I peered through the spyglass, hoping that I would find something that would make sense of what I was seeing. All I got were more questions.
It was definitely The Coiling Dragon. The ostentatious prow was unmistakable even at this distance- a tasteless man's vision of what the prow of a ship called The Coiling Dragon should look like. But why was it here"
Were there other ships following it" Yes. Around twenty, no less than seventeen, no more than twenty-five. Why" Were they all that remained of the Northern Fleet"
Were any of them noticeably battle-damaged" No, although several were low in the water. Why were they intact" How had they survived"
And what had happened to the men sent to apprehend the disgraced Admiral"
That last question was probably the easiest to answer.
"Captain," I said, for the man had appeared next to me, "could you find out which way those ships are headed" It might be important."
I think we shall have to consider this carefully.
We were seated around the long table in the Captain's quarters. I had invited the Lady Ursa and her children to attend the meeting, for two reasons.
Firstly, it might disarm them to our intentions somewhat. If they think that I am prepared to allow them access to the decision making process, then they will feel less... powerless. Allowing them access to our group, giving them a taste of importance, might make up for the sharp downturn of their status over the last week a little. Of course, this business with Admiral Zhao will most likely turn out to be a sideshow, nothing more than a prelude to the main event, so really, if they (and by 'they', I really mean 'Princess Azula') try to somehow use this as an opportunity to hurt the Order, by planting misinformation or something similar, any damage they do (assuming I believe them) will be containable.
The second reason is that one of them might have something insightful to say. But really, that's a distant second.
Azula had a feeling she knew why she was allowed to be there, and didn't like it.
Oh well; at the very least she could try to keep Mother and Zuko in line.
A map was spread across the table in front of us. A small white stone marked our position, while a black one marked the location of Zhao's small fleet. String indicated their approximate direction. The picture was clear enough, I'm afraid. But it didn't make sense. But then I have potentially untapped information at my disposal.
"I have never met Admiral Zhao," I said, breaking the silence. "Did he ever go to the Palace" Of course he did.
The Lady Ursa was the one who answered- her son glanced at his sister, for the briefest of seconds, and stayed silent.
"A couple of times, yes."
"If you do not mind, I would very much like to know what your opinion of him was."
The Lady seems confused, but answers anyway.
"He seemed- I will confess I did not have much reason to speak with him- but he seemed courteous enough." By which she means he was not noticeably polite or otherwise. "And he seemed... I can hardly remember. He smiled often." They way she delivered that little aside spoke volumes.
The Princess knows more. That much is obvious.
Azula was getting annoyed. What was the point of this exercise" It was blatantly obvious where Zhao was headed. There were only two places he could possibly be interested in in the South-East, and he had already passed several refuelling stations. Really, what good did it do to try and understand the Admiral, when it was obvious what he planned to do"
Perhaps Master Piandao was not as intelligent as she had been led to believe.
She's withholding information. Of course she is.
You can see it in her eyes- nowhere else, of course, but I'm good at reading people who don't want to be read. She wants to be her own faction in this conflict. She doesn't like the idea that she can't stand on her own- and she can't, at least not now, and not here. Eventually, she'll realise that if she's going to get any of what she wants, she's going to have to play along, and make concessions. She'll figure out that her sense of entitlement is not only no longer acceptable, but will put her in serious danger.
It would be really convenient if she figured this out within the next five minutes or so.
She knew about Zhao, of course. Fa- she had-
No. Finish the thought.
-Father. He had complained about the man, on more than one occasion, during their talks. He had told her about the man, and how his type were common.
Father had made a deal with Master Piandao. That counted for something, she thought.
Of course, Father had died because of that deal, but that was hardly Piandao's doing.
And besides, this information was s trivial, so unimportant, that it was hardly a capitulation to tell him. Perhaps it would convince him that she had been lulled into trusting him.
I was startled when Azula spoke up. Stupid.
"He's arrogant, satisfied with himself but not with his position, cunning but not intelligent, and mistakes smugness for subtlety. He hides his poor temper, but not well. Nevertheless, he can charm when he wants to, by saying what people want to hear. Is that helpful" she demanded, sitting back while her brother goggled.
"Yes indeed, thank you, Princess." To be fair, nothing she said was new to me, but I needed it confirmed from an at least possibly impartial source.
The only possible reason Zhao would be heading into the South-East would be to attack Kyoshi Island. This is not the action of a rational man in Zhao's position. A rational man would run, or hide, and lie low. So therefore these are the actions of an irrational man.
Zhao- well, the only explanation is that he wants to take advantage of Iroh's shaky throne. Possibly that's what he's wanted from the beginning, but since his debacle at the North Pole, the only viable target for his diminished forces is Kyoshi. At least, he thinks it's viable. Certainly his forces could take Kyoshi, but keeping it would be an entirely different matter.
No. I cannot afford to think like that. Cannot afford to even consider letting Kyoshi fall.
But on the other hand...
Ursa's eyes darted around the cabin, taking in the furnishings. Zuko shuffled awkwardly in his seat. Azula just glared at the tall man, his chin resting on his fist. The only one who seemed at ease was the Captain, lounging in the corner chair with a cup of grog, completely ignoring everything, and humming to himself.
"What's he doing" Zuko murmured, looking uneasily at Piandao, who gave no sign that he had noticed at all.
So. What forces are at our disposal in the South East area"
Hmm. That's rather a broad question.
What forces in the South East area wouldn't be missed for...
"Captain" How long, in your professional opinion, would Zhao take to get to Kyoshi Island"
The Captain scratched his roughly-shaven chin. Azula almost shuddered.
"I'd say, depending on the weather, between a week and, say, ten days. Unless he stops at the refuelling station, which would add another day or two."
Hmm. Call it a week, then.
So, who can get to the island in under a week, who wouldn't be missed, and, most importantly, could actually help"
Azula watched Piandao's brow furrow. It appeared that he had had an unpleasant thought.
She thought he might have sworn under his breath.
He glanced up, and stared from her to Zuko. She didn't like the way he was looking at them. It was like he was... calculating.
They can fight. Azula is intelligent, and Zuko is naturally fairly amicable. They'll be able to get by for a week.
I don't like this, but it's the best decision. I think.
Every tactician has to take a gamble sometimes.
It looked like he was done thinking.
He sighed, and straightened up.
"My Lady, it appears that I shall have to take my leave of you and your family, for a while."
Well, if that wasn't the best news Azula had heard in days.
I slept deeply that night, and the next morning was spent in practice.
Azula woke early. A miracle in itself.
Perhaps she would go outside, and view the dawn. Zuko would be waking soon, and she wanted some time to herself.
But when she arrived on deck, a much more important opportunity presented itself.
Azula has awoken. Perhaps I should take the opportunity to talk to her, before we make land later today. First, though, I have to finish.
I have neglected my practice in the last week, and I cannot afford to be less than peak on Kyoshi. If I am wounded, it will slow my return to the Lady Ursa, and I am going to be away from them too long as it is.
Azula watched in silence.
It was almost humbling. His form was perfect.
Perfect. The blade fluttered through the air, almost invisible as it ran across the bleeding horizon, scraping the dawn light, unpredictable and perfectly controlled. His balance was perfect, never having to correct his footing even as he leapt up onto the railing, compensating for the buck and swell of the ship without even showing it. He moved like someone doing what they were born to do.
It worried her. It worried her a great deal.
She's watching. I'd really rather she didn't- I get rather self-conscious when I am observed.
She is almost certainly trying to find my weaknesses. It is what I would do in her situation.
I have a great many weaknesses, but I pride myself that she is looking in the wrong place for them.
Well, now at least she had confirmation of something she had wondered about. Piandao was a very dangerous man. Fighting him was now designated a last resort, a strategy of desperation.
But she had a plan, now, so she wouldn't have to confront him directly after all. Of course, he probably knew every detail of her plan, since there were maybe three details to it at the moment, but what could he do about it"
I was well aware that Azula still despised having to cooperate with us. I was well aware that I was going to be giving her ample opportunity to simply escape us as soon as I left.
I had made plans for that. If she is going to go against us, she will naturally wish to take her family with her. Which is why I spent much of yesterday evening in conversation with the Lady Ursa.
The Lady is a dangerous woman. At the moment, I believe two goals drive her. She wishes to see her children safe, and she wishes to see Iroh dead. This lines up quite nicely with our stated goals, and she seemed open to the idea of ending the war, although perhaps she may need more persuasion in that regard.
Prince Zuko, however, is not the type to be swayed by arguments. He needs a demonstration. Something that will stick in the mind. I do not need to appeal to his reason, no. I think I know his type- I need something that will appeal to his honour.
Something has been arranged.
By me, of course. After all, there's no one else around to do the arranging.
Anyway, the idea is, if those two are at least slightly convinced that we can and want to help them, the Princess should be unable to convince them to flee before I return. That's the idea, anyway.
Of course we could find them again if they escaped. But that would be the final straw. Everything I have been trying to do would be undone. They would begin to resent us, and see themselves as prisoners, and from there things could only become varying degrees of broken. Is it overstating things to say that the fate of the entire world depends on us keeping their goodwill" No, not really.
The cliffs are in sight, now.
We had passed the peninsula at midday- if I had been looking, I might have been able to see the ruined fortifications there- and were nearing our landing point.
The position was sub-optimal if I wanted to get to Kyoshi quickly, but there was another reason for my choice.
We were coming in on a cloud of smoke.
That's not right. It's not smoke. It's very vehemently not smoke.
Regardless, it's something that acts exactly like smoke, and it is produced from these two large pipe things. They're an invention by a man, a friend of the Order. He probably would have become a member, in time, if he had been given the chance. But he left us devices like these ones, and we distributed them freely. It's an edge.
The smoke is generated by... something. I believe crystals are involved somewhere. But in any case, they are rare, and the only way the Captain can get hold of them is through us. Another leash we keep him on.
But anyway. We were hidden by clouds of smoke, which stung the eyes and irritated the throat but made for excellent cover, and we drifted easily up to shore.
Myself, the Lady Ursa, and her children were all sitting in the small rowboat that was being lowered over the side. The Captain waved us off.
"See you around, Piandao," he grinned, as we sank into the not-smoke.
"A pleasure as always, Captain."
Well, I thought to myself, as I began to row us towards shore. I was back. Two years gone, and I was returning to the sewers of Omashu.