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|...Into the Fire|
December 4, 2012
Previously in Air
Sent away to chase after elusive rebels at the suggestion of War Minister Shinu, Jeong Jeong realized that he had fallen victim to a scheme that left the Palace vulnerable. With Katara and the recently freed bodyguards and Kyoshi Warriors, the Admiral leads his ragtag squadron to retake the Palace and rescue Mai and Ursa. While a group of soldiers aboard Appa aim to distract the Palace defenders, Jeong Jeong attempts to convince the Captain of the guard that the man currently on the throne is an imposter. Phew!
Chapter Forty-Seven: ...Into the Fire
A soldier called Si Yung slapped viciously at a patch of smoldering fur. "That was a little close!"
Wei pulled harder at the reigns, but the bison's reaction remained sluggish. "I think he's getting tired. I don't know how much longer we can keep this up!"
Appa sank steadily lower. He couldn't skirt the missiles with near as much grace or distance. Now more than just eyebrows were being singed.
"Uh-oh," someone said. Wei couldn't tell who it was through the haze of smoke and nausea.
"Don't say 'uh-oh'!" Wei cried. "I don't like 'uh-oh'!"
"Look!" The indecipherable figure pointed down below.
Wei couldn't look. If he turned his gaze down he might be sick. Or faint. And at the moment, he wasn't sure which was worse. Either might get his hair set on fire.
"What is it?" he asked instead.
War Minister Shinu and his troops pushed into the Palace's main courtyard. Some of the men broke off to help the defenders, but most headed inside. Toward Admiral Jeong Jeong and his much-smaller batch of invaders.
"We have to get out of here," called Si Yung. "This beast can't take much more. Those reinforcements will blow us out of the sky!"
Appa growled and Wei was pretty sure it was in protest at being called a 'beast'. "No way!" Chey shouted. "We can't leave Admiral Jeong Jeong and the others at Shinu's mercy. They'll treat them as traitors!"
The soldiers began to simultaneously argue and dodge the smaller fire blasts of the guards as they steadily dropped within range of the ground troops.
"Incoming!" someone shouted, as another giant fireball hurtled towards them.
Appa ducked low instead of swerving. The soldiers were forced to lie flat to avoid getting their heads ripped off. Ground troops lunged forward, lobbing direct blasts at the bison.
"Pull up! Pull up!"
Wei pulled on the reigns. Appa bellowed as the flames scorched his sides. He pushed upward with a mighty effort, rising a little higher into the air.
The soldiers all turned to Wei.
"Well, you're in charge," Si Yung said. "Should we stay or should we go?"
Wei had gotten a pretty good look at the situation below, despite his best efforts. It had given him an idea. A really horrible idea.
Appa slowly drifted higher, but with a look of fierce determination in his quickly greening face, Wei jerked harshly on the reigns.
"We're going to improvise!" he cried, and sent Appa hurtling for the roof of the Palace.
"Attack the traitor!"
Captain Kio scowled at the overeager War Minister and his battle hungry troops. One look at Shinu and his men and he knew a reasonable discussion was out of the question. Kio had been just about convinced by Jeong Jeong, and now he had to make a choice.
Who was he going to fight?
Shinu's troops flooded into the guards and soldiers. Both Kio and Jeong Jeong's men were caught off guard. Their leaders had been in the midst of negotiating a peace and now they didn't know whether to use lethal force or merely bat these new players away. The hesitation alone put them at a serious disadvantage, and Shinu and his men were out for blood.
A soldier charged at Jeong Jeong with a flaming fist. Kio acted on instinct, knocking the attacker from mid-air as he leaped.
I guess that answers that question. Kio turned to Jeong Jeong. "Could you convince Shinu?"
Jeong Jeong blocked a lowered spear, forcing it upward and knocking the soldier back with a punch in the gut. "We shall see."
"Sounds like Jeong Jeong found some resistance," Sokka said as the sounds of battle drifted toward them.
Suki picked up speed. "Let's just hope it's turning in our favor."
They rounded the corner into the massive hall before the ornate closed doors of the throne room. It was a writhing mass of fighting men; Palace guards, Jeong Jeong's soldiers, and the guardians of the bay. Through shining spears and flinging fire, it was hard to tell who was winning.
"There's Jeong Jeong!" Katara pointed toward the head of wild white hair, a stark contrast against the sea of black and red. A second man followed close behind. Together, they fought their way through the crowd.
"They're trying to get to Shinu," Sokka realized. "Come on!"
War Minister Shinu was not a coward. But when Admiral Jeong Jeong's determined eyes settled on him over the sea of chaos, it sent chills up the General's spine.
He firmed his stance and waited for the traitor's attack. He knew he stood little chance of winning against the renowned firebending master, but he wasn't going to let anyone take over the Palace. Not without a fight.
Sokka kicked down on a spear, splintering the shaft. Before the soldier could retaliate, Sokka elbowed him between the eyes. His opponent crumpled, senseless.
Suki leapt readily into the crowd. Onto it, actually. She bounded from head to head, sometimes balancing on men's shoulders. Her goal wasn't so much to incapacitate them as reach Jeong Jeong's side as quickly as possible.
Her arms sheathed in water, Katara lashed out, flinging opponents away, knocking them cold with its solid ice tip or freezing them on the spot.
Keiko was busy warding off spears with her fans and Ty Lee somersaulted into the fray, punching and jabbing.
Nothing could stand between the bodyguards and the throne room, not when their charges were being held within by the traitor. Anyone who tried to stop them was quickly and soundly thwarted.
Shinu's men would easily have overwhelmed the small group of invaders, but with the unexpected assistance of the Palace guards they were nearly evenly matched. It was beginning to look like a draw.
The guardians of the bay surround Jeong Jeong and Kio, cutting them off from their own comrades and keeping them from the War Minister's hearing range.
"What now?" Kio stood back to back with the Admiral, and he had to admit things looked bleak. At this rate, they could still be fighting over this hall when Firelord Zuko –or was it the fake Firelord?– returned form Ba Sing Se.
Jeong Jeong did not reply, distracted by an oncoming burst of flame.
Sokka ducked as Suki leapt over him, batting away a fire ball. As she dodged the soldier's spear thrust, Sokka rounded to her left and caught the shaft with his boomerang, de-heading the spear with a powerful tug.
"Do you hear that?" Suki panted, wiping soot from her golden fan.
Sokka nodded grimly. He pointed at the far side of the hall. "Reinforcements."
The ground soldiers flooded in from the courtyard. None made a move to attack, however; they tripped over themselves in a panic.
Katara frowned. The water congealing around her arms quivered. "What's going–"
The rest of her question was lost in the horrendous crash as the hall roof caved in.
In the safety of the underground tunnels, Sakura sat with Rozen. He was not a man of many words, she realized. They'd been sitting here for probably an hour or so, and he hadn't spoken once.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Rozen glanced at her, nodded.
"When people thought you turned traitor, some refused to believe it. They said you'd never betray Zuko." Sakura hesitated. "Why?"
Rozen eyed her carefully, weighing her on his mental scales. "The Firelord is a good man," he said. "He fights for justice, and he truly cares about his people. Such qualities have been lacking in the Fire Nation for many years. The reason I would never betray Firelord Zuko is because I am certain the Firelord would never betray his people."
"Oh." Sakura let the words sink in. She would have to think about that. She tried to imagine what it would have been like in Rozen's place, to be alone and forgotten in a horrible cell and still have the faith and the courage to hold onto his loyalty.
"I heard..." Sakura hesitated. Perhaps it wasn't her place to say, but it was something she would want to know, if she were Rozen. "The Admiral told you he never believed you were the traitor."
Rozen watched her curiously.
The words tried to stall in her throat, but she fought them out. "It was true. I heard Gouitn talking about it. He didn't doubt you."
Rozen smiled. "I know that, Sakura. Jeong Jeong has always believed in me, and I have always trusted him."
"How long have you known him?" Sakura asked, surprised. She would not have guessed that they were anything but colleagues with the way the Admiral had reacted when Rozen had been freed.
"Long enough." Rozen chuckled softly. As though guessing her thoughts, he said, "Jeong Jeong is not a sentimental man, but" –he winked at her– "neither is he quite the prickly boar-q-pine he pretends to be."
Outside, the corridor was quiet.
After a moment, she asked, "Do you think they're all right?"
"I'm sure they're fine. It doesn't sound too exciting out there."
"You're crazy, Wei!" someone screamed as they plummeted toward the roof.
"I know!" Wei shouted.
His face was a very bright shade of green, but he was pretty sure watching the land rush up at him had done something to his fear of heights. One instant it was screaming at him, and the next it had vanished. He felt numb and exhilarated at the same time.
"I'm going to kill you for this, Wei!"
"No, Wei's going to kill us first, I think!"
Appa seemed to like Wei's idea. Or maybe, Wei thought, Appa was only reserving judgment for now so he could gloat later when it didn't work. It seemed like something the giant bison would do.
Wei wondered fleetingly how far through the roof they would make it. Perhaps they would merely bounce off, tearing a few shingles. Or maybe they would break halfway through and lodge in the ceiling's crossbeams. Before he had quite made up his mind, he realized it was too late.
Appa crashed headfirst into the roof.
As the roof exploded and the splinters rained down in heaps, the invaders wondered if maybe Chey got a little too carried away with his explosives again.
Then they spotted the ton of furry flesh falling through the ceiling.
"Duck for cover!" Sokka screamed.
For a moment, everyone forgot the battle. At the sight of the giant creature, they ran, trying to get as far from the bison's landing point as possible. Only problem was, no one knew exactly where that would be.
The fighters scattered, heading for branching corridors or hugging tight to the walls. The main area emptied in seconds.
Except for one man.
Appa managed to pull up before hitting the floor. It wasn't much, but instead of planting his head in the hard black marble, he came at it from a slant on his stomach. His six legs pushed to either side of his body and he slid –at high speed– over the smooth floor, like a penguin-seal on ice.
Their makeshift runway appeared empty, Wei noted with relief. Soldiers were cowering against the wall, but he couldn't really blame them.
One man suddenly appeared in their path. He was briefly baffled to find himself alone in the hall. When he saw the on-coming bison, his eyes widened in shock. He screamed the same moment Wei and his comrades did. Chey and a few others flung their arms around each other in panic.
Appa rammed straight into the lone figure and the man disappeared under white fluff.
The giant bison finally slid to a stop.
Stunned silence fell over the room. After all, this didn't happen everyday.
The mixed company glanced at one another, unsure. What were they supposed to do now, resume fighting as if nothing had happened?
Wei was shaking so hard he could barely slide from Appa's neck. The other soldiers still clung to one another, not quite ready to move after the wild ride.
A groan emanated from beneath Appa.
Wei bent down to check.
Coddled between Appa's foremost paws was War Minister Shinu. Wei glanced at the soldiers cowering uncertainly against the walls. He grinned.
Leaping forward and brandishing his weapon, Wei hollered, "Nobody move! We've got the War Minister!"
Now the mixed company was really confused.
Jeong Jeong knelt to get a look at the trapped War Minister.
"Get this beast off of me!" Shinu growled.
Appa growled back.
The War Minister blanched at the loud, very large sound.
"...please?" he added meekly.
Appa made no move to lumber off. That flight had really taken it out of him. He wasn't as young as he used to be; didn't anyone realize that?
"I must have a word with you, War Minister Shinu," Jeong Jeong said calmly. He cast a meaningful glance at the other's position. "And it looks as though you will be here for a moment."
"My ears are deaf to you, traitor!" Shinu shouted. Or, attempted to shout. The bison was crushing all the air out of his lungs so it came out in a gasp.
"I have reason to believe an imposter has taken the place of the Firelord," Jeong Jeong said calmly.
Shock registered on Shinu's features. "I suppose that would explain a few things..."
Kio jumped in. "That's what I thought."
"Quiet!" Shinu barked. "It doesn't mean it's true! Rozen tried to assassinate the Firelady, remember? Jeong Jeong is Rozen's mentor! Now he's trying to take over the Palace!"
Kio frowned. "Hmm, that works, too..."
Shinu glared at Jeong Jeong. "The Firelord must have known. That's why he had you sent away!"
Jeong Jeong raised an eyebrow. "At your suggestion," he reminded him.
Shinu grinned. "He outsmarted you there, Jeong Jeong. He asked me to request that you investigate that riot!"
Jeong Jeong's eyes flashed.
"The Firelord said he was concerned for your health, after you found out Rozen was a traitor," Shinu said with dawning realization, "But I realize now he must have suspected you from the start."
Jeong Jeong glanced at Kio.
The Captain of the guard spoke slowly. "The Firelord doesn't strike me as a man who would deal with his enemies by shipping them off."
Jeong Jeong nodded. "Firelord Zuko faces his enemies."
Kio's frown deepened.
"I am still willing to surrender to you," Jeong Jeong said.
"I don't think you're going to want to," Kio said. "Not after I give you the bad news."
Jeong Jeong couldn't convince War Minister Shinu that they were not the traitors. Neither could Katara, the bodyguards or the Kyoshi Warriors. In the end, the War Minister had to be taken prisoner and Jeong Jeong ordered that Shinu's troops set down their arms at their leader's defeat. Normally, they would fight to the last man, but they'd all heard what was going on. None of them were quite sure who to trust or what to do.
The War Minister and his men were imprisoned. Since they weren't prisoners in the real sense, however, they were locked in the guest chambers of the east tower, with guards stationed in the corridors.
It was a mess they'd have to clear up on their return.
"Great!" Sokka clapped his hands. "We've retaken the Palace. Now what?"
"Now," Jeong Jeong replied, "We rescue the royal family."
"You found out where they are?" Yuki demanded.
Jeong Jeong nodded slowly. "A few days ago, the Guild sent another message, this time insisting that the Firelord attend the Earth King's coronation. Kuzarr is headed to Ba Sing Se as we speak." He glanced at the others. His gaze was gloomy. "He's taken Lady Mai and Princess Ursa with him."
The Earth Palace
"Firelord Zuko!" a crier announced, as two figures entered the throne room. "And Lady Mai!"
Kuei rose to greet the pair, clearly startled. "I was not expecting to see you here, Your Majesty."
The Firelord nodded. "How could I refuse such an invitation?" There was something odd about his voice.
As they drew nearer, the prince could see this man was not the actual Firelord. He puzzled over it for a moment and realized Zuko must still be looking for his son. But hadn't the Guild made it clear no citizen of the Fire Nation was to enter the Earth Kingdom?
Kuei frowned in concern. "Is everything...all right, Firelord?"
The fake Firelord hesitated. He glanced at Mai, who made no move or comment. Her face did not even flicker with emotion.
"There has been a change in plans," the fake said eventually.
Kuei raised an eyebrow. "I see..." He did not like this. Suspicions crowded his mind, but he knew not to jump too quickly to conclusions. "And your children, Firelord? Have they joined you?"
Kuzarr knew this was a test. He managed to force a small smile. "Yes, of course," he said, his voice struggling against disconsolation. "Ursa was feeling poorly. The journey and other recent...occurrences have drained her, I'm afraid. She is resting. My son stayed with her."
It seemed a decent answer. At least, Kuei could tell this man knew of the kidnapping. He must be the man acting as Zuko's decoy. He shot a glance at Firelady Mai, just to be certain, but she reacted to nothing. Something smoldered in her eyes –but what?
It must be grief taking its toll, the prince finally decided. After all, her son was being held hostage somewhere and it was possible she had not heard from her husband in days.
Kuei smiled gently. "I am so delighted you managed to make it," he said, for the benefit of the listening pages. "The Water Tribe chieftains arrived a short while ago, and we expect the Avatar any day."
The decoy nodded. "I look forward to seeing Aang again. There is much we need to discuss."
Kuei nodded. "I am sorry my wife is not here to greet you. We were not anticipating anymore arrivals today. She will be disappointed, but I'm sure you will meet her before long."
"It's quite all right," the decoy replied. "We should be retiring ourselves. It has been a long journey."
"Of course," Kuei said. "And I do hope your children feel better soon."
Two people watched as the Firelord and his wife departed.
"What are they doing here? I don't like it."
General Fong shifted uncomfortably, though he tried hard to hide it. "It was a request. From them."
"I see," his companion said, thoughtfully watching the Firelord disappear down the hall. "Did they tell you why?"
"...no," the General admitted. "But it doesn't matter. Not anymore."
His companion smiled suddenly. "No, I suppose it doesn't. I was merely curious. One request is a small price to pay for victory, after all."
General Fong chuckled darkly. "The Firelord will soon regret attending. We will not be tricked by the Fire Nation. Not again."
Ursa was in perfect health. Her spirits, however, were dampened by the earth binding her wrists together and covering her mouth. The stone bit and pinched at her skin, cold, hard and uncomfortable. The two earthbenders guarding the door didn't help her mood either.
Her prison was a small room. Like any room in a Palace, it was well and comfortably furnished. Ursa guessed this was a little-used guest room, like many they had in the Fire Palace. The chances of someone hearing a cry for help was unlikely. The chances of her actually being able to cry out for help were non-existent.
Ursa hadn't seen her mother in days. Kuzarr had allowed them one visit, only to assure her mother that she was alive and in his custody. He also treated them to a...demonstration. Ursa had not seen her since.
She wanted nothing more than to break free, to run. She'd thought about it several times, even planned escapes that might work. But she couldn't. Just as Kuzarr was using her safety as a threat to her mother, he used her mother's against Ursa. If Ursa ran, her mother would die. Kuzarr had made that very clear.
Even though her guards were earthbenders, they were garbed in Fire Nation armor. They obeyed Kuzarr's orders. Ursa hadn't quite figured that one out yet, but she could guess who they were. She'd heard enough stories about the Dai Li; how they turned against their own city and bent to the will of Azula. They'd served the Fire Nation princess only for a short time, since she went crazy and banished them all only a few months later. After that, the legendary earthbenders had faded into myth and mystery.
At least that means the entire Earth Kingdom hasn't turned against us, Ursa tried to assure herself. She doubted many people in the Earth Kingdom would be eager to team up with the Dai Li traitors. Crown Prince Kuei definitely wouldn't. She had met him a few times; he would stop by occasionally during the annual gathering of friends at Uncle Iroh's tea shop every summer. She had liked him. He was more studious than most and, instead of laughing at her quoted proverbs, he'd seemed genuinely interested.
No, she didn't see Kuei turning against her father and Aang like this. She just wondered if he'd be able to figure out that the Firelady and Princess were being held captive in his own palace.
- The name "Si Yung" comes from a random Trivial Pursuit moment I recently had. I incorrectly answered a question concerning the name of a baseball player called "Cy Young" because in hearing the question I assumed his name was, in fact, 'Si Yung'. And while "Cy" being short for "Cyclone" makes perfect sense, not so much when you're thinking of some Oriental pitcher named "Si".
- In case I forgot to mention, Chey is the second man to ever desert the Fire Nation Army and live, who appeared under Jeong Jeong's rule in "The Deserter".
- It may not be obvious, but in the course of writing -this chapter especially- I became seriously attached to Wei and the other misfit soldiers. :D
- In other news, I just had my first piece published in a literary magazine! Shamelessly, I provide this link to the magazine's store, in the hope some of my fans may want a copy of a fun poem, filled with dragons and audacious alliteration, entitled "Gallantly Garrulous".
We now return you to your regular programming.
For the collective works of the author, go here.