'Are you sitting down? I need to tell you something.'
What possible reason anyone would have to travel to Desert of the Dead, June didn't know. However, she suspected some kind of trafficking with the Desert Tribes. Anywhere else, it would be known as trading, but the Sandbenders really had little to no resources worth trading other than the cacti. Their chief 'resource' came from traders, merchants, and travelers fool or desperate enough to pass too close to their territory. Eventually, that would run out; people would only stand to pay those ransoms for so long before they sent an army to deal with them. The army would all die, of course, but it was the thought that counted.
After four day's ride, the familiar run down cantina of Misty Palms Oasis loomed ahead of her. The place was the only vestige of civilization for miles. Yet civilization was possibly too nice a word. The only redeeming factor for June was the mango beverages the broadswordsman made.
She pulled Nyla up at the edge, just before the grassland ended at the desert. Out of the three gates, only the one was open. The conical building directly to the north housed the bar. She urged Nyla to walk toward the cantina. The moment paws stepped from grass to sand, the temperature seemed to spike up, and the wind died.
She hadn't slept properly since day one of the hunt. Her stomach fussed at her, and she'd nearly fallen asleep and off of Nyla four times. Her mind and body longed for sleep, but her stubbornness and pride argued for revenge.
However, she'd caught her second wind then her third, and the manic energy fed on her need for vengeance. Reason argued that she should rest and evaluate the situation with a clear head before charging in for the kill like a maniac. Vindication told her other side to go screw itself and urged Blood-thirst into frenzy.
Yet even louder than the violent voices cried Hunger. She'd eat first. While she did that, she would contemplate strangulation and stabbing versus an outright beatdown.
As she rode in, her eyes automatically went to the wanted posters pinned to a stand. All were for the Fire Nation, and three she recognized. The bratty Avatar, banished Prince pouty, traitor General Prince Creepy. Three she never wanted to see again.
June dismounted Nyla and left her ground-tied. Whip on her side, she fingered the knife hidden beneath the belts at her waist. She walked into the bar, scanning the patrons, and immediately stepped back outside. There had been three people from the wanted posters she recognized. Two were inside, one glaring at the other playing Pai Sho.
It only took a moment to think that through. She was already dedicated to mounting Nezumi's head on a spike. As skilled as she was, she didn't think she could take down the Dragon of the West and his temperamental nephew at same time. With great reluctance and stomach rumbling, June led Nyla away from the saloon and hid her. She did not need confrontation with them now, and they had to leave sometime. That, and Iroh just plain freaked her out. In the meanwhile, pig-ox jerky would have to hold her.
Three jerky strips later, and June saw the two plus one running out of there and the sounds of a fight. By the time a body flew out a window, they were nowhere in sight.
June suddenly missed her tavern.
The wind suddenly picked up and blew eastward. Nyla suddenly stood and nosed to the west. Her man was on the move again. She was going to let Nyla eat him for that.
"Just my luck," she grumbled.
Since Nyla was close enoughto catch his scent to tell that he was moving again, then it might not be wise to let him get further ahead. Though his path had been erratic, he'd seemed to have a destination. She didn't know if she could afford to let him reach it, where he'd possibly have an unknown number of resources and fortifications. June watched Nyla twitch anxiously and glanced longingly at the bar. Once she mounted Nyla, she might have popped the whip with more force than necessary.
Piandao stood at the top of a sand dune and rested his hand on his sheathed blade. He looked out to the desert sky as the light waned. Already, the air was cooling, but heat rose from the baked sand. He'd arrived in time and now…
Now, he was waiting for her. Word had been received via messenger hawk – Yes, only Fire Nation military were authorized to use them. Point? – that June was making rapid progress in tracking him. She should be in the area within ten hours. He'd received news of that nine and a half hours ago.
The sun dipped below the horizon. A rider approached.
Why couldn't all of their information be this flawless?
Piandao made his way down the dune toward her, half walking, half sliding.
"Still haven't given up?" he called out to her.
Engaging in banter was a useful tool that few utilized or if they did, not well. If your opponent was talking, they weren't attacking. If they were talking, then maybe – just maybe, perhaps in a blue moon, wish upon a star – a fight might be avoided altogether. Or at the very least, delayed.
June reined her shirshu in some yards from him and began to circle him.
"'Course not. I've got a job to do, and I am sort of obligated to kill you now." She was behind him. "Reputation is everything in this business, you know. Nothing personal." As she rounded in front of him, she rolled her eyes and laughed. It was almost a giggle. "Oh, who am I kidding? It's totally personal."
Piandao allowed himself a smile as he scratched his chin through his overgrown beard. He really should shave that soon.
"I thought you might feel that way. Planned for it, actually."
He lifted his hand.
Three men revealed themselves from their hiding spots, sloughing off sand as hands grasped and pulled at air. The sand burst and swelled over Nyla and June. It fell on them like an ocean wave and formed a solid ball around them. Piandao could hear muffled yelling from inside and stepped closer to it while the Sandbenders took a moment to stretch.
He ran his hand across the solid orb of sand, only a few grains falling off. He knocked it three times. An impact from the inside made the whole thing shudder.
"Are you certain they're getting enough air in there?"
The Sandbenders peered at him silently. One turned his head and spat out sand.
"Right," he drawled. "Bring her."
In the back room of a little used flower shop, three men sat in a circular, stone room on fluffed cushion. In the center, an imprint of a lotus bloomed from the floor. There was a door, but when two more men entered the room, they came up through a staircase in the floor.
"You're late," Jeong Jeong said before the earthbender had left and sealed the floor.
"So nice to see you too," Piandao replied. "Bumi, I'm surprised you were able to sneak away."
"Heh, I wouldn't miss this," the ancient man grinned, pulling at his scraggly beard. "The timing was just too perfect."
"Grand Lotus Iroh."
Piandao bowed, flame above fist.
"Piandao," the retired general waved Piandao to sit. "I hope you don't mind that we went ahead with a few things during your absence. I've been informed that you were followed?"
"A bounty hunter woman. She'll be dealt with afterwards."
"Oh? By the name of June?"
"Yes, Grand Lotus. Why do you ask?"
"I believe fate has handed us a very interesting hand. I think we'll discuss her situation first."
A sense of foreboding rose as Iroh's smile widened. No doubt Bumi sensed it as well and let out an insane cackle. Maybe he could have afforded to miss this meeting after all.
Nyla was not domestic. While June had done her very best to tame the animal and usually succeeded, Nyla was still a wild animal. An animal that did not like being chained down with sand-turned-hardened stone cuffs and collars in enclosed spaces. Her tongue lashed out at the air. She roared and strained against her restraints.
June, her hands and legs bound in stone, had shuffled herself into a corner while Nyla thrashed around. Despite the noise and considering how she'd forced her body to stay awake the past few days, it was a matter of course that'd she fall asleep the moment she stopped moving. However, her father had trained her to be a light sleeper – she'd come to associate the sound of a snapped twigs with being smacked in the face with a wet rag. She awoke when Nyla's irritated growls took on a more aggressive tone.
Her eyes snapped open, scanning her dark prison. The earth rumbled, and light shone through a crack that snaked up the wall. The crack spidered out and crumbled away, revealing two men with wild hair. The taller one lifted his hand, and the earth shifted around her, and he yanked, and then she was in front of them. The short one cupped a flame in his hand, and June said nothing, doing her best to hold back a yawn.
She scowled. The firebender glared. The earthbender giggled. Beyond them, she could see a series of tunnels leading away from this chamber. Light glowed from the halls, and she'd bet ten gold pieces that it was one giant, earthbent maze.
"I'm sure you're wondering why you're here," the earthbender said.
"…among several other things."
"We," he drew himself up imperiously, "are the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
"No, we're not," the firebender snapped. "Stop telling people that."
"You can't tell me what to do. I outrank you."
The firebender's entire body visibly twitched.
Was this for real? She hadn't got hit in the head, so it couldn't be a concussion. Maybe the sleep deprivation was messing with her mind, and she was hallucinating. It was a total mystery as to why these two men she'd never seen other than on posters were featured.
"You're the Mad King Bumi," she said slowly and slightly disbelieving. "And you're Jeong Jeong the Deserter."
"Hear that, J.J? We're famous."
"Despite my aversions to such, I willsear your head from your neck if you evercall me J.J again."
Okay, now this was just getting weird.
"I thought the Fire Nation had you in lockdown," she nodded her head toward Bumi.
"Oh, they do." He snorted with laughter. "I'm at their complete mercy!"
June knew that there was a story behind the supposed-to-be-imprisoned king's presence, and so far from his city too. She couldn't be concerned with that now because blood had stopped circulating to her hands hours ago.
"If we could get back to the point," Jeong Jeong said irritably, and the flame in his hand flared up slightly.
"Sure, sure. Since you're just such a busy man and all…"
She didn't know if it was because she was still half-sleep, or because the entire thing was crazy, but June had a hard time following them. However, she believe she'd caught the gist of it.
First of all, Nezumi was Piandao. As in, the man who slayed one-hundred of Azulon's Imperial firebenders. She was going to absolutely murder that lieutenant. 'Not much skilled with a weapon', he'd said.
There was an Order of the White Lotus. She didn't really understand what they did. Anarchists maybe. They were far too secretive to simply be labeled as an outright rebel organization.
She had absolutely zero chance of winning a fight against them. Even if Nyla weren't tied up at the moment, these guys were Masters. They were in a cave, and those things were usually made of earth. And Jeong Jeong...he'd apparently grown tired of sustaining the flame above his hand, and now three separate orbs of fire floated in the air. Just there. Like that was normal or something. June had total confidence in her abilities, but she'd admit - only to herself - that she was slightly in over her head.
Even though they'd loaded her with information, there was obviously a lot they weren't telling her.
At any rate, these men considered her some kind of threat threat and left her with a choice. Align herself with them or die. They hadn't put it as bluntly as that, but that was the general vibe.
Of course, it couldn't just be that easy.
"There is one absolutely essential requirement," Jeong Jeong said.
Despite the likelihood of being the center of an inferno, June wanted to smack that man. It was always 'One more thing' with him.
"And that would be…?"
Bumi turned his hand palm down and pushed; the stone that bound June sank into the earth, and needles stabbed her hands.
"You must…" he tensed his hand and lifted; earth rose up to form a game board, and the king's grin was insanely bright, "beat one of us at Pai Sho!"
Jeong Jeong pulled a small, drawstring bag from his sleeve and set it on the board. June kept her face completely neutral. Because this whole thing wasn't completely crazy, and it was perfectly normal to kidnap a woman who was just trying to do her job and force her to join crazy gang where people carry Pai Sho tiles around all the time.
"I get to pick?" she asked.
"Me or J.J!"
"Bumi…" the firebender warned evenly.
June had looked between the two men. Jeong Jeong was the Deserter. The way his name was spoken, the legend he'd become, one would think that the man had defected from Sozin's right hand. He'd been running around the Earth Kingdom, evading capture for years. That implied a strategic mind.
On the other hand, Bumi had defended Omashu's walls for the last millennium practically until just recently. When he simply let the Fire Nation troop in and let them arrest him. From what she'd heard, security was tight. Something about a metal coffin suspended above a fire pit. But he was here. And insane.
"I pick Jeong Jeong."
Bumi pouted and snapped his fingers.
"Then let us play."
As the game began, the mad king began munching on a stem that he could have only pulled from out of his baggy robes. June had stopped knowing what was going on a while ago and disregarded that quirk accordingly.
June despised old men. As of two minutes ago when she'd lost to that smug geezer and was forced to zone out on his droning of her 'expectations'. Spirits and ancestors, he talked as much as her dad. But then, something he said caught her attention.
"Wait, what did you just say?"
Jeong Jeong shot her a glare; apparently, he didn't like repeating himself. She made a special note of that.
"Your duties as a lotus bud will be as that of an apprentice. In that regard –"
"Not that part. The part about who I'm workin' with."
"Piandao. The Grand Lotus believes that you two will work well together."
"That's what I thought you said," she grumbled, running a hand through her hair. "Have you people taken complete leave of your senses?"
The two men exchanged a look.
"Not all of them..."
"I refuse to work with that man," she glowered at them, but they remained unmoved.
"That's certainly your choice," Bumi said. "However, considering your newly inducted status, it'd be far too easy for you to fall sway to some other cause. In which case, you'll be assigned to dealing with the archives. It's honestly in your best interest if you have Piandao to sponsor you."
"And really? It's funnier this way," Bumi stage-whispered to her.
Very suddenly, June just wanted to sleep, strangle a man, eat, drink a lot of whiskey, and not even in that order.