As Zuko, Jong, and Zhin approached the next town, they paused outside to confer regarding the situation. "We're a bit short on money and supplies," Jong pointed out. "We need to find a way to resupply."
"Well, begging's out," Zhin replied. "We don't look pathetic enough. We all look well fed, even with our clothes looking ragged we look well kept, and our muscle definition is plain."
"How do travelers normally get money when they're short?" Zuko asked.
Jong shrugged. "Haven't met any travelers of that sort before. Though I'd guess they'd work for it."
"Odd jobs and the like?" Zuko clarified.
"Yeah," Zhin confirmed. "Of course, those odd jobs are generally dirty. They're the jobs the local townsfolk are either unwilling or unable to do themselves."
"Then we'll just have to do that, then," Zuko stated. "It's the only option we have available."
"It would be best if we each tried to get our own 'odd job' in town," Jong indicated. "Three people all together wouldn't be hired for the smaller jobs, and there's going to be more small jobs than big ones."
"That means each of us is going to have to be humble, begging for work," Zhin added with a smirk. "Can you be humble, Highness?"
Zuko glowered at him until all three burst into laughter.
By the end of the day, the trio had gone through town, getting whatever work and payment they could. Once they were done, they met up on the other end of town.
"Alright," Zuko began, looking somewhat downtrodden. "What'd you two manage to get?"
Jong jangled his purse. "Quite a few of the roofs had leaks, especially on the homes of the elderly. No one was rushing since we're past the rainy season, but they were appreciative of the effort."
Zhin set down a bag full of meat cuts. "The local butcher's assistant had slipped and broken his leg. I did all the carrying he needed for the next few days, and he paid me with all the meat cuts he couldn't sell, along with a few good cuts. The good cuts will make good meals tonight, and we should be able to smoke the rest for travel rations rather easily."
"How'd you do, Zuko?" Jong asked. He then waved his hand in front of his face. "And...what's that smell?"
Zuko frowned, glancing away. "I mucked out the ostrich-horse stables," he grunted unhappily. "I was paid in rice and cabbages, and I need a bath." He turned back to glower at the other two as they chuckled.
"There's a pool nearby, spillover from the river," Jong mentioned after a quick look at the map. "We'll carry all the new supplies until you get cleaned up. If you're careful, you can even heat the pool a little."
The pool wasn't far, and Zuko eagerly used the cold water to cleanse himself of the stench of the stables. Meanwhile, Jong worked on smoking the meat after cutting away the excess fat and a few of the spots that had started to go bad. Zhin noticed the one part of Zuko's belongings that wasn't stinking of ostrich-horse droppings. "Any new messages from Mai?" he asked, nudging the pouch gently.
"Not since she confirmed that Azula had recruited her and Ty Lee to hunt down Uncle, Cadence, myself, and the Avatar," Zuko replied, getting out of the pool. He bent his fire inward to generate enough heat to quick-dry himself and his clothes. Taking the pouch, he hung it back around his neck. "She said she'll try to keep me informed...but I honestly hope she doesn't. I'd rather be sure she's safe than having her risk Azula's wrath to protect me."
"I wonder how Iroh and Cadence are doing?" Jong spoke up, packing up the smoked meat.
Zuko stared into the campfire, where the meal for the night was cooking. "I've been trying not to think about it..."
As Iroh and Cadence entered the small village together, they sat down by the side of a major thoroughfare. Iroh laid his hat upside down in his lap, content to beg for the odd coin. Cadence, for her part, curled in his lap and looked up pleadingly at anyone who paused long enough to consider adding a coin or two. She was very good at it, and to preserve the image of 'desperate beggars', Iroh had been forced to empty his hat into a bag behind him several times.
At first, Iroh felt guilty about asking for more money when they'd already been given so much. Then he thought about how quickly they'd gone through the money they'd brought from the ship, just to keep them both fed. Despite her size, Cadence ate quite a bit, and fresh produce was both expensive and difficult to come by during a war. In point of fact, the only one that was relatively easy to acquire was cabbages. Unfortunately for Cadence and the cabbage merchant, Cadence proved to be allergic to the vegetable, resulting in explosively sneezing if she tried to eat any.
At one point, a younger man with a confident swagger approached. "How about some entertainment in exchange for...a gold piece?" He held out the gold coin like a taunt.
Iroh started to stand up, ready to sing for the coin, since gold would get them much farther than the silver and copper they'd been getting. Before he could, however, he found his pipa in his hands, Cadence's head lifted towards the air. Taking the cue, he began to play as Cadence sang.
She didn't sing any words, leaving the impression that she was an animal, a pet...but her voice was pure, sweet, and clear, and before the song had ended the entire village had gathered to listen. As she ended her song, Cadence turned and nuzzled Iroh's side...only to be startled at the thunderous applause and shower of coins. The confident man who'd offered a single gold piece was in tears, and tossed them a full pouch.
That evening, Iroh and Cadence left town on a new ostrich-horse that Iroh had bought, to save the wear on his feet and Cadence's hooves, as well as keep up with Zuko a bit better. "I hope Zuko is doing as well as we are," Iroh murmured.
"I'm sure he is," Cadence replied, tucked in amongst the supplies. "He wouldn't have gone off alone if he couldn't handle himself."