In the dark before dawn I make my way up the hill, towards the station. It's a small, squat building, some way into the woods, perched on the only sizeable incline for miles around. I have business here.
The rain makes the climb more arduous than it should be, and I draw my oiled cloak about my neck as I finally make it to the door.
I knock on the heavy wooden door. The rain is hammering and my hood is up, so it's unlikely that I will be recognised immediately.
A thin slat opens in the door, and a dark figure peers out at me.
"Hello" Who's there" If it's you again, Ken, I'm telling you, we don't do local mail. The messenger-hawks will be available to the public again when the Fire Lord-"
My blade flicks, tearing through stone and wood and steel and flesh. The deadbolt is shorn in two, and the door swings easily at my touch.
The man is dead on the floor, a hole in his throat.
"I would like to point out," Sokka proclaimed, leaning imperiously on his cane, "that this is almost certainly going to be a complete waste of time. Just, you know, making my position clear here."
Azula was inclined to agree. But, still, the Avatar's mind was made up. And so, she clambered up onto the sky bison without comment, joining the already waiting Aang and Toph.
"You guys have fun," Sokka said, waving. "We'll still be here when you get back. Unless something really interesting happens."
Mother looked slightly discomfited at that, but there wasn't time to educate her on the finer points of sarcasm, because at that point, Aang declared 'Yip, yip!' (and inside, a tiny part of her immortal soul creaked and groaned under the pressure of not saying something scathing), and the bison leapt upwards, into the dawn.
The sun rises sluggishly, over mist and damp ground. I watch from the second-storey window, out across the clearing, at the last man as he runs- tripping and slipping in his fear and haste- down the hill, no plan in his head but survival.
He makes it almost to the treeline before an arrow strikes him dead. (And that's five.) And my assistants leave their posts, peeling away from the trees, and make their way up the hill towards me.
We have a lot to set up.
This place is a messenger-hawk waystation, one of the largest in the western Fire Nation. There are five such places of similar size in the Fire Nation, and tonight we have hit them all.
Eight minutes is good, but the amount of damage we can cause with it is limited. At least, unless we plan very, very carefully.
So this is step one. We cut their communications, leave them blind. Hijack their messenger-hawks for our own purposes.
Step two is to use that communication network for our own ends- cause confusion, give contradictory orders, sow misinformation wherever we can. Some of it has a specific goal- we have already succeeded in ensuring that all the ships of the Southern Raiders are docked at the same time, for example- but more of it is just to make sure that the Fire Nation's attention is focused firmly inwards.
Step three is out of my hands. All the rest of the fighting happens far away from me.
Azula had not forgotten the date. She just didn't know what to do about it.
She somehow doubted that there would be an opportunity to use this moment of weakness, even if she weren't due to spend the day traipsing around ancient ruins in the middle of nowhere.
That was the price she had paid, she supposed. At least it didn't seem as though she would be in any danger when the eclipse arrived.
She had palmed a knife, though. Just in case.
I can't get to sleep, the night before the eclipse. My bones tell me to rest, but there's too much dancing around in my head, and I spend the night worrying over situations I know will be alright- we've gone over them a thousand times, planning every action down to the second- but I can't help but wonder.
And, some time after midnight, as I lie on the floor of the station (there are beds. They belonged to the men and women that worked here. I will not touch them.) I can't shake the terrible notion that somehow, some way, Iroh knows.
It's ridiculous, of course. If there's one thing I can be sure of, it's that Iroh doesn't know. He knows something is up- he's no fool. He's reinforced, dug in. Brought more firebenders to the front lines (as much as 'front lines' still exist in this war, anyway. Say he's reinforced problem areas, for the sake of accuracy).
He doesn't know.
Even he wouldn't do that, just to hide the fact that he's found out.
But the thought festers, in the way dread does, in the night.
"Okay," Toph said, with an air of finality. "From now on, you guys step where I step. Got it"
It had been the fourth time that either Aang or Azula had almost been killed by unexpected spike pits, volleys of poisoned darts, or sudden boulders, and the earthbender was getting annoyed.
"Is anyone concerned that we have been in this ruin for less than an hour, and already it has tried to kill us" Repeatedly" Azula asked, as they walked along, rather more carefully.
Aang scratched his nose.
"Sure, I guess. You can't worry about the little things, Azula."
"Are you honestly suggesting that the deathtraps are... beneath our notice" Azula asked, incredulous.
Aang shrugged. "Generally, people trying to kill us means we're on the right track. I guess you can think of it as a positive sign!"
"And here we are," Azula proclaimed, finally, at the top of a quite frankly excessive flight of steps. "For the benefit of the differently-sighted, we have a carving of two dragons burning a man to death."
"Got it," Toph said, nodding.
"Is this the sort of thing you were looking for, Avatar" Azula asked.
"Come on, let's keep moving," he said, starting out along the long causeway that stretched clear across the city, terminating at an enormous structure, at the far end, fused to the mountainside.
Azula sighed, and started to walk.
They crossed the long causeway, as the sun began to reach midday. Azula basked in the heat, like a lizard, head craning backwards as she walked, eyes lidded in contentment. Toph, by contrast, was starting to suffer. Shoes would have probably helped, but Azula eventually decided against mentioning that.
The view from the walkway was something to behold. The whole city was laid out beneath them, ruined walls still standing, carving the landscape into an interlocking maze of streets and shattered houses. Everything was silent, and still. Arid, too- nothing grew here, no life punctuated the ruin- the flagstones too tightly-placed for plants to grow between them. No plants meant few insects stayed long. And that, in turn, meant nothing larger prowled the dead roads.
Azula wondered, idly, what had happened here, to drive the Sun Warriors out. This had been their Capital, once, their seat of power, where- if the histories were to be believed- they cut the beating hearts from their captive enemies, and offered them up to the sun.
No war had overrun the Sun Warriors- how could it" They were the first wielders of Agni's gift, after all. All that was truly known was that, at some point, before the Fire Nation was anything more than a scattered collection of city-states, the Sun Warriors simply vanished from what records remained. It was one of the great mysteries historians loved to debate. Some said a plague overran them. Some thought they undertook a mass exodus- although where they might have gone was another question, with another thousand answers.
Azula had never been a great student of ancient history, and this was why. All that could be said with any certainty was this: the Sun Warriors were once here, and now they were gone.
Eventually, they came to the central building at the end of the causeway- a great tower, presumably a temple of some description, carved into the mountainside. And, for just one second, she felt the weight of history bearing down on her, as she recognised echoes of this place in the temples of the Fire Sages.
Aang rushed forward, testing the door. It refused to move.
"It's locked up!" he cried, after a fruitless moment.
It was all Azula could do not to sigh heavily.
"Toph," she said, wearily. "If you would."
After a busy moment, the door was ripped apart, and the way was clear. The Avatar, at least, looked abashed.
"Oh look," Azula observed, as she walked through the door "a sunstone. They have those in the Temples. I think this door is only supposed to open at a certain time of year." She shrugged. Archaeology had never been her strong suit.
They entered into a large chamber, lit only by the sunlight- streaming from a small, circular hole in the centre of the roof, and pouring in the open door behind them. Huge, high-ceilinged, and almost completely empty.
Toph whistled low, under her breath. "Huh. There's a lot going on under here," she commented, tapping the floor with her toe. "I think it's got something to do with-"
That was as far as she got before the Avatar clapped a hand over her mouth.
"No! This is what we came here for! You can't just tell us! We've got to figure it out!"
Azula wasn't entirely certain that they did, but it was, after all, the Avatar's trip.
"Fine," Toph retorted, shoving him away. "I guess I'll go stand in the corner then."
Azula tuned out the bickering, moving forward into the room. A ring of statues, showing figures- no, one figure in various poses. On closer inspection, the statues mirrored each other- the left side was the exact same as the right.
The figures were an instruction, as one might see in a scroll to give a child- an introduction to basic forms, to be refined by a tutor. But why go to so much ceremony for this one"
"It's a dance," the Avatar said, staring at the statues.
"It's a kata," Azula corrected. "But what's so special about it"
A grin spread across the Avatar's face. "Well, there's one way to find out, I guess!"
Azula didn't dignify that with a response. But she supposed there was no harm in trying.
She wasn't about to jump straight in, though. The movements looked simple enough, but she wasn't going to risk making a fool of herself.
She studied the statues carefully, noting everything- the way the weight shifted from high to low to high again, the sudden jab of the arms, the high punch to the low kick- paying attention.
After a long moment, as the Avatar grew visibly impatient, she nodded, and took her place.
The tile beneath her foot sank half an inch, then stopped. A glance at Aang confirmed that this was a feature, and not a sign that the building was about to collapse. She was relatively confident that Toph would have mentioned it if they were about to set off another deathtrap. Relatively.
A nod to her partner, and they moved.
The kata made more sense in motion. It was strong, quick, and very aggressive- and definitely a firebender's kata. Quick shifts from still stance to still stance, footing strong and airways unconstrained; she could see where the fire would go, with just a hint of pressure.
All in all, it was a fine set of moves. If this was all they learned from the trip, and it was enough to convince the Avatar to carry on with his training, she would consider it enough.
And as they reached the end of the line of statues, there was a soft click, and the rumble of stone.
"Okay, that was nothing to do with me," Toph said, from her corner, as Azula turned around.
A plinth had raised up in the centre of the room. On it rested a golden egg.
"Azula!" the Avatar hissed, as she stepped forward. "Don't touch it!"
"Shh!" the earthbender snapped, suddenly. "Don't move, don't speak, don't make a noise! Stop breathing!"
Azula frowned, as Toph dropped to her knees, spreading her palms flat on the floor, face screwed up in concentration.
The silence was overwhelming.
But it didn't last long. On the very edge of hearing, there was something that sounded like-
"There's people up there," Toph stated, emphatically, and suddenly she was striding over to stand between Aang and Azula, and before anyone could so much as voice a concern, all three of them were suddenly catapulted upwards, riding a spear of rock, the metal grate of the window rushing up to meet them, and Azula dropped flat on the ground as it almost scraped the top of her head and the earthbender was trying to get them killed-
Except Toph ripped the metal of the grate aside like straw. And the three of them were suddenly out in the fresh air and baking sun, and Azula's knees wobbled as she stood.
There was no time to question Toph's casual defiance of the laws of nature, however. There were more... pressing concerns.
The Sun Warriors, it transpired, were not gone.
They were, however, rather angry.
I watched it, in the end.
You couldn't watch it with bare eyes, of course, not if you were concerned about damaging your vision, but I had procured a pair of Water Tribe snow goggles, which sufficed.
It was a peculiar sight, watching that shadow curl across the sun. Strange to just stand there, on the little balcony jutting out from the side of the waystation, watching the moment go by.
Strange to take this time, of all times, to stand still, while all across the world, I cause the deaths of thousands.
Strange. Not pleasant.
As the shadow of the moon fell across the courtyard, and the Sun Warriors glanced up in fear and confusion, Azula felt herself start to smile.
With a sudden rush, Azula darted forward. They were in such pathetic disarray that it was simplicity itself to reach the Chief (at least, Azula was assuming he was their chief, based on the height and complexity of his hat) and haul him forward bodily by his many necklaces.
This, at last, got his attention, and he might have retaliated, had Azula not taken that moment to press her knife against his jugular.
"Aang," she called, over her shoulder. "These people appear confused. Perhaps you could tell them who we are."
And then it was all over. Eight minutes pass quickly.
It was done. All our schemes, all our plans, all leading up to that moment. And then it's all gone.
The grace period is over. If we haven't done enough with those eight minutes, we lost the war today.
It might be a long time before we know it, though.
The Dancing Dragon, the Sun Warriors called it. As Azula saw it, the kata was only part of it- the technique was steeped in superstition and ritual- primitive things, not worth their time. Aang had insisted, though, and so she would go along with it.
And so, once again they climbed yet another interminable staircase, leading up to a bridge that spanned the twin peaks of the mountain.
They carried with them sacred fire, said to be the very first flame the dragons gave to man. Privately, Azula wondered how many times it had gone out over the years.
Finally, they reached the causeway, and turned their backs on each other. The Avatar headed right, sweating visibly from the effort of keeping the flame alive, and Azula went right, striding forward to what she now saw was a cave.
The sun was almost down as she crossed the bridge, and that made her very uneasy.
It only took a few long strides to make it to the mouth of the cave, and there she offered up the flame, as she had been instructed. After a moment, the Avatar's footsteps stopped as well.
And then there was a noise.
From the mouth of the cave there came a terrible sound- wet, deep, and disgustingly organic- and for the barest second Azula was dragged back to the morning she first found herself in the Avatar's company, driven in terror before the sounds of the sky bison.
A blast of scalding air slammed into her face, and the fire in her palm went out.
And then something huge and blue was charging towards her at speeds faster than the naked eye could follow, and Azula's brain gave up.
The dragons lived. The dragons lived.
There was no time to wonder, no time to even question what that meant- the beasts curled around them, spinning and twisting and over the roar of the wind she heard the Avatar shout from behind her "I think they want us to dance!"
"It's a kata!" she shouted back, entirely on reflex.
But she did as she was bidden.
The form moved her along the causeway, toward Aang, who was doing the same. She stole a glance at the huge monstrosity moving alongside her, and for a bare moment wondered how exactly people had ever managed to hunt these things.
The dragons rippled and curled around them like ribbons at a festival, darting and fluttering in the sky- and how could they move like that, when they were so large"- and as she and Aang moved into the final stance, and their knuckles clicked together, the dragons breathed as one, and engulfed them in flame.
Fire curled around them, spinning in a thousand different colours and Azula had never been afraid of fire but she was afraid now. This was strange, and this was wrong, and it was getting closer now and Azula you do not know what you do and the fire was all around her now and all she wanted to do was look after your mother. Your brother too the fire was so close to them now, she could have reached out with her fingertips and this was always the plan and it was a fight you want" It's a fight you'll get! and the only thing left for her to do was be good.
And so she fell to her knees and then straight to the floor, and the fire was so close now her eyes shrivelled and dried and every breath seared her lungs and all of a sudden someone was standing over her, one foot either side of her prone form and the fire receded as the Avatar encountered his high and lonely destiny.
Azula's eyes closed, and when they opened again, she remembered nothing but the fire, and a niggling, silent feeling that she had been found wanting.
"So," said Toph, straightening up. "How'd it go" You guys reach enlightenment"
Azula didn't speak.
"Well, I don't know that I'd go that far, but I feel like this was really productive! Wouldn't you say so, Azula" the Avatar asked.
"What" Oh, yes. The kata. Very useful."
The letters start coming in before the sun goes down. Only a bare fraction are sent here, to me, but it's still enough to keep my assistants on their feet for the rest of the day.
I'm stuck behind a desk, attempting to cram several books' worth of information into my head, one letter at a time. Most of it good: Hakoda sends a brief, satisfied message (Assault on Southern Raiders successful. Casualties light. No survivors. Base sunk.) Some of it disheartening (indifferent progress in the Northern Earth Kingdom, General How bogged down by heavy fighting), but little of it actually bad.
I suppose I should feel pleased about that. The plan is going off with very few hitches. It's all within acceptable parameters.
If I were to have my way, this would be the last act of the Order of the White Lotus. We would strike our blow against the Fire Lord, and disband. I have brought too much dishonour to the Order. Too much dishonour, and too much death.
We were a damn pai sho club, once. And today we cause the deaths of untold thousands. No group survives with that on its collective conscience. Not unchanged. My tenure may have opened a door that we never close again.
In the depths of winter, the Avatar crushed the blockade of the North, striking a blow for peace against aggressors. In midsummer, we put the Fire Nation and its colonies to the sword, striking at the underbelly of an invader, crippling them so we may one day have an end to this.
What will we justify in a decade" In a century"
In the end, it's not for me to decide. But it worries me; it worries me a great deal.
One letter I hadn't dared wait for finally arrives.
It's from the Omashu cell.
It's short, to the point, and conveys all relevant information.
Bumi is still alive. That was good news, I supposed, but it wasn't really what I had been anticipating.
Not that I was indifferent to Bumi's plight, of course. Quite the opposite. It's just that I'm fairly sure that that man cannot be killed. At least not by conventional means.
Anyway. The letter was from Bumi himself, in fact. Complete success on the Omashu front. The city is liberated, Bumi reinstated as King.
They await further instruction.
Well. I had almost dared to hope-
Oh well. There was more that required my attention.
All in all, it was a relief to be back at the temple, where there was enough going on to distract her from the strangeness inside her head.
"So, Aang, what'd you say this amazing firebending technique was called again" Sokka asked, his grin threatening to take off the top of his head.
"The Dancing Dragon," Aang replied, primly.
"Uh huh. Yeah, don't know about you guys, but if I were guarding the most powerful firebending technique in the history of anything, that is definitely what I would call it." He stood, pulling his arm in front of his face like a cape, shadows from the campfire dancing crazily, casting him in sharp relief. "In a world where evil runs rampant, where the Fire Lord is master of everything he sees, only one person can save the world! The young Avatar's foxtrot skills are great, but alone they won't be enough. To save the world, he must gather the freshest grooves in history, from the classic Water Tribe Two-Step to rediscovering the ancient Fire Nation art of freestyle. Only then will he be powerful enough to mambo with the Fire Lord and Sozin's Quartet!"
In spite of herself, Azula started to smile.
I was tired. Dawn was breaking, and I had worked through the night. I had not slept since before the eclipse.
That was my only defence. The only thing that might excuse my appalling misjudgement.
I had seen the report- a status update from June, telling us that the Avatar was holed up in the Western Air Temple- and set it aside, in order to concentrate on more immediate concerns.
It niggled at my brain for half an hour, while it sat there.
It took me that long to realise just what was wrong.
That report had not been from June.
That report had not been meant for me.