A full month had passed since the destruction of the Northern Blockade. Spring was upon us.
Zhao was still on the loose. We think. We're not sure. Communications up there are a complete nightmare. For the Fire Nation, anyway. The Water Tribe is open for the first time in the better part of ten years. We're still trying to adjust to being able to talk to each other up there. Pakku has left, with the Avatar. He says he will stay with them until they can come up with a plan of action that satisfies him. So they will be together for a while.
I have stayed on the move. I avoided conflict where I could.
Today, I could not avoid conflict.
“Alright,” I said to the man-boy behind me, in the calmest voice I could, “on my mark, we're going to move, alright" Is everyone together"”
He nodded, and clenched his fists nervously. Behind him were a group of farmers with tools, although tool is suddenly the wrong word for a long blade attached to four feet of wood, a war veteran, and a few teenagers who looked just young enough to not have had the idealism kicked out of them quite yet.
At least two of them were part of the extended family of a small-time 'freedom fighter', part of a gang. I had met them in the woods a few days earlier. Well, they had ambushed me. Well, they thought they had ambushed me.
Amazingly, they actually listened to me when I explained the status quo to them.
“He's got Jet!”
“What are you waiting for" Shoot him!”
“No one is shooting anyone.”
I have found that when I speak in a certain way- low and apparently quieter, although not actually any quieter- people tend to stop what they're doing and listen. It's an ability I have to try not to overuse.
“You will listen to me. Do any of you know who I am"”
“No! An' we don't care, neither!”
“My name is Master Piandao.”
“So" Why should we care what some Fire Nation scumbag is called"”
“Longshot, are you okay" You've gone white!”
“Longshot, shoot him!”
“Trust me. That would be a very bad idea.”
“Finally. Someone who talks sense.”
They had been friendly enough once they were up to speed, and even deigned to tell me why they were here. Apparently, one of their troupe- she called herself 'Smellerbee', which confused me on many, many levels- had family out here. Family amongst the rebels was a rarity so extreme it was barely even a factor-if you were a rebel, and you were under twenty, you were an orphan. No question. But apparently she was the exception, and she had a large family out here.
The Fire Nation were planning a raid on this village. Someone had been attacking the tax collectors, and the local governor wasn't particular about who got punished.
And this eclectic bunch knew about it. That wasn't surprising- we had informants up and down the country whose job was to give information like that to people who would and could do something about it.
I supposed I could lend a hand. I was heading down this road anyway.
So it was that I was sitting in this tiny house, watching the village outside. Waiting for the opening.
The young earthbender was Smellerbee's (she couldn't have come up with the name herself. It's strategically designed to sound horribly insulting, but calculated to not actually give offence in itself. No one would take on a name that mathematical willingly) elder brother. He looks a little thin to be a good earthbender. He looks a little thin overall, actually.
They all do. Well, that's taxes for you. I've never liked them.
They're wary of me. It must be the suit.
The plan was simple. I would steal a Fire Nation uniform, sneak past the blockade, and warn everyone in the village ahead of time.
I liked it. Unfortunately, we had to tweak it. It turned out that what Jet thought was an officer's uniform was... not an officer's uniform. Not an officer's uniform at all.
The captain blinked at me.
“And you are"”
“Inspector. Don't mind me, just a routine check up.”
The panic I could see in his eyes was enough to cover up the fact that these robes stop a little too close to the knee for my liking. The glasses help, though, and the bundle of scrolls are a perfect mask for my sword.
“Oh! I'm so sorry, sir, I didn't realise,”
“Quite alright,” I sneered, “carry on.” Soldiers have several preconceptions about bureaucrats. I was happy to pander to them. “I won't get in the way.”
“I will instruct the men not to bother you, sir.”
“Oh, don't go to the trouble, Captain,” I condescended. “You are obviously quite busy, setting up your...”
“Trap, sir. We're getting ready to head into that village.” He pointed through the trees before the line of soldiers. “Bandits.”
“Fascinating,” I drawled. “Well, if you will excuse me...”
I pottered about for a while, secure in the knowledge that no one would challenge me. Then I slipped in among the komodo-rhinos and took off towards the village at a run.
It was nice to be back in a topknot again.
The family had taken a few valuable seconds to trust me, but spread the word as quietly as they could. Within minutes, everyone who was capable of fighting back was armed. And I was leading them.
I had split them into groups- everyone who looked competent was given command of five people who were willing to fight- and positioned them around town. There were earthbenders, but they were woefully untrained. The only one who even stood like an earthbender was a long haired, slender youth. He had seemed very eager to get himself killed, over the protests of his mother.
The civilians were in cellars around town.
And there's no time to recap any more because here they come.
The komodo-rhinos go first. Always, the komodo-rhinos go first. That's just how these things are done.
They're impressive beasts, it's true, and very intimidating, but even though Earth Kingdom towns tend to be better laid out than most (the nice thing about earthbending is, if you don't like your house, you can just move it) with more straight lines to charge down, they're a phenomenally stupid unit to send against prepared earthbenders. No good charging down your nice straight road when your nice straight road suddenly becomes a nice flat wall.
I have to remind myself that the Fire Nation don't know that the village knows they're coming.
The riders know it, though. They're thundering through the village, but the three we can see are looking confused, about to slow.
Smellerbee's (I mean, does she wear it out of a perverse sense of pride" Playing the 'if I accept it, it's not a joke any more, so it can't hurt' card" That doesn't work, I'm afraid) brother took a deep breath, and jerked his fist upward.
The result was less than I had hoped for, and exactly what I expected. The wall was less than two feet high, and about three feet wide. It was a shelf.
It tripped up all three komodo-rhinos.
Have you ever seen a komodo-rhino trip up" No" Try to imagine it. Just take a moment.
Complicated, isn't it" Now imagine three in a row, tripping at once, and throw in three riders. Now everything is happening in a street barely wide enough to accommodate all three at the best of times, and the picture is almost art.
I wish I had a better view.
We explode from the house, leaping from doors and windows, the breeze in our hair (but mine resists, back in the style it should be) as we enter the fray.
They listened to me, and they ignore the three riders. They aren't going anywhere for a while, even if they are still alive under all that.
We move, undisciplined, untrained, but our hearts are in it, through the streets. My soldiers know the town, know very corner, every shadow. Hell, they probably played at soldiers here, ducking and weaving and checking their corners while their mothers did the shopping. They own these streets, and the streets own them.
The few riders who were intelligent enough to see the ambush coming started fires in a standard intimidation attempt, a little psychological warfare. It seemed to be working too. The villagers certainly looked very intimidated as they pulled the riders from their mounts and systematically butchered them.
What one has to bear in mind here is that there is no one in the Earth Kingdom over the age of twenty that can be called a civilian. No one at all. It isn't something the Fire Nation thought of- their farmers are farmers, and nothing else. Farmers here are all people who have had to fight for their lives in one form or another, and I'm not talking a colourful metaphor for a bad harvest. They're all people who dodged the lunge of the spear, and since they're alive that means they gave better than they got. A community made up of such men and women is not going to roll over and pay taxes to the enemy for such a trivial reason as 'the Earth Kingdom has been conquered', because it hasn't. The battlefield just got a little less well-defined.
I killed a komodo-rhino. The beast was thrashing in a wild rage, and was in danger of seriously injuring someone. So far that's all I've had to do.
I don't know who screams it first, but from a street over we hear someone yell “they're coming!” and we know what to do.
We scatter, each to his own patch of shade, and await the infantry.
I climb onto a roof, for a better view.
It's a toss-up. A bright captain would be sending in the firebenders. Standard practice would be to send in the grunts- those born without the talent, and so worthless in the eyes of the Fire Lord, and handed a spear and told to die for their country- to soften things up.
Their captain did not strike me as a very bright man.
Please let him be a bright man. Please.
There's nothing from the woods for far too long to be time playing tricks on me.
Then a flash of red breaks into the open, screaming and charging. He doesn't appear to be armed, so he might be a firebender.
He gets four steps before an arrow strikes him dead.
If it was the infantry, the Freedom Fighters are going to need help. If it's not, then it's time for stage three. Either way, we're going in.
The charge is glorious and wild. No coherence at all, everyone just running as fast as they can, adrenaline rushing.
It's moments like these that keep me going.
I hit the woods with Smellerbee's (am I just hopelessly out of touch with slang") brother and the long-haired teenager at my back. It's quite the battlefield. Bodies half-hidden in the bracken, the firebenders (and it is firebenders, thank you captain, you're a bright man) keeping their eyes trained upwards, and suddenly I see why, Jet hurtling downwards, arrows as his wingmen, every inch the dashing thug-
It's hardly fair. I kill three men, but take no pride in it. Two weren't even looking my way. The youth takes one, and Smellerbee's (maybe- no. I'm not going to keep guessing. It's distracting) brother gets another.
The rest have retreated to a dried up riverbed.
Cleanup takes two minutes. Jet and company return to the treetops, and everyone regroups on me.
And off we go again.
There seem to be fewer spear men than I remember. It's probably just lack of attention, but I'd like to think they got wise and found somewhere quiet to smoke for the next half an hour. Far away.
It's what I'd like to think, not what I actually think. Oh well.
The fight is confused and bloody. More than one villager goes down to the spears.
Jet fights well, but is altogether too showy for his own good.
I wrenched him backwards by the scruff of his neck, out of the way of a wayward spear, and killed the man.
He looked at me, embarrassed.
“You're good,” I told him, “but this is not a dance.”
The fight raged on.
The fight was over. We were back in the village. We'd lost people, of course, but fewer than I had feared. The brother and the long-haired youth had survived, and were making themselves very conspicuous. The second was wandering around in a kind of grinning daze, looking at the world like it was shiny and new and I could hear the adrenaline gurgling away from his brain.
The first was arguing with his sister. Loudly.
I tuned it out. It was loud, but it was personal, full of blame and missing and hurt and the big questions and I left because we had to fight and you ran away because you wanted an adventure and I was moving on today anyway so I shouldn't care.
I talked to Jet instead.
Jet is not a creature at home in civilisation. You can see it in the way he twitches when he sees rooftops and alleyways. Jeong-Jeong is like that.
No one could stay here. They had to take what they could, and leave. I directed them to a fortress in the mountains that would be happy to take them. I had told Jet to take his group and join them. Jet didn't like the idea, but he couldn't find a way to argue his point without vocalising his arguments, and he couldn't find a way to vocalise his arguments without sounding like a moron.
So he went straight for the throat, and questioned my credibility instead. I'm offended.
“I won't deny you've been helpful, but... like you said, you've got to move on. You're just one man, how much can you do"”
I gave him a long, slow look.
“At the end of the day, we're all just one man. Or woman. There's only so much you can do on your own- your friend sees that.”
“That's why we're a team,” Jet replies, stubbornly.
Perhaps I should be worried about the sudden glint in his eyes.
If I was, I moved on anyway.
“Azula, that's a terrible thing to say. Why would you even think like that"”
Azula shrugged. “I'm just saying, when the Avatar is captured, clearly something will have to be done to contain him. If he's learned earthbending before he is captured, there's not a cell that will hold him for long.”
“Oh, it's hardly pleasant to contemplate, I appreciate that, but sometimes you just have to wake up and accept the facts.”
They'd been having this conversation on and off for weeks now. The Avatar had dominated the news. No one knew too much, even now, but it was obvious to everyone that his arrival at the North Pole and the subsequent defeat of the Blockade were linked.
So Zuko had talked about it. To Azula, since there was no one else around. Azula indulgently listened, and set him straight on a few points.
“Azula, he's a kid. It's...”
“It's what" Dishonourable" Do you think the Avatar cares about honour" And he's not exactly acting like a child, is he, Zuko" You think we should indulge his massacres because of his youth"”
Zuko shook his head. “You might have a point, Azula, in fact you do have a point, but it is dishonourable, and I don't like it, and I can't think like that.”
Azula shrugged. “Then it is a good thing I am here, isn't it"”
Zuko half-smiled. “I guess.”
It was late one evening, and Azula was about to retire for the first time that night. She would toss and turn for a few hours, then get up again and walk until she was exhausted, then retire again.
Everyone needs a routine.
She was sitting in the library, reading a dull book about the early Fire Lords, when Father entered.
He was full of a strange energy, incapable of standing still. A flame danced in his eyes, one Azula had never seen before.
Azula stood quickly, and nodded.
“Ah! Azula, are you well"” he inquired. His voice was collected, as ever, but not as collected as ever.
“Yes, thank you, Father,” she replied. “And yourself"”
“Ha. I will admit to having felt better, but I cannot complain.”
Azula tried a smile. Ozai nodded, sharply.
“You should rest. You never know when things may start to happen, so it is best to be prepared.”
Azula nodded, understanding fully.
“I understand, Father.”
He looked nervous. That was it. He was looking right and left, worried.
“Are you alright, Father"” It was an act of intolerable familiarity, but Azula thought she could get away with it.
“Azula... I may be away for a few days. I have things I have to do.”
That was all she could come up with.
She tried again. “Is... there a problem"”
He sighed. “Nothing that you need concern yourself with.” He started to move away. Azula thought she should do something.
She had no idea what, though.
“Azula.” The exclamation was unexpected and sharp, as if he was interrupting some internal monologue. Perhaps he was.
“Take care of your mother while I am gone. Your brother, too.”
Azula was starting to get worried.
“Of course, Father.”
“Thank you,” he replied, and it almost looked as if a weight had been alleviated, slightly. Azula was definitely worried now.
He looked as if he was going to say something more, but it was obvious that he wasn't quite sure what.
Azula didn't expect a hug, though. It was awkward, and paradoxically clinical, but it was a hug nonetheless.
She barely remembered to hug back before it was over.
“Be good,” he instructed, and then he was gone, slipped out the doorway.
Azula stood in silence for a full minute before trying to put the whole conversation out of her mind, and went back to reading.
Ten minutes later, the Fire Lord burst into the library.
“Where is he, Azula"” he asked, in a low voice.
Azula peered over the top of her book.
“Whoever do you mean, Uncle"”
Iroh grit his teeth.
“I am in no mood to indulge your games tonight, child,” he warned. “Where is your father"”
Azula looked left, looked right.
“Not here. I am sorry.”
“Azula, you do not know what you do. Where. Is. Ozai.” With every word, Iroh seemed to grow larger, and definitely grew angrier. “He was here not ten minutes ago. Where is he"”
“I do not know what you expect of me, Uncle. He was here, and then he left. He didn't say where he was going, but I suggest you ensure that he has not simply retired for the night.”
Iroh's fist deliberately curled. He looked like he was about to say something, but instead he abruptly ran from the room.
Something very odd was going on.
After a while, she resumed her reading.