On the River
Traveling up-river, the party stops to resupply in a small lumber town called Pohuai. Their visit to the market is interrupted by the intense crying of a very young Air Nomad boy. They learn that the boy has lost his young sky bison, Tannu, and all clues point to the creature being killed in a rockslide. A local’s remark about another sky bison’s disappearance only a month ago makes the party suspicious, and they decide to investigate.
The group of Air Nomads tell them what happened as they lead the party just outside town. The rockslide left a large scar up the mountainside. As Hitsu begins to move the rubble, Mayumi flies up to investigate the rockslide’s source. Hitsu uncovers the bumpy yellow rind of a mostly-eaten fruit, but finds no trace of any sky bison’s remains. Mayumi discovers a small ledge that seems to lead nowhere right at the top of the scar. Jang licks the fruit and falls unconscious for several minutes.
Riding up on one of the Air Nomads’ three remaining air bison, Hitsu studies the footprints and determines that they were left by earthbenders in bending stances. Using the footprints as a guide, Hitsu bends the side of the mountain, unsealing a cave entrance. The natural cave has worked stairs and floors and leads down to another sealed entrance just next to the base of the rockslide. In the cave, the party discovers the stem and leaf from a fruit plant and a boat oar. Hai searches the tracks between the rockslide and the riverbank and finds evidence that Tannu may have been dragged to the river.
Theorizing that Tannu may have been captured to be sold to a circus, the group considers making a detour to visit the city of Taku, the largest city in the region and most likely to have a circus. Mayumi and Lily both light up in excitement, as Taku is home to the world-famous Taku Herbalism Institute, and suggest that they could bring the fruit specimens there to see if they could identify it.
The city of Taku grew on a flat expanse on an otherwise rocky mountain shoreline. The most important buildings are built in ziggurat style from the heavy trade influence from the west, with the largest of these housing the Taku Herbalism Institute and looming over the city like a man-made mountain nested back among the natural peaks.
Mayumi, Lily, and Jang (in search of some hot peppers) all darted off to the institute while Inoka, Hai, and Hitsu tried to locate likely buyers for acquired sky-bison.
The exterior of the institute’s multiple levels serves as a terraced garden and arboretum, featuring greenhouses and open areas alike. The party is greeted by Unu, an endearingly short old woman who excels at her job of being friendly and helpful to the institute’s visitors. She quickly identifies the fruit specimens and shows the party to a particularly warm and humid greenhouse room on one of the ziggurat’s sides. There the party is shown the one and only living lemonmelon tree outside of its native habitat, which consists of only a handful of the southernmost islands in the Fire Nation. The tree itself is not large, and its long straight branches droop down to the ground where the growing lemonmelons rest. Unu explains that the sedative properties that Jang experienced are intrinsic to the fruit. She also says that this plant is being studied by only a single herbalist at the institute, a Dr. Kenku, who is not immediately available. The party indulge their other herbalogical interests for most of the rest of the day while they wait for him.
Meanwhile, Inoka learns that the only circus in town already has a sky bison, an adult who is kept by an airbender who appears to be his rightful owner. Hitsu makes some discrete inquiries and sets up a meeting with an underground trader named Fang. Fang says that the market has been hot for sky bison since a couple of buyers showed up earlier in the year and that he was hoping that Hitsu had one that Fang could buy. Fang said that he could give Hitsu his contact, but only for some coin. Hitsu said that he’d have to get it, and that he’d be back with the money.
Unu finally announced that Dr. Kenku was at the institute, and the party went to meet with him. A thin, terse man with a cane and a “thatch roof” haircut, Dr. Kenku seemed annoyed with the party’s questions, telling them little more than they already knew, and refusing to part with a sample from the lemonmelon tree. The party left after purchasing a less-potent sedative, and Unu also gave them a healing elixir.
Regrouping outside the institute, the party updated each other with what they had discovered, and Hitsu borrowed the money he needed from Lily before returning to find Fang. He found Fang outside the tavern where they had met, and Fang seemed surprised that Hitsu had returned, especially with the money. Fang took the money and almost apologetically explained that he didn’t actually have a contact with a buyer, but rather an address. He directed Hitsu to a storage building a few blocks away with a dancing crane decorating its exterior.
Everyone takes up positions around the building. Climbing an exterior wall to look in a high window, Hai, Inoka, and Jang see that the inside of the large building is nearly empty, containing just two Taku guards playing at tiles and a large out-of-place-looking straw mat. Inoka insists that there has to be a hidden trapdoor under that mat, and they decide that they have to get inside.