The days passed, as is their inalienable right. The ones spent in the wilderness passed easily- I have always appreciated the wild places, and the woods of the Earth Kingdom hold no terrors for me- and while I was away from people I relaxed, calm and serene. Whenever I spent more than a few hours in town, it was in a flurry of activity. Questions, suggestions, requests, ideas, they all began to swirl like a maelstrom of paperwork without the paper. It was all quite tiring, and I quickly longed to be back in the wild.
Still, the Plan seemed to be on track. A Fire Nation armoury was raided near Gaoling, and they never recovered the blasting jelly, or the swords. A bar fight gone wrong in Omashu left three Fire Nation captains dead. A grain caravan fell prey to a sudden and most uncharacteristic avalanche in the mountains. A thousand sporadic things, all devoid of pattern. All these things were merely preparation, warming up for the main event, as it were.
The operation in Omashu was, however, a problem. I had not authorised it. Inserting a field agent into the city had been a few shades light of impossible, and to take any overt action would alert the Fire Nation, and remind them to tighten their security. An alert Omashu could spell doom for the Plan.
The operation had been authorised by the men and women of the Omashu cell. They were some of the best and brightest of an order where being the best and brightest was an entry requirement, but it might be that Bumi had too much influence over them. They seem to have adopted his habit of risk-taking. It's troubling.
I don't know what to do. I can weigh up pros and cons all night, but in the end it all falls apart, because I don't know what to pick.
This time I think I can afford to leave it. I know the Omashu cell, well enough to know that they understand the risks they take. I'll trust that they had their reasons, this time.
Is that ineffectual of me" It's hard for me to say.
As the nights got colder, I began to spend more time amongst other people. Not towns, if I could avoid it, that was still dangerous, but while I still had no one who had successfully followed me (I had picked up a trail in the days following the rescue of the Avatar. A master firebender, he had lasted an appreciable number of seconds. No, I didn't kill him- don't ask me why, perhaps I simply have no taste for it when I don't have to- I just knocked him out, tied him up, dumped him on a cart, and paid the cart driver a large bag of gold not to untie him until he got to Ba Sing Se) I stayed at such rebel hideouts that knew me as a friend.
The system we have regarding the rebel cells is a simple one. None of them know that the Order is behind their existence, and none have sufficient details on the other cells to tell the Fire Nation any more than they already know, should it come to it. Instead, they answer to a particular figure- in the South, most swear allegiance to King Bumi, and are under the practical command of Captain Yung. In the North-West, Jeong-Jeong is in charge- his reputation precedes him, and few are surprised by a former Admiral of the Fire Navy leading Earth Kingdom rebels, and the ones that are are bright enough to keep quiet. Those two are the main commanders, although there are more, enough to initiate the Plan even if Jeong-Jeong and Yung are incapacitated.
This situation requires trust and ignorance on the part of the rebels, two qualities that the Earth Kingdom has in generous supply. I'm not sure what it is- perhaps it's as much a part of the national character as earthbending- but generally speaking, citizens and especially soldiers of the Earth Kingdom are predisposed to believe their leaders, and not question their orders.
It's helpful on some occasions, worrying on others, and mind-bendingly irritating on a couple.
Since I am, to the trained observer, quite obviously Fire Nation, I have had to run away from three camps that hadn't, for whatever reason, gotten the notice that I'm friendly.
Fortunately, I had no such problems here. Within a hundred miles of Omashu, they know me well.
Today I was staying in a fortress up in the mountains. These structures sprang up faster than the Fire Nation could tear them down, and with a dedicated and talented unit of earthbenders maintaining it, the only way to effectively defeat such a construction without sacrificing almost all your men would be to starve the defenders out.
This one was well-prepared for such an eventuality, with huge stockpiles of non-perishable (mostly Water Tribe) food, and several farm animals. The men and women here seemed to be in fairly high spirits, although most of the children were bored.
It's not just fighters here, you understand. Whole villages fled their homes in the wake of Ba Sing Se, and more following Omashu, taking all their worldly possessions with them. So they ended up here, or places like it. They take it in their stride, for the most part. They have to, really.
Of course, every few months or so there's an excursion up into the mountains or wherever the local rebels are hiding, an attempt to smoke them out. But we generally know about them well in advance, and are able to warn people in time for them to move out, and often eliminate any evidence that they were ever there. Generally.
I earned my keep while I stayed here. They said I didn't have to, of course, but I did anyway. A little honest labour is good for the soul, and besides, it builds ties to see this exotic visitor, a defector from the enemy, mucking out the stables like anyone else.
So, during the day, when there were no important new reports for me to look at (there were always new reports) I did my share of the chores, and in the afternoons, I trained anyone who would listen. It had been a long time since I had picked up the gently curved Earth Kingdom swords, but it came back to me quickly.
Most of those I trained split into three categories. There were the teenage boys, smirkingly sure of themselves, looking more to show off their talents to each other and any girls that were watching than to learn. These I showed little mercy and less patience. There were seven the first day, and by the third, only four remained, their egos thoroughly cut down to size.
The second category were serious swordsmen, all over thirty, here to ensure that they were still in shape. I could teach them little of the basics, but I put them through their paces, taking them three at a time, making sure they had to work. Several were less than happy to be cut back down to size, but at least they stayed. I taught them to defend themselves from multiple opponents, getting them to fight one another. I reminded them what it meant to fight for their lives when they forgot and started playing by the rules. I hoped it would be enough to keep most of them alive.
The third group were the most rewarding, though. Young people, most of them, boys and girls (everyone has to know how to fight up here, just in case they don't have a choice), but a few older, farmers, mothers, bankers. All had one defining characteristic. They had never picked up a sword in their lives.
These people were relying on me to keep them alive. I had to train them, and if I didn't do it well enough, they would die, half trained and convinced that was enough. It was quite a responsibility.
I think I managed it, though.
I was planning to spend a week here, initially, but some of the pupils under my tutelage seemed promising, and so I decided that I could spend a fortnight instead. I fell into a routine- I would wake with the sun, have breakfast, assist with the few strips of farmland, have lunch, train with my students, have dinner at sunset, train with my students for another few hours, and then the rest of the evening was my own. I usually meditated under the starlight. When the lights go out up in the mountains, the stillness can take your breath away.
Then, one night, the moon turned to blood.
Azula was walking the halls again. Sleep continued to elude her. So far, the only person who had mentioned it was Father- he had seemed concerned, and told her she should retire earlier. She had taken his advice, but so far it hadn't helped.
She was worried about Father. He had been distant recently. Distracted. Almost... unsure. Of something. And he wouldn't tell her what was wrong.
It irked her greatly. And when she was irked, it ate away at her head until she did something about it. But this time, it didn't seem that there was anything to do. She didn't know enough.
For a brief moment, she considered spying on Father. But that was hardly practical.
So she couldn't sleep, and so she walked through the palace halls.
Tonight her wanderings took her, without any interaction with her higher brain, to the garden courtyard. It was clear in the moonlight, and cold for the Fire Nation. She stopped on the pathway, glancing briefly at the night sky. A full moon. She didn't bother to notice the stars.
Then her eyes dropped, and saw the hunched figure below the cherry tree.
Instantly, her arm snapped forward, ready to blast the intruder with flame the moment they stood. Then she heard a ragged breath, a long, tired sigh.
A crack of sparks, and the figure conjured the smallest of flames, setting fire to a slip of paper, crushing the ashes in his hands and killing the light with them, and standing, slowly, achingly.
Uncle. Azula kept her stance.
“Ah, Niece,” he said, not looking at her. “What keeps you awake at this hour"”
Azula pretended to relax.
“I was merely enjoying the quiet.”
“As do I, Niece, as do I. Sometimes, I wish... but wishes are the thoughts of a foolish man.” He wasn't talking to her.
Azula blinked. Why had she thought that" Of course he was talking to her. There wasn't anyone else here.
“Would you stay awhile"” he asked. “I would... very much appreciate the company.” Every word was slow, laboured. Tired, and... sad" She sifted through his inflections as best she could, trying to siphon off those that he was putting on, evaluating those he was exaggerating for effect, and trying to uncover the truth.
However, this analysis meant that she couldn't think of an excuse in time, so she agreed.
“Of course.” She remained standing where she was, and Iroh acted as if he had expected no different.
In the moonlight, Azula found herself analysing the Fire Lord. He was different to how he appeared in the day. His posture was easy to read- he was hunched, and slumped. His eyes were fixed on the ground. He was tired. Had she caught him with his defences down" Worth remembering for later.
“Do you walk often"” she asked, as innocent as you please.
He chuckled, and she inwardly cursed herself for breaking the spell. Every moment of weakness he showed now was precious, for it gave her something to look for during the day.
“As often as I can, though not as often as I would like.” He headed towards her. “But now, I think it would be best if I-”
The sky was draped in blood.
Her eyes were dragged upwards, to the full moon. A bloodstained shadow was dragged across it, a swirling mass of wrong, a hole in the sky, a silent scream, and she knew without thought that something was dying, dead.
Beside her, her Uncle was shaking.
“No,” he said, anger vibrating through the single syllable with the purpose of a knife-edge. “Zhao, what have you done"”
Azula barely heard him. She simply stared upwards, to the gouged hole in the night. She couldn't look away.
What is happening"
There's no time to ask, no time to wonder, no time to guess, just time to stand and stare at the tear in the sky.
The Moon Spirit. It must have...
Zhao has made good on his boast.
Oh, this will not end well.
Azula stared, transfixed.
It was... amazing. The sheer force of the death- and she knew something was dead, knew it like she knew the sun was life and she knew night was cold- reverberated throughout her skull, jabbing and prodding and screaming-
There was a bellow. Not here, not in the palace. She doubted it was even in this world. But it was there nonetheless, in her heart and in her head, a howl of fury, and in that moment she was not Azula, she was not anything.
Everything he loved was dead.
Someone would pay. Everyone would pay.
I'm rushing through the camp, trying to find someone who can do anything- a lost cause, but I never could judge them- and all around me benders are screaming and collapsing and it's rippling, right around the world, and now it's started the wave will never stop and this is why we need balance!
She was screaming, somewhere in the dark. Screeching and howling and there's a tiny voice saying no but she just screams yes and she raises his arm to smash the beasts and their toys away.
And it's everything and nothing she wants.
Futility. They cannot hurt him.
Futility. It won't bring her back.
And there is the voice, screaming no
And the moment passes. She is Azula again.
And she passes out, but her mind is her own.
As soon as it starts, it's over. Benders are collapsed all over, and those of us lucky enough not to be blessed by the Spirits are standing, bewildered.
All I can think of is that the reports I get tomorrow will probably be very interesting indeed.
When Azula woke, the next morning, in her own bed, all she remembered was a nightmare of deep water and darkness.