The Princess and The Thief

Author's Note: This is set approximately one year after the events of Sozin's Comet. The first chapter is an intro of sorts, with new characters, and serves as a set up for the rest of the story; more familiar characters turn up in the second chapter. This is my first fanfic, so please read, review and (hopefully) enjoy! Also, thanks to everyone who has given me constructive criticism!

Chapter 1: The Job

The Earth Kingdom saloon was almost empty. The sun had long set on Ba Sing Se, and the evening rush of the Lower Ring workers had come and gone. Those that were left had no home to go to, and just enough money to try and delay the inevitable lonely night ahead on the streets. In the darkest corner of the tavern was a table illuminated with a single candle. Sitting at the table were two men. One was older and dressed in the garb of a nobleman. He was thin but not frail, with a shaved head and face, and his eyes were cold and reserved. His hands were resting comfortably in front of him like two sleeping spiders. His clothing may have drawn attention were it not for the presence of his younger companion, whose countenance brooked no interruptions. The younger man's face was heavily scarred from previous nights in similar bars, partially covered by an unkempt beard and crowned by long black hair barely restrained in a topknot. His clothing could be found on any highwayman in the world, and that was precisely what he was. He looked well-muscled and dangerous, like a tightly coiled spring, and had the air of someone who was used to quick violence. Across from them was a third, empty chair.

The younger man shifted his weight. "He's late", he spat out. Contrary to his features, his accent betrayed an educated past, an idiosyncrasy that was jarring to those who did not know him.

"No, he isn't, Paiko. Calm yourself," The older man replied without emotion.

This clearly was not the response the younger man desired, but he deferred to colleague. "Master Fen Long…with all due respect…we don't need him. Why involve an outsider? I could easily…"

The older man cut him off without any sign of irritation, though he was clearly one who was unused to explaining himself. "No you could not. This is not a job for brute force. Our target is one of the most highly guarded figures in the entire Fire Nation. The Fire Lord himself would be easier to reach. And we must not reveal ourselves too soon. We play a dangerous game, a very dangerous game…and the Master will not tolerate failure. We need someone with subtlety, someone with experience, someone…

"Someone expensive?"

They both turned. Before them stood a slight, wiry teenager dressed in simple black clothing. The only thing noticeable about him was that he was so unremarkable. He has the kind of face which was instantly forgotten, punctuated only by a knowing smile which implied experience beyond his years. His spiky black hair was held back by a dark red bandana, his only adornment. Quiet, this one, Fen Long noted to himself. Paiko didn't hear him. Good. He'll need to be quiet.

"You're late," snarled Paiko, not pleased at having been surprised. He looked the newcomer over. He quickly recognized that the youngster was unarmed. The stranger looked tiny compared to himself. This is who we've been waiting for? This is on whom our plans depend? He's barely more than a child.

The young man looked at him with laughing eyes. "We just covered that, buddy. I'm right on time. I could draw you a picture if that'll help, but I guess you're in a rush." The young man stood there smiling, as if he were talking to two old friends he had just seen after several years apart.

Paiko's hand drops to the sword at his side without a sound. Plan or no, he would cut him down. No one here would stop him. He had done so for far less. We'll find someone else to bring her to us. He's just a boy.

Fen Long's hand dropped onto Paiko's arm with surprising speed. "Hold, Paiko." He turned to the newcomer. "I assume you are Nazumi. Please, have a seat. Forgive my colleague, he…is anxious to discuss our affairs. All the same, you would do best to refrain from antagonizing him."

Nazumi slid into the chair, resting casually with his hands laced in back of his head. "Of course, your lordship." He continued to grin. "I bet he's a real hit with the other psychopaths." Paiko stared into the flame of the candle, coldly. He would not lose his discipline again, but it was clearly costing him. Nazumi relaxed, unperturbed at being within arm's length of the man.

He's either very foolish, very good, or both, mused Fen Long. Either way we can use him.

The dark-clad teenager turned to Fen Long. "Anyway, to business, eh? My contact told me you need something stolen. He also told me that time was a factor, and that money wasn't. Whenever I hear that, my gut usually tells me I'm dealing with a cop. You a cop, your highness?"

Fen Long returned Nazumi's look dispassionately. He was unused to being spoken to in such a manner, but in the pursuit of his goals he had learned to accept all manner of indignities. Yes, we will use you, my young friend. By merely showing up here you have doomed yourself. But we will use you. "I assure you, I am as undesirable of the involvement of the authorities as you are, my young friend." He then went silent, waiting for Nazumi's curiosity to cause the younger man to speak. Observing him, he wondered how difficult it would be to get him to perform as expected. Would he need to resort to threats? Intimidation? Greed?

Nazumi broke the silence. "I admit, I'm curious. I just came to see how far the police are willing go to catch me. Let me guess, you bring me in and you make captain, right?" He casually pulled a coin from a hidden side pocket and began flipping it along his fingers. Despite his statement, he seemed completely at ease, as if broadcasting that he had escaped similar situations in the past with little difficulty.

"Your caution is admirable, but you must understand our need for secrecy. There are certain…political considerations which make we must pay heed to. Because of these considerations, my organization is not entirely…certain of your willingness to perform this task. 

Nor of your…ability to do so." Fen Long again fell silent, waiting to see how his implication would be answered.

Nazumi continued to flip the coin, and his smile remained unchanged, but his eyes told a different story. "Let's get something straight, 'my lord.' You know who I am, or you wouldn't have contacted me. You know what I'm capable of. I'm Nazumi the Mouse. I'm the best thief in all of Ba Sing Se. Best there ever was, is, or will be. And I don't play politics."

Fen Long remained outwardly impassive, but rejoiced inside. I have you my friend. Easy, all too easy. His tone shifted to one that was slightly apologetic. "All this we know. Your reputation precedes you. 

And the fact that you have never been caught during your…career, despite the best efforts of the local police, this has not been overlooked. And your…neutrality regarding the present political climate is of great interest to us. But you see, what assurances do we have that you will take the job once I tell you the terms? What will prevent you from, say, informing the authorities about our intentions?"

Nazumi relaxed. We're back on familiar territory, he thought to himself. He was used to suspicious clients in his line of work. People who had never stepped outside the law before, who thought that the whole world would sit up and take notice that they were engaging in something, anything illegal. Amateurs. "Don't worry, your courtliness. I'm the MOUSE, not THE RAT. If I don't like the story, I'll just walk away. Besides, I'm sure your friend here can think of a few ways to keep me quiet. What's the job?.

Paiko grunted. Inwardly, he was no longer angry at the young thief, just amused at how quickly Fen Long had brought him into the fold. Whether Nazumi realized it or not, he thought, he has already taken the job. All that was left were mere details. And when the job was over and Nazumi was of no further use, then there would be a settling of accounts. As there always was.

Fen Long stared at Nazumi, as if thinking over what the young thief had said, and then gave him a slight nod. "Very well," he said. "Very well. Yes. As you know, the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai has brought considerable change to the Fire Nation, as well as the rest of the world. Considerable change. There are many of us who are not pleased with the current direction of our homeland. Indeed, we have found the climate so disagreeable that we have had to remove ourselves from our native soil for fear of our lives."

Fen Long leaned in, looking for some reaction from Nazumi, but the thief almost seamed bored. He continued, his voice dropping. "My colleague and I represent a group of Fire Nation nobles and soldiers that reject the current regime. We do not swear allegiance to the pretender who currently sits upon the throne. We do not prostrate ourselves before the so-called Avatar. We seek to restore the Fire Nation to the greatness that it so recently embodied, and take back what is rightfully ours."

Nazumi continued to look impassively at the older man. He was used to speeches such as these. They held little interest for him.

Seeing that Nazumi did not show any reaction, Fen Long continued. "We wish to hire you…to liberate daughter of the dragon, Princess Azula, from her prison in the Fire Nation. We wish you to deliver her here, to us, in Ba Sing Se, so that we may restore her to the throne and retake what has been lost. And we wish this to be done immediately, so we may begin planning the insurrection."

Nazumi's eyes dilated slightly, and the coin fell out of his hand, striking the table and rolling to the floor. He looked at the bald man, truly surprised. The princess had not been heard from in two years, since the defeat of the Fire Nation by the Avatar and his allies. Of course, there were rumors. There always were. People said she was killed in an Agni Kai by her brother, and quietly buried in an unmarked grave. Others said she was banished to the Spirit World by the Avatar, never to be seen again. It was sometimes said she was being held prisoner in the dreaded imperial prison of Kangoku, located near the palace of the Fire Lord and reserved for only the most despised prisoners, those whom the Fire Lord wished to personally keep an eye on. That's the most plausible one, he thought, if it's true. He shuddered inwardly. During the reign of Ozai, Kangoku had been notorious throughout the underworld community. The only escape, it was said, was through death.

"You…" Nazumi stuttered. "You don't know what you're talking about. You don't even know where she is. She's been missing since the end of the war. No one knows if she's even alive, and if she is, she's where no one can get to her."

"Wrong, my young friend. We know EXACTLY where she is. She is NOT in Kangoku, as you imply, though her father is. This is known to us. Shortly after the war, the princess was quietly transferred to a temple on the northern peninsula of the Fire Nation, in order to recover from her Agni Kai with her brother. An isolated place, reserved for disgraced nobility. Make no mistake, it is a hospital of sorts, but it is also a prison, and she is a prisoner. And to be sure, the facility is almost as well guarded as Kangoku. And therein is our difficulty. And that brings us to you."

Nazumi sat in silence. He looked at the two men across from him. Paiko was grinning like a shark who had tasted first blood, clearly relishing the tension that Nazumi could not hide. Fen Long's expression looked as if it was carved from stone, but his eyes burned like embers.

Could I do it? Impossible. Even if we got away, the entire Fire Nation would be after us. And we wouldn't get away. As well guarded as Kangoku. It could never work. There's no way…He closed his eyes. But I wouldn't have to last long. I just have to deliver her to Ba Sing Se, and then she's their problem. Everyone would be so busy looking for her that I could fade away…leave them to their war…ALMOST as well guarded…

As if he read Nazumi's mind, Fen Long added, "Of course, upon delivery of the princess your services would no longer be required. And you'll be handsomely rewarded, as any true patriot would be. Five thousand gold pieces now; an additional fifteen once you bring the princess to us. I suspect you could enter an early retirement, if you so wished."

Paiko's smile increased. All men had weaknesses; this one's was pride and greed. Fen Long had found them, and the trap was sprung. All the same, he almost hoped the thief turned down the 

mission. He would be dead before the words left his mouth. Ahhh, you'll enter retirement, but not the one you'll be expecting, you fool. But no need for you to know that now. Refuse and die now; do the Master's bidding and die later.

Nazumi's head swam at the numbers. Retire? He could buy his own island with that much money. He would be untouchable. He wouldn't be able to spend so much in three lifetimes…but he would not be Nazumi the Mouse if he did not press his advantage. And the odds of him collecting his fee were slim. This was all but a suicide mission, and he needed the prospect of more gold to bolster his courage.

"Ten thousand now," he whispered with effort, as if there were a weight on his chest, "and twenty on delivery. I'm no patriot." He almost wished the old man would refuse, the risks were so great, but knew he would not.

Fen Long stroked his chin thoughtfully. Inside, he was pleased. He would gladly have paid ten times as much, sacrificed anything and anyone to get what he wanted. What was money compared to the desires of his Master? If the thief was successful, such things would no longer matter. But the game must be played, he thought, or he'll be suspicious. Young fool.

"Our resources are limited. We are preparing for war. But I recognize the dangers to yourself…your desire for adequate…compensation." Fen Long squirmed, looking as if he would have to sell his lifeblood to raise the money. "Very well. We agree to your terms. But if you fail…you will know our displeasure. Do you understand what I am telling you?"

Nazumi nodded. If he failed, he'd have more to worry about than Paiku's sword. Oddly, he felt himself wishing for an instant that the two men WERE police, that at this moment the local guards would come in and arrest him. But the instant passed. Already his mind was racing. It won't be easy. But anything can be done. Nothing is inescapable. I'm living proof of that.

"I accept. I'll need supplies, equipment, plans of the temple…"

"Very well. My colleague here will arrange your payment and the rest, andgive you instructions as to when and where the princess shall be delivered. Please await him outside. Remember the consequences of failure. Our reach is far."

Nazumi stood. He looked briefly at the two older men, started to say something, thought better of it, and then left them.

Paiko chuckled, once Nazumi had left. "My lord, I am most impressed, as always. Very well played. But can you be sure that he…?"

Fen Long looked at Paiko coldly. "Of course not. Nothing is for certain. Nothing except the punishment of our Master should we fail. Still, I have no doubt he represents our best chance of success. I know his type. He wants his money, and will do anything to get it, regardless of the consequences. He will bring us the princess. And rest assured, afterwards he is yours."

Next: Dreams