Miraculous and slightly disconcerting properties of new blades aside, I still had work to do. According to my own personal plan, I would be staying at home just long enough for me to really feel homesick once I left again, and that meant I had time to get to grips with the paperwork.
The endless, endless reams of paperwork.
And for some reason I find the fact that it is a fine summer's morning the most galling thing about the whole process.
Perhaps... perhaps I should not have set my desk in front of a window.
But anyway. Back to work.
Hakoda sends his regards, along with the news that his joint venture with Pakku has gone well. I had heard rumours, delivered second hand by Fat, of barbarian warriors striking in the South then vanishing without a trace, but it was always nice to get official confirmation. After all, they might have been an entirely different group of barbarian warriors.
Surprisingly, Hakoda made mention of some prisoners actually being freed. I would have thought none would have survived this long- they must be truly ancient. By his terse description, they are wretched things, more than one clearly insane. He noted that more than one babbled continuously about demons, who snatched people's bodies and wore their skin.
I put the note aside. Nothing to be done about that one, just a status report. Although perhaps I should reply, and tell the Chief to cut down on the colour commentary in future.
No, too busy. Can't waste a messenger-hawk. Got to stay on task. Look at next report. What is the next report"
Says here... Abnormally large order of canvas approved by War Council.
I flip the roll of paper over, just in case someone has written on the back. Nothing.
What" What" Why am I being told this" What possible input do they expect me to have" 'Well, gentlemen, that certainly is odd, don't you think" Maybe if you were, I don't know, trained spies, you could go and find out what the War Council wants with a huge roll of canvas! Oh if only you were capable of thinking for yourselves, then maybe we'd get something done without a week-long lag while you wait for me to summon the strength to answer your inane missive'"
Right. That's it. I need a cup of tea. I'll get back to this in a minute.
Tea has a wonderfully soothing effect on a disharmonious mind. Not quite so soothing that I am willing to overlook the sudden- and uncharacteristic- ineptitude of our agents in the Capital, but still. I am a little calmer, at least.
Well. Back to work. If I am very lucky I shall be finished before the sun goes down.
No" Oh well. Ever onward.
Azula stared blankly at the room she had been given. It was small, and threadbare. A narrow bed, a small bedside table, and a chair. A mirror on the wall, and a thin rug on the stone floor. Still, it was better than the cave, or the saddle. Or the hammock, now she thought about it.
In fact this was the most comfortable accommodation she had had since father died.
She tried not to think about it. She tried not to think about anything. So, desperate for a distraction, she started listening to the person haranguing her from the other side of the door.
"Azula, come on. We're gonna be late. Don't tell me you're not hungry."
The Avatar was quickly starting to get on her nerves.
"I'm not hungry," she replied, bluntly. This was, of course, a complete lie, and transparently so. Still, she could only hope that the Avatar would just get frustrated and leave.
"Azula, what's wrong"
Where to begin" Just walking from the landing area to this room had been bad enough (and was it suspicious that they had enough rooms for everyone")- she was certain that she had been seen by at least fifty people.
This was not some village out in the wilderness. These people were informed, and it would only be a matter of time before she was discovered. Mingling would definitely not help.
And she didn't know what would be worse- to be locked up or executed as an enemy, or to be forced into an alliance with the Earth Kingdom, and used as a bargaining chip.
She would never be manipulated again. She was nobody's puppet, and nobody's vassal.
"Azula, it's a banquet being thrown in our honour. It'd look pretty bad if we didn't show up."
A banquet being held by the Earth King. The enemy.
She'd thought she was past this. She'd thought she was resigned to working with people she had been brought up to believe were against everything she had ever known. She'd been wrong. She still couldn't swallow her pride and go on bended knee before the King of the Earth Kingdom. Not now, and not ever.
"In your honour, Avatar. I doubt they will be too offended if you say that I am too ill to leave my room."
"Aang, come on," a sudden voice whined, cutting the Avatar off. "We've gotta go or we'll be late." The boy, and Azula realised with a muted shock that she hadn't heard his approach. She really must be weak.
"Azula won't leave her room," the Avatar replied, radiating concern even through the door.
"Who cares," the boy replied. "If she wants to starve, let her starve. Come on, I'm hungry."
"You can take her an orange or something if you're really worried afterwards, now come on, I haven't had a meal that I haven't either cooked or washed up after in months, and I'm gonna enjoy it." His sentence trailed off, as two sets of footsteps trailed away down the hallway.
Azula was very nearly grateful, until she remembered not to care.
Three hours later she was interrupted from her rigourous staring at the wall by a knock on the door. Opening it, cautiously, she was confronted with a blank expression and a plate of food.
Cold pig-chicken. Vegetables. Cold hippo-beef. Fruit. Cold mutton-pig. What looked like a pastry creation of unknown and slightly suspect provenance. Cold turtle-duck. The plate had been prepared by someone with a healthy respect for protein, obviously. She took it without a word, and set it on the small table.
The boy was still there, observing her coolly. Azula raised an eyebrow, silently demanding an explanation. Instead, he took a full step forward, into the room, and kicked the door shut behind him.
Azula was instantly on edge. She might be able to overpower him, in her current state. She had never seen him fight, but he was young, barely older than her, and as long as he wasn't armed there was a good chance that-
Her eyes flicked, and she saw the machete resting casually at his hip.
Oh no. Her fingers twitched, screaming with the urge to just blast him with flame and be safe, cover be damned, her heart thudded deafeningly in her chest, blood roared in her ears, and some tiny unchangeable core of her marvelled at how afraid she was of this so mundane a threat-
"What," she said, her voice giving away no indication of the maelstrom beneath it, "do you want" Exactly"
He held her gaze for two agonising seconds, two seconds of trying to find something in his expression to justify killing him here and now, two seconds of failing, and then he spoke.
"Are we gonna have problems"
Azula blinked. That was not expected. Or explicable.
"Whatever big super important secret it is you're freaking out about. Don't look at me like that. Look, I know you've got some kind of insane issues, you're on Team Avatar. Dramatic issues are what we're all about. You're keeping some kinda secrets from us, that's fine. But tell me now. Is it something that's gonna put Aang in danger"
Azula was coming to the conclusion that she might have misread the boy's motives somewhat. Her breathing began to even out. Her fists uncurled. And she put some thought into her response.
Harm" To the Avatar" Did her position as Crown Princess put the Avatar in danger" Well, of course it did. It put her and everyone she associated with in danger from the agents of the Fire Lord, and once Iroh was dead, well.
But once Iroh was dead, Iroh would be dead. Azula did not bother to calculate beyond that.
"Well" Come on, it's a pretty simple question."
Azula responded, carefully. An outright lie was always less preferable than a warped kind of truth, so she chose her words with care. "...There might be a large number of violent people chasing after us, should word get out."
Sokka defied all expectations, and laughed.
"Oh man," he said, breathlessly, "is that it" That's not danger, that's Tuesday. There's nothing better than that"
"Sorry," she replied, blandly.
"Okay, that's fine." Azula's face must have betrayed her surprise, because he elaborated. "Look, personal crap is personal crap, okay" You don't have to share unless you really want to, and personally I'd be grateful if you didn't unless it was something really interesting. If it's not a threat to Aang, then it's really not an issue."
Azula shrugged. She didn't really think there was anything to say.
"Oh, and before I forget, you're officially a girl named Lily and you're best friends with Toph. You can't bend, but you've got a talent for kicking guys in the face, and you insisted on coming with us because you were worried that your childhood friend would get in trouble without you. Also you owed money all over town. Hey, don't give me that look, I was put on the spot, this is the best I could come up with. That guy, the one who met us when we arrived"
Azula's nose wrinkled at the memory. She had not liked him.
"Yeah, that one. He was asking after you, and Aang basically left me to deal with him." He sounded put-upon, but Azula was getting the feeling that he was playing it up, since he had an audience.
"I... see," Azula said. It was possibly just the man making polite conversation, but Azula was not the sort to give the benefit of the doubt.
"Yeah. Well, that's about it. Enjoy your meal, I guess. 'Bye," he said, and was gone in a flurry of limbs.
Azula shook her head, and sat down to eat.
It was hours later, and Azula was lying in bed, staring at the blackness.
It was not the nightmares. Those, she at least could bear- could believe that they were random, and beyond her control. No, what she feared in the night, what kept her from sleep, was herself.
In the featureless black, with nothing to distract her, nothing to see, nothing to think about, nobody to talk to , there was no barrier, no shield between herself and the crushing, overwhelming guilt.
She could have saved them. That was the thought, the one thought that seared through her mind, leaving white-hot trails of regret in its wake. She lay in bed, mind obsessively turning over all the myriad ways she had failed them, fixated on every detail of her betrayal of their trust, and the more she tried not to, the more the back of her mind screamed at her, echoing over and over Father's last instructions to her as the lightning flashed across her mind's eye again.
It felt like hours, lying in the featureless blackness, eyes wide and staring into oblivion, before she could stand it no more.
Her throat was dry. That was as good an excuse as any to leave the void, and return to something like reality.
She would get a glass of water, and with luck, the excursion would tire her out enough to slip past her subconscious self-flagellation, and steal a few hours of repose.