"Hurry up Uncle!" Zuko called from the upper deck. "What's taking you so long?"
Uncle Iroh emerged from his cabin wearing shorts and a gaudy red and yellow short-sleeved tunic. A frayed straw hat perched atop his head, and his straw flip flops threatened to burst off his arthritic, swollen feet. "So, what do you think?" he called to his nephew, grinning. "Ready to have some fun?"
Zuko grimaced at the loud getup. "I'm ready to find the Avatar, if that's what you mean," he descended the stair. "I've sent the advance scout ahead. But tell me uncle, why, exactly, did you instruct them to don civilian clothing for this assignment? I don’t suppose you’re trying to get them shore leave while we’re this close to completing my mission?"
He said my mission, Iroh mentally noted. Anytime they were on the Avatar’s trail, it was always our mission, meaning Zuko’s and the crew’s. But when he was close, he always seemed to take the burden on himself.
He blinked at his nephew. "Prince Zuko, you knew about Ho'Wan Island Carnival: how could you NOT know about the dress code?"
Zuko growled. “Father didn't exactly have the time to take me to an oversized playground with a war going on.”
"Ho'Wan has a strict no-soldiers rule.” Iroh explained. “They have very stringent laws on the people who can enter the carnival, and soldiers are not on their VIP list. Any one who has ever approached the gates in uniform has been turned away – by persuasion, by force, or by...other means."
"I don't see why father hasn't just taken his forces in and crushed this pathetic little island. It's so far from the mainland. What, maybe two or three days by boat?" Zuko thought aloud. "That’d be plenty of time to leave it in ruins."
"It may be in
Zuko pondered this history lesson. His Uncle cleared his throat to get his attention.
"Prince Zuko... you're not going to wear THAT, are you?"
The Prince glanced down at his Fire Nation armour. "What?"
Katara had felt a little uneasy about stopping for the day, but as she and the boys joined the stream of carnival goers heading toward the main gate, she grew giddy with excitement. Neither she nor Sokka had ever been to a real carnival – the closest thing they'd had was lunar celebrations with the Water Tribe, which involved a lot of food and a bit of dancing and singing, and playing in the snow. In other words, every other day with the Water Tribe.
The air was electric with anticipation. The other people traveling the short distance from the ferry to the carnival seemed to come from all around the globe. Most of them were from the
Katara kept hearing snatches of conversations that made her even more excited:
“…Been waiting all year…”
“…I hear the food’s phenomenal…”
“…Dancing Kangabear troupe…”
“…Masks by Madam Façade are legendary…”
“…Asked my wife to marry me here 25 years ago, and here we are again…”
“…If the world were more like Ho’Wan, there wouldn’t be this stupid war…”
And so on, until the bulk of the group arrived at the gates: a massive wall of timber about 20 feet high that made the exterior of the carnival look more like a small fortress. Katara could hear the music and mayhem just beyond those wooden gates. Aang bounced up and down, clutching his glider staff in both hands.
For a second, the gates did not open, and the group began to murmur in bewilderment. Suddenly, a spry looking…something… catapulted over the wall, landing lightly on its toes on a little platform eight feet up on the wall.
It was a tiny man, no taller than Aang. He had a massive grey bush of a moustache and wore raggedy tights sewn from multi-coloured strips of bright cloth and an oddly shaped hat that looked like a potato sack sewn from the same bits of coloured rags. You couldn’t see his eyes through the equally bushy grey eyebrows, but you had a feeling that underneath all that wild, wiry hair, he was smiling broadly at you.
“Welcome all to Ho’Wan Island Carnival!” He squawked, waving his arms wildly. “I am Reechiripee, the mayor of Ho’Wan and all the surrounding isles. But you can all call me Papa Pipi. Hoo-hoo!” he whooped.
This got an open laugh from the rapt audience. The children giggled and guffawed.
“Heh, Pee pee!” Sokka snorted, slapping his knee. Aang was right there with him. Katara smiled.
“You’re all welcome to stay here as long as you like of course, but I have a few rules, and I hope you’ll all do your best to obey them.” Papa Pipi pulled out a long roll of parchment that unscrolled down over the old man’s booted feet and beyond the lip of the platform. The audience sobered and the children sighed in frustration. Get on with it then, Sokka’s face said.
“Rule number one: you can only have FUN in Ho’Wan!”
“Rule number two: if you’re not having fun, TRY HARDER!”
“Rule number three: No weapons, no soldiers, and no disturbing of The Fun. Got that?”
There was some nodding. Papa Pipi gazed at the rest of his list and scratched his head. “Hmm. Looks like I’ve forgotten how to read. Oh well! I can never remember if the rest were important anyhow. Well folks, have fun!”
And with that, Pipi leapt nimbly back over the wall, which immediately began to pull apart, a great sliding door set into the wall of logs.
“Yeah! Woo hoo!” Aang and Sokka scrambled inside, followed by Katara who shouted at them, “Guys, stick together! We don’t want to get lost!”
Katara managed to catch Aang and Sokka by the sleeve and yank them back to her before they disappeared into the crowd.
“Aw, c’mon Katara!” Sokka whined plaintively. “Can’t you smell the food?”
“Aang, this is your day, what do you want to do first?” Katara asked pointedly, half-addressing her brother.
“Uh… I don’t know…there’s so much to see!” Aang’s attention whip lashed around, his wide eyes trying to drink in all the colours, shapes and activity. Sokka’s stomach complained loudly.
“I’m starving...” he groaned. “Can you lend me some money so I can get myself one of those kebab thingies?” he pointed to a nearby stand.
Katara hissed in her brother’s ear, “We barely have any money left. We should try to spend what little we have on supplies for the rest of the trip and the extra should be for Aang’s birthday.”
“Birthday!” Papa Pipi appeared out of thin air at Katara’s elbow, making Sokka yelp. “Did I hear you say it’s your birthday?”
“Uh, no, it’s my friend Aang’s,” Katara explained, gesturing to the giddy little monk.
“Hmm! Well, didn’t you know about our rules here?” Pipi began. Katara’s heart leapt to her throat, a reflex she’d developed since she’d begun traveling with Aang. “All birthday boys and girls… get anything they want to eat and ride for FREE!”
“Really?” Katara thought it was impossible, but she watched Aang’s grin get even wider. Pipi pulled out a metal cuff bangle covered in gold-coloured beads and slapped it onto Aang’s skinny wrist. “Cool!”
“Here, since you’re with him, why don’t you two share his special day – I can see the three of you are as close as peas in a pod,” And with that, Pipi slapped on two more gold-beaded bracelets on each of the Water Tribe children.
“So, we can have anything we want to eat?” Sokka asked slowly.
“And ride anything we want?” Aang chirped.
“You kids have FUN now, you hear?” Pipi leapt away, bouncing on invisible springs in his feet. “And remember rule number two!”
Sokka nearly wept with joy. “Surely you are a gift from the gods,” he said, caressing his bracelet.
“This is great!” Katara turned and shouted, “Thank you, Papa Pipi!”
“You’re welcome!” came the faint reply over the din of the carnival.
“Now, let’s make that statue over there our meeting place in case we get lost,” Katara began. “There are a lot of people here and I don’t want any of us to…” she turned around and realized she was talking to no one “…wander off.”
Katara sighed, rubbing her forehead. Oh well. Might as well make use of the freebies, she thought, heading for the nearest food stall.
“Latecomers!” Papa Pipi announced as he appraised the two before him. One was a stout old man in red and yellow, wearing a frayed old straw hat and sandals. The other was a surly-looking teen wearing simple black silk-trimmed pants and a matching tunic. He seemed to glower at everything. Pipi could see the boy had a nasty burn mark on the right side of his face, though he was trying his best to cover it up with a wide-brimmed straw hat.
“Let us pass,” the teen barked hotly. The old man smacked him smartly across the legs with his walking stick.
“Really son, you should hold your tongue. Don’t you know who you’re speaking to? This is the mayor of Ho’Wan!”
“Right you are!” Pipi was overjoyed. “Come here before, have you?”
“A long time ago,” the old man rumbled. “I was much younger and thinner then.”
“And is this your boy?” Pipi leapt from the platform and landed an inch from the teen. Yes, it was very clearly a burn mark.
“Oh, yes, my son, ah… Kimji.” The old man poked his son in the ribs. “Present yourself to the man, son.”
Kimji glared at his father significantly. Pipi watched, grin still fixed to his face beneath his moustache, as the boy made a short bow at the waist, addressing him with the proper title and form. A well-bred one, if not a little on the nasty side, he thought. Still, Pipi could sense the boy’s desire, the urgent need to pass the gates. He could also sense the boy really, really needed to have some fun. And with a scar like that, he probably needed more than just fun.
“Sir, I like your son. Open and honest-like, he seems,” Pipi ignored the old man’s suppressed snort. “Respectful. Yes. And I likes the two of you, so here’s what I’m going to do for you.”
He whipped out two cuff bracelets and slapped them on their wrists with lightning speed, before the boy could jerk his arm out of the way and take a defensive stance. A fighting stance Pipi had seen before, a long time ago.
“Oh, these are lovely!” the old man admired the red glass beads on the bracelet. “And they match my outfit!”
“Those bracelets are my personal gift to you,” Pipi declared. “They’ll get you anywhere you want to go in the carnival at no charge, and get you some services I think you’ll both enjoy.” He turned to Kimji, and said more somberly, “For instance, sonny, I think you’d enjoy a visit to Madam Façade’s. Ever heard of her?”
“The Glamour Enchantress,” Kimji said after a moment. “I’ve heard of her. I thought she was a hoax.”
“Oh, no hoax. But that bracelet can get you a little session with her. You know what she does, hmm?”
The boy’s yellow eyes narrowed. “I don’t need a mask to hide my face,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Didn’t say you did, m’boy. But I think she can make up something for you that you’d like better. Not a mask, exactly. More like… your true face.”
The old man cleared his throat. “Really, son, thank the man and we can go in and enjoy the day, hmm?”
“Thank you, sir.” The scarred teen said lowly, and the two walked through the open gate.
Papa Pipi watched the two disappear into the crowds, thinking. He bounded away to oversee his kingdom.
“Aren’t we lucky Zuko? Madam Façade is known around the world!” Iroh said, pointing to the bracelet as they navigated the crowd. “Don’t tell me you’re going to pass up the chance to meet her for free!”
“We’re here for the Avatar, Uncle,” Zuko – or Kimji – reminded him. “Or should I call you ‘Dad’?”
“Really son, you hurt an old man’s feelings,” Iroh dabbed his eyes mockingly. “Look! I thought her place was at the other end of the island, but I guess they moved it.” Iroh pointed. They were standing in front of a great house with a steep flight of stairs leading to an oaken door. The sign that swung heavily above it read: “Madam Façade: Glamour Enchantress. Masks, Mystics, and More.”
“Uncle, I’m not going in there,” Zuko turned to leave, but he suddenly spotted a very familiar shade of blue standing against a bright red tent canopy. It was the water bending girl, the one that traveled with the Avatar. But she was alone. Neither her brother nor the monk were anywhere in sight. She was bent over some display and hadn’t spotted him yet, intent on whatever she was looking at.
The prince was suddenly aware that he was standing very conspicuously in the centre of a clear space a little above ground from where the girl was. She would surely recognize him if she looked up. The scar…
Zuko spun around, pulling the straw hat lower over his face. “Uncle, stay here. The Avatar is here, somewhere, and I’ve just spotted one of his companions.”
“Really? Where?” Iroh craned his neck to look around. Zuko grabbed his uncle and shoved him back down.
“I need cover. I need to follow her – she’ll lead me to him.” Zuko hissed.
“If it’s cover you need, young master Kimji, you’ve come to the right place,” a soft, sugary voice floated down from the landing. A tall, willowy woman in her mid-fifties stood at the door, draped in royal purple robes. She eyed Iroh with interest and smiled. “You’re his father? You don’t look alike.”
“He looks more like… his mother.” Iroh looked away, avoiding the woman’s penetrating gaze.
“How did you know… my name?” ‘Kimji’ asked hesitantly.
“I know many things," she intoned ominously. "Also, Papa Pipi told me you’d be coming by. Please, come in, and have a cup of tea,” she floated into the house. Zuko followed her through the door, but stopped his uncle from entering with him.
“Keep an eye on her,” he jerked his head toward Katara. Iroh looked disappointed, but obediently headed back down the flight of stairs.
“People think my trade is in mask making,” Madam Façade explained as they walked though the house. Well, duh, Zuko thought as he passed dozens of display cases brimming to full with hundreds of masks that stared back at him, watching his every movement with empty eyes. Maiden, warrior, priest, monkeys, dragons, clowns, gods, and fantastic creatures he had no names for: they all resided here, faces from humanity’s daydreams and nightmares. A chill tickled Zuko’s spine. Despite his experience with masks, this place was giving him the creeps.
“My art goes far beyond putting plaster and paper and paint together. This–” she gestured around her, “–is just a hobby. No, the art lies in seeing what is behind the mask, getting to know who is beneath it. That’s what I do.”
She led the teen into a darkened parlour lit by a few candles placed on the floor in the centre of the room next to a tea set. A few cushions were piled on the floor. Madam Façade indicated Zuko should sit on one.
“Your scar is not really a part of you,” the enchantress said, touching her own face. “No matter how much you think it is. Your… father… he does not see that scar. Your friends, they do not see your scar. And as long as you don’t point it out, no one else will either.”
Easy for you to say, Zuko thought darkly. You haven’t a single blemish on your withering face, and I don’t have a single friend.
“There is more to your life than how you appear to others,” she continued. “But I think you’ve already figured that out.”
“Honour,” Zuko snapped out automatically. He hadn’t meant to say anything, but this woman was working him over pretty good.
“Yes. And faith. And hope. And love.” Her heavy-lidded gaze flicked over him. Zuko felt the hairs on his neck stand on end. “I can do something for you today that will change …everything. Are you afraid of change?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.” Zuko wanted to shout it at her, but it barely came out as a whisper. He was enthralled. The smoothness of Madam Façade’s voice seemed to wash away all the urgency Zuko had felt just minutes ago. He was looking for someone, wasn’t he? And there was someone waiting outside for him…
“Close your eyes.” Zuko obeyed, relaxing. He felt a coolness brush him, fingertips gently raking his cheeks, and a warm glow in his mind that grew hotter and hotter—
Zuko screamed as he felt the scar burn horribly, as if it were the same day his father had smote him down, the flesh sizzling, his left eye red with burst blood vessels, blinded by the heat. He clutched his face, writhing, barely hearing the woman calling out to him.
And suddenly the pain was gone. Zuko heard himself crying, “Father, father…” and stopped abruptly when he realized it was over. He whirled on the purple-robed woman, his clenched fists engulfed in flames. “What did you do?”
“Ah, a Firebender. I thought so.” Madam Façade remarked calmly. “The spell is complete. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you of the side effects, but you seemed strong. People don’t usually want to go through with it if they know pain’s involved.”
Zuko seethed. He hated being caught off guard. Madam Façade’s eyes flickered over his flaming fists. “I would not try to use your powers here, young man. The locals don’t take too kindly to benders. It’s a bit taboo, with the war going on. We’re not part of that war here, you know. All the nations are welcome to enjoy Ho’Wan, but they have to leave their political differences at the ferry docks.” She poured the tea. “Besides, if you tried to use those powers to harm anyone, the security forces would have you catapulted into the ocean before you could say ‘Lord Ozai.’”
Zuko absorbed her cool voice, realizing what had happened. His flames died abruptly. She had cast her glamour spell. He strode over to the nearest mirror, hoping beyond hope…
…But the scar was still there, purple-red and shiny as ever. He turned to glare at the woman’s reflection in the mirror.
“Nothing’s changed! Why did you bother? What good does this do me?”
“The spell will last until sundown,” Madam Façade smoothly rose from her seat on the floor cushion. “Make the most of it.”
And she floated away, disappearing into the corner of the darkened room, leaving Zuko bewildered, angry, and unable to take his frustration out on anything.
Zuko found his way back along the building’s corridors. He felt himself shaking with an unpleasant cocktail of rage, fear, and shock mixed together. He took a few calming, meditative breaths before he opened the door, and felt the hot sun on his shoulders. “Uncle, has the girl…”
Iroh was staring at him, mouth gaping.
“Uncle, what’s the matter…?”
Iroh staggered towards him, grabbing his face and pulling it down so Zuko was awkwardly bent over. Iroh held the boy’s face between his rough hands inspecting his left cheek. Looking for the burn. The old man had tears in his eyes. “I don’t believe it…”
“Believe what, uncle? What do you see?”
“Your face… it’s just like… before your father…” Iroh staggered back, a touch pale. He shook his head dismissively. “No, no, it’s glamour. Illusion. Still,” he managed to smile at his nephew, “It’s nice to know...”
Realization dawned slowly. Your father does not see that scar. Your friends, they do not see your scar. And as long as you don’t point it out, no one else will either.
So Zuko could see his scar, but his Uncle – and presumably others – could not.
Zuko smiled maliciously. Madam Façade had just given him a foolproof disguise to use until sunset. No one would recognize him, without his distinguishing scar. Not even the Avatar.
“Uncle,” Zuko hissed, “Inform the troop commander that the Avatar is here. Have the troops keep an eye out for him." He shoved his straw hat into Iroh’s hands. "I’m going girl-chasing.”