The voices reach his ears long before the tavern appears in his view, raucous, fueled by whatever swill they brewed in these parts. When he steps in, heads turn to him and eyes in shades of mud and moss harden into flint. You don't belong here, they say, as clear as if the words had been spoken aloud. Piandao is amused by this, for he spent years in and out of taverns just like this one during and after his army days. Probably was in this very one at some point, back when the floors were less dirty and the wood of the bar still had some shine to it.
Yes, he definitely was in this tavern before. Because there she sits, sharing a table with a mountain of a man. The woman is ten years older, tattooed and bearing a skull in her hair that didn't used to be there, but he has no doubt who she is.
June tilts her cup back as he approaches, smiling around the edge of it, her slim throat working, then slams the empty vessel down and demands of the man across from her. "You ready?"
"Bring it," he intones, holding up an arm thick with muscle and scars. Piandao takes the empty seat at the next table, knowing how this will end but looking forward to seeing it anyway.
June grabs his hand and counts, "One, two, three!" Instantly the man pushes against her firm grip, but her forearm doesn't budge. The smile on her face widens. Sweat breaks out on his knotted forehead. Then in one swift move, she pushes his arm to the table and howls with victory. "Pay up!"
The hulking man grumbles as he counts out battered coins from a leather bag, then shoves the chair aside and lumbers off, glaring at Piandao as he goes. In the meantime, June's signaling to the bartender; with a nod he starts pouring drinks and passing them out. A tired-looking woman in an apron drops one of the cups off in front of June without looking at her. Her other callused hand plops one down in front of the swordsman without a word. Some of the cup's contents slosh out and darken the rough wood of the table. Piandao squints at the foul smelling, foamy liquid, then looks up to see June chugging hers. Only then does she set her dark eyes upon him. "You want to try your luck?"
"I'm afraid I don't have much money," he replies, leaving his seat for the one her last opponent vacated. He doesn't take the free liquor with him.
She purses her full, painted lips. "Not worth my time then."
"Oh, I can make it worth your time," he says. "How about if you win, you get this." He parts his cloak to reveal the jian sword hanging at his hip. It's not his favorite, that remains safely stowed in his pack. But it's a Piandao original and she knows how much they're worth.
Her eyes widen with interest, then narrow suspiciously. "What do you get?"
"The pleasure of your company for the evening."
June rolls her eyes, but she's grinning. "You never were much good at gambling." She leans over, sets her elbow firmly on the table, and holds up a strong hand. He takes it, she counts, and suddenly the pressure of her palm is forcing his down. Piandao merely watches and waits, his forearm bending slightly back but nowhere near far enough for her to win. She strains against his grip, grits her teeth, but he doesn't budge. After several tense moments her arm finally weakens enough for him to push it down. Piandao lets go and sits back, smiling at her grimace.
"Someday I'm going to beat you, old man," she asserts.
He only smiles wider. "Shall we go someplace less smelly and noisy?"
"Doesn't smell bad to me," she says, but stands and heads for the door with him.
This part of the Earth Kingdom gets chilly at night, even in early autumn. He welcomes the chill after the stuffy, stale air of the tavern. The noise and light fades behind them as they walk into the forest. Between the branches overhead a waning crescent peeks through, painting the planes of June's skin in chiaroscuro. The word 'lovely' pops into Piandao's mind, stunning him. Never once did it occur to him that someday he might see Ri's daughter as more than the wild girl tagging along and watching with shadowed eyes while her father taught the strange foreign man the tricks of his trade.
Piandao sought tutelage from any great master in those days, benders, gurus, artists, warriors, and yes, bounty hunters. Ri was the best tracker in the Kingdom, possibly the world, even without the adolescent shirshu that was never more than arms-length away from his daughter. Under him, Piandao learned how to discern a man's passing by the way a single twig broke, how to see a trail even when his quarry tried to hide it, how to hide his own tracks so that no one would find him. Ri himself was a plain man, no distinguishing features, hair and eyes of an average brown. June took after her mother in looks, he said, but Piandao saw that the rest of her traits came entirely from her father, most notably her dry humor and her dogged pursuit of her prey.
Her attention is on him now, and Piandao thinks, not for the first time, that he is glad he isn't her prey. Then he wonders briefly what having her chase him might be like.
"What brings you this way?" she asks, seemingly unaffected by the night breeze despite her bare arms and lack of cloak.
"Oh, met some friends, played some Pai Sho, liberated the capital. You know."
The corner of her mouth twitches. "That was you, eh? It's all anyone's talked about for the past couple of weeks." She eyes him under the curtain of hair covering half her face. "Had to fight your own people. Must have been awkward."
He chuckles. "That's one way of putting it. Wasn't the first time I've faced my own countrymen in battle. But I hope it will be the last."
June shrugs. "War, peace, doesn't matter. Always someone needing something to be found."
"You'll always get by, won't you?"
His tone is deceptively light, but she doesn't rise to the bait. "Sure will."
He presses further. "Is that really all you want out of life? The hunt?"
Her laugh is like the notes of a pipa. "What else is there?" When he doesn't answer, she continues, "Heroism is for Avatars and dishonored princes, sword masters and orphans. The rest of us just gotta get by as best we can."
"You're an orphan," he gently points out.
June's mouth tightens and she turns her back. "I've got to go check on Nyla." Over her shoulder, she says. "You sticking around?"
"Not for long," he answers. "I have to return home sometime."
"Maybe I'll see you again before you go."
"Maybe," he agrees, knowing the likelihood is slim. "Good luck to you."
"You too, old man. You too."