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|A Kettle Set to Boil|
January 16, 2012
Previously in Air...
Something terrible has happened in the Fire Nation, bringing Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang to seek an audience with crown prince Kuei. While Zuko battles the resurgence of his old anger, the Avatar senses an untimely shift in the world's balance.
Chapter Two: A Kettle Set to Boil
"You let him out of your sight."
The woman bowed low, nearly scraping the ground in reverence. "My humblest apologies, but he has become suspicious."
"And whose fault is that?" The honeyed words slipped from the shadowed lips, stinging the woman and her pride.
She flinched, prostrated even lower. "My own," she admitted.
Her master sat unmoving in the darkness, veiled in shadow. There were two dimly lit lanterns on either side of him, casting an eerie glow in the room that only served to illuminate those before him. Shutters in the lanterns kept most of the light from his face; what small beams escaped caressed his smirking, lying lips.
"He must be dealt with," he told her softly. "He is too dangerous."
"Yes, sir," the woman replied.
"Do it tonight."
"Yes, sir." Abruptly she rose, turned, and left the room.
The man's eyes narrowed. He leaned forward in his seat, steepled fingers gently pressed against his lips. "Much too dangerous," he murmured.
Aang, Momo, Iroh and Zuko were led into a comfortable, private sitting room. Servants appeared with tea and refreshments and hurried out before they got too curious.
Iroh was still well known in Ba Sing Se as its savior. He would often make jokes about how he finally conquered the great Earth Kingdom capital. He had been invited more than once for tea at the palace and so his presence was of no surprise. Aang, too, was a welcome guest at any time. Fire Lord Zuko would have also been graciously received. But this strategy hinged on secrecy, and Zuko meant to test his disguise now. He did not bother concealing his face with a hood. If his obscuring hair and the face paint were not enough to hide his identity, he wanted to know. The servants stole second glances at him, but they didn't appear to recognize the Fire Lord. It made him hopeful.
"Some tea?" Uncle asked him.
Zuko shook his head.
"No thanks," the Avatar replied. Momo chittered as if in protest, and Aang scratched the flying lemur's head. He presented the creature with a sweet bun and Momo set about nibbling it, purring happily.
Iroh sat beside his nephew and sipped at his tea. He wrinkled his nose. "Bah! You would expect something better than bathwater in a palace as fine as this."
The ghost of a smile hovered over Zuko's lips. It was enough to satisfy his uncle. The tea was actually exquisite; not as good as his, of course, but close enough.
"So tell me, Aang," Iroh said, taking another sip, "How fares the Southern Water Tribe?"
"Great! I hardly recognize it anymore. Pakku and the other benders from the North Pole have helped them construct it into an ice city. It looks amazing."
"I'm certain," Iroh chuckled. "The Northern Water Tribe was quite a sight to behold..."
The door to the room suddenly opened, and a crier blew a short blast on his small horn. "Crown prince Kuei of the Earth Kingdom!"
Kuei, standing proud and erect, tiny glasses perched on the tip of his nose, stepped into the room. The crier, bowing in retreat, stepped out and closed the door.
The four occupants stood as the Crown Prince entered. Momo scurried atop Aang's head for a better view.
Kuei looked confused. "Avatar Aang," he nodded. "General Iroh. I'm afraid I don't understand. I thought you said the Fire Lord requested an audience. A matter of the utmost importance?"
Zuko stepped forward and bowed low before the crown prince. "An honor to meet you, your majesty," he said quietly.
The crown prince inclined his head, but frowned. There was something about that voice...
Zuko rose and stepped back. The Earth noble looked between Iroh and Aang, then scrutinized the peasant's face, trying to decipher...Realization sparked in his eyes. He opened his mouth to utter the Fire Lord's name, but Aang coughed loudly.
"We apologize, your majesty," Aang said. "But the Fire Lord couldn't be here with us." He gave an exaggerated wink.
"Ah..." Kuei mused. "I...see?"
"To explain the situation," Iroh said, "He has sent Li, one of his most trusted allies." He gestured at Zuko.
"Li..." Kuei repeated slowly. "Please, continue. I'm eagerly awaiting this explanation."
"Maybe you'd like to sit down, your majesty?" Aang suggested.
Zuko, or 'Li', remained standing. He took a deep breath. "It was an unfortunate tragedy that kept the Fire Lord away," he said quietly.
Kuei tensed. "What kind of tragedy?"
Zuko was relieved to hear concern in the Earth noble's voice. It gave him hope for his unconventional and potentially detrimental request. He hesitated. "Have you heard of the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet, your majesty?"
Kuei nodded slowly. "Only rumors," he said slowly. "Even my councilors and their informants are uncertain if the Guild actually exists."
"They exist," Zuko said flatly.
The crown prince raised an eyebrow. "And how have you come to find this out...Li?"
Zuko gestured at his Uncle. "For the past few days, General Iroh has been asking all his friends and contacts about this Guild."
"That was difficult enough," Iroh put in. "This Guild organization is known only to the right people, and those are the kind of people that don't like to talk! It seems they aren't looking for attention just yet."
Zuko gave a bitter smile. "Yes. I can only conclude they have very influential supporters to keep their name from unwanted ears."
Kuei frowned. He rose slowly and there was a coldness in his manner. "Are you implicating that I have had something to do with them?"
Aang winced. "Oops."
"No," Zuko assured him quickly. Determination alone was the shield that kept his raw emotions at bay. He felt it buckle, sapping what little strength he had along with the will to continue this suddenly ridiculous charade. "No, that's not it at all."
Momo sensed the intensity in the room. He glided to Zuko, alighting on his shoulder and rubbing heads with him in show of support.
Zuko closed his eyes, took a deep breath to calm himself. "I've come to ask for your help, your majesty."
In his mind's eye, Zuko could see the empty courtyard; the faces of Mai and Ursa when he told them.
"Help with what?" Kuei asked, utterly confused.
Zuko looked him in the eye. "The Guild of the Granite Gauntlet has kidnapped my son."
"How did it go?" Katara waited for him at a small table in the room they had rented at the inn. It was late, but she hadn't even considered going to bed. She looked worn out with worry and even more tired than Aang felt.
"Good, all things considered." He moved to stand beside her, a hand on her shoulder. He didn't sit; he'd been sitting all day. "Kuei's eager to help."
"Good." Relief swept over her, but her answer was short and tight. If she said anything else, she was afraid her torrent of emotions would break loose. She still couldn't quite believe it, sweet little Roh-Roh, kidnapped! It pressed heavy on her heart.
Aang could feel the tenseness in her shoulders. He rubbed her neck, gently. "You look tired."
There was a rebellious gleam in Katara's eyes. "So do you."
Aang chuckled; a short, weary laugh of resignation. "I'm exhausted," he admitted, "But I'm too wired to sleep."
Katara groaned. "You're not going to pull another 'I'm too busy to waste time sleeping' streak on me, are you?"
"No," Aang said with a smile. "I was thinking more of chamomile tea. Iroh says it has a calming effect. He's been forcing it on Zuko every chance he gets."
Katara fought back a yawn. "Tea sounds lovely. Then can we go to bed?"
"Promise." Aang filled the tea pot with water. He was about to put it over the fire when he heard the scream.
It was a horrible sound, a conglomeration of every misery man had ever experienced. War, death, pain, heartache, abandonment, shame, guilt, loss, anger, confusion, hatred, rage, hopelessness...It was chaos, utter chaos! He froze. He couldn't move. It was as if his entire body was caught in a paralytic grasp. An empty chill settled over him as his blood turned to ice in his veins. The teapot slipped from his rigid fingers and clattered against the uneven floorboards.
"Aang?" Katara started to her feet in alarm.
Aang barely heard her. There was nothing left, nothing but that scream. He couldn't tell where it came from. At first it sounded distant, a cry from the city floating in through the open window. In the next heartbeat it was unbearably close, ringing in his ears, in his head. It was both at once, completely enveloping him.
Then it stopped.
Aang cried out. At least, he thought he did. As the scream vanished, so did everything else. Sound, sight, feeling. Katara had been hovering beside him. He had seen her as though through a dim haze, but no more. There was nothing but the cold, empty, hopeless darkness.
Falling. He was falling further into its grasp. The darkness was swallowing him, choking him, entangling him. Aang panicked. He thrashed and writhed, grasping for something, anything!
Warmth. A string of light slipped into his hand, a lifeline of hope in a sea of misery. Aang clung to it. The tighter he held, the warmer and brighter it became. It cut through the darkness. He shielded his eyes against the light.
There was movement beside him, pressure on his arm. Something flickered in his mind. Katara? Yes, it had to be.
Aang slowly blinked his eyes open. The room around him came into clear focus. There was no trace of darkness, no lingering echo of that awful scream. It was gone like a nightmare, leaving behind nothing but an unsettling memory.
He was lying on the floor in a pool of water that was supposed to be their tea. Katara hovered over him, concern casting shadows on her face.
"Aang? Aang, can you hear me?"
He grasped at her hand. Her touch sent a warm glow through his being as comforting as that light of hope that had pulled him through the darkness. "I'm here."
The shadows fell from her face and with them tears of relief and fear. "Are you okay? What was that, Aang?"
He wasn't sure. Something tugged at the back of his mind, somewhere in the part of him that was not his alone. A shadow moved across that awesome expanse. It flickered, but did not fade.
Aang sat up slowly. He expected some kind of sensation –pain, dizziness, nausea. Nothing. He felt perfectly fine. "I'm fine."
"Fine?" Katara demanded, her voice strangled. "You are not fine! What was that? What's going on?" Her face darkened. "Was it...was it that feeling again?"
Aang frowned. It was, but it wasn't. It was a completely different experience and at the same time...compatible? It didn't make sense. "No. I don't know."
Katara shook her head. "That's it, Aang. You have to find out what this is."
"No." Aang's voice was firm. "Zuko needs our help. It can wait."
"It will only get worse! I'll stay and help Zuko, but you should-"
"It's already gone," Aang assured her, though the shadow lingered at the edge of his thoughts. He took her hand again. "First things first, Katara," he said gently.
Katara looked doubtful. "I don't know, Aang..."
He smiled at her, but it was sad. "We have to find Roh-Roh. After that, I'll deal with it."
"We're moving him."
"It's about time," someone growled. "I'm sick of babysitting. Be careful when you go in there."
There was a mocking laugh. "What's the matter? Are you scared of a little kid?"
"Laugh all you want, Gow," the other snarled. "He took Rourke's eyebrows clean off. Most of his hair, too."
"That explains the hat!" Gow chortled.
Roh-Roh, Prince of the Fire Nation, smirked. He crouched by the door, listening to his wardens outside.
When the paralytic effects of the shirshu venom had worn off, he'd tried to escape. He'd blasted the man closest with a small bout of fire and tried to run. Unfortunately, it didn't go well. Roh-Roh barely knew the basics of bending, and all his captors seemed to be Earthbenders. A few of them were really good.
This time, Roh-Roh had a different plan.
"We've been sticking him with shirshu darts every time we slip food in. Just in case."
Gow laughed again.
"Well," the other sulked, "You said not to take any chances,"
Floorboards creaked as they approached the cell door. Roh-Roh scurried to where the last dart had dropped him.
"You want one?"
"What do I look like? A wimp?"
The lock turned, squeaking, and the door creaked open.
Roh-Roh lay perfectly still, staring at them.
There were two men standing in the doorway, one with an unkempt beard, a bald crown and a crooked smile. The other stood ramrod straight, hands folded in his sleeves, head bowed, face obscured by the low brim of his straw hat. The two wardens stood behind. One wore a large awkward hat; he glared at Roh-Roh.
"Good morning, little Fire Prince," the one with the crooked smile snickered. Roh-Roh could tell by his voice that this was Gow. "Ready for a trip?"
The two strangers moved forward. As Gow reached for him, Roh-Roh acted. His bending training may have only just begun, but Prince Iroh had learned self-defense well over a year before. When Gow's arm was close enough, Roh-Roh kicked. He twisted himself up as the captor reeled back in surprise. Roh-Roh charged him with the small knife he had managed to conceal. Gow reached for a pair of chain-linked hammers, but he was too late. Or, at least, he would have been.
Before Roh-Roh managed to take two steps, the silent one had him. In a single fluid movement, the man bent a stone prison around the Prince. Roh-Roh struggled to free himself, but he could barely move. Wiggling his fingers was the best he could do. He groaned in frustration.
The bender returned to his attentive position.
After his initial shock, his companion snarled at the Prince. "Nice try, little Fire brat."
The two wardens snickered.
Gow spared a moment to glower them into silence. He reached out to pluck the knife from the boy's protruding hand. Roh-Roh fought to keep hold of it, but the man wrenched it from his fingers. Roh-Roh managed to console himself with how much effort it took Gow to extract the prize and the snickers that followed.
Gow examined the knife. It was of fine make, beautifully crafted with pearl. An inscription on the blade read Never give up without a fight. He pocketed the knife. "This will make a very nice gift for one of our leaders."
Roh-Roh glared at him.
"Yes," Gow gloated with his crooked smile. "Very nice."
'Zuko Alone' is one of the author's favorite episodes; in it, both Gow and the engraved knife were prominently featured.
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