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Toph had slowed her pace, but only just barely. Captain Deshi was limping heavily, but tried his best to keep up with her as she marched down the long palace hallway. Tiles had been uprooted, jagged and irregular, but while the palace guards clumsily stumbled Toph knew exactly where to step like some sort of nimble mountain goat. The palace was still trembling a little – Toph could just barely feel it – like a scared child getting over a fright. Those had been powerful earthbenders, and likely they were moving out towards the bay. Actually, Toph suspected they were already gone. The first instinct of the Firelord's generals was to scramble forces in pursuit, and it was more than likely that the earthbenders had simply disguised themselves.
Of course that would mean they had inside help, but given how smoothly this sneak attack went, Toph had no doubt that something like that had surely happened.
Ash in the air and heat on her face: one of the tapestries was still smoldering, some Firelord's embroidered conquests reduced to sad embers. Toph marched on. "It's, ah, to the left here, Commander Beifong." Deshi instinctively winced. "I mean... Toph?"
Her nose twitched slightly as she thought. The past few days of calm had been interspersed with Toph yelling at them to stop calling her Lady Beifong before she punched them clear into the bay. But Commander Beifong... "No, Commander's good, Deshi." It was true, she liked the sound of that.
The other guards shuffled forward, glancing around anxiously, but Toph merely dragged one foot forward in a circular step, toes brushing against the ashes, and she knew everything they did and more.
The earthbenders had done an ample job cleaning up after themselves. Neat, efficient. Professional. Toph was almost impressed. Their escape had been through a window, and then out through the tunnel in the gardens. Something that smelled like blood in the air, though only a bit – one of the rocks jutting from the wall was a likely candidate. Toph imagined it clearly: Zuko had been trying to desperately dodge, one tripped him, the other made the brick come out of the wall to hit him in the back of the head. Not a fatal wound, but enough to give him serious pause, enough to give them an opportunity to knock his swords out of his grip. Then in desperation he had lashed out the only way he still could with his swords gone. Scorch mark on the marble opposite wall – another tapestry was burned, but not actually on fire. She took a few steps to the wall and pressed her fingertips gently on the marble. The ash was definitely clinging to it in a pattern...
He'd burned at least one of them. Good for Firelord Sparky. All those years of fancy living hadn't made him entirely useless.
His swords stood trapped upright in the marble, like banners planted in some battlefield. More importantly, two things had been very purposefully left behind. One was the Firelord's crown, something Toph had always thought amusingly delicate. But uncrowning a king was a powerful image. Then there was a mask. Toph was certain it was of the same type the fighters had worn, but this seemed a little too perfect, too manufactured...
"Commander Beifong." Toph felt as Deshi pulled himself to attention after picking up the mask. "There's... a message on the inside of this."
"Read it to me."
He did, and Toph's mouth drew into a thin frown.
At the Eastern tower, things had quickly dissolved into chaos, though a chaos Katara was more accustomed to. Casualties dragged themselves in as best they could. For many there was nothing that could be done except lay out their bodies in a dignified manner. The palace guardsmen had been full of hasty replacements, scared new recruits, and it was only because of Toph that they didn't completely scatter. But people apparently having their necks broken from a hundred paces wasn't good for morale.
All of the anxious whispers just made it harder for Katara to concentrate. The half-finished portrait of Zuko on the wall made it even worse. It was powerfully different from those around it. All of the other Firelords looked straight up in a commanding way as if gazing out on past conquests. Zuko had apparently requested to be posed looking downwards. It was a deeply humble gesture. Instead of holding sword or flame, she could see where the artist had sketched in firelilies beneath him. Perhaps even sprouting grass – or were those pencil waves? Katara didn't have time for a closer look. For a moment the thought that Zuko chose to have his indelible image for further generations staring quietly at water, something Katara associated so closely with herself, made her... well, not nervous. If anything she felt a blush running across the back of her neck.
But no time to dwell on that. There was work to do. She could stare later at how Zuko was making his indelible image for future generations to be one of creation and harmony instead of destruction, and wonder why his painted eyes looking serenely, almost yearningly, down into the pond water made her chest ache...
"Master Katara!" A desperate call over across the room brought her attention fully to the present. Two guards were struggling to bring in a familiar-looking figure, though Katara immediately grimaced sympathetically as she saw his injuries. General Iroh. All of them had been caught off-guard, and it showed. She knew Iroh hadn't gone down without a fight, but now color was draining from the old man's face, and despite his inherent strength he was barely able to stumble along. Katara could see the dark stain of blood from a wound on his torso, flesh and stark white bone showing through the torn cloth. It was rather eerily as if someone had just willed his ribs to snap. A less lucky man probably would have been dead by now. As it was Katara had to jump and skip over other guards laying groaning in pain to make it over to Iroh as his escorts gently lowered him to the floor.
She saw him cough, a few flecks of blood staining his white beard. Even as his breaths turned rasping he was still trying to give orders. "Li, if they're taking the war balloons, a team with a grappling hook might be able to catch them -" Iroh cut himself off with another heavy cough that made Katara wince. As she came over to crouch beside him, he gave her a tired smile even as he wheezed and held a hand over the wound on his side. "Ah, Sifu Katara. My apologies for this unwelcome intrusion on your vacation."
"Just rest and try not to speak," she said worriedly, water already at her fingertips, glowing softly as she pried away his hand from his side. It was bad, but not fatal - not when Katara was there, anyway. Iroh was trying hard to keep up a brave face, but as muscle knitted back together over bone, he gave a heavy grunt of pain followed by a rasping gasp. It wasn't long before Katara had to pull away to take a breather. At least the bleeding had stopped now. The people swarming around them, however, had not.
"General Iroh -" Another member of the palace guard tossed him a salute. "Sir, I have a message for you – it's urgent -"
"Master Katara! Commander Beifong needs to speak to you -"
"How urgent is this message?"
"Very urgent, General - "
"I'm sure that with a proper bandage it will heal from hereon out fine on its own, Sifu Katara, no need to expend your energy further – save it for important matters -"
Katara nearly put her hands over her ears and screamed. As it was, she still snapped at him, voice raising. "Just BE QUIET and let me do what I can!"
Everyone was fortunately silent for a few long moments, especially Iroh, who had noticed the soft tremble in her voice. It was just more confirmation for what they all knew. Katara was near tears of frustration, and if one of them started crying, it would set off a chain reaction of despair that would leave all of them momentarily helpless. The last thing they needed was to waste time blaming themselves for Zuko's loss. Blame solved nothing. Only action did.
The guard gave a gulp before speaking again. "General Iroh, sir. I'm afraid this bad news is rather important."
"Go on," Iroh said with a nod while Katara threw her concentration into her work once more.
"The... the Princess Azula has escaped, sir. And free of her pressure-point harness that kept her from firebending. I'm afraid all of the guards assigned to her rooms are dead, as well as the servants."
"I see. And is there evidence...?"
"Yes, sir. She went with the earthbenders."
Iroh quietly closed his eyes a moment in thought, bowing his head. Katara had gotten the wound down to a raw-looking patch of scar tissue, and Iroh could breathe freely now. That was good enough, especially when the truth was hanging in the air so starkly to distract her.
The despair was very tempting to give into, but a shout caught her attention. "Katara!" That was definitely Toph's voice. Already exhausted, Katara pulled herself to her feet. Toph marched at the head of a small formation of palace guards, each of them looking grim. A smooth white mask was in Toph's hand, though she could see a flash of black cradled inside it. Toph frowned as she held it out to Katara. "You need to see this."
Curiously, Katara took it, holding the smooth mask in her hands. It was cool and oddly textured – not clay or wood, but naturally gleaming white even if she was having a hard time feeling any carving marks. It felt almost like ivory... like bone. The face of it was painted simply, dark grey circles around the eyes with tiny dots for eyebrows perched above them, the lips a brilliant ruby red. But the inside of it... Each brushstroke spoke to the fact that someone trained in calligraphy had written the message, and had intended for it to be read. There was no doubt – this was the calling card they were meant to receive.
Katara read it out, her voice quiet yet seeming to echo in the tower underneath the humbled gaze of Zuko's unfinished portrait. All of the injured soldiers quieted to listen. Even Mei Lien stopped her crying. All of them looked to her as she spoke.
"...'All warfare is based on deception, but a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never rise again, nor can the dead be brought back to life.'"
The silence continued even after Katara finished.
"A grim riddle," Iroh finally said, breaking the silence. "Toph, Katara... You need to follow them." Katara shook her head, and Iroh cut her off, holding up a hand. "We have healers here."
"But that leaves the Palace unprotected -"
Toph interrupted her this time, tone kinder than her usual abrasiveness. "They got what they came for. And Aang and Sokka will be back in a few days, as well." She paused before putting a hand on Katara's arm. "They're already loading up the fastest skiff in the navy for us. We'll hit the mainland just behind them.
Katara hesitated for only a moment more before catching Iroh's eye. There was a deep sadness there – begging her to go on and do what he could not. It was too intense, and she had to look away, her eyes unfortunately landing on the unfinished portrait of Zuko and how the artist had painted him looking down sadly into the pool at his feet. If anything that was a little worse, and she brought her hand up to try and hide the tears that were threatening to overwhelm her for reasons she wasn't quite able to explain.
"Fine. Let's... let's get going."
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