Promises to Keep
By Kimberly T.
One pirate gets impulsive, and an event starting in 'The Waterbending Scroll' sends ripples throughout the rest of Seasons 1, 2 and 3. This will eventually be a Zutara fic, but the key word is eventually. Long before they can be lovers, they've got to figure out how to be friends.
Frightened blue eyes stared into gleaming golden eyes, as a voice said with dark amusement, "I'll save you from the pirates."
Chapter 1: Impulse and Regret
Katara couldn't decide who she hated most, right at that moment: The pirates for chasing her, Zuko for being with them and capturing her, or herself for sneaking away from camp without telling anybody, and getting captured while Aang and Sokka were still asleep and way out of shouting range. And all for a waterbending scroll!
Soon the list of Katara's personal hates settled with Zuko right on top, when she found out that Zuko's idea of 'saving her from the pirates' was tying her to a small tree right in front of them. She could feel their eyes on her, leering at her; making her feel like she needed a bath with an hour of hard scrubbing. And one of the pirates muttered something that sounded like… No! She was not that kind of girl!
Zuko stood in front of her with his arms crossed, trying to look all important and I'm-in-charge-here, and demanded she tell him where the Avatar was. But she could handle his attitude a lot easier than the pirates' leers; she said defiantly, "Go jump in the river!"
He glared at her, and then visibly decided to change tactics. His voice softened and he reached a hand out to her imploringly as he said, "Try to understand. I need to capture him to restore something I've lost; my honor." As he spoke, he began walking around the tree she was tied to. From behind her, he said, "Perhaps in exchange, I can restore something you've lost." And then his hands encircled her from behind, holding something; she looked down and saw
"My mother's necklace!"
The necklace, all she had left of her mother! She had to have it back… she…
Zuko was now wayyyyy on top of her hate list. Right that moment, if her hands were free she would have happily drowned the rotten spider-snake. "How did you get that?" she demanded.
"I didn't steal it, if that's what you're wondering," he said tauntingly as he turned away, taking the necklace with him. Then he faced her and demanded again, "Tell me where he is!"
"No!" She glared at him, trying to pour into that one glare just how much she hated him now, even more than the Fire Nation soldier that had murdered her mother. At least that monster hadn't tried to pretend he was better than her!
Then the pirate captain stepped forward, growling, "Enough of this necklace garbage! You promised us the scroll!"
And Zuko pulled the scroll from behind his back and held it up in one hand, asking in a nasty voice, "I wonder how much this is worth?" Then he held his other hand right under it…and the hand sprouted flames; he was going to burn the scroll! And as the pirates gasped and shouted in protest, he gloated, "A lot, apparently." The flames danced nearer the scroll, as Katara let out a moan of despair.
Hano had been a pirate for all his adult life. He was a skilled fighter, having killed at least eight men in his time (he was sure it was really nine, but the captain had skewered that one sailor before he could hit the deck and claimed the kill as his twentieth, and it didn't pay to argue with the captain over such things.) But he was just as skilled in the art of capturing people alive and unharmed, for selling as slaves in the ports that had slave-traders working in the black market. His weapon of choice for capturing slaves was the bola-line. Aim and whip out the weighted end just right, and it would bind around a person's wrists while he yanked back and dragged them off their feet. Ta-daaa, slave captured nice and neat, ready for the manacles and throwing in the cargo-hold.
But his bola-line was good for grabbing more than just wrists. He looked at that waterbending scroll, being held out in plain sight, and he knew he could snag it and yank it right out of that pampered prince's hand, before any real damage was done to it. Then they'd have the scroll back, and they could retreat to the ship and get back out to sea.
So he whipped out his bola-line, aimed and threw—
Without thinking about what was right behind the scroll; what everyone else would think he was aiming for.
As he'd figured, threatening the scroll had turned the pirate captain from belligerent and demanding to reluctantly cooperative again. Zuko said, "Now, you help me find what I want! Then you'll get this back, and everyone goes-" and then it was his turn to gasp, when he saw the black weighted line whipping out from a pirate's hands, heading right for his neck. He jerked aside to dodge the bola line, both outraged at the attack and dismayed; what was that idiot pirate doing? Didn't he realize that—
The pirates were attacking the prince! And that meant the truce with those filthy sea-rats was over! Corporal Akio hadn't liked dealing with them anyway; he gave a feral grin behind his skull face-plate as he took a stance and sent his hottest fireball right at the pirate who had made the first move.
The pirate captain saw the bola-line whip out towards the prince, and turned to start shouting at the crewman that had thrown it. "What the crawling Koh do you think you're doing, Hano?" Hano turned his head to look at him in surprise as he went on, "You'll-"
He never finished that sentence. There wasn't any point in finishing it, after Hano caught a fireball right in the face.
No one did that to one of his men! The captain drew his sword even before Hano fell screaming to the ground. "Attack!"
"No!" Zuko shouted, but it was too late; one of his marines had already attacked on his behalf.
Dammit! He hadn't liked dealing with the pirates any more than the rest of his crew, but he hadn't wanted any killing done either. Once they'd helped capture the Avatar, he would have given the scroll back to them and parted ways, if not amicably then at least without violence… But that plan had just gone straight to Koh's Lair in pieces.
He'd reminded his people before boarding the steamer that this was a mission of capture only, and they should avoid killing if at all possible. But his men had standing orders for the last three years, orders that his uncle had insisted upon when he'd first started searching for the Avatar: any attacks on his person were to be met with swift and lethal response. Orders meant to discourage any Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe attempts to kill the Fire Lord's son, or kidnap him for ransom… Now they had one pirate down-and here came the rest, straight for him!
Zuko took a moment to curse the pirates for attacking, himself for ever dealing with them, and the spirits just because they always had to make his life difficult; then he braced for battle.
Katara stared in horror as the riverbank erupted in battle. Men were fighting right in front of her, and—sweet Tui, that Fire Nation soldier just shoved a spear right through that pirate's guts! And the pirate fell—and then another pirate came leaping right over his fallen comrade and swinging a sword and—the Fire Nation helmet went tumbling across the sand, blood spattering out from what was still inside it—
If she'd been free that instant, she would have just started running south, and probably not stopped until she hit the ice plains. But she was still tied to the stupid tree! She couldn't run, or do anything to help or hinder either side in their battle. At least she wasn't being threatened; it looked like everyone had forgotten she was even there.
"You!" she heard from close by, and she looked to her left, to realize in horror that someone had remembered her after all. The pirate who'd first enticed her, Aang and Sokka aboard their ship, the one who'd discovered she'd stolen the waterbending scroll… He remembered her, and his expression said he was going to make her pay for what she'd done. One gold tooth gleamed in a cruel grin, but the dagger in his hand gleamed brighter… nononononono...
"No!" and a fist shot past her from the other side, wielding a dagger made of fire.
Katara could only stare in shock as Zuko forced the pirate back, away from her. The pirate had wicked long daggers in each hand, steel against the flame. They battled each other with harsh pants and curses, steel flashing and fire leaving a glowing trail as the daggers danced under the full moon's light.
And then the pirate made a vicious swing, right for Zuko's head. And Zuko ducked under it, lunging forward—and one dagger of flame went right into the pirate's chest.
The pirate screamed, a high-pitched gurgling cry, and fell backwards. And Zuko just stood there for a few moments, staring down at the corpse he'd made, like he couldn't believe he'd actually done that—
And then another pirate came running up, swinging a mace. Zuko came out of his momentary daze and turned to meet him, ducking under the mace's swing-but not fast enough; the mace hit him in passing and knocked him down.
The pirate grinned nastily as the prince fell. He raised his foot high, to stomp on Zuko's head—
An inferno of flame hit the pirate from behind. He was blasted at least ten feet away to fall to the ground still on fire, screaming in agony as his flesh cooked, and all Katara could do was stare in horror, unable to look away…
And then… the fighting stopped.
Looking around, Katara realized the fighting had stopped because there were no more pirates left to fight. They were all down; all dead.
A few of the Fire Nation troops were also down, but most of them were up and about, helping their wounded over to where someone with a first aid kit was treating injuries. The elder she'd seen earlier, wearing robes instead of armor, had been lurking in the background before the fight. But now he seemed to be in charge while Zuko was out; he was directing men this way and that while checking Zuko to see how badly he was hurt, and the soldiers were following his orders.
"Just a grazing blow; it looks worse than it truly is," the elder decided out loud, as a soldier ran up with another first-aid kit. He began bandaging Zuko's head, still giving orders. "Let's get our people aboard ship, and clean up the mess we made," as he gestured at the beach strewn with bodies.
"Sir?" One soldier asked, flipping up his skull faceplate to give the elder a confused look.
"Laosing is a neutral port, corporal. It is to our advantage that it stays that way. If the locals discover that a ship's crew was wiped out by Fire Nation troops, they may conveniently forget that the ship was manned by pirates, and start stirring up trouble against us and our people in the future." The soldier nodded understanding. "Weight down the burned bodies and sink them in mid-river, then throw the unburned bodies onto their ship; we'll let the falls past the fork take care of the ship itself," as he gestured downriver.
And then he looked right at Katara and said with a wry smile, "My apologies if such callous treatment offends you, miss. But despite the stories told by the minstrels, there is no glory in war; only brutality, and messes to clean up."
Katara just gaped at him. He… he was apologizing to her? Fire Nation, apologizing?
"What's to be done with the girl, sir?" the soldier asked.
The elder stroked his beard, looking thoughtful. "Prince Zuko took her prisoner; I will not countermand his orders. Untie her from the tree, but keep her bound. And escort her to the steamer."
Katara guessed that the emphasis on the word 'escort' meant she was to be treated politely, instead of heaved around like a sack of grain… or a corpse, she thought, swallowing and looking away from the sight of a dead pirate being hauled away by his heels, as she was untied from the tree.
The soldier made sure her arms were still securely bound to her sides, then took her on board the Fire Nation ship. When she stumbled and lost her balance while walking up the gangplank, he caught her before she could fall over with a quiet, "It's all right, miss; I've got you. Steady on, nice and easy; one foot in front of the other…" His voice was… kind? This was bizarre!
She even found herself saying, as she stepped onto the ship's deck, "I've never heard of a Fire Nation soldier being-so polite…"
The man behind her gave an amused chuckle. "That's because I'm not a soldier, miss."
Huh? "You're not?" as she turned to look at him.
"No; I'm a Fire Nation Marine!" as he tapped his chest proudly. "We're better."
Standing with Zuko at the bottom of the gangplank, Iroh caught the exchange and chuckled under his breath. Rivalry between the military services; he'd seen plenty of that when he'd been a general in the Fire Nation Army, and he doubted it would ever end. But so long as it stayed at the level of semi-friendly competition instead of brawls and Agni Kai's, there was no harm in it, and plenty of amusement in the jokes the services told on each other.
Zuko had come to while being bandaged, but hadn't fully regained consciousness; he stumbled along leaning heavily on Iroh's shoulder, and it took some doing for Iroh to get his nephew safely up the gangplank. Once they were aboard, he had Zuko lie down and rest in the steamer's cabin. The Water Tribe girl was chained to a cargo tie down ring on deck, but the corporal escorting her found a mat for her to sit on. Then Iroh and Corporal Taozu together laid out tatami mats for the rest of their wounded.
One man dead; Private Li Mein. Five others with injuries, mostly gashes and bruises. Sergeant Goro had lost a lot of blood before they'd managed to stop the bleeding from the stab wound to his right thigh; he'd be off duty for at least two weeks, probably three. Not a good ending to this mission, at all.
Li Mein was brought aboard in a sling improvised from one of the pirate ship's sails. Iroh winced as, when the sling was set on deck, the private's severed head was jostled and started rolling away… in the direction of the Water Tribe girl. She cringed, trying to squirm away from it, then doubled over vomiting; she collapsed on the deck, dry heaves shaking her slender frame. Poor child, Iroh thought as another marine gently retrieved the head and put it back where it had been.
Katara had been trying so hard to be brave, and tough. A woman of the Southern Water Tribe was always tough, enduring; they were the sinew that held the tribe together, that took care of everything while the men were out hunting.
But when that head had tumbled towards her, coming to a halt with the man's sightless eyes staring at her accusingly, silently screaming this is all your fault…
It was all her fault. If she hadn't stolen the scroll, none of this would have happened!
Fear and horror and guilt turned into nausea that ripped through her; dinner had been so long ago that there was nothing left to throw up, but she just couldn't stop heaving. And when finally the dry heaves stopped, she curled up on the metal deck and sobbed her heart out. She wanted her father, she wanted Gran-Gran, she wanted to go home… and now she knew she'd never see home again.
She was a prisoner of the Fire Nation, and Sokka and Aang had no idea what had happened to her; they were still sound asleep back at camp. Who knew what the Fire Nation would do to her before they woke up?
Corporal Taozu looked at the captive curled up and sobbing on the deck, and sadly shook his head. She was Water Tribe, even a waterbender, but she was also just a young teenaged girl; he had a kid sister about her age. This just felt wrong…
But as Prince Iroh had said, she'd been taken captive by Prince Zuko. And no Marine would act against the will of a prince, even a currently banished one.
On the far side of the steamer deck, Sergeant Goro grimaced while lying on his tatami and complained, "Would somebody shut her up?"
Taozu would have liked to believe that the pain from his stab wound and general weakness from blood loss was making Goro so unsympathetic, but he knew better. Goro had a grudge against waterbenders in general and this girl in particular ever since she'd frozen him and three other marines in ice from head to toe, that day at the South Pole.
Nobody had died in that first attempt to capture the Avatar, but they'd come damn close. Between the four men frozen in ice and the eight swept overboard into freezing waters by the Avatar's wave, the ship's doctor had been flooded with hypothermia and frostbite cases. Every remaining firebender had been busy for hours, thawing ice off people and heating the water in anything big enough to work as a bathtub, warming the crewmen up again.
Taozu had been one of those swept overboard, and while shivering uncontrollably in the laundry room's washtub, he'd heated his blood with thoughts of vengeance too… but this waterbender was just a kid. A frightened girl who ought to be still in school, not out running all over the world and getting on the wrong side of pirates.
The grim mood on the ship lightened slightly when Iroh visited the pirate ship after the bodies were taken care of, and came back with four chests full of booty. "After that battle, these may be considered war trophies, men," he told them as he directed the chests be set down in the cabin. "After each member of this mission gets his pick of one item to keep, we'll sell the rest at the next few ports and split the profits among the entire crew."
Picking trophies would have to wait until after Zuko had recovered his wits; as the ship's captain, he naturally had first pick. And together Iroh and his nephew would select one expensive item to be sent to Li Mein's family. A war trophy wouldn't bring their son back, but accompanied by an official letter stating that he'd fallen while defending their prince from attacking pirates (and leaving out all other details of the failed mission), it would help give the impression that he'd died with honor, as a hero of the Fire Nation.
And in addition to the chests of booty, Iroh had one item tucked inside his sleeve, something he'd quietly picked up from the riverbank: the waterbending scroll. He had a hunch it would come in handy later.
He went back out on deck to watch as the pirate ship was fastened to a tow line leading from the steamer; then the steamer's engine rumbled to life, and the ship pulled away from the riverbank, gradually towing the pirate ship along with it. When they were in the middle of the river, the tow line was cut by a marine who gave the pirate ship a sendoff with a very rude gesture. Iroh snorted in mild amusement, then turned to look at their captive; the girl had cried herself to sleep on the deck. Shaking his head, he found a spare blanket and draped it over her, then went back inside the cabin.
He found that Zuko recovered his wits enough to slowly sit up as he came in, and start asking questions about what had happened while he was out. And like a good leader, Iroh thought with approval, Zuko's first question was about his men, and if any were wounded.
"We lost Private Li Mein," Iroh informed him regretfully. "Goro should recover from his stab wound, but he won't be fit for duty for at least two weeks, probably more. Other than that, no major injuries, just gashes and bruises."
Zuko sagged on his cot, staring at the deckplates. Iroh had no doubt that his nephew was blaming himself for Li Mein's death… and it was indeed his responsibility, if not his fault. Iroh knew that well, remembering all the men who had died under his command in the Siege of Ba Sing Se, and countless campaigns before that.
Hoping to distract him from the ache of responsibility—and his still aching head; Zuko could have a minor concussion—Iroh told him the good news; that they'd killed every last pirate, and liberated four chests of booty from the pirate ship. "As captain, would you like to pick out your first war trophy?" Iroh said with a grin, gesturing towards the four chests heaping high with treasure.
Zuko shook his head sharply—and then clearly regretted it, going pale and swaying on the cot. Iroh hurriedly laid him down before he could fall off the cot to the floor, and told him firmly to lie there and not move until they'd returned to the ship and their doctor could look him over. Then Iroh asked once more about the war trophy.
Lying on his side, Zuko looked at the treasure chests with eyes gone dull, then closed them. "I don't want any of it. Give it to the crew, throw it over the side; I don't care."
"You want no reminders of this night, then?" Iroh asked gently.
Eyes still closed, Zuko said harshly, "One of our men is dead. And he'd still be alive if I hadn't gotten the incredibly stupid idea that we could work with the pirates to capture the Avatar! Not only did we not capture the Avatar, we lost a marine, and I had to-" and he clamped his lips shut over whatever he'd been about to say.
Iroh knew what his nephew had been about to say. He'd seen it, from a distance away; seen Zuko kill one of the pirates himself, to keep the waterbending girl from being murdered while still tied to the tree.
In all their travels around the world, searching for the Avatar; in all their adventures, peering into dark corners of civilization and seeing eyes hateful of the Fire Nation glaring back... In all the battles and close scrapes they'd been in, Zuko had fought many times but never actually taken a human life. Until tonight.
"You had to defend someone who was bound and helpless," Iroh finished for his nephew. "Honor demanded no less."
Zuko just lay there in silence, and Iroh thought it was a terrible shame about the head wound and probable minor concussion. Traditionally, after a soldier's first kill in battle, his companions would get him (or her) blind drunk with cheap liquor. The only reason spoken aloud was that it was to celebrate becoming a blooded warrior. But experienced soldiers knew the real reason; so he'd have a plausible excuse for crying and vomiting and all the ways that a man is apt to react after realizing he's done something that can never, ever be undone.
After what he'd done tonight… after the loss of Li Mein… Zuko would no doubt benefit from the release of utter drunkenness. But head wounds and liquor were a bad combination, and the ship's doctor would tear strips off Iroh if he poured a bottle of sake down his nephew's throat tonight. No, Zuko would have to face his actions and their consequences, stone cold sober; poor lad.
After a few more seconds of silence, Zuko asked abruptly with eyes still closed, "The prisoner?"
"Unhurt, though badly frightened. She's chained to one of the cargo tie down rings, and the last time I saw-"
Zuko's eyes snapped open. "You didn't free her?"
Iroh blinked at him in surprise. "Did you expect me to? I would not countermand your orders, without a very good reason. But if you want her to be set free now, we can pull back to shore and-"
"No! No, don't free her; I mean, I thought you would…uh, you…" Zuko verbally floundered for a few seconds, then said firmly, "We'll take her back to the ship with us. Then we won't need to go looking for the Avatar anymore; he'll come to us! She'll be the bait in our trap." Iroh nodded in agreement. Zuko started to sit up again, saying, "We'll need the trebuchet ready, and men on-"
"All those preparations will have to wait until we return to the ship," Iroh said firmly, as he pushed Zuko back down to the cot. "And if there will be battle with the Avatar, then you should be at least get some rest beforehand. You have a head injury, nephew; do not make me assume your wits are still scattered from the blow, by ignoring good advice."
Zuko glared at him, but settled back onto the cot and closed his eyes again.
Satisfied that his nephew would rest for the time being, Iroh went out on deck again. The girl was still sleeping, curled up under the blanket. Their wounded were all stable, and some of them had dropped off to sleep as well. Iroh assigned one marine to keep watch on the river behind them, then told everyone else to lie down and get some rest while they could; it was possible that they would have another battle very soon, with the Avatar himself coming after the girl.
As he spoke, their ship came to the fork in the river. The helmsman took a firm grip on the wheel and the steamer's engine growled against the current as he steered them towards the left fork, which led to a river winding lazily through the valley, down to the port several miles away. Behind them, with no one at the tiller or manning the sails, the pirate ship headed straight for the falls ahead. Iroh knew the sudden drop and the rocks at the bottom of the falls would smash the ship into kindling. The pirate captain's lizard-parrot had been perched on the ship's bow, croaking miserably; now, sensing the falls and disaster ahead, it gave one last screech of defiance or despair and flew away, into the forest.
The trip downriver naturally went much faster than the trip upriver; they arrived back in port in two hours, shortly after midnight. Even before the river steamer was cranked aboard into its berth, Zuko was on his feet and barking orders to the crew. "Do a full muster, and send a patrol out for anyone still ashore! I want this ship out of port within the hour! We're going to need maneuverability for battle!"
Given that their ship's crew was unfortunately not the pride of the fleet, it actually took nearly two hours to get everyone back aboard, the boilers stoked and the ship moving away from the dock, out into open water. But even before they were underway, Zuko had the trebuchet loaded and ready to fire, with four more tar-and-coal balls ready to load and light aflame.
The Water Tribe girl was chained down in the middle of the deck, with four firebenders and a dozen spearmen surrounding her. The chains wouldn't let her stand up, but even kneeling on the deck, she glared defiantly upwards at Zuko as she spat, "When the Avatar comes for me-"
He smirked down at her. "That's just what we're hoping for."
When they were roughly two kilometers from shore, with plenty of open water for maneuvering, Zuko had the helmsman take the ship in slow, wide circles, never losing sight of the port town. So long as they were within sight of town, they'd be within the Avatar's sight and vice versa if he followed the river the way they had. His uncle came along with a pad and blanket for the prisoner, and Zuko let them make her more comfortable. Her comfort or discomfort wasn't important; all that was important was her presence aboard, as bait.
Sokka woke up soon after dawn, and as a warrior should do in unsafe territory, the first thing he did upon waking up was a quick head-count. There was Aang, still asleep; there was—Katara's sleeping bag, with Katara not inside it. "Huh? Where did she go?"
It could be that she'd just woken up before him, and gone into the woods for a few minutes to relieve herself. But Sokka stared at the shoulder bag with their supplies, a bag that had been very neatly folded closed when he'd gone to sleep that night and was now partly open, and he knew…
"I don't believe it," he growled as he searched through the bag's contents. Problem was, he did believe it; he just really wanted to be proven wrong for once. But he wasn't… the scroll was missing!
"Huuah? What's wrong?" Aang asked as he woke up yawning and stretching.
"She took the scroll!" Sokka said angrily, gesturing at the bag's contents now strewn on the ground. "She's obsessed with that thing! It's just a matter of time before she gets us all in deep trouble!"
Still grouching about his sister's unhealthy obsession with waterbending, Sokka rolled up his sleeping bag and set it on Appa's saddle, then did the same with Katara's sleeping bag and other belongings. It had become a habit that the first thing they did upon waking up was prepare for a quick getaway, in case Angry Jerkbender came calling. Sokka was really tempted to leave Katara's stuff unpacked; it'd serve her right if they had to make a getaway and leave it all behind, due to her obsession with that stupid scroll. But he knew that if that happened, she'd sulk for days, and Aang would tie himself into knots trying to make her happy again. So he went ahead and packed up her stuff for her, grumbling all the way.
After they packed up most of their belongings, Sokka and Aang sat down to breakfast on cold rice rolls and some dried fruit that they'd bought in town before the whole mess with the pirates. Sokka had no problem with eating Katara's share too; he told Aang firmly that if she wanted breakfast, she should have been there for it, and besides he was sure she'd grabbed something to eat before sneaking out of camp so early.
And when she still hadn't showed up after breakfast, Sokka growled, "Okay, let's go find her. And after this, Aang, you keep the scroll on you, okay?" and with that, they headed back towards the river. Sokka had insisted that they make camp far enough from the river that they couldn't hear it, explaining that the noise of rushing water could drown out the sound of approaching footsteps from strangers. Not that they really had to worry about Prince Ponytail when they were this far inland, but the Fire Nation had an army as well as a navy, and anyone from that invading country was apt to be hostile to the Avatar.
But Katara wasn't there practicing her waterbending at the nearest riverbank. They called out her name a few times, then looked at each other worriedly. "You go downriver, and I'll go upriver; first one to find her hollers," Sokka said tersely, hefting his war club in one hand. Aang nodded while snapping his glider out, and took to the air.
A few minutes later, while Aang was skimming over the river and peering anxiously along the banks, Momo chirred at him while clinging to his shoulder. Wondering what Momo had heard, he cocked his head and listened hard; then he heard faintly behind him, "Aaaang! Up here!" He whipped around and summoned a wind to take him upriver, and soon found Sokka on a sandy section of riverbank, crouched down and staring at some brown stains here and there on the sand.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Dried blood," Sokka said, his eyes gone wide and awful. "Lots of it…"
Momo hopped down from Aang's shoulder, landed on the sand and sniffed at one of the dried brown stains; his tail went straight out and stiff in shock, before he swarmed back up Aang and clung atop his head like a whimpering furry cap. "There are a lot of footprints, too. There was a battle here!" Sokka said grimly.
"Do you…" Aang swallowed hard. "Do you think Katara was involved?"
"I can't tell yet, but… this battle was recent; there's been no rain since it happened." Sokka looked around more, and found the impressions of a ship's hull in the sand where it had been beached. And another hull impression further down the beach, both recent, with impressions of shoe-prints leading to and from them. "Two ships, one of them a lot bigger than the other. The smaller ship has a weird hull, like two big canoes tied together; I've never seen one like that before… And this bigger ship had stuff dragged onto it as well as people going back and forth; see the drag marks there?" as he pointed to shallow grooves in the sand.
"Yeah, but who were they?" Aang asked.
"I don't know yet! Now shut up and let me think!" Sokka snapped, and instantly regretted it. "Sorry, Aang; I'm just worried."
"Me too. …Could the bigger ship be Zuko's?"
Sokka shook his head. "No way. Zuko's ship is just too big, and the keel's too deep; it's strictly an ocean vessel. It could never come this far upriver."
"Then what about… the pirates?"
Sokka's shoulders sagged. "The pirate ship… could maybe leave a hull impression this size, yeah. It's a lot smaller than Zuko's ship, and lighter; the keel wouldn't be nearly as deep. If they knew how to use the winds blowing inland at night, and had oars they could use when the wind died down, then they could come upriver this far. And they want that spirits-damned scroll back!"
They ran back to where they'd left Appa… then stopped and stared in dismay at what they saw in the clearing. Appa had cocked his head and was looking back as far as he could at the saddle atop him, growling in warning. A colorful lizard-parrot was perched on the rim of the saddle, blithely ignoring the deep warning growls while digging with its beak and sharp talons into the pack they kept their food in. "That's the pirate captain's bird!" Aang shouted.
"Grab it!" Sokka snapped. The lizard-parrot sprang into the air as they approached, but Aang flipped open his glider and took off after it. The bird stood no chance against a master airbender; Aang blew it into the branches of a tree, and then grabbed it before it could scramble away. Tossing his glider down to the ground to pick up later, he held the lizard-parrot's wings shut and its talons facing away from him, and floated down to the ground with it.
Sokka took the strips of leather that they'd used to tie up one of the bedrolls and tied the lizard-parrot's beak shut, then bound its wings and talons to its torso, wincing as he got badly scratched in the process. Then they emptied the food sack and dumped the bird inside it, muffled squawks and all. "It's not much of a bargaining chip, if the pirates do have Katara, but it's all we have right now," Sokka said grimly. "This will be our carrot-potato… and your airbending will be the stick. Think you could make a wind strong enough to rip their sails right off?"
Aang showed his teeth in a hard smile that, for once, had nothing of kindness or joy in it. "Oh, yeah."
"Then let's get going downriver!" They scrambled aboard Appa, Sokka grabbing the reins, and with a sharp "Yip-yip!" the sky bison took to the air.
Sensing their fear and urgency, Appa surged through the air at a far faster pace than normal. Aang would have yelled at Appa to slow down, if they hadn't been desperate to reach the port town as soon as possible. Appa was flying so fast that when Sokka yanked the reins for Appa to follow the left fork, the sky bison overshot the turn by fifty meters, almost coming up to the falls; then the turn was so sharp that the bedroll they'd untied for the leather strips—Katara's—went flying off the saddle. "Keep going, I'll catch up!" Aang shouted as he sprang into the air after the falling gear.
The sleeping bag was easy to catch, but if it kept flapping everywhere it'd be a pain to fly with. Aang landed on the top branches of a tree for a minute, to quickly roll the bedding back up. Once it was rolled up he tucked it between his legs, figuring to clamp his knees around it and hold it in place while gliding after Appa. He snapped his glider out again, looking around as he did so. And from his vantage point on the treetop, he saw what was in the river past the falls…
Grimly focused on getting back to the port town as soon as possible, Sokka nearly jumped out of his skin when Aang grabbed his shoulder from behind, shouting, "The falls! There's a shipwreck just past the falls!"
Cursing, Sokka turned Appa around and they flew back to the falls. Aang was right; the wreckage of a ship was scattered across either side of the river at the base of the falls. Sections of wooden hull, a shattered mast, tangles of rope from rigging, a torn sail draped around a boulder midstream…
And two bodies. "The rest of the crew must have floated further downriver," Sokka said grimly as they pulled one body out of the water where it had been tangled up in the rigging, and turned it over.
Eyes open, beard tangled with debris and a hole gouged into his chest, the pirate captain's corpse stared sightlessly back at them.
After a few seconds of just staring at the corpse, Sokka let it drop back onto the muddy riverbank with a splat, staggering past it up to his knees in the river as he screamed desperately, "Katara! KATAARRAAAAAA!"
Running a river ferry was hard work most times, but it had always paid well for Haph; ferrying had been putting food on his family's table for five generations. Gwon River was too wide, deep and fast, particularly in this stretch below the falls, for folks to even think about crossing without a good-sized boat under them. There was always talk of hiring some earthbenders to build a bridge across the river, but it hadn't happened yet; earthbenders needed to get close to the earth they were bending, and all the water rushing between them and the riverbed just made it impossible for the average bender to pull up enough stone to make a bridge all the way across.
Well, there'd been a bridge once, back during Haph's grandfather's time; the ruling councils of the two closest cities had pooled their funds and brought in some master benders clear from Ba Sing Se to do the job. But that bridge hadn't lasted more than a few weeks; the river's constantly rushing water had eroded the stone columns until the bridge had collapsed, just as the mayor's carriage was crossing it. The story went that the master earthbender had sworn up and down that someone had helped along that collapse with a little blasting jelly, but nobody had believed him, because everyone knew that blasting jelly didn't work when it was wet. (Unless someone had been really cunning and carefully wrapped it in oiled cloth to keep the water out before setting it. Not that anyone would ever do that, Granddad had always added; even if that cursed outsider had been threatening a family's livelihood.)
The job of ferrying had been in the family for over a century, and every generation they improved their boats to make the job easier. Haph's father had come up with the double-hulled design used on the current boat; he'd said once that it was based on a little Fire Nation boat he'd seen once at the river mouth. The whole world would be better off if Oma and Shu woke up and wiped all the Fire Nation islands right off the map and every firebender with 'em, but folks had to admit that they had great ideas for boat designs. In rough water, a boat generally needed a deep keel to keep stable, particularly if you put a heavy load in the boat; otherwise you were apt to capsize as soon as the weight shifted to one side or the other. But make a boat with two hulls spaced a couple meters apart, and you didn't need really deep keels on the hulls to stay reasonably stable while going just about anywhere on the river, even into the shallows. Haph's own improvement had been the new sails and rigging, ideas he'd gotten from a scroll he'd read about the Water Tribe raider ships that were making life harder for the Fire Nation fleet. It was funny sometimes, how war could be good for business.
Today Haph had a boat full of customers for the morning's first ferry run, fifty coppers already in his belt pouch, and clear skies with just enough wind to fill the sails and make the crossing that much easier. Yep, this was going to be a good day.
But at about the halfway point across the river, he heard someone shouting, "That boat! Twin hulls!"
And while he was still looking around to figure out where the shouting had come from—there were no other boats nearby on the water—the weather went berserk. The gentle wind turned into a vicious gale that nearly ripped the sail right off, and some giant beast stated bellowing, and by the time Haph figured out that the shouting voice and the bellowing beast were above him, he was too busy hanging on to the tiller for dear life to look up. There were screams and squeals from the passengers as the ferry was shoved across the river, and splashes; there went three of that farmer's prize cow-pigs, but at least the farmer and his family were still hanging on…
The vicious gale drove his boat aground on the far riverbank, and Haph fell over at the sudden lurch. He slowly clambered back to his feet—then froze as someone grabbed him from behind, and he felt something very sharp being held to his throat. He heard a voice in his ear snarling, "What have you done with my sister?"
"I-I ain't been messing with anyone's sister!" Haph protested. "I'm a happily married man!"
They'd screwed up, real bad. They really should have realized that the boat they'd seen, even if it had twin hulls, couldn't be the other boat involved in Katara's kidnapping; there was no way to get any boat safely over the falls. But by the time Aang and Sokka actually started thinking instead of just jumping on the first possible suspect in their panic over Katara, they'd completely terrorized the ferryman and his passengers, a farmer and his family, and the cow-pigs that had fallen overboard had all drowned in the middle of the river. And once he'd gotten over being scared, the farmer that owned the cow-pigs had been so furious, he'd snatched Momo right off Aang's shoulder and demanded restitution for his lost livestock, or he'd wring Momo's neck! And then the ferryman had demanded they pay for the damage to his boat, too; they'd broken one of the twin hulls running it aground. And all they had for money were two copper coins…
It turned out the lizard-parrot was a really rare bird in these parts, prized as an exotic pet by wealthy folks, and they were able to trade that for the lost cow-pigs. But instead of just letting Momo go, the farmer had smirked and handed him to the ferryman, who still demanded they pay for his boat. Finally, Sokka managed to persuade him that he knew some shipbuilding and carpentry from working on the Water Tribe's fleet of ships; he agreed to put an emergency patch on the damaged hull, then fix it properly once they could get it back to the ferryman's dock. Full repairs would take at least a day, including time needed for waterproof seals to dry. And while the boat was out of commission, Aang would ferry passengers across the river on Appa and hand over all the ferry fees he collected.
"But only three times a day!" Aang insisted. "I've gotta spend the rest of the time looking for Katara!"
"Fine with me, so long as you show up when you're supposed to and do the job you agreed to," the ferryman growled as he sat down on top of the crate that Momo had been stuffed into; the lemur's miserable moans came out through a knothole in the side. "Then you'll get your precious pet back when my boat's fixed and proven water-worthy again, and not a moment before!"
"You know, at all the other places we've been to, people have been more understanding, and happy to help out the Avatar," Aang grumbled as Sokka got busy with tar and thick canvas on the damaged hull, rigging an emergency patch.
The ferryman spat and glared at Aang. "For one thing, just 'cause you can fly around like an Air Nomad, I ain't convinced you're the Avatar. If you are, then why haven't you stopped the war already? And for another, this is the Gwon River, boy. It's hard and fast and brutal, and if you can't handle it then you shouldn't have come here at all!"
Aang opened his mouth to make an angry retort, but Sokka shook his head and said, "Just forget it, Aang, and go look for Katara! And take this with you," as he handed over his war club.
"I'll be back in a few hours, or sooner if I find her," Aang promised, as he leaped onto Appa and the sky bison took to the air again.
But though he searched further down both forks of the river, following the waterfall fork clear out to sea and the gentler fork almost all the way to the port town of Laosing, he found no sign of Katara. He almost landed Appa outside of town and went in to ask if anyone had seen her, but looked at the sun's position in the sky and groaned out loud; he had to hurry back to ferry passengers across the river, like he'd promised! If he didn't, he wouldn't put it past that brute of a ferryman to roast Momo for his dinner!
Aang turned back, vowing to return later and search the port town building by building if he had to. But there was also a chance that the other boat, the one with the twin hulls, had gone upriver from the site of the battle instead of down. He'd look upriver after doing the afternoon ferrying, he decided as he urged Appa back and headed for the ferry landing. And he'd find her…. He had to find her, Katara had to still be alive…
They'd been waiting for over sixteen hours. Waiting, and double-checking the trebuchet ammunition, and sharpening spear-tips, and going through cold kata's to keep awake and limber… At mid-morning, they changed the guards on duty around the Water Tribe girl. But despite the doctor's strongest recommendation and Iroh's repeated verbal nudges, Zuko refused to get any rest himself. Even though he was occasionally still dizzy from the hard blow he'd taken and from lack of sleep, he refused to do more than sit down at times in the chair that had been brought on deck for him. When not sitting with his head in his hands, he paced… and waited…
"Why isn't he coming for us?" Zuko fumed. "This isn't right; it isn't like him! The Avatar must know that the girl is our prisoner; he should have been charging here trying to rescue her already! We had a battle with the pirates, we left burned corpses on the riverbank; I might as well have left him a note with the royal seal on it!"
Iroh gave a guilty start of realization, and cleared his throat. "Er… nephew…"
Zuko glanced at him. "What?"
"We didn't leave burned corpses on the riverbank. I took precautions, thinking that we did not want word to reach that neutral port town about our having slaughtered a pirate crew that was mostly Earth Kingdom folk. All the burned corpses were weighted and sunk, and the unburned bodies were put back aboard the pirate ship, which was sent over the falls."
"You… cleaned up the battlefield?" Zuko slowly brought up a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, in a futile attempt to draw the pain away from his throbbing headache. Then he said through gritted teeth, "Uncle. I've seen your rooms back at the palace; they're a cowpig-sty, so cluttered with knickknacks there's hardly a path going through them. The only reason your cabin isn't in the same sorry state, is because you got tired of picking everything up again and again whenever we pitched too much from a rogue wave. You are not a neat and tidy person! And now you're cleaning up battlefields? And removing all the clues for what happened to the Avatar's precious waterbender?"
All Iroh could do was shrug and give a sheepish grin. "Well, we left plenty of spilled blood on the sand. And if they search past the falls, they'll surely see the wreckage of the pirate ship."
"Which will tell them the pirates were there, but not that we were there!" Zuko threw his hands in the air in frustration. "What are we supposed to do now; take the steamer back up the river and shout out 'Yoo-hoo; missing something?'!"
Sitting under the parasol that Iroh had brought up for her earlier, the Water Tribe girl snickered. She lifted one manacled arm as much as she could to point at them, chortling, "Double-dog dare you to do it!"
"Shut up!" Zuko snapped at her, his fists smoldering.
"Easy, nephew; don't let her get to you," Iroh said, placing a hand on his shoulder. More quietly, he said for his nephew's ears alone, "Keep in mind, this mission was not an utter failure. So long as we have the girl, we shall have an advantage over the Avatar when next we encounter him." Zuko nodded in acknowledgment, and Iroh went on, "But as it seems that encounter will not happen today… we have one more task to complete. The final service for Li Mein."
Zuko slowly nodded once more. Their country's custom was that the deceased be cremated or other services held for them within 24 hours of death, and they had already wasted most of the day in preparation for battle… He turned to his men and gave new orders: "Stand down from battle stations, and secure the Water Tribe girl in the holding cell. Then bring up the funeral tiles from storage. In one hour, we'll have all hands on deck for the funeral…"
When they finally unchained her from the deck, Katara had been sitting for so long that at first her legs didn't want to work. But the marines holding her chains didn't care; they roughly dragged her halfway across the deck to the nearest door before she could get her feet under her and working right. Her legs and feet screamed with pins-and-needles sensations all over, making her want to howl in protest, but she grimly set her jaw against it; she didn't want to give these sea-rats the satisfaction of hearing how much she was hurting.
After being dragged down hallways and passed from one marine to another down the ladders between decks, she ended up in front of a room with a door different from the rest; this one had a tiny window in it, with thick glass that had dozens of crisscrossing wires embedded in it. The holding cell, with a peephole for checking on prisoners within, she realized as they opened the door and started to shove her inside. "But I really, really have to pee!" she protested, trying to brace herself against the doorway. "It's been nearly a whole day since the last time I had the chance!"
The marines holding her grimaced at each other. "We'll bring a chamberpot to you," one of them growled. "Now, inside!" as he shoved, and she stumbled into the cell.
They chained her by one wrist to the wall next to a cot; there was just enough length in the chain that she could stand up by the wall, sit at the head of the cot or lie down with her hand over her head. "Oh, how comfy," she said sardonically.
"Get used to it. And be glad you're not the airbender; he'll be chained hand and foot at all times," one of the marines growled before they shut the door, leaving her alone inside the cell. For a few minutes before another marine opened the door, this one a grim-faced female, holding a covered pot.
The lady marine put the pot down at Katara's feet, whisked off the lid and said briskly, "Hike your skirt up with your free hand and siddown."
She glared at the marine standing there looking at her. "Can I get a little privacy?"
"No." And even worse, after she angrily hiked up her skirt around her hips and sat down on the chamberpot, the marine cocked a smoldering fist at her and said, "And no tricks, either."
"What do you mean? With my—that's disgusting!"
"Another good reason not to try anything. Now come on, get it over with; you said you really had to go…"
After she was finished, the marine kept the smoldering fist trained on her until the chamberpot was covered again and taken out of the room. "We'll bring dinner to you in a few hours," the marine said tersely. And then the cell door was closed, and she was left alone inside.
How long was she going to be in here? How long would it take for Aang and Sokka to figure out what had happened to her, and come to rescue her? And could they even rescue her from in here, with Zuko and the entire ship ready and waiting for them to try? Would they end up being captured too?
Katara sat down on the cot and tried very, very hard not to cry.
Zuko sat at his desk in his cabin, writing brush and paper in front of him and his head in his hands again. Now that he was alone, he let a moan of pain, exhaustion and despair escape his lips. He just wanted this horrible, absolutely abysmal day to be over…
The door opened behind him, and he hurriedly sat up straight again. "Do you have the records?" he asked.
"I do," Iroh said, with papers in hand. "I have also had a nap, earlier today. Lie down, Prince Zuko; let me take care of this," as he approached the desk
He shook his head sharply—and clenched his jaw against another ripple of nausea at the sudden movement. "No! It's my responsibility, my—I've done this before, Uncle!"
"Once before. While I have honestly lost count of how many times I've had to do this." Iroh sighed heavily. "I suggest a compromise, nephew: you do the reading at the ceremony, while I do the writing now. A short nap will leave you slightly refreshed, and better able to speak for Li Mein."
Hating himself for his weakness, Zuko agreed to the compromise. He lay down fully clothed atop the bedcovers to rest while his uncle sat at the desk with all of Li Mein's personnel records, writing the eulogy.
And then his father was in the cabin, looking coldly at him and telling him he was weak and a failure, unfit for the Fire Throne. And then the pirate came running up to kill him, but he stabbed the pirate instead, and as he stabbed the pirate turned into a private, he'd killed Li Mein—
His uncle was gently shaking him awake. "Zuko. Zuko, wake up! You were having a nightmare, nephew," as Iroh looked at him with concern. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Iroh sighed and nodded acceptance. "Well, it was time for you to wake anyway. Wash your face; the eulogy is written, and the men are assembling on deck."
Zuko freshened up quickly and put on the white surcoat that his uncle was holding out to him, took the scroll with the eulogy and went on deck. Nearly all the crew was assembled there, all except for those manning essential posts; all in either full armor or their dress uniforms, draped with white surcoats for mourning. And in front of the assembled crew was a platform made of interlocking white ceramic tiles, tiles designed to resist sustained high heat. Li Mein's body lay atop the tiles, wrapped in a specially-treated white cloth.
Zuko stood in a spot facing the body and the assembled crew, unrolled the scroll and began speaking, mostly reading aloud from the scroll. "We gather here to remember the life of our fallen comrade in arms, Li Mein; son of Meiko and Rotan of Youwei Province. Born on the fourth day of the fifth month in the Year of the Dog, Li Mein was a good and dutiful son to his parents and achieved good marks at the Youwei Academy. He joined the Fire Nation Marines as soon as he came of age for military service. After completing his initial training he was assigned to the Subuzon, and served there with honor, participating in the Battle of Hanu Strait and the Battle of Sonio, before being assigned fourteen months ago to our ship, the Wani.
"Private Li Mein died honorably in battle, but was taken from us far too soon. He shall be missed by all for his hearty laugh, his willingness to help others, and his skill with the pipa…" Zuko paused in his reading, muttering to himself, "He played the pipa?" He hadn't known any of that…
Only the fact that he was standing at attention and in full sight of the crew, kept Iroh from covering his face with a hand and groaning aloud when he heard Zuko say faintly but quite audibly, "He played the pipa?"
Spirits knew he'd done his best. He'd tried hard to write a eulogy that not only highlighted the few accomplishments Li Mein had had in his short life, without mentioning the detractors—such as the fact that he'd been assigned to the Wani after the marine captain aboard the Subuzon had caught him drunk on duty for the second time—but had been written in Zuko's own style of speech. Not a single metaphor or poetic turn of phrase on the entire scroll.
He'd done his best to make it seem that Zuko had written the eulogy himself. And with the addition of personal notes that were never found in official dry personnel records, he'd tried to give the impression that Zuko actually knew and cared about his crewmen beyond their ability to perform their assigned duties… And Zuko's audible murmur had just blasted that impression to cinders. Oh, well done, nephew.
He could feel the crewmen's eyes flickering from Zuko to him, as they figured out who had really written the eulogy. But he refused to acknowledge the looks, instead keeping his gaze fixed on Zuko. Who abruptly flushed bright red, probably in realization that he'd said those words loud enough for others to hear. Words that would surely never have been spoken aloud if Zuko weren't still exhausted from being up all night and day after receiving a blow to the head, but knowing that wouldn't prevent the crew from feeling outraged on Li Mein's behalf. Iroh would have to spend another night or two chatting to various crewmembers, soothing tempers, trying to explain or excuse Zuko's behavior; doing his best to prevent another mutiny…
Zuko hurriedly finished reading the eulogy, finishing with the standard words about Agni himself guiding Li Mein's spirit to the house of his ancestors in the spirit world, then rolled the scroll and tucked it away. That was the signal for the assigned firebenders to step forward and take their positions around the tiles; Zuko, Iroh himself, Lieutenant Jee and Sergeant Anzu. As one, they took stances and fired their hottest blasts straight at the cloth-covered body. The accelerant impregnated in the white funeral cloth caught fire instantly, and flames roared towards the heavens.
The four firebenders kept pouring out flames for a full five minutes, to ensure the body burned quickly and thoroughly; Zuko's fire stuttered once—he really was exhausted; they should have held the funeral at dawn like Iroh had suggested—but his nephew gritted his teeth and drew on what must be his last reserves of strength, and kept on pouring out flame until all that was left of Li Mein was a long low pile of ashes.
After the cremation, the lieutenant and sergeant stepped back into ranks, but Zuko remained where he was standing at the edge of the tiles. Iroh had the distinct impression that sheer pride and stubbornness were the only things keeping his utterly exhausted nephew from keeling over on the spot. He took it upon himself to dismiss the assembly, and quietly assigned a sergeant to sweep up the ashes for putting in an urn to send back home. Then he urged his nephew to go to his cabin, silently shadowing him all the way and ready to catch him if he stumbled.
Once he was in his cabin, Zuko fell onto his bed still wearing the mourning surcoat and all his armor, and was probably asleep before his head hit the mattress. Shaking his head, Iroh gently rolled him this way and that as he tugged the surcoat up over his head and off, then unfastened his nephew's armor and took it off piece by piece. He was reminded strongly of a time nearly twenty years ago that he'd done this, with Lu Ten. His son had received a child-sized set of armor for his eighth birthday, and been so delighted with it that he'd played in it all day, until he'd finally fallen asleep still wearing it… Iroh paused to wipe his tears away and kept working.
After getting the armor off, Iroh left Zuko's undertunic and leggings on and covered his nephew with a blanket. After leaving the cabin, he stopped by the holding cell and asked after the prisoner. "Not making any trouble, sir," the corporal on duty said with a nod towards the tiny window set in the cell door.
Iroh looked in through the window, and saw the girl was awake but curled up on the cot, staring miserably at some spot on the floor. She'd been so defiant while chained down on deck, even laughing in the face of her captors, but now that she was alone the defiance was gone, and she looked very small and vulnerable. She was so young, younger than Zuko… and the Avatar was even younger; still a child. The fate of the Fire Nation and the entire world rested in the hands of children…
After staring through the window at the prisoner for a few minutes, stroking his beard in deep thought, Iroh went to the galley. The informal wake for Li Mein was in full swing; the marines were trading their stories of him while eating, and toasting his memory with hoisted cups of tea or other nonalcoholic drinks. From the dour looks many of them were giving their cups, they clearly would have preferred something stronger for the occasion, but there was no wine or liquor allowed on the Wani.
Normally, that is. "Lieutenant, I need one volunteer to go with me back to shore in the steamer," Iroh announced, loud enough for everyone to hear. "For a twofold purpose, one of them being to further our mission. I need to plant a few rumors in the taverns ashore, that we have the Avatar's companion as our prisoner; the news will reach the Avatar's ears eventually, and then he'll bring the battle to us."
"And the other purpose, sir?" Lieutenant Jee asked.
"To bring back a barrel of the best rice wine sold in Laosing," Iroh said with a smile. "Prince Zuko has granted permission for just this one night, for any crewman who wishes to do so to raise a cup of sake, or two or three, to the memory of Li Mein."
There was an instant cheer from many throats, cheering that cut off abruptly when those crewmen realized it wouldn't do to appear too eager for that rice wine. Iroh reached out a hand, apparently without looking, and grabbed the shoulder of Private Tadao. "Ah, Tadao; are you volunteering to pilot the steamer?" he asked pleasantly.
"Sir, yes sir!" Tadao said with a wide-eyed grin, obviously surprised to be chosen. Not that Iroh was surprised at his reaction, considering Tadao's own history with alcohol. He was one of the men normally allowed to go ashore only when accompanied by someone who could cut him off and drag him back to the ship when he'd had too much.
In short order, the steamer was refueled and cranked back down into the water, and they were on their way back to the docks. Tadao grinned to himself, anticipating the drinks he'd buy in the nearest tavern; while the coal was being loaded aboard the steamer he'd run to his bunk and grabbed a string of coins. But after they reached the pier and tied off, Iroh went ashore but said firmly that Tadao was to stay with the boat. "I won't be more than half an hour; just long enough to buy the barrel of wine, and tell a few people that it's to celebrate our capturing the waterbender."
"But, sir…!" Tadao almost whimpered, crestfallen.
"Ah, Tadao, would it be fair to your fellow crewmen if you had so much more opportunity to drink and be merry before they did? Stay with the boat; there's a good lad. You can have my share of the sake once the barrel is breached," Iroh promised. "And I'll even buy a small bottle for us to share on the way back to the ship…"
Tadao sighed heavily, but stayed with the ship; he knew better than to try sneaking ashore anyway. The elder prince, even though he was almost senile, seemed to have eyes in the back of his head when it came to misbehavior among the crew. Probably a holdover from his younger days as a general, when he'd been known far and wide as the Dragon of the West.
Tadao had heard stories about the legendary Dragon of the West while growing up; about how he had been a wily badger-fox when it came to tactics and strategy, but demanded honorable behavior from every soldier under his command, down to the lowliest private. When he'd conquered a city, it by-Agni stayed conquered, but if a soldier abused one of its citizens without cause that soldier might as well kiss his own ass goodbye. It was just a shame how far the prince had fallen from those days; getting old really sucked ashes…
True to his word, within half an hour Iroh was back at the dock, accompanied by a burly man hefting a big barrel of sake for him. Once the barrel was aboard, Tadao cast off the line, asking, "Mission accomplished, sir?"
"Mission accomplished," Iroh said with a smile. "I planted rumors at three taverns while shopping for that barrel, and before I left the word had already spread to a fourth. And in addition to the barrel," as his smile turned sly and he pulled a small bottle of sake out of his sleeve. "Now this is the finest sake sold anywhere in Laosing; better by far than what I could get by the barrel. And the first drink's on me!"
As Tadao happily uncapped the bottle, Iroh cautioned, "Now, not a word of this to anyone aboard, all right? I can't seem to play favorites with the crew, after all. If anyone asks, let them think you had the opportunity to get a drink or two in the taverns, while listening to me plant those rumors…"
Mission accomplished, indeed, Iroh thought with weary satisfaction hours later, as he sought his own bed. With repeated assertions that Zuko had paid for the sake and a few other well-chosen words, Iroh had managed to leave the impression in most of the men's minds that Zuko really regretted not getting to know Li Mein better before he'd died, and would have gone and fetched the wine himself if he hadn't been so exhausted. That had assuaged some of the crew's outrage over the botched eulogy; they now seemed willing to give Zuko the benefit of the doubt, anyway.
And Tadao had played his part as well; when someone had asked why he'd come back with sake already on his breath, he'd readily told people that he'd managed to buy a drink or two in the taverns while watching the ex-general buy the barrel and plant the rumors. "He even said a couple times, 'don't tell (hic) tell anyone'!" Tadao said with a sly smile during the third or fourth telling. "An' you know what that means; by morning, the rumors will be halfway to Ba Sing Se! Yessir, the Avatar's gonna come running for us, lookin' to get his girlfriend back, and we'll be ready for him! I'm gonna give that big furry sky-beast a hotfoot on all six feet, an' tell 'em it's from Li Mein!"
That had gotten a rousing cheer from everyone in the galley. And the mood had turned even merrier when Iroh brought the chests full of the pirate ship's booty out of his quarters, and set them down in the galley. "As commanding officer, Prince Zuko is naturally entitled to first pick of the war trophies," he'd reminded them all. "And he has already chosen this dagger," as he'd picked up a dagger with a jewel-encrusted hilt, a prize fit for a nobleman and one of the finest items in the four chests. "However, he will not be keeping it for himself. This dagger will be sent to Li Mein's parents, along with his ashes. Our fallen comrade's family will have the prince's war trophy. May it give them comfort to know their son died honorably in battle."
"Hear, hear!" everyone had chorused as Iroh laid the dagger on the table, next to the urn of ashes and the cup of sake for Li Mein's spirit. Then he'd made a big silly show about deciding upon his own war trophy from the chests. After a few minutes of loudly debating with himself about the best trophy-"This jeweled tobacco box! Ah, but I never smoke tobacco, it would serve no purpose… This lovely silk dress! … But then I'd have to find a lovely lady to present it to, wouldn't I?" as the crew had laughed and shouted increasingly outrageous suggestions, he finally settled on what they'd all known he'd pick all along; a fine ceramic teapot with a phoenix design on the sides.
Then he'd called upon the other members of yesterday's mission to come forward and choose their war trophies, in order by rank. Once everyone had claimed their trophies, he'd taken the remaining treasures back to his quarters, promising that once they were sold at the next few ports the profits from the sold booty would be split among the entire ship's crew.
Soon after the trophy distribution, with the barrel of sake already half empty, Iroh retired to his cabin in satisfaction. Crew morale restored, rumors planted; a good night's work. But there was so much more to be done for the overall mission, beginning tomorrow; he had better be well-rested for it…
To be continued!