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Careful not to lose his supper to extending elbows and grand gestures, Meryn moved through the crowded inn. Twice did he stop to accept the praise of drunk patrons, more so because they seized his arm or shoulder before he could move away. With pained smiles and nods, he listened.

That was the issue of performing in the countryside. A gleeman drew eyes here. Everyone watched the man with the patchwork cloak, and everyone listened when he spoke - be it high or plain chant. It was a double-edged sword. It gave a sense of safety, knowing that there were always people who'd notice when you were in trouble. Knowing that you couldn't be ambushed without at least someone knowing. Yet that also meant he could never fully disappear from the public eye. Never merge into a crowd or leave town without someone knowing.

It was how the guild had caught up to him over five times already. Nowadays, he was more careful in covering his steps. More cautious not to make the same mistake twice. Sometimes leaving unseen was as easy as hiding his cloak and baggy clothes and riding out during the night. At other times, it had taken distractions. Once, it had come down to a fight. The deadly game of cat and mouse he played with them, however, had culminated into an array of useful skills.

Like knowing when he was being followed.

His brown eyes darted around, never resting in one spot too long, as he took in the faces of the patrons. He sought for signs, however subtle, that the figure stalking him through the crowd toward the stables wasn't acting alone. He made sure to take his time to reach the door to be certain that the figure had no helpers. When he was, Meryn slipped through quickly.

The door creaked as it opened, letting through noise, warmth, and light that made the young stableboy on the other side jump up. Meryn glanced at him but dismissed the kid's presence immediately. When he first came in early in the afternoon, to drop off his belongings and saddlebags, he had promised the kid three silver pieces to keep quiet and leave him be. The mere mention of three silver pieces had made the kid's eyes bulge.

Now came the time to really put it to the test.

As soon as he was through the door, Meryn stepped aside and hurriedly put down his supper. His eyes flashed to his belongings lying near the haystack about fifteen paces away. Among them were three bundles of oiled cloth. Three perfect examples to illustrate why the guild wanted him dead. Like I'll go that easily. He reached for the dagger hidden in his green leather vest.

The second the figure following him would step through the door, he'd drag them aside and pin them to the wall with a dagger to the throat. The blade gleamed in the lamp's light. "I won't go that easily..." He muttered once more, to himself.

@Algarus

Slowly, Meryn Rohald moved his hands over the snares of his lute to set in the first chord of River Irallel. His patchwork cloak fluttered as he spun to face the other side of the crowded inn, and it took only two rythmic stamps on the table he stood on for the soldiers to recognize the song and clap along. Laughter filled the common room of The Nine Rings Inn, but Meryn couldn't help but shoot a glance at Master Rowen, as he had done many times this night. The only thing that seemed to calm Master Rowen - the plump, grey haired innkeeper - was when the crowd laughed. It hadn't escaped his notice how, whenever he took a short pause between songs and acts, Master Rowen dabbed his forehead with a dirty rag to hide how profusely he was sweating. Meryn thought that the man would burst the second he had recognized the tune of his previous song, The Fool Who Thought He Was King. Like the soldiers would've burned down his Inn had they felt offended. As if they wouldn't lynch me first.

He was approaching the end of his act. The night was still young, but he had only agreed to entertaining the guests in return for a warm meal and a place to spend the night. Now that the scent of broth and roasted chicken found its way to his nose, he thought it was about time for his payment.

"That'll be all for now lads." Meryn said after he played the final note. He moved to the edge of the table that had served as his stage, careful not to knock over any mugs of ale, and found his way to the dirty floor in one elegant motion.

Master Rowen was beside him in an instant. "Can't you entertain them for just a while longer gleeman?" The innkeeper pleaded. "If it's coin you want, I can pay. Yes, I'll pay."

Meryn brushed a lock of golden hair out of his face. "The followers of the F-" he caught himself in time. "of the Dragon won't burn down your inn without my stories, songs, and acts Master Rowen. Just keep the ale flowing and you'll have nothing to worry about." A look at the innkeeper told him the man was not convinced. Wearily, he added "But maybe I'll slip in an act or two after supper." The innkeeper's eyes shone.

"Then let's get you something to eat, eh?" Master Rowen turned. "Hilde!" Meryn nearly jumped at the innkeeper's sudden shout. A woman, seemingly twice the size of the innkeeper, appeared in the doorway of the kitchen with her arms crossed under her chest and her brow furrowed. "Fetch something to eat for the gleeman!"

Before Meryn could make a remark, the innkeeper guided him -somewhat forcefully- by the arm toward the counter. Muttering a 'thank you', Meryn took place on a barstool that had clearly seen better days.

While he turned on his stool to observe the crowd, Meryn caught on to the conversation next to him. "-heading for Jurene. Probably want to cut us off from Kinslayer's dagger." Meryn cast a sideways glance he was sure the three men beside him wouldn't notice. They wore dull red gambesons, almost as worn as their grizzled, scar-covered faces. Men from the borderlands, Meryn guessed.

The bald man closest to him sniffed loudly. "Whitecloaks. Fools, all of them." He slowly shook his head as he raised his mug of ale. "The Cairhienin won't let an army of Whitecloaks cross the Erinin, no matter the reason."

"As if the Queen of Andor will continue to let them to rally in the first place" the third chimed in. "Can't imagine she's pleased with them gathering in Andor." The other two men nodded in agreement.

Meryn turned away during the short silence that followed, but his interest was reinvigorated when the third spoke up again. "Anyways, the Whitecloaks aren't our biggest problem. Have you heard about them Aiel sightings? Those blasted cave-dwellers showed their faces at Kinslayer's dagger." According to the rumours Meryn had heard, Kinslayer's dagger was where the False Dragon had made camp. It was said that the mountains glowed like a swarm of fireflies during the night, each light a campfire of the dragon's followers. He eyed the men cautiously. He hadn't been sure of it before, but their reactions made him believe the rumours were true.

"Bloody Aiel." The fellow closest to Meryn spat. "What happened to 'em? What did the Lord Dragon do?"

"Put 'em to the sword, that's what he did. Flaming all of 'em." Laughter erupted from their side of the counter.

"Serves 'em right, didn't expect anything less from the Lord Drag-" The innkeeper's return cut him off from the conversation.

"Got some lamb stew and mushroom pasties for you. Enjoy, gleeman." Eagerly, Meryn pulled the plate and bowl toward him.

"Mind if I eat this in the stable? I prefer to eat my meals in peace and quiet." With the haphazard group of bandits and deserters who called themselves 'Followers of the Dragon' occupying Tremonsien, finding a place to sleep had been difficult - even for a gleeman. At first, Master Rowen hadn't been willing to offer a place in his stable either. It had cost him three more silver coins than he'd like to admit, but the harsh rain outside made a roof above his head worth every penny.

Master Rowen shot him an exasperated look. "Don't startle the horses."

Meryn grinned and raised his hands. "They won't even know I'm there." With the prospect of a quiet place to eat and smoke his pipe, Meryn took his supper and made way for the stable.

@Algarus
Izan’s gaze swept through the tavern, resting on the faces of the customers. It didn’t escape his notice that the majority of them were gruff and broad-shouldered seamen. Some, judging by their earrings, bracers, and necklaces of animal bones, hailed from the Water tribes. But there were more locals, formerly citizens of the Earth Kingdom.

Left from the doorway, slightly angled toward the corner, was a table occupied by off-duty soldiers from the Fire Nation. Unlike him, they wore dark crimson and black clothes, some of them even armor – the state of which betraying that they were all part of the local garrison. At the head of the table sat a woman whose laugh made the flames in the oil lamps dance.

He made the link quickly. She was a firebender, one so extraordinarily gifted that they could set a tree ablaze with a sneeze.
Izan folded his arms, leaning forward to study the group a bit better. The absence of their topknots, the Fire Nation hairstyle that symbolized one’s personal honour, spoke volumes about them. Their lack of care too.

A man to the woman’s right with graying sideburns swept his arm around the waist of a waitress passing by. His chair creaked under his weight, wine spilling over his sleazy armour. The other soldiers laughed, no doubt at his poor attempts to seduce the girl.

Her wide-eyed expression made the barkeep come over. He said something Izan couldn’t hear over the loud noise of conversation in the tavern. But the face of the soldier, twisting in a fit of anger, made the guess rather obvious.

The soldier sprung to his feet, his chair falling over behind him. In an instant, it grew silent.

“Please, just leave her be. She’s my daughter. I’ll give you another round on the house.” The barkeep pleaded.

“You think I care?!” The soldier spat. “Everything in this forsaken city belongs to us now! You don’t like that? Then maybe you should’ve fought harder!”

Several of the men Izan had identified as water tribe rose to their feet. Instinctively, his hand shifted to the dagger hidden under his cloak. Things were taking a turn for the worst.

“You may want to settle down, friend.” An older man who previously sat with the water tribe intervened. “If it truly is conflict you are looking for, I recommend traveling east.”

The light of the oil lams dimmed. “I believe you are missing the point.” Slowly, the Fire Nation woman stood up. “Like Xu-pa says, we conquered this place.” Her gaze moved over the tavern’s crowd. “We lay down the law in this place.” She deliberately left another pause. “Disobeying our will, resisting us, is seen as breaking the law. And you know what punishment follows.” She opened her hand to reveal a flickering ball of flame. “You will be branded a criminal. And you will burn.”

The barkeep took a step back, raising his hands. “I… I did not mean to offend you or your company, Lady Maiko.”
Izan’s nails dug into the palms of his hands as he balled them into fists. This was Guard-captain Maiko? The highest-ranking officer in the city, whom he was supposed to help? The incompetence of Governor Jong had angered him. But the corrupt nature of the high-ranking officers sent him reeling over the edge. He leaned into the positive jing, reaching the center of the action before he had even realized it. Briefly, he entertained the thought of challenging them to an Agni Kai one by one. But that would mean there was any semblance of honour to fight over. And that he would have to firebend.

“Captain Maiko.” He addressed her with an icy tone, pulling his hood back as he stepped forward. “I believe that we should have a word.” His amber eyes shifted to her company. “Alone.”

Maiko pursed her lips. The flame in her hand faded. Before she could respond, Xu-pa stepped in to block his view. He was too close, forcing Izan to smell his breath. “And who, by the Avater herself, do you think you are?!” He spat out the words and poked a finger at Izan’s chest.

Izan sighed. He hadn’t wanted this to escalate any further than it already had. But the temper of a firebender was like the element itself, uncontrollable.

Before anyone could tell what had had happened, Xu-pa stumbled back, roaring in pain. All seven Fire Nation soldiers shot up, blazing flames springing from some of their fists as they sought to incinerate him immediately.

They were stopped at the last second by Maiko herself, who studied the thin dagger Izan held in his hand.

Xu-pa, clutching his bleeding hand, stared at her. Furious. “He cut off my finger! Why don’t you kill him!?”

“Because, Xu-pa, he’s from the Fire Nation.” Maiko’s piercing gaze was fixed on Izan. Izan could’ve sworn she was suppressing a smile.

Xu-pa was far less amused. “That’s not an excuse!” He shot a look at Izan again. “You, you bastard... I challenge you to an Agni-kai.”

Maiko let out a low whistle. “Are you sure about that? Do you not recognize him?” She chuckled. “You’re looking at Captain Izan of the third legion. Better known as the Blade of Makapu”

What a way to announce my presence. Izan thought.

Xu-pa turned pale. “Wait-“

“I accept.”

“I meant no-“

“Tomorrow at noon. Fortress gates.” Izan could almost see the beads of sweat forming on the man’s brow.

“Bu-“

“You heard him.” Maiko interjected. “Now leave us. We captains do indeed have business to discuss.”

Izan could feel the nervous and prying eyes of the people on him, despite their attempts to avoid his gaze. It made their march through the city nothing short of uncomfortable. Anyone could tell that the people of Goju city did not want them here. Even now, three months after stability had returned to the city, he could see the defiance in their faces. For some it was fear instead. Fear of punishment, or perhaps fear for the lives of the Earth-benders that had been taken from their families.

He detested it.

His father had taught him the importance of authority, discipline, and honour. The lords who ruled the islands of the Fire Nation were supposed to lead by example. If anything, they were supposed to be fair and just to those under them. Was it just or honourable to inflict fear upon the people? He thought not.


Relief washed over him when the inner walls of the city came in sight. Their eyes were immediately drawn to the decorated building of wood and stone that towered over the walls. Jigu Castle, Izan recalled. For a while, it had been the base of operations for the south-eastern war effort. After the front had moved up, however, it had become the residence of the Fire Nation-appointed governor.

Once they were no less than twenty-meters away, the five men who guarded the thick, wooden gate finally bothered to get up. Izan eyed them up and down as they approached. All of their sleazy, stained, and mismatched uniforms were adorned by red sashes, indicating their status as Fire Nation soldiers. The one in front, a sun-burnt man with scabs all over his bald head, was the only one not carrying a pike. A fire-bender, Izan guessed.

With an audible lack of interest, the bald soldier spoke up. "And you are?"
"Captain Izan. Third Legion." Izan said curtly.
That piqued his interest. "Third legion, eh? You look a little worse for wear." The bald soldier grinned, exposing a set of yellow teeth. "Heard some rumours about a defeat at the Meijang crossing," Izan's golden eyes narrowed into a glare that made him hesitate. "they... true?"
"That's not your concern," Izan glanced at the soldier's dull insignia. "Lieutenant." He spoke the last word with clear disdain. He knew of the poor reputation the coastal garrisons had. The Fire lord's priority was conquest, and therefore the frontline. It showed in the poor upkeep of the garrisons left behind. That was why these were usually made up of thugs, low-lives, and cheap mercenaries. Judging by their appearance, that was the case for Goju's garrison as well.
"Now let us through. I don't want to keep the governor waiting."

After parting with his men in the spacious servant building, Izan made his way through the courtyard to the castle's keep, where the governor had taken up residence. It was a massive building of dark wood and stone, with olive-green terracotta roof panels. Izan had taken a moment to wash up, and change his armour for a modest dark-red robe. The two guards stationed on both sides let him through without so much as a second thought. It truly made him wonder if all it took was some silk and the colour red to infiltrate the castle.

A castle which, inside, felt like an entirely different world. No expenses were spared in decorating the place, from the decorative carvings in the wooden furniture to the porcelain vases that housed exotic plants. The only form of conflict he found in the castle's halls, was the contrast between the red tapestries and green accents in the furniture and accessories. Then there were the overly eager servants. Men and women from Earth Kingdom descent, who made it seem as if their lives depended on keeping the porcelain stainless.

With his helmet under his arm, Izan continued to the audience chamber. The helmet bore the insignia of the third legion; a flame-like crown. It was the sole identification he had of his rank, and Izan had created a habit of bringing it along on meetings such as these. Considering how out-of-touch with reality the governor's castle seemed, it felt like the right call too. Entering the audience chamber, Izan sat down on the Zaisu positioned in front of the elevated platform that no doubt belonged to the governor. As far as first impressions did, Izan didn't hold the man with his luxurious tastes in high-regard.

After a long wait, someone accompanied by four servants finally shuffled into the room. A man in his mid-thirties, with a long well-kept moustache and hair tied in a knot on top of his head in typical Fire Nation style. His silky crimson robes adorned with gold were clearly supposed to make him appear grand and dignified. His slightly hunched posture and darting amber eyes, however, did not add to the pretence. The governor reminded Izan of a deer. Any sudden moves, and the man was guaranteed to jump up and flee.

Once the governor was seated, one of the servants directly behind him spoke up. "The Illustrious Governor Jong will now hear your request." Illustrious was quite an unfitting title for the man, or so Izan thought.
"I am Captain Izan of the Third Legion. We were told to regroup at Goju in the event of a loss at the Meijang crossing." He began calmly. "We will stay here until further orders are received from General Ozoru." He made sure to issue it as a statement, instead of a request. It was a not-so subtle way to undermine the governor's self-perceived power. "Be ready to accommodate for at least seven cohorts."
"W-w-wait." Governor Jong stuttered, his eyes bulging. "Seven cohorts?!"
"Goju can only accommodate the four cohorts sent to Meijang!" the servant snapped.
Izan's gaze slowly moved to her. "And yet those are General Ozoru's orders." When the servant looked as if she was going to protest again, Izan quickly continued. "The Fire lord wants Omashu to fall before winter. Therefore, crossing General Ozoru would mean crossing the Fire lord." Izan stopped there, letting the Fire lord's infamy for excessive violence do the rest.
After a moment of silence, Governor Jong admitted defeat. "The p-p-preparations will be m-m-made..."
Izan nodded. "Good. Then this concludes our meeting." Despite the hierarchy here in Goju, it was clear who had been in charge of the conversation. Perhaps that was why Governor Jong preferred not to show his face in public. Izan imagined that, upon hearing him, the people would rise up in an instant.

As he stood up, he saw Governor Jong pull the servant's sleeve in the corner of his eye. "Captain Izan. A final word please." Izan turned to face them once more. "Captain Maiko of the garrison could probably use your help." Probably being the key word, Izan thought. "She has been dealing with nightly... disappearances. So far, she has been unsuccessful. Perhaps you could aid her in solving these crimes during your stay." The servant glanced at the window, through which the day's final rays of sunlight shone. "You will probably find her in a tavern by this hour."
Izan made a short bow and directed his attention to the governor. "With all due respect, Governor Jong, that is your problem to solve. Mine is the siege of Omashu." With that, he left the silent and perplexed governor alone with his servants.

Yet the sight of dusk outside left him with mixed feelings. Discipline, honour, and justice. Those remained his values. If it was truly in his power to stop the disappearances, then could he sit idly by?

Izan let out a sigh. Not every choice was as easily made as this one.



Donning a dull green cloak over a ragged earthen-brown tunic, Izan made his way through the slithering streets of the city. He was not foolish enough to wear Fire Nation garments in the streets at night. A three-month occupation was not enough to stop Fire Nation citizens from being dragged into back alleys and be beaten or lynched. To prevent that from happening, the governor had issued a curfew. One that apparently began at midnight, and could easily be bypassed by bribing the right guards. Not that that was of his concern. No, all he cared about was meeting with this 'Captain Maiko'. First he planned to study her from a distance to gauge what kind of person she was. Then, he would make his decision.

Izan opened the door of the first tavern he'd try for the night. Immediately, he was greeted by the warmth and laughter of the crowd inside. A good starting point, or so he'd thought. Blending in, Izan weaved his way through the crowds to a table in the back. He had no intention of staying if this 'Maiko' wasn't present, which was why he withheld from signalling one of the girls serving drinks. At least until after he had studied the faces of the crowd. Usually, the captain ranks were given to capable Fire-benders. If that were the case, the golden-yellow eyes of the woman should give her away. If not, the accent or boasting most likely would. But finding those signs took time and patience.

And thanks to curfew, Izan did not know which of the two he was really lacking.
Overview



Setting
This roleplay is based on an alternate universe of the canon setting of the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. Years of rising tensions between the powerful Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom made war seem inevitable. It was the secret love between Fire princess Akemi and Earth Prince Hao that unleashed it. Three years have passed since the start of this devastating war in the absence of an Avatar.


Locations

Izan ignored the painful blisters as he dragged his feet over the makeshift road, kicking up dust clouds as he marched along. The heavy armour that had been his saving grace in the battle three days ago, was now a curse that drenched him in sweat and burdened his every step. But Izan knew very well that rest without shade or water was no option. He glanced over his shoulder to check on the thirty-or-so soldiers that walked behind him. Their red and black armour, like his own, was smeared with dirt and dried blood. Some of them limping, others holding on to their broken spears as support. The only comforting thought was that the forces of the Earth Kingdom they had faced were in a similar state.

It had been almost three years since they had last been home. Three years, since the newly-ascended Fire Lord had united the islands and declared war upon the Earth Kingdom. While he had claimed his reasoning to be the abduction of his sister by Earth Prince Hao the Third, all of the minor lords knew that tension between the two nations had been brewing for a long time. It was why the call to arms came as no surprise. Yet he hadn't been ready for it. While he was technically a Lord, the rally had come so shortly after his father's passing that he had never gotten the chance to truly establish himself as one.

He locked eyes with Norio - a tall Fire bender who had served as one of his father's senior officers in the past. "You smell that?" Norio began with a sheepish grin. "That's gotta be the coast."

Izan nodded. "We're not that far away from Goju. We'll meet up with the local garrison there, and await our next orders."

"Goju?" Norio asked, his thick brow furrowing. "Last I heard that place was a warzone. For a city known for their dyes, they've been putting up quite a bit of resistance."

"That was three months ago. Earth-bending has been outlawed and the garrison has even issued a curfew." Izan explained. Access to information was one of the few things he appreciated about his rank and status. "If anything, it'll at least be better than camping by the road." He finally decided to add.

It took just a little over two hours before they reached the stone walls of Goju city. It had been an important trade city before the coming of the Fire Nation. It was nowadays a key harbour in the supply route that stretched further inland toward the frontlines. But the city had retained much of its character. Namely, the city-spanning fabric and dye market.

Even on a hot afternoon such as this, the market was wide awake. The shops were stuffed, manned by their owners, who shouted their prices like auctioneers. It was necessary too, for the street vendors obscured them from sight. Their stands narrowed the streets leading up to the market square, providing little leeway to the mass of people who were out and about in the heat. Only the vendors seemed blessed by patches of shade that kept them out of the harsh sunlight.

Izan didn't need to raise his voice to make the people move out of his way. He never did. Despite the state of them, the citizens of Fire Nation occupied cities knew better than to cross them. Yet he couldn't stop them from whispering as they passed through.

"Look, they must've been at Meijang."
"I heard that the Fire Nation is losing ground."
"It won't be long before they're gone here as well."

He could almost feel the unrest among his own men. It would only take one bad decision to create a street-wide conflict. Izan could hear Norio mutter under his breath to the men beside him."Move along. Give them no reason to spread rumours."

It was the rising tension that made him realize coming here was a mistake.
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