Chapter 20 – Red Harvest II

The battle for the pass was short but brutal.

When Azula emerged into the third ring, she found two inmates guarding the door. They were leaning against the wall and chatting, but quickly recovered from their surprise. The fight began.

One was carrying a chair leg which had been sharpened to a point at the end. The other was wielding a heavy paperweight. It might have gone badly for her if they hadn't gotten into each other's way. But they did, and Azula used one man against the other.

Finally there was only one enemy left. Azula swung her newly-acquired paperweight and took him in the side of the head. She heard a wet crunch as bones caved and shattered beneath the heavy blow, then he dropped like a felled tree.

The last man standing gazed down at her motionless opponents. Sentries, she mused. Clearly the prisoners had organized themselves, since someone had ordered these two to guard the entrance. But who?

She thought she already knew. For right now, though, speculation was useless. She had other problems to worry about. Azula looked at the inmates again.

One had a long splinter of wood jutting out of his neck – an improvised dagger taken from his own shattered weapon. His life blood had already poured out. Her more recent victim, on the other hand…His chest was still rising and falling.

His wound was desperate. He might not ever wake up. If he did, there was a good chance that he would never be the same again. Maybe he wouldn't remember this. Wouldn't remember her.

Might. If. Maybe.

But if he did come to, and he did remember, then he would tell the others prisoners about her. She knew them. They would chase her down like a pack of dogs after wounded prey. With a commander to organize them, they might catch her too.

I probably don't need to kill him. It's probably not necessary.

Probably.

But if he does wake up

Might. If. Maybe.

He's a killer, she reasoned. He deserves it, and I would be serving my people. He would never hurt any of them again.

Her solitary confinement had left its mark, however. She had spent many long, lonely hours with nothing for company but her own thoughts. At some point in her mental wanderings, she learned to recognize when she was just rationalizing. She learned too that rationalizing could be the same as lying.

When she fought in the war, she fought for her country. But she also fought for herself and her own glory. Defeating her enemies in open battle was difficult and therefore impressive.

But if she killed this sleeping man, that would be easy. It would be cheap and selfish.

This isn't really about my people. It's all about me.

"And I choose to live." Her words were wasted on the empty corridor. The silence couldn't condemn her. Or absolve her.

Azula placed her foot on the man's throat, and slowly bore down with her entire weight.

She decided to leave the bodies where they were. There were dozens of murderers roaming these halls. She doubted that anyone would think twice about more corpses – as long as they didn't realize that the new killer in their midst was a girl.

She quickly learned that the third ring contained all the functional rooms, like offices and storage space. Not far away she discovered the kitchen. Azula crept in silently, but her caution was unnecessary. There was no one there. She immediately started to search for a knife, or anything that might prove useful.

It was obvious that others had had the same idea. The drawers and cupboards were thoroughly ransacked. Azula let her eyes wander over all the surfaces and nooks and crannies. Kitchens were full of dangerous objects. There had to be something, if only she had the wit to see it.

When she moved to the back, she immediately spotted an anomaly. Well that's an odd place for a stool. Working on a hunch, Azula walked over and sat on it.

It was wedged awkwardly in the far corner, between a wall and cupboard. Still sitting on the stool, Azula opened the cupboard and stuck in her arm at the most natural level. Her questing fingers found a shelf topped with jars. She reached further, pushing aside jars until she found…

What she was looking for. Azula recognized the distinctive shape of wine containers. So she was right. This was the refuge of the kitchen drunk. Every kitchen the world over seemed to have one. It was good to know that there was at least one constant in the universe.

If there was wine, then there had to be a knife to cut the seals. She couldn't find it, so she started to remove the jars. Had he carried the knife with him? But, no, here it was.

Azula held it in her hand and stared down at it, remembering. She had once raided another stash of booze, and held a knife just like this one…

The two girls peeped in furtively.

"Nope. No one here," Ty Lee whispered.

It was about mid-night, and the palace kitchen was completely dark. The evening meal was long since finished, and the bakers wouldn't be in for a few more hours. Azula lit a small fire in her hand and moved confidently towards the special cabinet and its secret contents.

She had recently spent an afternoon spying on the kitchen staff. In that time she had seen the bleary-eyed man come back to this corner again and again.

"Here it is." After a few moments of rummaging, Azula had found what she was looking for. She took the knife and cut the seal on the jar.

"We need glasses."

Azula didn't know where the glasses were. "No we don't. This is peasant wine, and peasants don't use glasses."

She looked at the wine and then at Ty Lee. Ty Lee was gazing back with shining, excited eyes.

I'm the leader, Azula reminded herself. Ty Lee is waiting for me to be brave. So she immediately tipped back the jar and took a mighty swig.

It was all she could do not to spit it out. "How is it?" Ty Lee asked. Azula silently handed her the jar, still trying not to cough and choke and sputter.

Ty Lee wasn't so successful. After a while, she finally managed to gasp out a few words. "Eewww…I thought it would be good."

"It is good," Azula lied. "You're just not sophisticated enough to appreciate it." Then she took another, much smaller, sip.

So they passed the wine back and forth through the night, two children sitting snugly knee-to-knee on the floor, feeling warm and safe in the soft darkness of the familiar kitchen.

"You know," Ty Lee said eventually, "thish really ish…ishn't…it's not so bad after all."

Azula agreed. It was actually quite pleasant. So pleasant, in fact, that they opened another jar (or was it two?) and completely lost track of time.

"What the hell are you two doing?"

After hours of soft whispering and quiet laughter, the deep bellow was jarring and completely unexpected. Both girls jumped.

Azula blinked fuzzily at the grey light. Was it dawn already? Then she focused on the angry man. It was the one with blood-shot eyes and a red nose, come looking for his morning fix. She watched as comprehension slowly dawned on his dull, stupid face. It transformed into a mask of horror when he finally realized just who he had yelled at.

Damn right! Azula tried to get to her feet and failed. Her knees gave out, dumping her back against the cabinet. She slid down onto her ass – but no matter. A princess was terrifying from any position!

Putting on her fiercest look, she flung out her arm and pointed at him. "Peasant! You're in the presence of your betters! If you can't mind your cut, I'll tongue it out for you."

Wait. That wasn't right.

Azula turned to Ty Lee, who stared back. Then they collapsed over each other into a riotous heap of drunken giggling.

The memory was so vivid that tears sprang to her eyes.

Azula tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. I remember that. That was nice. It was a long, long time since she thought of anything pleasant. She had started to believe that there was nothing good in her life. Ever.

"I want to go home." The words had been unsaid throughout all her dark days in the madhouse. She hadn't even let herself think them. Hearing them now, Azula huddled into herself. Time and place ceased to matter as she fought a lonely battle against the rising despair.

"Hey!"

She looked up, half-expecting to see the drunken cook. But she was still in hell's kitchen, not the palace. The shouting man was a prisoner, and he was calling for back-up.

She threw the knife. It lodged itself in his throat and cut off his next words. Before he even hit the ground, Azula was diving for cover.

There was a large island of cupboards in the middle of the room, which obviously doubled as a giant cutting board. Azula was crouching behind it when two men walked into the room.

"Huh," one of them drawled. "Someone wasted Doctor Poison."

The other grunted. "Still here too."

Azula didn't wait for them to come searching. She threw her paperweight off to the left, where it struck the wall with a heavy thump. She immediately curled around to the right – which meant that, when the two men went to investigate the sound – the island stayed between her and them.

It continued to shield her from view as she slithered towards the door on her stomach. Once she was through, she stood up and silently cursed herself. She had lost the knife and her paperweight. Now she was weaponless again.

Azula had barely gone ten feet when she heard someone coming. She ducked into one of the nearby rooms and peered around the door. Her choice was a lucky one: the approaching men stopped directly in front of her. Thus she heard every word of their conversation.

A tall, spare man viewed the opposite door with a frown of disapproval. He had the pinched look of a bad-tempered ascetic, and the upright carriage of a soldier. The others were ranged around him, giving the impression of an official escort.

So I was right, thought Azula. Collector is the one in charge.

The Collector had been an army colonel. When he spoke, his voice was a harsh, military bark. "Where are the men I posted? This room should be guarded."

No one had an answer for him. He snorted contemptuously. "Civilians. No discipline. No organization. Stupid."

He opened the door and gazed through. "This should be guarded…like precious stones…or a lover…" His whole demeanor had turned soft and vague. He licked his lips.

"Don't get too attached, Colonel. Remember the plan."

That snapped Collector out of his trance. "Mind your place, soldier. I don't forget. I have discipline. Control."

"Yes, Sir. When should we start bringing them up?"

Collector paused to think. "Not yet. We haven't found everything we need. Until we do, we need all our boys looking for it."

At that moment, two more men joined the scene. Collector eyed them angrily. "Well? Well? I ordered you to guard the door. Where were you?"

"We were checking out an odd noise."

"Ha! Damned raw recruits. Your job is to obey orders, not investigate."

"Well fuck me dry, Sir-" Azula recognized the lazy voice. This was the pair from the kitchen. "-I didn't realize that I was in your own private army. Please allow me to apologize and kiss your royal ass."

No one moved. Azula sensed that most of them were trying not to laugh. Collector must have realized how insecure his position was, because he let the matter drop. He satisfied himself with tossing off the harshest insult he could think of.

"No, this isn't the army. You could never be a soldier." Having delivered this devastating blow, he swept off, and his little entourage followed.

The two guards stayed at their post. After a second, the sarcastic one said, "Hey. Did you notice those wine jars in the kitchen?"

His taciturn companion grunted. "Sure. Let's go."

When they were gone Azula crept out of her hiding place. She approached the opposite room, the one Collector had been so concerned about. Her hand hovered in front of the door: a wild idea was taking shape.

She let her hand drop. No. There had to be a better way. But I'll keep it in mind, just in case.

Once again, Azula hardly had time to take a few steps before she heard more people coming. Once again, she concealed herself in the nearest room. As she looked out the narrow crack between door and wall, she felt her frustration mounting. There are too many people here. This is impossible.

In her haste and distraction, she hadn't checked her surroundings. Azula learned her mistake when a meaty arm snaked around her waist from behind.

A plump hand immediately clamped down over her mouth. Azula was hauled backwards with her feet lifted off the ground, so she couldn't get any leverage. She squirmed and kicked anyway, but her assailant didn't seem to feel it, and her arms were pinned. She was trapped.

He was breathing heavily into her ear and muttering things. His voice was slow and thick and strange.

"It should stop wiggling. It should play nice. Dollies need stuffing. Play. Play…"

Azula was thrown down on to a desk. She hit hard enough to see stars, but couldn't take the time to notice. He was still holding her arms, so she gathered her core and snapped her entire torso forward. Her forehead slammed into his nose with a wet crunch. He staggered backwards, keening like a wounded animal.

He wasn't beaten, though. They careened back and forth, bounced off walls, smashed into furniture, and finally rolled all over the floor of the office. Azula hit him again and again, but the mountains of soft, naked flesh seemed to absorb the blows – like wet dough sucking at a baker's fist.

Azula couldn't' get away, she couldn't shake him off. She felt as though she were being smothered by a huge, hot, heavy sack of wobbling jelly. Her temperature spiked and her heart raced. A red rage blurred her vision and painted her brain with blood. For the next few minutes, Azula fought as viciously and desperately as any animal.

She should have stayed quite so that no one would hear them. But she gradually became aware that an incessant stream of guttural profanity was pouring from her mouth.

"You fucking bastard! Godsdamn it! Agni take you to hell!"

Finally she found her opening. Without the slightest hesitation, Azula drove her fingers deep into his right eye socket – and wiggled them around.

As he opened his mouth to scream, she jammed in a wad of stray paper. Then she stuffed and stuffed and stuffed some more. When she couldn't reach any more paper, she straddled his fat waist and clamped her hands over his mouth.

Azula held on as he bucked and thrashed beneath her. She watched as his face changed color and blood trickled from his damaged eye. She looked into his one good eye as he died.

At last he stopped moving. It was several minutes before Azula had a rational thought.

At least this one wasn't sleeping and helpless.

She stood up shakily and moved toward the door. Before she opened it, she took one, last, backwards look.

It was a mistake. Azula saw for the first time that he wasn't naked, as she had thought. Somewhere he had found a pair of women's underwear. Pallid flesh was bulging over and around the dainty slip of silk. The flaccid rolls, unnaturally still in death, already had a waxy look. She was reminded of a lumpy, white worm.

The gorge rose in her throat. Azula stumbled out the door into the hallway. Miraculously, there was no one around. Thank the gods for small favors.

She limped slowly down the corridor, feeling stiff and sore. It would only get worse, she knew.

When she reached her destination, Azula leaned heavily against the door for a few moments, panting as though she had just run twenty miles in her armor. Apparently the guards were still drinking in the kitchen.

Soon someone would find her and live to tell the tale. Then her secretive flight would turn into a running battle. If she actually got to the stairs, they would no doubt be guarded. Azula would have to fight uphill in a narrow passage crammed with armed men.

I'll never make it. It's time to try the other way.

She took a deep breath. Everyone knew what was in the Collector's collection. This wouldn't be pleasant.

The door opened beneath her hand. In the room beyond she found the missing bodies. They were stacked three deep, like pieces of wood.

Azula carefully closed the door behind her. Something about this place seemed to call for silence and wariness. She tiptoed down the aisle, noting that her feet were growing wet and cold from small puddles on the floor.

It's not all gore. Someone doused these bodies with water. She found a smallish corpse and knelt down beside it.

This isn't about the Collector at all. These are supposed to serve a purpose. As Azula began to strip the dead prisoner, she considered what the inmates' plans might be.

They're making a human firewall. It had happened before, over the course of their nation's tumultuous and violent history. Firebending was a powerful offensive force, but provided little in the way of defense. Dark times had often inspired extremes – of both ingenuity and desperation.

Azula couldn't get the shirt off, so she placed an arm over her knee and broke it. There was a sharp crack, and suddenly the cold, dead flesh was bent at an impossible angle.

Just as suddenly, Azula's own limbs went weak. She sank to one knee but managed to catch herself there. For some indeterminable time she stayed in that position, fighting the wooziness and light-headedness.

I can't pass out now. I can't. When she started to feel better, Azula cursed her stupidity. What was her problem? She was tired and bruised but mostly whole. And it's not like there was anything here to be upset about.

Just because she was surrounded by blood. And death. And that smell…

She pitched forward, retching, but nothing came up. She was too hungry and empty.

Eventually Azula returned to her task. Before she put on the dead man's clothing, she tore her old garment into strips and used them to bind her breasts.

As she pulled up her sensible and concealing new pants, she reflected on how skimpy her own outfit was. Kwan Yu must have picked it out. Pervert.

Finally she stood fully clothed, but sodden and shivering. Her shirt and pants clung to her damply, and some of the moisture wasn't water. The man hadn't died peacefully.

She lay down on the floor. After a moment's consideration, she pulled the stripped corpse on top of her: all the other bodies were piled on top of each other and she needed some camouflage.

Azula arranged her limbs in a suitably awkward and careless position, then turned her head to the side so she wouldn't have to look into the dead man's face.

Instead she found herself looking into another dead man's face. Her neighbor's eyes were wide open and staring straight at her.

She closed her own eyes. It didn't help. The creeping sensation was still there. The nausea too. And she could still see the bodies as clearly as if the vision had been burned onto her pupils.

Thinking about the image, she panicked. How could anyone mistake a living person for a corpse? For a time Azula worked to reassure herself. People generally saw what they expected to see. And it's not like she had a better plan. Worrying wouldn't solve anything.

Once she had calmed herself, she didn't feel any better. Now Azula had nothing to think about except her own discomfort. The wet chill seemed to be seeping into her bones. She was starting to cramp in a dozen different places, and the dead weight on her chest made it difficult to breathe. But she couldn't move, mustn't. She was a body now: cold and rigid and senseless.

Azula fought on-and-on – fought not to shiver or even twitch, or spill tears of abject misery.

"Right. You got its feet?"

Azula almost jumped out of her skin. For a few seconds she didn't even know where she was. When she remembered, she almost swore. By the ancestors! She had fallen asleep.

Apparently – amazingly – she hadn't moved or made a sound. She listened as the men continued to talk and go about their work.

They were finally shifting the bodies. Her turn came, and she didn't have to feign stiffness. She didn't know if she could have moved even if she wanted to.

Azula was placed on what seemed to be a stretcher. Welcome words followed.

"This one's small. Put on another one."

Once again, a corpse weight pressed along her length. But Azula didn't mind: it would hide the rising and falling of her chest.

The stretcher was lifted. They were off. Twice her dangling limbs banged up against a wall or door. Azula managed not to react.

All the while, she prepared herself for action. She willed her heart to race, her senses to expand, and her cold muscles to pliancy. This would be touch-and-go.

When the stretcher tilted, Azula stifled a wild surge of laughter. They were going up the stairs!

They must have reached their destination. The stretcher was lowered to the floor and the body lifted off. Someone took her by the ankles, another by the wrists. The two men swung her a couple of times for momentum, then tossed her aside. Azula couldn't quite resist the impulse to tuck and roll.

"Wait!" Damn. She had been spotted. Azula wasn't surprised.

She felt, rather than saw, someone bending over her. When the voice came again, it was close.

"I think this one is-"

Even as she opened her eyes, Azula was reaching out. She pulled the man down and clamped her teeth around his nose.

A powerful kick to his diaphragm cut off his scream and knocked him backwards. He was too shocked to resist. The rest didn't even have time to react before she was on her feet and out of the room.

Real light! If she hadn't been is such a hurry, she would have stopped and marveled. Instead of a lurid crystalline gleam, she saw the warm, living glow of many small fires. This hallway was lined with lanterns. That, and a dozen other homely details, made it infinitely more gracious than its subterranean counterpart.

A shout went up. As she ran, Azula listened carefully to the raised voices. They had recognized her.

The noise seemed to follow her. Some primal instinct warned her that her enemies were massing on all sides. She could feel the swelling force of their ill intent, pressing on her from somewhere just out of sight.

One of them finally caught up. He emerged from a side door and placed himself directly in her path.

Azula never slowed. She did alter her course slightly, so she could take a running jump and plant her foot on the wall. From there she pushed off and flipped neatly over the man's head.

She had escaped him; she hadn't silenced him. Azula kept on running, but she heard him yell behind her. Now they knew exactly where she was.

A group must have formed around him, because she soon realized that there was a pack on her tail, and getting closer.

Suddenly the corridor ended with a door. Azula passed through, only to stop in horror. She must have reached the very center of the building, because the space beyond didn't have any other windows or doors. She couldn't go forward, and she couldn't go back.

This appeared to be an infirmary. Azula looked around wildly, trying to find something that would get her out of this.

When they reached the open door they stopped. Apparently they were having a conference, because she heard soft voices. Someone giggled. Then they filed through, one-by-one.

They slipped into the room, quietly, every single one a predator, muscles coiled and eyes searching, searching… The air changed with their coming. It grew rank with the animal musk of sex and violence.

They fanned out into the shadowy recesses of the dim room. Finally a low whistle broke the silence.

"Come out, come out, little one. We won't hurt you."

Another burst of giggling, from a different man. The one who had spoken stopped in front of a covered table.

"Are you here?" He grabbed the table and upended it. It crashed to the floor with a nerve-wracking clatter. He stared down at the empty space where it had been. "No? Don't worry. I'll find you."

The rest of them joined the game.

"Come out, come out."

"Come play with us."

"Don't be scared."

Azula waited until they were all well into the room, with their backs to the entrance. Then she swung herself down: she had been perched lightly on top of the thick, metal door.

One of them happened to turn around just as she was leaving. Azula flashed a bright smile at his stunned face, then she closed the door on all of them. As soon as she heard the mechanism catch, she stuck the slender blade of a scalpel into the lock. A strong twist of her wrist broke off the handle.

Azula listened with satisfaction as she heard the banging commence on the other side of the door. "Find a way out of that, you dumb bastards."

But this was no time to celebrate. There were other evil men, and other battles to fight. For the next hour, Azula put all her famous skill and cunning to use. She dodged reaching arms, broke others, crawled through tight spaces, set traps, created diversions, doubled back, sprinted forward, and found a dozen, ingenious hiding places.

One of them was already occupied. The girl had her eyes screwed shut and her arms wrapped tight around her knees. She was almost naked except for a few shredded rags.

Azula's stomach turned upside down. "Oh. I didn't know anyone was here."

The girl didn't respond, just continued her steady, noiseless rocking.

She backed out, leaving the sad, hunched figure to its fate. Azula never saw the girl again.

The chase continued. Despite the difficulties, she managed to move for the most part in one direction. If she could just reach an outer wall, she would find some sort of exist.

At some point she began to suspect that she was being herded. The suspicion turned into certainty she finally reached her goal. There was a window directly ahead of her. There was also a group of men blocking her path. Another group immediately appeared behind her, at the other end of the corridor.

Caught between a hammer and an anvil, Azula made the only possible choice. With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she dove headfirst into a nearby laundry chute. On the way down, she prayed to the gods. She prayed that this wouldn't dump her back into one of the lower rings.

By spreading out her arms and legs, she managed to slow herself and finally slide to a silent halt at the very bottom. She didn't want to fall into a completely unfamiliar situation. The spirits only knew what would be waiting for her.

Unfortunately she could barely see a thing except for a nearby wall. Apparently the chute was in the corner. Azula couldn't even move her head to get a better angle. Her hold was so precarious, that if she so much as twitched she would tumble out onto the floor.

She could tell that the light was coming from lanterns, not crystals. That was comforting. And there were men nearby. From their conversation, it sounded like they were playing cards.

A few seconds later a new voice came, sharp and peremptory. It cut through the other voices, halting them instantly.

"You. Where is she?"

"Where's who?" With a slight start, Azula realized that she knew this voice.

"Don't play stupid. How many she's are there in this god-forsaken pit? And she must be here. Give it up. You can't have her all for yourself."

"Can't give up what I don't got."

"She's still in the laundry chute, then. Where is it? We'll pull her out."

"Naw. You ain't going nowhere but back where you came from. Collector told us to watch this door. No one in or out – and that means you. So shove off."

"Don't be a fool. I'm not trying to go outside. I've worked hard for some fun time. We all have, and we're not leaving without it."

Azula recognized the engineer of her entrapment. She wasn't surprised that this man had been giving the orders. His voice had the unmistakable ring of intelligence, and the clean, precise diction of the educated elite. And Academy boy, probably. In another time and place, when Azula thought that such things were everything, she would have said that this person had a touch of quality.

His next words shattered her crumbling illusions forever. After a tense silence, he continued, "There's a luscious piece of ass in that chute just begging for a pounding. If we go, you're going to have her all for yourself. Well, I won't have it. I'm going to drag the bitch out myself, and you'll have to get in line like everyone else."

"The boss told me to guard this room. That means the chute too. I'll check it out." This voice had grown quiet and steely. The masterful young interloper didn't know it yet, but he was tempting fate.

Someone approached with slow, measured steps. Finally an arm with familiar tattoos crossed into her line of vision, followed by a familiar face.

For a long second, she and Lady Maker stared straight into each other's eyes.

Before she could even guess what he was thinking, his gaze flickered away. He leaned forward, looked up, down, to the side – as if he were making a leisurely inspection.

He walked away. "Ain't no one there. Like I said, shove off."

The other man was enraged. "Of course she's there: I didn't give her anywhere else to go. Move aside. She's coming out."

"You calling me a liar?"

"Obviously. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that you don't understand. You clearly can't count. If you could, you would realize that you're outnumbered."

"You ever been in a gang, boy?"

"Spirits, no. But you have? I thought I smelled a filthy, no account dog."

"Funny thing about dogs. They always follow the strongest."

Suddenly there was a wet sound, awful in its implications. A strangled scream, cut off by more sucking, popping, grinding noises. Then nothing.

After a long pause, someone finally spoke up. "So there was nothing in the chute?" He rushed on nervously. "Of course not. I just…I just wonder where she went to."

"There's another laundry room nearby. Maybe the chute went to that one. You all wanna check it out?" Lady Maker's tone was perfectly calm, even gentle.

"Sure. Sure we do. Should we leave someone here to watch the door?"

"Naw. It'll be fine for a few minutes. Let's all go."

The subtle threat worked. Within a few moments, Azula head the absolute silence of an empty room. She finally let herself drop, all the while wondering about what she had just seen. Azula always made it a point to understand human actions and motivations, to map and explain and classify them. But what happened just now – she wasn't sure whether she had witnessed a power play or an act of mercy.

A second later, a more important concern drove every other thought from her mind.

She saw the door, the door that Collector was so anxious to have guarded. It was open – probably so that the sentries could enjoy the pleasant summer breeze.

The facility must have been built on a slight incline, because this basement had an exit.

Azula walked through, fighting a strange sense of unreality the whole way. On the other side, she felt grass beneath her feet and moisture on the air. She smelled living things and the damp, loamy earth. She heard the soft stirrings and chirpings of small, nocturnal creatures. She was enveloped by the warm and velvety darkness of a balmy night.

Lying bereft in her sterile, metal box, Azula had tried again and again to conjure such details, to recall the fabric and feel of the outer world. She failed over and over again, started to think that she had forgotten these things, or that they never existed to begin with.

Now it all came crashing back: the ways and wherefores and sensations of Life under Agni's great sky. The vibrancy and exuberance of this whole world, which was the natural home of the human animal – and which had been denied to her for so long.

She even remembered that slight charge in the air, and the hushed expectancy that lay over the entire land. She remembered what it meant, and she was pleased. There's a storm coming.

Although it was a dark night, the light spilling from the windows was more than enough for Azula, whose eyes were so accustomed to absolute blackness. She could see the trees and flower beds ahead. This was a garden.

She walked over the grass slowly at first, then faster and faster, until she was sprinting across the lawn and doing flips for sheer joy. So she ranged her solitary way through the lush summer growth, searching for its end but also marveling at the still, nighttime beauty of it.

For the first time Azula understood the true extent of her captors' crimes and perversion. By cutting her off from everything good and right, they had tried to steal her very humanity.

Because a human, thought Azula, who was gently stroking a flower, can write a love sonnet to one perfect petal on one perfect daisy blooming on a perfect spring day. A human can sing a paean to the stars, or paint the miracle that is the tiny, burrowing mouse.

A human could appreciate beauty. But if you put them someplace dead and ugly, the wonder was gone. Only cold, hard need and necessity were left, and that was the lot of dumb beasts.

Like a man dying from thirst, Azula was drinking up the novel sensory input. And quickly growing drunk. Her body didn't feel battered at all, but light and restless and ready for anything. She was aware that she was becoming more and more excited – and increasingly reckless.

That feeling only increased when she found a garden shed. It was locked, but no matter. Azula would get in somehow. It was bound to have something dangerous in it.

First Azula bent down and drank greedily from a nearby spigot. Then she picked up the bucket sitting beneath it, and approached the shed.

She swung the bucket fast and hard, boldly smashing a hole in the window. Let them hear. If someone wanted to tangle with her, she was game.

Azula reached through the hole and unlocked the window. Then she pushed it up and slithered through. Inside she crept cautiously through the dark, cluttered space, looking for…

This. After considering and discarding several items, Azula found her weapon.

How do we feel about this one?

She gasped and blinked, thinking for one, terrible moment that He was in the room with her.

The words were flirtatious, and so was the slight smile, but his eyes were serious and appraising. Kwan Yu tapped the crowbar against his palm as he silently assessed her strength.

Azula actually rocked forward, thinking that the first blow was falling. The ghost of old pain stung the back of her thighs.

Not real. Not real. Kwan Yu was dead and gone, and so was the past. It couldn't hurt her anymore.

Azula considered the crowbar in her own hands, felt its heaviness and solidity. She would say this for him: Kwan Yu was a man who knew the value of preparation. He understood that any undertaking needed the proper equipment.

She swung the length of metal; a line of canisters disintegrated into a thousand flying shards. She spun around; a dent appeared in a large, metal bin. With pin-point accuracy she clipped the top of a potted plant – and took its fucking head right off.

Not five minutes later, she was staring at the gate.

The entrance of the compound looked just like that of any military installation. The metal wall wasn't very thick, so it had been extended around the opening to create a sort of artificial tunnel. Anyone forcing their way in (or out) would have to pass through a long, narrow bottleneck.

Each side was flanked by a tower. No doubt there were people up there waiting to blast anyone who came near.

If I run along the wall, they'll never see me until it's too late.

She hadn't found any other exits. The walls were tall and smooth and unscalable, without any convenient trees or buildings planted nearby. As far as she could tell, this was the only way out.

There were no plants near the gate, or anything that might obstruct the guards' vision. This area was extremely well-lit, no doubt so they could see the enemy coming.

What was it Lady Killer had said? "The guards have gathered at the gate"? Of course they had. They were soldiers of the Fire Nation: they would never abandon their post. They had simply fallen back to the most defensible position, and there they would make their stand. The prisoners would only escape over the guards' dead bodies.

Azula knew how it would be. She could practically see it. They would be massed in the tunnel, blocking it with their bodies. The inmates would try to press them back through sheer weight of numbers. And the soldiers would give ground – but they would do it step-by-bloody-step, in perfect control, exacting two lives for every yielded inch.

They had plenty of time to prepare. They had probably rigged traps in the tunnel. Once they backed all the way out, they would stand back and hurl fire as their weary and depleted foe tried to pour out the narrow exit.

The soldiers knew their business. They had every advantage in position, training, discipline, and equipment. It didn't matter how competent Collector was, or how clever his plan. The inmates were doomed.

Sometimes one can succeed where many fail.

Where did that leave her? She couldn't rely on the prisoners to open the way for her. And the guards had no doubt sent for help. Reinforcements would probably arrive soon. Then everything would be so much worse.

She didn't even know whether the gate was still open or whether they had managed to lock it again. How long was the tunnel? How many soldiers were packed in there?

You'll never know until you go in.

Were they armed with anything besides firebending?

Probably not. They were afraid that the prisoners would get their hands on any weapons.

But they could just blast her as she came at them.

Not if you're between them before they know what's happening. At close quarters they won't risk burning each other.

She was a teenage girl, small and skinny and weak. She wasn't even wearing shoes, much less armor. How could she possibly push her way through all those military men? Hadn't she hidden in a pile of corpses in order to avoid just this type of situation?

You didn't have the crowbar then.

Azula stroked the long, hard length of her new weapon. Despite her athleticism, she had always been a creature of the mind, not the flesh. So she had never understood Ty Lee's preoccupation with the more sensual pursuits. Right now, though, she felt positively sexual.

The elation hadn't died yet. Her body was still humming and throbbing to the rhythmic pulse of suppressed energy. She felt the strong convulsions of her heart, and she would have sworn that she could feel her blood surging with every beat. She was aware of all her parts and pieces down to the last, aroused particle. Azula had never been so conscious of her own flesh before.

She knew that her limbs were currently slick from the damp air and the occasional, fat raindrop. She gazed down at her shimmering forearm and flexed it, admiring the way her muscles moved beneath the skin. Had she said she was weak? Azula didn't believe it.

Her tongue flicked out and tasted the moisture on her lips. That could be the blood of her enemies. Those so-called soldiers had dared to manhandle their princess, when they should never have lifted their eyes to her. They had stood by and watched while she was violated. Now she could violate them.

You know you're going to do it. Just get it over with.

But the shreds of her sanity refused to be silenced. It told her that, if she went in there, she would die.

You're a magnificent bastard, descended from the most magnificent bastards in the history of the world. You owe it to your dignity to die in a suitably flamboyant manner.

Good point. Still, she hesitated.

Then the lightning came and sealed her fate.

It rent the heavens, a glorious spear of electric power and light. A second later it sounded its battle theme with a thunderous drum roll. The sound reverberated in her chest, and the scent of ozone filled her senses. Oh heady remembrance! Oh marvelous old friend, so hot and dangerous!

Lord Agni was showing his might. How could she refuse to follow? Azula began to run through the quickening rain, hugging the wall and trailing her weapon behind her.

The Fire God sent her one last sign – though she didn't know whether it was a benediction or a curse. Lighting flashed and thunder cracked just as she whipped around the corner of the entrance, tight and low. Azula neatly sidestepped the man standing watch beside the opening. Many of the others were sitting, she saw. Thus she advanced several paces before any of them could offer resistance.

When the first one stepped in front of her, she swung her crowbar straight at his face. That stopped him dead and even knocked him backwards. Azula stepped over his felled body.

She lunged beneath the reaching arms of the next one, and completely destroyed his knee with one strong blow.

So it went. They ran together from all sides and formed a surging mass of overwhelming force, until it seemed to Azula that she was the tiny ship, cleaving its dogged way through the hostile sea. The storm battered at her, inflicted untold amounts of damage. But repairs could wait for the calm. Now she sailed on: unfeeling and unflinching.

Nothing mattered except the push and pull of opposing weights. She mustn't give or falter. She mustn't go back. She must go forward, always forward. Whether a hair's breadth, a hand's breadth, or even a whole step – every move, every choice, every breath had to take her inexorably towards her goal.

It went on-and-on. Azula fought unceasingly, without any hope of relief, without knowing when it would end. The illusion of invincibility began to fail along with the adrenalin. At some point she was aware that bruises were blossoming all over her body. She realized that her breath was coming in great, erratic gasps. She noticed that her movements – normally so fluid – were becoming increasingly ragged. She felt the hurt spreading, and the fire in her muscles burning. Strange lights and colors spotted her vision – when it didn't black out completely.

What endurance lacked, will provided. Azula refused to fall, not now. Let them know defeat. Let them lick the ground and taste the bitter dirt.

Because!

They!

Could!

Not!

Keep!

Her!

Back!

Another step, another enemy. She roared her battle cry to his face. Azula was too far gone to realize that she had lifted him clear off the ground. She couldn't appreciate her own impossible strength as she threw him aside. For a moment, she didn't even recognize what she saw beyond.

It was the night. Her way was clear.

She was through the door! She made it two more steps, then-

Azula couldn't know that one of the soldiers had made one, last, desperate bid to detain her. She didn't feel him catch her heel, the one part of her body still within the diving man's reach. She fell so hard and fast, that at first she didn't know why she wasn't moving, or why her face had exploded with pain. She was still confused when the other soldiers fell upon her.

Even when they wrenched the crowbar from her hand, her feverish, disordered brain couldn't grasp the facts. Nothing made sense. She didn't understand. All she knew was that she had to fight.

A sharp crack to the back of her head finally put an end to her insane struggling. Azula immediately threw up down the front of her shirt (Wait. Was she standing?), all bile – bitter stuff – followed by great, dry, wracking heaves.

Someone was talking to her. She tried to focus, but instead her eyes rolled up of their own accord. Azula suddenly lost a moment. The next thing she knew, her legs were limp beneath her, and she was sagging from the strong hands clamped around her arms. She couldn't get enough air. For a long time, Azula wasn't aware of anything but the next rise of her chest, the next shuddering, sobbing breath.

Finally her mind and body stilled. Steeling herself, she looked up.

She was against a wall. They were crowded around, boring into her with hard stares. They all had the grim, wooden look of embattled, but determined, men. They were also scared.

The one right in front of her wore the skeletal mask of command. For an awful second she thought it was Kwan Yu. Only for a second, though. This man was tall, but still far too small for Kwan Yu.

He reached up and removed the mask. Azula gasped. "Innocent?"

He smiled in the way she had seen him smile dozens of times – with a bitter twist of the lips that never reached his eyes. "It's Shin, actually."

"But how-"

Innocent – Shin – tapped the side of his head. "Perfect recall. As soon as the Doctor found out, he had me eating with his favorite patients. Then I would write down everything that was said."

"Oh my god. Everything? That wasn't for them to hear!"

"I know. And I'm sorry."

Azula was still reeling from the shock. How had he fooled her so completely? "Then your story was a lie? You were so convincing."

"Can you believe it? The story was true. Only it happened to my cousin, not to me. He and I were like brothers.

"He wrote me a letter before he was hanged. But I was on duty, and he died alone. As soon as I could I went to that town and started poking around. Turns out the real criminal was the judge, his lordship, the local noble playing god to his little flock of peasants.

"I killed him and hid the body. They never found it, so they couldn't charge me. But everyone knew. They gave me this post as a punishment. But I didn't mind. Why should I? I was helping to guard and punish his kind, the kind that killed Eri and Azumi and the brother of my heart.

"Then you came." He breathed out softly. "What am I going to do with you?"

A twitchy-looking man spoke up. "Kill her. Kill her now. She's one of them."

"At ease, Haruki." Shin flashed another bitter mockery of a smile. "Haruki's brother died in there. Horribly. A lot of people did. We managed to evacuate most of the patients on the upper level, but not all of them."

Azula thought of the silent, rocking girl.

He went on, "The spirits like to play cruel jokes. I don't know how you got a hold of that sword. I don't want to know. And I don't know what your deal was with Lady Killer. But if you had waited three more days, this tragedy wouldn't have happened. Haruki's brother would still be alive. The prisoners would be in their cells. You would be free. You and I could be friends."

"What was going to happen in three days?"

"I was going to break you out, secretly and quietly, with no one the wiser until it was too late."

"You…you were?"

"I was. I was ashamed, you see. I thought I was so much better than you, better than all the twisted creatures trapped in that basement hell. You were all getting what you deserved – or that's what I believed. Then you told your story.

"I finally looked at your file. And, oh my god, you were telling the truth. You hadn't done anything. Anything. And I never wondered, I never checked. I helped them torture a young girl – without any remorse, without a second thought.

"You were the only Innocent in that place. And all the while I was preening myself on my superiority. I was wallowing in my arrogance.

"I was nothing but a fool, and a cruel one at that. I kept my mouth shut, and I followed my orders without question. That's what a good soldier is supposed to do, isn't it? But see where it got me. There's blood on my hands, and it won't ever wash off."

A look of perfect understanding passed between them.

"I'm letting you go," he whispered. Shin glanced over his shoulder and said more loudly, "We're letting her go."

"But, Sir-"

"I'm the ranking officer now: it's on my head. If anyone ever finds out, you tell them that I gave the order."

A grizzled-looking veteran chipped in. "I fully support your decision, Sir." He turned his attention to Azula. "Princess, I remember your services to our country. As far as I'm concerned, you're a hero. It was an honor to do battle with you. Your reputation doesn't do you justice."

He snapped off a salute. That's just great, thought Azula. Where was all this support when she needed it?

"Just get her out. Get her out now." There was the twitchy one again.

"Sir, couldn't you have decided this before she beat us up?" This one flashed her a cheeky grin, full of swollen lip and newly-missing teeth.

Shin took her chin in his hand and stared at her intently. "Listen to me. I don't know if I'm doing the world a favor. You've got a darkness in you, a mile wide and a mile deep. And you have more power to inflict harm than all those serial killers put together.

"But you've been here for nearly eight months. That was a heavy price to pay for crimes that haven't been committed yet. I won't have any part in punishing you further. Back when I told you my cousin's story, you cried for him. You cried for his family. I've never forgotten that.

"I know you're capable of pity. Whenever you make a choice in the future, remember this: it was pity that won your life today."

He nodded to the men holding her. They let go, and the rest of the group parted. Shin grabbed her arm and half-led, half-dragged her towards the exit.

He pushed her outside. It was pouring.

Shin stood silhouetted in the gateway, and bestowed one last kindness. He removed a small pouch from his belt and tossed it to her. As she caught it, she heard the jingle of coins.

"Run fast and run far, Princess. They're almost here, and they'll be hard on your heels."

He disappeared. Azula slowly turned around. A bolt of lightning illuminated the road in front of her. It vanished into a dark wood.

For a second she flung her head back towards the heavens, standing on tiptoe with her arms raised and fingers outstretched. Then Azula took a deep breath, and forged ahead into freedom and the unknown future.


Yay! At last, at last! I never imagined that this would take me so long. I want to thank everybody for reading and reviewing and occasionally e-mailing – especially those who have stuck with this story since the beginning, well over a year ago.

I actually have rough plans for an entire story arc. Given the length of time it took me to write this installment, I'm not sure that I'll be able to do the whole thing before people lose interest. I guess we'll have to see how it goes.

I would like to write at least one sequel. It has to be outlined, and I have a lot of work to do before the end of the school year. So the first chapter might not be forthcoming until May or June.

Thanks again, and all the best. Hopefully we can share more Azula-love in the near future – I'm going to try hard.

-Ciceronis