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|Meanwhile, Back in the Fire Nation...|
October 30, 2012
Previously in Air
After learning that her daughter had discovered a forgotten system of tunnels beneath the city, Mai snuck into the Palace disguised as a servant in the hopes of finding the Kyoshi Warriors, leaving behind Ursa as well as the bodyguards and soldiers meant to protect her.
Chapter Forty-Two: Meanwhile, Back in the Fire Nation...
Ursa paced her room. Her hands felt awkward by her side so she clasped them, but she could feel her own trembling and let them swing once more.
It was two days since her mother had left to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Ty Lee and the other Kyoshi Warriors. So far, there was no word from her. Ursa wasn't the only one worried. The atmosphere of the house was tainted with anxiety, everyone waiting to hear from the Firelady and everyone dreading that they wouldn't. Of course, the last thing Mai had said was that communication would probably be impossible, as she had no sources on the inside. But still.
More than anything, Ursa wanted to storm into the tunnels and find her mother. She couldn't just sit here and do nothing! Of her whole family, she was the only one who was just sitting and waiting. Her father had refused to; so had her mother. Ursa decided she would, too.
Unfortunately, she couldn't quite manage it. Yuki kept her constantly under guard. She'd even enlisted Tsaira and Joji to help her keep an eye on the Princess. Yuki was appalled that Ursa had managed to sneak off dozens of times without her knowing. Maybe even more so than Ayame, who was constantly brow-beating the bodyguard about her inadequate performance. Ursa received her own fair share of tongue lashing, from both her bodyguard and grandmother. Sometimes from both at once.
Ursa knew that, if she could get into the tunnels, she could find her mother. She knew the passages in and around the Palace well enough to find her way blindfolded, and there were plenty of places to listen in on conversation and servants' gossip. If something had happened to her mother, she would hear about it there. Then, she could come back and tell Yuki and the others.
Then, they could finally do something, instead of sitting here, waiting.
But Ursa also knew that sneaking back into the tunnels wasn't an option.
So instead, she asked for permission.
"You're kidding, right?" Yuki's voice was flat, her expression blank. It was clear that even if the Princess hadn't been attempting a joke to lighten everyone's spirits, she'd better make it one.
Ursa, displaying the same stubbornness as both her parents, refused to back down. "No, Yuki," she said, employing every skill Gouitn had taught her to deliver the words with regal clarity. "I want to go into the tunnels."
"It's not going to happen, Princess."
They were not alone in the room. Since Firelady Mai's departure, people seemed reluctant to remain alone. The air of the grand house was cautious, empty. Suspicious. Patrols began going out in pairs or threesomes; those guarding the gates and doors of the house and grounds were never left alone at one time. The servants clustered together, hurrying to assist one another in their chores so they were never on their own. Even Ayame, who had tried to put all her daughter's suspicions and undercover nonsense down as ridiculous paranoia, hardly left Ursa's side.
"Don't even think of pursuing the subject, Ursa!" Ayame exclaimed, horrified. "How could you even suggest such a thing?!"
Ursa sighed. "'To the smallest branches of the tree do the roots lend their wisdom.'"
Ayame rubbed her temples. "What does that even mean, child?"
"It means 'mother-like daughter,'" Ursa explained, hands on hips.
Her grandmother frowned.
Yuki shook her head. "Not only did your mother instruct me to keep you here and away from those tunnels," she said, forcing the words out slowly, "But your father ordered me to keep you safe as well. What would I tell them?"
Ursa frowned. "Everyone else is doing something." She bit her lip, forcing back tears. "And I'm just sitting here!"
"Waiting doesn't make you weak, Sury," Tom-Tom said gently.
"I didn't say it did!"
Eyes throughout the room turned toward her. A particularly skittish servant jumped.
Ursa sniffed and wiped at her eyes. "Sorry."
Tom-Tom pulled his niece into a tight embrace. "Somebody's got to wait, Sury," he told her. "Someone always does. This time it's you. Wandering around in the tunnels just to do something won't accomplish anything useful."
"But it would!" Ursa insisted.
"Certainly," her grandmother cried. "You would surely be caught, but that would only prove useful to whatever scoundrels are responsible for this whole mess!"
For a moment, everyone in the room stared at her. Ayame attempted to ignore them, but her words brought on a sudden shock. Ursa's grandmother had staunchly refused to admit that there was anything really happening, ever since the traitor Rozen had been put away. Her words now destroyed the last, small bit of reassurance left to them; those words brought certainty.
"I wouldn't get caught," Ursa said quietly.
Yuki snorted in disbelief. "There's no guarantee of that, Princess."
"You're not a warrior or a spy," her grandmother reminded. "If someone really has snuck into the Palace, they would be skilled veterans. You'd be no match for them." She fanned herself with the ornate fan. "I don't even know why we're discussing this."
Ursa shook her head. "They wouldn't even know I was there! There are places in the tunnels where you can hear people talking. All I need to do is get in and listen."
Yuki tapped her chin thoughtfully, intrigued.
"You're not actually considering this!" Ayame cried, aghast. "I won't allow it! I won't!"
"Not for the Princess, of course," the bodyguard quickly assured her. "But these tunnels may provide us with the upper hand." She glanced around the room, at the helplessness staring back at her. They were all tired of waiting. They were worried. "That is something we sorely need now."
Lilly straightened up. "I'll go. After all, it's my responsibility to keep the Lady safe."
"Then that means I'm going, too," Ming chipped in.
Ayame rubbed at her temple. "This is ridiculous!"
Yuki stood. "I'm going, too." She glared pointedly at Ursa. "I've got to see for myself just what kind of mischief the Princess has been getting herself into under my nose."
Ursa smiled sheepishly.
"And what about the Princess?" Ayame demanded. "Are you just going to leave her here defenseless without her bodyguard?"
"Of course not." Yuki gestured at Tsaira and Joji. "She'll be in good hands."
Tsaira shot a suspicious glance in Joji's direction. "Are you sure about that?"
Yuki stared Tsaira down. "Yes," she replied firmly. She knew the young bodyguard's only crime was inexperience. "And this will give Joji the chance to prove himself."
Joji straightened himself, standing a little taller.
Yuki turned to Ursa. "We'll be needing your map, Princess."
Ursa took the map out of her pocket. But she did not give it to her bodyguard; she clutched it tight. "I'm going with you."
"Then I'll sneak in after you," Ursa insisted. "And no matter whom you leave me with, or how many, I'll find a way in." She held Yuki's gaze. "You know I will."
Yuki scowled. She didn't know for a fact that the Princess could fulfill her threat. But she didn't really doubt it, either.
"Ursa! Don't be ridiculous!" her grandmother cried. "You're not going in and that's final!"
But Ursa ignored her grandmother. She mustered up every bit of courage, every inch of imperious command she possessed. "It would be much safer for me to travel with the three of you, than to sneak in by myself, Yuki. What will it be?"
"Which way?" Yuki growled.
Ursa consulted her map, though it wasn't really necessary. "The Palace is to the left, but..."
The lantern Yuki held cast shadows over the wrinkles in her fierce scowl. "But?"
"If we go right," Ursa said carefully, "We could check the prison."
Yuki winced. "The prison which, of course, you've never investigated. Right, your majesty?"
Ursa's eyes remained glued to the map. She made no reply.
Yuki slapped her palm over her face. "Princess, you're smart enough to know better!"
"If we check the prisons first," Ursa plowed on, ignoring her bodyguard, "We can know for sure that none of the Kyoshis are really being held there and get that worry out of the way."
And if the Kyoshis were being held there, they all knew, the quicker they found them and rescued them, the better.
The bodyguards exchanged glances.
"Maybe we should split up," Lilly said. She was uneasy about choosing one search over the other; either could prove a life and death difference for Lady Mai if she was in danger. "Could you find your way without the map, Princess?"
"To the prisons?" Ursa cast a quick glance at her bodyguard. She lowered her eyes and nodded. "...Yes."
"Ming and I could listen for news of the Firelady while the two of you check the prisons," Lilly said.
Yuki looked unconvinced. "It's not exactly the safest bet..."
"It is if the Firelady's life hangs in the balance."
Yuki scowled. Lilly was right; but she really didn't want to take Ursa into the prisons. Unfortunately, at the moment she didn't have any choice. And it wasn't as if the Princess hadn't been there before. She glared again at Ursa; her charge was going to hear words about this.
"All right," Yuki relented. "But at the first sign of trouble, run. Their forces could outnumber and outmatch us."
Ming and Lilly nodded reluctantly.
Yuki knew that, if it was the choice between running and fighting, there was no guarantee any of them would take the high road and race for help.
Ursa handed Lilly the map.
Lilly examined it carefully, holding it closer to her own lantern. "What are these squiggly lines?"
Ming and Lilly exchanged uncertain glances.
"The red spots are good listening places," Ursa told them, "And the green spots are doors."
"What are the blue spots?" Ming asked.
Ursa frowned. "There aren't any blue spots."
The four leaned in to scrutinize the map. There were definitely blue spots.
"Hmm. I have no idea." Ursa shrugged.
Lilly's face remained expressionless. "Maybe we'd be better off without the map."
"If it's a good listening spot you're looking for," Ursa said helpfully, "The tunnel we're in now forks down there a ways. If you take the left branch, it takes you straight through the Palace along the main hall. A lot of people pass through, so you'd probably hear something."
Lilly nodded. "Sounds like a good idea to me. Left branch you say? Here, you keep hold of this. You might need it." She passed the illegible map back to the Princess.
"Good luck," Yuki told them.
Ming chuckled. "You, too."
Out of the corner of her eye, Tsaira watched Captain Kio. When Yuki told the officer her plan to venture into the tunnels for reconnaissance, Kio had whole-heartedly agreed. That is, until he learned Yuki had no intention of taking him –or any of his men– along with her.
Tension between the soldiers and bodyguards had been stretched taut ever since the incident just before the Lady's disappearance. The bodyguards were trained to trust no one and now that all loyalties were being tested, the men standing beside them looked suspicious. Soldiers lived for their loyalty and to have it so openly questioned was a deep offense –and equally suspicious.
Kio had been less than pleased with the arrangement. So much so that Yuki had pulled Tsaira aside just before leaving.
"Watch him," the senior bodyguard had ordered. "I don't like what's going on and I like even less that the man the Firelord specifically requested to ensure his wife didn't leave her forced retreat keeps trying to butt his way into this."
So Tsaira watched him.
Captain Kio ignored her gaze, but when he spoke to his men, he dipped his voice and turned his face out of sight.
Tsaira decided she didn't like this situation much, either.
Ursa did not make a habit out of touring the prisons. In fact, she never had. As soon as she'd identified where the door lead, she'd marked it with one of her danger symbols. Exploring the prison would not only be dangerous and stupid, it would also get her into a lot of trouble.
But the other tower... It was still a prison, but as far as she had discovered there was only one occupant, in one cell. And she wasn't planning to visit the Old Man today.
Yuki and Ursa carefully pulled the door open. They stood for a moment, lurking in the dark doorway, checking for witnesses.
"I think it's clear."
"You have the patrol routes memorized, too?"
Yuki usually wasn't this sarcastic, but Ursa knew she'd upset her bodyguard. She had been allowed a certain amount of unorthodox lenience, and she had abused it.
They treaded carefully through the prison halls. Yuki kept one hand firmly clamped on Ursa's shoulder, watching for any sign of danger or discovery.
Ursa wanted to wriggle free, but she knew that wasn't among her current options.
They passed many empty cells before they began ambling by inhabited ones. Many prisoners were reasonably curious at the sight of this pair; they stepped up to the bars, staring or smiling or calling to them. Others barely seemed aware of the bars around them, let alone the finely-dressed girl and her bodyguard.
"What are you two doing down here?"
"Looking for me?"
"Did the little girl get lost?"
Yuki glowered at them. Their first impulse was to laugh at the woman, but when they caught sight of her deadly eyes and toned muscles they decided to take a few steps back, just in case she tried reaching through the bars to grab at their throats.
Both Ursa and her bodyguard jumped in surprise.
Sokka lunged for the bars of his cell. "Ursa!"
What?! You end it THERE?!
- Are you kidding? It's not often I get to employ such a dramatic cliffhanger. Of course I'm ending it there. (See, Mage, I can do it too; muahaha!)
But...it's so short...
- I know. There, there.
- This chapter is particularly special. Because it is the forty-second chapter of the fanon. And the number 42, as we all know, is important because...? [This is a trivia question, my dear readers.]
- The title of this chapter brings back fond memories of Lemony Snicket. Who, I just learned, has released the first book in a new series. Does this mean we'll finally get some answers still unquestioned from the last series? ...Yeah, I seriously doubt it, too.
- I am particularly fond of Ursa's indecipherable map. One of my better running jokes, I think. ^_^
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