The Gentleman of Weapons
Chapter Seventeen: Wake

Or,

No Colour Left But Black and White, and Soon We'll All Turn Grey.

Kyoshi Island in the late Spring is something to behold, especially on a morning like this one, when the air is crisp and clear like broken glass, and the buildings stand with sharp edges and clean shadows and the deep green of the woods contrasts against the frivolous blue of the sky and everything just feels new, unused, as though some mighty architect toiled and forged and made the island all in one night and everyone is just now arriving, breathing this air for the first time, seeing these sights that no one has ever laid eyes on before this day. There's life in the air on Kyoshi Island in the late Spring. Life and potential.

I wish I were seeing it under more peaceful circumstances.

I muse on this as I make my way up the main street. More than one head turns, but the village is a bustle of activity this morning, and no one stops for long.

It's an odd thought. Peace, I mean. It's not something I've really had much experience with.

I can't help but think that when (if) we finally achieve it, a great many people are going to be disappointed. Myself among them, perhaps.

Hah. I must be tired. My thoughts are getting away from me.

When I arrived at the town hall, I was ushered into a small antechamber, and was informed that High Chief Oyaji was in a meeting right now, but would be informed of my arrival right away.

I told them there was no need to disturb him on my account, and they seemed to accept that, as I settled (slowly, stiffly) onto a cushion, my head leaning back against the cool wood panelling of the wall.

If my guess is right, then no good could really come of my disrupting the meeting. And if I am wrong, there is still no real reason to interrupt them. After all, a few hours either way will not make much difference right now.

I closed my eyes, and dozed lightly. It had been a busy few days, and I had had little opportunity to sleep soundly.

Someone is hovering in the doorway. They blocked the light, and disrupted the breeze, and that was enough to wake me.

No matter how many times it saves my life, I fear I will never enjoy being a light sleeper.

"Master Piandao" It was the woman who had met me when I entered the building. Probably a senior servant, or perhaps a secretary. She had the face of a born organiser. "The meeting has concluded now. Do you wish to present yourself to Chief Oyaji"

I nodded, and stood.

"I believe that would be a good idea, yes."

"Master Piandao. It is a distinct pleasure to see you again."

I met with the Chief in his meeting room, which showed the signs of recent use. The chairs were haphazardly pushed under, and the table was dominated by a map of the island, and littered with several heavy scrolls.

The Chief himself looked like a man badly in need of a solid sixteen hours' sleep. Or, failing that, a large bottle of something toxic. Nevertheless, he wrenched himself up out of his chair and bowed.

I thought for one terrible moment that he was simply going to keel over onto the table, and was indeed already taking a step forward in order to assist him should he do so by the time he slowly, laboriously, pulled himself back into an approximation of an upright position, before seemingly deciding that he had done quite enough work for one day, and let gravity drop him backwards into his chair again.

"And to what...hmm...to what do I owe the honour of your company" he asked, out of a valiant attempt at politeness.

"The flowers told me that you were in need of a friendly sword," I replied.

"Didi they now" Hmm. Well, they were right. I'm sure you know..." he paused again, and blinked heavily "quite as much about all this as I do, if not more." He looked up, suddenly. "Tell me, do you have anywhere to stay in the village"

I was slightly nonplussed by the shift in conversation.

"I thought I might stay at the inn. I was comfortable enough last time."

Oyaji shook his head. "No. The inn's all full up. Talk to Kame out in the hall, tell her to show you to a guest room."

Kame"

Now why does that name seem familiar"

Never mind.

"Yes, you make yourself comfortable, give you a chance to freshen up, and after lunch we'll convene again, and... well, we'll see that we can see, I suppose. The demons of sleep are taunting me, and I shall have to appease them for at least two hours if I am to be good for anything this afternoon, I fear."

"We're all running ragged these days," I offered, his comrade in deprivation, although I at least had been able to snatch a few hours on the way to the island.

He snorted in cold amusement, and I left him to his repose.

There was a Kyoshi Warrior patrolling the corridor outside, and she fairly leapt to attention the instant she saw me.

"Sir" she asked, wide eyed. For some reason.

"Would you be Kame" I asked.

"Yes, Sir!" she exclaimed, and bowed at meteoric speeds. I bowed in response, and when we had both straightened up again, explained why I was here.

"I was informed you could show me to a guest room."

"Oh, certainly!" she replied, and I could see her straining to find a polite way to end the sentence.

"And please, call me Piandao." Nip this ridiculous 'Sir' business in the bud.

'Sir'. Anyone could tell you that's an Earth Kingdom title.

She didn't reply, which seemed slightly incongruous, given the nature of our conversation so far. She just stood, eyes progressively widening, for about three seconds.

"Oh!" And then she came to her senses, somewhat. "Certainly..."

She's having trouble with the name. It's a shade too familiar. I take pity on her, just a little.

"Master Piandao, if you prefer."

I try not to hear her sigh of relief. "Of course, Master Piandao. Right this way."

She led me upstairs, and showed me a pleasingly (if simply) decorated room.

I laid my pack on the floor, and wondered if there was a bath anywhere.

I turned to the door.

The girl was still standing there. Staring at me.

Really, it was a little unsettling.

"Excuse me," I asked "is there anywhere I might take a bath"

She blinked.

"Oh! I- I assume so, but I'm afraid I don't know this floor very well." She sounded hopelessly apologetic. "I'm not normally on guard duty here, no one is, except a few months ago they found these two dead guys out in the forest and they looked like firebenders and they had swords so everyone thought they might be spies or assassins so we got told to guard the Chief and I've been injured for a while so I only just got put on this duty," she explained. I was rather impressed. She didn't stop for breath once.

"That's quite alright. I am certain I can find my way."

"Oh- okay then. Is there anything else you wanted"

"No, thank you. Although you shall be the first I notify if there ever is."

"Okay then." She bowed, and I did the same, and when I straightened up again she had left.

What an odd girl.

Blue is not my colour.

But, on the other hand, my Earth Kingdom wear was getting a little ripe, and it would have been a shame to waste the bath I had had by putting my unclean clothes back on.

But still, blue is not my colour.

I had been informed by the organiser woman (I am fairly certain that she must be the Chief's secretary, in duties if not in title) when I took my lunch that I had been invited to attend a meeting with the Chief in half an hour.

So here I was. About to join the council of war.

It struck me the instant I stepped through the sliding door that I was clearly running somewhat late- every seat but one was filled.

"Ah, Master Piandao. I'm glad you could make it," the Chief declares.

The Chief was there, of course, in his chair. I wonder if he managed to leave it for a bed since I saw him last. It doesn't look like he even got to a more comfortable chair. Immediately to his right is the Commander of the Kyoshi Warriors- I forget her name. To his left was a stocky man I didn't recognise, decked out in the subtle finery of a Water Tribes Chief. To his left was...

I grinned, and acknowledged the last man with a nod as I sat down next to the Commander. He simply smirked back.

"Well, it seems introductions are in order," Chief Oyaji declared. "You have already met Commander Suki, I believe. And to my right, may I present Chief Hakoda, of the Southern Water Tribes."

Hakoda nodded, and extended his hand across the table. I took it.

"It is an honour to meet you, Chief Hakoda."

"Likewise, Master Piandao."

"And this is Master Pakku, the most renowned Waterbending Master in the entire Northern Hemisphere."

He stood, and bowed, exaggeratedly.

"What an honour it is to make your acquaintance at long last, Master Piandao."

"Yes, quite," I replied, declining to stand, dismissively waving my hand.

"Indeed, now we have a man with three feet of steel at our side, I'm sure the Fire Nation will simply scamper back to the pits that spawned them."

"Well, whatever skills I posses simply pale in comparison to your ability to make them damp. I have it on good authority that in the battle of Narwhal Island, you single-handedly caused at least a dozen soldiers to catch colds from being out in soaked clothes too long. Just a shame they were on our side, really. But of course, I'm sure your aim has happily improved with your advancing age."

"Really, you of all people know you shouldn't believe everything you hear. Or was it a different Master Piandao that spent over half a year chasing up a rumour that the Fire Lord had gone on a retreat somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, and had descended into some drug-addled spirit quest"

"Be that as it may, I am known for fighting and defeating some of the most powerful warriors in the world, whereas you... are a master at making people wet."

"That's what she called me."

The other people are paralysed. I can see the Commander out of the corner of her eye- she keeps looking at my sword hand. Evidently she's wondering if I'm about to leap across the table and decapitate the old man.

To spare her nerves, and get this meeting back on track, I leant across her, and stage-whispered at Oyaji.

"It's alright. We've met already."

He relaxes a little, and Pakku looks momentarily disappointed.

Pakku is liable to indulge his love of back-and-forth for hours, if we let him. Best to cut it off in the bud.

"I hate to interrupt," Chief Hakoda blatantly lies "but perhaps it would be best to get on with this"

Well, I suppose it's for the best that I got my good humour out of my system early on.

This is going to be rather grim.

There's no way of looking at the numbers that magically gets them to inspire confidence.

Under one hundred Kyoshi Warriors over all. Barely a hundred men from the Southern Water Tribes. Fifty Northern waterbenders. Another hundred volunteers from among the refugees- Oyaji only accepted those who had already had military experience. And me. That's it. Less than four hundred against twenty laden ironclads and the Coiling Dragon.

The waterbenders are the most promising. After all, they are, as Pakku proudly declared, his best, and coming from him, that means a great deal.

But only seven of them are healers. That isn't enough. Not at all.

But we'll have to work with what we've got. No reinforcements from the mainland could get here in time, not without being caught by mainland peacekeepers.

So. This will require some thought.

"Earthbenders," I declare, breaking the gloomy silence that had settled around the table. "How many earthbenders"

Oyaji shakes his head.

"Not many. You know how hard it is for them to move around. Maybe fifteen, all told, all of them refugees."

Yes, I know. Earthbending is technically a crime, unless it's done in service of the Fire Nation. So unless they escape to the mountains (and a great many do), most earthbenders try to hide their talents, or get dragged away. They're usually not seen again.

Kyoshi Island is possibly unique in that it has never produced a single bender since it was created. No one knows for sure why,- certainly the village, before Avatar Kyoshi moved it, was never recorded to be abnormal in that regard- but the fact remains.

It's a damn shame, really. We could have used a decent squad of earthbenders.

The meeting adjourned. It had given me a great deal to think about, and I hoped to be able to present more concrete ideas when we met again tomorrow. For now, I needed to think.

The next morning...

The next morning was busy.

Oyaji had ordered that all the villages be evacuated, and that everyone was to take everything they could, as they would not be allowed to return until after Zhao's fleet had been vanquished, a feat Oyaji had referred to as already effectively accomplished when making his speech.

A more truthful order might have been to tell them to take with them anything they ever wanted to see again. But then I'm sure most people took it as that anyway.

So the morning was engaged in carrying sacks of rice up into the mountain caves. I enjoyed the work- it meant nobody tried to talk to me, except to tell me where the next sack of rice was to be stored, and that meant I was free to think.

First things first. Assets and liabilities. Our assets" We know the terrain. We have prior access to the battlefield. We have the waterbenders. We have the Kyoshi Warriors.

Our greatest asset is going to be the healers, probab-

Hmm.

Actually, our greatest asset is almost certainly Admiral Zhao.

Huh.

Liabilities"

Well, the fact that we're outnumbered at least five-to-one certainly doesn't help matters much.

Then there's the fact that while we do indeed have the Kyoshi Warriors, these are the new generation of Kyoshi Warriors, owing to the inconvenient fact that the last generation had to inconsiderately go and get themselves slaughtered eight years ago, so this new generation is, while extremely highly trained, sorely lacking in practical experience in anything more than the infrequent skirmish, and very, very young.

That, I do not like. A good third of our forces are under the age of eighteen.

Yes, it's safe to say that I do not like that at all.

Then there's the fact that we have seven dedicated healers. We need to draft in anyone with medical training of any kind to assist them. Certainly, that's more of a post-battle concern, really, but I'm not in the business of inflicting maximum possible casualties on my own side.

Any others"

Well, if we're going for completeness, Chief Hakoda appears to loathe the sight of me. Nothing he said, but he scowled yesterday whenever I had something to say, and he tried not too look at me too often. When he did, it was as though I had just insulted his wife, screamed threats and slurs at his mother, and kicked his dog.

Is that really a problem, though" It depends. I don't know the Chief. I don't know whether or not he will let his dislike of what I represent (and he has good reason- I have fought and killed his people, after all, even if it was easily fifteen years ago now) affect his judgement on the battlefield.

So I can't rely on him, and by extension I cannot rely on his men.

So yes, this is a problem. Hopefully one I can resolve before Zhao arrives, though.

What else"

Hmm.

I had mail.

The man in the grocer's shop had given the letters to me as we were clearing out his stock for supplies. I gave him a receipt for his inventory in return. Oyaji would reimburse him after the battle was over. If we won, of course. If not, all debts are off. As it were.

Anyway, I have letters. I'm wondering if I should read them before the meeting.

If I don't, I shall probably wonder what they say all the way through the meeting. If I do, then I might think about them all the way through the meeting.

It depends on how important the information turns out to be, really.

I'll read them. Probably just some status updates, really. I have been out of the loop for a while now.

The first three were, indeed, a summary of recent events, from Captain Yung (who really should have promoted himself by this point, but maybe he enjoys being the only Captain in history in command of a Company of twenty thousand men), from Jeong-Jeong, and from our man in the Exile Court. Nothing spectacular. Some operations succeeded. Some failed. Small skirmishes here and there, mainly to keep the Fire Nation occupied, remind them that there's still a rebellion on, but small enough that it doesn't tie up too many men and resources. We'll need a great deal of both when the Eclipse gets here.

And then I read the last letter.

And then I read it again, scanning every word, looking for ambiguity where there was none, and trying to make sense of the impossible.

Regarding our instructions for the Lady and company, we sent a party to search when they failed to arrive at our village on schedule.

What follows is a record of what they found.

'Twenty miles into the forest, on the path, we came across a clearing. In it, there were what looked like a series of funeral pyres- burnt bodies, like they do in the Fire Nation, I think, all built on raised earth and stones. Most of them seemed to be soldiers, but we couldn't be sure- several had been burnt entirely beyond recognition- one of these seemed to be female, but we couldn't say for sure. There was one, though, that we think we can identify.

Based on the description we were given of height, along with a few effects that survived the fire, it appears that Crown Prince Zuko has been killed, presumably in an altercation with Fire Nation soldiers.

Of the Lady Ursa and Princess Azula, as well as their guide, there was no sign. The storm had obliterated any tracks.'

We await further instruction.

"Oh shit."

There's a knock on the door.

"Master Piandao" Master Piandao, the meeting has started." I recognise the voice, vaguely.

"Tell them... tell them I shall be down presently."

That satisfies the familiar voice, and footsteps are heard, heading away from me.

So.

What now.

'What now'. What a joke. The plan is dead.

And the Fire Nation dies with it.