The road was straight as an arrow, a dark line bisecting fields turned to silver by the moonlight.
They had come this way, I was sure of it.
I could have gone straight to the town, and met them when they arrived. It would have been faster, and safer.
Now I'm very glad I didn't. Because I have discovered something I should have known already.
The Fire Lord has sent out his agents.
They're being hunted.
Azula had never thought much about such things- having been blessed with an imagination that, while not conventionally stunted, was certainly rigorously controlled and channelled within the walls of probability (and was as such actually useful, as opposed to an idle distraction)- but if she had, she might have been tempted to imagine a life-or-death escape, trusting no one, with defeat only a single misstep away, as, well, exciting.
It wasn't. It was... quiet. Hour upon hour of sitting in the carriage, confined to that tiny box- it gave her a headache.
And she wasn't allowed outside during the day- none of them were, for obvious reasons. Time had passed, and they were heading back towards inhabited areas.
It was very uncomfortable.
They had been on the road for two days now. Azula would have killed for a distraction. But there was nothing, and all any of them did was sit in silence and avoid each others' eyes.
Sleep continued to elude her. She hardly expected anything else at this point.
I was, by my reckoning, at least two days behind them.
But I knew where they were headed, and I knew the country. And I was faster.
I spurred my komodo-rhino, turning it aside from the beaten path. Time to head off-road.
Night had fallen. Their third, if you counted their initial escape.
Azula had practically given up on sleep. Zuko was restless, moving around in his unconsciousness. It was aggravating beyond all reason.
So she had retreated outside, to stare at the stars.
She didn't like them. An idiotic thought, but she didn't like them. They glared.
"Princess, you really should rest."
Azula suppressed the urge to leap ten feet in the air. How did he keep doing that"
"Later," she replied. "I am not yet tired."
"I understand, Princess. If I had access to enough ingredients, I might recommend a sleeping draught, but I am afraid that with what I can procure, I could only create the most deadly poison. I apologise deeply, Princess."
Azula was starting to find this man disconcerting. It would take a lot more than that, though, to get her to show it.
But for now, perhaps it was best to change the subject.
"Tell me, Fat," she said, feigning familiarity, "you said you would take us to meet your Master, and yet you did not tell us who your Master is."
"You are correct, Princess. Am I correct in assuming you wish to know"
"I think that is reasonable."
Fat sighed. "His name is Piandao."
Azula's eyes flicked to the man for the first time in the conversation. She knew that name. Heard it mentioned in the same breath as Jeong-Jeong.
This was not something she wanted to be hearing.
"...Perhaps you could call him that."
"He is an enemy of the Fire Nation. He fled the army, and sided with our enemies. It is hardly difficult to make a case for his treachery." Not the sort of man they should be getting involved with.
Perhaps it was a failure to accept the facts, perhaps it was some Zukoesque stubbornness, but Azula would not accept that throwing their lot in with the enemies of the Fire Nation was the right thing to do. There had to be other options.
Fat displayed emotion for the first time. A subtle tightening around the jawline.
"That is certainly one way of explaining his actions, Princess. There is another, but I hesitate to bring it up."
"Oh" And why would you do that"
"Because I fear you will not want to hear it."
"I think I would be the better judge of that, don't you"
"...As you wish, Princess." He straightened again, somehow managing to improve on a ramrod posture, and spoke as if giving a speech.
"I asked him, once, shortly after I came into his employ, why he had felt compelled to leave the army. He told me he no longer wanted to die for something that didn't mean anything to him."
"If you mean to convince me he is not a traitor, you are going the wrong way about it."
"I am simply stating what he told me, Princess. I would not presume to try to convince you of anything. But with your permission, I would explain what he meant."
"Very well. Continue."
Fat paused for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts.
"It is an uncomfortable truth that the Fire Nation has committed some of the most monstrous atrocities in modern history. That is not a matter of opinion, no matter how much one may wish it were. No matter how honourable your Royal Ancestor's intentions may have been, the fact remains that any measure of his intent has long since been eroded. My Master saw that, and that is why my Master left the army, Princess, but it is not why he joined with the Earth Kingdom."
"So tell me," Azula demanded, with a side of ice. "What did make him join our enemies"
Fat shuddered, as though he was fighting an overwhelming urge to pinch the bridge of his nose and close his eyes. Possibly even mutter some muted semi-obscenity.
"Princess, I realise it is hardly proper for me to say so, but you are no longer counted alongside the allies of the Fire Lord. You, your Royal Brother, and the Lady Ursa are now in the same position that my Master was, upon returning to the Fire Nation some three years ago. He decided that the only thing he could do to save his country was to fight his Lord, and that was not a battle even he could win alone. If you will permit me, Princess, it seems that the question now is what you will do."
Azula delicately raised an eyebrow.
"But you are taking us to meet Master Piandao. You were the only one to suggest that."
"Only because he can help you. I assure you, though I no longer have any loyalty towards the Fire Lord, the same cannot be said for his family. If you wish to go elsewhere, I am entirely at your command."
But there was the thing. There was nowhere else to go.
"Very well. We shall continue on course, and hear what your Master has to say."
"Very good, Princess."
"And now I believe I shall retire."
"Very good, Princess."
I am so tired it quite possibly defies analysis.
Twenty-four hours in the saddle, a feat quite impossible if I were riding anything other than a komodo-rhino.
I think I may be dying.
But I've passed them.
I should have, anyway. By my calculations. Which could well be off by now.
As soon as everyone is safely at sea, I am going to sleep for the entire trip.
Nothing is going to stop me.
Azula lay on the seat, trying to ignore her brother's intolerably loud breathing.
She was having a little difficulty reconciling the path of her life with what she believed to be the correct way.
She would not become some simpering vassal of an exiled Earth King. There had to be another way, for all of them. She just couldn't see it yet.
Play along. Make no objections, if she could stand it. But they would have to stay together at all times. Zuko could look after himself- she had made sure of that, at least, so some good had come from her actions after all- and between the two of them it should be possible to make sure Mother was safe. Give the Earth King and his allies no pressing reason to doubt them. Steer their plans as much as possible.
And then, when Iroh is dead...
Zuko will be the Fire Lord.
That will be enough, perhaps.
Is that what Father would have wanted"
The question wouldn't leave. It was like a shadow, clinging to the edges of her mind, twisting and coiling, choking out anything else she tried to focus on, stamping out even the river of fire that was all that kept her moving any more. The question was the one thing she could not control, the one factor that she couldn't predict.
What would Father have wanted" What had he planned"
She didn't know. Didn't know at all.
All she had to hold onto were his instructions.
Ha. Done it.
So, now I'm at the tiny little village that serves as the usual port whenever Order members have to journey to and from the Fire Nation without being seen, at least half a day ahead of Fat. Of course, the Captain is here too, anchored in the bay. I could have just stayed with the ship, of course, and gotten some sleep.
It's a good thing I didn't, because now I know who is following them.
I saw their camp, from my route over the highlands. There were two of them, a young woman, and a middle-aged man. He had a clerkish look about him, as many of the agents do. She was wholly unremarkable- the kind of unremarkability that takes years of practice. In fact, the most imposing physical detail I could make out through my spyglass was shoulder-length brown hair. Everything else about her was calculated drabness.
She is waiting outside town, monitoring the road. He is in it.
I'm hoping that we can evade both of them, but I doubt it.
This will require some very quick planning. Fortunately, I've hit my second wind, so I have a couple of hours' worth of manic energy before I start craving sleep again.
It was early evening when the coach pulled in to the tiny village in the bay. The night was warm, with the onset of Spring but the streets were quiet. It seemed to be the sort of place where nothing ever happened, due perhaps in part to the locals discouraging that sort of thing.
"We have arrived," Fat announced, somewhat unnecessarily, once he had parked the carriage in a seemingly abandoned barn on the edge of town. "Now, I would suggest that you wait here, and I shall return shortly."
Oh no you don't.
"I would really like to stretch my legs, actually," Azula said, pointedly. "It has been a long journey, and besides, it would be polite if we all were to meet your Master together."
Fat glanced despairingly (Azula was getting better at reading the man- it was all to do with the attitude of his eyes) at Mother.
Ursa sat in thought.
"We shall all go to meet Master Piandao."
"Of course, my Lady."
The bar made up for the liveliness that the rest of the village lacked, as best it could. It was hardly cultured, but it was full and smokey and loud, and that was about as high as it's aspirations went.
Fat glanced subtly around for a second, before nodding to a shadowy corner. If Azula peered, she could just make out a figure, reclining at a table.
"I shall procure drinks," Fat said, and made his way towards the bar, slipping through the crowd with a flowing grace that belied a man of his size.
Zuko shrugged, and led the way over to the corner.
The figure that stood suddenly and bowed as they arrived was not exactly what Azula had expected. He was tall, and lean, and clad in sensible-looking Earth Kingdom travelling robes. Unarmed, but Azula would have been surprised if he had been fool enough to come into town visibly armed. What threw her off, though, was the hair. It was long, and matted, as was his beard. Both were starting to grey. Overall, it looked as if some ancient beast had draped itself over his head. And then died, but not before relieving itself, if the smell was anything to go by.
"My Lady," he intoned, and Azula was instantly on edge. He had a warm, reassuring voice, scholarly without being stuffy, kind without being indulgent. It was the kind of voice that put one at ease.
Azula had no ease to be put at, and she was intelligent enough to be suspicious of anyone trying to calm her down.
"My Lady, it pains me to see you in such reduced circumstances," he continued, in a soft tone. "But rest assured, we are doing everything in our power to help you."
"Any aid you can extend to us is greatly appreciated, Master," Ursa replied, but her words had a slightly cold edge. "Am I to assume you have a plan for us"
"With your permission, yes, but we should not discuss that here. At the least, you should catch your breath first."
It was at that point that Fat returned, with a tray. Azula found herself handed a glass of what looked like orange juice, and conversation was halted until everyone settled down again.
A bowl of ...things... had appeared on the table. Master Piandao beamed behind his hideous facial hair, and ate one with obvious satisfaction and a loud crunch.
With not a little trepidation, Zuko reached for one, and examined it.
"What are these"
"Pork rinds. Deep fried, salted, served cold," Piandao replied.
"This one has hair on it," Zuko observed, with placid terror.
"Adds to the flavour." Piandao punctuated his observation with another crunch.
Piandao shrugged. "Oh, I know it's not exactly cuisine, like lark's tongues, or swallow's nest soup, but I enjoy them."
Azula felt this was getting out of hand.
"Perhaps there are more important things to discuss than appetisers right now."
"Indeed." Piandao's face- what could be seen of it- grew stern. "Did you know you were followed"
I could see it in her eyes. The Princess had come to the unpleasant realisation that every one of us has had to sooner rather than later- you are not safe in the Fire Nation. Anyone could be in Iroh's employ.
"I took what measures I could, Master, but I feared as much," Fat replied.
"You did excellently, considering the circumstances. Only one team picked up your trail, and they were foolish enough to wait until they knew where you were going to send word. I have spent the afternoon shooting messenger-hawks out of the air, so you should be safe-"
Damn. Damn damn damn.
"-Providing, of course, that the man who just walked in is not one of the spies. Which he is."
Azula was almost dizzy.
It seemed that she had been nowhere near paranoid enough.
"What do we do" Mother hissed. Piandao glanced over.
"I am going to cause a distraction. There is a ship in the docks that is waiting to take us to the Earth Kingdom. Follow Fat. I will meet you there. If I don't in five minutes, well... I should be there in five minutes."
With that, he grabbed an empty bottle from the table, and stood in an unsteady rush.
Sometimes I hate what I do.
I stagger theatrically to my feet- an act that goes unnoticed by most of my audience, but it serves as a warmup. Gets me in character.
An unsteady stumble leads to my right hand slamming flat-palmed onto the table occupied by three old men with serious expressions, dislodging their serious drinks. A slurred apology forces its way through my teeth, and I stagger onward, my centre of balance thrown far forward. My knees knock a stool, sending it flying. People are starting to notice now, grumbling to themselves. Good. Need an audience. My foot fails to land correctly, and I stumble, but my momentum keeps me ploughing onwards, and I'm almost at him now, and he turns to look at me and I land flat on my back.
Well. That had been underwhelming.
"Is this the distraction" Zuko asked, quietly.
"I... do not believe so" Fat ventured. "Although I will admit it is not impossible."
Azula watched Piandao clamber unsteadily to his feet. You could have heard a pin drop in the silence.
"Wossa... wossa... wossat fo'" Watchugonnaroun' doin'fings like tha for, eh" he demanded, at increasing volume and great speed.
"I- I-" the spy managed.
"Fin' you needalesson. In- in manners, boy."
And then I punched him in the face. Not hard, but hard enough.
He tumbled, falling backwards, and I could see for half an instant the glint of a palm dagger up his sleeve, but he was caught by the crowd, and pushed back to his feet, and please please please
"Hey! Take it outside!"
Oh thank you, mister Landlord. Your timing is exemplary.
I made a great show of resisting being tossed out into the street, but not enough to provoke being thrown onto my head. The bouncer looked like an uncomplicated fellow.
I recovered first, and as soon as the door to the pub had closed, I was dragging the spy upright. He looked bewildered, confused, and hurt.
I briefly closed my eyes.
"I am so, so sorry," I told him.
"What" What do you-"
I hit him in the liver as hard as I could.
It connected perfectly. It was easy to tell, because he suddenly looked like a man who has been punched in the liver. If you think this is a poor simile, then you have never seen a man punched in the liver.
I had ten to thirty seconds before he started moving again. I grabbed his hand, and pushed the empty bottle I had been holding into it. I looped his other arm around my shoulders, dislodging his palm dagger as I did so. From an outsider's perspective, I would simply appear to be supporting my drunk friend.
I began to manoeuvre him around to behind the pub.
"Hello, hello, hello. What's all this then"
And then the Watch arrived.
"'S me nephew, officer," I said, "'S 'is birthday, and I fear he might have indulged hisself a bit too much."
"A drunk, eh" the watchman asked, peering for a better look.
"Might not want to get too close, officer. He's eaten hugely."
He backed up. "Well, make sure he gets some water and some rest. Good evening to you, sir."
"And you, officer. I will indeed."
I drowned him in the water butt behind the inn.
He realised what was happening after a second or two, but his panic was muffled by the water, and only I was there to hear his screaming.
He hit me, more than once, but he was flailing blindly, wild and uncoordinated. He never stood a chance. In minutes, his movement ceased, and he hung limp.
He might be faking. I kept my grip on the back of his head, and counted to three hundred.
He was dead.
I pulled him up, and arranged his body, so it looked as if he had fallen asleep in the alley. As an afterthought, I took off my fake wig and beard, and put them on him. It was disrespectful, but it was sensible. I have always been too sensible.
I said a short prayer, and left him behind to his rest, returning to the problems of the living. All he had to worry about now was accounting for himself before Agni.
One man dies, a woman and two children are safe. I have to make those kinds of calculations.
I hate what I do sometimes.
"I'm telling you, it's been five minutes."
"Lady, unless you've got my gold, this ship ain't sailing."
Azula gave up in the face of naked greed. Oh well, if she was lucky, it would come to a fight. She needed to let out some aggression.
Suddenly, Zuko looked up from his seat on the bench, as everyone looked up at the sound of footsteps.
"Aha! It's him! And he's... had a haircut"
"It was a wig," Piandao snapped, as he swooped into the group gathered on the pier. Then he seemed to remember his manners.
"My Lady, everyone, are you alright"
"Yes, Master Piandao, we are quite well," Ursa replied.
"Excellent. Excuse my brusqueness, but time is of the essence. Fat, I am afraid I have need of you once more, old friend."
"As always, Master, you have only to ask."
"Take the carriage. There was more than one agent, and I do not have time to deal with the other. Go..." he seemed to pause, almost in reminiscence "...go home. If you can, stay there. I may return before the year is out, I hope."
"Of course, Master. Good luck to you."
"And to you."
Fat bowed to his master, and to Azula's mild distaste, Piandao bowed back, before turning to the rough man standing on the gangplank.
"Captain. Shall we"