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|Schemers and Lemurs|
November 20, 2012
Previously in Air
Suspecting foul play, Jeong Jeong and his men returned to the Fire Palace. Along the way they encountered Katara, bored with waiting in Ba Sing Se, and Sakura, who begs them to rescue the captured Princess and reveals the existence of the tunnels. Unfortunately, no one but Sakura can decipher the map and the girl must guide them into the Palace.
Chapter Forty-Five: Schemers and Lemurs
Sakura was determined to lead them down the right passages. This was far easier said than done. She made a few wrong turns, and they were forced to backtrack several times. Under any other circumstances, this would have irritated the soldiers. But considering they'd all seen the map, they were amazed Sakura could decipher its secrets at all.
They had been in the tunnels perhaps an hour. Their pace was slow and they walked in a tight group. A few balls of flame here and there shed light but also an uncomfortable amount of heat. All these things –with the unnerving silence on top of it– made for a long journey.
Someone started to hum.
At first, no one really seemed to notice. But once they caught on to the infectious tune, their tempers were a little irked. Now wasn't the best time for jokes.
"...secret tunnel, secret tunnel..."
Jeong Jeong realized the source was near him. He glared at the suspected soldier.
Hoo's face went scarlet. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Katara and Sakura couldn't help but giggle.
Sakura paced slowly back and forth before one of the tunnel walls. She took turns comparing the rock and the map, examining at first one, then the other, and back again.
The soldiers waited patiently, giving her space to figure out the complex map. Hoo caught himself thinking that perhaps the Princess should help their army develop secret codes for encrypted messages.
"I think this is it," Sakura said finally.
Jeong Jeong stepped forward. "Are you certain?"
Sakura's cheeks reddened. Slowly, she shook her head. "Not entirely." She winced, waiting for the inevitable sharp retort, for the Admiral to regret bringing her at all.
Jeong Jeong, however, seemed pleased with the answer. The Admiral felt along the wall, seeking for the catch. He beckoned Hoo forward, and together they managed to gently pull the door back before it could slide suddenly open.
Hoo peered carefully out into the dark stone passageway. He turned and nodded at Jeong Jeong.
"All right, men," Jeong Jeong announced. "This is it."
Suki did not know how to pick a lock. But as she stood there, struggling to work the mechanism with one of the clips she had recently discovered lodged in her hair, she decided such a course should be added to the Kyoshi Warriors' standard training.
Everyone watched her work, their breath catching at any unfortunate sound or squeak of protest. This was the last hair clip. The others had broken, to the great dismay of the prisoners. Hair clips, they all agreed, were perfectly sturdy for holding hair, but when it came to lock picking they were as fragile as icicles. Something else to change in the standard Warrior package.
Hurried footsteps echoed down the corridor.
"Someone's coming!" Ty Lee squealed.
Suki quickly tugged the hair clip out. Too quickly. She was left holding the splintered remains of one half which she flung aside. "That's it. I'm out of ideas."
Sokka groaned, resting his head against the cool bars in defeat. "Now what do we do?"
"How about help us reclaim the Palace, wise guy?"
Sokka's head shot up. "Katara?!"
A battalion of soldiers had moved into the corridor, headed by Jeong Jeong and Katara.
"Katara!" Sokka cried again, grinning, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Little sister!"
"I know, I know, you're happy to see me."
Hoo stepped forward with a salute. "With permission, Admiral, I'll find the key!" He received a nod and raced down the corridor.
Jeong Jeong glanced at the occupants of the cages and stepped straight to Rozen. "How did it happen?"
Rozen didn't hesitate to answer; he didn't even stop to ask if Jeong Jeong had doubted him. "Kuzarr," he said simply. "He's behind everything."
Jeong Jeong's eyes narrowed. "Kuzarr..." he growled.
"But why?" Katara said, surprised. "Zuko trusted him. Kuzarr's saved his life a dozen times. Why go to all that trouble just to take over? He could have let Zuko get killed almost any time he wanted!"
"We don't know why, Katara," Sokka said testily. "We just know he did. And he has guys of his own. He's got a lot of men masquerading as Fire Nation soldiers."
"Are you sure they're not soldiers?" Jeong Jeong asked quietly.
Sokka's face darkened. "No. I guess I was just trying to be optimistic."
"You think some of the army is corrupted?" Suki asked.
"It's entirely possible," Jeong Jeong replied. "We believe that the traitor –Kuzarr– may have connections to the Loyal."
"The Loyal?" Sokka repeated skeptically. "I thought they were long gone, old news, nothing but petty troublemakers."
"They were," Katara replied. "At least, we thought they were. But those petty troublemakers are the reason Jeong Jeong and the other men Zuko specifically trusted with the secret were drawn away from the Palace."
"It was all a trap," Jeong Jeong agreed.
Rozen sighed. "I'm afraid I've been a fool, Master Jeong Jeong."
Jeong Jeong raised an eyebrow at his protégé.
"A few days after the Prince was kidnapped," Rozen explained, "I received a message that a bandit called the Blue Spirit had kidnapped my sister."
Katara glanced at her brother. "Boy," she said, "That Blue Spirit guy sure gets around..."
"He told me to await a ransom demand," Rozen said. "I was told not to anyone, or to leave the Palace, otherwise he would kill Alana." He sighed again. "I allowed them to make me into the perfect patsy."
Jeong Jeong's frown deepened. "Why didn't you come to me?"
Rozen couldn't bring himself to look at his mentor. "I should have," he admitted. "But I was afraid for my sister. At the time, there was so much else going on. The message said the Blue Spirit was only interested in money. I thought I could handle it myself."
"Stop babbling; we need to get out!"
They turned. Yuki, Ming, and Lilly gripped the bars of the next cell over.
"The Princess and Lady Mai are helpless," Ming said. "They've got no one to protect them."
Katara nodded. "Don't worry. We're going to free the Palace, but we'll need your help."
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Gee, it's so nice to feel missed."
Katara ignored him. "A little advice, though?" she told Ming. "Don't ever let Mai hear you calling her helpless."
Ming snickered. "I don't have a death wish."
Clattering footsteps betrayed the return of the corporal. Hoo burst around the corner, triumphantly holding the key high. His expression, however, was not quite so triumphant.
"Guards," he panted. "Right behind me."
"Then let us out quick!" Suki cried. "I've been waiting for a rematch."
The five prison guards caught the invaders just as they were opening the first cell. Unfortunately, there were a lot more of them then they had assumed. Easily outnumbered, but determined to fight, the prison guards aimed their spears at the most dangerous-looking of the invaders: Jeong Jeong, mostly, but also a few select soldiers.
"Step away from the cell!" One guard ordered.
Underestimating the beautiful, sweet-smiling Katara was their first mistake.
Assuming the cell doors were still locked was another.
The guards, their attention focused on the invaders, had their backs to the bodyguards' cell. They never saw the ambush coming.
The female bodyguards laid into them with their close-combat skills, punching, elbowing and twisting the arms of guards. There were a few high-pitched cries of pain, and none of them came from the women. It wasn't a very long fight.
"Okay," Sokka declared, dusting off his hands. "Guards down –check. Kyoshis freed –check. We just need to find our weapons, then we're good to go."
Hoo gestured down the corridor. "I spotted an armory that way, sir. That's probably where the weapons are."
Once the Kyoshis and the bodyguards happily reclaimed their weapons –Sokka grabbed his sword with a cry of glee, hugging and kissing it– they wanted to know the plan.
Jeong Jeong was grim as he began to lay out the details. "Against such odds we don't have much chance succeeding with a head-on attack. What we need is a distraction."
"A distraction?" Sokka almost fainted with pleasure. "I have the perfect distraction!" He seized Momo off Katara's shoulder. "I've been waiting years to use this one..." he muttered, much to the groaning of his sister, wife and comrades.
He ignored them, holding Momo high for all to see. "See, we get a white cloth and dress Momo up like a ghost. Then, we set him loose in the Palace!"
Jeong Jeong stared at him.
"Don't you see?" Sokka grin didn't slip an inch. "While all the soldiers are busy running around, screaming about a ghost, we sneak in through the commotion." He beamed brightly. "Perfect distraction!"
No one was very supportive. Hoo covered his laughter with a violent coughing fit, Suki and Katara shook their heads, and even Momo stared at him mournfully.
"Sokka," Katara said firmly, "We already have a plan."
"Oh, yeah?" he challenged. "How could it be better than my genius Momo-ghost idea?" He glared at her. "The idea that everyone has failed to appreciate for several years, I might add."
"Well, it involves Appa," Katara retorted. "We've loaded up several soldiers on him and they're going to attack the Palace from the air."
"The attack will accomplish little in itself," Jeong Jeong explained, "But it will prove the perfect distraction."
"I see." Sokka nodded slowly, working out all the angles in his head. "...and it's just dangerous enough to get everyone's attention..." He tossed Momo back to Katara, his shoulders slumping in dejection. "Fine. I guess that will work too."
"How did you guys get in here?" Suki asked.
"Through the secret tunnels that apparently run under the entire city." Katara shrugged. "The things you learn about some places in the nick of time."
Yuki frowned. "How did you know about the tunnels?"
"A young girl told us," Jeong Jeong replied. "She said the Princess showed them to her."
Yuki nodded slowly. It had to be Sakura.
"She is with us now," Jeong Jeong went on, "Though I left her in the tunnel with one of my corporals. She was the only one who could read the map and it appears she had nowhere else to go."
Yuki frowned at that. Nowhere else to go? But hadn't Ursa said the girl was Gouitn's charge? Before she could ask, she was distracted by the Water Tribe siblings.
Sokka had suddenly noticed something different about his sister. He poked at her suspiciously. "Did you put on weight?"
Katara leveled a no-nonsense gaze at him. "That's never a wise question to ask a woman, Sokka."
"And you didn't fight," Sokka realized, too busy putting pieces together to notice the dangerous edge in her voice.
A smile twitched at Katara's lips. "Aang doesn't want me fighting for awhile."
Sokka gasped in sudden realization and the smile took Katara's face in full bloom.
"You've given up bending!"
Katara's smile vanished. She glared at her ignorant brother.
"You really shouldn't, you know," Sokka went, completely oblivious to the murderous gleam in his sister's eyes. "That much exercise does a lot to keep off the pounds. If you don't keep working on it, it's bound to catch up with you."
Suki shook her head pityingly. She thought about rescuing her husband, but sometimes the man really put his foot in his mouth.
Katara's voice oozed sarcasm. "Oh, don't worry too much, Sokka. I plan on losing the weight."
"When?" Sokka prodded, looking her up and down once more. "You better aim for soon. It's not that flattering, sis."
"Sokka," Suki moaned.
"Gee, I don't know," Katara snapped. "I guess in another five months or so!"
Sokka frowned. He was beginning to think there was a reason behind his sister's sudden irritation. "That's, uh ...specific..."
A smile teased Katara's lips.
Suki was laughing now. "She's pregnant, genius!"
At first, Wei was thrilled to have been hand-picked to head the important distraction mission. But that was before he discovered his fear of heights.
Wei didn't know he was afraid of heights because, frankly, it had never come up before. After all, he could stand on a balcony and look down without getting dizzy.
When he first cried "Yip Yip" with such confidence, he didn't imagine what it would feel like when the giant creature lifted off. As Appa pushed into the air, Wei, who was perched on the bison's neck, and the other soldiers, holding tight to the saddle, were thrown back as the creature rose fast. To say that none of them loosed unmanly yelps of surprise would be a gross untruth.
It wasn't until Wei made the mistake of looking down at the ground so very far below –the houses nothing but little dark specs on the landscape– that he was first confronted with his immeasurable terror of heights. He didn't whimper or squeal; he screamed.
Appa charged through the air, faster than any of the soldiers had ever traveled on the backs of animals, in the bellies of tanks, or aboard their airships. Wei, shoved by the force of gravity into Appa's back, gripped the reigns tight. The others clung to the saddle for dear life.
"Slow down!" someone begged.
"I...can't..." Wei managed between rippling lips.
Once Appa was in the air, he leveled out, and his speed became relaxed. The soldiers righted themselves, glancing at one another to make certain they hadn't been the only ones to act like fools. Sheepishly, they began to chuckle.
"Look out!" Wei shouted, pulling hard on Appa's reigns.
Appa moaned in protest. When he spotted the giant fireball flying at them, he groaned again, more tired than anything. Weren't his days of fireball dodging supposed to be over?
Appa swerved out of the path of the missile, almost leisurely. He didn't seem unduly worried, though the soldiers stared in shock as they barely skimmed the missile's flaming surface. More than a few eyebrows were scorched.
"They've spotted us!" Someone cried unnecessarily.
"Cutting it a little close, aren't you, Wei?"
"Don't look at me!" Wei shouted. He was tugging and pulling frantically at the bison's reigns, but Appa refused to listen to any of his driving attempts. "This thing's got a mind of its own!"
This time, Appa put some distance between them and the missiles. It was as though he'd heard their complaining and wanted to show them just what he could do.
"When do we attack?" someone asked Wei.
Wei was about to reply, but Appa dropped into a sudden dive, shoving the words back down his throat. The creature aimed straight for the Palace.
"Now!" Wei squeaked. He doubted anyone could hear him, though.
They were waiting in the tunnel, listening. With the Kyoshis and bodyguards freed, the threat identified, and the adrenaline pumping, everyone's mood had improved considerably. Unconsciously, Hoo renewed his humming.
This time, several other soldiers joined in.
Sokka couldn't glare at all of them at once, so he shot a general glare around the tunnel.
Almost everyone joined in on the chorus –some without thinking, others while flashing wicked grins at Sokka.
"Secret tunnel! Secret tunnel!"
"Evil...memories..." Sokka seethed.
Suki laughed –quietly.
Sakura was pretty confident of her map reading skills now. She'd managed to figure out that the green marks were secret doors and the blue were probably to indicate new buildings. She'd spotted several that seemed to roughly outline the Palace. She had no idea what the red marks were for.
She was fairly certain that this door led into the Palace. Well, reasonably. But Jeong Jeong seemed to think her uncertainty was a good thing.
Rozen stood by her side. Jeong Jeong had asked him to keep an eye on her and to Sakura's surprise Rozen didn't seem the least annoyed at the 'baby sitting' duty. He was an advisor, Sakura learned; a thinker, not a fighter.
"When will we know it's time?" Sokka asked.
Katara chuckled. "We'll know."
Beyond the tunnel came the deafening blast of an explosion. Panicked and shocked cries rippled through the corridor outside. "We're under attacked!"
Another, much closer explosion rocked the Palace. Hoo and a few others fought to keep their footing, even within the tunnel.
"Move, men!" bellowed an officer, his voice too loud to be muffled by the wall between them. "To defense!"
The scraping and shuffling of running feet stampeded past as soldiers raced toward the explosions. Soon, the sounds faded. The corridor fell quiet.
Katara glanced pointedly at her brother. "There's no way a ghost charade would have cleared them out that fast."
"Okay, okay," Sokka grumbled. "It's an effective distraction. I get it!"
Jeong Jeong pulled the door's catch.
Suki flicked her fans open, smiling. "Let's go invade the Palace."
Unfortunately for the invaders, they had no way of knowing who the enemy was. It could be that none of the Palace guards actually knew a coup had taken place. Zuko himself had first set the fake in place and no one had noticed then. As far as the guards were concerned, it was Zuko they were protecting, and Zuko that the invaders were after.
Of course, some of the guards were probably in on it and would fight them off to maintain control of the Palace.
Either way, any soldier they encountered would need to be dealt with. They had been explicitly ordered not kill or seriously maim anyone, if they could avoid it; after all, some of the men they encountered could still be true comrades.
Another explosion boomed overhead as the invaders streamed into the corridor.
Jeong Jeong scowled. "I told Chey to use those explosives sparingly."
"If he keeps at it," Sokka agreed, "There won't be much of a Palace left to reclaim!"
"We should split up." Suki gestured at the Kyoshis and bodyguards. "We'll find Mai and Ursa; Jeong Jeong, you go and get Kuzarr."
The Admiral's face was grave. "Agreed."
Water spilled down Katara's arms. This was definitely a moment when fighting was absolutely necessary.
"Um..." Sokka hesitated, wondering how far into the role of protective older brother he should play. Suki was giving him that warning look, but he to had say something. At the very least then he could tell Aang that he'd tried. "Do you really think you should..."
The words dried in his throat when Katara turned on him with a murderous glare.
"Let's go!" Without waiting for a response, Sokka charged forward, as far from his sister as possible.
Secret Tunnel! -Gosh, I've been waiting forever to use that. Muahaha! And of course I had to torment Sokka with it. XD Catchy annoying tune moment inspired by this Rufftoon comic.
Sokka's brilliant 'Ghost Momo' idea has indeed been dismissed for years; he suggested it in the episode City of Walls and Secrets, but Aang didn't think it was very practical. Poor Sokka. They really do love you for your brains, though. And that and your sarcasm. :D
Speaking of your brains, prodding Katara about her weight was not one of your finest moments. Well, unless you're the reader.
Heh. Apparently I really missed Sokka...
*siiiiigh* Sorry this is up a little later than normal. Nano is running me ragged this month!
For the collective works of the author, go here.