I was not about to take any more chances. The only time I left the saddle was to eat and sleep, and yes, it is as painful as it sounds. Anything other than a komodo-rhino would have died after a few days, but my beast was very obliging and obedient and only very occasionally did it dive off into the undergrowth to violently maul and subsequently messily devour a deer. Something that always distressed me slightly, because there was never enough left for me afterwards.
I was forced to live off the land, of course, and that brought with it a strange kind of nostalgia. I have... memories of my first encounter with the idea, in spite of my best efforts.
I was fifteen years old, and I had just survived my first major battle. An ambush by the Southern Water Tribe, actually, and I was extremely lucky to live through it. I acquitted myself well in the mêlée , according to my sergeant, by which he meant I survived with all my limbs attached, and I even managed to keep hold of my sword. I don't remember a great deal about the battle, to be honest. It was dark and loud and noisy and utterly chaotic, and I was more concerned with just staying alive than anything else.
The following two weeks, however, I remember in great detail. We were scattered by the ambush, and I was one of about a dozen that had managed to stay with the sergeant. We were lost in the middle of the wilderness, two weeks' march from friendly territory, and we had no supplies of any kind.
If there had been farms in the area, we could have plundered them. If there had been villages in the area, we could have done a bit of impromptu requisitioning. If there had been a town in the area, we could have all checked ourselves into a nice hotel or something. But there was nothing but rocks and trees for miles around, which at the time struck me as very inconsiderate.
I still remember the thrill of horror that ran down my spine the first time someone shoved the delicate dish known as Burnt-Half-Eaten-Rat-On-A-Stick in my face, and told me that was my meal for the day. That sort of thing is just terrible to do to a growing boy.
Azula was fairly sure she was setting a record. It was barely her second conscious day with this new group, and already she was hunting one of them down with murder on her mind.
But in all fairness, the stupid animal had stolen her hairpin.
Why in Agni's name did the Avatar have a lemur following him around anyway" What possible purpose could it serve"
She had been about to tie her hair up (something she had been forced to learn to do herself, to her mild horror) that morning, when out of absolutely nowhere this streak of fur had literally snatched the hairpin out of her hands and vanished.
Azula was fairly sure she didn't have to put up with this nonsense. The Avatar, of course, had been completely unhelpful when she had complained about the stupid creature, and had apparently treated the whole thing as a joke. So Azula had announced her intention to kill the animal and take her possession back. It was hardly her fault that the Avatar had assumed she was joking.
Azula was getting very annoyed. It had been a full hour. Every so often, she would catch a glimpse of a tail, or a stupid oversized ear, and she would rush around the corner, except by then the damned thing would be long gone. The lemur was taunting her.
Azula flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes as she stalked through the cavern network. Up ahead, there were the sounds of conversation, and out of force of habit, she slowed to a halt, in case eavesdropping told her anything useful.
"Hey Sokka." The Avatar.
"Hey, Aang." The One She Hadn't Found An Acceptable Label For Yet.
"How you doing"
"Not bad, I guess. Anything need doing right now"
"Actually, yeah. I was gonna go give Appa a brush, but I've got to go back to practice now. You don't think you could..."
"Thanks, Sokka. You know he doesn't like caves and stuff. Enclosed spaces. I mean, I don't like it much either, but at least I can go outside and-"
"I get you, Aang. I actually think Katara's actually got it into her head that we should get moving again soon anyway. I think it might be because of our, you know. Guest."
There was nothing else of much note, and after maybe thirty seconds of listening to their excessively small talk, Azula turned back to her search for the accursed lemur.
It had been four hours.
She was going to skin that lemur, and she was going to wear it as a hat.
It had been a long, arduous, painfully annoying, and very, very stupid hunt, but it was finally about to end. Because the dumb thing had trapped itself in the large antechamber that housed the ...other creature. The one that made the disquieting noises. But still, the bison at least had a purpose.
And the lemur was trapped.
This time, she would not rush. She would be methodical, cover the exit, and make sure the creature had no chance of escape.
So she crept into the chamber with slightly less grace than she would have liked, but luckily that didn't seem to matter much, since her quarry was completely distracted.
Azula found herself watching the scene before her with something almost approaching amusement. The boy was perched on what looked to be a small ladder, armed with a brush that had probably been used to sweep floors somewhere, but now was apparently repurposed as the sky bison's grooming tool.
"Hey, I know, big guy, you wanna be flying again. I know, I know, relax. Look, I'll see if I can get Katara to let Aang have a proper break tomorrow, and he can come spend some, I don't know, quality time doing whatever Avatars and their Spirit Animals do. Recite prayers" Meditate" …D'you think incense candles work on sky bison" You know, those ones that make you all drowsy" Oh, hey Momo, what's- what're you- you're attempting to jam something into my ear. That's nice, but please stop now. Ow, okay seriously stop that now. Yes, I know she's behind me, Momo, but I'm busy. What is this thing, anyway"
"A hairpin," Azula supplied, ever helpful.
"Oh. Looks kinda like some kind of fancy toothpick." The muted hostility in his voice was abruptly put on hold as he contemplated the hairpin.
Azula scowled. "It isn't, and I would appreciate it back."
"Sure," he replied, offhandedly, and tossed the hairpin down from his perch, not even turning to look at her. Bending forwards in the nick of time, Azula just barely managed to catch it between fore- and middle fingers.
She had to start training again, and she had to start soon.
The boy had turned back to his task, acting as though Azula were no longer in the room. Petulant. Childish.
Well, it could hardly hurt to test him.
After two minutes he began to whistle, loudly. After three he switched to humming. To Azula's mild relief he didn't escalate up to actual singing, but eventually petered out and turned to glower at her.
"You still here" the boy asked, with the bad grace of a poor loser.
"Yes," Azula replied, simply.
"... Okay then," he replied, and continued his grooming of the sky bison.
Great, now she had to think of a legitimate reason she was staying around, otherwise he would take that as implicit admittance of the fact that she was just trying to annoy him.
"Actually, I do have a question."
Azula continued, undaunted. "Why, exactly, did you take up residence in a cave that is quite literally a maze"
He actually paused at that, and seemed to chuckle.
"Actually, it was just the main chambers when we got here. Toph had Aang hollow out some more passages as practice, and I told them to keep at it. Keeps 'em busy, and besides, you never know when you might end up needing a few miles of poorly-lit caves, right"
"Well of course," Azula replied, on automatic, while her brain picked over his sentence. Something about it had bothered her.
What kind of person just 'told' the Avatar to do anything" What kind of mental image did that throw up" A great king" A wise master" Did a scruffy, gangly barbarian teenager spring to mind"
Azula would have to observe more. She had to unravel the dynamics of the Avatar's group, and quickly, but she couldn't afford to make mistakes. This warranted caution.
It has been three days since the attack on, and my subsequent flight from, the coaching inn, and I am examining my motives.
I intended to go home at first, at least for a little while. For any number of reasons, but primarily for the following: 1: it has many things I have found myself lacking recently, such as clean clothes in my size and (decent) swords that aren't broken; 2: it represents an opportunity for some much needed rest; and 3: it is a stable and solid place for communications to be sent to me. I had hoped to enter the Fire Nation undetected, and if possible remain at home undiscovered until the eclipse.
It does not seem as though that is possible any more. Well, the 'undetected' bit seems to have been blown out of the water a bit, anyway.
Now, I have to ask myself this. Is it worth drawing whoever that was that attacked me back to my home town" Surely they must know where I am headed. I mean, it's not as though I purchased my house with any regard to subtlety.
If this... bounty hunter" Mercenary" …Specialist were not an issue, my being at home would inevitably cause problems for the townspeople. If another force were sent to extract me, it is far from probable that the people will be treated with any consideration.
They didn't, you know. Send another force, I mean. Not until Iroh was crowned. In their last attempt they fared rather poorly, and I suppose they didn't want to have another go in case it went just as badly. Besides, by that point they were fending off the last great counter-offensive from the Northern Earth Kingdom, and they didn't have the resources to waste on frivolous exercises like chasing Piandao out of his hole.
Besides, in that scenario raw numbers are far from their greatest asset. After all, I have very strong walls, lots of food, and when it comes down to it, I also have a koi pond that should really actually be called a Looks-Like-A-Koi-Pond, because your average koi pond isn't lined with spikes, several gallons of boiling oil (which is alarmingly useful against firebenders, since their instinctive reaction to anything that startles them is 'Shoot A Fireball At It') about thirty dummy corridors, trapdoors of all kinds, one of those things that goes whoosh and swings down from the ceiling and takes half your torso away with it, and an explosive rockery.
In case you were wondering, this is why I live in about seven rooms of a house designed to accommodate up to a hundred. Well, what else was I supposed to do with it" In event of an assault, there is precisely one perfectly safe route up to the lookout tower. Fat and I have memorised it, and I have left in various places several maps labelled 'In Case Of Emergency'. These all invariably lead directly into the thing that goes whoosh and swings down from the ceiling and takes half your torso away with it.
When it comes to home security, the Fire Nation do not mess around.
And of course aside from all that I also have a very sharp sword and a very scary reputation, which does half the work for me most of the time.
So an army is not the ideal tool for extracting me. The …specialist, on the other hand, is. He seems more siege weapon than man, and I somehow doubt he'd fall for (or rather, in) the Looks-Like-A-Koi-Pond.
So, assuming he has worked all the above out himself, and also assuming that he is extrapolating my destination based on what he knows about me, and not, say, on the fact that I in fact have not lost him and he's just following me (please let him have lost me), then it is fair to assume that he will head for my home. Even if I am not actually in it.
So it is known where I am. Even if I don't actually go there.
So I might as well go there.
After all, I can set everything up for him, and maybe even get a fresh pair of trousers too.
The day following the encounter in the sky bison's chamber, Azula set foot outside for the first time since falling unconscious.
The cave opened onto a scrubby beach, grey sand pushed up against the sea. The day was cloudy, but the sun was high in the sky, the brightness of early summer washing over her, filling her up with strength and energy and she moved.
Slowly, at first. A basic kata, without fire. Every movement laboured, deliberate. Tentatively testing out weakened muscles. The complex pattern of interlocked movements and sudden stops called to her like an old friend and carelessly she began to move faster and faster, never letting a step go wrong and as she accelerated through the movements she couldn't stop the reflexive bunching of chi and fitful sparks coughed from her fingers and it was too much.
She dropped to her knees, denting the packed sand, her ribcage contracted, spearing her lungs. Every breath was fire. Every second was pain.
She felt like laughing. That pain- the pain of exertion, of effort, the pain that went hand in hand with knowing that you were stronger for it, that pain was welcome.
A few weeks, and she might even start to feel like herself again.
The days following were spent in training. Slower than she had hoped- the waterbender had not been as wrong as Azula would have liked- but progress was progress.
Then the patrol came.