I crest the last hill before the canyon as the sun begins to set, curling behind the mountain ahead of me. Across the deep gorge, at the base of the long slope of the mountains, the town rests. Below the town, along the wall of the gorge, a multitude of tiny waterfalls cascade down into the river below, the white froth of the water a stark contrast to the warm stone of the cliff. I'm told the water comes from a vast underground spring, deep within the mountains. It may be true- I am no geologist. But I know the soil around here is fine, and the fruit trees grow strong and tall in the land around Shu Jing.
I ride close, keeping the gorge by my left side, as I approach the bridge. North of here, the gorge has its origins up in the cliffs and canyons of the scrubland. They say these ancient scars in the land were torn by the fury of some long-forgotten Avatar, but in the same breath they will swear it was the work of angry spirits, or some mythical army of earthbenders, or they will say it is the river that has caused these rifts, something I don't pretend to understand. In any event, up there the tangled labyrinth of canyons hides what must surely be the greatest architectural marvel in the Fire Nation. The Western Air Temple, suspended from the roof of an unimaginably vast cave. I have seen pictures of it, and heard stories of its size and beauty. I should like to see it, one day.
I leave the borrowed komodo-rhino at the far side of the bridge, and make my way across the gorge on foot.
As I cross the bridge I start to hear the sounds- children laughing, feet tramping the dirt, the lowing of cattle, the murmur of conversation, a burst of laughter from the tavern. I feel myself almost starting to smile.
I cross the bridge, and stop dead as the town hits me like a blow to the face. The smells of cooking meat from a hundred fires, the sound of the evening breeze hushing through the trees, the feel on my skin of air just beginning to cool from a long day in the summer's heat, the echoing whisper of the roaring waters down in the canyon, the subtle thump of packed dirt beneath my feet that gives way to the almost liquid crunch of loose fragments of earth dusting the flagstones, a sudden splash as a bucket drops into the well and I remember now that the water in Shu Jing is as fresh and crisp as you have ever tasted, and there, beneath it all, underpinning everything is the scent I remember- the subtle bitter-sweetness of incense.
I am home.
It is... comforting. To see the place so unchanged. It makes me feel... I don't know. Perhaps it makes me feel that not everything I am doing is in vain. It's good to remember what I am fighting for, sometimes.
It's hard, after a while, to fight for an abstract, and to me "peace" is just about the most abstract concept you could imagine. I would have an easier time fighting for a fruit flan, when all is said and done. After all, once you have your fruit flan, at least you know what to do with it. You could say that I am fighting for my friends, except all my friends are already fighting for themselves anyway, and none of them particularly need my help on that count. I can no longer say that I fight for the Fire Nation, not since Kyoshi and the events leading up to it. I cannot fight for the good of the Order- can you imagine anything quite so destructive as the Order of the White Lotus doing battle on its own behalf" So I have to fight for something, or I will just be fighting for myself, or even worse, fighting for the sake of the fight.
So if I fight for anything at all, you can say I fight for Shu Jing.
I walked through the town almost as though I was dreaming. Everything seemed muted, hushed rumblings just on the edge of perception. I think I was almost aware of people surreptitiously turning to notice me, but it was like I was pushing through warm water.
Perhaps I was simply exhausted.
If I was not exhausted walking through the village, the long road up to my house certainly finished the job. By the time I pulled myself up to the gates I was utterly, utterly spent.
Fat greeted me at the door with some of the most welcome news I had ever heard.
"Master. Several letters have arrived in your absence, and I prepared some supper when I noticed your imminent arrival, so you do not attempt to read them on an empty stomach."
"Marvellous," I managed. "But I think I need a bath first, before this shirt actually becomes part of me."
"Of course, Master. I took the liberty of drawing a bath for you as well. Although" and here his eyebrow twitched an errant fraction "you may wish to put off shaving until the morning, at least."
I didn't think I should stand for being sassed by my own butler, and fixed him with the steeliest gaze I could manage. It was more a pig-iron gaze, given my current state, but I tried my best.
"Fat, the day I cannot be trusted to hold a blade is the day I... the day I..." I interrupted myself with a gargantuan yawn.
"-The day you get a proper night's rest before you hold a razor-blade to your own throat"
I gave up. "Yes, all right. Now, I believe I shall bathe. Fetch a bottle of wine, would you"
Fat didn't even blink. "Of course, Master."
Something unpleasant suddenly nudged my brain, and I realised that there was one more thing I should mention before giving in entirely to self-indulgence.
"Oh, and keep an eye out for a" I gestured vaguely somewhere about a foot above my head "tall chap. Got no hair, and a metal, thing, you know, wossname. Hand. Doesn't say much, makes explosions with his mind."
Fat nodded. "Does he have an appointment"
I blinked. "I don't think so. He's trying to kill me."
"Of course. If he arrives, Master, I shall show him to the Unsightly Brown Drawing Room."
"Good man." After all, there's nothing in the Unsightly Brown Drawing Room that couldn't be made more aesthetically pleasing by a nice explosion or two.
"Thank you, sir. And if I may say so, it is good to see you haven't got yourself killed yet."
"It's not for lack of trying, I assure you."
The bath was heaven. After I don't remember how long- I of course washed on Kyoshi Island, but I wasn't there to relax- I was finally able to simply unwind, just for a little while. I lay back, my elbows resting over the lip of the bathtub, a cup of wine in one hand, as I stared at the winding paths of steam in the air.
The only thing stopping me from falling asleep then and there was the persistent nagging of hunger. Eventually, as the water began to cool, I finished my drink and stepped out of the tub. I found to my delight that Fat had laid out fresh clothes for me, and ten minutes later I was dried and dressed in my old familiar robes again and my hair was tied back up again and I almost felt like I was a human being again.
Dinner, unfortunately, was less relaxing. At my unwilling behest, Fat brought to the table a small stack of the most significant missives that had arrived for me, and I examined them as I ate. The …diversion at Kyoshi (Diversion. A nice, clean word.) had taken me out of the loop for a while, and now I was back at a base camp I needed to get back up to speed with the Plan.
As far as I could tell, Jeong-Jeong's altered plan had gone into effect within the week. At this stage, it doesn't look all that different from the previous version of the plan. The main difference is how many more tonnes of blasting jelly we're procuring.
The initial plan differed from Jeong-Jeong's variation in two places. The old plan centred around firstly reinstalling the Earth King at Ba Sing Se and using him as a figurehead to revitalise the resistance, and secondly, using our little midsummer advantage, kill Fire Lord Iroh, installing in his stead his brother (or, later, his nephew). It would have been difficult to consolidate our new Lord's rule, but we had been working hard to lower support for the war in the Fire Nation, and hopefully any peacemaker would have been supported, at least by the people.
Obviously, we can't use that one any more. So we revert to Jeong-Jeong's plan.
Which is simpler, if a little hard for me to stomach.
The next morning, there was much to attend to. Notes had arrived ahead of me, updates, debriefings, rumours, requests, and I had to look at all of them. Several required a yea or nay from me, and these were an annoyance beyond measure. I couldn't just go through them and consider each on their own merits and simply go yes, no, yes, yes, no, yes, no, yes, no no. That would be far too simple, and would probably only take me an hour or so. I had to be careful about what I was doing. I had to consider each request with regards to every other request and report I had. I couldn't afford to be cavalier about any of these decisions.
For example, I had a request here for my approval for a mission in the capital. Sabotage of a steel shipment heading out of the city. My first instinct is approval- it's a simple enough mission, from the outline I have been given here, and it falls under the parameters set for the next phase of the plan. But. The removal of Fat from the palace has had serious ramifications for the capital. Fat as our ear on the inside saved us unimaginable resources- he was able to find things out much easier than any outside agent, and with comparatively little risk to himself (there is a terrible tendency among the Fire Nation elite to class their servants as simply part of the furniture). He was useful in a hundred ways at the palace, and he allowed us to concentrate spies elsewhere. Now he is gone, there is an information vacuum in the capital. We simply do not know enough to commit to overt action in the city.
So suddenly this routine mission is an unknown quantity.
I sign it no, and order the team instead to concentrate on being our eyes and ears in the city. And to avoid being killed, if they can.
And we'll just have to hope things don't get worse.
There is a gap in my information. A hole in the tapestry I have been weaving.
What is the Avatar doing" Surely June must have given a report somewhere.
A few minutes sifting through the stack of missives unearths a short note in June's unmistakably appalling scrawl. Aha.
She says... he's gone to gerund" No, that can't be... oh, ground. Right. He's gone to ground, in a cave on the western shore. She doesn't know why, and she doesn't want to risk getting too close. They're being very alert, apparently.
The earthbender saw them, or sensed them, or felt them- in any case, she noticed them first. Azula had been in the middle of a kata, and had been less than pleased when the diminutive figure had all but dragged her back into the cave and sealed the mouth behind them.
The others had been quick to arrive, the boy carrying a small torch to illuminate the gloom.
"Okay," he said, nodding at Toph. "What's going on"
The earthbender paused for a second, and dropped to one knee, pressing a hand to the ground. She shook her head, and nodded, which everyone seemed to take as an indication that they should move further into the cavern. Azula followed, feeling out of the loop.
"Patrol," the earthbender said, when they were sitting in the bison's cavern. "About six, heading this way."
"How close" the Avatar asked, worriedly.
"Close, and heading this way. I didn't feel them coming, not over the sand. It was just a few vibrations, then boom, they were about a hundred metres away." She looked rattled, and Azula couldn't help but file away the discovery of the earthbender's potentially fatal weakness. It could be helpful later.
After all, you couldn't plan for everything.
"So," the Avatar said, and Azula found herself suddenly paying very close attention. If he acted like she thought he would... "What now"
Yes. Most people wouldn't have noticed, but Azula was looking for it.
The Avatar hadn't been able to stop himself looking straight at the boy as he'd asked, and Azula found this endlessly entertaining.
"We can't stay any longer, that's for sure," the boy said. "Toph, do you think we can pack up and leave without them noticing"
"Wouldn't bet on it."
"Right, right, so first thing to do is take them out. We gotta make sure we don't leave any evidence that we were ever here. Toph, you deal with the patrol, everyone else, we gotta pack up."
"Wait," the waterbender started, as everyone started to move. "Don't you think we should figure out where we're going first"
The boy shrugged. "I figured that was kind of a lower priority than being anywhere but here."
"We should decide now, or we'll just be wasting time once we're airborne."
"Katara, we're wasting time now."
Azula's attention faded as they began to argue, and she mulled over what had been confirmed.
So. The Avatar was not the leader of his little troupe.
Interesting. Still, it was heartening to see that the Avatar at least knew how to take orders.
"Okay, so anyone got any ideas" And it's got to be somewhere safe, Aang. I'm sorry, but we can't just go anywhere." The waterbender had the floor, which was usually a cue that Azula didn't have to start listening again yet. "And somewhere hygienic, Sokka. You remember that word"
"Actually," the Avatar said, a slow grin on his face, "I think I have an idea."
She was staring at her little pile of possessions. There wasn't much- a change of clothes. Some odds and ends. A few pieces of moderately-valuable and easily-transportable jewellery. A book of poetry she had brought as a kind of instant disguise.
And a hairpiece. And a set of charred swords.
"Azula! Come on, we have to go!"
The waterbender had few measurable talents, as far as Azula could see, but some of them surely had to involve shouting.
With sudden violence, she swept everything up, and threw it into her bag.
Hefting her entire life onto her shoulder, she headed towards the bison.
The escape was remarkably neat. From what she had seen, she would have expected a more hectic escape, with no less than three ironclads on their tail within ten minutes. Instead, she climbed onto the wide, flat saddle just as the beast lumbered into the evening twilight. Six unconscious men lay on the ground, and the earthbender sealed the cave behind them with a casual twist of the heel before clambering up the monster's tail.
The boy must have caught something in her expression, because he grinned.
"We've had a lot of practice in running away."
Azula tried her best to look withering.
"Yip-yip!" the Avatar yelled, and suddenly her insides wrenched down and to the left and her ears lurched sideways and her knuckles turned white as she gripped the saddle's lip and they were flying, actually flying, and Azula felt like she was going to throw up.
I spent the day giving orders, and by the time the sun sank behind the mountain, I realised I could take no more of it. I stood from my desk, and walked out onto the front porch, to admire the moonlight.
I always find it easier to think at night. Perhaps it helps my brain to keep cool. Perhaps there aren't any immediate distractions.
Whatever the reason, I stood for some time, watching the stars come out, as I thought about the Plan.
Jeong-Jeong's plan, to be precise.
Phase one of his plan, I have problems with. Phase two, on the other hand, I fear and loathe with every fibre of my being.
Phase one involves rousing the Earth Kingdom to bloody revolution. Phase two is concerned with choking the life out of the Fire Nation.
Phase one will happen. There is no doubt about that.
Phase two... I do not know. I do not want phase two to go into effect. I do not want to give that order. But I will, of course. If I have no alternative, I will. …But what if there were an alternative" What would I do" How long will I wait for a chance" How many people will I let die to save the Fire Nation"
When it all comes down to it, whose side am I on anyway"
I don't have an answer for these questions, and in truth I don't really think about them. I just... file them away. For later.
All of a sudden, the night sky is ablaze.
Well, would you look at that. A meteor shower.