Azula woke suddenly, and in great discomfort. The seat, which had seemed comfortable enough when she had fallen asleep, had at some point in the night transformed into some exotic torture device, designed to twist the spine into shapes no spine should really be in.
Zuko, showing uncharacteristic forethought, had chosen to sleep on the floor. Azula nearly stepped on him as she made her way outside.
The sun was rising. Azula briefly marvelled that she was up.
She looked around, trying to see if there were any landmarks. There was the extinct volcano that housed the capital.
It looked closer than she would like.
The sun glinted over the lip of the mountain, and Azula squinted and looked away. Closer at hand, the terrain was nothing but grassland on either side of the road. Flocks of koala-sheep grazed in the middle distance.
It was utterly, utterly quiet. Azula found herself shuddering from it.
“Ah, Princess. Would you care for breakfast"” a mournful voice asked.
She almost jumped.
It was that butler. He had stepped out from behind the carriage, firewood in hand.
He had said something.
Azula was beginning to notice things about this man. Such as the fact that everything he said was forced from between his teeth, as if it physically pained him to have to speak at all. And he constantly looked as if the world had fallen apart around him.
“What would the Princess like"”
Azula thought for a moment.
“Oolong tea and thousand-layer sweet cake,” she replied, before remembering that she was no longer at the palace, and no longer had access to the palace's larders.
“Of course, Princess,” he replied, however, and simply bowed. “Will that be all"”
Azula shrugged, internally.
The butler bowed again, and walked back towards the carriage.
Against all expectations, the man had actually managed to produce Azula's request, and a pot of tea was boiling by the time Zuko crawled out into the day.
He looked like hell. His hair was dishevelled, and was escaping its ponytail, and there were bags under his eyes.
“Morning, Azula,” he mumbled, as the butler presented him with a cup of tea.
“Good morning, Zuko,” she replied, distractedly.
There were no more words exchanged between them until Mother awoke. Zuko and Ursa were presented with breakfast, and all three ate in silence, seemingly intent upon their food.
The food was surprisingly good, Azula found. But there wasn't enough of it, because all too quickly they found themselves with no reason to put off the conversation.
“Fat,” Ursa said, sternly. “You said you would explain.”
“That is true, my Lady, and I shall.” He stood slightly straighter, and clasped his hands behind his back, as though he were giving a briefing. “If you will forgive me, I shall make no assumptions as to how much any of you were told, and simply start from the beginning.”
He sucked at his teeth, and looked upwards, towards the horizon. After a moment, it looked like he had come to a decision.
“There is an... organisation, one might call it, dedicated to, and I quote, 'the pursuit and preservation of enlightenment'. That was the initial charter, in any case. A group of men and women who dedicated their lives to erudition. As the generations passed, and their ranks and power grew, they saw themselves in a new light- they began to concern themselves with helping their fellow man, since someone brought up the fact that enlightenment is no good if you then do nothing.
“In recent years, this organisation had become …concerned with the actions of Fire Lord Iroh. Ever since the massacres at Ba Sing Se, it has been universally acknowledged that he is not the man who would heal the world, as more than a few of us had hoped. So a plan was formed, to depose him, and name Ozai Fire Lord. I was the one who made first contact with Ozai, and he agreed to meet with my Master. Between them, they finalised the details of the plan.”
Fat sighed, ever so slightly.
“But we were betrayed. One of the organisation sent the Fire Lord a message, telling him that he could deliver to him traitors, enemies in his court, in return for a reward of some kind. Riches, prestige, something of the sort. Iroh agreed.”
In Azula's mind, a figure sat beneath a cherry tree, a fire in his palm.
“Two days ago, the traitor contacted Ozai, telling him that he was needed, that he was in danger, and needed to go into hiding. An address of a safe house was provided to him.”
A tall figure, slipping out the library door.
“Ozai came, and was met with a few members of the court, all connected with us in one way or another. And the Fire Lord's soldiers attacked. I understand that Iroh had instructed them that there was to be no quarter offered.”
Ursa stared into the fire.
“I see.” She looked up, sharply. “This traitor, do you have him"”
Fat nodded, as if the question were nothing out of the ordinary. “Yes, my Lady. He is a scribe, in-”
“I do not care. I do not want to know who he is, or what he does.” Ursa's nostrils flared as she exhaled. “I want him dead.” Her voice was like ice. “Can you do this"”
Fat paused, his face utterly blank, for a fraction of a second, a halt so minuscule Azula had half convinced herself she had imagined it by the time he started speaking again.
“Of course, my Lady.” He spoke in the disaffected tone of voice he had used to offer breakfast.
Ozai is dead.
Presently, they got moving. Mother was riding up in front, against the very disapproving looks of Fat. Or maybe not. Azula was getting the feeling that his face was just stuck somewhere between disapproving and utterly depressed.
It was getting stuffy and warm in the carriage, and Azula was beginning to understand why Mother was out in the air. A non-firebender would find the air actively unpleasant.
Zuko's voice broke the silence. It was the first anyone had spoken since the wheels had started turning.
“What do we do now"” Azula suggested.
They shouldn't trust this butler. After all, all they had was his word on any of this. He could be working with the traitor. Perhaps he was the traitor. Perhaps there was no organisation of which he had spoken. Perhaps he was working with Iroh.
Perhaps Father was not dead after all.
That last thought was a fantasy too far, and Azula's momentary hopes vanished like dew in the morning.
“I don't know. I just don't know.”
Hard to admit, but she was long past caring.
“We'll think of something,” Zuko attempted to reassure. “We just need... need a little time to think, that's all.”
Azula tried to bring herself to care. The energy was not forthcoming.
She couldn't even summon the will to sit upright.
“Azula.” Zuko's voice came in a snap. “Get up. We don't have time for this self indulgence. We have to come up with a plan now.”
Every instinct in her body told her to get up, get up and pound her brother into the dirt.
So she did.
She spun upwards, fist curling, aiming for a blow straight for his right eye-
-and found herself moving straight into the path of a right cross.
Her eyes crossed, and she slammed heavily back down onto the seat, sprawling, almost more from surprise than the force of the blow.
It had been a long time since anyone had been able to hit her.
“Are you awake yet"” Zuko asked.
Azula didn't dignify him with a response, instead using her tongue to make sure she still had all of her teeth.
“I didn't want to do that, Azula. I don't understand what's going on any more, I hate what I do understand, and if it were up to me I'd hide in my room and never come out right now and I know you feel the same. But we can't. We don't have the time, or the space, and I need you with me, Azula. You're smarter than me, we both know that, and I need you here, now.” He looked almost ashamed to admit it.
But he was right, damn him.
“I wish I wasn't.”
The letter arrived this morning. About ten more have followed it.
The first that followed pinned the blame on a routine police action gone wrong. A tragic accident.
The next blamed a man within our own circle.
So did the next one. But it was a different man.
I tried to follow, but it was no use. The information is old, stale, and besides, what am I to do about any of it"
And no one involved is above suspicion any more.
Well, there is one man who I believe I can trust. Who I can trust, because if I can't trust him there was no hope for the plan from the beginning.
Not that there's any hope for the plan now.
I looked up, as a messenger-hawk tapped at the window.
Azula was taking her turn sitting up front.
She would admit, the breeze was pleasant. And she was seeing more of the Fire Nation than she ever thought she would.
But Zuko had been right. She needed to think, for everyone. At least until Iroh was dead.
That was a goal, one easy to visualise. Iroh dead, Zuko and Ursa safe. Then Father would have been avenged.
“So, Fat,” she said. “Where are we"”
“We are south-west of the capital, my princess. Somewhat less than a day's ride, I am afraid. The roads out here are in poor repair, and I do not dare take any of the major ones.”
“I see. And where are we going"”
“With your permission, and with that of your brother and the Lady Ursa, I am planning on taking you away from the Fire Nation.”
Fat hardly reacted.
“It is not my place to say, Princess, but the Fire Nation is not safe for you at present. We do not know who may be coming after you, or what intent they may have. For now, the Earth Kingdom is the safest place for you.”
After a few moments in which Azula did not react, he sighed, as if the world were asking things of him once again, and really he had just sat down for the third time and couldn't the world solve its own problems once in a while"
“Call it a …tactical withdrawal. Once things have calmed down, and the situation in the capital is once more comprehensible, then I am sure you will be free to return.”
A tactical withdrawal. A period to train, gather information. Yes, that was acceptable.
“Thank you, Princess.”
I read the letter.
Slowly, like the dawn breaking through heavy fog, we had a plan once again. A glimmer of purpose.
I had to pack.
You have no doubt heard about the bad business here. I have taken matters into my own hands, somewhat. I hope that you can forgive the indiscretion.
I paid at the bar, hefted my bag onto the back of my eelhound, and turned him towards the smell of the sea.
I have been forced to abandon my position at the palace, and have with me in tow the Lady Ursa, Princess Azula, and suddenly-Crown Prince Zuko. We are headed towards the usual port of call.
I rode for hours, as fast as I could, and nearly wore my beast out. But it was worth it, and by dusk I had pulled in to a tiny port village.
There was one ship in the dock, looming over the town like an overly friendly drunk stranger, and the town was trying to figure out exactly when the ship would turn violent and demand money. Or yell some incomprehensible and angry question and expect a response.
Based upon your last published location, I have taken the liberty of making arrangements, and if all goes well, I shall see you within the week. Should you choose to be at Ho Sang village by sundown on the third of this month, of course.
Renting space at the stable for my eelhound, I rushed to the dock. The sun was nearly down.
Your faithful servant,
The man on the gangplank opened his arms wide, and grinned, showing off gold.
“Piandao, lad. How's life"”
I nodded, breathlessly, and grinned in return.
Fat, you magnificent bastard. I am forever in your debt.