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|Of Tension and Tunnels and Targets -Oh My!|
August 25, 2012
Previously in 'Air'
Ursa and Sakura became fast friends in the secret tunnels. Mai's frustration at being kept from the Palace increases. Sokka and Suki called their Kyoshi Warrios to resume their undercover investigation. They've begun to agree with Mai that Rozen doesn't fit the part. But someone else is beginning to look suspicious. Someone who conveniently insisted on guarding the Firelady with his own soldiers.
Chapter Thirty-Two: Of Tension and Tunnels and Targets -Oh My!
"Let me pass," Mai repeated through clenched teeth.
Captain Kio held his ground. "It's not safe, Lady," he insisted for the third time. He was uneasy about ordering the Firelady, and it showed. But the Firelord had made it perfectly clear that she was not to leave.
"I don't care if it's safe or not," Mai snapped, "I'm going to the Palace and no solider is going to stop me."
Kio bristled at the Lady's harsh tone. Ming and Lilly noted the reaction and took a step closer. It was unlikely any action would be necessary, but bodyguards don't work on assumptions.
The distinct clank of armor alerted them to the presence of three more soldiers, coming to their captain's defense. And the fools were gripping their spears.
Ming and Lilly took the situation in stride. Both reached for their own weapons. Ming stepped out to confront attackers, while Lilly stepped close to guard the Lady.
The atmosphere was ripe with tension.
Kio cursed under his breath.
Ever since the kidnapping, the Palace had become entangled in a web of distrust and uncertainty. Kio knew firsthand how much damage rumors in the barracks had already done. Soldiers were beginning to suspect not only comrades, but commanders. Generals wondered at the loyalty of their men. Many were beginning to suspect that the web stretched as far as the throne.
Kio could feel the tendrils of that web tightening around them now. He turned on his men. "Back to your posts," he ordered sharply.
The soldiers hesitated. They glanced at the bodyguards with unveiled distrust.
This is not the time, Kio thought.
He took a threatening step toward them. "Now, soldiers!"
The guards backed off unhappily, muttering. Kio watched until they had each returned to their posts throughout the courtyard. He would have to lecture his men about duty again and remind them where it was their loyalties should truly lie. He hated doing that.
Breathing deep, he turned back to the Firelady.
Neither bodyguard had retreated, but he couldn't blame them. They had no way of knowing who was a traitor and who was not, and soldiers would often fall in behind their commander before their master. So Kio ignored the suspicion of the Lady's bodyguards as he implored her once more.
"The Firelord has placed you into my care, your majesty," he said quietly. "If he believes you are better off here than in the Palace, then I cannot allow you to leave. He is only concerned for your safety."
The Firelady's expression was impossible to read. "I don't care."
Kio sighed. "In that case," he replied, drawing himself to his full height, "The Firelord has ordered that you remain here."
Mai's eyes flashed. She took a step closer to the soldier. The bodyguards tensed; Lilly moved to pull her back, but Ming stopped her.
"The Firelord doesn't order me to do anything." Mai's voice was quiet, but like the similar effects of the stiletto knifes she loved to wield, it was also deadly.
Kio did not back down, though Mai bored her gaze into his eyes. Too busy studying one another and watching for a sign of weakness, neither noticed Ayame's arrival.
"Mai!" Her mother's horrified shout did little to diffuse the situation.
Mai did not acknowledge her mother, but kept her steady glare on the captain.
Appalled, Ayame raced down the steps toward them. "What is going on here?" she demanded. It did not surprise her when neither responded. "Mai," she admonished sharply, "This is not how a Lady acts!"
"I really don't care, Mother," Mai replied tiredly.
Ayame drew herself up. A foreboding figure of opinionated, regal propriety, she huffed, in a ladylike manner, of course. "As ---the--- Lady, you ought to care!" Infuriated that her daughter could act in such a way –after all the training and care she had exerted to teach her otherwise– she seized Mai's hand and wrenched her away from her childish glaring contest.
Even Mai couldn't keep the surprise off her face as she was pulled back. Kio started in alarm. He even reached for his sword, debating whether he was meant to defend the Lady against this. But could such an act from her own mother really be considered hostile?
Ayame faced the captain with a look of painful remorse. "I must apologize for my daughter –Firelady though she may be. Such atrocious behavior is perfectly intolerable!" She kept Mai behind her, as though she were a small, disobedient child being shielded from the eyes of the public. "It's her wrought emotions. After all, the poor thing has been through so much these last days. She's been quite distant and she hardly sleeps. She's distressed!" She smiled sweetly. "You must understand."
Captain Kio bowed politely. He didn't need an explanation. He also knew, even as Ayame pulled her daughter back into the house, that the Firelady would not give up quite so easily.
Lilly exchanged an uncertain –even amused– glance with her partner before hurrying after their charge. Ming, however, held back a moment.
"Your men are a little tense," she admonished.
Kio stiffened. "This is a tense time. They will be dealt with."
Ming cocked her head, watching him. "It is a bodyguard's job to suspect everyone," she said quietly, "No matter where they claim their loyalties lie."
Kio returned her gaze. "It is a soldier's job to defend the royal family and protect them from any threats."
Their eyes locked as they studied one another. Could the other be trusted? Was there any proof to the contrary?
A long moment passed.
Finally, Ming turned on her heel and returned to the house.
"What were you thinking?" Ayame demanded as soon as they were behind the privacy of closed doors.
"I was thinking I'd go to the Palace," Mai said tersely. "It's not a crime."
"No, but it is an issue," Ayame retorted. "That soldier is right; it's not safe for you there. That man Rozen tried to kill you!"
Mai scowled. She turned away from her mother. "I haven't heard from Sokka and Suki in days."
Ayame waved it away carelessly. "Oh, I'm sure there's a logical explanation."
"Capture would be a logical explanation," Mai muttered.
The words were like a physical blow to her mother. She blinked several times, taking a deep breath. "What about Kuzarr?" her mother suggested. "You could ask him."
Mai scoffed. "I haven't heard from him either."
Ayame put a hand to her lips. "There must be an explanation. There has to be. He probably can't get away." The words had little effect on her daughter. Ayame frowned. She put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Mai. I've heard that the Kyoshis are capable warriors. I'm sure they can take care of themselves."
Mai knew they were capable warriors –she'd fought them once, a long time ago, with Azula and Ty Lee. They had defeated them, three to five.
The memory wasn't exactly comforting.
Ursa knew she was playing with fire. In more ways than one. She had never been out this far in the tunnels and so there were no lanterns waiting for her. In her excitement, she hadn't thought to bring one, either. She juggled her ball of flame from one hand to the other. The constant motion helped maintain the energy she put into it, plus it didn't allow her brain a moment to wander off aimlessly. She could be ridiculously absent-minded even when bending unless something kept her attention undivided. Her instructor had crafted a proverb especially for her: 'Hone the brain, or feel the pain.' As long as she bothered to remember it, everything went well.
She'd been searching for well over an hour with no luck so far. She knew she couldn't stay much longer. If someone at the house missed her, she would not only get in trouble, she would probably cause mass panic. But when Ursa had left, everyone was occupied, so chances were good that nobody would notice she was gone.
Ursa was going crazy in that house. She couldn't be expected to just sit around and do nothing, could she?
It had been better when Sakura visited. She was someone her own age to talk with, to relate to. But exploring more of the tunnels would suffice. She could always pretend Sakura was here with her. After all, it was her idea to look for Tutor Gouitn's house in the tunnels. Sakura had wondered if the tunnels stretched that far. She was probably only trying to cheer Ursa up after their unsettling encounter with the Old Man, but Ursa loved the idea. She would find a door near Sakura, she decided. Then they could meet in the tunnels and no one would force anybody to come.
Ursa and Roh-Roh had been to Tutor Gouitn's home a few times, on what he called 'field trips'. She knew she was in the general vicinity and hopefully she remembered enough to recognize it through a crack in a secret door. Hopefully she hadn't passed it already. She had checked several doors already. Some of the entrances were blocked by furniture or stuck from years of disuse. Most were empty rooms, but sometimes there was someone inside. That was why she only opened the door a crack to peek in. So far, no one had caught her, though she startled a few people when the door creaked unexpectedly.
The silence was beginning to unnerve her. Usually, Ursa hummed to herself to keep it at bay, but she didn't dare. Many of the tunnels were placed behind walls thin enough to listen in on conversations. If she wasn't careful, rumors might spread of the ghost that wailed to the tune of Leaves on the Vine.
One more door, Ursa decided. Then she would head back to her Grandmother's house. Maybe Mother would be free. They could have tea and she might show her another knife trick. It would cheer them both up.
Mother was trying hard to hide it, but Ursa knew she wasn't feeling well. She'd overheard her grandmother lamenting about the toll grief and panic was taking on the Firelady. Yes, Ursa decided with finality, she would spend the rest of the day trying to get as many smiles from Mother as she could.
Ursa reached for the door. It eased back but she caught it before it could fully open. Pressing her eye to the crack, she peered through.
A dim glow in the room cast odd shadows on the bookshelves that lined the walls. The shelves were crammed with scrolls and tomes. The secret door was the only section of wall not blocked by a shelf. But Ursa knew why. Above her head, there hung a large tapestry of the Fire Nation insignia, directly opposite Tutor Gouitn's desk. This was his house all right. She was looking in on his study.
She bit back a triumphant laugh. Carefully, Ursa closed the door. She'd found it! She dug out her map and made a quick mark.
Ursa nearly danced her way back. Her flame sputtered in protest as she skipped down the tunnels, but she didn't mind. Soon, she and Sakura could meet together in the tunnels. She could show her a hundred doors and passages, they could talk and laugh and –
Ursa skittered to a stop. Before her stretched a crossroads and she couldn't remember which tunnel to take. Her instincts told her left. She trusted her instincts. But they were also telling her something was wrong. A shiver ran up her spine. She opened her map again. Maybe it could tell her...
The flame in her palm quavered. According to her map, there was no crossroads here. She remembered first exploring this section, examining the collapsed tunnel and wondering if it was stable or if the cave-in was likely to spread. That was why she hadn't returned to this area. She was afraid of the rocks coming down on her head.
Ursa looked down the right-hand tunnel and it was like gaping into the ominous void of some great beast's throat.
Someone else had been here.
After the confrontation with the guards, Ayame refused to leave Mai's side for the rest of the day, convinced her daughter would try another foolhardy attempt of escape. She was haunted by visions of the Firelady scrambling over the outer wall in full royal splendor. No, it was too horrible to contemplate. What would the neighbors say?
She did her best to keep Mai occupied. Ayame found this increasingly difficult as every activity she suggested and every topic she brought up did nothing to intrigue her daughter. They were very different people, she realized in growing frustration. How had that happened?
It was Tom-Tom, sensing his mother's frustration, who finally erected several target boards in one of the sitting rooms. It wasn't exactly what Ayame had in mind, far from it, but it served to distract Mai. She took the first weapon he offered –a shiny shuriken– almost grudgingly and with a bored flick of her wrist expertly sent the lethal star flying across the room. It hit the target with an audible thud, just to the right of the bull's-eye.
Ayame gasped in surprise. "That's amazing!" Mai hadn't even properly gauged the target; she'd been convinced the weapon would shred the tapestry behind the board. She looked at her daughter, but there was a frown tugging at the corner of Mai's mouth.
Tom-Tom chuckled. "You're losing your touch, sis."
Ayame looked between them, confused. "What? What is it? That was almost a perfect bull's-eye! Mai, you weren't even looking!"
"'Almost' is the key word, Mother," Tom-Tom said, grinning. "A few years ago, that shuriken would have been dead-center." He turned to his sister again, his voice turning to a taunting sing-song. "You're slipping."
Mai's frown deepened.
"Mai, don't be childish," Ayame chided. "That is an incredible feat."
"I'm not being childish," Mai said, rolling back her sleeves. From somewhere in their wide folds she whipped out a long stiletto. It poised gracefully between her fingers as she raised the weapon and spun it to pin up some of her loose hair. "It's called practice." She seized a second shuriken and, this time facing the target, flung it at the board.
"Oh! Perfect bull's-eye!" Tom-Tom cried in delight. "Your record's a little tarnished, Mai, but you'll survive."
Mai shot him a glare. "What other knives do you have?"
Tom-Tom brought out a small armory's worth of knives, darts and other throwing weapons. Ayame never realized he had so many. As Mai continued to hit bull's-eyes, Tom-Tom teased and prodded her. He didn't mind her glares and threats, even when he decided to retrieve some of the weapons and she hit the target right next to his head. Tom-Tom had always been comfortable around his sister, which surprised their mother. After all, their age gap was immense and for most of his life Mai had been the Firelady. When Tom-Tom was younger, he idolized his sister. Mai regarded him mostly with disinterest, but he would shadow her whenever he could. He picked up a few habits –like knife-throwing– which his mother would have not preferred. Tom-Tom was quiet, but not as quiet as Mai. He smiled often and laughed easily. Aside from the uncouth knife-throwing hobby, he also liked to tinker, which Ayame considered a perfectly respectable activity.
As Mai reached for another dart, Tom-Tom snatched it up from under her fingers. "Uh-uh," he chuckled. "My turn."
To Ayame's surprise, her son was almost as skilled as her daughter. Even Mai was grudgingly impressed. Doubtless such a hobby was far from regal –something for circus performers to whittle away their time with– but Ayame had to admit there was certain poise and grace to it. It was also an interest Mai and Tom-Tom shared. So as her children debated setting up a particularly difficult challenge, Ayame rose to her feet, set aside her fan and announced "I would like to try."
Mai and Tom-Tom fell silent. They blinked at one another, then slowly turned to look at her in disbelief.
"You want to throw a knife?" Mai asked, doubtfully.
"Yes," Ayame said, a little irritated.
"A knife," Tom-Tom clarified; "A sharp pointy weapon that could put someone's eye out?"
Ayame flushed. "Really, if it's too much trouble to show me, then–"
Mai took her hand and led her to the array of weapons. She glanced them over quickly –dismissing Ayame's suggestion of a slender dart which she later discovered was tipped with shirshu venom– and placed in her hand a slender knife.
"It's quite plain-looking, isn't it?" Ayame said, eyeing the weapon and surprised to feel a little disappointed.
"You're a beginner," Tom-Tom said. "Now Mother, you want to hold it like this."
"Focus on your target," Mai instructed.
"Not so tight. When you throw it, you shouldn't have to launch it. It should sail from your hand like a sparrowkeet."
"Concentrate on the target. Don't let your mind wander. Don't take your eyes from it. There is nothing but the target."
"Now ease your arm back," Tom-Tom said, guiding Ayame's hand, "and line it up with your line of vision."
Ayame blinked. "But–"
"Concentrate," Mai urged.
"Relax," Tom-Tom advised.
Ayame forced a deep breath, staring down the target with a baleful gaze, her arm so relaxed it was almost lifeless.
Mai and Tom-Tom exchanged uncertain glances.
"Now when you're ready," Tom-Tom began –
Ayame thrust her arm forward. The knife flew from her hand like a buttered steamed bun and soared toward the target, past the target, and straight through a painted vase.
"Oh dear," Ayame breathed as the shattered pieces rained down.
Tom-Tom laughed. "Or you could do that!"
Mai shook her head. "You forced it."
"Forced?" Ayame repeated, utterly confused. "But it sailed!"
Tom-Tom snorted. "Like a buttered steamed bun. Come on, Mother, you didn't even wait for instructions."
"Weren't those instructions?" Ayame asked, bewildered.
Mai and Tom-Tom shared a knowing look. Amateurs.
Ayame pushed back her hair and rolled up her sleeves. "I want to try again," she declared.
Mai couldn't help smiling. Tom-Tom handed his mother a second knife, quickly snatched it away before she could launch it, and made certain he had the chance to demonstrate. Mai was actually having fun. Ursa would love this. She should be here.
Mai frowned. Where was Ursa?
Ursa slipped into the hallway and slid the door shut behind her. She leaned against it to rest a moment and catch her breath. Who was she kidding? She was trying to summon every ounce of courage she could muster. She was not looking forward to telling her mother but she knew it was unavoidable.
Someone else had been in her tunnels. They had excavated her tunnels. And she knew what they had used them for.
Ursa felt sick. Her tunnels, her refuge, her secret adventure –that was how the kidnappers escaped with Roh-Roh. It was the only thing that made sense. She had heard her father and Jeong Jeong. The alarm had gone out almost instantly. No one should have been able to escape the city, especially with a reluctant boy in tow. But now Ursa knew. They had traveled the tunnels to avoid detection, down to the bay where they probably had a ship waiting.
She knew the question of how the kidnappers had managed to escape was still haunting many people, including her mother. It was also why so many people were suspicious of Joji. Maybe when she showed them the tunnels they would stop blaming Joji. Wouldn't it prove he wasn't a traitor? Ursa felt a surge of hope. Could it be that there was no traitor after all?
It was enough to bolster her courage. She started down the hall. For the first time she realized how still it was. There was always a servant purposefully bustling about but now the corridors were empty. Ursa frowned, picking up her pace. She could hear vague voices, loud and upset. She didn't know what the shouting was all about, but she knew it was about to get a lot worse.
Mai wasn't given much time to panic. Besides, her mother was fretting enough for the both of them.
The house had been searched and then thoroughly scoured. There was no sign of Ursa anywhere. Yuki, cursing herself for being a blind badger-mole, had pulled every person into the sitting room. She was trying to establish a timeline of when the Princess had been last seen but it got out of hand after Tsaira made the pointed remark of Joji's being on guard at that side of the house. Yuki's already frazzled short temper snapped. Now everyone was shouting. There was so much noise Mai couldn't think. What was the matter with these people? Why couldn't they shut-up and figure out where her daughter was instead of laying the blame on each other?
Mai stood. If these people were just going to argue, she would find Ursa herself. Her mother was still clinging to her arm and Mai was uncertain if she was supposed to comfort her or find it comforting. She gently pried her arm free and skirted the crowd.
Lilly stepped into her path. "Stay here, my Lady. We don't know if the house has been compromised."
"If it's been compromised," Mai said evenly, "Then Ursa is in danger." She could feel the eyes turning to her, hear the silence wash across the room. "And if Ursa is in danger, I'm going to get her out of it."
There was a gentle rap on the door. The surprised crowd turned as one to the doorway and gasped. Princess Ursa –looking bedraggled, shaken, and filthy but unharmed– stood awkwardly watching them all stare at her.
Ursa swallowed hard. "I apologize. I didn't mean to make everyone worry."
Her words broke the stunned spell. Her grandmother actually fainted. As she swooned, two attendants just barely managed to catch her. Yuki turned bright red, her voice cracking in a mix of relief, anger and dumbfounded surprise: "Princess!"
But her mother said nothing. Mai seemed completely calm. She stepped past Lilly, knelt beside Ursa and enveloped her in a tight hug.
Ursa knew then how much she had scared her mother. She could feel it in the hold of her arms and she was sorry. She began to cry but she fought the tears.
"Where were you?" Yuki demanded hotly, but neither paid her any attention.
"Mother," Ursa said, "I'm sorry. I'm really, really sorry. For everything. But there's something I need to tell you."
Mai finally pulled back. She looked Ursa over, the dirt and grime and soot coating her face and clothes. "What were you doing?"
Ursa swallowed. This was the part she was dreading. If she started now, she would have to tell her mother everything. How long ago she'd found the tunnels, how she explored them all alone, how she'd used firebending to do it even when her instructors explicitly ordered her not to experiment without supervision. How she had kept it a secret. She averted her eyes. She couldn't bring herself to look at her mother and see any more of the pain she had caused. "I was in the tunnels," she said softly. "The system of secret tunnels that run all over the island that I found a few months ago."
Mai blinked. For a long moment she didn't say anything. She gently wiped the tears from Ursa's face and, finally –"So that's why we couldn't find you."
Ursa stared at her mother. "You...You're not angry at me?"
Mai raised an eyebrow. "Angry? You discovered a few abandoned tunnels and instead of telling your father and me, you decided to have a taste of adventure and placed yourself in unnecessary danger. I'm livid!"
Ursa flinched. Her mother hardly ever raised her voice.
Mai took a deep breath. "I'm just glad you're safe."
Ursa shook her head. "But we're not safe, not any of us! I thought the tunnels were forgotten, but somebody else knows about them. Someone cleared one of the blocked paths. They must have used it to get Roh-Roh out. Even with all the guards, they could get to us. There are doors everywhere, even in the house!"
Mai held Ursa to calm her. "We are safe," she assured her. "We can guard the tunnels." She hesitated. "Ursa, are there doors in the Palace?"
"What do you mean you're going undercover?!"
"Calm down, Mother." Mai played with her hair, trying to tease it up into an unrecognizable style. Already, with the servants' garb she'd been mistaken for a maid. "It's not like I've never done it before."
This did little to reassure her mother. "Oh!" Ayame lamented. "How could I have raised such a child?" She kept fanning herself with a large, beautifully painted fan. She seemed to be threatening Mai with another fainting spell, throwing her hand dramatically to her brow.
"Something's wrong," Mai bit out, annoyed. "I just know it."
"Perhaps they just haven't found the time to communicate," Ayame insisted.
"They would," Mai snapped. "I haven't heard anything about the Kyoshis for too long. Something happened."
Her mother frowned. "But why do you have to go, darling? This is ridiculous! There is no need to place yourself in unnecessary danger! Surely one of my servants–"
Mai's already frayed temper snapped. "I don't trust them!" she shouted.
The room went suddenly still. Ayame flinched, took a step back in surprise.
Mai instantly regretted the harsh words. She took a deep breath, fighting to control her temper. She rose and placed a gentle hand on her mother's arm. "I don't trust anyone, Mother. At least, not right now." She shook her head, turning back to the bureau. "It's more than just the Kyoshis that's bothering me. Whoever took Roh-Roh knows more about the Palace than they should."
"But, dear," Ayame began carefully, uncertain of her daughter's unusual behavior, "That's already been explained. That horrible man Rozen betrayed secrets to them."
Mai's eyes flashed. "I don't believe Rozen is a traitor any more than Jeong Jeong does. I believe it now more than ever. These tunnels that Ursa found...I've never heard of them. I don't know that Zuko has, either. But whoever helped kidnap Roh-Roh knew about them. ---And--- they brought in earthbenders to clear the way. That took time and preparation. If I can find the door that they used," Mai said, almost to herself, "I may be able to learn who the real traitor is."
Ayame's voice faltered. "You think there is still an enemy in the Palace?"
Mai nodded. "This is something I have to do myself, Mother."
"But..." Tears stung at Ayame's eyes but she quickly blinked them away with a few flutters of her thick lashes. "But what if something happens to you?"
Mai opened the drawer of her bureau and pulled out a leather pouch. She unfolded it, revealing rows of various perfectly kempt knives, styles both classic and exotic. She began slipping them into the folds of her robes, hiding them every place imaginable, and a few that weren't.
Finally, Mai secured the last knife and swept the leather pouch aside. As she examined her reflection for any tell-tale signs of her secret armory, she saw the worry and fear in her mother's eyes. After all that time spent teaching Mai to control her emotions, Ayame wasn't nearly as good at it herself.
Mai touched her arm. "Don't worry. I can take care of myself."
Ursa was making a duplicate map. Under heavy guard. Yuki was still giving her a tongue lashing about sneaking off like that, but Ursa had long stopped listening to concentrate.
When her mother finally returned, she barely recognized her. Some of the soldiers didn't. They tried to bar her from the room but one glare from Mai and they were bowing and scraping.
"Is it finished?" Mai asked.
"All done!" Ursa jumped to her feet.
Instead of taking the finished map, Mai dropped down to her knees and hugged Ursa close. "I won't be gone long," she whispered.
"Be careful, Mom," Ursa whispered back, swallowing away her tears.
They held the hug a long moment before Mai pulled away. She took the map from Ursa.
"Don't think we're not going to talk about this. Your father will be less than pleased."
Ursa tried to look nervous, but she was too scared for her mother.
Mai smiled at her. "I'll be okay."
Captain Kio made a last futile attempt to stop her. "Lady, I can't allow this."
Mai's face remained expressionless. "You don't have a choice, Captain." Ming and Lilly had been less than pleased with her decision and she'd argued as much as she was going to. The bottom line: she was traveling to the Palace and there was nothing they could do to stop her. "Step aside."
The captain did not budge.
Ming took a threatening step forward, but Mai waved her away.
"I will not let you compromise your safety," Kio said.
Mai considered him for a moment. "Captain," she said finally, "I don't know whether to applaud your valor or suspect you of hiding the truth from me."
Kio looked stunned. "Your majesty," he stammered, "I have always–"
Mai sighed tiredly. "I don't want to hear your defense," she interrupted. "I'm tired of words. I can't tell anymore who's a liar and who is an ally. What I know is that I am not the only one in danger and it's idiotic for us to waste time like this. Something is going on in the Palace; I know it is. I will not allow you to keep me from it."
The captain said nothing for a long moment. "If you're right, and the kidnappers know about these tunnels, there's no telling how many traitors are in the Palace by now. You'll be walking into a trap!"
The outburst was greeted by gasps of shock from the onlookers.
"I know," Mai said quietly. "I'll be ready for it."
Kio scowled at the Firelady. Didn't she know the folly of her plan? He had half a mind to chain her majesty to a chair. He couldn't let her leave. "No," he said, and the word was more forceful than he had intended. "I will not allow it. I will send one of my own men to the Palace and–"
The captain took a step closer to the Firelady. Alarm bells went off in Ming's head. She lunged forward, pinning Kio to the wall.
Someone screamed. Lilly leapt before the Firelady, her weapon drawn. Yuki swept the Princess behind her.
The soldiers started in surprise, but they resisted the impulse to attack. The battalion had received quite a tongue-lashing after the events of the morning. Don't act, Kio had insisted; Not unless I order it.
They looked to their captain now, but Kio did not speak.
No one moved for a long moment. Slowly, the tension in the room began to ease.
Kio didn't struggle under Ming's harsh grip. He took a deep breath. "Your majesty, I understand that you may not trust me. It's hard for you to trust anyone right now. But it's my job to protect you, and I can't do that if you're out of my reach."
Mai studied Kio carefully. "You'll have to, Captain. No one can know about this. That secret is the difference between my safety and my peril. Keep it."
She turned from him and nodded to Ming. The bodyguard reluctantly released the captain, but not before a final warning glare. She returned to the Lady's side as Kio brushed himself off.
Ming stood before the faint fire emblem in the wall. Fire flickered between her fingers, forming a ball of flame that she pressed into the insignia. Without a sound, the door slid back. Ming lit a lantern and handed it to the Lady. Mai took it with a thankful nod and stepped into the passage with one last wave to Ursa.
Her daughter's was the last face she saw as the door closed.
This is the first time I've posted two chapters in one week. But hey! I'm super excited about all the support you guys have been giving Air in theand with the . I wanted to show you all my appreciation! Thanks, you guys! I have the most awesome readers, and yeah I'm bragging about it. ;) </br> Celebrate good times, come on! ...yep, that song's gonna be stuck in your head. You're welcome. ;)
I was in A Mood when I titled this chapter. Maybe you noticed.
- You think?
Still, I think it's appropriate. It sums up the chapter to a tee.
- ...Now I've got We're Off to See the Wizard stuck in my head.
You're welcome. XD XD XD
Things are certainly heating up in the Fire Nation. This was a really fun chapter for me to write. I enjoyed focusing on Mai more, and especially on the dynamics of the relationship she has with her family. And I gave Ayame a knife to throw. XD
And lucky you, this chapter's a long one. Topping off at 5,403 words, it could very likely be the longest one yet. But I'm too lazy to check. So...yeah. :)
For the collective works of the author, go here.