In the end, I waited until the messenger-hawks arrived.
I think I mentioned before, but this is the last batch. After today, it will be too late to change anything.
Nothing from our agents in the Capital. I wish I could say I was surprised. Their silence has gone on long enough to eliminate from probability everything but their capture, death, or betrayal.
I do not ...think it is betrayal. I cannot be certain, of course. But these were not some green acolytes, to be turned by promises of gold or threats of reprisal. They were good men and women, and more importantly, seasoned spies and provocateurs. (That man we used as Ozai's contact had been a seasoned spy, too.)
If even one of them has been captured, then theoretically we could be in a great deal of trouble. Of course, we have a pair of agents in every major prison in the Fire Nation, so if the spies have been captured, we shall hear of it, and the spy will find him or her self rescued in short order. Or, if rescue is impossible and they look close to breaking, they will find their meal adulterated with arsenic before they can give away anything important.
They were aware of the risks when they took the job.
I left before the sun had reached mid-morning.
It was the first word Azula had spoken in almost two days. The flight to Ember Island- the long, torturously slow flight- had been a twisted dagger in her gut, and she had withdrawn more into herself with each passing day, doubt and fear and despicable weakness gnawing at her every moment of the way. But no more. Now they were too close to indulge weaknesses. Now she had to lay out her plan, while there was still time left.
At her request, the Avatar handed her a map of the Southern Isles, and she sighed to herself as she looked at it- as she had feared, the map was sketchy and imprecise. Still, it would have to serve, and she unrolled it on the floor of the saddle, everyone crowding to get a better look.
"When we arrive, it must be from the North-East, and low. It is imperative that we keep the mountain between us and the South coast."
She glanced up, noting with no surprise but some irritation that they still looked to Sokka for approval. Oh no, the girl who isn't our designated brain-cell operator is doing the thinking, what madness is this. Still, she supposed it was to be expected. Which was why she had expected it, she supposed.
Sokka, for his part, merely looked at the map behind half-lidded eyes. He was judging her, she realised, after a second. He was practically awarding marks.
She baulked at his condescension, but thankfully only internally. This was not the time to make him question her. There would be time for that later, when it could be managed properly.
She was not blinded by her ego. She was well aware that the plan she was laying before them could easily and accurately be described as a bad plan. But it was the one that gave her the best chance of getting Mother out unharmed, so it was the one she was going to present.
"We should make a landing in the jungle, preferably along the bank of the river here." She traced the blue line on the map with a fingertip- the cartographer was clearly guessing as to the exact path the river took, but she remembered its existence well enough. It would serve.
They seemed to be on board so far. Now came the difficult bit. She had realised early on that it was unlikely that from here the Avatar's group would trust her enough to let her wander off into the jungle with only Sokka acting as a chaperone, so instead of trying to work around this limitation, she had made it a cornerstone of her strategy. All she had to do was sell it.
"You two," Azula said, pointing at the Avatar and the earthbender, "will need to stay with the bison."
That went down as well as could be expected. She waited for the both of them to be occupied getting their breath back, and explained.
"Avatar, it will be one thing for the Fire Lord to learn that one of his high-ranking prisoners has escaped. It would be quite another if he were to learn that the Avatar was the one that broke her out. We should not reveal you unless it is necessary. The longer Iroh thinks that you are still holed up in the Northern Air Temple, the better. So unless you wish to simply kill everyone that sees you- which is entirely workable, if a little inelegant, it would be better if you were to sit this one out."
She waited for her argument to sink in.
"I've gotta say, Aang, it makes sense."
"Yeah," the earthbender chimed in. "But why do I have to sit on the sidelines"
Azula shrugged. "My plan requires a certain degree of tact. Rest assured, when a wall needs to be kicked in, you will be the first I turn to."
From the earthbender's reaction, Azula supposed that she had hit 'offensive' rather than 'amusingly blunt'. Oh well. Still, she heard no further objection from that corner.
"Right," the waterbender said, deftly puncturing a growing pause and managing to keep the discussion on topic, "so what comes after that"
"From there, the plan hinges on locating a patrol..."
The jungle was hot and humid and buzzing with half-remembered nostalgia that Azula tried not to think about. The memories weren't in themselves bad- the worst were simply boring, watching the Ember Island Players mutilate show after show- but they were saturated with Mother and Father and Zuko, and Azula couldn't afford to be distracted. Not now.
So she sat in her patch of undergrowth and hoped that she was remembering her military protocol correctly. It would be dreadfully embarrassing if she had gotten that wrong.
Fortunately, after about ten minutes, her memory was vindicated, as the distinctive sounds of armour moving through the undergrowth approached.
Remember, Azula had said, we need the armour undamaged,
They remembered. Royal Guard though the man was, he never stood a chance.
"Right," Azula said, stepping out of the undergrowth once it was over. "Change," she nodded at Sokka.
"On it. …D'you mind turning around" I think I can be trusted to put a shirt on without your constant supervision, you know."
Azula rolled her eyes, but turned around nonetheless.
"Stand up straighter," she hissed, as the three began their approach to the house. "And stick your shoulders back more."
"Oh, sorry." He corrected his stance. Possibly too much- he almost looked like he was parodying correct posture, with an added swagger worthy of the most overinflated major-general.
Still, it would serve her purposes, she supposed.
She felt as though she had been watching him for hours.
She was perched in a tree situated near the back of the house, watching Sokka swagger across the open ground from the jungle to the house. So far, he had not drawn attention to himself, somehow. It was human nature, she supposed. He so obviously thought he belonged there that it was hard to imagine stopping him for any reason.
She had outlined the plan to the Water Tribe siblings. Katara was to stay in the jungle as backup, because Sokka was taller and broader-shouldered, and they only had the one uniform. She had instructed Sokka that his role was to provide backup- he would enter in disguise, and make his way to the second floor, where the bedrooms were, where he would meet with Azula, who was entering through the window.
Azula watched, as he finally, finally made it into the house. Looking up and into the window, she nodded to herself- the guard was still in the hallway, which all but confirmed that Mother was in the guest bedroom (which was just bizarre enough for Azula to focus on and keep her from panicking)- but that was a problem that would resolve itself in a few moments.
She had not been entirely truthful with Sokka. She had assured him that all he had to do was act as though he belonged, and he would get into the house. This was true. What she had failed to mention was that once he was in, he would be subject to a great deal more scrutiny than he had faced outside, and his disguise would be worth only as much protection it offered from the attentions of every soldier in the building.
In short, he was not acting as backup-
She nodded to herself as from somewhere on the ground floor of the house came the distinctive sound of a man being hit with a chair. In the hall across from her, the guard looked up suddenly, and rushed for the stairs. Perfect.
-He was a distraction.
He would likely be fine, she reminded herself. It would be foolish of them to actually kill him without interrogating him first, which gave her the time she would need.
A short blast of flame obliterated the windowpane, and Azula leapt into the house.
It took three strides for Azula to get from the shattered window to the door to the guest rooms, but once there, she hesitated, wracked even then with indecision and cowardice.
What was she going to say" Were there even words to find" The shame that had been hanging over her nights was a palpable weight around her neck, now, and she felt her breath coming in shallow bursts.
No. She had come too far to panic on the threshold. Steeling herself, she opened the door.
And walked into an empty drawing-room. She almost laughed.
Scanning the room, her attention was suddenly captured by an horrific sight- a pale and gaunt figure, with hollow, sunken eyes peering out from beneath a ragged fringe.
It was her own reflection in a full-length mirror, but the fact gave her no comfort at all.
She had thought herself above petty vanities, but the sudden and unavoidable knowledge that she was no longer beautiful was more upsetting than she was prepared for, and she almost flinched to see herself. She had always prided herself on her appearance, especially her hair, and seeing it so knotted and lustreless was another unwelcome reminder of just how far she had fallen, and how far she had left to go.
Perhaps Mother will not even recognise me, she thought, and the idea was strangely comforting.
Then, suddenly, she heard the sound of movement- not from downstairs, though evidence of disturbance still echoed up from the floorboards- from the bedroom.
Mother. It could only be Mother. Azula was suddenly gripped by a mad urge to run.
But even if she had meant to, there was no time, because Ursa burst violently into the room, brandishing a poker.
A crash and a clatter, and the poker fell to the floor.
"Azula" ...Have I finally lost my mind, then" Ursa asked, in a bizarrely conversational tone.
Azula simply blinked, eyelids fluttering as her carefully mustered composure fractured and crumbled away.
As though in a dream, Ursa raised her hand, and took a tentative step towards her daughter.
Azula opened her mouth to say something- anything, but before she could utter a syllable the breath was crushed out of her as her mother flung her arms around her.
"You are alive. You are alive. Thank the spirits, you are alive."
"Mother-" she closed her eyes again, and threw her arms around her mother's shoulders. Not a sign of affection- a desperate, possessive attempt to assure herself that the woman before her was real and tangible- as if she doubted the evidence of her own eyes.
But in another second, the blood had drained from her face, and before she even knew what she was doing she was pulling away form her mother, all senses alert, checking for danger.
Too late she realised that she had not heard the sounds of fighting from below for some time.
At that moment, right on cue, she heard echoing up from the stairwell the sound of Sokka beginning to scream.
The sound punched a hole in her head, but it was not truly horrible until she heard him strangle out a word, in response to a question she couldn't hear.
He was not believed. Armoured feet hammered on the stairs, and in a rush, she grabbed at her mother's arm.
"We have to get out of here," Azula said, with grim determination, pulling Ursa out into the hallway, towards the broken window. "Now."