The Gentleman of Weapons
Chapter Twenty Nine: Priorities

Or,

The Story of a Woman on the Morning of a War; Remind Me if You Will Exactly What We're Fighting For.

Azula's declaration was met with a moment of silent shock, and then the Avatar moved, fairly vaulting over to the other side of his room, where a large and elaborate map of the world sat on a low table.

"Ember Island, Ember Island... aha! Here it is!" He pointed with small triumph to the southern tail of the Fire Nation, where the island did indeed rest. "Okay, let's see. We can be there in... about a week." He looked a little shamefaced at this. "Sorry, it'd be faster, but we can't go over the mainland if we wanna get there without being spotted."

A week. She would see Mother again in a week. Her utter shock at the complete lack of opposition was completely subsumed by this one simple fact.

"A week is... acceptable. Thank you, Avatar."

Sokka made a kind of strangulated noise. He didn't sound happy. "But-" he glanced from the Avatar to Azula to the Avatar to Azula again, eyes wide and staring, eyebrows raised, and here, here was the opposition she had been expecting. Azula, for her part, stared passively back. After a moment, he seemed to deflate. "Alright. Guess I'll go tell the Council of Five we won't be staying after all. Someone go tell Toph and Katara, and we'll meet at Appa in a couple of hours."

Or perhaps not, then.

With that, he turned and walked out the door. After a few moments, Azula thought she could make out the retreating sound of him muttering darkly to himself, although she couldn't make out any specific words.

Azula was more than a little surprised at how quickly he had acquiesced, but decided not to comment on it. After all, it was nice to have something finally going her way.

Azula elected to wait in the Avatar's quarters, while the others made the necessary preparations. It was a larger and more comfortable room than her own, and she was not sure she could compose herself enough for a walk through the hallways just at that moment.

So, to pass the time, and ensure she remained diverted enough not to act ...overemotionally, she examined the room in some detail, watching for the marks the Avatar had placed over his living quarters.

Azula had seen her own room as nothing but a box- a space she went to lie down and try to sleep in, nothing more. Not the Avatar. Even in a short space of time, the Avatar had made the room unmistakably his own. The floor to the ceiling bore small but unmistakable traces of his residence- the floor scuffed and uneven from small-scale but near-constant earthbending, a sign that he was still working on mastering the element; the furniture, all but untouched save for the opulent bed and a large, soft pillow (the Avatar was such a child still) the windows wide open (wider, in fact, than they had been designed to go- in one instance, earthbending had simply removed the entire windowpane from the wall, and propped it neatly beside the door), allowing the wind to go where it would- these were all obvious signs of his occupation.

Less predictable, though, was the reaction to the piping that threaded through one wall. Some of the same piping protruded from one wall of her room, and to her interest she had found it to be for the purpose of moving heated water from one part of the temple to another. Whether intended or not, the pipe had the pleasing side-effect of heating Azula's room nicely. A few careful questions to the right people had revealed that these pipes were part of extensive modifications to the Temple that had been performed by a community that had lived here before the Court in Exile- some time after the airbenders, of course. Apparently they had been wiped out by Fire Nation soldiers some years before, although Azula had heard nothing of such an event. But in any event, the infrastructure had outlasted the colony, and when the Court had taken the Temple from the Fire Nation, they found it simple enough to understand how the majority of the devices worked, and maintain them.

In the Avatar's room, three pipes were threaded through one wall, horizontally. He had stacked furniture in front of them, and when that had proved insufficient, draped blankets over them, masking them from view.

What strange behaviour.

Her thoughts were interrupted abruptly, when a large man violently kicked the door open.

It was a fine morning, again, and I was in an equally fine mood.

I had rested. I had been fed. I had bathed. I had had a haircut. I had finally got on top of the bloody paperwork. And, once again, it was a nice day. And I was determined to enjoy it. Very soon, I will have no time to enjoy sunny days, so I'll be damned if I let this one get away from me.

So I was walking down to the village. Not entirely without purpose- that would be self-indulgent- but perhaps the trip was less critical than it might have been. But then again, all my messages have been sent, and it will be a day until the next batch arrive on my desk.

The last batch, actually. After tomorrow, there's no turning back.

Anyway. I was going to pick up groceries. Fat was taking his turn keeping watch.

My new sword is a little too long, and a little too heavy to wear comfortably on my hip, so it is sheathed diagonally, across my back. I'm still getting used to wearing it.

Azula stepped back, reflexively hunching over just slightly- shrinking her silhouette and appearing non-confrontational- as the man barged into the middle of the room.

It was the correct decision. He wasn't here for her, the way his eyes flickered around the room was proof enough of that, and by appearing small and unimportant she gained a few vital seconds more to assess the man for herself.

He was large- not overweight, but built to a slightly greater scale than most. There were taller men than him, especially among the Water Tribes, but he had broad shoulders that those barbarians typically lacked. His beard was long, but neat, and his clothes were fine but simply adorned.

So. That could mean almost anything.

But his body language was eloquent- every fibre of him fairly vibrated with frustration, panic, and anger.

This meant trouble.

After a few seconds in which he seemed to double check that he and Azula were alone in the room, he spoke, spitting the words at Azula like they burned him.

"Well" Where is he, girl"

Azula blinked. There was really only one he the man could be referring to, given the locale.

"The Avatar"- "

"No, the Fire Lord," the man snapped, interrupting her. "Of course I mean the Avatar, girl. Are you simple"

Azula bit down her first response. And her second. And third.

Eventually, she reached a response that didn't leave the man as nothing but a greasy smear on the opposite wall.

"The Avatar, I believe, is elsewhere. He is busy."

"Busy" Then he is, at least, still here" Well, that is something, then."

Azula watched as the man suddenly froze, a thought spreading across his face.

"One moment. What is your name"

Azula could see where this was going. "Lily."

"Hmm. Yes, that was it," the man said, staring at her impassively. Azula stared back. There wasn't much else she could do, at this juncture.

Her only solace was the thought that it was unlikely that the man would actually attack her.

Unless he realised that she was about as far from an Earth Kingdom peasant as anyone was likely to get, of course. Still, gold eyes, while rare, weren't actually unheard of in the Earth Kingdom. She just had to rely on the man giving her the benefit of the doubt on that front.

Worryingly, the man had taken on an almost scheming look, and stroked his beard thoughtfully.

"Yes. You're one of the Avatar's followers, aren't you. Well, it's hardly ideal, but desperate times."

Azula was about to throw caution to the wind and simply ask what exactly the man intended, which at least would have been novel, when she heard running in the corridor outside, which abruptly skidded to a halt outside, and were replaced with the sound of someone trying desperately to catch their breath.

And then Sokka burst into the room.

"Alright, A- oh, General, didn't expect to see you here."

Azula learned three things from that sentence. Firstly, that the man was a general, secondly, that he was known to Sokka, and thirdly, that Sokka was lying through his teeth.

This should be interesting.

"I don't know if you've met" Lily, this is General How, leader of the Council of Five, General How, this is Lily, the, uh, girl from Gaoling. Not Toph, the other one."

"A pleasure," Azula sneered. She couldn't have stopped herself for all the money in the world.

"From Gaoling" the General asked, with mock surprise. "I never would have guessed, from your accent." He knows, Azula thought. Or at least, he suspects. This could get very ugly.

Sokka waved his hands dismissively. "She hung out with the Bei Fongs for who knows how many years. She's just trying to sound upper-class. Anyway, it's a pleasure as always, but I gotta say I'd have thought you'd be too busy to drop by and pay us a visit."

"Well, I thought it would be worth my time to stop by, since you interrupted out meeting to tell us that the Avatar was leaving. Today. I thought I had impressed upon you how important he would be to our plans."

Sokka sighed. "Look. I told you. Something's come up. We can't stay any more." Azula wasn't sure she liked the way he was very deliberately not looking at her.

"You can't just leave-"

"Pretty sure that's exactly what we're doing."

The General looked like he was fighting an internal battle. When he next spoke, it was in a low, faraway voice, as though reading off an internal script.

"Are you certain there is nothing I can say to persuade you to stay" Even for just a few weeks more"

Sokka glanced askance at Azula, looking confused. Azula shrugged slightly, in response.

"Yeah, pretty certain."

"...There is a weapon at our disposal. One which will be of great interest to you, I promise."

"Look, unless it's something like a crossbow that shoots swords, I'm pretty sure we're good."

"On midsummer, the moon will pass in front of the sun."

Dead silence.

Azula blinked. Sokka's jaw swung gently in the breeze.

"For six minutes, the sun will be entirely blocked. For six minutes, there will be no firebending. We are launching our assault on that day. Imagine what we could do with the Avatar at our head."

Through the maelstrom that was Azula's mind, she noted with growing disquiet the terrible fires of temptation glowing in her companion's eyes.

"...One question," he said, at last. "How long have you known about this"

"Years," How replied, looking smug.

"Uh huh. I'm assuming you've planned for this pretty extensively."

"Down to the last second."

"Thought so. Then in that case," Sokka replied, with the tone of a man laying down a winning hand "you don't need Aang. We can trust you guys not to screw up, but we've got our own stuff to deal with."

Azula had to stop herself smirking too broadly. Gloating would not be the best response at the moment.

How glanced at Azula for the briefest of moments, then frowned, and nodded.

"Very well. It seems I cannot persuade you." He paused, and turned to go. "Safe travels."

The man ducked, and closed the door behind him.

At the exact moment that How's footsteps were no longer audible, Sokka deflated like a balloon.

Azula raised an eyebrow.

"As much as I appreciate the assistance, I could have dealt with him," she said.

"Yeah, but the last thing we need is to horribly murder the leader of the Council of Five on our way out. So you'll have to forgive me making sure nobody died."

Azula was about to retort with something childish- she couldn't help it, the adrenaline was getting to her dead- when she heard footsteps in the corridor outside.

Sokka evidently heard them too, from the way he unsheathed his machete and whirled to face the door.

"Okay," he said, with forced tranquility, "I didn't want to worry you, but as you might have guessed the news that we're leaving didn't exactly go down well with the Council of Five. And not all of them have How's self-control."

Azula thought that sounded bad, and said so. "You think someone is going to try something... stupid."

"Yeah, that's exactly what I'm thinking. Aang's gonna be safe, but I wouldn't bet nobody's thought of grabbing one of us and using us as a hostage. Like you said, stupid."

Azula nodded, following his train of thought. "But we shouldn't assume that they're in the mood to be smart."

"Exactly. So here's what we're gonna do. Are you packed"

"Since everything I own fits into one small rucksack, yes."

"Awesome. We're gonna go to your room, pick up your stuff, then we're gonna head straight for Appa and we're gonna wait there for the others. How're you feeling" Up for running"

Azula wasn't sure she liked what that question implied. "I don't know the corridors well."

"Okay, so we'll play it cool. I can do that."

Azula decided that, on the whole, she didn't like the Northern Air Temple very much.

"...He threatened you" The Avatar was incredulous.

"Not directly," Azula replied, glancing around at the high walls of the temple. Even though she couldn't see them, she knew people were watching them. Their invisibility was simply proof that they were there. "But it was obvious enough that he wanted to stop us leaving."

Sokka nodded, from the saddle, where he had been helping to load their possessions. "Yeah. So if we're gonna go, we'd better go now and oh crap Toph can you feel something"

The earthbender nodded, and Azula noted that she seemed a little more rattled than usual as she responded. "Oh yeah, at least twelve guys, running for the courtyard door."

The Avatar made a snap decision. "Everyone onto Appa, quick!"

Azula had never agreed with the boy more.

In the end they were barely quick enough. They had just taken off when a group of black-clad earthbenders spilled into the courtyard. One had shouted 'wait!' and Sokka had riposted with the only real response, which was "Sorry, can't hear you! See you guys around!" and they were safe.

Nobody relaxed until the Northern Air Temple disappeared from view, swallowed by the clouds.

I'm feeling quite relaxed, actually. The sun is nice, the market is full of things to see and smell and hear, and for the first time in years it seems the little town is bustling.

Which is why it takes me three whole seconds to notice the giant bald man in the crowd, giving him ample time to try to murder me.