians who had joined the procession. Occasionally she could hear shouts and chants.
This whole bluff may just work. If they can only get into the lower ring.
To be continued
"Avatar the Last Airbender" the characters and the world were created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and owned by Nickelodeon and Viacom or Paramount or some huge corporation. This is purely a work of fan fiction because I wanted to play in their world and I love the characters that they created.
Yes I still exist, I'm still writing, and I'm still apologizing for taking so long to update the story. Please forgive me. I just hope that people are still reading it and have not given up.
I decided to split this chapter up, since it was taking so long for me to get it down on virtual paper. It is over twelve thousand words already so the whole chapter will probably be about twenty thousand words once it is finished. I hope to have it out in a couple of weeks, but no promises, it is me after all.
I hope all the characters and all the jumping around was not confusing, and that you didn't find the chapter boring.
Once again thank you for all the very generous, and sometimes not so generous reviews for this story. You guys keep me going, and I am very grateful.
Thanks so much for reading.
FanArt; Sicksketch has done some wonderful sketches over on Tumblr. Please take a look, just search under the tag "ill walk you home" and you will find them.
Fanart on Deviant Art; There is fanart for the story on DeviantArt; Totalfanboy21 has a great picture of an older Toph and Sokka inspired by the story and Abi-chan14 and Cutubulla as well as Kawayui-Kage have created Fanart for the story. I am really honored that talented artists have liked the story so much that they have actually made art based on it. Please check them out.
Thank you all so much for sticking with my story.
Once again thank you to all those who have added this story to their alerts and especially their favorites, and a very special thank you to all who have added me to your author alerts and favorites. That is a real honor for me. I hope I have not disappointed you with this chapter.
Thank you to all for reading
All comments and/or criticisms are more than welcome.