The Gentleman of Weapons
Chapter Twenty Three: Paranoia

Or,

You Might Have Heard I Run With a Dangerous Crowd- We ain't too Pretty, We ain't too Proud.

One night. That's all I ask for.

One damn night where I don't have to get up in the middle of my rest because huge unpleasant people are seeking to practice violence upon my person. One night where I don't have to leave via the window. One night where nobody is trying to kill me. One night completely bereft of fireballs, explosions, or shouting.

Is that really too much to ask"

Apparently so.

Oh, I hate my life sometimes.

Azula had time to think, at last.

Her first full day among the Avatar's troupe had been confusing, loud, irritating, and had left her entirely off-balance. There had been too much information, assaulting her all at once, and she only now had time, sitting alone in her antechamber with another bowl of weak but hot broth, to sift through it all and try to make some sense of it.

The first thing that she had realised when she had begun to move about the cave (or, more accurately, cave network) was that she was weak. Muscles had atrophied, every step was unsure, and her hands shook as though she had aged fifty years.

Clearly, this had to be addressed.

But already she could see an obstacle, an impediment to accomplishing even this relatively simple task.

As if on cue, Azula heard raised voices drifting through from the main chamber.

"Are you mad"

Ah. The obstacle herself, the waterbender. The stupid girl had gotten it in her head that Azula was in danger of falling deathly ill, were she not plied with water and blankets at every turn. Honestly, did she look like an invalid"

Azula paused momentarily, before resolving to locate a mirror and examining herself for signs of invalidity the next time she had the opportunity.

"Sokka, we have on our hands a very fragile girl. Her immune system is shot, she'll barely be able to keep down anything solid, and you're bringing back shellfish" Are you trying to make her sick"

Azula thought perhaps she should have been consulted before this interfering child decided how ill she was or wasn't.

"Katara. Katara, stop talking for a second and listen to me. Katara, I can hear you, you know. Katara, I know you are by nature a girl, and as such are not equipped to deal with the realities of things like hunting, so I'm going to be patient with you, but you need to understand. We. Are. By. The. Ocean. Shellfish is what there is, Katara. Should I look further afield tomorrow" Spend another eight hours wandering through the scrubland" Do you think I'm gonna trip over a vegetable soup tree" I'm trying to understand your female brain, here."

Ah, the Other One. Azula was still puzzling him out. Refreshingly, he seemed to be the only member of the group that was outwardly hostile towards her, which she had found mildly amusing. Frankly, though, she wasn't yet sure what his role was in the group. He was just... there, for the most part. He had been the one to go hunting that day, and he had lit the fire, and done small tasks of that nature. Was he just there as another pair of hands, perhaps" It was possible.

And now she knew that they were near the shore. Likely to be irrelevant, but every little helped.

A young, worried voice interjected, cutting off what Azula was certain would have been a magnificent explosion from the waterbender.

"Katara, how about I go with Sokka tomorrow" We could take Appa, go into town or something-"

"No" echoed back in two voices.

"Aang, you know why we-" "Aang, you really should keep-" "Oh, sorry, you go first."

The waterbender continued speaking.

"Aang, you know you've got to keep practising your earthbending."

"Katara," the Avatar... there was no other word for it. He whined. "You know I've gotten a lot better at earthbending. I can take a couple of hours off."

"He is better, ya know," the fourth and final voice struck up. "I mean, better than when he started. Still a way from being any good, but, you know. Take what you can get and all."

The earthbender. Azula had already dismissed her. She was a blunt instrument, nothing more. A grunt, good to have on their side when the fighting started, but nothing but a minor irritation otherwise. She was beneath consideration.

As for the Avatar...

"Hey, thanks, Toph, I really- hey, wait a second."

Azula was willing to admit that there was probably more to him than she had seen, which was good, because what she had seen so far had been singularly unimpressive. He had been away for most of the day- in fact, almost all of them had been away for most of the day- presumably he had been training, but what little she had seen of him indicated that he was childlike, na´ve, and hopelessly dim.

And yet he was the Avatar.

Puzzling.

She would have to wait a while, and observe some more.

It had started with a feeling.

I had been on Fire Nation soil for maybe a day and a half, and I was making good time through the woodlands that sat between the rocky grasslands of my home and the sea, and I had the most disquieting feeling that I was being followed.

A thorough examination of the area had yielded nothing, which was more worrying than otherwise- after all, if I had found someone, then that question would have been answered, but now all I had was a whole lot of nothing and a nagging suspicion that I had just alerted whoever was following me.

I had checked the sky, for the position of the sun. It was early evening, and there was a carrion bird overhead.

I took this as an inauspicious sign, and picked up the pace, determined to find a coaching inn before sundown.

I happened upon a suitable establishment- one of the larger sorts of inns, shaped like a gigantic U, the inn balanced atop the stables, one of those buildings that is distinguished from the thousands like it only by virtue of location- in good time, but not as good as I could have hoped- the sunlight was glancing across the treetops as I walked into the courtyard.

Hmm.

I walked into the foyer, the warm breeze of the evening replaced by the stuffy warmth of an inadequately-windowed room, and glanced quickly at the board of keys behind the desk.

Hmm.

I ducked outside again, back into the fresh air, and glanced around the courtyard, and counted the lit windows.

I ducked back inside again, and pretended to look at the dismal selection of books kept in the foyer for the look of the thing. I was really keeping my eye on the sets of keys.

After a little while, I went outside again.

Now, do I assume right-to-left" Or left to right" Flip a coin.

After a while, I had to resort to sketching out a rough map of the inn in the dust of the courtyard with my toe. I took pains to scrub it out afterwards, but it was still suspicious looking. There didn't seem to be anyone observing me, but I wasn't about to take a chance.

Eventually, I had my answer, and strode back inside.

"Evenin', mifter," the old man at the desk greeted me, through gums bereft of teeth.

"Hello," I said, nodding. "Do you have a room free" Number thirteen, if that's possible."

"Well, fertainly," he mumbled, clearly slightly off-put by the request.

"I only ask because I stayed here before once, and I stayed in number thirteen then," I assured him with quite commendable earnestness, if I do say so myself.

"Well, that'sh alright then," he said, with all the genuine enthusiasm that comes from serving a repeat customer. "Thish way."

I have never stayed at this inn before, of course. I chose room thirteen because it is opposite room fourteen, and room fourteen has a good view of the courtyard, and, importantly, is empty.

I will not be staying in room thirteen. In the Fire Nation, for me to stay in the room I was seen renting would be risky at the best of times, and the feeling from earlier in the evening has put me on edge. So I shall arrange a few pillows on the bed in the traditional fashion, break into room fourteen, stick the chair in front of the door, snatch about six hours sleep, then undo everything so I can be seen leaving room thirteen in the morning.

This is what we call 'paranoia', children. It's what keeps people like me alive.

It is two in the morning, and I wake without knowing why. The night is as dark as it is going to get, and the clouds across a bright moon leave strange patterns on the ceiling, like shadows of smoke. There seems to be no reason for my sudden return to the land of the conscious.

Then the floorboard creaks, long and low, as though something very heavy is pressing down carefully upon it.

Aha. So it begins.

A second footfall, but this time there is a distinctly metallic thunk to the sound- it rings too long for it to be an armoured boot- it must be some kind of mechanical device. Curious.

I hold my breath as a foot falls again, and I can hear the weight so clearly behind it I half expect to hear splintering wood as the floorboards give way completely.

I hold my breath as I hear a fist close around the doorknob to number thirteen.

Then I make my mistake. Instinctively, I reach down to the side of the bed, and slowly draw my small dagger.

There is a sudden cessation of noise from the corridor.

Then there is the unmistakable creak of someone turning around.

Damnit damnit damnit. Shouldn't have done that. Now, how long will the door hold"

I roll out of bed, away from the door, as my question is answered. There's a sound of crunching wood as a dark fist simply smashes through the door, ripping the entire thing from its hinges and yanking it out into the darkness of the hallway.

There's nothing outside. Or rather, as my eyes adjust to the gloom, whatever is outside is blocking the entire doorway.

I stand, dagger in hand, as the dark figure stoops, and bends through the doorway.

Suddenly, there's a sound like flint on tinder, and two brief orange sparks in the blackness.

Then the world turns white.

Ow.

Ow.

Ow.

I am very glad I decided to keep the window open.

But... what was that" Some kind of explosive device"

I hold a hand up to my head as I stand up, trying to hold my thoughts in as I stagger up on unsteady legs. But really, try jumping out of a first-storey window twenty seconds after you wake up even without the exploding hitman, see how coherent you are.

Speaking of which.

I peered up into the darkness, back at the window I had recently used in my self-defenestration.

The figure was there, staring back.

Two flicks of orange in the darkness.

This time I was ready.

So here I am, crouching in the darkness, hiding behind the water-butts, while a giant man with an explosive forehead is trying to kill me.

I tell you, my life.

Oh well, complaining about it isn't going to help.

He's- where is he- look up oops duck down again- maybe ten feet away. Moving in a slow circle. He knows I'm here. Logical thing to do is-

Blow up the water-butts. Right. I've got no cover. I've got a dagger and half a sword. What do I do"

Charge.

I run as fast as my legs will carry me, kicking up dust as I sprint towards the looming figure, who calmly swings into a stance, his strange metal gauntlet held in front of him, like a shield. (And why is he wearing that thing" Armour" A fashion statement" Was he just tired of people squeezing his fingers when they shook his hand")

This isn't as insane as it looks. Really, it isn't. If I keep close to him he won't be able to use his strange power for fear of blowing himself up.

Of course, that leaves me with a dagger against an eight-foot behemoth, but I can deal with that sort of problem. I'm not equipped to deal with explosions while I'm trying to sleep, but giant thugs I can work with.

The gauntlet snakes up to deflect the jab, as expected, but that's my target, slipping the point of the dagger into his wrist, between the seams of the armour. Try seeing how effectively you fight with a knife in an artery, you...

He's not bleeding. He didn't even flinch.

It's not- no, it can't be- I saw him flex that hand!

I'm so stunned I don't even protest when he twists his arm, wrenching my dagger- still lodged in the apparently fake appendage- away from my grip. I recover just in time to dodge a punch that looked like it would have taken my head from my shoulders, and I duck past him, slamming a foot into his knee as I run past him, and vault over the low wall of the stables, landing among the komodo-rhinos.

I draw my broken sword, and get to work, severing tethers and slapping the beasts with the flat of my blade, moving fast past the growing riot, and before six seconds have passed the entire stable is a writhing mass of angry monster, and it's only a matter of seconds before the walls break and a stampede gives me the cover I need to steal one of the creatures and ride as fast as I can as far away from that man as possible.

It is some hours later. To my vague distress, the sun is rising.

Who was that man" A freelancer, some kind of mercenary" No, we'd surely have heard of him if he was. Surely. Perhaps he's an agent of the Fire Lord" After all, he employs an extensive spy network, it's far from impossible that he'd keep a collection of agents around whose talents leant more towards termination than intelligence-gathering.

He's going to be a problem, whoever he is. That much is pretty clear.

"Piandao, I swear, you're hopeless. You can't get chased by watchmen, or soldiers, or spies, or beautiful women that want to give you cake, can you" No, you have to get hunted by the eight-foot tall man with the metal hand and the explosion-shooting brain, don't you. Whatever shall we do with you."

Stop talking to yourself!

Oh, I need sleep.