It was really quite simple, Azula found. At least when you remembered a few pertinent details, and had a decent eye for observation.
The Air Temples had been communal living areas. Therefore any kitchen facilities would be similarly communal, large, and near the main dining halls. Which, since she had declined to attend the banquet, she had no hope of locating. So that was out.
However, she was reasonably certain that she had seen a well in the courtyard they had arrived at. That seemed an achievable goal, and she did need a drink of water. Her throat itched terribly.
This was a good thing to be focusing on. It was good to think about material problems that had easily-achieved solutions.
It took a while, but eventually, Azula found herself in the small courtyard that housed the fountain. It was dark- the moon was somewhere behind her, obscured by the towering architecture of the Temple, so the only source of light was the distant pinpricks of starlight, and dull candle-light streaming from scattered windows, set high in the walls that crowded around the courtyard.
This was why it took nearly seven seconds for her to notice that someone else was already at the fountain.
"Is- is someone there" Oh, Spirits- look, I just wanted a drink of water, that's all. There's no need to make a fuss over it." A man's voice, but young- early twenties, if Azula were about to guess. Very well educated, if his accent were any indication. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, more details presented themselves- robes, the outline of a sword at his side, and two small glints of glass at head height indicated eyeglasses.
"Look, just... don't tell anybody I'm here, please" It would only worry people unduly, and everyone has enough to worry about right now."
Azula stared blankly as the absurdity of the situation dawned on her. Here she was, essentially an undercover member of the Fire Nation skulking around the secret base of the Earth King at two in the morning, and the man by the fountain was asking her not to tell anyone he was here.
She got the distinct feeling she was missing an important piece of the puzzle.
The figure was standing, now, and took a small step towards her.
"...Hang on," he said, a little less formally. "I... don't believe we've met."
Azula thought for a moment, taking time to recall the cover story Sokka had hastily fabricated for her.
"...Lily," she said, trying to conceal the contempt she felt for the name. "I arrived with the Avatar this morning."
"Oh, of course. They said you were ill. Did you- oh, I'm sorry. Did you come for a drink of water"
Azula shrugged. "That was my intention, yes." In response, the man picked up something from the gloom, and turned back to the fountain. Azula heard a gentle splash of water, and he turned back to face her.
"I suppose you can't sleep either" he asked, handing her an earthenware cup, full of water.
Azula saw no sense in denying it.
"Apparently not," she admitted, gingerly sipping the water. She wondered, vaguely, how she was going to deflect this conversation away from her, but she needn't have worried. The man seemed eager enough to fill the silence all by himself.
"It's nerves, I'm ashamed to say. This whole ...war is coming to a head soon, and I'm rather afraid that I'm caught up in it. We're mobilising, you see. Quite soon, actually.
"Frankly, I'd rather just let everyone else get on with it. I know that must sound dreadfully selfish, but I really am no good at the whole fighting business."
Azula blinked, nodding almost imperceptibly at the sword tucked into his sash.
"Oh, this" he asked, tapping the hilt. "You mustn't suppose that merely carrying a blade presupposes martial prowess of any sort. It's just for the look of the thing, I'm afraid. The last time I actually drew the blasted thing I nearly cut my own ear off with it."
Azula cocked her head, slightly curious. "You honestly have no experience of battle"
The man grimaced. "...I have certainly never fought. I was in a battle, after a fashion. Years ago, now. I don't remember a great deal. Fire. Smoke. A lot of rushing about, and yelling. I tripped over and broke my eyeglasses at some point. I didn't acquit myself particularly well, I'm afraid. I got captured, you see, even after everything I got captured, and a lot of people went to frankly enormous effort to get me out in one piece."
Azula blinked. "Was it worth it" Who was this man, then, that held such tactical importance to the Earth Kingdom"
"They apparently thought so. And now we are going back home. I'm told I shouldn't expect much- the entire Lower Ring was …purged, you see. Terrible, terrible business. Used to be the largest city in the entire world, I'm sure you know. Now... a few hundred thousand souls. Plus the Fire Nation garrison, of course." He looked up, at Azula's carefully composed face. "Sorry. That was supposed to be a little jingoism. I'm told it helps."
"Don't be ridiculous." He sighed. "Still, one has to put a brave face. Moping doesn't help anybody, least of all me. And look on the bright side- at least I'm going home again."
"You sound very certain of victory. Didn't you mention a garrison"
He gave her a level look. "Do you really think you could keep an earthbender out of any city he really wanted to enter" Besides, we've got an advantage, because- oh, I'm sorry. I'm not supposed to talk about that. Secret weapon, official secrets, very hush-hush."
Azula would later consider herself the very pinnacle of restraint for not leaping across the courtyard and beating answers out of the man's head the instant he said those words. And in the same moment she would reprimand herself for missing an opportunity, because in that instant, he shook his head, and stood up, abruptly smiling slightly.
"You know," he said, cheerfully, "if you're having trouble sleeping, the worst thing you can do is dwell on something you can't resolve then and there. Try telling yourself a story- one you know off by heart. That often helps me."
Azula shook her head. "I thank you for your suggestion," she replied, curtly, "but I don't know many stories. Thank you for the water." And with that, she turned back, followed by the nagging dread that it was only going to get harder to sleep.
"Master. It is time to get up."
Blearily, I open my eyes. What time is it" Where am I" Is it somewhere where I won't be begrudged a few more hours' sleep"
"I apologise, Master, but you gave very specific instructions." I'm still trying to work out how I'm supposed to work this fleshy thing that's stuck to the roof of my mouth -tongue, that's what it's called- and so I can't interrupt for the moment. "You said if any particularly important messages arrived for you, you were to be woken up, no matter how tired you were."
Damn. I hate Past Me. He keeps leaving things for me to trip up on.
I sigh, and sit up, taking the cup of tea Fat offers.
Tea is miraculous stuff. Backbone of modern society. No wait the backbone of modern society is going out and killing people from foreign lands. Tea should be the backbone of modern society, though.
"Alright," I say, long-sufferingly. "Show me the letters."
The Avatar arrived at the Northern Air Temple yesterday morning (the letter read, so factor in travel time of at least two days). Well, that's not too surprising. We've had several contingency plans in place for just such an occurrence. Accompanying the Avatar were the two Water Tribes teenagers (good to see they're still alive), an earthbender June had mentioned before in her infrequent reports, now identified as Toph Bei Fong (of the Gaoling Bei Fongs- the Avatar moves in august company, it would seem), and a fourth companion. A firebender.
Princess Azula. Presumed deceased some weeks ago.
It's unbelievable. It's so unbelievable that I don't believe it. The odds of the Princess just finding herself in the Avatar's company are... it's very unlikely, I know that. And yet, there is corroboration. June's reports on the Avatar's movements are indeed consistent with this eventuality. They were in the area where the Princess and her family were ambushed, and then rapidly retreated to a secluded cave on the coast for some time, before moving north to the Air Temple.
So maybe I can believe this actually happened. Which means that someone, somewhere, is having a laugh. Probably at my expense.
What do I do" Do I do anything"
I'm almost tempted to ignore it. After all, it is unlikely in the extreme that the Princess will be willing to listen to us now- there's no chance we can gain her trust, not after everything, even if our intentions were completely altruistic. Which they aren't, at least as far as the Princess is concerned. It would not do to provoke her.
And there is the fact that every time I have interfered with her life directly, one of her family has died. Twice may be a coincidence, but I will have to be forgiven for not wanting to find out if it's a pattern.
I simply don't know what to do.
After a moment I recall that I received two letters. Setting aside the first, I examine the second.
And suddenly, the way forward is clear.
It's only after my orders are given, and the messenger hawk is flying, that I begin to wonder if I made the right decision.
I am not, as a rule, given overmuch to second-guessing myself, if only because once I started I'd never stop, but the directive I just gave may well backfire. Horribly, and quite possibly fatally,0 for everyone involved.
Well, if that's the case, at least it won't involve us any more. How the Princess chooses to proceed is completely out of my hands. I am not building a facet of the Plan on how the Princess reacts to this- I am simply giving her an opportunity to act as she sees fit. I like to think it's something of a peace offering.
After all, I completely cocked up in this area, so it's only fair to let her try her hand. Perhaps she will do better.
Azula stalked the halls, quietly seething.
It was all too much. Too many people- too many potential enemies, too many people who might recognise her, too much noise, too little privacy, and, above everything, no way to strike back. No enemy to engage, no plan to formulate, all she could do was pace up and down the halls like a caged tiger.
It was this bottled resentment that simply burst when she saw, coming around a corner, two soberly-dressed men pass each other in the hall. She would have thought little of it, except for one detail. A small slip of paper passed surreptitiously from one man to the other, as they passed.
There wasn't a plan going through her head when she stole the paper from the man's pocket- all she was really trying to do was strike an unimaginably tiny blow against secret bloody societies and their skulking about with secret bloody messages. Father had gotten involved in secret plots, and he had died for it. Azula had trusted Zuko's life to agents of the same secret plotters, and he had died for it. It was simply a release, a natural result of too much frustrated rage bottled up for too long.
But then, when she actually read the note, almost as an afterthought, it was like waking after a long sleep. The pounding frustration in her head dropped away, replaced by icy water.
She turned back, towards the Avatar's quarters, and started to run.
She practically skidded to a halt outside the Avatar's room, and paused to catch her breath. And listen at the door, of course.
"...Sokka, I really don't like this."
"I know, okay. But look, you don't have to commit to anything, just, you know, hear them out. Look, I know it's kinda weird going to the Earth King for help-"
"It's wrong, Sokka. It's not my job to be some kind of... military leader."
"-I know. But Aang, there's four of us-"
"I said that. Look, it may not be following the Avatar Code, but doing things the 'right way' leaves five of us against an entire country. I know it's iffy, but something's gotta give, Aang, and I'd rather my karma points take the hit than my soft yielding flesh."
This sounded very bad indeed. Fortunately, the Avatar didn't sound convinced, but if Sokka were her opponent in this debate, things could turn sour very quickly.
She decided. Act now, go in there, and deliver her news. Hopefully the Avatar would welcome the distraction, and it might put Sokka off-balance long enough for a decision to be reached without his input.
Nerves steeled, Azula opened the door. The two boys in the room swung round as she entered, both faces displaying the same look of surprise.
"Avatar," she said, grabbing the initiative, trying to keep her voice level. "I fear I must ask a favour of you. You recall I told you about my family" He nodded, and she took a steadying breath. "I just received information. My mother is alive, and a prisoner of the Fire Lord. She is being held captive on Ember Island."