I headed north. After all, everyone else had.
I had reclaimed my eelhound from the stable he had been staying in, but I didn't ride hard. After all, I wasn't aiming to catch up to any of the major participants. I was aiming to catch up to the circus.
The closest town that housed an Order safe house was in Fire Nation territory. Technically, the entire Earth Kingdom was Fire Nation territory, but this town was in one of the few areas where the locals were no longer actively revolting. At least for now. As such, it would be unwise in the extreme for me to simply saunter into town. But the circus is loud and colourful, and brings with it crowds, and a hundred opportunities for petty crime. And this will create the perfect cover for me to slip into town.
I understand that men recruited for the Fire Nation military are having more than a little trouble in adapting to the role of policemen. Crime prevention is, in a great many ways, more difficult, and certainly more complicated, than fighting a battle. Criminals unaccountably fail to wear uniforms, for example.
The completely thankless task of policing the Former Earth Kingdom has all but crushed the morale of the soldiers here. For every man trying to do a job for which he was not trained, in a country he despises, policing a populace that hates him far more than the criminals he hunts, there are a hundred that have simply stopped trying, and a hundred more that simply delight in small evils, and have become hopelessly corrupt. I can hardly blame them.
Most people would, you know. Blame them. Blame the ones who just gave up in the face of the impossible. Blame the ones who never tried. I don't. I've been there myself.
Policing doesn't work if the people won't consent to being policed. If they don't believe in you, don't trust you, don't listen to you, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much they have to listen... oh, I've been there alright...
But yes. They can't police the Former Earth Kingdom properly. They're running out of ideas, and there are targets for them to meet. Justice has to be seen to be done. So, of course, they try to use force, reasoning that it doesn't matter who breaks the law, they can just punish everybody. But that just breeds resentment, as if there wasn't enough of that around already.
This phenomenon is one facet of a simple, incontrovertible truth. The occupation of the Former Earth Kingdom is doomed to failure. Perhaps, if Sozin had had the sense to use the power of the comet to assault the Earth Kingdom, instead of jumping at Avatar-shaped shadows, then the war could have been quick and decisive. If a generation had been beaten into the ground, instead of brought up preparing for nothing but war, then maybe the Earth Kingdom could have been broken. But no, it was a war of attrition, hardening the country, hardening the people, and while the Fire Nation seems to have won, it can't last. Revolution would spring up, even if we in the Order weren't fanning the flames.
It was something it took me the longest time to understand. The resilience of the people here. It's not something you see anywhere else, really.
Some days I have to wonder how arrogant Sozin was, challenging the whole world. The history books record that some of his advisers suggested an alliance between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes, which would have made victory considerably easier, had the Chiefs agreed to it, but Sozin had rejected the idea out of hand. Apparently he took a dim view of 'savages'.
It took two days, exactly as I had planned, and by the evening of the second day I was walking into town, unarmed (the Fire Nation have outlawed weapons for everyone but them. This has, however, unaccountably failed to lead to all those rebels up in the mountains coming down to the barracks and turning in their spears), and dressed like a travelling salesman. I had left my eelhound in the woods. He's well trained, and knows the drill by now.
The enormous mushroom that is the main tent blossoms out of the ground as I walk towards the town. Torches had been lit, globes of fire set on wooden stakes hammered into the earth, and around and beneath them a crowd bustled.
I pushed through the throng, heading towards the town. I didn't have the time to take in the circus tonight. A shame, really, but I couldn't justify the risk to myself.
However, I managed to persuade myself to buy some festival food (a bag of fire flakes, some dumplings, and a bottle of rice beer) without too much difficulty. After all, I reasoned, a man walking down the streets with his hood over his head might be suspicious, but a man with his arms full of food on a night like this is perfectly normal. And I got to indulge, just a little.
The food was hot and greasy, and the beer was lukewarm and overpriced, I ate the whole meal on a bench in a tiny excuse of a park while the wind tried to steal my food, and the entire experience was perfect.
And, like all perfect things, it was but a moment, and then I was on my feet again, walking down the back alleys. I kept the bottle, half for the look of the thing and half to have a weapon on hand. It has been a long time since I killed anyone with my bare hands, and I hope it will be longer still. A broken bottle is hardly better, but it's the principle of the thing, really.
Of course, I don't plan on killing anybody tonight. But just in case it doesn't go to plan, it's nice to have backup.
The bar was small, full of smoke, and, for some reason I didn't spend too long trying to figure out, smelled faintly of eggs. I ordered a beer- it would annoy the barman if I just walked in and sat down without buying a drink, and an annoyed man remembers what annoys him- and sat down at a low table.
I let my eyes run over the patrons of this little slice of iniquity. A fighting man, his face a mess of scars, one even across his throat, he'll rasp when he talks, a young idiot, not drunk enough to pick a fight just yet, but getting there, an old soldier wetting his beard, trying to ignore Young Idiot. Away from the bar, band in the corner, better than I had expected, but they look bored to tears, a young couple having a whispered argument at one table, I'd give them three minutes before one says something they can't take back, and there he is. A wizened old man, looking directly at me. And grinning.
I stood up, and walked, not looking at the man, towards the ever-present pai-sho table. No one stirred, but a few eyes flicked my way, and I silently cursed my father again. Not for the typical reasons- that had hardly mattered, not since I had proved myself in single combat with a firebending master at the age of seventeen- but for the fact that he had been so damned tall. Well, I remember him being tall, anyway. But then every adult is a giant when you're six.
I sat, and reached into the drawer below the table for the tiles, seemingly engrossed in setting up the table. In a few moments, the old man sat opposite me.
He was good, I'd give him that. I hadn't heard a thing until he politely coughed.
“Might I have this game"” he asked, politely.
“It would be an honour,” I replied, and placed my first piece.
The man raised his eyebrows a fraction, but otherwise didn't react.
“I see you favour the white lotus gambit. Not many still cling to the ancient ways.”
“Perhaps those that do are behind the times.”
With the two most important exchanges concluded, we began to arrange the tiles.
This is actually a quite clever way of establishing contact. The first tile played indicates the player's position in the Order, while the response to the 'not many still cling to the ancient ways', indicates why the player has come. I played the first and purest form of the White Lotus Gambit, and the only one that moves the White Lotus into the centre first. This denoted me as Grand Master (acting). And I had requested a meeting.
The pattern grew. The end pattern is always the same, but it's how it is built that is important. There's something poetic about it.
“Welcome, brother,” he said, as we surveyed the table. “The lotus opens wide to those that know its secrets.”
I nodded. No words really needed to be exchanged.
He beamed, and gestured we stand. I took my empty bottle with me.
On my way out, I bumped into the young man at the table, just as he opened his mouth. Just enough to divert his attention. It can hardly hurt.
Consider a group, formed of enthusiasts for one of the most challenging games ever devised. The group is small at first, but it grows, slowly, but secretly. The only traits that have to be possessed in order to join is uncommon aptitude for the game, and a willingness to learn from other members. So, after this club has gotten itself organised a little, the best players in the whole world meet, for tournaments. In secret, because it adds a little spice to the whole proceedings. So there are the best players of the game in the world in one room. They are all of a certain age, at least, and they are all, by definition, intelligent and quick witted. More than a few are important men in their home countries, rarely kings, but advisers, administrators. And old men like to talk.
How powerful do you think that arrangement is" How much could this little club shape the world, with more permanence and ease than any warlord could, just by suggesting that the Fire Nation imports grain from here, and the Water Tribes colonise this island, or the Air Nomads stop staying at this town"
They could rule the whole world from the back room of a butcher's.
This is the real strength of the Order of the White Lotus. It always has been. Sure, some of the most powerful benders and warriors in the world are members, but strength can be acquired anywhere. The real power of the Order is the fact that I can walk into a town like this, that I have never been to before, with only the address of a tiny bar in hand, and take counsel from five well-informed, intelligent people.
I sat on the cushion reserved for guests, and looked around the circular room. There was one blank space. My inquisitive glance was noticed by one woman sitting next to the gap.
“We usually find it's best if we don't wait for him,” was all she offered by way of explanation. “He has to come from a way away, and sometimes he doesn't make it.”
I nodded, and waited for the other three to settle in. Once everyone was quiet, they turned to me, waiting for me to speak.
“My friends,” I began, “I come before you today so that we might decide what has to be done now. I am sure I don't need to reiterate the Plan to anyone, but the situation has changed. I am sure that you are all aware that the Avatar has finally returned. I have some ideas about what should be done in light of this. I would greatly appreciate hearing yours.”
The debate raged for almost an hour. It was a very polite debate, with respectful nods and low voices and flowery language, but it was a debate nonetheless. The debate, eventually, narrowed down into two distinct groups. The first, led by the man from the bar, thought that the Avatar was little more than a complicating factor in the Plan. We knew already how we were going to make peace, and we had fine-tuned the plan to reduce the unavoidably high death toll it would bring. He argued that the last thing we needed was the Avatar charging around, challenging firebenders. He should be kept visible, but out of the way, if at all possible.
The other faction, led by the woman who had spoken earlier, a wizened old lady who looked like everyone's grandmother, argued that since the Plan came about expressly because the Avatar was absent, then the Plan should be reformed around him, now that he was actually back. She was also of the opinion that no good could come of Ozai being Fire Lord.
“He's a self-serving weasel. Remember that he's betraying his brother by helping us; who's to say he won't betray us afterwards"”
Because he knows just how deep the Order goes. Ozai is ours, through and through, and all it took were a few bribes, three long debates on the nature of the Fire Nation and it's place in the world, and one very oblique threat. He's self-serving, of course, but we've twisted it to our own ends, convincing him that the surest path to glory is with us.
Ozai the Peacemaker. It does have a certain ring to it.
The debate was halted by a muted thumping on the wall. The old lady stood, and cautiously bent an eye slit in the stone.
“Oh! Sorry to keep you waiting, dearie.”
She stepped aside, and the figure stepped through.
Jeong-Jeong. Of course.
I stood, and bowed to the man, as the old woman resealed the portal behind him.
“Forgive me, Master,” I said. “I was not aware that you were in the area.”
Jeong-Jeong for his part just fixed me with a mad look, and nodded.
“It was difficult to remain inconspicuous tonight. I apologise for my lateness.”
Well, perhaps you wouldn't be so noticeable if you just cut your hair once in a while. Maybe changed out of that foul-smelling poncho. Perhaps even took a bath on occasion.
I filled the man in on the particulars of our little conundrum. He just nodded inscrutably. When my summary was complete he closed his eyes, and I could see every eye turning towards him.
I'll say this for him. For all that he has the social graces of a psychotic boar-hound, about the same odour, and none of the charm, he does know how to pull off the 'wise old master' act. Even I found myself wondering what he was going to say.
“The Avatar,” he intoned, “is not ready. He is too young to be the focus of the Plan. Ozai will bear the strain.”
And that was that. Oh, the debate continued a little longer, but it was clear that around here, what Jeong-Jeong said, went.
When Bumi was imprisoned, Jeong-Jeong was considered by most to be the natural replacement as (acting) Grand Master. He was powerful, had been considered one of the greatest firebenders in the world at his peak, and even now it was hard to say just how strong he was- he was one of those men that simply solidify as they get older, but everyone knew his distaste for his art- he had experience in command, and he and Bumi had got along.
No one in a million years would have pegged me as Bumi's choice of replacement. I was the junior among the Masters, I had never experienced command of anything larger than a squad before, I was certainly not known for my ability to solve problems, and last, but by no means least, I had only joined the Order as a last resort. My first and foremost desire was simply to be left alone. I had left the Army, and once Azulon saw how much it would cost to bring me back, he left me to enjoy early retirement, with a little light teaching on the side. I paid little heed to the world at large.
But then his son had to try and make an example of me. So I ran, and the Order took me in, provided I helped them with their Plan. I went along with it, because there was nothing else for me. All in all, I was hardly leader material.
But the orders came out from Omashu- Piandao is to be the new Grand Master (acting). And so it was.
I put up my hand, quelling the last few strands of conversation. It's nice to have one's authority recognised, even if it is only borrowed plumage.
“So it is decided. The Plan shall continue. However, I do not agree that the Avatar should be marginalised. Instead, I propose that, once he has made his way to the North Pole, he be introduced to the Earth King. The two of them together would be a powerful symbol.”
There was a moment of silence, as everyone considered this. I let them have the pause, for a little while.
“So, let us vote. All in favour of the continuation of The Plan"”
One, two, three, four hands raised. The old lady sat stubbornly.
“And all against"”
Her hand flashed up, and I nodded. The Order had spoken.
“And all in favour of arranging a meeting between Kuei and the Avatar"”
Five hands raised. I nodded.
I left, once the details had been concluded. Brothers, cousins, friends, anyone who could possibly be of use to the Avatar and we could trust, they were all to me mobilised to ease his passage. I hope it is enough, although I don't think it is. But the Order cannot go to war even for the Avatar. Not yet.
The boy will need a lot of luck, and even more good judgement, if he is to get to the North unscathed. I hope he's up to it.
The night was bitterly cold, even though there was almost no breeze, just a breath now and again, rustling through the discarded rubbish. I set a brisk pace through the streets, my breath in clouds before me. The streets were nearly empty- everyone was either still at the circus or in bed- and all I had to contend with were a few patrols, and they were more focused on getting in out of the cold than on actually patrolling. Evading them posed no challenge.
I had initially planned to stay in the town overnight, but that was out of the question now I knew that Jeong-Jeong was in the area. The Fire Lord's spies had yet to find him, last time I was in any position to check, but that had been some years ago, and I was in no mood to take the chance.
Soon, I skirted the field that contained the circus tent, and stamped out into the woods. It was colder still here, and I folded my arms in an attempt to conserve heat as I picked my way along the narrow mud trail.
Eventually, after what seemed like far too long, I arrived at where I had tethered my eel-hound. He didn't look happy with the weather, and strained at his leash as I drew near.
I checked my saddlebags. Good. No one had seen fit to steal anything.
I pulled down my sword, and unsheathed it, inspecting it. Force of habit. I tilted the weapon back and forth, admiring the moonlight reflected in the blade.
After a few moments, I addressed the person hiding in the bushes.
“You can come out now.”
There was a rustle, and a sudden shock of white. Jeong-Jeong emerged, looking faintly amused, and smugly unaffected by the cold.
“You have a letter.” He flourished a scroll. “The hawk arrived shortly after you left.”
“I see,” I replied, and took the scroll. Unfurling it, I instantly recognised June's atrocious handwriting.
Then I read it, and my blood ran cold.
Oh no. Oh no.
Alright, calm down. What do I do" What do I do now" Can I get there in time" How long do I have"
I was faintly aware of Jeong-Jeong moving closer to me as I pulled myself upwards, into the saddle. I tugged at the reins, and my eel-hound began to turn, only to be stopped short. Damnit, forgot to untie the leash. A slash of the sword solved that.
“Is there a problem"”
I turned to face him, sheathing my sword. ...Jeong-Jeong could help. Yes, he could be useful.
I offered my hand, and my impatience must have been written onto my face, because he took it without question, and swung into place behind me. Instantly, I kicked the beast in the sides, and it sprang forwards, carrying us into the night.
I hoped to Agni we would be fast enough.
“Would you care to explain your sudden attack of madness, Piandao"” Jeong-Jeong asked, his words nearly stolen by the wind.
I half-turned my head towards him.
“Admiral Zhao has finally managed to achieve something. The Avatar has been captured.”