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|Out of the Frying Pan...|
November 27, 2012
Previously in Air
With the help of Sakura and the Princess' nearly illegible map, Katara and the others managed to infiltrate the Fire Palace and rescue the Kyoshi Warriors. Their forces now doubled, they intend to reclaim the Palace and confront the traitor, Kuzarr.
Chapter Forty-Six: Out of the Frying Pan...
The explosions assaulted the front of the Palace. As the invaders began their search, they didn't encounter a single soul. The soldiers were drawn toward the attack while the servants were probably cowering in a corner as far from the action as they could. Just as well.
They started with Mai's quarters. When they found that the door was locked, it gave them all hope. Ming and Lilly kicked it down without waiting for instructions. The two bodyguards charged headlong into the room and the Kyoshis could do little but charge after.
The chambers were perfectly in order and completely uninhabited. A fine layer of dust coddled every object.
Suki ran a finger over the bureau top. "No one's been here for a few days. Not even the servants."
"It's possible Kuzarr kept her someplace else," Lilly said. "He could have made it look as though she'd locked herself in."
Everyone knew Ursa wouldn't be in her quarters, but they checked anyway. It was in the same pristine, unlived-in state.
Katara put her hands on her hips, scowling. "Where could Kuzarr hide them?"
The bodyguards put their heads together. "Perhaps in the Firelord's rooms? Or maybe one of the less frequented towers, in guest quarters."
"Wouldn't someone notice?" Suki asked.
That gave Ming an idea. "The servants, they know everything. If something suspicious were going on, they would notice."
"All right," Sokka said, "Where's the nearest servants' quarters?"
Jeong Jeong and his men did not encounter such an easy path.
They knew Kuzarr would be in the throne room. Where else would a man pretending to be the Firelord hole up? But to get there, the invaders would need to fight through the Palace guards.
As Hoo peered around the corner, he noted that the guards were clustered together, spears ready, bodies tense. They were just waiting for a fight. "Oh great," Hoo moaned, watching them jump and squirm every time an explosion went off. "They're on edge from the bombs."
Jeong Jeong ignored the corporal's complaint. "How many?"
"About thirty, sir."
Jeong Jeong nodded. He signaled the charge.
And charge they did. It was an odd attack, with mixed reactions from the guards. The invading soldiers ran at them, yelling and shouting, waving weapons high, as though they were trying to frighten away a boar-q-pine instead of form an attack.
What the guards noticed first about their attackers was that they were led by Admiral Jeong Jeong. This baffled them even more than the surprise attack. They knew they weren't doing anything wrong, and the chances of the Admiral turning against the Firelord were about as good as that ridiculous notion that Zuko would run off with that waterbender.
Logically, the guards assumed that there must be some enemy about that Jeong Jeong meant to eliminate. They glanced around to see who it might be. But they were the only other people in the corridor.
By the time they realized that they truly were under attack, Jeong Jeong and his men were almost upon them. They barely had time to react.
Jeong Jeong knew only too well that the Palace guards would soon recover their senses. And when they did, they would fight for their sworn duty and protect the Firelord from his enemies, whether it was his trusted Admiral or not.
"War Minister Shinu! The Palace is under attack!"
"What are you talking about?" barked Shinu. Who would dare attack the Fire Palace? Especially when the Avatar had only just flown in that morning?
"They're being attacked from the air," the soldier panted. "By someone on board the Avatar's flying bison."
Shinu scowled. What was the first thing you learned in military training? You could never really trust anyone. Even in times of peace, your allied nations were usually looking for a way to stab you in the back.
But he hadn't expected this, not from the Avatar...
He narrowed his eyes. Avatar or not, Shinu backed from no enemy.
"Men!" he shouted; "Let's move!"
Sokka knocked politely on the open door. "Excuse me; can you direct us toward the royal family?"
The servants were huddled together in the back of the room. At the sight of this man with his crazy grin, holding a beautiful and very sharp sword, the light of battle dancing in his eyes –well, all the maids screamed.
Katara snickered. "Nice going, Sokka."
Stepping through the doorway, Suki held her palms outward in a sign of peace. Her fans were hooked on her belt but the joy of battle still blazed bright in her eyes, too. A few of the maids whimpered but none of them cried out again.
"My name is Suki." Her words were gentle and soothing. "I'm a Kyoshi Warrior. The Palace is under attack and we're here to protect Firelady Mai and Princess Ursa. Where did the Firelord send them for safety?"
The servants glanced uncertainly at one another.
"I haven't seen the Lady and Princess in days," one offered, hesitantly.
A valet stepped forward, jaw firmed. "Neither have I. Last I saw, they were in the east tower."
"East tower." Sokka nodded, herding his friends back down the hall. "Check."
"Thank you!" Suki called over her shoulder.
As the invaders ran off, an older maid snickered. "They won't be thanking you when they get there."
"Why did you send them to the east tower?" A young servant asked. "The Lady and Princess were never there."
The valet drew himself up proudly. "I'm not stupid. I've seen the Kyoshi Warriors, and those weren't them."
"How could you tell?"
"They weren't wearing their uniforms! Didn't you see that they were dressed in royal servants' garb? Obviously, it is they who are attacking the Palace."
Captain Kio was not a fool. Ever since the Prince's kidnapping, things in the Palace had gotten weird.
Fire rebels started acting up like they hadn't since the early days of the Loyal, drawing most of the generals away from the Palace.
The Kyoshi Warriors had shown up to protect the royal family and soon after they had disappeared without a trace.
Lady Mai had gone after them and they'd received no word from her for so long that the three bodyguards had ventured into the tunnels after her, taking the Princess with them, without so much as a by your leave. That same evening, Kio had been reassigned back to the Palace. He was informed that the royal couple had finally made amends and Mai, who had barely talked to her husband for weeks, now hardly left his side. Kio wasn't good at reading the Firelady's masked emotions, but he was pretty certain she was unhappy.
As for Princess Ursa, he was expected to believe that the little girl who had handled her brother's kidnapping so bravely had suddenly given in to despair. She'd locked herself in her room and hadn't been seen since.
Then there was the Firelord. He had completely changed when his son was taken, grown distant. And while many couldn't blame him for that, in the last week he'd become...creepy. He refused to see anyone face to face. The usual air of congeniality in the council meetings turned tense and rigid, as the Firelord disregarded the opinions he once esteemed and slowly assumed suffocating control. A man could hardly breathe without permission. The Firelord had become short-tempered and unforgiving, even with Firelady Mai. After their 'reconciliation' he had assigned new bodyguards for his family; Yuki, Ming, Lilly and the others were nowhere to be found.
And now Admiral Jeong Jeong was attacking the Palace and headed with great determination for the throne.
Kio was actually quite tempted to have his men throw down their arms and surrender. At the rate Firelord Zuko was falling, he reasoned, it wouldn't be long before 'fatherlike son' was muttered in these halls. That was something the world didn't need.
But Kio was a captain first, and it was his duty to protect the Firelord. Although, he wasn't quite prepared to attack the Firelord's most trusted advisor, either.
So he decided to do neither.
Jeong Jeong headed his attack; Kio was first among the defending guard. The Captain planted himself squarely in the Admiral's path, facing him down. Yet he did not attack.
Around them, the two sides collided in battle.
Adrenaline roared through Kio as the fighting erupted about him. His hypervigilant senses noted inconsistencies within the battle. While his own guard struck to halt the enemy at any cost, Jeong Jeong's soldiers merely aimed to incapacitate. The invaders relied on the shafts of their spears and the arsenal of their hand-to-hand skills; they did not expose the blades of their weapons or conjure a single flame.
Jeong Jeong moved to strike him down –not a harming blow or even a bending move. That cinched it.
Kio dodged the attack. He raised a hand to stop the Admiral. "What's going on?"
Jeong Jeong paused. His eyes betrayed his curiosity.
If Kio could fuel that, perhaps he could finally make sense of everything. "There are a lot of questions being raised around here," he shouted above the fighting, "And the identity of the true traitor is still one of them. You and Firelady Mai were both convinced Rozen was framed. I'm beginning to wonder if somebody's played me for a fool!"
His sharp words carried over the clash of spears. The soldiers and guards –some clashing together in mid-strike– hesitated.
"Is there something going on I should know about?" Kio demanded. "Or is this just a quest for power?"
The air crackled with tension. Men gripped weapons. Sweat trickled down necks.
Jeong Jeong's reply was calm. "The man on the throne is not the Firelord," he said quietly. "He is an imposter."
Kio narrowed his eyes. He wanted answers, yes, but even for him that was far-fetched.
"He was placed there as a decoy to protect Zuko." Righteous vengeance blazed in Jeong Jeong's eyes. "But he has betrayed the Firelord and seized power."
Kio was unconvinced. "I think the Firelady would have done something about that."
"We believe she has been kidnapped."
"I've heard she's resourceful," Kio countered; "She'd think of something."
"The Princess was also captured."
Kio mulled this over. He knew Lady Mai would never endanger her children... "It seems awfully convenient."
Jeong Jeong shrugged. "Believe me or don't. But I am taking back the Fire Palace in the name of Firelord Zuko."
Kio really wanted to believe Jeong Jeong. After all, this would explain the Firelord's erratic behavior of late. But the story was insane. Everyone knew it. That was part of the reason it was so tempting to believe. Only an idiot would try to pass that off as a cover story and Jeong Jeong was not an idiot. That rather indicated that it was true. Didn't it?
"Prove it," Kio said finally.
Jeong Jeong's eyes narrowed.
The guards tensed.
"His scar," the Admiral said thoughtfully. "It is not real. Colored paste; it can be wiped away."
Kio mulled this around. It seemed plausible...That might explain why the Firelord was keeping himself so distant, lately. Especially after this imposter 'took over'. Supposedly.
The Captain shook his head. "Sorry, I'm going to need something else. The Firelord isn't home right now."
"No one's here!" Katara cried in dismay.
Suki was the first to piece it together. "They lied to us."
"What?" Sokka spluttered. "After I did the whole 'heroic protector' thing, and you did the whole 'I'm sweet not dangerous' thing? How dare they!"
"Relax, Sokka," Katara said. "I can't really blame them. I mean, look at us."
Suki nodded. "We don't exactly fit the Kyoshi Warrior look."
"So now what?"
No one in the group had a ready answer. But someone else did.
"Now, you surrender."
Sokka and the others turned in surprise. A squad of Palace guards stood behind them, ready for a fight.
Katara attempted to mediate. "You don't understand; we're here to help!"
"Yeah!" Sokka cried. "The Palace is under attack."
"We know," said one, releasing a shot of fire at them.
"What do you mean the Firelord isn't here?" Jeong Jeong demanded.
"He left for the Earth Kingdom," Captain Kio replied, surprised by the sharp demand. "For crown prince Kuei's coronation."
A few paces off, his spear in mid-counter against the shaft of a guard, Hoo cried, "There's your proof! The kidnappers said not to leave the Palace. The real Firelord wouldn't have gone."
Kio frowned at them. "The Firelord received a new demand from the kidnappers," he told them. "After the coronation, they want him to publicly announce the surrender of the Fire Nation's warships and war balloons to the other leaders of the world."
Jeong Jeong scowled. "Doesn't it seem convenient that the kidnappers would suddenly change their mind?"
Kio didn't look entirely convinced. "Are you saying this imposter of yours teamed up with an organization of rebel earthbenders to kidnap the Prince in order to get Firelord Zuko out of the country on the off chance he might be used as a decoy so he could seize power?"
Jeong Jeong spread his arms. "It is an absurd story. I have few details and no proof. But consider: aside from the pretender, the Firelord, Lady Mai and myself, only the Kyoshi Warriors, Councilor Rozen, General Tzen and Colonel Ryuk were informed of the plan. Rozen was framed for an assassination attempt that never happened. I was sent to investigate the phantom rebels shortly after Zuko's departure, as were Tzen and Ryuk. The Kyoshis and the bodyguards to whom the Firelord entrusted the safety of his family were all imprisoned. We have just released them and they are now in search of the Firelady and Princess Ursa.
"You yourself have said there are a lot of questions arising, Captain." Jeong Jeong spread his arms. "Couldn't this be the answer?"
Katara met the fire blast head on, stifling it with a thick stream of water.
Suki and Ty Lee always preferred the offensive. Suki ran at them, flipping open her golden fans, and Ty Lee cart wheeled forward.
A soldier charged at Suki, spear aimed for her midsection. She blocked it with a fan. The spear lunged uselessly at open air. As the soldier stumbled forward, she swept into a kick at his lower legs.
Ty Lee paralyzed three men before they realized the danger in her dainty fists. Three more circled her at a safe distance, brandishing fire balls.
Suki leapt to her aid, felling one with a flying kick. Her landing was off. She teetered and bounced into a handstand, landing squarely Before she could strike her next opponent, he punched out with a fist of flame.
Glittering in the light of the fireballs, a boomerang arced through the air and clonked him soundly on the head. The guard faltered. Sokka snatched the boomerang as it returned.
Only the third man remained and he was a little startled by the boomerang trick. Ty Lee took advantage of his surprise and somersaulted toward him. A quick jab made his leg useless, another numbed an arm, and one pinched nerve in the shoulder slumped him to the ground, unconscious.
Meanwhile, Sokka, Keiko and the bodyguards were having a hard time getting at any of the guards past Katara. She laced her fingers with a continuous supply of small ice daggers and hurled them, one set after the other. Most guards melted the missiles before they hit, but a few of the slower ones found themselves pinned to the wall by their clothes.
Sokka finally managed to maneuver out from behind his sister. Keeping to their hope of not killing anyone, he decided against drawing his sword. He'd learned enough tricks over the years that he could make do without it.
A guard with a spear lunged at him. Sokka stepped aside, moving like liquid. As the spear pierced the air to his left, Sokka whipped round, seizing the shaft with his right hand. He completed the turn, dragging the unwilling guard behind him. The guard's grip on his shaft loosed and he hurtled into Katara's waiting water streams.
Soon, they ran out of opponents.
Ty Lee watched as the last guard fell away with a look of shock as his legs crumpled beneath him. "I guess that's everyone." She looked back at the others. "What now?"
"I don't think Kuzarr would keep Firelady Mai and the Princess too far away," Joji said suddenly.
Yuki grunted thoughtfully. "The kid's got a point. If anyone began to doubt he was the Firelord, he'd be relying solely on the Firelady and the Princess to keep up his act. He can't afford to let them out of his sight."
Ming clenched her fists. "The rat's probably holed up in the throne room. I bet that's where he's keeping them!"
Kio considered the Admiral for a moment. Jeong Jeong's face was a frightening mask of determination, but he seemed to be telling the truth.
"Let's say for a moment I believe you," Kio conceded, measuring the Admiral's reaction. "I just have one question: What do you plan on doing now?"
Jeong Jeong raised an eyebrow.
Kio shrugged. "I think it's a reasonable question. Your fake Firelord is away in Ba Sing Se and the only people here in the Palace for you to fight are your own comrades. So what's your next move?"
Jeong Jeong studied Kio thoughtfully. Slowly, he raised one hand.
Kio tensed, preparing for a second onslaught.
But the Admiral's signal was one to lay down arms. The great hall echoed with the clang of weapons as they clattered to the tile floor.
"If what you are saying is true, then I will peacefully surrender to you, Captain."
Kio's eyebrows shot up. He admitted that he hoped Jeong Jeong truly wasn't a traitor, but this was not the answer he expected.
"I have two conditions," Jeong Jeong added. "The first, that you send a messenger to Kuei informing him of the coup. Firelord Zuko has already made him aware of his impersonator and the plan to rescue his son. I assume that the Avatar will be attending the coronation as well. Between the two of them, they should be able to stop whatever treachery is being played."
Kio nodded slowly. It seemed a reasonable demand and, more importantly, something Zuko's most trusted advisor would say. "And the second condition?"
Jeong Jeong's gaze was level. "You must tell me where Firelady Mai and Princess Ursa are."
Kio frowned suspiciously. "Why exactly do you want to know that?"
"I promised the Firelord I would keep his family safe. Once I am assured that they are –and as far away from the pretender as possible– I will surrender."
The hair along Kio's arms stood on end. His blood turned to ice as terror filled his soul. What Jeong Jeong said made sense. Worse, it was logical. And if it was true, then the Palace had been infiltrated. An enemy now knew all secrets worth knowing. The royal family was in danger and the Fire Nation itself could waver already on the brink of defeat.
"Surrender?" came a sudden scornful cry. "I won't give you the chance, Admiral Jeong Jeong!"
War Minister Shinu stood panting at the head of a battalion of armed troops. Reinforcements. The War Minister struck a dramatic pose, leveling his finger at Jeong Jeong.
"Attack the traitor!"
- I hope all my fellow Americans had a great Thanksgiving weekend! (Even if you aren't American, I hope you had a great weekend!) The festivities seriously messed with my writing schedule, but hey. Every once and awhile a girl just needs to party. ;)
- 'Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire' is a phrase I first learned from The Hobbit. I'm obsessing over Tolkien's work right now. But isn't everyone?
- Ouch, was that another Zutara jab? I'm really not mean, I promise; it just amuses me. And as Tim Hawkins says, if you can't laugh at yourself...laugh at other people. ^_^
For the collective works of the author, go here.