The first order of business was casting off. This was, as ever, achieved by the Captain shouting "Cast off!" and looking menacing enough that his crew did so with admirable efficiency. The second order of business was ensuring that the Lady Ursa and her family were quartered adequately. They were given the cabin that I usually berthed in- I informed them that there were other rooms, and they did not have to all stay in the same one, but the Princess did not seem to welcome this suggestion. I used my discretion.
The final thing I had to do was have a drink with the Captain. This wouldn't have been such a chore, and indeed under other circumstances I might have enjoyed it, but I hadn't slept for two straight days now, and was having trouble even walking in a straight line since the adrenaline had gurgled away.
Still, it always pays to be polite, so I sat quietly while he poured two cups of grog.
He always drinks grog- the same stuff the crew have, rum, water and lime juice. I think it's a mark of camaraderie for him.
"So, Piandao, what manner of business are we conducting for ye this time" he asked, fairly jovially.
"Aye. And who exactly are we transporting"
I focused as well I could, and took a deliberate swig.
"You've never needed to know before. I thought you understood my compulsion for privacy."
"Aye, but perhaps a man takes it into his head to keep an ear to the ground these days. Perhaps he hears a partic'larly ugly rumour coming out of the Fire Nation. Perhaps he wants to know if he's to expect a couple ironclads on his tail, and he wants to know in advance, since that kind of thing costs extra. Perhaps, in short, he's aware that information is a currency these days, and knows you need a bit of it as a kind of... guarantee, as it were."
Oh. Damn. The Captain wants into the big leagues. Either that, or he's already betrayed us.
I'm too tired for this.
…There is one thing. The Captain is sitting across the table, looking expectant. I wonder how long he has planned this. He would benefit from knowing, and so would we, if he keeps his word.
The Captain is an intelligent man. He knows that consolidated rule by the Fire Nation would be good for nobody, and certainly not good for him. He also knows what I am capable of, what I will do if he should turn on us. Perhaps, in fact, this is sincere.
This isn't about Ursa, not really. She's just a catalyst. Maybe he thinks that if he's being put in this kind of danger- and there is a chance we will be pursued- he should be compensated in some way. I suppose that's rational enough.
"Captain," I said, jerking my head backwards a little, just to make sure I wasn't about to fall asleep, "I have a proposition for you."
"Aye" He sounds cautiously interested.
"You have proved invaluable, Captain, for years now. You have never gone back on the terms of our agreement, however informal it was, and have at times put yourself in considerable danger."
"If ye're trying to pander to me sense o' self worth, Piandao, ye're wastin' yer time. Get to the point."
"Alright. I would like to formalise our agreement."
"Formalise" …Aye, I see what ye mean. State yer terms, then, and we'll see." He leant back, and folded his arms across his chest.
"It's simple enough. Not much would change, except we'd pay you a retainer to be on call at any time, as oppose to paying by the trip." Damn. This is why I shouldn't negotiate without sleep.
If he noticed my slip up, he made no sign.
"That sounds all well and good, but I can get gold anywhere, Piandao. You're in the business of fightin' a war, and yer puttin' us in harm's way. It's only fair that you tell us what ye know, if it'll warn us of any dangers we're not aware of."
I considered this.
Time to roll the dice.
"There is one thing. A piece of information that could potentially make you, and any contacts you wish to inform, very wealthy indeed. But Captain," I said, looking him dead in the eyes, "if I am going to tell you this, it's only fair to know that a great many people have died for finding this out. I would hate for you to become one of them."
He's interested now.
I took a piece of paper from his desk, and wrote a date on it, as well as a few sentences. The truth we don't dare to say out loud, just in case the walls are listening.
When I was finished I pushed the paper towards him. He turned it around, and read it.
I might as well have punched him.
"...Hellfire, Piandao," he breathed. "You're sure about this"
I watched visions of plunder nudge their way into his brain. "This... this is quite the opportunity."
"Indeed. For you and anyone else you'd like to owe you a favour. But if you wish to tell anyone, do not tell them why. Simply tell them that the Fire Nation will be weakest at this date."
"...Aye, I could do that." He slowly grinned. "Piandao, you sly dog. This is what you've been working up to"
"Yes. I'm going to make sure the Fire Lord has a very bad day."
The Captain barked with laughter, and extended his hand. We shook, and drained our mugs.
"You have me word, Piandao. I'll stick my neck out for ye again. And rest assured the Fire Lord won't hear a word from me. Or at least no word you'd want yer children to hear."
That sounded good enough.
Business concluded, I staggered to my room, and was asleep almost before I took my boots off.
How one was supposed to sleep in a hammock, Azula would never know. Because if she ever came within fifty feet of another hammock for the rest of her life, she was going to destroy it.
The morning dawned bright and early, but fortunately I was not awake to experience it, and had to be informed of this fact second hand when I emerged from my room at around three in the afternoon.
I felt better, now. No matter how badly things had gone, and it would be hard to deny that they had gone wrong indeed, we were safe for the moment, and we had time to plan.
I leant against the railing, watching people come and go, engrossed in the process of keeping the ship running. A figure sloped into view, a teenager, with a ponytail and a glum expression.
The plan continued. Warped, and truncated, it's true, but there was a way.
I pushed myself up, and ambled unconcernedly towards the Crown Prince.
"You shouldn't stay in here all day, Azula. Get up."
"Why" We're surrounded on all sides by criminal lowlifes. This is the only privacy I am afforded, and I am not going to give it up."
"Yes, dear, but you haven't even eaten, and it's well past noon. Azula" Azula, I will not allow this. At least look as though you are listening to me, Azula."
She sighed, and rolled back over.
"Keep your arms straight. Not that straight. Now, on the count of three, pull. One, two, three! Harder, put your back into it!"
"Why are we doing this again" It's not like there aren't crewmen around or anything."
"One," I told him, "it makes you seem a little less like some spoiled noble. We can't entirely trust these men- the Captain gave me his word, and I believe it, but not all his crew are bound by that. Two, we had to call in several expensive favours to make sure the Captain got his ship to us on time, and that means he's not got a full complement of sailors, so it's only polite to muck in- remember that. Three, we get a discount this way, and I'm not made of money, and four, and most importantly, you're learning something. You'll find women appreciate a man who knows his way around a guy rope."
Zuko considered this.
"Is that last one true" I mean, it seems pretty specific."
"At this rate, you'll never know. Now pay attention, your line's starting to slip."
The boy seemed receptive to new ideas. This was more than I had hoped for, although I would have to be careful to make sure he didn't realise what I was doing, at least not yet. Perhaps in the coming days I can teach him more overtly.
I wonder, is he a swordsman"
Azula was uninterested in leaving the room. However, she had even less interest in getting into an argument with Mother, and so she decided that the simplest thing to do would be to simply go outside for five minutes, then retire as soon as Mother stopped paying attention.
While she was there, she supposed it would be sensible to make not of where everyone was. Mother was... hovering. Probably to make sure that Azula actually stayed outside, unfortunately. In all honesty, it wasn't like Azula was some kind of potted plant or...
Zuko was having an animated conversation with Master Piandao. Well, Zuko looked animated, anyway. Piandao looked... smug. There was no other word for it. It was the look of a man that was sitting back after hours of fiddling around with cogs and counterweights and hinges and fulcrums, and was now watching his mysterious contraption as it clicked and clacked and possibly transported a marble from one point to another, with a sense of obvious accomplishment.
This looked like trouble.
Casually, slowly, Azula ambled over to where the two were talking, but before she'd got halfway, Piandao had nodded to her brother, and moved away.
She was almost certain he hadn't looked at her.
Note to self. The Princess could be a complicating factor. I shall have to think of a way to address this in future.
When Zuko returned to the room, Azula was waiting for him.
"What, exactly, did Master Piandao want to talk to you about" she asked, as casually as she could.
Zuko glanced at her, uneasily. Perhaps she needed to work on 'casual'.
"Not much. We just talked. About swordsmanship, and things."
"But of course. And was it useful advice"
"Well, yeah." Zuko shrugged. "But he's supposed to be the greatest swordsman alive, so I'd be kind of surprised if it wasn't."
"Of course. And in the course of your discussion of plebeian toys, did any other matters spontaneously enter into the conversation" Perhaps a little philosophy"
Zuko's faced flashed with annoyance.
"What are you saying, Azula" Speak plainly, for once."
Her nostrils flared.
"Very well. Zuko, I think he's trying to influence you. He's trying to curry favour, so that later, you will be obliged to him."
"Azula, we already owe him. More than I think I'm going to be in a position to pay back any time soon."
Azula waved him down.
"The man believes himself to be a patriot. We are Royal. Of course he would aid us. But he's dangerous, Zuko, and smart. Smarter than you are, anyway."
Azula shrugged. "You did ask me to speak plainly, Zuko. But I am only trying to warn you. Don't let him think you're in his debt, Zuko."
His brow furrowed.
"Why" Why do you think he's trying to build up credit with me, Azula" It's not like we've got anything we can give him."
Azula suddenly found herself experiencing something she had hitherto never thought possible- the almost inexorable urge to slam her head into a wall until she didn't have to continue this conversation in the face of Zuko's utter... Zukoishness.
"Zuko," she said, every syllable dragged out, wringing every last drop of ambiguity from what she was about to say, "listen to me. He is attempting to gain your favour, because you will be Fire Lord. You are heir to the throne, and he wants you to listen to him, so he can tell you what to do."
It looked as though Zuko had been hit in the face with a brick. For twelve seconds (Azula counted), he could do nothing but stand in silence, his jaw swaying in the breeze.
"Oh," he forced, through a constricted throat. He repeated the sentiment several times.
"Do you need a moment" Azula asked, the very picture of sisterly concern.
When there was no reply, she sighed indulgently, and got up.
Zuko finally reacted when she pushed a chair under his legs with enough force that he had no choice but to sit down.
"You honestly never considered this" Azula asked, once Zuko looked as though there was at least a chance he would even hear her again.
"Well, sure, but..."
But things had changed. Irrevocably.
And so quickly, too. It was like they were on the run, not from the Fire Lord and all his agents, but from change. From having to accept.
They couldn't keep this up forever, or even for long. But they'd be damned if they didn't try. And in the face of all this, she couldn't, try as she might, blame Zuko for letting his guard down in front of a man who seemed to be a friend.
"I understand," Azula found herself saying, before she could stop herself.
Zuko, for his part, didn't seem to notice, and just slumped in his chair, staring at his hands. The way he was so obviously oblivious of everything else in the room was starting to make Azula feel a little put out.
Eventually, he managed to say one thing.
"What am I going to do" I can't- I can't govern!" He let loose a mad, high-pitched giggle of pure terror. "I wouldn't know where to start!"
Azula felt it was only right to step in at this point. She patted down his hair, like you would a small child, or a pet.
"There there, Zuko. I'm sure you'll do fine. After all, the economics of the farming basin are really much simpler than they look at first glance, and really, a lot of this is already dealt with at a basic level, so really all you'll have to worry about is-"
"That's it! Azula, you know about this stuff, right"
Hook. Line. Sinker.
"Of course- fa- I read. A lot. There was really little else to do some days."
"...So you'll help me" Tell me when what I'm doing is a bad idea"
"Of course, Zuko. After all, it's as much in my interests as it is in yours that we makes sure the Fire Nation doesn't slide into the sea."
"Thanks. Your confidence in me is... is..."
Another night's rest, and I was feeling quite human again. I could even open my eyes all the way without even trying hard.
It was maybe mid-morning, and the Lady Ursa was outside, taking the air. Her children had yet to emerge.
I was hoping to talk to Princess Azula. I think she may consider me an enemy, and I have to deal with that. Fat had always said, in his reports, that she was a precocious child, an unparalelled firebender, and very much closer to her father than Prince Zuko was. I have to wonder if she could be utilised in some way.
I think that would be the best option. Recruit her- not to the Society, no, but at least to our side. Persuade her, as we did Ozai, that ours is the only possible way.
It all sounds rather ominous, when put like that. Perhaps that is something I shall have to work on.
Aha. Here she comes now.
Azula was on guard the instant she stepped out into the daylight.
As expected, he was there. No doubt preparing a fresh round of propaganda for the new day.
The best way to deal with this was head on.
"Good morning, Master Piandao," she said, once she was close enough to him not to have to raise her voice.
He bowed low, which mollified her a little- until she realised that was almost certainly exactly why he was doing it. "Good morning, Princess. I trust you slept well"
"Adequately," she replied. Hopefully that one would get past him- it was a weakness, a flaw, and one she intended to expunge as quickly as possible.
Well, three seconds in, and already she has lied to me.
Ugh. Save me from child geniuses.
He nodded, as though he had expected nothing else.
"Excellent. And may I inquire as-"
All eyes shot upwards, to the crow's nest. The lookout was pointing frantically at a point on the horizon.
Instantly, Piandao rushed up to the back end of the boat (Azula was not the most nautical of types), and produced a spyglass from deep within some pocket as Azula struggled to keep pace with him, narrowly avoiding crashing into confused crewmen. Extending the device, he scanned the indicated direction, and Azula saw what she would have otherwise taken as a dark grey cloud.
Oh. Oh dear.
"Pursuit" she asked, snapping the word.
Slowly, stiffly, Piandao lowered the telescope.
"No. No, we are not the target." he didn't sound like he thought this was a good thing.
"Then what is the problem"
The problem is I know the prow of that ship. I've seen it before, more than once.
The Coiling Dragon.
Admiral Zhao is on the move.