Alright. Starting from scratch (not really) and running headlong toward the end (For real this time). The War of Flames is the fourth and final segment of the Children of the War series, set in the Children/verse. Those who have kept up with the story thus far will know all the rules apply. For those who are new; the War of Flames takes place 6 years after the events of Sozin's Comet, which in Children/verse was three years later than in canon. Thus, characters in the War of Flames will be 9 years older than they were in Canon. Jeong Jeong did not desert from the Fire Nation, which was a significant factor in how the world was fundamentally different.
Cultural changes in this world include things like the fact that the Fire Nation is three countries all bowing knee to one authority figure in the form of the Fire Lord. All of these countries have distinct values, and throughout Fire Nation history have often been at war with themselves or each other. They also each speak a different dialect of their National language, Huojian. Language is also different elsewhere in the world: the lingua franca of the setting is Tianxia, which developed in the East Continent (Earth Kingdoms, natch), but other languages like Yqanuac for the Tribesmen and Whalesh for the... well, Whalesh... also exist. The East Continent is also devolving back into its usual, not-at-war-for-their-continued-survival mode, as an extremely loose confederation of kingdoms, duchies, tribes, juntas, and even, and I gasp to say, republics. Thus, Aang has his work cut out just sorting out the affairs of the East.
Other changes: Shamans are individuals who may or may not be benders (usually not) but have access to, and the ability to communicate with, spirits and their world. The Avatar is by nature a shaman and a bender, having the additional capability, unique to him, to send anybody he or she wills from one world to the other, as though he were a spirit. Iroh can do this too, but only because he's Iroh. Do not argue with the Irohness. There are also some what might be considered tweaks to the nature of the various bending styles and what they are capable of, where they originate, etcetera, but that will be incidental at worst.
While most people paired up in familiar form, Suki retired to Kiyoshi Island with Chit Sang. Not as gross as you think: She's 36, here. Ty Lee took her spot in the Gaang, and was the first of the new airbenders. She's also married to Sokka. Oh, Ty Lokka, whatever shall we do? Toph married Teo, who was turned into an airbender via Aang's spiritbending (because energybending is a different thing completely, goddamn it!). Are we caught up? I can never remember how much I mangled the world at this point. I'll have to play it by ear.
The end is nigh. It's Azula's story now. From now on, we're watching her get some sense bludgeoned into her, and seeing just what happened to make Azula so... Azula. This is plotted to take place over the course of perhaps 24ish chapters, and due to the nascent semester and the brutal writer's block I'm facing, it will probably only be updated once a week. If I manage to hit a good streak and finish the story, then it'll update faster, but until then, no promises.
tl;dr? The War of Flames starts now.
Rain beat against the broad surface of the pan hat, the sky darkened but still tinged with red light as the sun peeked shyly between the clouds and the horizon. He was kneeling, running his fingers along the wet, charred wood. His fingers were considered by most around here to be dark, but still stood out starkly against the blackness. He rubbed the oily smut 'twixt his fingertips, bringing it to his nose for a sniff. It smelled like burnt wood. He tapped it to his tongue. Tasted like burnt wood, too.
"My lord, are you sure this is the place?" the retainer said from the road. It was well tended, as could be expected for a nation considering itself one of the greatest in the world. Azuli did have their pride. He rose up from his squat and began to walk along the grounds again. Well, considering how little of the house was remaining, it was all grounds. Only a few of the strongest wooden beams remained upright. Blackened, of course. The fire which tore through this place burnt very hot, and from the look of the collapse, burnt very fast.
Not a natural flame.
"I am quite sure," he said, not bothering to rein in his artificial Azuli accent. When he'd learned the language, it was with an accent. So when he spoke it, it tended to come out with that sultry curl on its 'R's and breathy 'H'es.
He tipped up his pan hat, letting the rain start drifting sideways into his short beard. Bright eyes scanned the grounds once again, pulling at what would no doubt in a few years become laugh-lines. He wasn't laughing now. He didn't like to miss things, but unlike a certain Fire Lord's wife, he couldn't expect to take everything in at a glance. He took his time. He moved into the ruins again. The retainer, muttering a long, superstitious curse in that old, Azuli Huojian, followed. He paused, in a part of the house which would have been the kitchens. He stooped down again, and fished something out from under ashes and rubble. A quick dip into naturally red water revealed the burnt bones, probably from an arm. Human. A quick glance, showing that the retainer was nowhere that the man could watch, he turned back to the rubble, and reached forward with his hands. The soaked ashes and smut peeled away, the water moving it away and showing a blackened skeleton. Fat. He sighed, as the retainer reached his side.
"Agni's blood, what happened here?" the retainer said.
"Assassination," came the answer. "What is your name?"
"Lord Baihu?" the retainer asked. Baihu turned, fixing blue eyes on the young man's amber ones.
"I can't just call you 'you there', or 'servant'. What's your name?"
"Don't call me sir," Baihu said. "I'm not used to it."
"Whatever you say, sir," Wei said. "Did you know these people?"
Baihu looked over into what would have been the central room. Wide and spacious, it was almost completely crumbled into nothingness. He ran his hands along the wood. The thick beams here were still a bit warm. Whatever burned this place burned it fast, and only was put out in the last few minutes of rain, as he approached the house. Baihu scratched the back of his neck, under the broad pan hat. His eyes, keened from his youth hunting, spotted the slightest glimmer, sunlight reflecting off metal. He moved to it, plucking the blade carefully out of the mud. He could see bones near it, where they'd tumbled into what would have been a corner. The handle had burned away, but Baihu recognized the workmanship of this white-metaled, uniquely crafted blade. Formerly unique, anyway. Six years had changed much.
"This was forged by Piandao," Baihu said. He knelt in the mud next to the blackened bones. "The master has fallen."
"Sir?" Wei asked.
"Don't call me sir," he said quietly, painfully. "My name is Sokka," Sokka looked at the blade again. There was something on it... a discoloration. Sokka peeled it off with a fingernail, tapping it to his tongue. Metallic, not surprising, but he knew the taste of blood better than most would expect. Piandao managed to get a bit of whoever killed him. The thought of that made Sokka smirk a bit. He turned to Wei. "Scribe a message, Wei. Tell my wife I won't be going to the Capitol. Not right away. I have a feeling that I'm going to be taking a trip to Grand Ember."
Chapter 1: The Awakening
She watched him. Azula made no point of contention that she was watching the Tribesman who shared the carriage with her. That he either didn't seem to notice or else not care galled her somewhat. She was supposed to be a symbol of fear. If she couldn't intimidate one barbarian, then what good was she? Her golden eyes drew down as they moved in silence, until the silence began to crystallize and chafe.
"I am not going to trust you," Azula said, breaking the silence. The Tribesman, casually as you please, turned to her.
"Why would you?"
"Stop doing that."
"Stop doing what, Lady Azula?" he asked.
"Being... Just shut up," Azula said, regretting her decision to engage the barbarian in conversation. Infuriatingly, the Tribesman smirked, and leaned back against the wall opposite her. "And stop doing that!"
"Doing what, Lady Azula?"
Azula seethed. She hated that he was so... existing. A part of her wanted to just tear apart that energy within her and blast the arrogant underling into dust. Another part of her, a part she didn't really understand, just seemed to shake her head slowly, with an exhausted sigh. It was bad enough that she had to spend time around this heathen, but she couldn't even take out her aggravation on him. It was unfair.
"You haven't asked where we're going," the Tribesman said, his eyes still closed, casual as you please. Azula scowled.
"I wasn't aware that hostage-takers were allowed to tell their victims where they would be held," she said.
"You're not a hostage," the barbarian answered, eyes opening. He paused a moment, then shrugged. "Well, you're not my hostage, anyway. I can't say the same for... Long Feng, was it? I'm really going to have to ask a few questions about him."
"So you are going to use me after all?" Azula asked. Now, it was the Tribesman's turn to scowl.
"If you aren't willing to meet me half way, this trip is going to be very uncomfortable," he offered. She crossed her arms under her breasts, which had the unfortunate effect of thrusting them up toward him. They hadn't been so... large... during her coronation.
"Why should I meet you half way to anywhere?"
"Because I'm probably one of the only people in the world who hasn't decided to summarily kill you, or else keep you as a puppet," he suddenly smirked. "You don't seem to be one to accept strings being tied to you, and sticking my hand up your butt would just get me killed, so I think I'd rather see you standing on your own."
"Sticking your..." Azula began, and the Tribesman blanched a bit.
"That... didn't come out right."
Azula fixed the now squirming barbarian with a gaze of molten gold. "Who do you work for?"
"Technically? Grand Ember Medical, Psychiatric, and Hospice Services," he offered. Her glare turned withering. "That Easterner also... made an offer that I didn't have an option of refusing."
"Money? You did this for money? I didn't think you'd reached the point in your culture where you could appreciate greed," she said derisively.
"Not money," he shook his head. "The money was just... keeping up appearances. He made it known that if I didn't cooperate, he'd go after my sister."
"Really? You're going to become a wanted criminal for that?" she asked, disbelieving.
"I love my sister," he said simply.
Azula tapped her fingers against her arm briefly, her eyes narrowing. Then, she leaned back, giving an image of relaxation. She was anything but. "So. Where are we going, barbarian?"
"I know you're trying to rile me," he said. He shook his head. "We're staying on Grand Ember for a few days, since the Fire Lord is..."
"He is not the Fire Lord, I am!" Azula snapped.
"QUIETLY!" The Tribesman whispered urgently, his very dark blue eyes glancing up toward where the driver would be sitting. After a moment of tension, he leaned forward. "You're not supposed to be active. If they find out you're awake... I don't know what they'd do. Right. Zuko, if you prefer. He's going to have airships over all the trade lanes for the next week or so. So the plan was to bluff him into thinking you'd slipped past, and he'll expand the search, and we always follow behind them as the ring grows."
"Where?" she asked again, pointedly and simply.
"First stop is Jang Hui," he said, gesticulating as though pointing out something on a map. "After that, we hop islands, staying out of sight until we reach Betla. I'm supposed to have you... well, able to speak and take direction, by then."
"Really? So who is going to be my escort?" she asked.
"The more people move with you, the more obvious you'll be. I'm sure you're aware of that," he shook his head. "I'd like to keep this between us, but the Firemaster and what's-his-name were adamant that they have somebody they trusted involved. He's going to meet us before we leave Grand Ember."
"Do you trust him?"
"As far as I can throw him," he answered. "And from the looks of him, I wouldn't be able to throw him very far."
She tapped her fingers again. They didn't clack the way she wanted them too. The nails weren't long enough, nor sharpened the way she usually kept them. It didn't occur to her that every time she wasn't actively speaking, she was nibbling on them. "You're not very good at plans, are you?"
"I prefer improving lives to plotting out ways to end them, Lady Azula," he said. Azula scowled again. This was going to be a very long trip.
An old man looked up, his rheumy eyes clearing as they looked to the west. His was a face suited to expressions of horror, a face painted with a lifetime of fear. He had avoided the War, or rather, the War had studiously avoided him. But still, there was that terror. Now, though, that traumatized face pulled into a smile. Not any human smile. No, this was as though some monstrous thing were playing at understanding human expression. It was a mockery of a smile.
The old man stood, his posture ram-rod straight despite decades of anxious stooping. His head tilted to the side, as he took in a hard breath of air, smelling the sensation he felt to the west. It was a familiar smell. Just as the pain that old body felt was a familiar pain. A good pain. It meant he still had a foothold in the Mortal. That smile stretched a little wider.
"Looks like my old Client has awakened," the old man said. But it was not a voice of an old man, and it spoke in no mortal tongue. He had long been a shaman, and had been careful, but not careful enough. Many dangerous things walked the Spirit world. Some of them were... curious. "This might just prove... edifying."
And the old shaman began to walk to the west, shouldering his belongings. Such fear. Such delicious fear.
The airship hadn't even tied off when the Fire Lord jumped over the rail and landed hard on the ground. A cry of alarm came from the airship, but Zuko wasn't going to wait however long it took them to moor the craft. He was already days late. But considering he traveled half-way around the planet in a few days... it was almost certain that he'd set some sort of aerial speed record; the only time he'd traveled farther in one span was those days leading up to Sozin's Comet. Shrugging the jolt out of his knees and shoulders, he began striding away from the impromptu landing, in the grounds of the hospital. If Wan Shi Tong was wrong, then he had just revealed a vital family secret. He doubted the Spirit would be wrong.
"Fire Lord, we were unaware that you would be visiting," the administrator, a lanky, balding man named Yasuke, said as he quickly fell in beside his monarch. "Although, I'm beginning to see a pattern."
"Where is she, Yasuke?" Zuko snapped. Yasuke's amber eyes flicked away for a moment, then he sighed.
"What have you heard, Fire Lord?"
"You tell me first," Zuko said, navigating toward the restricted wing. Ahead, there was a commotion. A man in red armor staggered back against the wall at an intersection, before pulling himself back up the wall and vanishing out of sight. Some truly harsh language was emanating from that corner, directly in Zuko's path.
"There was... an incident," Yasuke said quietly.
"She escaped," Zuko said, scowling.
Yasuke shook his head vigorously. "No, Fire Lord. Not escaped. She was stolen."
Zuko halted, turning to him. He ran a finger along the edge of his beard as he turned that distinction over in his head. "What do you mean, stolen?" Zuko asked. "You are talking about the deposed Fire Lord Azula, aren't you?"
"And she didn't escape."
"...Could you walk me through this again," Zuko said, palming his face, for a moment obscuring the scar over the left side of his head.
"–and your mother was too!" a shout came from the hallway, in an obvious Azuli accent. Yasuke gave an uncomfortable shrug.
"There were men. They broke in two nights ago, and took her."
"And you're sure she had no hand in this?" Zuko pressed.
"Fire Lord, I'm not sure if you're truly aware how dire your sister's mental state is. She is unable to even feed herself under her own volition," Yasuke said, as though explaining it a third time would somehow make it sink in. Zuko didn't like the man's tone. Inwardly, he counted to ten to prevent six years worth of stress from making him do something... Ozai-ish. "Doctor Sowatri has been working tirelessly to..."
"Doctor who?" Zuko interjected.
"Sowatri, that Tribesman."
"Tribesmen don't have surnames," Zuko said. He heard a fist connect with a face, ahead. "And what is going on over there?"
"Somebody was found breaking into a restricted area," Yasuke said, with a dismissive wave. "Trust me, if Azula was coming back to her senses, Ked would know."
Zuko scowled. Then, he started walking again, and Yasuke had the choice of either keeping up, or being left behind. In a few moments, Zuko reached that intersection. Two firebenders were holding a man's arms, while a third was beating him with a truncheon. Despite being drastically outnumbered, the pinioned man seemed to be the least damaged of the four. "What is the meaning of this?"
The man raised his head, and a wide, goofy, familiar grin came to his face. Zuko's eyes went wide as gold met blue. "Tui La, am I glad to see you," Sokka Baihu said, his voice betraying none of that he was just getting beaten by a stick. "You wouldn't believe the hospitality I've gotten here. I wouldn't recommend it."
Zuko stared at the Tribesman, his once traveling-companion, and possibly the only person in the world who could keep up with him in a sword fight. He stared flatly. He stared long. And he could feel a vein pulsing in the side of his head. "What are you doing here, Sokka?"
"I had a hunch," Sokka said brightly. "But then I got jumped by the goon squad and I wasn't able to see if she was..."
"Leave us," Zuko said. The firebenders nodded. Mai was right. Removing the death's-head masks from the outfit of the Imperial Firebenders did much to humanize them. They began to move past, dragging the Tribesman. "He stays here."
"But... Fire Lord, he was..."
"He stays," Zuko said again.
"He could be an assassin," one of the men at Sokka's shoulder offered. Zuko very calmly swept his hand in a circular gesture, and all sets of eyes but two went wide as lightning danced along the path it traced.
"He stays," Zuko said one final time. And all knew it was final. The guards gave swift bows, then departed, leaving Sokka to work the kinks out of his back and shoulders. Zuko scowled at the obviously insane polymath. "One of these days, a stunt like this is going to get you killed."
"Fire Lord, is it wise to..."
"He knows," Zuko interrupted.
"Azula's loose, isn't she?" Sokka asked simply. He paused for a moment, working the inside of his mouth, then reached in and pulled out a tooth, staring at it suspiciously. "That's not my tooth. How'd that get in there?"
Yasuke ignored Sokka's second comment, and motioned onward. "We took every reasonable precaution," Yasuke said. "But then again, we were watching for an escape attempt from within, not without."
Zuko was silent for a moment. Sokka leaned over, and spoke in his own tongue. "So, how's being Fire Lord suiting you?"
Zuko rolled his eyes. "There are days I wish Azula had just killed me during the duel," he said, with an exasperated exhale. "Between every delegation from Ember getting more and more aggressive and demanding, to the resurgence of banditry in the countryside of Sozu and Azul, it's gotten to the point where I would almost welcome an open, honest attempt on my life. This is like being nibbled to death by turtle-ducks. I am twenty five years old, and I already have grey hair!" Zuko swept away some of the hair over his withered ear, showing the Tribesman that he was not joking. It wasn't much grey hair, but it was there.
"That's rough, buddy," Sokka offered, rubbing at his own beard. "I've got my own problems at the moment. Master Piandao is dead."
Zuko raised a brow. "Are you sure? Azulon sent a hundred soldiers to kill him once and he sent them running with their tails between their legs."
Sokka pulled out a short span of gleaming white blade. Zuko's eye widened when he saw that. Piandao had crafted that weapon more than twenty years ago, out of metal which couldn't be found anywhere in the Fire Nation. If he had relinquished it... "I see. The Fire Nation is less for his loss."
"I have a few ideas who did this," Sokka said. "But I'm not going to do anything until I know for sure. There aren't many who could bring down the master. More troubling is why. Why now? This wasn't done without purpose. Something larger is going on. I just don't see it yet."
Zuko let out a low growl. "It seems like everything's a plot, nowadays," he said, slipping back into his native Huojian. The two stopped before the door, which was left ajar. Yasuke waved them in. Inside was already an inspector from House Azul. Ordinarily seeing them here would have been a blessing, but right now, it drew Zuko's features into a scowl. "I'm not going to ask how you got in here ahead of us."
"House Azul has its ways," the inspector said, with a precise bow. Under Fire Lord Zuko, Azul had better relations with the rest of the Nation than had in the past two generations, but Azul tended to play fast and loose with the rules when they thought nobody was looking, while acting like they abided them to the letter. And there was no shortage of people willing to offer services to anybody who could pay. "We are both aware of who was entombed here."
"I don't think entombed is the right word," Zuko said peevishly.
"So, this is where you kept your sister for six years?" Sokka said, ducking into the room, looking at it from corner to corner, top to bottom. "Kinda... sparse, don't you think? I mean, I'd be driven out of my mind if I had to stay in a room like this. Which defeats the purpose of having it in a mental hospital, doesn't it?"
The inspector gave a stern glance at Sokka, who was now whistling – badly – a bawdy song as he gave the room his own once-over. "Inspector Azdi, this is Lord Baihu of Ember."
"Lord Doctor," Sokka said with a raised finger, despite not looking at either of them. "Recently voted 'Most Handsome Doctor' at Ba Sing Se University, Anointed Guardian of Avatar Aang, and the only non-bender ever to win an Agni Kai. Also, plenipotentiary of the South Water Tribe if things really get that bad, doctor of applied and theoretical physics, and mayor of a nice little town in Di Huo. I'm also an honorary Lieutenant in the Grand Ember Defense Force, and I'm looking to get 'Professor' added on there at some point. Just to make people have to use more paper to fully name me."
"You have unusual taste in companions," Azdi muttered. "You won't find anything. The only place we could find any trace of her was on her bed and in the toilet. There's no evidence that she was active at the time of her abduction."
"Who was the doctor?" Sokka asked, finally staring at Azdi. He was hunched forward a bit, as though stooping to Azdi's level. "I mean, I assume that if you believe Azula was involved in this, she would have acted through her doctor."
"Ah yes, the doctor," Azdi rolled his eyes. "Ked Sowatri. One of your people, as I understand."
"Sowatri?" Sokka asked, an eyebrow raised. Zuko just shrugged, rolling his eyes. He turned to Yasuke. "His office, please."
Yasuke quickly ushered them all back out, leaving Azdi looking a bit perplexed, standing at the door. "Aren't you going to hear my findings?"
"You didn't find anything," Zuko said impatiently. "And even if you did, the only person who you'd give all the information to are your masters in Azul. I think I'll trust my own eyes, thank you."
The three men walked away. "I didn't know you disliked him so much," Sokka said idly.
"That's the weird part. I actually don't mind him," Zuko admitted with a sigh. "Maybe it's just that most of the people I have to deal with are actually worse."
"That's rough, buddy."
"This is his office," Yasuke said, indicating a room not far from where Azula's abandoned cell was located. It was packed with books and scrolls, from the ceiling almost to the floor. There was enough room left over for a pair of chairs, a cluttered desk, and a table with a basin on it. Despite the mess, Sokka's eye was immediately drawn to the basin. "He spent most of his time here, when he wasn't dealing with your sister. I don't doubt that the inspector has already gone over this room with a fine-toothed comb. It is his belief that Doctor Ked was part of the abduction."
"Ked, kidnapping a princess?" Sokka scoffed. "Doesn't sound like him at all."
"Did you know him?" Zuko asked.
"Yeah, he was one of my soldiers, back before I left the South Pole," Sokka said, inspecting the basin. It still had water in it. "Didn't follow orders very well. Also, had a tiny bladder."
"Weren't you fifteen when you left the South Pole?" the Fire Lord asked.
"Yeah, he was ten."
"And you people wonder why we almost won the War," Zuko said idly. Sokka shot him a scowl, and moved to the basin. He gave a glance to the door. Zuko glanced with him. "What?"
"Nothing. Just making sure a certain Azuli wasn't watching," Sokka said, before quickly dumping all of the water out of a window.
"What are you doing?"
"A basin is the last thing Ked would need," Sokka said, pulling out a knife and digging into the bottom of the thing. "He's a waterbender. He can keep it in a skin."
"Like those?" Zuko said, pointing at the three waterskins hanging off of Sokka. Sokka gave an academic gesture.
"Kerosene," he said, pointing to one, "for when I want something to burn," he pointed to another. "Brine for when I want to put something out. Or short an electrical circuit."
"It's a physics thing," Sokka waved away Zuko's obvious confusion. "And if I want to drink something..."
Zuko caught the flask which Sokka threw, and pulled the plug. The smell of the powerful alcohol inside actually forced him to hold it at arms length. "I'm sure this also gets used to disinfect wounds."
"Now you're thinking like a Tribesman," Sokka said, levering his knife, and exposing that the basin had a false-bottom, obscured by wax. Sokka eased the folded letter up and quickly read it. "Well, this is... damning."
"What is it?"
Sokka looked up, his blue eyes snapping of anger. "It's basically a confession. Ked has your sister."
The entryway hadn't changed much in the six years that he'd been coming here. One would have to go back a bit further than that to see when its current owner renovated the place, making it to her liking rather than its previous holder's. Jee liked the décor, personally. It reminded him of a half-barbarian imitation of home. And there was a very good reason for that.
Jee had arrived in the dead of night, opting not to stay aboard the ship or bed down in Kad Deid. No, he had another task tonight, one which could not wait to the morning. Technically it could, but there would be witnesses, and things would get messy. And awkward. Jee was not a young man; in fact, he was firmly in the domain of middle-age, but years as a soldier, supplemented by years living in a swamp gave him a resilient physique. He was still able to stalk along the aged pines without making a sound. He passed the row of plinths in the outer hallway, past the artifacts from a long and unwelcome trip. He paused briefly, noticing the last plinth was now empty. Odd.
The door opened silently, and he moved through the outer room. Without the threat of a war hanging over her nation, the Empress didn't pack the room with Whalesh samurai, like she had the first time he came here. That had been an enlightening trip. And had an unexpected ending. He knew the room well, so navigated it easily despite the darkness. He even knew the places where the floor would creak. Another door, and he was in the bedchamber of the Empress of Great Whales.
A grin on his face, he moved to her bed, one fist cocked back. He tore the covers away, and the dim light from a lantern on the table opposite him played across her form. Her golden eyes opened, and a smirk came to her face. "Why, Empress, it seems I have you at my mercy," Jee said.
The Empress, though, ignited golden fire in one of her hands, illuminating that her other held a loaded crossbow, pointed at Jee's groin. "Funny," she said, her mature tones sing-song. "I could say the same thing about you."
Jee let out a laugh. Like much about his existence the last decade, it was very dry. "Do you always sleep with weaponry, or do you restrain yourself for when you know I'm going to be around?"
"Which answer would you like?" she asked. "The truth, or the one which doesn't emasculate you completely."
"I have an ex-wife, Empress. I've been about as thoroughly emasculated as a man could be," Jee answered, taking a step back and letting his hands slip into his sleeves. "You're looking... well."
The Empress swung her legs off the bed, and set her crossbow aside. "You didn't come here to flirt, Jee. Why are you in my kingdom?" she asked.
"Your daughter," Jee said simply, and quietly. "She's been taken."
A flash of emotions played over the woman's face. "Azula?" she asked. Then, her expression hardened into one of anger. "You said she would be safe!"
"This was something outside my control," Jee said pointedly. "Somebody is manipulating events. I don't know who. Not yet."
Empress Dov I of Great Whales bit at a thumbnail, just for a moment before realizing it and pulling her hand away. Actual vulnerability. Now, Jee had seen everything this world had to show. She looked back up. "What are you doing to rectify this?" she asked, her tone flat but burning hot. It was a tone that Jee understood Azula had utilized often, but obviously never with this woman's skill nor intensity. It was a tone which offered a solution, surrounded in every other direction with lethal threat. Do as I say, or die.
"I will do nothing," Jee said. Her left eye twitched when he said that, and he made a placating gesture, despite the fact that she hadn't moved one whit otherwise. "If I do, I show my hand, and people will begin to question. You know where those lines of questioning lead."
"...Go on," she said.
"You recall my dossier on the new member of House Baihu?" Jee asked. "He is close to your son, and has personal motivation to seek out your daughter. If I understand it, it is some sort of cultural pride issue; you'd have to talk to a Tribesman to understand it better. He will be our agent, but we need to be especially careful dealing with him, Lady Ur..."
"Did I say you could speak my name?" she asked quietly, smoothly, and dangerously.
Agni's blood but wasn't she something?
"Pardon my presumption, Empress," Jee bowed genteelly, with a sarcastic smirk on his face. Both were accepted by the middle aged woman sitting at the edge of her bed.
"Why must we be careful with this Baihu? He is a barbarian, is he not?"
"He is also one of the most... laterally gifted... thinkers of his time. The man is capable of making cognitive leaps the likes of which leave the rest of us stuttering in confusion. If there is a single thread out of place, he will find it, and understand the significance of it. This will be the most subtle game we have ever had to play. Even more subtle than what you've been doing to your son."
"It wasn't my choice," she said again, sadly, the anger draining out of her, making her seem for just one moment a tired, lonely mother. "You know what happens if he finds me first."
"I've never been one for superstition. Do you mind if I sit? I'm not as young as I used to be."
The Empress nodded to a spot on the bed, and he lowered himself next to her. "It is my opinion that, at this time, trying to actively manipulate Sokka Baihu will end badly for everybody involved," Jee said, with a measure of certainty. "The only option we have is to let him do what he will anyway."
"And you're sure it will work?"
"You've never met the man," Jee said. "Sokka Baihu brought down a third of Ozai's doomsday-fleet on the day of Sozin's Comet. A third. Using nothing but his intellect and what he could steal out from under his enemy. The other two thirds were destroyed by our mutual associates in the Order. He did the work of an army. Don't underestimate the Tribesman, and believe me, don't consider them barbarians. They will surprise you."
A smirk came to her face. "It sounds like you really respect this young man."
"I'm just describing it as I understand it, Empress."
"Can you drop the titles, please?" she asked.
"I thought you wanted things... formal?" Jee countered. She raised a black eyebrow. "Very well, Ursa. What is it? What's really bothering you?"
"Twelve years," she said, briefly lowering her face into her hands. "I've been gone from Azula's life longer than I've been in it."
"Time just... slips away," Jee said, reaching over to rub her shoulder. She looked up at him for a moment.
"I have been... a terrible mother," she said quietly, her golden eyes drifting back to the floor. "I should have... I don't even know."
"I'm sure you did the best you could," Jee said. "Zuko definitely thinks so. Besides, this was Azula. What were you supposed to do with something like that?"
Her eyes snapped up at him.
"That... didn't come out right."
"I sometimes regret deciding to let you speak candidly, Ambassador."
"So we're back to being formal?" Jee said, rising from her bed. "I'll procure a room. We can speak in the morning, Empress."
"You will do no such thing," Ursa said. Her eyes were hurting, but that smirk had come to her lips. It was a smirk which had traveled from mother to daughter. Jee hesitated, standing at the door.
"What do you...?"
"Pants. Off. Now."
Jee's brow rose, but a grin came to his own face. "I live for the will of the Empress," Jee said.
"I will be testing that statement," she said, leaning back.
Azula was trying very hard not to kill somebody. Between having to spend all day with a barbarian and everybody expecting her to be so... helpless, it took everything she had not to make everything go boom. Every instant she spent jostling around in that carriage, bruising and rebruising that same spot in her hip that the bench dug in every goddamned time, biting her tongue in the silence which stretched on for hours. A fire was licking at her soul, a call to world-shattering violence. A release.
For some reason, it scared her that she felt this way.
"This is growing tiresome," Azula grumbled, glaring at her only companion.
"And I apologize for that, Lady Azula," Ked said, his eyes still shut, leaning back as though all was right in the world. All certainly was not. "We'll be stopping for the morning, soon. We can't travel by day, not until we get off of Grand Ember. Besides," a smirk came to his face. "Where your brother sets with the sun, I rise with the moon."
"Spare me your prattle, barbarian," Azula muttered.
"Doctor barbarian, thank you," he started to grin.
"I don't know what filthy hovel you earned your doctorate, but I wager it wouldn't be recognized by any right thinking citizen," she began.
"The Fire Academy," he answered, his eyes sliding open. "In two years, no less."
"Nobody becomes a doctor in two years."
"You're lying," Azula snapped.
"Am I?" Azula glared at him, with that goddamned smug look on his face. He didn't think he was lying. But that didn't mean he was telling the truth. Not by a long measure. "I'm getting the feeling like you don't respect me very much."
"Oh, and where would that notion come from?" Azula's voice became singsong. The carriage suddenly lurched to a stop, dumping her out of her seat and landing her face in the barbarian's lap. She instantly pushed herself back, a bolt of azure flame sparking into being in her hand. It was only when she saw he had the decency to look embarrassed and contrite that she managed to rein in her impulse to give him a differently shaped face. "You planned that, didn't you?"
"I did no such thing," he muttered. He turned around and shouted something she couldn't understand at the driver. When the answer came back, he slumped back into the seat, looking a bit grey. "Well, here's where everything has the chance of falling apart. Remember that bodyguard Long Feng sent to make sure you don't get into trouble? He's here."
"Who is he?"
"That's the problem," the barbarian said, voice distant. "If he tells Long Feng about your condition, everything unravels."
"So you want me to act helpless around him, too?" Azula asked, her exact opinion of that lacing through her voice.
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that."
"Good. Because I've spent my entire life assaulted by people who want me to be less than I am," Azula said darkly. "And I will not be a doll for his amusement as well as yours."
"She's a feisty one, isn't she?" a new voice came, and both turned to the door. Azula had to say, she did not disapprove. He was a muscular young man, of obvious Embiar descent, dark brown eyes and tanned skin. He wasn't nearly so dark as the barbarian sitting across from her, but a great deal more appealing. She felt that smoky smile drift across her face for a moment, before the dire gravity pulled back to the fore, and she remembered what the barbarian had been so concerned about.
He'd just heard everything.
"I wasn't aware she'd be awake," the man said, a powerful smirk on his face. "That'll make my job a lot easier."
"Who are you?" the barbarian asked carefully.
"Chan. Why wasn't I told she was awake?"
"Because that way nobody would feel guilty about imprisoning the legitimate Fire Lord for six years," Azula lied, making sure her tone was properly acidic. "My brother deposed me on the grounds that I was mentally unfit to rule, and he couldn't afford to let people know that the rightful leader he'd usurped was, contrary to his party-line, entirely capable in mind and body."
"It's a disgrace," Chan agreed. He turned to the Tribesman. "What's his part in this?"
Before he could speak, she overrode the barbarian. "He had the misfortune in being swept up in my brother's schemes. Needless to say, when Ked here learned the truth, he begged for me to forgive his involvement and threw himself into my service."
"Is that true?" Chan asked. She shot the Tribesman a warning glance.
"Hey... I didn't beg... per se..." Ked said lamely, withering under her glare. It felt good to have him back in his place.
"Well, it is good that you're not in as dire condition as I expected," Chan said, giving a deep bow to Azula. She smiled. Now this was the way she was supposed to be treated.
"Needless to say," Azula said, inspecting her nails idly. They were still entirely too short for her liking, and had lost their sharpness, "I must ask you not to spread this knowledge. Not even to our own allies. The fewer people know about this, the better position I find myself in when I need to take things into my own hands."
"Of course, Fire Lord," Chan said. When he called her that, a warm shiver ran up her body. She could get used to this. "If you'll excuse me, I'll be dismissing the carriage-man. We don't need any dirty foreigners meddling in our affairs."
"And where do I fit in again?" Ked muttered.
"You owe your lady service," Chan said, moving back around the carriage. "I'll make sure you render it."
When Chan began first talking to, then shouting at the driver, for neither spoke the language of the other, Ked affixed her with a thoroughly un-amused glare. "And what in the arid deserts of Hell was that?"
"You should know your place, foreigner," Azula said, a smoky smile on her face.
"I know my place," Ked said peevishly. "I need to make sure you don't get yourself killed."
"On who's orders?"
"I need orders?" Ked answered. "Face it. You might have Chan fooled, but how long will that last? I wager unless he's a complete idiot, he'll catch wise by Jang Hui. And if not, there'll be no hiding it at Betla. You've just put us in a crash course with disaster."
"I have done no such thing," Azula said. "It's not my fault if you can't understand the subtle art of controlling people, barbarian, but in the Fire Nation, it is taken in with mother's milk. Fear is the only reliable way to control people's actions, and I have instilled just the smallest kernel of fear into his Embiar soul. Make him feel like he is a failure if he doesn't protect me. He will fight eight times harder, feeling that his honor is at stake. I have created a more steadfast servant, at the cost of nothing more than a few, easy lies."
Ked just stared at her when she stopped. Silence stretched out, punctuated by a thump as Chan finally got impatient and threw the Whaleshman out of the driver's seat and took the reins himself, taking them deeper into the woods. The foreigner was not impressed, shouting gibberish at their departing backs, but Azula didn't care. Finally, Ked's eyes drifted closed, and he shook his head, slowly.
"You really believe that, don't you?" Ked said quietly. She frowned, confusion no doubt writ clear on her features. He looked back up at her. "I feel really sorry for you."
Her jaw tightened. "Don't feel sorry for me," Azula said. "Don't you even dare."
Ked sighed, and turned away, a melancholic expression on his face. He stared at the moon, hanging as a bare sliver over the horizon, barely visible with the sun already creeping into sight. After a few more minutes, the carriage came to a stop. Ked didn't say a word. He just stared up at the moon, muttering something she couldn't hear, and even if she could have, she wouldn't have understood.
The spot which Chan had chosen to bunker down for the day was better than Ked would have predicted, all things considered. The firebender himself had gone on a brief foray to make sure the place wasn't being watched, which gave Ked some walking around time. It was a goodly sized building, with a barn not far away, its wood well situated, if a bit dusty for its abandonment. The word was, these woods were haunted. It worked to their favor, the Tribesman mused. The curious young man in him had taken to exploring this place as the others were settling in. The kitchen was stripped bare, and in its heart was a passageway leading down into an empty room. Upstairs, a few puppets lay abandoned in the middle of the hall. Ked wondered idly who would have lived in such a place. And why it would be abandoned.
His musing was cut short, however, when he walked past Azula's room. Her back was to him, and she was utterly transfixed on her reflection. Her golden eyes were wide, her expression stuck somewhere between anger and terror, as her fingers slowly moved across her face. It was almost like she couldn't believe that her reflection was truly how she looked. That confused Ked somewhat. So she got a bit older without realizing it. Six years in catatonia does that to people.
"You think this is some sort of joke, don't you?" Azula hissed, staring hatefully into that mirror. Ked swallowed, inching away from the door. She'd seen him? "This seems like something you would do, isn't it?"
Ked was about to speak up and offer a somewhat confused and nondescript apology when she whirled away from him and talked to the window, staring out over the forest, which even in the day was darkened. "You really expect me to believe that?" Azula asked caustically. Ked's eyebrow rose, as he moved to the edge of the doorframe, watching her silently. "I know exactly what you're trying to do. You're trying to teach me humility, aren't you? Saddling me with the barbarian and the idiot?"
There was a long pause. Who was she talking to? She then turned and pointed at the mirror. "No! I will not hear it! Not from you! You hateful, despicable woman... It's your fault! If it hadn't've been for you, Mother, I would still be Fire Lord, and your beloved son would be ashes drifting over the ocean!"
Ked's eyes grew wide. Of course he didn't understand. He was only hearing half of a conversation. Azula's eyes widened, and began to become moist. "You're lying! You always lie! It doesn't matter what you say, Mother, it's always lies!" She took a step toward the bed and her knee gave out a bit. Of course it would; she hadn't been moving very much at all in the last six years. The best he could do was to keep her body from cannibalizing itself utterly. She had more than half a decade of atrophy working against her.
"Don't you dare pretend you care," Azula said, casting an accusatory finger at the mirror. "No. If the situation were reversed, you would have killed me in an instant to save Zuko," Ked ran a hand over his hair as he watched this bizarre spectacle. She flinched away, letting out a brief and abortive blast of blue fire. "Don't you dare touch me! I know the truth. You were always trying to sabotage me. At my coronation. You tried to kill me with that fish, didn't you? Didn't you!"
The damp golden eyes of the deposed Fire Lord began to run in wet tracks down her cheeks. "No. You have no right. You don't know him. He lo... Father lo..." she actually burst into tears. "Fine. Say what you want. He was there. You weren't. What do you want from me? Why can't you just tell me what you want from me?"
Azula stood, tears running down her face, and stared into that mirror again, and then averted her gaze. Her hands balled into fists, and she whispered. "It's not fair. It's just not fair," she limped over to that mirror, hanging on the wall and grabbed its frame. "I can't do that! I'm not that person! Everybody knows that I'm a monster! Everybody hates Azula!"
She pulled hard, and the mirror came off the wall. "Give me back my face, Mother!" she screamed. "GIVE ME BACK MY FACE!"
With a wordless scream, she hurled the mirror into the far wall, shattering it and sending its fragments clattering along the floor. She dissolved into desperate, helpless weeping, crumpled on the floor next to the bed. Gods, Ked thought, what have you wrought on this poor soul? What has made her so full of pain? A part of him wanted to go in there and try to give her some comfort. But a greater part, the part which he correctly labeled his self-preservation instinct, told him that would end in fire and death. Almost definitely his. Save the Avatar, she was the most powerful bender on the planet. Ked was comparatively pathetic. Despite every whit of his culture telling him to protect the woman in need, he turned and silently walked away, to where his own room was situated. He looked out the window, at the sun at the horizon, at the slender crescent still barely visible in the heavens. He got down and laced his fingers, touching his first knuckles to the center of his brow.
"Yue, please, I beg you, give me strength," he prayed. "Give me the strength to heal this wounded child."
In the dead of night, a pigeon rat took wing to the east. Its feathers were the color of rust, and it bore with it a scroll covered in lies. Azula is weak. Azula is barely conscious. Azula needs time before she can function at all. All part of the plan. And exactly what the sender said he would send.
The night drew on, and a second pigeon rat flew, this one the south. This one bore truths, but truths calculated to deceive. A message for family, but also a message inside it that only certain eyes would be able to decipher. She would, undoubtedly, show it to the proper person. That was the way she was. She always spread her joy.
An hour later, another bird, also flying east. More lies, but constructed for a different set of eyes. One, intended for the firebender, the other for the foreigner. Close enough that together they would not be mutually exclusive, far enough apart to make it seem like they were coming from different sources. It was a delicate balance that a man had to achieve. And who could say if he had it right, until it was possibly too late?
The last to fly was a 'sparrow'. Not a sparrow lizard, not a sparrow fox, not a sparrowguana, just a sparrow. It was an odd bird, but had an odd target. It flew into the darkness that preceded the dawn, circling around the Inn three times, before heading down and into the woods. Contrary to having to fly across the face of the world to find its target, the target had come to it. It landed, chirping, on the bedroll of a sleeping man. Sparrows might have been odd, but they were patient. And it would have to be, because Iroh was a heavy sleeper.
By all means, leave a review. The slower pace of this story means I'll be able to address the readers more directly.