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|More from Wordbender||Action/Adventure||PG||Positive||None|
|Ponder, Ponder and Dilemma|
December 18, 2012
Previously in Air
The Guild is planning something for Kuei's coronation, but Zuko and the others quickly learn that isn't the worst. Jeong Jeong is waiting for them at The Jasmine Dragon with the news of Kuzarr's treachery.
Chapter Forty-Nine: Ponder, Ponder and Dilemma
"Avatar Aang!" Kuei cried in delight. "I had heard you were here. I trust everything is...well?"
Aang glanced quickly at General Fong, positioned at Kuei's shoulder, grinning far too broadly. His overly optimistic hopes shattered. "Well enough," Aang replied, carefully.
Kuei's brow twitched in a frown, but before he could ask, Tora laughed lightly. Her arm was linked with her husband's and she glided effortlessly along beside him.
"Well enough?" she said with a smile. "What are you talking about, Avatar? The coronation is tomorrow and everything is going splendidly. The courtyard is arranged and people are already lining up to get in! Can you imagine?" She laughed again and Kuei beamed at her.
"Indeed, your majesties," General Fong said. "Everything is moving smoothly. This is one day the Earth Kingdom shall not soon forget."
Aang had to muster control of his features to keep from glaring at the General. "No, I'm sure they won't. Your Majesty, do you–"
But Kuei's attention was drawn away as Fong dipped his head to whisper in the Crown Prince's ear. Kuei nodded. He turned to Aang. "I must apologize, Avatar, but it seems I am needed for more preparations. I know there is something you wish to discuss; could it possibly wait until this evening?"
Aang forced a smile. "Of course." But Kuei was already out of earshot, led away by the simpering Fong.
Aang scowled as he watched them go.
"That's exactly how I feel," Katara said, appearing at his shoulder. Her eyes were dark with frustration. "I take it you couldn't tell him."
Aang shook his head. "He told me to come back later, but I've got a feeling something else will suddenly come up." He turned to Katara, slipping his hand into hers. "What about you?"
Katara's scowl intensified. "Apparently, Chief Hakoda is resting, and far too tired even to see his own daughter. At least, that's what the completely unhelpful servant told me. I couldn't even get in to see Pakku or Chief Arnook."
Aang sighed. "This is not good."
Katara's fingers tightened around his hand. "We could always force our way in," she suggested, not for the first time.
Aang managed to ignore the twinge of pain shooting through his fingers. "And we'd have half the Palace guards on us before anyone could figure out we're not actually attacking." He shook his head.
Katara sighed. "I know. I'm just frustrated."
Aang kissed her lightly on the cheek. "We all are." He eyed her suspiciously. "But I hear you already vented a lot of frustration at the Fire Nation Palace. Sokka said something about barely getting a strike in edgewise? I'm certainly glad we agreed you'd stay out of the fight for a while..."
Katara blushed. "Isn't it time to meet the others at the tea shop? I'm sure they're waiting..."
Aang chuckled. He allowed her to change the topic. Although he wasn't thrilled that his expectant wife had once again found herself in the heat of a battle, he wasn't angry with her, either. Trouble like that always seemed to follow them. He just liked to tease her.
Her face grew serious once more. "I think I'll stay here, Aang. Maybe there'll be an opportunity to warn my dad."
"Do you really think so?"
Katara frowned. "Probably not. But it can't hurt to be a little optimistic."
"Alright." Aang kissed her before heading off. "I'll see you later."
She squeezed his hand before it slipped away and watched him leave. He could feel her eyes on him until he turned a corner.
What he wouldn't give to take her someplace beautiful for a few days, just to relax. Maybe when this was all over...
A man passed by Aang in the corridor and the scheme vanished from his mind. He could only see the back of the man's head, but Aang recognized it and the familiar orange and yellow robes he wore.
He rushed after the man. "Wait!" Reaching out, he caught him by the shoulder. But when Aang turned the man about to face him, the image of the Air Nomad morphed into what was only a surprised Palace servant garbed in Earth Kingdom colors.
The servant blinked. "Can I, uh, help you, sir?" he asked, eyes darting about nervously.
Aang stared at the stunned servant. Quickly, he released him. "No. Sorry, I thought..." He shook his head. "I thought you were somebody else."
"Of course, sir." The servant spared half a second for the semblance of propriety in the form of a quick bow before scurrying away. Avatar or not, there was a disturbing darkness in the man's eye.
A ragged breath shuddered through Aang's lungs. He could have sworn he had seen the man from his vision, that face imprinted forever in his head by the passing of the Avatar Spirit. Haku. A fellow Air Nomad.
What did it mean? Was Aang going crazy, or was there a chance that something of his past lives remained?
"So here you are." Toph cocked her head. She frowned, wriggling her toes for a better view. "What are you doing?"
The Mechanist looked up in surprise, adjusted his monocle, and crawled out from under the wooden cart he had been working on. "Hello, Miss Bei Fong. I'm just making a few, uh, adjustments here."
Teo grinned. "I call them upgrades."
Dusting off his clothes, the Mechanist climbed to his feet. "We've been expecting you." He removed the dirt-smudged monocle with a frown and tried to rub it clean with his grungy tunic.
Toph smiled. "I take it that means you got my message."
"We sure did!" Teo grinned, rolling his wheeled chair forward to join them. "It took him awhile to perfect it, but we finally got a functioning model."
The Mechanist nodded, though a frown tugged at his lips. "I wouldn't say I've perfected it. There are still several kinks I'd like to work out and ultimately I would develop a superior design. Perhaps something a little–"
"The point," Teo cut in, chuckling, "Is that they're operational and ready for use."
"You said functioning model," Toph said, disappointed. "You've only got one?"
"Well, not exactly," the Mechanist said, replacing his monocle. "There's only one complete one. I'm afraid we were running out of time and the others were merely...thrown together. They don't look like much, but as Teo said, they're fully operational."
"Great!" Toph clapped her hands together. "Where are they?"
Teo was already wheeling away. "I'll go get them."
"Thanks for getting them done so soon," Toph said. "I was afraid you wouldn't have time."
The Mechanist shrugged. "The basic idea was simplicity itself, but your strict specifications did prove a little tricky." He allowed himself a smile. "However, I believe you'll be pleased with the result."
Toph drummed her fingers on the cart. "What about the other project?"
"Ah, yes." The Mechanist rubbed at his chin. "A most unorthodox request. And quite the little puzzle, too, but not to worry. Your specifications were once more quite, er, specific, and luckily I've already been toying around in that area over the last several years, thanks to a few Fire Nation contacts. Ah, here's Teo."
The Mechanist took the hefty satchel his son extended toward him.
"He's being modest," Teo assured Toph. "There's no way anybody's getting out of these. Not even you."
Toph crossed her arms. "Really? We might have to test that out."
The Mechanist pulled from the satchel a pair of wooden cuffs. "Here," he said, placing them into Toph's hands. "As you can feel, I've structured them from smoothed wood." He shared a quick wink with his son.
"Hmm." Toph ran her fingers along the surface. "Yep, feels like wood. Which, of course, I told you probably wouldn't be reliable because someone with enough muscle could break through." She weighed the cuffs in her hands. "But it also feels a lot heavier than wood, so I'm waiting for you to 'wow' me."
"You're right!" The Mechanist cried giddily. "Wood alone was too weak; we tested out a pair on Xin Fu and he was able to break them. Obviously, stone or clay of any kind would be out of the question. You expressly requested the cuffs not to be made of metal because of the possibility of someone someday discovering the art of metalbending, just as you have."
Toph nodded. "So what did you use?"
"Unfortunately, finding a different source of material was next to impossible," the Mechanist informed her.
Teo grinned. "So he improvised."
The Mechanist nodded. He knocked on the solid cuffs with a knuckle. "Instead, I decided to combine the two! The inside of the cuff is a thick band of metal, strong enough to keep anyone in check. I then crafted the wooden shell along the outside to keep the metal away from any earthbenders who might attempt to bend it. Of course, finding the perfect density of wood to metal ratio was a difficulty, but we performed dozens of thorough and quite successful tests."
Toph weighed the cuffs again thoughtfully. "You think they'll even work on a Dai Li?"
Teo shrugged. "Isn't there only one way to find out?"
Toph smiled. "We might be able to manage one preliminary test." She thrust her wrists toward the Mechanist. "Go ahead; clap me in irons!"
"Let me get this straight," Toph said, slouched in her seat in highly unladylike fashion, her arms crossed over her chest. "Not only have we finally figured out that the Guild plans to take the Palace by force during the coronation, but Zuko's brilliant decoy plan has basically backfired and now the imposter has taken control of the Fire Nation."
The atmosphere of the tea shop was glum. Through the previous day and night, a steady stream of arrivals had reached The Jasmine Dragon and the crowd of friends, acquaintances and informants rivaled the first group to have met there only weeks before. The discussions had to be moved from the kitchen to the public tables, which meant the most popular tea shop was closed once again as the sun of another bright day streamed through the windows.
Pipsqueak and The Duke sat together at a table with Ty Lee and Keiko. Across from them, The Mechanist and his son Teo had arrived for the coronation and by special invitation to the tea shop. Flanking the pair sat Xin Fu and Master Yu, newly returned and unsuccessful from their own mission. Since their servitude to the mechanical genius, the two earthbending masters had developed a certain protective nature for the often absentminded man and his lame son. At the moment, however, they were a little preoccupied cowering from the Blind Bandit and hoping to avoid her notice.
Toph had taken a free chair at the same table as Haru and Tyro. The happy reunion between father and son did not last long, not with the news the Fire Admiral brought with him. Jeong Jeong was seated at a third table, with Iroh and Aang. The Admiral's troops were currently awaiting orders in several small inns of the Middle Ring. As Jeong Jeong had informed Zuko, the Fire Palace had been left in the care of Captain Kio and messages had been sent to the other Generals dispersed throughout the Fire Nation to return to his assistance immediately. Seated at the last table, Sokka, Suki, Lilly, Ming and Yuki rounded out the group. Katara had remained at the Palace, in the dim hope she may find opportunity to speak with either Kuei or the Water Tribe Chieftains.
The Firelord was nowhere to be seen.
"Not only the Fire Nation," Iroh told Toph darkly; "Kuzarr has taken Mai and Ursa hostage."
"Right," Toph said, "But he has nothing to do with the Guild? At all?"
"It's unlikely," Tyro replied, his thunderclap brow scowling in displeasure.
As she felt out the twin scowls, it struck Toph for perhaps the first time how nearly alike Haru and his father were. Nearly.
She frowned. "So what's the big deal? Kuei knows all about the decoy and he's got a whole army of his own to protect him from the scary rebels."
Aang and Iroh exchanged glances.
"I can't get to Kuei," Aang admitted finally. "They wouldn't even let Iroh in when Longshot and Smellerbee told him that the Guild were too interested in the coronation."
Toph snorted. "You're the Avatar. Can't you bluff your way past?"
Aang shifted uncomfortably. "It's General Fong."
Tyro's scowl deepened. "Didn't your friend King Bumi warn you about that one?"
Aang nodded. "I can't get a private word with Kuei. Fong's always hovering."
"And you think Fong is the General?" The Duke piped up.
"I'm certain of it." Aang remembered Fong's grin as the General stood at Kuei's shoulder and he felt his scowl return. "He was practically gloating," he muttered darkly, "I should have eliminated him when I had the chance."
Tea halfway to his lips, Iroh started in alarm. He turned to the Avatar. "What was that, Aang?"
Aang blinked back at him, confused. "What was what?"
"You just said something," Iroh reminded, carefully returning his cup to the table. "About General Fong."
"Just that he knows that I know what he's up to," Aang answered with a shrug.
The old man studied the Avatar, but there was no hint of guilt or hatred in his eyes. Iroh frowned. Maybe his ears were playing tricks on him. After all, he wasn't as young as he used to be. And the idea of such a firm pacifist muttering such a regret... Well, it was ridiculous, wasn't it?
Aang turned back to the others with more bad news. "Fong's in charge of a whole battalion, too, so there's no telling how many Earth Kingdom soldiers we'll be going up against in addition to the Guild."
"Greeeeat." Toph sank a little further into her chair.
"We'll have to do our best to head off the attacks ourselves," Jeong Jeong said. "There's no guarantee we'll get help from the Palace."
"How are you going to get in?" Haru asked. "I don't think anyone will be pleased if a group of Fire Nation soldiers starts pushing through the crowd at the Earth King's coronation."
"You're quite right," Iroh said, "Which is why I have elected to premiere my new tea cart at the coronation. It will allow me to keep the tea warm for hours and serve the crowd! That of course means I will need a great number of tea servers at my disposal, which is what most of you will be doing."
The Mechanist adjusted his monocle. "I'm afraid the upgrades I've made to your cart are a little, uh, temperamental. It will be best if it is manned by either myself, Xin Fu or Master Yu."
Toph snorted loudly at the mention of the two names, and the two master earthbenders flinched.
"However," the Mechanist finished with a broad smile, "I think it will work out quite splendidly."
"Okay, so we'll mingle with the crowd," Toph said. "That doesn't solve the problem of two dozen people against the bulk of the Guild."
Sokka leaned forward, "Aang, You might not get in to see Kuei, but what about my dad and Arnook?"
"Katara thought of that, too, and so did Fong. He's making sure we can't get in to see either Chieftain, or even the Council of Five." He shook his head. "It looks like we're on our own."
"Hmm." Toph rubbed her chin thoughtfully, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. "Maybe not. I might have a way to get a message to them."
Everyone turned to her in expectation, but Toph would keep her secret for now.
Zuko sat on the bedside, staring on as Roh-Roh, utterly exhausted, slept the morning away. He couldn't bear to be parted from him, not yet. But as he sat alone in the quiet of the room, his thoughts tugged him away. He watched the boy without seeing him, his mind wandering.
All along, Kuzarr had been a traitor. How was that possible? Zuko had known and trusted Kuzarr for nearly eight years. Kuzarr had acted in that time not only as a bodyguard and occasional doppelganger for the Firelord, but more than once he had put himself in harm's way to protect Zuko. Kuzarr had saved his life half a dozen times. So if Kuzarr had only been vying for a chance to overthrow him, why not simply let Zuko die?
And yet, with the firsthand accounts of not only Jeong Jeong but Sokka, Suki, Ty Lee, and his family's personal guards, he had to accept it.
Part of him wondered –hoped– that somehow Kuzarr himself was being played or blackmailed into this position. Zuko didn't want to believe that a man he had trusted with his life, his country and his family could have been working against him the entire time.
But Zuko doubted it.
Kuzarr was here, posing still as the Firelord, and he had brought Mai and Ursa with him. Aang and Katara had been haunting the Earth Palace the last day and still neither had actually seen his family.
Zuko clenched his fists. Kuzarr would pay, and he would pay dearly.
The door behind him creaked.
Zuko blinked away the fire dancing in his eyes and loosened his fingers.
The floorboards creaked as Aang eased up behind him. "Is he still asleep?" he asked softly, peering over Zuko's shoulder.
Zuko nodded. It had been a long journey to Ba Sing Se in a short amount of time and even before that Roh-Roh had looked worn and exhausted. Zuko reached out and gently stroked the boy's cheek.
"Any luck?" he asked.
Aang shook his head, frowning. "No. Fong and his men have the Palace well-covered. Katara couldn't even get in to see her dad. She's not happy."
The ghost of a smile lit Zuko's face. "I'll bet."
Aang nodded. "So it looks like we'll be resorting to plan B."
The smile flickered out of Zuko's eyes. "It's a bad plan," he said. It wasn't an argument, only a statement. They all knew it was risky and reckless and would probably blow up in their faces."
"Yeah," Aang agreed. "I know. But we don't have much choice. Jeong Jeong's men have already started mingling. Iroh says Longshot and Smellerbee were placed right in the action, so they might be able to give us a heads-up. At least that's one thing going our way."
Zuko nodded slowly. "What else?" he pressed.
"Well...It's not really something. At least, not yet." He felt Zuko's eyes still trained on him. "It might be something. Toph's got a plan of some kind, but she's being secretive about it."
Zuko raised an eyebrow. "Where is she now?"
Aang shrugged. "I'm not sure. She dragged Haru out of here to 'practice'."
"And just what are they practicing?"
Aang chuckled wryly. "Haru didn't look too happy. I know what it's like to be Toph's pupil so I, uh, didn't ask."
"Hello, Iroh. The meeting over already?"
"Katara!" The old man quickly ushered her into a seat and began gathering cups for tea. "Yes, everyone else has gone." He nailed her with a curious eye. "I thought you were staying at the Palace."
Katara pulled a wry face. "I wasn't getting anywhere," she admitted. "A steward told me that my father and Arnook went off to see the sights and that Kuei was in meetings all day." She huffed in frustration. "I figured I might as well come down. Where's Aang?"
Iroh gestured toward a back hallway. "Discussing things with my nephew. Actually, Katara..." He turned his back as he retrieved the tea kettle, but she could hear the troubled frown in his voice. "I'm glad you came. I was about to pay you a visit myself."
"I wanted to ask you something." He finished serving the tea, placing a steaming cup before her. "About your husband."
"Has he been acting at all...strange?"
"What do you mean, 'strange'?" she asked.
Musing, Iroh stroked his beard. "I'm not entirely sure. He said something very unlike him today when speaking of General Fong."
"What did he say?"
Iroh turned his gaze fully on Katara, and the disturbance in those wise old eyes sent chills rippling over her flesh. "He said that he should have eliminated Fong when he had the chance."
Katara's eyes widened. Her mouth fell open. "He... But..."
"The funny thing," Iroh continued, "Was that when I asked him about it, he couldn't seem to remember saying it. It was as though the moment never existed."
Something sparked in Katara's eyes.
Iroh leaned forward. "This sounds familiar to you?"
Katara hesitated. She bit her lip. "Maybe," she said finally. "Last night...he called me 'Ummi'. At least, I think he did. It was the strangest thing. One moment, we were standing together, and the next he held me as though something were trying to pull me away from him. He called out 'Ummi' in a panic but when he opened his eyes he calmed almost instantly."
"Hmm." Iroh's hands cradled his cup, but by the far away look in his eyes, Katara knew he had forgotten about the tea.
"I asked him who Ummi was, but he didn't know what I was talking about." Katara fiddled with her cup, nervously tracing designs along the rim. "Iroh, that's not all."
Iroh raised an eyebrow.
She told him about that night with the Tumultuous Traveling Theatre Troupe, when Aang had slipped into the Avatar State in his sleep. About the feeling that had been haunting him for weeks now. With each word, Iroh's eyes grew darker.
"He doesn't want to talk about it," she said finally. "Not even to me! Iroh, do you have any idea what it could be?"
Iroh slowly shook his head. "I have very limited knowledge of the Avatar's spiritual duties." His frown lengthened.
"But...?" Katara prodded.
Iroh sighed. "But I fear there is something amiss here."
Katara's head sank into her arms. "What should I do?"
Iroh reached across the table and took her hand. "Katara," he said gently, "I recommend that you talk to your husband. He may not want to share, but he does not appear to be handling it well on his own. If anyone can make him see that, it's you."
Ponder, Ponder and Dilemma -I don't know if it's actually a saying, or just something my family always says. We think it would be a good name for a law firm.
Before anyone asks, yes, I really will be posting the next chapter on Christmas. Consider it my gift to you. ;)
For the collective works of the author, go here.