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|A Tale of Two Spies|
August 28, 2012
Previously in 'Air'
Jomei has asked Lee for his help in exposing two traitors within the Guild. In the Fire Nation, Mai used the secret tunnels to infiltrate as a servant and hopefully discover where the Kyoshi Warriors are.
Chapter Thirty-Three: A Tale of Two Spies
Jomei had a list of people he trusted. He'd said as much. Lee was on that list, but he couldn't help wondering who else was. And who wasn't. Lee wasn't nosy, he was just...curious. Was it so wrong? He wanted to know who to keep his eye on. If he simply asked Jomei, Lee suspected his friend would only give him that smile –the one that said 'it's need to know' so he wouldn't have to– before sauntering off. So Lee decided to figure it out for himself. In an entirely un-nosy, innocent-curiosity kind of way.
Lee eased onto the bench beside Jen Yi. "Enjoying the show?" he asked casually, gesturing at the sparring ring. It was crowded with benders and fighters who wanted to practice their technique, strategize, gain extra combat experience or vent pent up emotions.
Jen Yi snorted. "Not much to enjoy when you can't see anything."
"Right." Lee didn't even flush. He'd gotten used to her unconventional humor over the past few days. He, Jen Yi and Haru were only some of the young people Garrow's family put up. It was close quarters –that was putting it mildly– but it was fun, too. They were like a huge, rowdy, dysfunctional family. "Can I ask you something?"
"I don't know; can you?"
Lee faltered. Okay, so maybe not completely used to her humor. He shifted uncomfortably and tried to keep his head cool. "What do you think about–" He quickly glanced around to make certain no one else was listening "–about Nguyen and Po?"
Jen Yi's brow wrinkled in a dark scowl.
Lee felt his heart race. This was it! She must suspect them, too.
"Who?" she demanded.
His face fell. "You know, Nguyen and Po," he insisted despondently. "Quiet guys, head honchos, like to hang around in dark corners. Any of this ringing a bell?"
Jen Yi's frown deepened. "Wait a minute," she said slowly, "Are you telling me that there are four leaders just for this handful of people?"
"Yeah." Lee leaned forward eagerly. "Do you think that's important?"
Jen Yi shrugged dismissively. "Nah. Just bad managing skills."
Lee sat back with a sigh. He had already asked half a dozen people about the two shady men with no luck so far. If Jomei had let anyone else in on the plan, Lee hadn't found them.
Disappointed, he turned his attention to the sparring ring. Most of the combatants were fighting each other, but Haru stood alone. His eyes were closed, his bare feet barely shifting on the dirt and he swayed gently as though a lone reed in the breeze.
"What's he doing, anyway?" Lee asked incredulously.
Jen Yi cocked her head. "He's listening."
"Listening for what?"
She shrugged. "Anything. Everything. It's an earthbender thing."
Lee raised an eyebrow. "Then why aren't you listening?"
"Oh, I am." Jen Yi suddenly smiled at him; a sadistic wolf-bat grinning as it moved in for the kill. "And I've been hearing some very interesting things."
Inwardly, Lee groaned. He'd been the one wanting answers, but it seemed Jen Yi was determined to pry some of her own. Maybe if he pretended not to hear, she'd get the message and leave it alone.
Jen Yi prodded him in the side. "What's this I hear about you getting invited to talk with the big wigs?" Act cool. Lee shrugged. "I've told you. Jomei and I are old friends. We were just catching up."
Jen Yi snorted. "Catching up my foot. In case you haven't heard, there's a rebellion going on! Tani doesn't have time for idle chit-chat. If you met with him, you know something. So come on, Lee. Don't leave a girl hanging. What's he planning?"
Lee shook his head. "You know I can't tell you that."
Jen Yi scowled at him. For a moment, he was afraid she would pummel him. He was pretty sure she almost did. But instead, she growled in frustration. "What's the matter with you people? Don't you trust anybody? I came here to kick some serious Fire Nation butt and I want to know why I'm not getting in on any of the action!"
Lee flushed. Jen Yi's voice was steadily rising and people were beginning to glance their way. "I'm sorry, Jen Yi. I'd tell you if I could, really. Would you please calm down?"
Haru materialized at her shoulder. "Everything okay?" His voice was level, but guarded. He measured Lee with suspicious eyes.
"Fine," Jen Yi growled. "Lee's just holding out on us."
"That's not fair!" Lee protested.
"Finally" –Jen Yi rolled her eyes– "we agree on something."
"Cool it," Haru snapped. His words were sharp, but his gaze was no longer focused on Lee. He was watching something on the other side of the arena.
Jen Yi stiffened. She half-turned her head in the same direction before she could stop herself.
Lee, frowning, glanced back to see what had them on edge. "What? What is it?"
"It's nothing," Haru said quickly. Too quickly. Because it wasn't nothing.
Across the ring, even in mid conversation, Jomei's eyes were latched onto the trio.
"What were you two talking about?" Haru asked, deliberately turning from the unsettling gaze.
"Uh..." Jen Yi fought to remember what had been important only a moment before.
Lee watched her flounder for a moment in slight amusement. He glanced again at Jomei; his gaze still hadn't shifted, the weight of it pulling down at the corners of his mouth. "You said I was holding out on you," Lee told her helpfully.
"Right..." Jen Yi shifted uncomfortably. She could probably feel the thunderclap scowl Haru was giving her. "Sorry about that. I'm just...you know."
"Frustrated?" Lee supplied. "Overeager? Impatient?"
The ghost of a smile haunted Haru's face.
"All of the above," Jen Yi retorted. "Can we just drop it?"
Lee shrugged. "Whatever." He rose. "I'll leave so you can get back to practicing."
"Hey, Lee," Haru called.
Lee glanced back at him.
"No hard feelings?"
Lee smiled. "Nah." Not yet, at least, he told himself.
Haru nodded at him, waved as he turned once more to go. Jomei was still watching the pair.
Why? Lee wondered. He realized Jen Yi had made a good point. He knew Jomei was looking for manpower. He also knew that despite Jen Yi's bull-headedness and Haru's naivety, they were both fairly capable earthbenders.
So why hadn't Jomei recruited them? And why had he been watching them with such guarded eyes?
"You should ease up on him," Haru said quietly.
Toph was distracted, keeping tabs on Jomei. "Huh?"
"Lee. He's just a kid. Give him a break."
"That 'kid' just so happens to have valuable information in his head," she retorted.
Haru frowned. "You don't know that."
"We're a little pressed for time, Haru," Toph pointed out; "I don't think anyone would mind if we made a few gut guesses."
Haru shook his head. "I still don't like it."
Toph scowled at him. "Don't tell me you're going soft. Lee's part of the Guild, remember? He's one of the bad guys."
Haru's frown deepened, but he did not reply. Instead, he asked, "Is Jomei still watching?"
"Nope. Left a minute ago."
"Do you think he...?"
Toph kicked at a loose rock. "How should I know? I can tell when somebody's lying. That doesn't make me a thoughtbender or anything."
"Nguyen and Po still in their tent?" Haru asked.
Toph scoffed. "They only come out to argue with Tani and Wun. Of course they're still in there." She cocked her head as she wriggled her toes in the dirt, focusing her attention on the two Dai Li.
Haru sat next to her. "Any idea yet how we're supposed to get a private word with one of them?"
Toph frowned. "Not yet," she admitted. But if Zuko wanted to talk to one of them, she was going to make sure he got the chance. And if she had to use a little rough persuasion –well, that was all right by her. She was fond of Zuko's little squirts. They were sweet kids. "I'm working on it."
She turned on Haru. "And what are you doing, cooling your heels? Did I tell you to take a break? I don't think so!"
"Relax," Haru said calmly. "I found all twelve of your hermit lizards."
Toph punched him in the arm so hard he fell off the bench. She shook her head sadly. "When will you get it through your thick skull that bending is more than just moving rocks? When I tell you to look, birdbrain, look!"
"I looked!" Haru insisted. "I finished your assignment; what did I do wrong?"
"That's what's wrong," Toph told him. "You keep thinking of them as assignments. You only look for what you're told to look for. There are thirteen hermit lizards, Haru. You would know that if you'd bother to look for everything instead of just what you're expecting." She grunted. "You are hopeless. At this rate, the only thing you'll ever be good for is following somebody else's orders."
To her surprise, Haru laughed.
Toph frowned. "You just flunked, Stache Man; what's so funny about that?"
Haru clamped his mouth shut. He pressed his lips tight together to keep the laughter in. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing at all."
Toph scowled. She couldn't shake the feeling he was laughing at her. "We'll see who's laughing after you probe this cave until you find every creeping insect," she retorted hotly. "And I mean every single one!"
Haru fought another chuckle. He really wasn't laughing at her; he was laughing at himself. A trick assignment was totally like her. He should have known that's what it was. But they'd only been killing time while they watched the Dai Li and she had scanned for the hermit lizards so quickly...
"...and while you're busy chasing every little vibration," Toph raged on, "I'm going to be stuffing my face and you won't get a crumb until–" She stopped mid-rant because her timid student had the gall to raise his hand. Honestly, a raised hand?
"There are fourteen gecko spiders."
Toph blinked, momentarily stunned. "...what?"
"Fourteen gecko spiders," Haru repeated. "There are also forty-six cavehoppers in the walls and a nest of jumping-maggots." He shrugged. "Though technically the maggots are larvae not insects."
Toph frowned. There was no way he could have detected them that fast. "How did you–?"
Haru jumped to his feet. "What was that about stuffing our faces? I'm famished." He started for the tents.
"Wait just a–"
"You want me to bring you something?" Haru asked, interrupting her again.
"No!" Toph shot back. "I want you to answer me! What's the trick? If you were so thorough in the first place, why didn't you just say there were thirteen hermit lizards?!"
Haru pretended not to hear her. He didn't even glance back at her as he continued walking.
Toph fumed. What was his problem? Was he really so dense he could have picked up all the insects and actually missed an additional hermit lizard, by far the wriggliest of the bunch? No, that wasn't it. After the time they'd spent together, even Toph had to admit Haru wasn't stupid. He must have picked up the thirteenth lizard. So why –
Toph suddenly frowned. What if...no, that couldn't be it. Could it? A blush blossomed on her cheeks. Actually, it made sense. Haru would be that dense. He hadn't said anything about the thirteenth lizard because he thought she'd missed the thirteenth lizard.
Her cheeks felt like they were on fire. It wasn't a feeling Toph was accustomed to. The birdbrain. He'd been trying not to embarrass her.
"You really are hopeless," she muttered, starting after Haru.
Lee had never seen anyone turn quite the shade of pink that Jen Yi was currently exhibiting. From his vantage point, he couldn't hear what the two of them had been arguing about. He didn't really care. He was just enjoying the show.
Lee watched as Jen Yi hurried after Haru, trying to scrub the blush from her cheeks. He watched until he was sure they were heading for Garrow's tent before following.
Even if it turned out that Jen Yi and Haru weren't up to anything suspicious, Lee decided, this unbelievable moment would more than make up for any time he wasted keeping an eye on them. And he would keep a close eye on them.
Jomei was suspicious of the two, there was no doubt about it. What Lee couldn't figure out was why Haru and Jen Yi were still freely mingling if there was reasonable doubt about their loyalties. Maybe that was just it. Maybe Jomei couldn't prove his suspicions. Maybe he was still trying to decide. Maybe it was simply that Jomei didn't think they were capable of keeping their mouths shut.
Whatever the reason, Lee decided he would find it.
Mai didn't learn much. Nearly two days she had managed to play the role of servant woman –no one even glanced at her twice, which she enjoyed after all the years of fawning she'd had to endure– but she hadn't seen a single Kyoshi.
They were supposed to be undercover, so where were they?
She hadn't even heard rumors or suspicions about the warriors. There were no whispers about any kind of disturbance in the last few days that would explain their disappearance. It was a mystery and there were no clues to solving it.
Mai was more than frustrated. She sat in the servants' quarters, listening to the disinteresting prattle around her in vain, idly picking at her lunch.
The servants were next to useless. They were supposed to be atwitter with juicy gossip. She supposed they were –to an extent– but they certainly didn't possess any information she considered valuable. Who was sneaking around with whom and which servant was drinking a little too much fire tea on the job were not pieces Mai considered vital.
Mai sighed and pushed her plate aside. She couldn't bear to stomach anything. She was worried sick –about Ursa, about Roh-Roh and Zuko, about the traitor lurking in her home waiting to rend her world to pieces. The very idea of eating made her nauseous.
Naoko glanced at her in concern. "Are you feeling all right?"
Mai had been paired with the young maid. She was irritated to be saddled with a companion; it restricted her investigation, but she had no terrible dislike for Naoko in particular. She was not necessarily a quiet girl, but she was not a vicious gossip like many of the other maids. Naoko liked to talk to fill the silence and she didn't particularly mind if Mai joined the conversation or not.
"I'm not hungry," Mai replied.
"You're never hungry," Naoko remarked. "I don't think I've seen you eat an entire meal since I've met you. It's not healthy. My aunt Estovia says that–" Her words rambled off in a wave of disjointed noise around Mai.
The world seemed to spin, which only made Mai's stomach twinge worse. She felt lost in a tempestuous sea that tossed her side to side, with every whitecap pulling her further from the answers she needed.
"–and they'll never find the poor young Prince, of course."
Mai sat bolt upright as the words washed over her. She looked around the room, hastily searching for the speaker.
Naoko looked at her in surprise. "What is it?" she asked.
Mai ignored her.
"It's a complete waste of time fretting over who took him," the voice went on. "A terrible tragedy, but they ought be preparing to lay the boy to rest, you know."
There, two maids were just coming into the room and their carried conversation broke over the murmurs of the other servants. The speaker was an older, robust woman clearly the type to dabble in notorious gossip, and the other a much younger, wide-eyed girl trailing after.
The younger gasped in open horror. "Why would you say such an awful thing?"
The older woman clucked disapprovingly. "Mark my words: it wasn't any person who took the boy."
The younger maid stared at her. And she wasn't the only one, either. The loud conversation had captured most of the room's attention, Mai included. The older maid pretended not to take any notice but Mai could see how she puffed and preened under the attention.
"Haven't you guessed?" The maid said, feigning shock at the girl's ignorance. "It's obvious!"
But the maid wasn't prepared to just hand them the answer. She cast a quick glance about her audience. "They say the boy just disappeared, don't they?"
"Well, no one knows for sure," the younger one stammered. "They're just rumors..."
"Well that's what I heard," the gossip lashed. "He was in the courtyard one day. His bodyguard turned away –just for a second, mind you!– and POOF!"
Mai jumped involuntarily. An image sprang to her mind. Roh-Roh, her little boy, clawing at the sinking earth as it threatened to drown him.
And that maid simply stood there, declaring his certain demise with such smug satisfaction. Her words meant nothing. The woman was a fool and a gossip merely looking for attention. Mai tried to regain her composure, but her heart still hammered in her chest and her stomach turned violently once more.
The maid shook her head sadly. "And the boy simply vanished."
A valet snorted loudly –but with dignity, of course. In dreary, cordial tones that oozed civility and yet somehow managed to bite with scorn, he said, "They also say that a piece of a shirshu dart was found–"
The maid quickly dismissed this. "Not even in the courtyard. No, I tell you it was no flesh and blood mortal who took that boy!" She glanced between the young maid and the valet before turning her eyes to the rest of the room. Her voice dropped to a loud whisper. "Firelord Zuko's son was spirited away."
Naoko started. There were a few gasps throughout the room, but this time Mai did not react. Spirited away? Mai almost laughed. The woman really was a fool.
"But..." The young maid swallowed. "Who would want to..."
The older maid nodded knowingly. "Ozai."
This time it was the whole room that gasped with this dramatic revelation.
Mai glanced about her in disgust. So much for a beneficial piece of information finally. It was just more ridiculous drivel. "Fools," she muttered.
Naoko looked at her. "You don't believe her?" she asked, uncertainly.
Mai only rolled her eyes.
The valet, at least, tried to argue with reason. "Ozai has been imprisoned for years," he protested; "Condemned to life, and there's not a person here who would have it any other way."
The maid smiled craftily. "Aye, and that he was."
The young maid's eyes opened even wider. "Was?"
The older woman nodded again. "Of course, what would one expect? Twelve years in one of those prisons is enough to kill off any man."
The valet spluttered. "There's no evidence of that! I wouldn't so easily believe Ozai had already died in prison. Surely that is something deserving a proclamation."
"Oh, yes," the maid droned sarcastically, "Because they pay him so much attention. Firelord Zuko likes to pretend the man no longer exists." She paused to smooth out the wrinkles in her robes. "I can't say that I blame him, really. They spend so much time skirting around any mention of Ozai, so why would they suddenly scrap it all just to announce the man is finally dead?"
The valet shook his head. "You're just superstitious," he concluded.
"Believe what you will!" the maid cried, throwing up her arms in frustration. She wagged a knowing finger at the valet. "But you remember, the week before it happened, those eerie noises that would come over the Palace at night?"
Mai perked up, once more interested. Noises, at night?
The younger maid shook her head numbly, but the valet scoffed.
"Thudding, rumbling, and crashing!" the older maid intoned. "As of some great tempest beating up against the Palace. I said it then, that it was the vengeful ghost of Ozai. I tell you that day marked his very passing and, finally free from his accursed cell, his spirit came at the Palace gates, to reap destruction on those who vanquished him. But his own bitter defeat barred him out and he was reduced to hammering harmlessly at the outer walls."
Mai's eyes were locked on the busy-body maid now. She wanted to know more about these noises. A week before the kidnapping would have been plenty of time for a few earthbenders to clear out and stabilize an old, collapsed tunnel. She stood up.
Naoko started up too. "Where are you going?" she asked, blinking in surprise.
"I want a word with this maid," Mai told her, without looking back.
"I thought you said they were fools."
"I lied. I love a good ghost story. Finish your lunch." Without waiting for an answer, Mai started forward.
The valet snorted in contempt. "Yes, I heard you trying to scare the younger maids with that pathetic tale. It was folly then, and it's folly now." But everyone heard the tremor in his voice.
"Folly, is it?" the older maid retorted. "Then tell me why –with your great and boundless wisdom– it was the day after the Prince disappeared that the noises ceased?"
The valet had no reply.
"Hmm?" the maid insisted, knowing that she had already won. "And isn't it true that they haven't been heard again since?"
"Well..." the valet began.
"But, but that's not true!"
Several eyes turned on the young girl in surprise. As they focused on her, she glanced around nervously, suddenly self-conscious.
"What do you mean?" her partner demanded sharply.
The younger maid trembled under all the attention. Her face flushed. "The-the part about the noises," she stammered. "They haven't stopped. I heard them only the other day."
The older maid waved the thought away impatiently. "Ridiculous, child," she declared. "That's impossible."
Mai crossed her arms. "Compared to your vengeful ghost idea?" she said dryly.
The older maid turned sharply on Mai, irritated. She drew herself up, convinced that she was superior to this impetuous serving girl. "Who are you?" she demanded.
Mai did not reply, but gestured at the younger girl. "Let her speak."
"Why?" the older maid challenged. "She has obviously let fancy carry her away!"
The valet snorted. There were a few titters around the room.
Mai raised a dangerous eyebrow. Her son was kidnapped. Her husband was wandering around somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, doing who knew what. Her friends had disappeared without a trace. She hadn't seen her daughter in two days, or even managed to get a communication to her. Mai was ready for a confrontation.
Ideally, she would have preferred resorting to her reflexes; with lightning speed whip several of her hidden knives and pin this haughty woman to the wall. This was, unfortunately for Mai's rising temper, not possible. Even if the move didn't give her away as the Firelady, it would probably land her in a prison cell. They would dub her a second assassin and she would never figure out who the true traitor was.
So instead, Mai adopted her mother's sudden regal manner and drew herself up. She was slightly shorter than the maid, but her cool composure and self-assurance seemed to make her tower over the husky older woman.
"Because I'm curious," Mai replied deliberately.
The maid faltered under that cold gaze and found, for perhaps the first time in her life, she had no reply.
Mai turned to the younger maid. "These noises," she asked, "Where did you hear them?"
The girl licked her lips. "Down at the south end," she replied softly. "It was about seven days ago, I think. It was very faint when I heard it, and fleeting. And, well, I haven't heard them since."
"There! You see?" the older maid cried triumphantly. "Clearly the girl's ears were playing tricks on her. Now move along!"
"That's not true!" the younger maid repeated, forcefully this time. "Rina and Ilsa have heard them too!"
Mai frowned. "Seven days ago? Are you certain?"
"Yes," the younger maid insisted. "It was the day just after Lady Mai and Princess Ursa left."
"What level were you on?" Mai demanded.
This question caused both maids and the valet to raise their eyebrows.
The girl thought about it. "It was...the lowest one."
Mai shook her head. "Of course it was," she muttered.
You're some lucky ducks, you know that? You get another pretty sizable chapter this week. Enjoy. ;)
This chapter's title is taken from a Charles Dickens novel.
Admission time. I adore Toph and Haru. Pitching them against each other is just too much fun! ^_^
Adding Lee to that mix is like tossing a lit match into a truckload of gunpowder and gasoline. Stand back, everyone!!!
We learn a wise lesson here. Busy-bodies should steer clear of frantic mothers. Especially when that frantic mother is Mai.
And now, since I've been hounding you all about voting in the, I really ought to get around to voting myself. ;)
For the collective works of the author, go here.