“You have to treat Kuzon gently with this,” Yawen says, judgmentally, though June hasn’t even screwed up yet.
“Obviously,” June replies. “A first hunt’s a big occasion. Real start of a career. He’ll want a neat win he’ll be proud of forever.”
“And by ‘neat’ you mean safe, simple and easy, without a slightest chance of adding to that boy’s trauma.”
Yawen hears that pause and frowns about it. “If you dare bring him back in pieces-“
“Then I’ll be sure to bring back all the pieces.”
Yawen shoves a bunch of maka’ole blossoms in June’s hand and shoos her from her garden, muttering threats the whole time.
(June’s never exactly been in the habit of giving people bouquets, but Kuzon specifically asked her for these flowers, to try a fresh twist on what’s rapidly become his favorite poison. It’s a perfectly healthy interest for a now-fourteen-year-old. Nothing concerning about it.)
“You wanna come on one of my jobs with me?” June says casually, like she hasn’t been dancing around this idea for a solid month.
Kuzon had been sprawling, chin propped on his hand, an elbow on their tavern table. After he hears her question he shoots upright, knocking his cup of brown tea right off the edge.
Catches it before it hits the ground, not spilling a drop.
When he recovers, his good eye’s huge. “I’m ready?”
“Not for every job,” June warns him. “Yawen wants me to start you off as slow as possible.”
“That makes sense,” he says very reasonably.
(But he’s slumping again.)
“So we’re looking for the lowest-risk job we can find,” June informs him as they sit down later with her mail pile. “Finding lost grannies who wandered away. Getting cats out of trees. As straightforward and harmless as we can get.”
Kuzon rips open his first envelope. “Burglar, wanted for stealing a necklace right off this lady’s neck.”
“Too bold, they could get violent.” June shakes her head, even as she tosses two other letters aside.
He tries again: “This woman’s trying to find her wife, after she ran off with her mistress.”
“Nope,” June says, popping the “p.” “They’ll definitely get violent.”
“She left her with two kids.”
“Runaway spouses tend to do that,” she mutters without thinking, skimming the terms of a particularly wordy wanted poster. She winds up discarding it too, and another three after that, before Kuzon’s lengthy silence catches her attention. When she looks up, he’s gripping a scroll with two hands, his gaze strangely intense.
“What’ve you got there?” June asks.
He slowly passes it over.
She takes one look and snorts. “You have to be kidding. There’s no way this ends without major casualties.”
Still, she gives the letter a more serious look. It’s an urgent communique from a nearby Fire Nation fortress, requesting help to stop a series of vicious, nightly attacks. They’re strange attacks, too- stealth missions, infiltrating the stronghold’s not inconsiderable defenses, targeting one of the army’s most valuable military assets.
The messenger hawks.
“Please?” Kuzon asks, quietly.
The attackers- and there must be a group, no one could pull this off solo- are picking a couple birds off every night. The army’s upgraded all the locks on the cages, and they’ve remade the keys for the single door. They’ve also doubled guards outside said door.
(They can’t place anyone inside. The army’s hawks are famously wary of strangers, and at night raptors assume everyone’s a stranger. To avoid mass avian panic, there can’t be guards inside during the hawks’ scheduled sleeping hours.)
So, after a week, the soldiers haven’t once caught sight of the intruders. The soldiers never seem to know there’s a problem until they hear a caw of alarm that brings them rushing in, schedule be damned. It’s always too late to stop the damage.
(Streaks of blood. Missing limbs. Broken feathers, damaged badly enough to leave a bird flightless for life.)
“They’re just birds,” Kuzon grumbles. “They don’t deserve to- to get dragged into the war like this.”
June’s not in the habit of feeling sympathy for the Fire Nation army, but she agrees with Kuzon on this one. She quickly sizes the culprits up, based on the available evidence. The animal cruelty says they’re sadistic. The ability to slip in and out of the stronghold, always disappearing before the hawks alert the guards, says they’re masters of stealth. The fact that they’re drawing the assault out over multiple nights says they’re incurable show-offs. Finally, the sheer drama of their attacks- the gore and the maiming- shows a clear taste for grotesque symbolism.
With these attacks, they’re issuing a bold, purposeful threat against the Fire Nation. The threat’s unspoken, sure, but that makes it no less chilling.
The reward’ll be enormous.
“I’ll take the job,” June says, “but I’m going alone.”
“This sounds dangerous.”
“I know, that’s why you should take me!”
“Really?” She raises an eyebrow. “What happens when we walk into this garrison and you spot whoever gave you that?”
She jerks her head towards the left side of his face, veiled carefully as always by his hair.
He scowls. “There is literally no chance of that.”
“Why, are they dead?”
He fidgets and then sighs, looking down at his lap. “Even if they were there for some reason, I wouldn’t get in their way or challenge them to an Agni Kai or anything. I’m not good enough for that, and...I just wouldn’t.”
This is a dangerous job, but Kuzon’s got a point- he’s supposed to help her with dangerous jobs. That’s why she joined forces with him in the first place. And while Yawen’s ordered her to treat him with kid gloves and start him on the most trivial baby mission she can find, Kuzon’s gotten better at performing under stress. He beat up Baohua Fang, no problem. He’s started sparring with Chit Sang, out in a secluded rocky spot she found for them both, and he’s been able to hold his own.
(The fire whips are a work in progress. They’re already a thing of beauty.)
Most importantly, the kid wants this. It can’t be because he likes the Fire Nation army, but his love for animals must be overriding any distaste for their owners. That passion’ll be useful, out on a hunt.
If she throws him a challenge, he’ll rise to meet it.
“Fine,” she declares. “One condition.”
“I get to do your makeup.”
“I was about to ask you to.”
Kuzon’s done up his hair, skull fastened in place.
“So what are you thinking here?” June asks.
“I want to look...not like myself, just in case I run into someone from before.”
“And I want to look dangerous.”
June grins. “You got it.”
She’s got drawers full of paints and powders. Many of the seals are unbroken- she treated herself to quite the new collection after Kuzon’s prior rampage, and she’s got other products from her experimental phase years back, before she settled on her daily look. She rummages through the older bottles now. These days, she paints her lips a nice blood-red, but she’s dabbled in other hues…
“Ah. Perfect.” June pulls out an unopened jar.
“Brown lip paint.”
“I don’t want brown lips.”
“Who said it goes on your lips?” She chuckles. “Watch and learn.”
Though he grumbles under his breath, he holds still as she smears brown paint down both his cheeks. Then she pops open a near jar of the near-white paint she uses all over her own face.
“I get this stuff from a factory in Ba Sing Se,” she mutters. “It’s a couple shades too light, but it shouldn’t cause pimples.”
“I don’t have pimples!”
“I know, let’s keep it that way.”
She adds that second layer of paint in, painting stripes all over his exposed skin. She stops, just short of the shell of hair covering his left eye.
“Can you hide it?” he breathes, painfully hopeful.
She shakes her head. “But I can make it less eye-catching, in case your hairstyle gets wrecked for a minute.”
After a moment, he tightens his jaw and nods.
She’s not throwing everything at him this first time- no rouge, only a drop of lip paint on his actual lips. Still, as the layers build up he starts to look older. His features grow sharper, shadowed.
“I always watched my mom do her makeup,” he murmurs. “She had whole cabinets filled with special jars and vials.”
“You sure those were all makeup?”
He doesn’t answer, just smirks after a second, and she keeps painting, adding darker hues around his visible eye. There’s a touch of the monstrous about him now, but June considers that an advantage.
“Dangerous” is right.
The fortress isn’t far away. Kuzon plots out the most efficient route on his favorite map, and June lets him steer Nyla. He’s too precious with him, too afraid to crack the whip and speed him up, but June holds her tongue. They’ll get there when they get there.
The sun’s still high in the sky when Pouhai Stronghold’s wall comes into sight. Scratch that- there are multiple walls, coated with metal to thwart earthbender interference.
June and Kuzon swap places on the saddle for the grand entrance. The confidence seems to seep out of him, and he curls inwards, instinctively trying to hide behind her. She jabs him with an elbow, and he straightens back up with a scowl.
“I hope there’s metal in the ground too,” he mutters as they approach. “Some Fire Nation bases have that, or else earthbenders can tunnel underneath.”
June hums, considering it, even as she slows Nyla’s pace and moseys up to the gates. Kuzon freezes, practically plastered to her back, as a squad of Fire Nation soldiers shoves pointy things in her face.
“Morning,” she says, not even giving them a flinch. “The colonel invited me.”
She takes the letter, unfolds it, and tosses it at the lady who looks like she’s in charge. Said lady inspects it carefully. Then she inspects June, Nyla and Kuzon.
“It’s an invitation for you,” she says, scowling. “Who are the other two?”
June snorts. “Here we’ve got my trusted partner. He’s brilliant, determined, excellent in a fight. And then we have Kuzon.” She jerks her head backwards. “Hunter-in-training.”
Kuzon sputters indignantly, but the joke does its job- the head lady cracks a smile and hands back the letter. She peers up at Kuzon, squinting as the sun gets in her eyes.
“I’m hon- honestly so privileged to be here,” he blurts, completely unprompted. “It’s a...great gift to be able to serve the Fire Nation army. Thank you, sincerely, for this unparalleled hon- I mean, opportunity.”
June twists around to give him a look. A stern, severe “shut-up-before-your-sarcasm-gets-us-killed” look. But when she takes a look, she finds a poker face good enough to fool her, without a trace of humor in sight.
(There’s no trace of his usual ponytail, either. When did he start wearing a top-knot? Did he realize it actually enhances his bone structure, especially after a solid round of contouring?)
The soldiers smile, thoroughly charmed by his apparent earnestness.
“You’ll do well here, kid,” says the lady. “What about the animal, is it well-trained?”
“Depends,” June retorts, “Nyla’s mood depends on the people around him, so the real question is ‘are your people well-trained’- hey!”
She glares as Kuzon pokes her in the back. Unruffled, he declares, “You shouldn’t question the professionalism of Fire Nation soldiers!”
The guard lady’s expression turns downright adoring.
They decide to leave Nyla outside the walls, tied loosely to a nearby tree. He’ll bite through the rope if threatened, but at least he won’t bite through a fancy ironclad wall without provocation. June hops down and strides into the fortress, keeping pace with the fancy lieutenant who’s been called down to escort them, no matter how hard the lady tries to get a few steps ahead. Kuzon’s trailing them both at a respectful distance, eyes cast down.
“Last night’s attack was the most brutal,” the lieutenant informs her in hushed tones. “In the past, we’ve had to remove ten birds from service, and three of them later died of infection from their wounds. But yesterday, they killed a bird outright. Left half the carcass still bleeding in the cage.”
June glances back at Kuzon. He looks pale, but that’s definitely just the makeup. He’s screwed up his forehead in intense concentration.
“So we’ve got gaping holes in our security,” the lieutenant continues. “And we’re running low on hawks, so we’re being slowly cut off from outside communication.”
“What’s your best guess?” June asks as they enter the central tower of the fortress, her leather boots rapping smartly against metal floors.
The lieutenant looks over her shoulder, checking the hall’s empty. When she speaks, it’s in a paranoid whisper. “I’ve been telling the colonel for ages that we need to redo our pipes- it’s too easy for people to sneak around right under our feet. I bet it was a local rebel group. Could’ve snuck in on a supply cart...or worse, they could’ve stolen armor from our soldiers and infiltrated us.”
Kuzon lets out an indignant scoff. When June shoots him a questioning look, he explains, “That’d be a low move.”
June happens to think it’s a clever move, but the lieutenant nods in agreement. “It would be thoroughly dishonorable, even for a band of rebels.”
June does them both the honor of closing her eyes before she rolls them.
The lieutenant opens the door. June’s the first one through.
She stops just past the doorway. “Kid, if you want out, this is your chance to say it.”
Kuzon simply steps over the threshold, into a world of bloody horror. There are rows upon rows of metal cages- small, in June’s opinion, but maybe they get enough air just from their jobs. Most still have hawks in them, swinging on their perches and chittering away. Their heads swivel towards her as soon as she enters, fixing her with their glowing beady eyes. Then they all unleash a vocal alarm- a shrill, piercing caw that makes her wince.
Yeah, they hate strangers.
Ten cages are covered in feathers and blood.
The floors of the cages are splattered red, and the trail goes down, past the bars and onto the floors. There are theatrical, artistically placed drips and streaks.
Of course, they don’t go on long enough to show how the attackers actually got out of the room.
“And here,” the lieutenant says quietly, “is the scene of the most recent attack.”
Kuzon inhales sharply, but to his credit he doesn’t whimper. It’s a close call, for June.
She doesn’t know what else she expected, given what the lieutenant told her coming in, but there’s half of a messenger hawk carcass, lying twisted, jammed up against the cage bars like someone tried dragging it out and then decided it wasn’t worth the bother. June’s always thought of the army’s messenger hawks as beasts of war, thanks to their reputations for ferocity and the senses sharpened like weapons, to the grating, piercing caws and the beady eyes and the vicious hatred of strangers that the army’s bred into them. But this bird just looks delicate, and kind of pathetic.
“Should we…” Kuzon mumbles. “Should we bring this to Nyla, so he can track down the other half?”
June shakes herself, nods, and gets back to work. “So we need clean cloth from our own supplies, so there’s no way he’ll pick up any other scent…”
It’s a macabre case, but June follows procedure. She spares Kuzon the trouble of collecting the carcass himself. He just has to hand her a bolt of clean cloth, and she does the dirty work, gathering up the bird’s body along with all the bloody, broken feathers littering the floor of its cage.
(It doesn’t look like a clean cut, going by the damage. There are multiple little injuries, and rough edges, like they used a serrated knife. Still, June can’t quite place the weapon type…)
“There’s only one door, and it’s at the end of the hallway,” he says contemplatively. “At least some of the guards must be loyal, so I doubt the rebels are getting in that way. I’d say it’s that vent-“ he jerks his head towards a small hole in the wall, barely larger than June’s fist- “but it’s too small. I asked the lieutenant, and there’s metal casing all over the place, so it can’t be plain earthbending-“
“Kid? Stop thinking so loud.” June scrounges up the last feather and balances it on top of the entire bloody pile, like a garnish. “The benefit of having a shirshu is he does the detective work for you.”
It’s Kuzon’s first job, and she intends to give him as much responsibility as she can manage. He’s had plenty of experience working with Nyla, thanks to all his feeding sessions, so he’s not scared to approach his snout with his offering, the avian remains all heaped on the middle of the cloth he’s carrying.
It’s not until he’s within a foot of Nyla’s mouth that June realizes the problem.
“Nyla!” Kuzon shrieks, but he’s too late. The cloth is gone, along with everything inside it.
Nyla gulps loudly and then wriggles in delight. He’s perfectly happy with himself, having snapped all their evidence up as a gift-wrapped afternoon snack.
Kuzon fidgets for a second, and then glances back at her. “...so can we do detective work now?”
“So,” Kuzon says, whispering to her as they tramp back into Pouhai Stronghold, “it can’t be plain earthbending, and there’s no window, and I doubt it’s the door. That means there’s a secret tunnel.”
June snorts. “The Fire Nation wouldn’t waste space with a secret tunnel.”
“...I’m sure some places in the Fire Nation have secret tunnels,” he grumbles, “but okay. Maybe a newer military base wouldn’t have one.”
After a moment, June sighs. “But maybe this base would. I heard that stealth group’s here…”
June trails off, trying to recall the name, but all she gets is “the Yo-Yo artists.”
Kuzon rescues her. “The Yuyan Archers?”
“That’s the one. Huh.” A new theory writes itself into her brain. “Whoever’s killing these birds, they’re masters of stealth, but they’ve also got a sense of drama, and they know this stronghold inside-out.”
Kuzon stops still. “No. You can’t accuse the Yuyan Archers of treachery.”
“I’m not saying they’re all traitors-“
“You can’t accuse any of them!”
She smirks. “Watch me.”
There’s a teenager staring daggers at her. But he’s not throwing daggers, so June’s going to ignore it for now.
The lieutenant watches them both as they scour the hawks’ room for more evidence- preferably something Nyla won’t mistake for food. Kuzon’s checking out the floor, knocking on every red tile to see if it’s wobbly or hollow, hiding a secret passage. For her part, June’s collecting all the feathers from the other birds, along with the crusts of dried blood. Nyla’s first instinct will be to crash through the walls of the stronghold to the infirmary where those birds are resting- or the plots where they’re buried. But Nyla’s second instinct will be to chase down the rest of the birds’ blood, which should lead her to a jagged knife used as the murder weapon.
Which might also be inside the stronghold, if her theory on the Yuyan Archers is correct.
The stronghold’s gate is currently too narrow to accommodate Nyla, so yeah, a wall’s getting smushed today.
“You can’t have Nyla track the feathers,” Kuzon protests, “he’ll run right to the birds and leave holes in the walls!”
“I’ll pull him away first,” June counters. “If he can find a trail leading away from the stronghold, he’ll take that first.”
“Their trails will go all over the place, they’re messenger hawks!”
“Nyla can pick up the trail of the blood too-“
“But how would you know? If we follow every single trail-“
“Nyla can pick up the trail that connects all these feathers-“
“How do you know there’ll be a trail to connect all the feathers?” he retorts.
“Look. Nyla’s the best there is at hunting, he’ll take us right to the weapon-“
“What if they used multiple weapons?” Kuzon yelps, gesticulating. “What if those weapons are in different places? The longer we run around randomly, the closer it gets to sunset, and that means more dead birds!”
Guards are starting to stare. The longer Kuzon carries on, the closer June gets to more dead apprentices.
She does not articulate that thought. Instead she rolls out the crick in her neck, looks back at her bundle of feathers and powdered blood, and then sighs. “You got a better idea?”
He reaches into his pocket. “I think we should follow this.”
He pulls out a single silver hair.
June rolls her eyes. “We’ve been through this.”
Kuzon spent a solid half-hour on his hands and knees, inspecting a perfectly ordinary floor within an inch of its life and finding nothing out of place but a short silver hair-
“It’s not a silver hair,” he says with a scowl. “It’s pure white, even though nobody here is old enough for that.”
“Fine, let’s pretend it’s white,” June snaps. “Did it ever occur to you that one of the soldiers could’ve dyed their hair-“
“That’d be against regulation-“
“Or maybe someone’s aging prematurely? Or they were born without color in their hair, or it’s from someone outside and got tracked in by a muddy boot-“
Defiantly, Kuzon sticks his hand in front of Nyla, hair pinched firmly between two fingers. Nyla sniffs, sticks his nose in the air and then begins to salivate.
He’s caught a scent.
Kuzon turns that pleading stare on June again, and she sighs. Technically, he’s right. Tracking the feathers could take an excruciatingly long time and give them a pile of false leads. What’s one more?
“I still think it’s an inside job,” June says, raising her voice over the wind as Nyla heads into the forest. “Yuyan Archers sneaking in. Probably blackmailed the guards into getting out of the way.”
“There’s no way,” Kuzon snaps in her ear. “Whoever had the...privilege of guarding that room wouldn’t compromise their...integrity like that.”
“Must be a metalbender then,” June retorts, sarcastically.
“Or a waterbender who poured themselves through that little vent-“
“That’s not how bending works!”
They fall into silence as an eerie fog descends. Nyla’s slowed down, squelching his way across a dark, tangled swamp.
“I’m sorry I’m messing this all up,” Kuzon mumbles.
June twists around to look him in the eye. “My first hunt, Nyla threw me off, and another hunter turned me in for a bounty.”
He lifts his eyebrow in shock. “But at the tavern, you always say that you took down a serial killer who beheaded his victims-"
"I know what I say."
"- and that you traded his head for its weight in gold.”
She chuckles at his perfect recitation. “Yeah, well, that was actually my ninth job.”
“Why do you say it’s your first?”
“Can’t blame a girl for writing her own legend.” She shrugs. “The point is you’re doing fine for a first time out. We’ve got this.”
Nyla picks up speed again once they’re out of the swamp and clambering towards a steep hill. He’s heading directly towards a settlement- a bunch of brown buildings carved into the hillside, vaguely sloping in the style of Omashu. There’s no road up the hill, only a steep stone flight of stairs that must’ve been bent into place. Nyla clambers up it, drool foaming at the mouth, flattening steps as he goes.
Once at the top, he races straight across the hilltop to a short building with a flat dome for a roof. June yanks the reins, and he skids to a stop, just seconds before crashing through the doorway. June hops off the saddle and strides inside. Kuzon follows her, right into a greenhouse.
He gasps as soon as they enter. There’s green, floor to ceiling- a dizzying array of potted plants of every shape and size. June recognizes a banana tree because it’s got bananas on it, but besides that she’s lost.
Still, she looks at Kuzon as he crouches by a squat, square-shaped pot bursting with purple blossoms.
“This is fogflower,” he says, inspecting the flowers. “It can cause confusion and sedation-“
“Only if the petals are sun-dried, broken into long strips, and then swirled into the air gently, with water vapor,” announces a creaky voice. An old woman hobbles out from behind a particularly gargantuan plant, wearing faint green robes. Her top-knot’s bound with leaves, somehow.
Her hair is pure white, if a little longer than the sample Kuzon found.
Kuzon and June share a glance, and then she steps toward the lady, hands on her hips. “Hey. Wanna explain why we found your hair in a Fire Nation army stronghold?”
The lady’s lips twist into a corkscrew smile. “The army? Earth Kingdom soldiers come by sometimes- brave boys- and I always patch them up well enough for their journey-“
“Not the Earth Kingdom,” June interjects. “The Fire Nation.”
“The Fire Nation!” Her eyes widen. “They like spiced tea in those islands, I hear. And I’ve got just the cinna-cloves for a cup. They’re coming into bloom now, early...But like the saying goes, ‘better early than never!’”
“Um,” says Kuzon.
She turns to him and pokes a finger towards his chest. “You look like you’d appreciate a cup. Why, I’ll brew one right now!”
“Listen,“ June orders.
The lady drifts away like she hasn’t heard, now collecting leaves and berries at random and dropping them in a teapot.
“That one’s deadly nightshade,” Kuzon warns as she plucks some small black berries.
“Of course! The blend could use that savory edge, don’t you think?”
“We don’t need tea,” June snaps.
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t, dearie,” she says, face briefly poking out from between two shrubs. “You want a cure for that unfortunate mark on your right eye.”
“What did you just say to me?” June explodes.
The lady just hums to herself. Then she pops a couple deadly nightshade leaves in her mouth like candy.
“June?” Kuzon murmurs, nudging her side. “I think I was wrong about the hair belonging to the culprit.”
June watches the lady totter around some more, knocking into pots. “Yeah. She seems like she might want to break in, but I can’t see her having enough brain cells to pull it off. Still, the attackers might’ve poisoned the guards to get in, and maybe this place-“ she gestures vaguely around the greenhouse- “supplied the stuff-“
“No.” Kuzon shakes his head. “An herb like that would leave traces. Some of the guards would’ve felt sick afterwards, they would’ve told somebody.”
“Unless they were in on it.”
“It’s not an inside job!”
June throws up her hands. “Then what is it? Seriously, we’ve got a locked room and a solid floor and ceiling, and the walls are solid except for a vent no human could get through. The hell do you think this is, a spirit?”
“Maybe!” Kuzon yelps in alarm. “I bet this attacker isn’t human at all! Maybe it’s a spirit, or an angry ghost, or-“
He’s cut off by an unholy screech.
A cat bolts across the greenhouse, darting past the old lady and between June’s legs before springing outside, yowling shrilly all the while.
“Miyuki!” the lady cries, dropping her pot in shock.
“Nyla!” June hollers as her shirshu leaps into action. He bounds towards the cat, tongue whipping out multiple times, but it dances around every blow and disappears off the side of the hill. Nyla skids to a stop just before he falls off too.
“Don’t eat the cat!” June yells, even as she sprints towards Nyla, grabbing desperately at his reins and somehow flinging herself onto the saddle.
Kuzon scrambles on behind her. “He’s not trying to!”
“What do you-“
The words are ripped out of her throat as Nyla spins around and hurls himself headlong down the stairs. June catches sight of the cat again, gracefully picking its way down the cliffside. Its fur is pure white. The length precisely matches Kuzon’s sample.
This is not how today was supposed to go.
Kuzon clings onto her for dear life as Nyla slides down the stairs, completely squashing the steps as he goes. They crash to the ground in a giant dust cloud, but Nyla recovers a second later, heartbeat racing as he wheels around and resumes the chase. He’s fast, but the cat’s just a tiny bit faster, evading repeated strikes from Nyla’s tongue even as it zooms across the valley, back into the swamp. Nyla dispenses with delicacy this time, plunging right into the mud and leveling trees in his haste. He’s gaining, and the cat glances back, yelps in alarm, and then swerves sideways into a viney bramble. Nyla overshoots and then wheels around, snarling indignantly and stirring up a swamp puddle-
He stirs up bubbles. They pop, and Kuzon gags, suddenly hit with the smell of a sewer. Nyla outright howls as the swamp gas addles his nose, and he bucks them both right off. Ducking, June dodges a wild lash of his tongue. Kuzon just barely avoids getting smushed by a falling tree, downed by a flailing tail.
“I’ll handle Nyla,” June barks. “You get the cat.”
“How?” Kuzon splutters.
“Box it in with fire!”
“What if the gas explodes?”
Then Nyla nearly gets him with the tongue, and he wisely follows orders and scampers away. He dives into the bramble, and June loses track of him. All her attention’s sucked up by subduing a raging shirshu.
It takes a couple minutes, but she succeeds. She may be panting and covered in mud, but she’s back on Nyla’s saddle, holding the reins as he snuffles pathetically beneath her.
“You’re okay, baby,” she croons, rubbing his neck. “I’ll lead us for now.”
It occurs to her that she doesn’t know the quickest way out of the swamp.
Also, she’s lost her fourteen-year-old apprentice, who would know the quickest way out.
For a moment there’s no sound but Nyla’s whining, and the gurgling of swamp water, and the occasional croak from a frog. Then in the distance she hears a plausibly human grunt of exertion, and a decidedly feline shriek.
Smoothly, she nudges Nyla in that general direction. He shuffles forth timidly, nose still plugged, taking one step at a time. She’s got him up to a trot by the time Kuzon reappears, slicing through the net of vines with a dagger. He’s soaked, and caked with mud and greenery, and there’s a wailing cat trapped in the crook of his arm. It’s limp like a sack of turnipotatoes.
“I paralyzed it,” he says with all the weariness in the world. “Took pretty much every dart I had ‘cause it kept dodging...”
June inspects it for a second and holds up a coil of rope. “I’m not taking any chances.”
Colonel Shinu of Pouhai Stronghold stares down at the cat, trussed up with several feet of rope, hissing madly with murder in its eyes. “You want me to pay you for that.”
June’s jaw drops. “If you even think about stiffing us after the day we’ve had-“
“What my master’s getting at,” Kuzon cuts in smoothly, holding his head high as if he’s not splattered head to toe in muck, “is that we were hired to solve the stronghold’s security issue. That’s what we’ve done.”
“You expect me to believe our defenses were breached by a cat?”
“I expect you to believe your defenses are nearly perfect, and could only be breached by a creature like a cat,” Kuzon replies, not even blinking. “Your guards were dedicated and loyal.” He glances at June, who rolls her eyes but doesn’t interrupt. “Your construction is solid, without any holes a human could exploit. The only opening was the vent in the wall- relatively small, but just big enough that a cat could squeeze itself through.”
“Pour itself like a waterbender,” June mutters.
Kuzon chuckles, but a moment later he’s back to his serious explanation. “This explains several other odd facts. Like the birds’ wounds, which don’t look like normal injuries from weapons, but absolutely could have resulted from small claws or teeth. Like the fact that the hawks never raised the alarm until it was too late- cats are smaller than humans, and they’ve been trained by nature to sneak up on birds. Finally, don’t you think a human who made it into that room would’ve opened the cage doors to remove a bird entirely, or at least do more damage? The only good reason not to is if the invader physically couldn’t break a lock. And this cat can’t do that, or else it would’ve eaten the birds entirely, not just whatever it could reach from outside.”
The colonel paces back and forth, clenching and flexing his fists. There’s smoke coming off of them.
“How,” he demands, “do you know it’s this cat?”
Kuzon looks to June, who simply answers, “Nyla. Our shirshu tracked a hair from the stronghold to this cat.”
“Double-checked it right before turning darling Miyuki in.”
Hearing its name, the cat hisses extra-hard at June. She sweetly smiles back.
“This is a significant strategic victory for you,” Kuzon adds. “You know how the attacks were happening, and you can take steps to prevent it. We identified and found the culprit for you, just like we were ordered, and it’s only right for you to pay what we agreed. It’d be dishonorable to back out now.”
“Dishonorable”’s a magic word, going by the way Colonel Shinu’s expression crumples. June won’t even charge for it.
“Very well,” he says with a sigh. “We’ll confine...the culprit in our most secure facilities. You will receive the full bounty.”
“Smart,” says June.
For his part, Kuzon replies with a deep bow, hands forming a flame. The colonel immediately replies in kind.
Even Yawen’s half-hour lecture about the definitions of “simple” and “safe” and “easy” can’t dampen June’s mood, or Kuzon’s. He’s smiling brilliantly as he emerges from Yawen’s clutches, his numerous claw scratches all disinfected and wrapped in bandages. He’s got a bounce in his step all the way to the tavern.
The second he enters, the regulars size up the bandages and the matching smiles he and June are wearing, and they throw up a cheer.
“Boy finished his first job!”
“Get him a bowl of noodles, Fire Nation-hot!“
“Hey, who’d you catch? A kidnapper? A murderer?”
Kuzon whips his head back and attention, apparently dizzied by the attention. “Uh, the Fire Nation army had a bit of an animal issue. With a, uh...” He glances at June. “With a komodo rhino.”
June’s eyes glint with amusement, but she doesn’t miss a beat. “One got lost in a battle, couple days back. By the time we got to it, it was out of its head. Nearly mauled Kuzon here to death.”
Kuzon whispers in her ear before they sit down: “Komodo rhinos are really sweet-tempered.”
“Practically gored him with that horn,” June calls, even more loudly. “Lucky he’s the fastest little fighter I’ve ever met.”
Kuzon rolls his eyes, but then he grins again, tucking into the bowl of noodles that’s already materialized before him, blazing red. They keep fielding questions, cast their way from every corner of the tavern. They set to writing his legend.