There's a word for situations like this. It's on the tip of my tongue, but every time I try to think what it is the thought shies away, like I can only remember this damn word from the corner of my mind's eye.
Oh what is it" I remember Pakku using it once. Or was it June"
Argh, that's going to bother me.
Years of practice and experience in the arts of combat have left me with what has been described as an almost supernatural ability to sense approaching danger. There's nothing magical about it, of course, just observation. The subtle changes in the flow of sound that indicates behind me, a lot of people are moving out of the way of something coming down the road. The indistinct sound of one metal boot hitting the ground at slow, regular intervals. I know only one person with that kind of footwear.
Plus the way someone in the crowd yells "Look out, Master Piandao!" helps. Sometimes it's an easy answer.
Regardless, I have about two seconds before I'm reduced to a greasy smear on the breeze.
He's right behind me. Dramatic convention demands I turn around slowly and stare him down.
Don't turn around slowly. Don't turn around at all.
I run. And behind me, the pottery stand I had been perusing explodes into a million ceramic fragments.
This is no good. There's too many people, too much noise, too much confusion, and as much as this is acting as cover for me, it's also making it very difficult for me to close the gap between me and my enemy quickly, and of the two of us, I'm not the one that can vaporise an entire street with my mind.
So here I am, cowering behind a wall, sword in hand, while a walking explosion stomps around the town square, and the only thing I can think to do is wait for him to lose patience and start randomly blowing up buildings.
On the plus side, I remember the word now.
You know, it's days like these that make me want to retire and settle down in a nice little opium den in the country.
"Psst! Master Piandao!"
A finger taps my shoulder, trying to get my attention.
Excuse me, but I might have a little on my plate right now. Come back later.
"What," I manage, an ear and a half still trained on the footfalls of my gargantuan opponent. He's getting closer.
"I've got a plan, Master Piandao!"
Finally, I flick my eyes toward the speaker. Young lad, wearing a guard's uniform. Carrying a spear. Town guard, probably appeared while I was away- I certainly don't recognise him.
After a second of silence, I nod at him, expecting something.
"Oh! Right! He's after you, isn't he" So what we could do, is you distract him, I'll cut down one of the back alleys and pop out behind him, stick him in the kidneys while he's doing whatever it is he does, and you chop his head off!"
It's a better idea than what I had, it's true.
I nod. No time to look a gift distraction in the mouth.
Oh damn. Hear that" Two faint clicks, like someone snapping their fingers.
I have seen many things on many battlefields. I have seen Tribesmen lost in battle-frenzy, taking wounds that would send any sane man into shock without even slowing down. I have seen earthbenders create fortifications around a village literally seconds before the enemy crashed upon them. I have seen the most esoteric war machines of the Fire Nation, in their terrible majesty and their laughable obsolescence. Often within the same battle.
But I have never seen fire do the work of a battering ram before.
The wall is hardly even scorched- the ball of flame simply pushed everything out of its way, and only my quick thinking and my ally's quick reactions saved us both from being buried under rubble.
Except now we're trapped in the open courtyard- deserted, of course- the explosions have scattered the crowd. The only available cover this far out is the well, and-
Suddenly there is no well. Everything about the well that separated it from a hole in the ground with water in it is gone.
This looks very bad.
My companion turns to charge, spear raised defiantly.
What the hell, at this stage why not"
He gets ten feet before I see the sparks fly from that strange third eye and the young idiot either didn't notice or doesn't understand the significance because he doesn't alter his course at all so the only thing I can do is grab him by the scruff of the neck and fling him bodily into an alleyway and it's okay because the explosion catapults me in the same direction anyway.
I scrabble upwards, pulled up onto my knees by desperate hands. The young man stares back. Either he's mouthing silently at me, or I just can't hear him over the ringing in my ears.
My tongue won't move, so I wave at him, jabbing two fingers up in a desperate attempt at improvised communication.
I shake my head, and the movement dislodges my tongue and rattles open my jaw a fraction.
"-wo spa, the"
Nope. Complete sentences are out of the picture right now. Deploying sentence fragments.
I tap the centre of my forehead twice.
"Spark... spark... boom!" I explain, badly.
He nods. Either he gets it, or he thinks I'm insane. Not a lot I can do about the latter right now. Besides, he could be right. No entirely sane man would do what I'm about to, surely.
"We go with your plan again. Try and make it work this time."
He's at the end of the street, looking for me.
I shall have to oblige.
I step, carefully, out into the sunshine. I think he's almost surprised when I charge. It is, after all, a phenomenally poor decision. Still, it's what I do. And I hope with all my heart that my new ally hasn't given up and run.
He hasn't. From the dark of an alleyway, to the left of and slightly behind my target, a spear flashes and lunges for his unprotected flank.
It goes poorly. Quicker than I would have thought possible, the giant turns, catching the strike on his gauntlet, his good hand snatching the boy up by the throat.
I almost flinch as the man spins, and dashes the boy's brains out against the wall. A small, painstakingly preserved part of me flinches in horror, but the rest of me notes the way the man did it. The detached brutality of it- the workmanlike savageness, he never betrays a flicker of emotion as he tosses the ruined corpse aside, merely giving the brief nod that acknowledges a job satisfiability performed.
I slow, and stop, as he turns back to face me. I nod, one craftsman to another. And as the muscles in his neck bunch, and his stance stiffens, I hurl my blade overarm.
It catches him between the eyes, the sword burying itself up to the hilt. He sways for one, two seconds, then-
Perhaps I should not have hit him in the centre of his forehead, because that is where his firebending was focused, and therefore it stands to reason that he has to explode.
Which, as I turn away, he does. Wetly.
I duck almost before I hear something scything towards me, and it's not quite quick enough, as I feel something slice a chunk out of my left ear as a dark shape whips past my head. It damn near trims my sideburns as it flies past, and the sword lands blade-first, embedding itself in the flagstones.
After another moment, my knees give out, and I sink to the ground, just long enough to close my eyes and catch my breath.
Then, as people begin to look out from houses and around corners, I retrieve my weapon, and begin the long walk up to my home.
Azula rolled over on the hard wood of the saddle, eyes screwed shut. By her reckoning, the last of the others had been asleep for about ten minutes. Well, apart from-
"You're still awake" a voice murmured, from the front of the bison.
Azula sighed. "Yes." Apart from him.
"Good. 'Cause I've got some questions for you."
"Oh" In truth, she wasn't surprised. In fact, she was a little amazed that he had waited this long to confront her. If she were in his position, she would have made sure that her questions were asked in full view of those other three, upon whom she could theoretically depend. She wondered what his game might be.
"Tell me, what incentive are you going to give me to answer them"
"I don't know, goodwill"
"Hah. Well, as it happens, I have some questions of my own to ask you." There was no reason, now he had broached the concept, that she shouldn't take the opportunity to settle a few nagging questions of her own.
"A question for a question, huh"
"It seems fair, doesn't it"
"I go first."
"...Fine," she conceded, grudgingly.
"Really" Great. Okay, here goes. The whole 'your mom's a prisoner on Ember Island' thing. Where did you get that information from" 'Cause, you know, kinda suspicious, if you don't mind me saying."
This question she had anticipated. "A note. Not to me. I intercepted a message between two people in the Air Temple." She gave a brief explanation of the particulars.
"...Uh huh. And it didn't occur to you that this could be, maybe, a trap"
"I do believe it's my turn first."
"...Fine. Ask away."
She looked up, fixing him with a steady gaze. "Why. Why did you agree to this" You cannot deny this is running contrary to your interests."
"...Look. You know I wanted Aang to be more active with the Earth Kingdom. Thing is, Aang won't. And if I was gonna push him any more, there's no telling what could'a happened, but it wouldn't have been good. So my interests weren't on the table anyway, which leaves us five against the Fire Nation. You want this, Aang wanted anything other than to stay cooped up in the Air Temple. This way, you're both happy."
"So this is nothing but maintaining group cohesion, then"
"Hey, my question first." Damn.
"Ah yes. You wanted to know if I had realised it could be a trap. Yes, of course I did. The Fire Lord could have manipulated that in order to lure us out into the Fire Nation. But I don't think he did. I think it was someone else entirely. There is a... secret society. They call themselves the Order of the White Lotus, a pretentious name, I know. I think they may be behind this. If they are, prepare for complications. Whatever you do, do not let yourself think you are in their debt. They will use you, and destroy you."
"Wild shot in the dark here. There a tall guy, dark hair, goatee, uses a sword really, really well"
It was a violation of the rules, but Azula set the game aside for the moment.
"Yeah! That was his name! 'Concerned citizens', my ass."
Well. File that one away for later.
"Anyway. I believe you owe me an answer."
"Yeah. …Alright, you're right. There's more to it. Look, I know you're not telling us everything. And you don't have to, we've had that talk. But the point is, even if half of what you've told us is true... look, this is gonna sound weird, but it seems to me like you've had a string of really bad days now and... agh. Look. Let me start over. I agreed to this because like it or not you're on Team Avatar, now, and that means something. You don't trust us, fair enough, we haven't done anything to give you a reason yet. But you can't be part of the group unless we trust you, so I'm kind of stuck in a paradox here. Basically, I guess I have to let you show me that you're trustworthy."
"...I ...see." And she did, after a fashion. For all his overtures of caution, he seemed to be taking this 'team spirit' concept seriously. Azula didn't quite know what to make of that, so she pushed it aside. "Did you have another question"
"...Yeah. Yeah, I think so."
"...Well" Get on with it." But suddenly she noticed his smirk.
"...I think I'll ask it later. I'm really tired."
Azula seethed at falling into such a predictable trap, but nodded, the very picture of composed acceptance. "Very well." After all, she had never promised to tell the truth. "But I get the last question." Even though she had been outmanoeuvred, she would extract her fair share of answers.
"Sure. Knock yourself out."
"What are you going to tell the Avatar about the eclipse"
"...I haven't the faintest idea. I mean, the Earth Kingdom guys seem to have it well enough in hand, and I guess it's too late now. I mean, midsummer's in what, two weeks" There's not a whole lot we can do with this in the time we've got, unless you wanna put off this rescue mission of ours for another week." He must have seen the look on her face, from the way he almost smiled. "Yeah, didn't think you'd go for that."
That made things simpler, at least.
Azula had sat for hours as the Northern Air Temple vanished from sight, the thought if the midsummer eclipse churning in her brain. It was almost elegantly horrifying- the thought of being cut off from the light of Agni, even for a few minutes, was like the bottom dropping out of her stomach- and she had been understandably concerned about what Sokka might have coerced the Avatar into doing with that brief window of helplessness.
"Well, in that case, if you don't tell him, then I won't tell him that you aren't telling him." And this time, she couldn't help but smirk. "After all, the Avatar seems the type that would be quite hurt if he knew you were keeping secrets like this from him."
Sokka blinked, twice.
"...Are you blackmailing me for doing something that helps you in the first place" Ten out of ten for pure evil style, but talk about having your cake and eating it."
Azula shrugged. "What else is one supposed to do with cake"
I roll up my map, and shove it into my satchel. Behind me, Fat lurks in the doorway, silent as the grave.
It was a mistake, staying here. I should not have relaxed. I should not have let my guard down. I got complacent, got lazy, and as ever another died to pay for my mistakes.
"I shall leave in the morning. You know what to do in my absence."
"Of course, Master."
"If any late messages arrive for me, deal with them as you see fit- I will be away from communication lines until the hawk tower." And by then it will be too late to make any changes, of course.
"Of course, Master."
"Oh, and make sure that the people of Shu Jing are properly compensated. I fear the fight today left a great deal damaged."
"Of course, Master."
That's everything, I think.
"Oh, and if anyone comes looking-"
"Do you mean anyone or anyone, Master"
"Whichever inflection indicates large violent people trying to kill me."
"Ah. Of course, Master."
"Anyway. If any such people come looking, I want you to take no unnecessary risks. Run if you must, burn this house to the ground if you really have to. But try not to let yourself get killed, if you can."
"If you insist, Master."
"Thank you. Now I believe I shall retire. I have a long way to go in the morning."
No more rest. No more relaxation. The eclipse is coming, and we must all be ready for it.
Starting tomorrow, the Order of the White Lotus rides to war.