|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||None|
|In His Clutches|
November 6, 2012
Previously in Air
Undercover for days, Mai finally learns that strange sounds have been heard within the Palace and believing it may be a clue, she sets of to investigate. Meanwhile Ursa, worried about her mother, convinced the bodyguards to go in search of her. While Ming and Lilly search out the Firelady, Yuki and Ursa stumbled upon Sokka imprisoned in the dungeon.
Chapter Forty-Three: In His Clutches
Mai tried to remain inconspicuous. Unfortunately, that was a feat nearly impossible to anyone scouring every inch of the corridor walls. She slowly ran her hands over them in search of a small indentation. Many passersby stared openly. When asked once, Mai told him, "I've lost my scarlet beetle-gnat." The valet actually bought the excuse, though he scurried away as quickly as he could.
Mai was searching for a door. Ursa told her that hidden insignias marked where the passages could be accessed. Mai could not open any door she found, of course; she wasn't a firebender. But it might lead her to some clues.
The maid had said this was where she heard the noise, only a few days ago. That lined up with about the time the Kyoshis disappeared. Was it possible their absence was somehow directly related to Roh-Roh's kidnappers? But why would earthbenders still be creeping around the secret passageways, if their mission was accomplished and their getaway clean?
Perhaps, Mai thought as a chill settled over her frame, their mission wasn't finished. At least, not all of it. They could be meant to keep an eye on the Firelord. Next on their list could be another kidnapping, an attempt to grab Ursa. Or they could merely be keeping a protective watch over their spy, wherever, whoever, he was.
One way or another, Mai intended to find out.
She finished examining a section of wall with no luck. Before her was the door of a chamber. Like all the other chambers she'd come across, Mai was determined to search it, too, for a hidden entrance.
Mai rapped on the door. When there was no reply, she slowly pushed it open and stepped in. She was careful to close the door before she began; no use inviting onlookers. As the door clicked into place, she heard a rustling of robes behind her; the sound of someone rising to their feet.
"I don't usually like to be interrupted," came a cold voice.
Mai fought back a retort. "I apologize, sir," she said levelly, turning to bow. "When no one answered I–"
The words froze in Mai's throat.
The man smiled at her. It was not a pleasant smile. "I will of course make exception for you, Lady Mai."
It was the right branch that led to the Palace, as it turned out, not the left as the Princess had said. Lilly and Ming lost their way several times, but soon found themselves in a kind of echo chamber. The chattering of servants and the dignified tones of the occasional scholar or nobleman bounced off the walls around them. The different voices were clear, though the words were garbled and difficult to understand. The farther down the echoing tunnel they rebounded, the more morphed and confused they became.
"I think this is it," Ming said, unnecessarily.
Lilly shot a glare in her partner's direction. Ming's words joined the other muffled voices around them, earning its own hundred repetitions.
They moved slowly along the passage, trying to disentangle the words around them and pinpoint those of any interest.
"...make exception for you, Lady Mai."
Lilly froze, pulling Ming to a stop. The words bounded closer, distorting among the other echoes. "...exception... mmrphm... Lady Mai..."
Lilly pointed farther down the corridor. Ming nodded. The voice had definitely come from farther ahead.
They moved carefully, crouched close to the wall in hopes of better hearing.
"Let me go."
Ming gasped. This time it was she who grabbed hold of Lilly and hauled her to a stop. That was Lady Mai's voice!
"In due time," came the reply.
This voice was familiar, too; Ming knew it was. She just couldn't place it, not distorted as it was. She ran her hands up and down the passage's dirty side. There had to be a way through the wall!
The voice continued, "But I can't have you ruining the plan."
That was all the two bodyguards managed to overhear before one of the shadows cast by their lantern moved.
"What are you doing here?!" Sokka demanded.
"Looking for you!" Ursa cried. Her heart leapt in elation only to plummet into the dark depths of uncertainty. She'd found Sokka, but if he was imprisoned...
Sokka throttled the cell bars. "Well you shouldn't be!"
"You're not safe here!"
Yuki whirled to face this second voice. It was Suki in the cell opposite. Ty Lee and Keiko appeared alongside her, grungy, tired, but no worse for the wear.
"We'll get you out," Ursa assured them.
"No!" Sokka snapped. "Run!"
"What's going on?" Yuki demanded. "Who locked you up?"
Rozen appeared beside Sokka in the cell. "Get the Princess out of here," he ordered the bodyguard, his voice an unanticipated calm in the rage of questions. "Take her and Lady Mai as far from the Palace as you can."
Yuki leveled her eyes on Rozen for an instant, considering. It appeared the Admiral and Firelady's suspicions were correct; he wasn't the traitor. Yuki shook her head. "The Princess is right. We can get you out of here. We've got enough people to–"
"No!" Rozen's voice boomed in the dingy prison. Yuki blinked. Like his mentor, it was not often that Rozen raised his voice. That he lifted it now from his usual certainty stretched it taut, betraying all his doubt and fear.
"We don't know who to trust anymore," Suki said. "Get Mai and Ursa out of here; we can take care of ourselves."
Ursa reached through the bars and grabbed Sokka's arm. "Who did this?" She tried to glare the answer right out of the Kyoshi, as she had seen her mother do on occasion. Her gaze was so intense in her small, angelic face, that at any other time in any other place it would have made Sokka grin. But not now.
Sokka knelt down to look Ursa in the eye. Only the truth would make her act, he knew, and so the truth he gave her as he returned that adorable, serious gaze.
"Kuzarr." Mai's voice was cold, unsurprised.
"So the truth is finally out." Kuzarr grinned. "I'm so relieved. As if pretending to actually be the so-called 'Firelord' Zuko wasn't bad enough, I had to convince you to trust me."
"We already trusted you, Kuzarr." Mai glanced at the other men in the room. She knew who they were. She had seen enough of them in Ba Sing Se to last a lifetime. "I guess we were wrong."
"You guess right." Kuzarr gestured to his guards and they drifted forward to surround her. Mai didn't bother to fight back; now was not the time.
"Tell me, where is your lovely daughter?"
Mai remained silent.
Kuzarr laughed. "Not to worry. I'm sure she'll be joining us soon. I took the liberty of sending some reinforcements to assist Captain Kio as soon as you started snooping around. She'll be joining us any moment."
Mai's heart sank. Ursa.
"I hope you don't mind, Mai."
For years, Mai had resented her inescapable new label of 'Lady'. She didn't like the proper title much, and she'd much rather prefer being called by her own name. But not from him, she decided; not with that smirk and those twinkling black eyes. Coming from him, her own name had never sounded so insulting.
"Lady Mai," she said. Her voice was calm, but her eyes burned. She crossed her arms and examined him thoughtfully. "So you're the spy."
Kuzarr bowed his head slightly, as if accepting the praise of an admirer.
"You took my son."
Her voice remained level and yet it writhed with such vehemence! Kuzarr shrugged. "I admit the kidnapping was a messy business, but it served its purpose."
He wanted her to ask the question, but Mai stubbornly refused to play his game.
Kuzarr pretended not to notice. He answered the unspoken query. "It was only the means to lure Zuko away. Without him, look how easily I've disposed of his allies, assumed the throne. And the Fire Nation doesn't even know they have a new ruler." He smiled at the naivety of such helpless koala lambs.
Mai seemed to consider this. She narrowed her eyes. "There's one thing I don't understand."
Kuzarr laughed, his eyebrow twitching up curiously. "One thing?"
"Why would you team up with Earth Kingdom rebels?"
All amusement drained from his face. "That one," he replied, "I will let you figure out on your own. You'll have plenty of time to think it over."
He gestured again, and one of his men grabbed hold of Mai while two more began to pat her down for weapons. And weapons they found. They pulled them from her sleeves, her waistband and more than a dozen concealed odd pockets.
"This is like disarming a warship," one muttered, tugging a large sai from behind Mai's back and setting it with the others on a tray for examination.
As the assortment of weapons piled up, Kuzarr began to scowl. After all, he was only human. A single one of those blades could easily have killed him. Obviously, Mai had lost her touch or she would have done that already.
Finally, his men stepped away from the Firelady.
"Is that everything?" Kuzarr demanded dryly.
As a matter of fact, it wasn't. Mai could still feel a few choice weapons hidden in her more expert and clever hiding places. But she wasn't about to share that.
"Take her to her quarters," Kuzarr ordered. "And make certain she is not disturbed."
Mai kept her cool gaze level on Kuzarr as they began to pull her away. "Zuko's still out there, Kuzarr. You haven't won yet."
Kuzarr laughed again. "It will only take time. Do you really think I'd let him loose, even in the Earth Kingdom? I'm not stupid. Trust me, Mai –Zuko is never coming back. I've made arrangements for it."
Sokka spoke to the Princess as though to another Kyoshi Warrior. He did not sugarcoat the truth. There wasn't any time, and Ursa needed to know how much danger they were all in. "Ursa," he said, "Kuzarr is the traitor. Your father trusted him as much as any of us. Kuzarr had a few men with him when he caught Suki and me. Some of them were earthbenders, but some of them were Fire Nation soldiers. I don't know how many more side with Kuzarr. You need to run, Ursa, and you need to do it now."
Ursa's eyes never left his gaze. Sokka was like another uncle to her, and Suki and Ty Lee were practically family; she refused to leave them behind.
She held herself high, every bit a regal Princess. "Yuki," she said with authority. "Can you find the key?"
"No!" Sokka tried to grab hold of her shoulder through the bars, to shake some sense into her, but Ursa sidestepped. Sokka gripped the bars, shaking them instead in his frustration.
Yuki began searching for the key.
"Ursa," Ty Lee said desperately, "Think about your mother. Wouldn't she want you to get to safety?"
Ursa took a deep breath, her mask for command and confidence quickly deflating. "Mom went undercover in the Palace."
Suki's hands tightened around the bars. "How long ago?"
"Two days." Ursa closed her eyes. "And I haven't heard from her since." She looked back at Suki and her voice grew small. "He's already got her, hasn't he?"
No one spoke. No one needed to.
Ursa shook herself. She tried to stand tall. "Then I'm going to need your help rescuing her, aren't I?"
The Kyoshis exchanged significant looks; even Rozen shared it. Ursa knew it, too.
"Ursa," Suki began gently, "There's no guarantee we can–"
The sound of pounding feet interrupted them.
Yuki burst back into the section of the corridor. "They're coming!" she cried. "A whole squadron of soldiers. I heard them say they've already been to your grandmother's; we can't go back."
Sokka gripped the bars tight. "First you need to worry about getting out of here!"
The pounding came faster, closer.
Yuki tugged on Ursa's arm. "Come on, Princess!"
"We'll try to hold them back!" Suki cried, though she knew there wasn't much they could do.
"Just keep running!" Sokka shouted.
"Keep the Princess safe!" That was Rozen's order.
Yuki had to drag Ursa along behind her, so reluctant was she to leave them. They were finally out of sight when the battalion of soldiers barged around the corner, weapons and fire balls ready. The squadron charged down the corridor, squeezing between the cells.
Perhaps not the wisest move. Sokka plunged his arms through the bars and caught a soldier, wrapping one around the man's spear arm, the other around his neck.
Suki, Ty Lee and Keiko didn't have much in the way of weaponry. The soldiers had removed their necklaces on the off-chance they might be able to pick the lock with them. But they didn't bother confiscating their bracelets or head ornaments, as they were far too big and bulky. Lucky for the Kyoshis big and bulky and small enough to fit between the bars. The ammo was limited, so they made every throw count. And, being Kyoshis, they didn't miss once.
But even Kyoshis can't hold back a tide so outnumbered from within cages.
Yuki knew they wouldn't have much of a head start. If the Kyoshi Warriors had been free to ensure their escape, the bodyguard wouldn't even have bothered a pace quicker than a leisurely stroll.
The sound of running feet echoed behind them.
"Hurry, Yuki!" Ursa pulled on her arm. "Hurry, or we're not going to make it!"
Yuki knew they weren't going to make, not unless something else slowed the soldiers down.
Ursa knew it too. She tugged harder at her bodyguard, tears streaming from her eyes.
Yuki pulled roughly away from her. "Go, Princess. Run!"
"For once, Ursa, listen to me!" Yuki bellowed.
Ursa stared at her bodyguard. Yuki had never before called her Ursa. Always 'your majesty' or 'Princess'.
Yuki watched her go, making certain the honorable, optimistic child didn't stop. It would be just like the Princess to stop and wait for her. But she didn't. Ursa knew how serious this was. She was smart.
Yuki turned back the way they had come, just in time to spy the first soldiers rounding the corner.
She balled her fists until the knuckles cracked. "Come and get it, boys."
Yuki was an amazing fighter. Ursa knew this from watching her practice, from her own self-defense lessons with her bodyguard. She wanted to believe that Yuki could fight them off single-handedly without breaking a sweat, and then come to find her so they could rescue the Kyoshis together. Storm the palace. Save the day.
But Ursa also heard the sounds of the running feet, so many feet. And she knew that Yuki –despite her fervent belief and hope– was not invincible.
So Ursa ran. She ran as fast as she could, and when she found the passage door and opened it, she didn't stop running. She knew there wasn't even time to retrieve the lantern. It would have given her away anyhow, provided a light for them to follow. Ursa doubted if the door would have slid completely closed by the time they caught up and the lantern would fall into enemy hands. Ursa kicked it on her way past, exerting every ounce of helpless frustration into the effort. The lantern shattered into a thousand pieces against the passage wall.
Ursa didn't stop running for a long time. She wasn't sure where she was going; in the panic of the moment, fear for her friends, and the adrenaline coursing through her system, she hadn't really thought about it.
Finally she collapsed to the floor. She curled up as small as she could against the wall, trying to keep her deep breathing quiet. Just a moment, though she knew she should keep moving. She needed to think.
Yuki said that the soldiers had already been to the house. That meant her grandmother and all the guards were caught, too. It meant that she couldn't go back. So where could she go?
No where. Everyone I can trust is caught.
Everyone? What about Sakura? She had trusted Sakura enough to show her the tunnels in the first place, hadn't she?
Ursa would have to find her way without her map. It was tucked into her waistband, but she still had no light. She may have been half joking when she'd talked with Sakura about her 'royal' sense of direction and even when she told Yuki she could find her way through the tunnels blindfolded.
She really hoped she hadn't overestimated herself.
Gouitn's yelp would put a fire ferret to shame. He leapt several feet into the air and when his feet touched ground he whirled about with murder in his eyes. The furious expression quickly froze to shock and drained away in a splutter of confusion.
"Princess!" he gasped. "When...How...What are you doing here?" His eyes searched the room frantically, trying to discern how the Princess had gotten in.
Gouitn had been alone in his library when Ursa snuck in through the passage. There was really no way around giving the man a fright: he was planted between her and the door.
Sakura rushed in at Gouitn's cry. Her feet froze beneath when she caught sight of Ursa and she stumbled.
"I need your help," Ursa said quietly.
"With what?" Gouitn demanded. He quickly composed himself. "I mean, of course, what could the royal Princess possibly need from us?"
Sakura's eyes bored into her with a ferocious intensity, as though trying to relay some message, but Ursa didn't have time for cryptic decoding.
"There's a traitor in the Palace," the Princess declared.
Gouitn tried to laugh, but it was a strange noise. "A traitor, your majesty? That's –that's preposterous!" His hand flew to his face, stroking furiously at his fluffy sideburns. He began to pace.
Ursa fell into step beside him in his pacing. "It's true, Tutor Gouitn. He imprisoned the Kyoshi Warriors and kidnapped my mother. He's taken over the Palace!"
Gouitn paused to look at her, for the first time taking in the small and determined adolescent, covered in dirt and grime and yet still somehow managing to maintain her regal stature. The giant tapestry of the Fire Nation insignia provided a dramatic and symbolic backdrop.
Gouitn's thin lips parted in a sympathetic smile. "Oh, my dear princess. I know."
Chills raced up Ursa's spine.
With a quickness that belied his girth, Gouitn grabbed hold of the tapestry and yanked it hard.
Ursa tried to dodge, but she wasn't quick enough. The heavy tapestry fell on top of her. She kicked and struggled, but the weight of fabric smothered her.
"In here!" She heard Gouitn's cry, muffled by her prison. Then the sound of heavy, metallic footsteps. Soldiers.
Gouitn was a traitor, too.
They couldn't take the chance of the Princess escaping –and they'd heard she was a feisty one– so instead of releasing the Princess, they maneuvered the tapestry around her. With only her head free, it was quite an effective prison.
Princess Ursa glared back at her captors in defiance. She refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing her desperate, broken, or beaten. She would keep her head up until the end. Someone would rescue her eventually, if she didn't manage to escape first. Her father wouldn't be gone forever. Uncle and Toph and Aang and Katara were still out there.
So fierce was her resolve that not even the victorious leers of Gouitn could bait her. Then she noticed Sakura. Ursa couldn't read the girl's eyes, but her 'friend' didn't seem surprised as the soldiers moved around here. She made no move to protest or intervene.
"Ah." Gouitn smiled, and this time the sight annoyed Ursa. "I see you've caught on to our little trick."
Ursa turned to stare at him.
"How else did you think we would gain your trust?" Gouitn asked. "You didn't seem to be warming up to me as well as we'd hoped."
Ursa knew she should bite her tongue. "You were a bad tutor," she said, with as much calm as she could muster. "'The best teacher is the one still willing to learn'."
A strange, certainly undignified sound escaped Gouitn. His face tinged purple as he throttled at thin air. "You and your stupid proverbs!"
Ursa didn't even allow herself a smile. She turned to Sakura. "And you?" she demanded.
Sakura looked away.
The tutor's hands dropped to his sides. "She had to make friends with you, Princess," Gouitn spat. "And she hated every minute of it."
Ursa felt tears brimming in her eyes. She bowed her head so they wouldn't see. It was then she caught sight of something on the floor. Her map! It must have fallen out during the struggle. Her mind raced. She couldn't let them find that.
Ursa glanced up quickly, to see if anyone else had noticed.
Sakura cool gaze rested on her.
Ursa knew then there was no chance the tunnels and their routes would remain secret. And suddenly, she was just too tired and too angry to care.
"I trusted you!" she shouted. "I thought you were my friend! I shared my secrets with you, I–"
Sakura leapt forward, her foot stomping on top of the map. "Quiet!" she screamed at Ursa. "Don't you get it? It all meant nothing. I don't care about you; I used you."
Ursa lunged at her. She didn't get far with the tapestry weighing her down. Her captor squeaked in surprise and threw his arm around her shoulders, dragging her back.
"Take her out of here," Gouitn ordered with an imperious wave of his hand.
As Ursa was dragged toward the door, she tried to grab for the map. But it was impossible. And now it was left in the hands of Sakura. The hands of her enemy.
Sakura watched impassively as the Princess was hauled out of the room.
"Good work, Sakura." Gouitn patted her shoulder, proud for an instant. Then he was off, wandering away somewhere and forgetting all about her.
In a matter of seconds, Sakura was alone, left to her own devices, as always. Checking to make certain no eyes were prying, she bent down, scooped the map off the floor and tucked it away in her pocket.
- Now be honest -was it worth the wait? I hope so. I could not justify slicing this chapter up and messing with the giddy, infuriating roller coaster of emotion. ;)
- Careful -my movie nerdness infected this chapter:
- "There's one thing I don't understand..." "One thing?!" -Clue
- When the guards are confiscating Mai's weapons, far more than anyone suspected, and Kuzarr asks, "Is that all?" -this is a callback to a scene from Oscar. A scene that I was hoping to find a clip of on YouTube, but as always I can never find the clips I want. So just go pick up the movie yourself. It's hilarious.
For the collective works of the author, go here.