|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||None|
|And A Little Child Shall Lead Them|
November 6, 2012
Previously in Air
After receiving a message on the movements of the rioter from Corporal Hoo, Jeong Jeong realizes the erratic patterns of the rebels serve only one purpose –to draw those most trusted by Zuko away from the Fire Palace.
Chapter Forty-Four: And A Little Child Shall Lead Them
"Admiral Jeong Jeong!" The soldier pointed frantically at the sky. "A flying bison! Do you think it's the Avatar?"
Jeong Jeong frowned, shook his head. "No, Wei. I don't believe the Avatar would be returning so soon." He squinted at the figure perched on the soaring beast. "Or alone."
"If there really is something happening at the Palace," Hoo pointed out, "We can't let them waltz into it."
Jeong Jeong nodded. "Send a hawk up there."
Hoo frowned. "There's not enough time to write a message, sir."
"Then don't write a message; just send the hawk."
Hoo was skeptical as he sent the messenger dragon-hawk into the air. He watched it circle the bison, pause, hover. The bison's rider offered their arm as a perch and the bird alighted. Soon, the giant flying creature turned toward them.
The soldiers unconsciously jumped back as Appa landed heavily beside them. The creature loosed a bad-tempered growl.
The rider, a woman with flowing dark hair, leapt from his neck. She patted him consolingly. "I know, Appa. I'm sure we'll get some rest soon."
"I'm afraid not, Katara."
She turned. Jeong Jeong bowed, and she returned the gesture.
"Admiral. I was getting bored sitting around Ba Sing Se. I thought I might be of more use here, with Mai." She glanced uncertainly at the tense soldiers circled around her. "What's going on?"
Jeong Jeong's face was grim, his twin red scars clearly visible against his pale flesh. "I believe the situation at the Palace could be grave, Katara."
Katara crossed her arms. "What do you mean?"
"There is more going on than meets the eye," Jeong Jeong explained. "Has the Firelord mentioned to you the problems we've had of late with a few temperamental rebels of our own?"
Katara frowned, thinking back. "Zuko did say something about some troublemakers, yes. He said it was just the remnants of the Loyal acting up again. Why?"
"Since the Firelord left for the Earth Kingdom, the activity of these rebels doubled. They began popping up on every island, in every major city, wreaking havoc. Several battalions have been sent to snuff them out, including myself. But every report is the same: by the time we arrive the rebels have vanished, leaving no trace."
The thoughtful frown on Katara's face deepened in concern. "Rebels who don't ambush or attack their enemies? That is odd."
"Not when you realize they are merely an effective distraction," Jeong Jeong said quietly. "I was sent away to investigate, as was General Tzen and Colonel Ryuk."
Katara's eyes widened. "But that's–"
Jeong Jeong nodded. "Yes. They have easily divided our numbers, Katara. There were few of us who knew of Zuko's plan in the first place. Now only the Kyoshis, Kuzarr, and Lady Mai remain. I believe we have been confronting the wrong enemy."
Katara shook her head. "We know that it was the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet who kidnapped Roh-Roh, but you're saying it's the Loyal that drew you out of the Palace. It doesn't make any sense, Jeong Jeong. I don't see the Loyal asking some Earth rebels for help, and I know that the Guild would never side with anyone from the Fire Nation!"
Jeong Jeong slowly shook his head. "I cannot yet explain it, Katara. But the pieces fall too easily into place. In a way, we have left the Palace nearly defenseless. If there truly is a spy –a spy who knows what Zuko has done– he could easily supplant our fake Firelord with one of his own."
"And we'd have no way to fight it," Katara realized. It was a horrible thought, but it made sense too. The simplest coup in history. When Zuko returned home and tried to resume his position, no one would believe him. It was a far fetched story, and he would never even get the chance to prove it.
"We are on our way to the Palace now," Jeong Jeong told her.
Katara's brow creased. "Will they let you in?"
"There is no reason they should not," the Admiral replied. "We are merely a battalion returning home from an unsuccessful mission. If I am right, and there is more going on, we shall know soon enough."
"Yes," Katara countered, "But how will you fight it?"
Jeong Jeong opened his mouth to reply when Corporal Hoo interrupted, coughing politely for attention. Jeong Jeong turned to him. He did not look pleased. But then, Admiral Jeong Jeong rarely looked pleased, so Hoo wasn't sure if he was actually annoyed or just in his normal surly mood.
"What is it?" Jeong Jeong demanded sharply.
Hoo winced. Definitely annoyed. He pointed to something in the distance. "There's someone over there, sir. I didn't see where they came from, but..." His face reddened sheepishly. "But it almost looked like they ran right out of the mountain."
Jeong Jeong, Katara, Wei and many others turned to look. There was someone running toward them, waving their arms for attention. Jeong Jeong ordered the soldiers on the move, and they hurried to meet this desperate messenger.
It was a girl, dressed in fine clothes but they marred by grunge and grime. When she finally reached them, she collapsed to her knees, choking down air.
"The Princess..." she gasped, staring up at the soldiers with scared eyes. "...the Palace..."
"What is it, girl?" Jeong Jeong pressed. "What do you know?"
The girl flinched at his tone. She tried to speak, but the words caught in her throat, pushed down by her need of oxygen.
Katara nailed Jeong Jeong with a disapproving glare. Many men would shrink away from such a poisonous look, but Jeong Jeong looked merely baffled. "Give her a minute," Katara insisted.
Only slightly cowed, Jeong Jeong obligingly shuffled back a few steps.
Katara knelt carefully beside the girl. "Just calm down," she said soothingly, rubbing her hand down the girl's back. "Breathe easy. Here, have a drink."
The girl took the water skin and a grateful drink. As soon as she could speak, the words tumbled out in a frantic hurry. "Lady Mai, the Princess," she panted, "They've both been captured!"
Jeong Jeong stepped forward again. "By who, child?" he demanded.
The girl stared at him with wide eyes. He looked quite the frightening spectre, with his weathered face, shock of white hair, two blood-red scars and the alarming determination alight in his eyes.
"I...I don't know," she whispered. "I never knew. Gouitn always said it was the right thing to do, because we were supposed to be Loyal."
Jeong Jeong and Katara exchanged quick glances.
"What about the Kyoshi Warriors?" Katara asked gently.
"Ursa..." The girl's words faltered, but she pressed on "The Princess said they were imprisoned." She fumbled for something in her pocket. Tears began to spill from her eyes. "I took this," she said, pulling out a piece of parchment, "From the Princess, when they took her away." She began to sob.
Katara held the girl as Jeong Jeong took the drawing.
The girl's words were jumbled and hard to understand. "I didn't know!" she wept. "He always said they were imposters...traitors and murderers...But she was so nice!" She laid her head against Katara's shoulder, trembling.
Katara stroked the girl's hair, whispering soothing words.
Finally the girl cried herself out. She pulled away from Katara, wiping at her eyes, face red from the tears and her sudden embarrassment. Katara smiled encouragingly and remained her by her side.
Katara handed her the water skin again, and as the girl took another drink, she asked, "What's your name?"
The girl lowered her eyes. "Sakura."
Jeong Jeong gingerly held up the drawing. "What is this?" His voice, Katara was surprised to note, was soft and patient, two characteristics she would never have attributed to the grouchy firebending master.
"It's a map," Sakura told him. "For the secret passages under the city."
"We have been given a serious advantage," Jeong Jeong announced. "I suggest we use it."
Katara cast a dubious eye over his ranks. "You don't have very many men."
"Indeed. And so this battle must be won with stealth and wit."
Hoo perked up. "You have a plan, then, sir?"
"We do," Jeong Jeong replied, glancing at Katara. They did have a plan. Of sorts. He held up a piece of colorfully decorated parchment. "And we will do it with this."
This declaration was not met by a hearty 'Huzzah!'
"With a..." Wei cleared his throat. "With a drawing, sir?"
Jeong Jeong looked at the piece of paper in his hand. His demeanor of confidence deflated a little. "It is a map, soldiers. A map provided by the young girl who bravely came to warn us. A map of an old tunnel system that lies beneath the city. Forgotten tunnels."
Murmurs rippled among the men, along with raised eyebrows and hopeful smirks. Underground, forgotten tunnels? That did sound promising.
"But Katara is right," Jeong Jeong continued. "Our numbers are few."
The group of soldiers resisted the urge to scoff at the obvious. They were certainly enough to go chasing down vigilantes, but to assault their own stronghold?
"We must therefore first free the Kyoshi Warriors before we attack the Palace."
This didn't sound quite as promising. They'd been hoping for something along the lines of the other generals have also deduced something fishy is underway, and are headed back to reinforce us as we speak.
Hoo raised a timid hand. "Admiral Jeong Jeong? Pardon my asking, but...what difference are five more people going to make?"
"The Kyoshi Warriors," Jeong Jeong replied, "Are extremely capable fighters. They will make a great difference. They are more efficiently trained than even the most elite divisions of armies."
"Even the Dai Li?" someone asked.
Jeong Jeong turned sharply to meet the man's eyes, probing him for any sign of guilt or secrecy. He saw none, only an innocent question. "It is likely." He looked over his men again. "And even five more is better than five less."
One of his men, Chey, nodded vigorously. "He's right!" he declared. "Five is better than nothing!"
"Once we free the Kyoshis," Wei asked, "What's the next step?"
Jeong Jeong glanced over his men. "After we free the Kyoshis," he said with finality, "We will seize the Fire Palace."
Sakura was exhausted. The nice woman, Katara, told her to climb onto Appa's back and try to get some sleep. At first the giant flying bison scared her, but she quickly learned that he was a friendly creature. Bowing his head, Appa leaned down so she could more easily climb aboard, ushering her up with a gentle low.
But hard as she tried, Sakura couldn't sleep.
Every time she closed her eyes, Ursa's face invaded her thoughts –so angry, confused, sad and betrayed. "I trusted you! I thought you were my friend!"
But Sakura was her friend. She just wasn't supposed to be.
When she'd yelled at Ursa, she hadn't meant it. She said those things, those cruel things, to make Ursa stop talking. The map had been lying right there before them all and she was certain the Princess had been about to give away her knowledge of the tunnels. She couldn't let that happen. Sakura had never been entirely certain whether there was any connection between Gouitn's cause and the Prince's kidnapping, but if there was, she was certain he had no idea about the tunnels. And Sakura intended to keep it that way, because in that instant she realized they were her best hope to save the Princess.
Below, Sakura could hear the soldiers plotting out their way into the Palace. More than anything she wanted to help them. She wanted to tell Ursa how sorry she was, for everything. But she knew that wasn't possible.
Sakura jumped, turning to see Katara climb into the saddle.
"You can't sleep?"
Katara's voice was so gentle, concerned... Sakura wondered fleetingly if that's what her own mother had been like. Shaking the thought away, she sat up. She hadn't yet told Katara the whole story.
"I tricked her."
Katara frowned. "Tricked who?"
"Princess Ursa. Her tutor, Gouitn, he raised me." Sakura clenched her fists hard. "He told me I should pretend to be friends with her. Just in case."
"In case of what?" Katara asked, though she had her suspicions.
The girl bit her lip, fighting back tears. "In case something went wrong."
"He wanted you to be someone Ursa thought she could trust?" Katara's voice was tender as she knelt beside the girl. "So even if the plan fell apart they'd have something to fall back on?"
Sakura wouldn't look at her, she only nodded.
"Then why did you come to us?"
Sakura blinked. She looked up at the woman in surprise. Katara didn't sound angry at all. "Because she wasn't anything like he said! Gouitn always talked about how weak the Firelord was, how they were arrogant and selfish. He always said it was their fault my parents died." Tears stung at her eyes again. She ignored them. "But... but the Princess was so nice. And she trusted me. She barely knew me a day before she showed me the tunnels." Her voice grew small. "And she'd never had a friend before, either."
"Why didn't you tell her?" Katara asked.
"I didn't know how." Sakura closed her eyes, hugging herself, rocking gently. "But I was going to. The next time I saw her, no matter what, I told myself I was going to tell her."
Katara rested a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. "But the coup happened first, didn't it?"
Sakura nodded. "I couldn't tell her, not with Gouitn and all those soldiers around. When I saw the map lying on the floor... I knew somehow I could help." She looked up at Katara, her tear-filled eyes gleaming brightly in the sunshine. "Finding you was just destiny, I guess."
Katara squeezed her arm gently. "You did the right thing, Sakura."
Sakura knew that she had. She just wished that Ursa would have seen her pocket the map, would have read the look through which she tried so hard to convey the message. But the Princess hadn't. Ursa believed Gouitn; she thought Sakura hated her. And worse, the Princess probably hated her now, too.
"Sakura," Katara said softly. "I'm afraid we need your help."
Sakura looked at her. "My help?"
"We...can't read the map."
Jeong-Jeong had been the first to attempt deciphering the map.
That didn't go so well.
After several long minutes of vain study, he compared it to the manic-inducing venom of the hyena-squirrel and thrust it aside.
Katara thought he was being ridiculous and took it from him with a great show of rolling her eyes. Not ten minutes later she tossed it to the soldier next to her, practically pulling out her hair as she declared, "No offense to the Princess, but even Sokka's masterpieces are better than this!"
The soldiers crowded around, all eager to have a try at interpreting the Princess's drawing.
"Is that a squid?" Wei asked, pointing at a yellow squiggly in a corner.
"No, Wei!" Hoo cried. "It's a map. What would a squid be doing on a map?"
"You're the one who thought that green splotch might be a dragon's head!"
"Well, it could have been symbolic," Hoo said defensively, "A landmark or something to represent a certain part of the city."
"A squid could be a marker," Wei pointed out. "It could represent the bay."
After more bickering and a few meaningful shoves, they decided they weren't getting anywhere. The girl, Jeong-Jeong thought, might be able to show them. Katara retrieved Sakura, and even the girl had to study the map for some long, tense moments.
"I think this is my house," she said finally, pointing at a green mark. "So that would make this" –she circled her finger around a large area coursed with squiggly lines and colored dots– "the Palace."
Jeong-Jeong frowned. "You think?"
Sakura blushed. "Well...I can't be certain. Not without going into the passages."
Katara and Jeong-Jeong exchanged a look. Jeong-Jeong did not look pleased, but he nodded.
"Sakura..." Katara hesitated, a hand resting on the girl's shoulder. "We're going to have to take you with us."
"We can't leave you here alone, but we can't afford to leave anyone behind to protect you." Katara knew Aang wouldn't be very happy that she was fighting. But right now, she told herself, it is absolutely necessary.
"What about Appa?" Sakura asked.
"Appa is part of the invasion plan," Jeong-Jeong said carefully.
Katara smiled. "As always. And besides," she added. "You're the only one who can read the map."
Sakura smiled broadly. They needed her help! She was actually going to help save the Princess.
Jeong-Jeong stared hard at her. "You will follow any order you are given, understood? You will hang back and keep away from any fighting, no matter what. No question!"
Sakura nodded quickly. "Yes, sir."
Jeong-Jeong's frown deepened. "I am not pleased with these arrangements. Children do not belong on a battlefield." Slowly, he shook his head. "But it seems there is no other way."
- Initially I was afraid that the title gave too much away, but I really loved the imagery it triggered. So I kept it. Obviously.
- As you might imagine, Katara was starting to get bored hanging around Ba Sing Se all by her lonesome. Despite Kuei's promises that she and his wife would be the best of friends, Katara can't sit and talk fashion for that long, especially not when all her family and friends are out adventuring.
- Wow, so this is kind of awkward. I was going to launch into this explanation about how my first exposure to fan'fiction' was this comic by Rufftoon and how this one character totally cracked me up, to the point that I actually included him in my story. That would be Wei, whose name I shamelessly pun. Get used to it, my dearies. xD Only, in looking for the right link, I found out that the character's name was actually 'Wu' and so all the guilt I've had about using this artist's awesome character is, well, null and void. Because apparently Wei is actually an original character. Rejoice!
- ...and the running joke continues! ^_^
For the collective works of the author, go here.