"Ah, Master Piandao! …Is something wrong"
Chief Oyaji. Sharper than he looks.
It takes me whole seconds to reply.
"...Nothing... nothing pertaining to our current situation, Chief," I manage to tell him. Truthfully.
Kyoshi Island's survival doesn't hinge on the plan.
The Chief seems mollified by this, and resumes the meeting once I have taken my seat. Pakku, though, is giving me curious looks.
I suppose I shall have to tell him, soon.
I turn my head sharply to the map on the table. Oyaji had asked me a question. He wanted to know if I had any information on the position of Zhao's fleet.
Hmm" ...Actually, now that I thought about it, there had been something, hadn't there" In the other letter. Something about... refuelling.
Oh yes. I remember
"Zhao's fleet was forced to stop and resupply at the Southern waystation, on Whale Tail Island. According to information I received, there was an altercation with the Governer on the island, which kept Zhao occupied for some days before he simply killed the man and ordered his troops to requisition whatever they needed by force. This order caused some... discomfort among his ranks."
Pakku waved his hand, dismissively.
"Spare us the narrative, Piandao. Get to the point."
"Twenty men were killed in an attempt to leave Zhao's armada, following an altercation with the locals on the Island. More men escaped, and deserted the Admiral, taking one of the ships with them. It's not confirmed how many men deserted, but it was enough to man an ironclad at full capacity. Zhao ordered two ships after them. So, the point is, Zhao now commands a fleet that is three ships smaller than previously noted."
There's a positive murmur rippling around the table, but there are questions.
"Why were the men seeking to leave his fleet at this late stage" Hakoda asks.
"I'm sorry," I reply, harsher than I meant to, "I was told to spare you the narrative."
"And how long will Zhao take to arrive" Commander Suki inquired, interrupting with expert precision. I gave it some thought, based on the numbers the Captain had given me when we last spoke.
"Call it five days."
Chief Hakoda abruptly sat forward, suspicion crackling behind his eyes.
"Tell me, Master Piandao, would you care to tell us exactly how you came by this information"
I kept a level eye as I answered him.
Too blunt, Piandao. Control yourself, man.
"No, Chief Hakoda, I make a point of never discussing my sources. If the wrong person hears, people die. If the man hiding outside the window overhears one solitary slip of the tongue, more people than are in your entire damn tribe die."
That's... not control, Piandao.
I'm dimly aware of a moment of increasingly awkward silence.
The Commander breaks it.
"...What man hiding outside the window"
"I don't know," I replied, sourly. "Isn't there one" He'll be hiding in the rafters, then."
Damnit, Piandao, you are not a child. You cannot take out your frustrations on everyone else.
Before I can get a proper grip on myself, it seems Pakku's limited patience has snapped.
"What has gotten into you, Piandao" he barks, and I look him in the eye.
I suppose I shall have to tell him. It won't mean anything to the others at the table, anyway.
"You know Zuko"
"...Oh, yes. What of him"
"He's dead. The Fire Nation killed him."
"...Son of a bitch. -But that means-"
"But that means-"
"I'm sorry, Piandao."
"It was not your mistakes that killed the boy, Pakku."
He doesn't answer that.
I turn my head slightly to look at the three who sat, mystified by the suddenly derailed conversation.
Oddly, it was Hakoda who eventually broke the silence.
"...Who was Zuko"
I took a steady breath.
"No one important."
The meeting finally gets on track. I take little part in it, merely shunting ideas around as subtly as I can manage. Anything suggested by Chief Hakoda (who opens up considerably the instant I stop talking) I leave well alone.
It's just as well, really. The Chief soon proves to have a powerfully creative mind. Although a little tactically reckless, a trait I hope I managed to temper somewhat.
Slowly, painstakingly, a battle plan is assembled, piece by piece. If we're lucky, some of us might survive it.
I do not like the plan much. Oh, it's tactically viable, and makes the best possible use of our limited resources, but there's one sticking point with me that I don't voice.
I don't like the part where we hurl teenage girls onto a battlefield all that much. It's not like we have time or resources to indulge my qualms, though.
Besides, what's a dozen dead children more or less"
It is the second day.
Commander Suki walks like she is drowning.
I notice it more and more the longer I am in her presence, and it's making me uneasy. There's no softness, no capitulation in her movements- all harshness, striding, swinging her arms as if she meant to bat the air aside, treating it as an impediment. I would be hard-pressed to tell you why, but it's profoundly depressing.
You can tell a lot by the way a person walks.
She has found no balance, yet. Of course, that is to be expected- she is, after all, still very young, and it's rare to find a teenager with that kind of inner poise.
That fact alone serves to make it worse. She- let me give you an image. Perhaps that will explain what I mean.
Imagine a chair, balanced upon uneven and rocky ground. The chair sits lightly on the ground, unhindered by the instability of the land. And then someone places a huge rock on the chair.
Or, if we remove the image for just a second, the girl is appointed Commander of the Kyoshi Warriors.
Now the chair is strained, and creaking under the weight. Now the uneven earth is a problem, and slowly but surely, the chair begins to lose its centre of balance, and starts to fall.
Now imagine that it isn't a chair at all, but instead a fifteen-year-old girl, and perhaps the reason why I find this so depressing becomes rather clearer.
And, of course, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it but observe. Interfering with the structure of authority on the island would be seen as meddling at best, and greeted with outright hostility at worst, and I don't know her well enough to try and help on a personal level. I'm just here to observe, and then leave again.
So I don't exactly relish the time I spend in the Commander's company. But she had something she wanted to show me.
She led me to a small-ish shed, much more crude and unsightly than the rest of the village, slouching near the training circle where, presumably, the Kyoshi Warriors honed their skills. When she unlocked the building, I understood what purpose it served.
I coughed, politely.
"You do realise I already have a sword" She's showing me the armoury.
"Yes, but I thought you might like to have a look. We have several suits of armour, if you'd like." She's projecting a forceful and professional attitude. I'd say the odds of her putting it on for my benefit are high.
I bow, and thank her, before stepping into the dingy shed. I suppose there might be something I could use in here.
There's less dust than I would have expected. But then, of course, there were the refugees who were fighting. They would have to have been armed, of course.
As I examined the shelves, I was struck by the various pieces of Fire Nation armour there were, scattered amongst the Earth Kingdom equipment. Much of it looked usable, too. But then, the Kyoshi Warriors are trained to aim for weak points such as joints, so the majority of the armour would be still in reasonable condition.
I've never liked armour. Haven't worn it since I left the army. I always felt it was better to avoid being hit in the first place. However, in a large-scale protracted mêlée, that is simply an impossible standard to meet. We all need a thicker skin nowadays.
So I suppose a suit of armour might be useful. None of these, though.
Earthbender armour. No, I would prefer to have some shoes, and the loose sleeves aren't something I look for in my armour.. Besides, the hat doesn't suit me.
Firebender armour. …No, I don't think so. It's well made, but too heavy for me. Far too constricting.
Kyoshi Warrior armour. It's just not me, somehow.
...Hello" What's this"
I pulled the chest from the high shelf. It was amongst the other suits of armour, so...
I opened it, and pulled out a work of art.
The armour was made of layered strips of steel, held together with leather, and lacquered. The treatment left the metal a deep, wine red, and the shoulder guards and other extremities were trimmed with burnished bronze. The under-clothes were black, and form-fitting.
I had a suit like this, once.
The suit had obviously been sitting in the chest for some years now, and I wondered where they had gotten it from. I doubt there's anyone left to ask, though.
Still, a few hours with polish and a wire brush, and this thing would look almost new again.
I hope it fits.
The armour pinched and constricted in familiar ways. It distributed its weight well, but I would still need hours of practice before I was confident. Perhaps I could get a start on that now.
I walked out into the Spring afternoon, and was greeted with a small crowd. Five or so Kyoshi Warriors- I recognised one or two- were hovering at the training grounds. I wonder why.
I bowed to the Commander, and inquired as to if she knew of a place I could train.
"Well, our training grounds are right here," she replied, gesturing vaguely with her hand. She and her cohorts made no move to leave.
Ah. I see.
Very well, then.
"Thank you," I replied, and bowed again, before moving into the ring.
Honestly, does no one ever stop to consider that I prefer not to train in front of an audience" It borders on rude.
My sword rested in the scabbard- resting on my hip, rather than my back. I drew, and admired the afternoon sunlight glinting in the blade. It was rather pretty.
Then I raised my weapon into a stance, and dragged myself through some basic movements. I had to get a feel for how the armour restricted me first.
I couldn't twist at the waist unimpeded any more, and likewise raising my arms too high was a little awkward. A fair trade for added protection, I thought.
But when I began more complex movements, I found these restrictions weighing me down more and more, and I wasn't compensating enough to allow for them. Damned muscle memory.
The finishing point was when I sprang, leaping and twisting through one hundred and eighty degrees, intending to land facing the opposite way to when I leapt.
I landed heavily, kicking up dust, instinctively crouching to absorb the landing, and have to place my free hand on the ground to stop myself from falling.
Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable.
I would have to practice that.
But first there was a sound of footsteps and drawing steel to attend to, as Commander Suki steps into the ring.
Well, that was always going to happen.
She fights well. I try not to think too hard about that- the unexpected find in this suit of armour had lifted my spirits- reminded me of happier times- and I did not want to sink back into my former black mood.
It was easy enough to focus on combat, though, which (if you will forgive a moment of vanity) was testament enough to the Commander's skills.
She did tend to favour speed and precision over power, though, and eventually I showed her as much, simply ignoring one of her strikes and barrelling into her, knocking her to the ground.
Normally, I would have been a little more precise, but I was trying to point out a possible weakness in her technique.
She learned quickly, and raised her hand the second she was on her feet.
That was apparently the signal for her four cohorts to attack me from behind.
Now things were a little more interesting. If I had been fighting normally- fighting to win- I would have kept mobile, hitting hard and fast, overwhelming their defences. But I wasn't- now that I was more used to the feel of the armour, remembering the heft and weight of it, I took the opportunity to teach, adopting an archetypical Fire Nation stance, all controlled strength. Ironically, I do not have the body type to become a true master of this style- I'm too tall, and naturally lean- but a master of the Fire Nation sword styles is truly something to behold- it's like watching a battleship stand upright and dance.
But I was passable, and it was unlikely that any of those old masters were aboard Zhao's fleet- we kept tabs on most of them, just in case. I do not want to find myself in a duel with one of those men.
So I was a good enough training dummy.
I saw the blade, swinging in at eye level. I could have dodged, if I had adjusted to a Water Tribe stance. But that would never occur to a Fire Nation trained swordsman, so the most I allowed myself to do was stumble clumsily backward, and turn with the blow (rather more precisely than I had intended to, actually, but I am not perfect), and open up a long, shallow gash on my forehead, bisecting my right eyebrow at a shallow angle.
The Warrior who inflicted the blow draws back, instantly and instinctively apologetic.
My blade smashes down on her sword, knocking it out of her hand, and I take two steps forward, bringing the tip of my sword up to her throat.
That signifies the end of practice, and I hear the Warriors behind me relax.
The Warrior who had struck me was vaguely familiar. I mentally snapped my fingers for a few seconds, until touched on a name.
Kame. That was it.
I give some generic words of encouragement, and slightly more useful words of advice, as they left. Hopefully the Commander would manage to spread my explanation of the weaknesses of Fire Nation blade forms to the Warriors who had been otherwise engaged today.
I stopped Kame with a hand to her shoulder. My left hand was occupied with pressing a damp towel to my forehead.
"Oh! Master" she asked, twitchy as ever.
"If you are going to react like that every time you inflict a wound, perhaps you would be better occupied amongst the healers," I told her, in a low voice.
I was deadly serious. Anyone who might freeze up in the heat of battle was nothing more than a liability. The very best they could do was get themselves killed.
I'm worried that she'll take this as an insult. Or worse, a challenge.
"-Master, I- I was just worried that-" of course she was.
She's been in skirmishes before (I have a list, somewhere, of all the battles the Kyoshi Warriors have been involved in in the last three years). It's unlikely that she'll panic when fighting for real. Not like that, anyway. It was my presence that intimidated her, that's all.
I sigh, internally, giving up.
"Kame, you fought well today. You're a good soldier."
Her eyes grow huge, and shining.
"Thank you, Master!" she exclaims, and bows.
Of course. She would take it as a compliment.
She would have been safer amongst the medics, perhaps. But there's little more I can do. Oh well, never mind. I tried.
On the third day, I went to visit the men of the Southern Water Tribe.
The armour was almost comfortable, now. I wore it all day, and slept in it as well. The only time it came off was when I bathed, and then I cleaned it before donning it once more.
So that was good.
Anyway. I was walking to the Northern village, to inspect (although I only called it that in my head) the warriors of the South. Chief Hakoda was with me.
Needless to say, it wasn't the most comfortable of walks.
Suddenly, he speaks, for the first time. Even when I had met with him this morning, he had done nothing but nod.
"Who was Zuko"
I sigh, audibly.
"Nobody you need to worry about."
The man is insistent.
"Who was Zuko"
I turn my head.
"Why do you want to know"
He considers his answer for a moment.
"I don't like you, Piandao. Honestly, I'm not naturally inclined to extend the hand of friendship to anyone in the Fire Nation."
"So I want to know what's rattled you. In case we end up fighting to the death, and it's something I can use."
That startled a laugh out of me, but it was almost certainly a lie.
Well, I can just give him a vague and unhelpful answer in return, then.
"Zuko was a sixteen-year old boy. He had lost a father, due in equal part to my own meddling, and the wrath of the Fire Lord. He, his mother, and his sister tried to escape the Fire Nation, and I tried to help them. Except I left them in the middle of the wilderness while I rushed to Kyoshi Island, after I found out Zhao was on the way here. Agents of the Fire Lord caught up with them, and killed him. His sister and mother are likely dead, or imprisoned."
Hakoda is quiet for a while.
I spent most of the day observing the warriors of the Southern Water Tribe. Their Chief followed me often, but did not say another word to me for the duration of my visit.
I observed their habits, and their training. They detested me, and took no great pains to conceal that fact, but that did not bother me- I had expected nothing less, of course. But to their credit, they for the most part ignored me, and continued with their day.
My observations confirmed what I had hoped- these men were hardened warriors all. Not soldiers- the word ill-fitted them- but they did not want for discipline. I noted them during combat training, and was reminded why back home we call these people savages. They moved less like a rabble of brawlers, as one might suspect from their ramshackle appearance, and not even like a formation of drilled soldiers. They were like a pack of hunting animals.
I would not wish to be the man they were loosed upon.
But, of course, there were downsides. They were undisciplined outside of combat. They drank. They paid little heed to their diet- in fact most overate. Growing up in a frozen wasteland, they would be used to eating what they could get, which explained this trait somewhat. They brawled.
A far cry from the reserve and rigorous self-regulation of the Fire Nation armed forces. But the camaraderie between them was evident.
I sparred with them in the afternoon. Hakoda's second- a man tall enough to see eye-to-eye with me, and quietly reserved in comparison to his fellows- suggested it, and I was happy enough to agree.
I stuck out; there was no getting around that. The warriors were used to fighting side-by-side with each other, and it showed. None were particularly willing to allow me into the loop.
So I played the antagonist, for the most part. Again. It was interesting, and useful.
It made them wary of me, though, afterwards. Which was a shame. Still, the visit had been fruitful enough.
The fourth day. I met with Pakku, and the members of the Order who lived on the island.
I had been dreading this meeting, the knowledge lurking in the back of my mind all week. I had ignored it, until now, focusing instead on the immediacies, and, when that didn't work, wearing myself out, training until I could barely stand.
But it was here, now. And I had to give the order.
I cleared my throat.
"Ozai's son is dead, slain by the Fire Nation." And, indirectly, by me. "Ozai's daughter has vanished, or died. The direct line is broken."
There are always lesser relatives, it is true. None showed promise, and none have been groomed as replacements- it was an uphill struggle to get my additions to the plan approved in the first place- too much anger, too much bitterness, too much pragmatism. Now it is clear that my schemes have failed, and we have only one course of action open to us. No one is willing to wait any longer while we try to find the next heir, not with the Comet nearly upon us again.
"By my authority as Acting Grand Lotus, we are to revert to Jeong-Jeong's plan." I force each word from between my teeth, and fight to keep myself talking.
The Fire Nation failed Jeong-Jeong long ago. He no longer has faith that any good can come of it remaining a power. I disagreed, but that does not matter any more.
The Fire Nation will be broken. Iroh will die, and his court will splinter. Feudalism will return to the island. Perhaps the war will turn the country against itself. Perhaps trade will simply break down. Maybe there will be famine.
It doesn't matter, in the end. One way or another, the Fire Nation is going to die.
"Ensure that this message is coded, and sent to Jeong-Jeong, the Exile Court, and Captain Yung. Afterwards, you should all leave for the mountain. Dismissed."
On the fifth day, it rained black.