Tinderbox – Part Six
Disclaimer: Nickelodeon owns all the Avatar episodes heretofore professionally produced, and all other related trademarks. I have borrowed their toys to produce an amateur suspense thriller. If I start making a profit I'll let you all know before I get sued. Promise!
The tavern was abuzz with rumor.
Mai prodded sweet rice around her plate with the tips of her chopsticks. The porcelain was poor quality and her utensils were too thick. It appeared as though she was the only person in the establishment deemed sufficiently important to eat off of a plate that was not chipped. Her teacup was glazed a cheerfully pedestrian shade of light green. Somehow Mai found the inner strength to bear up under the luxury.
Zuko sat across from her, wolfing down a bowl of pork congee. The Prince's eating habits weren't sloppy, by any means, but the thorough attention he paid to mopping up every scrap of his porridge with crusts of bread spoke volumes about deprivation.
Waves of conversation ebbed and flowed all around them. Mai ignored the townsfolk's ramblings in spite of the fact that her better instincts told her this was a good opportunity to gather information.
Zuko and Mai had been the only people in Chiang Rai to see Lixue, before the inn proprietors were notified of the girl's condition and Sook Yin was called in to impose order. They were also the only people in Chiang Rai not discussing the attack.
Zuko paused in his methodical deconstruction of that morning's breakfast special, so Mai sipped her cup of tea. Point and counterpoint. The Prince would wait until she was finished before returning to his own repast. In this manner they could delay speaking to one another for as long as possible.
As far as Mai was concerned that was a perfectly workable system for dealing with things. No muss. No fuss. No tiresome speeches, misplaced words, or pointless histrionics.
Time had passed quickly as she tossed the scene of Lixue's torture for clues and weapons. It was not long until the girl's condition deteriorated enough that Zuko was forced to summon help.
When Sook Yin arrived, bare feet padding over the threshold to the inn's central lobby, the both of them were summarily dismissed. It was deemed necessary for Mai to 'recover from the ordeal', and for Zuko to go with her. They were set loose on the streets. That was the point where Mai ran out of things to do and started to feel lightheaded, like she'd ridden her komodo dragon-horse too far up one of the south peninsula mountains - surrounded by air but starved for oxygen. There was nothing left to fuel her mind but the thin and unsatisfying memory of what had happened that morning.
Zuko ate. Mai waited. Once he finished eating it was polite for her to stand up, so she did.
The roar of conversation broke around them. Their observers were eager for news.
Zuko looked up at her, arms crossed.
"I'm going," the assassin said, clear and toneless enough for the whole crowd to hear.
The Prince nodded, once, before gesturing for the barman to bring him another cup of tea. He did not indicate what he felt about Mai taking his offensive 'advice' to leave town and get out of the way. Sullen frown lines had set up camp on his features. She could not muster the necessary forces to drive them out.
Mai stepped out the door of the tavern. Frantic talk welled up behind her, but that was no longer a concern of hers.
If Zuko cared so much for this bloody mess and these rank peasants, then let him drown in their bleating.
Half of Mai's knives were still hidden away in Zuko's room. There was no way that she was leaving them behind when she skipped town.
Getting into the inn was easy. The matrons who worked as Sook Yin's eyes and arms within the town bustled in and out of the building, but no one else dared enter for fear of disturbing the healers attending to Lixue. When Mai tried to walk through the small crowd standing vigil by the inn's porch, they parted for her. Sook Yin's women let her walk into the building unmolested, following her movements with weary eyes.
It was not so easy walking by Lixue's door without attracting Sook Yin's attention. Mai considered trying to pass without being heard, but she'd been observed entering the building, hadn't she? What would Sook Yin think if she found out later that Mai had passed unobserved? Only a very poor operative indeed would brazenly give away her stealth abilities to a civilian, no matter how far she was into the extraction process.
Mai walked down the hall, listening to the floorboards creak beneath her feet. Sure enough, the door to Lixue's room opened and out shuffled the mayoress. Her shadow fell across the length of the passageway.
The assassin walked through it. Whatever Sook Yin wanted from the Bei Fongs, Mai wasn't in the mood to hear about it.
"Hello," she acknowledged the elderly woman. Sook Yin looked older now. Careworn. A large book was clutched in her withered old hands.
"I apologize to your people for the acts committed in my name. I… have to leave," Mai continued. If Mai were a better lady she'd have had a flowery speech ready to make nice with Sook Yin, but she wasn't that good of a lady. Not really. Azula had always taken care of the classes that inconvenienced Mai and Ty Lee so that they could better focus on forging themselves into what the Princess needed. As far as Mai knew any suitors that dared approach their parents about an alliance with one of the Princess' confidantes had been summarily turned down. Dividing loyalties between the royal house and their own families would not be permitted.
"You're fleeing to safety? Or to find the Avatar? It is not a pleasant time to travel."
Mai looked past the old woman without answering. She'd been through this song and dance countless times before. Fire Nation military commanders often erroneously thought that they could gain information on Azula's plans through her two handmaidens. Weapons did not wield themselves, nor did they speak out of turn.
"I see," the old woman said. She reached forward to pat Mai on the shoulder. Having lived with Ty Lee for several years without snapping and committing homicide, Mai was prepared to bear the friendly gesture with stoicism.
"I'm sure you're doing what is for the best, Miss Bei Fong," Sook Yin flattered Mai, a twinkle in her eye, like it was an inside joke just between the two of them. "I wanted to speak with you more at length, without the other old biddies crowding around us, but if the spirits don't will it then there's nothing to be done. I can only leave you with one piece of advice."
Sook Yin withdrew her hand. Mai exhaled with relief.
"You shouldn't get too attached to your young man, dearie."
Mai blinked. She'd anticipated a different platitude. Chiang Rai was in such turmoil that there was no logical reason for Sook Yin to want to talk about Zuko rather than the Avatar.
"I don't know what you mean."
"I was your age once. My father went to war when I was still a child, but my brothers did not follow until I was old enough to remember them. None returned," Sook Yin shifted so that she could better support the weight of the volume she was carrying. Now that Mai's attention was drawn towards it, she noticed that it was not a book at all, but a collection of posters and clippings pressed within an empty binding.
Mai had a bad feeling about that. Sook Yin could have left the book in Lixue's room. Why was she bothering to carry it around? What was she trying to prove?
"Sons and lovers don't last," Sook Yin continued. Her eyes bore into Mai, as though she could see right under the coat Mai was wearing, straight down to the steel. Sook Yin was thin – bony, even – but the pits and whorls in her dark skin made it look like the years had eroded her from bedrock. Her life would be at an end soon but she somehow made herself look timeless. Sook Yin had been managing this town since before Mai's mother was born. "You can cry for the men all you want, clutch them to your breast and whisper their names in prayer to the spirits. It doesn't matter. They'll leave you because they love you and the Fire Nation will take them like they take everything." "It's not like that," Mai muttered. What else was she supposed to say? Wars happened. That was the way the planet turned. She wasn't like these Earth Kingdom women who had nothing better to do than survive. The Fire Nation was more civilized than this barbarian Kingdom – it gave its daughters the chance to fight in their own way.
"I'm glad," Sook Yin smiled, her warmth disturbing Mai in ways that she was unable to articulate. At least Azula's smiles were always patently and predictably false.
"We remain, dearie. Let them go. We will always remain."
Sook Yin stepped back into the room and Mai recognized that she had been dismissed. She did not waste any time retrieving her things. It was far past time for her to leave confusion behind her and put her life back to what passed for normal.
Mai's feet hurt. They had started to blister after six or so hours of walking, the thin cloth of her slippers rubbing against her skin in distinctly uncomfortable ways, so Mai abandoned propriety and threw her footwear into the bushes. The foolish action only left her all the more vulnerable to the various nettles, sharp rocks, and splinters that littered the forest paths.
And that was only the beginning of Mai's problems. She hadn't visited the town bathhouse before departure and it showed in the way that her hair snarled and tangled, catching on the occasional branchHer spine was twisted from having slept the night in a tree. Insect bites trailed along her ankles. A thin layer of sweat coated her skin unpleasantly, and she could taste the grit between her teeth.
In the Fire Nation, no decent person ventured out of populated enclaves and into the jungle unless they were part of an organized hunting, construction, or resource-extraction party. Leaving civilization wasn't worthwhile unless you had an attainable goal to achieve. The risk of being eaten by something large, vicious, or poisonous was simply too great. Not so in the Earth Kingdom. Their peaceful, picturesque woods lured the unwary into ceaseless discomfort.
Mai considered leaning against a thick tree-trunk, and taking a break, but she knew that it would do more harm than good. Five minutes would turn to ten, then fifteen and twenty, without Ty Lee there to harass her into action.
Trees towered over her, row upon row, standing sentry over her loneliness. It should have been a relief to be alone for the first time in months. Instead Mai had to dig her nails into her palm to keep herself from chipping at them in frustration, as she had when she was very young, hiding among the garden topiaries and waiting for something interesting to happen.
She had been following the trail of an Earth Kingdom platoon for quite some time now. They weren't truly her concern, but she had no other path to follow, and there was always the off chance that they might lead her back to the more familiar world of Azula and Ty Lee and their interminable hunt.
Here, at least, Mai had her pride. There were no mysteries waiting in the wings and there was no Zuko to make outrageous charges about her life when he had no idea what it was like to live as she did.
The noblewoman frowned with distaste, seeing that she would have to traverse a log covered with beetles in order to continue her journey. Ah, yes, such a proud aristocrat she was, slogging through the muck. She'd allowed the Prince to offend her instead of keeping her own counsel, allowed events to affect her instead of remaining rationally detached, and what happened? She'd ended up on a mad wild goose chase. Three cheers and brava for the Academy's finest.
Mai frowned with disgust at her lack of self-control. The beetles on the log were looking at her with their tiny insect eyes, challenging her to cease this foolishness at once and go back to… nothing.
Mai mentally prepared to swallow her aversion and step on the dirty little creatures.
Then she heard the laughter.
Hope blossomed and then wilted in the half-second that it took Mai to realize that no, she had not heard Ty Lee.
She had, however, heard a girl.
Mai immediately whipped a knife out from one of her calf holsters and stabbed it into the nearest sturdy-looking tree. She jumped up onto the blade's handle, and used the improvised step as a means to vault herself into the treetops. She kicked the wooden knife-handle down with her heel, on the second leap, so that it would be pushed flat against the tree-trunk for camouflage.
Deftly, Mai made her way through the canopy, making sure to pass from branch to branch only when the breeze picked up loudly enough to cover the sound of her movements. Soon enough she located her quarry – three young ladies with ostrich horses, riding through the forest at a leisurely pace.
Mai raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, trying to take in as much as she could about the group before they moved on. Her initial evaluation proved inaccurate upon close inspection. Those were two girls and one very effeminate boy. Mai would never have been able to discerned the long-haired teenager's true gender if it weren't for the way that he held his hips when he rode.
Tsk. Sloppy work on his part.
"You say that General Fong hasn't found any of them?"
"All three escaped! Daddy's been terribly fretful about it, too, but you must not fear. Anyone silly enough to make as much noise in the earth as they did with that awful train thingy can't go far without being caught."
The talkative one clapped her hands, happily, just as the group moved out of easy hearing range. Knowing that she couldn't keep up in this state, Mai made no attempt to follow.
All three escaped. General Fong.
Azula and Ty Lee were free, they knew where they'd left her, and they had not come to find her. She was expendable. They could be anywhere by now.
She wanted to go home.
The tank had exploded, so Chiang Rai would have to do.
After cleaning herself up there had been nothing for Mai to do but make herself scarce, or entertain the villagers' queries as to whether she'd met with the Avatar. Mai chose the former.
Zuko tracked her down as night fell. Mai didn't hear him approach until it was too late for forethought and the air displaced by his passing brushed up against her back. She cursed herself for her inattentiveness; for the way her breath hitched when she realized that something had succeeding in surprising her.
The Prince sat down beside Mai unceremoniously. Their legs dangled over the edge of the town wall.
"You're back," Zuko stated, in lieu of any proper greeting.
He could have been relieved, or it could have been a trick of the light.
"Rumor would suggest."
Mai wondered if Zuko had kept her waiting on purpose, since he surely must have been informed of her return hours ago. Zuko wouldn't say and Mai didn't care to ask. Sook Yin hadn't driven him out or barred her entry. The town square held many more refugee tents than it had three days ago, but there was probably a good explanation for that. Questions could wait.
Together, they stared out at the sunset.
The quiet afforded Mai the vain hope that perhaps this, too, could be handled without having to talk about it. The dusk was mild. The bustle of the village behind them was pleasant insofar as she could sit above the fray. There was no need to disturb her peace. Mai would rather stab herself with her own knives than talk about something as tedious as her feelings about her trip beyond the barricades.
Mai got her wish – Zuko did not break the silence – but he put their moment to the sword all the same when he reached over her lap, grabbed her left wrist, and tugged it over to where he could get a better look at it.
"You're back. I can't watch over my shoulder for knives from you all the time," Zuko shrugged, slightly, and Mai felt the aftershocks of motion where the palm of his hand shifted against her sleeve. Mai experimentally tried to tug her arm out of his grasp. She only succeeded in causing Zuko to deftly slide his grip upwards so that he was grasping the back of her bare hand. His hold became all the more secure without slippery, scratchy wool to get in the way.
"So I want to know what you've got up your sleeves," he explained. "That's all."
Ah. Like before, in the hallway.
"Now my reputation is ruined for the market," Mai said, looking back over her shoulder to survey the peasants scurrying around. The sarcasm fell short of her usual standards.
At home not even a Prince would have dared to run the pad of his thumb across the thin skin over the pulse-point at her wrist. Not without a scandal or a contract.
Mai reminded herself that she still had had one arm free and should really beonsidering stabbing Zuko at this point, even if he'd left before he could be taught such niceties and perhaps did not know any better.
"Exiles aren't meant to worry about honor."
"I'm not an exile," Mai pointed out, with an inexcusable lack of violence. Maybe… maybe if Mai trusted him to know what armaments were strapped to this one arm, they could finally stop talking circles around the idea that she might attack him.
Even though she technically should.
"I thought you cared about being professional, not honorable," Zuko grumped, affronted. Mai could tell by the way the Prince stiffened that he didn't like what she could be implying about his intentions, jest or no jest. He tensed and his fingers pressed almost painfully into her flesh. "And I'm not a degenerate. You're the one who spread that rumor around."
Mai tilted her head, not saying anything, waiting for him to calm down. Zuko's scar was etched livid red against the contours of his skull, curling cruelly upward like the crimson scowl marks they painted on the faces of kabuki villains. The rest of his face was as fair as though it had been dusted with rice powder.
It was an… interesting effect.
"No spring-holsters," Zuko commented, using his spare hand to slowly slide her sleeve down the length of her arm. Inch-by-inch, the homespun cloth retracted to reveal the intricate pattern of ties she'd improvised from the nest of hair ribbons that one of the town matrons had given her. Beggars could not be choosers, yet Mai was not used to begging, and she almost regretted that a fellow aficionado had to see such an amateurish setup.
Well, at least this way Mai's real secrets were still hers to keep.
The ribbons crisscrossed haphazardly over her forearm, swaths of bright color that made her skin look dull and ghostly.
The Prince wasn't letting go of Mai's wrist.
Lack of spring holsters cut down her reaction time, Mai knew, and now she knew that Zuko also knew. So now they were both aware. Of things.
That was according to plan.
Finally the material of Mai's coat pooled at her elbow, her forearm exposed to the cooling air. Zuko used his grip on her wrist to tilt her hand back so that her inner arm turned towards the setting sunlight.
The light was pink, but her skin was bone-white, and the tracery of veins beneath it hinted at a steely blue. Only a few cleverly-laced scraps of satin kept them from nicking into her skin.
Mai thought that would be the end of it.
Yet there they sat.
"Did you get these from Sun Wai? I thought he specialized in jian swords," the Prince murmured. The knives flashed silver when angled just-so.
Mai felt uncharacteristically embarrassed. Usually she carried more weapons. Ribbons were infantile. Scrutiny was foreign to her life and it unnerved her.
"They're ten-fold high-carbon steel, out of Dafen."
"There's no master forge in Dafen," Zuko objected. Half his brow furrowed, while the other remained paralyzed in its permanent glare.
"There is now," Mai said. "Ryu Chu's second apprentice set up near the industrial zone."
"No pommel detailing."
Zuko ran his index finger over the edge of one of the knives, testing it for sharpness. His hands were larger than Mai's, less nimble, and it wasn't really a surprise that he ended up drawing a line down her skin at the same time. His touch jarred the weapons slightly askew in their bindings, pressing metal to flesh, and the contrast in temperature between cold steel and Zuko's callused skin was… unexpected.
"No. They're throwing knives. I throw them away."
"But they're nice," Zuko countered with a happy little smile.
Mai shifted her weight with a distinct lack of grace. Tension knotted in her gut and she wasn't sure she liked it. The noblewoman flexed the fingers of her trapped hand, experimentally.
Zuko immediately dropped her arm, straightened his posture, and looked back and forth as though he expected a dire enemy to have tunneled under the gates and insinuated itself within the village within the last five minutes.
"Uh, thank you," the Prince cleared his throat. "We can talk later. I should go check outside on-"
"Sook Yin might know something about you," Mai blurted out before Zuko could leave.
"She was carrying posters, maybe. She made strange promises. Or threats. And that General Fong-"
Zuko did not seem to feel the need to mull that over.
Mai yanked her jacket back down so that the sleeve hid all but the tips of her fingers, like it was supposed to.
"Yes. Delightful, even," Mai drawled, before she realized Zuko was genuinely serious.
"There are things I want to accomplish. I don't have anything to lose," Zuko told Mai, before sliding himself off the parapet. He fell to the ground with a soft grunt, stirring up a cloud of dust and ash. Once the Prince regained his footing he disappeared off into the tree line. He did not wait to see if she would follow.
Mai felt hollow beneath the thick wool of her robes. For the first time in forever there was nobody around in a position to evaluate her dutifulness. Mai's good name would not be marred no matter what she did. Nothing held her down, she was free in every way, and it seemed as though the wind spirits would come and bear her away into the great beyond if she dared loose the weight of steel strapped to her body.
All her life, Mai had not decided. She had not chosen. Her destiny was scripted on the day she was born and she was smart enough to read between the lines and play her part. The colors of the world were hers to absorb so long as she did not do anything so foolish as try to touch them. Existence was comfortable once you figured out the trick of it; once you learned to discern when the ambitions of the royal house would ebb and swell and buffet unwary fellow travelers.
The Prince should have had that life too. Mai remembered Zuko the way that he used to be, too childlike for their childhood, when she'd watched him for hours trying to figure out if he really believed that the court was supposed to be some hallowed and honorable place or if he was only pretending to cover the tarnish on the thrones. He could have stayed that way. His mother might not have been able to protect him, but the rules always would have, if only he'd bothered to learn his place in the universe.
It would have been nice. Zuko had always been nice.
But instead her silly childhood crush had gone and become this… this… exasperating person who ignored reason and sense and comfort and everything else in order to blunder being whoever he wanted, living by the rules that best pleased him. As though it were easy. As though the world could work that way. As though being like that wouldn't get him killed.
It was madness! Utter madness!
And Mai, she…
She didn't know what she was supposed to do.
"You're wrong," Mai finally said.
No one ever heard her.
Author's Notes: Next chapter fight scenes!
… yeah, I got nothing. Updates have slowed down because the school term's started for me. Them's the breaks. Sorry folks.
Especial thanks to my beta Rawles for her help on this chapter, which caused me an unusual amount of grief.