Avatar Aang looked down and saw a man surrounded by the dead.
A shift of weight, a rustle from his glider, and a rush of wind later, Aang stood in front of the man. There had to be at least a dozen corpses around. Beneath the blood, their uniforms looked green. The man himself wore the garb of one of the Fire Nation's Bending-less soldiers, but all the red had been replaced by black. Perhaps it was a sign of some special rank" That would be helpful. Aang did his best to ignore the macabre scene around him; he was getting good at it. "I'm the Avatar. I need to speak to whoever is in command."
The man bowed formally, his hands arranged in a fist-to-palm manner that Aang had never seen before. "I am honored to meet you. I am Piandao."
Piandao blinked. "I'm sorry; I was giving you a chance to react. It has been a while since my name has gone unrecognized." His mouth twitched slightly. "I am a mercenary, currently employed by General Sou in support of his latest mission. I will take you directly to him."
"Great! Lead the way."
Piandao didn't move. "I need you to surrender your staff to me, and allow yourself to be bound."
"What" Aang was suddenly quite aware of the bodies littering the ground.
"I am placing you under arrest. The Fire Nation has offered a bounty. I am going to collect it." The armored warrior met Aang's accusing eyes, and they were not unkind. "It will go better for you if you don't resist."
Aang mapped it out in his head. He could fight back from three different starting points- a staff strike, Bending palm attacks, or directly blowing a gust at the mercenary. From there, he could transition all three into an attack at his opponent's feet, in case he was still standing. Such a sudden takedown would instill a sense of caution in the mercenary, and Aang could politely restate his request to be taken to General Sou as a guest. The man would accept, intimidated by Aang's speed, skill, and mercy.
The Avatar suddenly realized that he had the blade of a sword pointed at his throat; it didn't waver in the air at all. He looked up at Piandao, who was holding the weapon with his arm extended, waiting patiently for Aang's surrender. The mercenary had worn his weapon so naturally, Aang hadn't even noticed it. He still couldn't recollect any sign of it being grasped or drawn.
Aang smiled sheepishly and dropped his staff.
It wasn't an ideal situation, but it more or less got Aang what he wanted. Granted, he was chained up in a guarded tent in the middle of a Fire Nation army camp, but he was still getting a chance to speak to General Sou. Piandao stood by the entrance, his sheathed sword in hand, as the commanding officer entered.
Sou paused to glare at Piandao. The mercenary bowed his head and spoke politely. "I have not been paid for him yet."
The elder man didn't comment, instead turning his attention back to Aang. "And so the Avatar is delivered to my dominion. It seems that Agni truly does reward His pure-hearted followers."
"I surrendered so that you would hear me out. I have a warning for you."
The general nodded permission.
Drawing a long breath, the Avatar looked Sou in the eyes and spoke. "I just came from the Hu Xin provinces. The Earth Kingdom has completely reconquered them. If you had any military forces there, they're gone. But the colonists... they've been taken prisoner." He paused, remembering what he had seen, what he had heard, risking his life to sneak in to the people. "Most of them who could walk, anyway. The Earthbenders marched them to their new fort; those engineers, the Ba Sing Shi Jun, built it with Earthbending over what looked like one of your supply depots. It seems like a smaller group, and I think they're cut off from the main supply lines, so they're trying to move out all the material using the colonists as human shields."
Sou looked concerned for the first time. Piandao had no reaction.
Aang put everything he had into his gaze, and turned it on the old general. "If you attack that fort, your people will die."
Sou turned away, his gaze unfocused. His lips moved soundlessly as he stroked his beard. After several moments, he turned back to Aang. "What is your suggestion"
Aang sighed as the stress left his body. "I think I can get everyone out, but I need your help. I'll deal with the Earthbenders and keep them busy, while a team of your people gets the civilians out. They can meet up with your main army outside the fort, and get away. The Earthbenders have prepared the terrain, but not for very far. Like I said, it seems to be a smaller crew."
Sou stroked his beard again. "Whatever option we use, I'll need precise information on the general area, and the fort especially. Have they begun moving anything out"
Aang tried to shrug, but the heavy chains wrapped around him made the movement painful. "I don't think so. They were still getting it ready for moving when I left. I think they're also building a tunnel for it all."
"Then we don't have much time. Piandao, would you be so kind as to bring some paper and brush for the prisoner" And unbind one of his hands" I don't think he'll be trying to escape, not as long as we're working together."
The swordsman was still for a moment, and then complied. Aang drew his best idea of what he had seen, aided by General Sou's questions, and explained what couldn't be represented on paper. Sou was quite pleased with the results. "Excellent. You have been a great aid to the Fire Nation, Avatar Aang.
"From everything you've given me, it seems they haven't moved the blasting jelly reserves. A sustained barrage at that part of the fort should set it off and bring the whole fort down."
Aang didn't process what he heard for a few seconds. The roaring of his blood echoed in his ears. "But... the colonists..."
"It's a terrible loss, of course, but there would have been casualties among them anyway. This way, we can take out a skilled team of the Impenetrable Stone Corps with minimal cost to my forces. The Earthbenders in the fort aren't the only ones running on less than optimal numbers." Sou's face never lost its passive blankness. "Piandao, add some extra chains, and also gag his mouth."
Aang didn't have the heart to resist. Piandao was as gentle as he could be, but in the end, the weight of the chains was too heavy for Aang to even stand up. Sou nodded in approval, and spoke one last time before leaving with his mercenary. "I am truly sorry, Avatar, but this is how war is fought. On all sides. It was the Earth Kingdom who involved the colonists. I'm fighting for my Nation's greater benefit. Perhaps if you ally with the Fire Lord, he can arrange to make use of you away from dark business such as this."
Later that day, Aang heard the grind of siege catapults rolling past the camp. He didn't sleep all night. The next morning was quiet, but early in the afternoon, he heard a faint crack coming from a great distance, sounding not unlike a bolt of lightning striking on the horizon. After the sun had set, the sound of grinding wheels returned, along with the pleased chatter of men.
Aang cried silently all night. He sobbed for the dead colonists. He sobbed for Fire Nation soldiers who killed them. He sobbed for the Earthbenders who made such a terrible mistake.
Mostly, he cried for himself. He cried for himself because he knew, without a doubt, that if he had access to his full depth of Avatar power, he would have wiped them all from existence, and felt justified in doing so.
Piandao returned to the tent at dawn. "I felt I should bid you farewell. There is no more immediate work here, and I have been paid for my efforts."
Aang didn't look up at him. "Were you there"
The mercenary didn't even frown. "I was."
Aang let the silence hang.
For some reason, Piandao continued talking. "I wasn't with the catapults, though. I was closer to the fortress when it came down." He looked down at Aang. "The explosion knocked me, and everyone with me, off our feet."
"A company of swordsman I asked to help me. And a group of Fire Nation colonists."
Aang's eyes flew up. "Then..."
"We didn't save them all. Not nearly. The swordsmen were the San Mei Shi, Triple-Plated Gentlemen, an elite group I was paid to assemble and train some years ago. I explained the situation, and asked for their unofficial help. We infiltrated the fortress, liberated one of the stone barracks used to contain the hostages, and led them out just in time. I couldn't tell you how many there were, somewhere from twenty to fifty, perhaps."
Aang felt new tears in his eyes, and this time he couldn't even say why.
Piandao frowned. "...I'm sorry I couldn't save more. I tried... I think I tried my best."
Aang nodded. "You tried. You risked your life and your money to save people."
"I also killed." His voice grew harder. "There were sentries to deal with. It had to been done silently, if we were to succeed. Even an effort this noble requires some compromises. Does that still make it better than Sou's methods"
"I would appreciate an answer. I... am interested in your opinion."
Aang's voice was low. "All I can see is that you were interested in saving people. Not grabbing land, not killing people who might someday be your enemy, not oppressing people who don't want your rule. Maybe that makes me the blindest person in this whole world right now, but... you tried to do the right thing."
Piandao nodded. "An interesting perspective. Compelling, too, in a way. I'll continue to think about it." He bowed formally to the Avatar. "I hope we meet again."
That night, Aang stood up again and flew away.