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|The Coronation and the Coup, Part One|
January 1, 2013
Previously in Air
Believing that the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet intends to lead a coup on the Palace during Kuei's coronation, the Gaang has prepared as best they could.
Chapter Fifty-One: The Best Laid Plans
Kuzarr examined his reflection. Dressed in the fine clothes of a ruler, with the ill-gotten crown on his head, he looked magnificent. Royal in every way. He was, for all the world to see, the Firelord.
He felt it, too. Over the past few weeks, the power had seeped into his bloodstream. Granted it had been limited because of the charade, but once he'd gotten rid of Jeong Jeong and the others it had all been in his grasp. And how glorious it felt...
"Enjoy it while you can."
Kuzarr frowned. He glanced at Mai's reflection in the glass. She was seated on the other side of the room, slumped in a chair. As always, her dark gaze bored into him. The pure power of that hatred was enough to send a shiver down his spine, but he knew it was ridiculous. Mai could do nothing to him, even if he didn't have her daughter as a hostage. The collection of sharp weapons his men had initially taken from her seemed nothing more than frightening baubles. Kuzarr had heard tales that, once upon a time, Mai had some skill in the art of shuriken-jutsu. Certainly her peaceful years had mellowed her and corroded her talent. After all, Mai could have easily killed him then, when she had the chance.
"Don't worry, Mai," Kuzarr said. "I won't let it go to my head."
Firelady Mai was also dressed in her finest, though the fabric wrinkled unceremoniously as she slouched. Her hair, however, she stubbornly refused to fuss with, though Kuzarr had suggested it. Not that he particularly cared how she looked; he was determined to bend the Firelady to his will.
Through the reflection, Mai's eyes burned. "Zuko will be back."
That was all she said. No pleading, no begging for her daughter's release, no actual threat. Perhaps she felt those few words were threat enough.
Kuzarr refused to acknowledge the cold fear racing through his heart. Instead, he laughed. Even to him it sounded hollow. "By now, your husband is lying dead in a ditch somewhere, Mai. Perhaps you should think on that for awhile." He saw her eyes narrow for an instant, and even that small betrayal of anxiety pleased him.
He turned around to consider her. "You really ought to wear your hair down, Mai."
Mai said nothing.
It irked Kuzarr more than he liked to admit. As determined as he was to bend the Firelady to his will, she seemed just as determined to fight.
Kuzarr smiled, revealing his teeth. "I'm sure Ursa would love it."
Mai's eyes flashed. Without a word, she reached up and tugged her hair loose.
Kuzarr couldn't suppress a triumphant smirk as he turned back to the mirror. Not to study his reflection again; her perturbing gaze still followed him and he moved to block it. He did not notice as Mai deftly flicked the hair pins onto the bureau top. Not a single one missed its mark.
There were a lot of things Kuzarr did not notice about Mai. Small things, and certainly inconsequential for now, but Mai knew the moment would come.
As her thick hair tumbled down her back in an uncomfortable wave, she glared daggers at his back. She would have much preferred throwing one of the many she still had tucked into her sleeves and other odd places. The arced hilt of a favorite sai rubbed against her thigh. What she wouldn't give to pluck it out and throw it at his arrogant, treacherous face...
"Don't try anything stupid, Mai," Kuzarr said coldly, without looking at her. "Remember what's at stake."
Mai remembered. Kuzarr made it clear any attempt to ruin his plans would result in punishment for Ursa. That was why Mai did not reach for the sai. For now, she had to find comfort only in the knowledge that she still had it, the knowledge that eventually she could use it.
For now, her hands were tied.
But Zuko was still out there. She knew it wouldn't take him forever to figure it out. When he did, he wouldn't be alone either.
And so Mai would have to wait. Impatiently, as always.
Ursa pretended to sleep. Her guard seemed to pay less attention to her if he thought she was asleep. He had a nasty scar rising from his top lip and so Ursa had taken to thinking of him as 'Scarface'.
This quiet time she used to think. And she thought hard. But nothing she could think of seemed to help at all. Breaking out wasn't an option, because Kuzarr would hurt her mother. She didn't even know if escaping was a possibility; her hands were still clamped with earth behind her back. There seemed to be no life in this area of the Palace, so it was pointless to call for help. She couldn't even try slipping a message or a sign to a servant, because none came.
Ursa sighed. She was sick of lying here. She was sick of feeling so helpless. She was sick of having to worry about Roh-Roh and her father and her mother. But most of all, she was sick of being so utterly useless.
Ursa tensed at the soft knock. Stilling her breath to hear better, she strained her ears.
Scarface grunted. He cast a quick look at the Princess –still slumbering– before he eased the door open a crack.
His Dai Li comrade stood guard outside the door. "The Princess?"
Ursa's chest tightened. Were they going to do something with her?
"Sleeping again," replied Scarface. "She's keeping quiet."
"Good. She will be excused from the coronation; feeling ill."
Scarface nodded. "What of the coronation?"
"Just received confirmation. Everything's set. By nightfall the Earth Kingdom will mourn the death of their King."
Ursa's heart stopped. Death of their King?
She heard the door click closed. She listened for another moment before confirming Scarface was once more the only guard in her room.
What was going on? They were going to assassinate the Earth King?
Ursa couldn't let that happen. But what could she do? If she tried anything, they would make certain her mother paid for it.
What about her mother? What would she say if she found out Ursa could have stopped an assassination, but didn't on her account?
Ursa knew what the answer was. And there was a good chance that, if she somehow managed to escape, word wouldn't reach Kuzarr until it was too late.
Tora was in her chambers attending to several last minute preparations before her husband's coronation. But she was not fussing with her hair, or allowing servants to touch up her extraordinary gown.
As she gazed in the mirror, the full realization struck her that in just a matter of hours she would be the Queen of all the Earth Kingdom. It was a heavy burden of responsibility, but she was prepared for it. More than that, she was confident she could do it. And Kuei –he would certainly need her for support.
"The Earth Kingdom is in great need of a wise leader."
Tora glanced at General Fong's reflection. "Yes, I know. And today, they will have one."
General Fong bowed his head. "All is prepared."
Today was the day. She had waited long for it, and now that it was here... Tora shook her head. She had not endured dealing with traitors and kidnappers to back down now.
"Carry on, General," she ordered. "Today the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet takes back the Earth Kingdom."
General Fong bowed. "As you command, Your Majesty."
Tora squared her shoulders and raised her head high. She had watched her Kingdom sink farther into the clutches of the Fire Nation's despicable peace ploy for many years, helpless to do anything against it. Now, she was not helpless. Today, the ploy would be revealed for the trap it was.
Today, the Earth Kingdom would crown its first ever ruling Queen.
The enormous grand gates to the Earth Palace's inner courtyard began to open. They swung easily, as though feathers on a breeze and not immense stone slabs painted the dark green and gold of the city's emblem.
Lee watched, wonderstruck, as he glimpsed the Palace between the gates.
"Amazing," Sensu breathed. "I never thought I'd see it."
Gansu nodded. "A lot of people thought they wouldn't."
The crowd pressed forward. Their hums and murmurs rose to a new level as they began to file into the courtyard. Lee kept close by his brother as they flowed in with the crowd, but Sensu was perfectly steady on his own crutch.
Lee gazed around, taking everything in. The courtyard was decorated in extravagance, exactly as he would imagine a royal ball. Colored paper lanterns were strung up throughout the courtyard though it was only midday. Every surface, even the cobbled court beneath their feet, was polished and gleaming. Long banquet tables had been set out in the open, covered in crisp white linen, empty for now but would soon be overflowing with food. High above them, balconies rimming the courtyard were veiled in thin green gossamer.
About the courtyard, stationed between tables, servants garbed in the King's colors bore trays of drinks. These, however, were mostly ignored by the crowd who favored the delicate tea cups presented by dozens of servants dressed in robes of green and gold as they bustled about the courtyard.
The only thing in the grand party that seemed out of place was the crowd itself. The people of the lowest circle of Ba Sing Se had scrubbed thoroughly. They were decked out in their finest which, compared to the stoic servants, wasn't much. But they didn't seem to notice. Every one of them stared at this new, rich world around them in awe.
"Kuei insisted on making his coronation completely public," Sensu explained, raising his voice to be heard. "Since he's going to be crowned on the front steps of the Palace, the nobles had a lot to say about rubbing shoulders with peasants. I heard some of them actually refused to come at first!" He gestured up at the gossamer-covered balconies. "But someone finally suggested that all the nobility watch from the grand balconies of the Palace instead and they gave in."
"Let me get this straight," Lee said. "We're going to be standing in a courtyard with a bunch of annoyed rich people looking down on us?"
Sensu chuckled. "Pretty much."
Lee craned his neck upwards, to the grand balconies high above. He could just make out the silhouettes of nobles, seated comfortably behind the transparent curtains separating their air from that of the common crowd below. From the balconies, a giant banner was unfurled for all to see, bearing each nobility's crest and, below it, the Earth Kingdom insignia.
There were only two balconies without the Earth insignia. It was the red and black banner of the Fire Nation that first caught Lee's attention. He watched it for a long moment, the red flame flickering in the wind. Firelord Zuko was probably up there right now, with his family. The thought made him smile. The second balcony, across the courtyard, bore the blue and white symbol of the Water Tribes.
"It's a momentous day." Gansu clapped his sons on the shoulders. "I'm glad we're here to see it, as a family."
"I will certainly take a cup of tea, Manish."
Manish bowed, lowering the tray to the nobleman. "Certainly, Master Ru Yong. I am glad you managed to make it."
Ru Yong nodded, glancing about the Palace courtyard and myriad members of the crowd. "Too important an occasion to miss. Kuei is one man I will watch eagerly."
"Of course, sir."
"Tell me, Manish, where is Iroh? I'd certainly like to ask him about the number of tea servers he's got milling about. I don't recognize any but you." Ru Yong gestured to the crowd where they could make out almost a dozen of the colored uniforms.
Manish sniffed. "They are temporary help, merely to manage the mass of the crowd."
"Hmm." Ru Yong raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Does he really expect to sell so much tea?"
Manish felt the nobleman's scrutiny, and it had nothing to do with quantity of tea. "Master Iroh's tea is renowned throughout the city, sir."
Ru Yong snorted, disappointed. Iroh had certainly been acting even odder lately. It surprised him, especially since the Emerald Serpents had been dealt with and nicely cleaned up after. Evidently, whatever Iroh's side-project was, it had grown ripe. Despite his friend's desire for secrecy, Ru Yong couldn't help being curious and, if he could, he wanted to lend a hand.
"And where is Iroh?"
Not a flicker of emotion crossed Manish's face. It wouldn't due to mention that his employer had stayed behind to ensure the safety of his great-nephew. "I'm afraid he was called away rather suddenly," the head tea server replied, "On urgent business. He won't be able to make it."
Ru Yong blinked. "Really?"
From behind there came a loud, animalistic snarl. They both peered back and –
"What is that contraption?" Ru Yong burst out.
Manish scowled toward the odd device. He bowed once more to the nobleman. "If you'll excuse me, sir; I'm afraid I have to deal with this."
Xin Fu gritted his teeth as he set yet another pot to boil over one of the small fire pits in the tea cart. It was almost as if none of these peasants had had a drink in years. Already they were halfway through their first crock of tea leaves and the ceremony hadn't even started.
When he had been told he would man the tea cart, he didn't mind. After all, it was one of the Mechanist's toys. However, when they told him he'd actually be doing the work of a tea server to solidify his cover, the vein in his temple pulsed. He wasn't even allowed to make the tea itself. Manish alone was trusted with mixing the leaves and spices in their very specific measurements. Fanatics. The only thing they entrusted to Xin Fu was heating the water. It was tedious and boring, filling pot after heavy iron pot and setting them to boil. But what really irked him was the whistling.
Master Yu was the offending whistler. The slick weasel had –for reasons far beyond Xin Fu's comprehension– been placed in charge of the money box. He smiled as he took the shiny pieces from customers and slipped all of them (hopefully) into the large, secure box. Despite the noise of slapping feet, enthusiastic trumpeters, the loud hum of the crowd, and the clank and jingle of copper pieces, the grating sound of Master Yu's whistle carried straight to Xin Fu's ears.
Xin Fu's hold on the cart tightened, his muscles rippling under the tight-fitting robe uniform, causing the dragon printed on his sleeve to writhe.
"Would you shut-up already?" Xin Fu snarled.
But his own voice did not carry half as well over the noise. Master Yu did not hear him.
Manish, on the other hand, did. The Jasmine Dragon's head server sidled beside Xin Fu, frowning his disapproval.
Xin Fu flinched. It was not a facial flinch, but his shoulders scrunched closer to his neck. Manish's glare bored right into his soul.
"Servers are to be seen and not heard," Manish reprimanded, not for the first time.
Xin Fu's upper lip began to curl, but he fought it. "Right. Sorry."
Manish was intimidating, even to Xin Fu. This was something Xin Fu found utterly humiliating. He himself was a big, buff, powerful master earthbender while Manish was small and meek.
At least, Manish seemed small in comparison. He was level in height with Xin Fu, but hadn't nearly the muscle mass; he was trim and moved light on his feet, like a dancer, doubtless the product of years gliding soundlessly between tables of irritable nobles. The tea server had an aura that was somehow friendly and intense at the same time. Xin Fu had no doubt he could take the man in a fight –yet he was not eager to challenge him.
"Sorry is well and good," Manish said crisply; "But stop snarling and scaring away the customers or I shall have to remove you."
The tea kettle let loose a bloodcurdling screech as if on cue and Xin Fu actually jumped.
Utterly cowed, he dipped his head and mumbled another apology.
The cheerful cry of trumpets rang through the Earth Palace. The atmosphere buzzed with anticipation. Aang watched as King Gorou and Princess Toru were ushered out onto the front steps to glorious applause. Kuei stood alone, watching them go, waiting for his own cue to step before the crowd.
Aang glanced about the room. General Fong was nowhere to be seen; he had probably taken his place among the other generals by now.
"Now or never," Katara whispered, withdrawing her arm from his. She flashed him a confident smile; You talk to him and I'll run interference, the smile said.
Sidestepping servants, Aang reached the Crown Prince's side. "Your Majesty, I really need to talk to you."
Kuei's face was flushed with excitement. He grinned at the Avatar, much too distracted to hear the urgency in Aang's voice. "Avatar Aang, there you are! I must apologize for not getting the chance to speak with you earlier. There always seemed to be one thing after another, but look!" He gestured toward the festivities. "Isn't it absolutely marvelous?"
"Not for long, I'm afraid."
Kuei frowned, but before he could inquire, Aang stepped closer, dipping his voice so as not to be overheard.
"I need you to remain perfectly calm, Your Majesty. It's important that the coronation continue as planned, but you may be in grave danger. I believe the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet is preparing to take control of the Palace."
Kuei stared at him. "What?"
A servant pulled at Aang's sleeve. "Avatar!" he hissed, gesturing frantically toward the crowd. "That's your cue!"
"We've put things into motion," Aang assured the Prince, waving the servant off. "You just need to do as I say when the time comes."
The same distinct trumpet blast sounded again from the courtyard, this time followed by a concerned murmur from the crowd.
Aang gritted his teeth. He couldn't allow Fong or anyone else to get suspicious. Allowing the servant to pull him away, he called over his shoulder, "Stay calm, Kuei. And don't trust Fong!"
Loud cheers greeted King Gorou as he stepped into the daylight. He scowled down at the happy crowd, glared at the bright sun, and shuffled to his appointed spot. His niece, radiant and regal, followed on his arm, gliding gracefully alongside the crotchety and –despite his best efforts– endearing old man.
The Avatar and his wife came next and the crowd went wild. With a self-conscious smile, Aang bowed first to the spectators and second to the King and Princess before he and Katara took their place beside them. Flanking the steps just below them were the famed Council of Five and other Generals of the Earth Kingdom. There stood General Fong, right where Aang could keep an eye on him. For the moment, despite suspicions, the General appeared completely at ease. Not as if he were about to initiate a coup against his King.
Trumpeters lined the crowd in upper, unoccupied balconies. They blasted a glorious fanfare into their instruments. The crowd fell silent, leaning forward in anticipation.
Kuei appeared in the door, still and sober. The sunlight glinted off the tiny glasses perched on his nose, which, as Sokka always said, gave him an indisputable air of scholarly wisdom.
At the sight of their beloved prince, the crowd erupted once more in ecstatic reverie. A few of the more exuberant spectators jumped about, dancing to the fanfare.
As Kuei looked over the crowd, his serious face lightened with a sudden smile. He waved at his subjects and the cheers that followed were deafening. Several moments passed before the crowd could be lulled into a comfortable silence, much to the annoyance of the royal herald.
Kuei moved slowly down to the lower steps. Before him, three men stood rigid on the platform above; the herald, his face twisted in disapproval as he scanned the rambunctious crowd, and two councilors who had the honor of bearing the crown between them.
"Citizens of Ba Sing Se!" the herald announced. His voice was thin and reedy. With each short phrase, he puffed his chest full of air to bellow at the top of his voice. "We are gathered for the coronation of our new Earth King!"
The crowd cheered again, much to the herald's annoyance. A rowdy bunch, these peasants.
"Over the past years we have been tried hard. To guide us through our every trouble, we have had our Earth King and beloved Prince..."
Ursa was alarmed by the fanfare. The coronation was starting already? She took a deep breath to keep from panicking. If she was going to act, she had to act now.
She just hoped her plan worked.
Shifting on the bed, eyes still closed, she muttered as if in sleep. She turned to lay on her other side, hiding her bound hands from her captors. The tricky part would be keeping a straight face.
"Is she still asleep?" The soft question from Spikes was barely audible. He had joined Scarface inside the room only shortly. He was dressed in the customary spiked armor of a Fire Nation soldier, complete with the skull-like mask of the infantry that had always frightened her. When Ursa was a baby, she had wailed so much at the sight of the frightening mask that her father restricted them from the Palace. She couldn't decide yet if Kuzarr was ignorant or if he had intentionally sent the nightmarish mask as some kind of warning. If he had hoped to frighten her, Kuzarr would be disappointed. Seeing it only made her angrier.
Ursa intentionally slowed her breathing, snuggling her face into the bed's pillow. She waited an instant but neither guard spoke. She didn't dare open her eyes, even to slits, for fear they might catch her. They needed to think she was asleep.
A tense moment passed. Ursa let out a soft, encouraging snore.
"Sounds like it," Scarface replied.
The two fell silent again. She felt their intense gazes drop from her.
Ursa caught a sigh of relief before it could escape. Keeping her eyes closed and her face half buried in the pillows, she began to toil.
Last year, Toph had helped her and Roh-Roh experiment. Actually, it was the other way around. Toph found them during the jubilant annual party at Uncle's tea shop and pulled them away for some fun.
Any daredevil spirit either Ursa or Roh-Roh ever developed, it was probably Toph's fault.
On this particular occasion, Toph was looking for a way to strengthen her earthbending against fire. She had noticed that, during the War, firebenders could often shatter the rocks with heat blasts. She wanted to know how dense and how large a stone missile had to be to avoid that.
Ursa remembered how much fun it had been, but mostly because she had gotten into a bit of trouble over it. Her parents had blamed it on Toph, but Ursa still had to endure endless lectures about the dangers of premature bending without a master's guidance. I'm a master, aren't I? Toph had retorted irritably when Ursa pointed this out. I'm here, aren't I? Doesn't that count?
By the end of the night, Ursa was quite skilled in the art of infusing rock with heat and causing it to explode under the pressure. This was what she intended to do now. The process didn't generate any actual flames and, with her hands out of the guards' sight, they would not see the stone glowing bright red. Smoke was likely to be the only possible hazard she would encounter.
Unfortunately, Ursa didn't know how dense her earthen cuffs were. This was a pivotal flaw of her plan because she could only break through a certain thickness. Testing different levels of heat intensity would be trial and error, but if the cuffs were too thick she simply wouldn't be able to get free. If she couldn't get free, she couldn't stop the assassination.
Kuei would die.
Failure, she resolved, was not an option.
Remembering to keep her eyes closed was fairly easy, but she had to fight not to scrunch them up as she directed the heat of her chi into her hands. She gritted her teeth a little, but whenever she felt a grunt of exertion coming on, she shifted so her face buried in the pillow, muffling the unconventional snoring sound.
"Do you smell something?" Spikes asked suddenly.
Scarface began to sniff the air.
Ursa's mind raced. She couldn't give them the chance to investigate. What she needed was a distraction and the only way she could get a distraction was to make one herself.
She bolted upright.
If her sudden movement startled the guards, they didn't show it.
Blinking slowly, her gaze darted about the room in a frenzy, as though trying to remember where she was. When her glance fell upon the stoic guards, she scowled.
Behind her back, she worked at her bonds, steadily feeding heat into the cuffs. She could feel the rock beginning to crack and retract.
"I'm hungry!" she complained.
Neither guard reacted.
Ursa's scowl darkened. She bounced harshly on the bed; it was as close to stomping as she could manage. "Don't you feed your prisoners?"
Again, no reply. Scarface's eyes focused on her, unblinking, but Spikes still shifted, doubtless sniffing out the hot scent under that despicable mask.
"You know what they say, don't you?" Ursa went on, imitating the voice talents of her former tutor. She wanted to make her voice sound as irritating and inescapable as possible, so Gouitn's was the obvious choice. It was somewhere between haughty and an undignified whine. "Starve the stomach, starve the mind? If you don't feed me, I won't be able to think straight."
When she still received no response, she decided perhaps an insult was called for.
"You two doorknobs may take it for granted, but I like to think straight!"
Unfortunately, the insults did not seem to faze them. Evidently, Ursa was not very good in this department. She ought to listen more carefully the next time she was around Toph and Sokka.
Fingering the cuffs, she felt a chunk of rock crumble away. They were hot to the touch. Sweat trickled down her neck, sticking to her hair. Almost there...
"Get me something to eat," Ursa threatened, "Or I'll scream!"
Spikes shot an uncertain glance at Scarface.
"I'm not kidding!"
Scarface narrowed his eyes. She could tell he was unconvinced, but Spikes looked decidedly nervous.
Ursa would just have to convince them. She opened her mouth and took a deep breath, preparing to scream.
Spikes scurried for the door. "Okay, okay! Just shut-up."
"Idiot," Scarface spat.
Spikes paused and glanced back.
Ursa scowled at the Dai Li.
"If she starts to scream," Scarface growled, drawing an earth gauntleted hand from his sleeve, "We keep her silent. Don't you have a shirshu dart?"
Spikes shifted. "Oh. Right..."
Scarface took a step toward the bed and Ursa quickly scurried to the far side.
"Okay!" she squeaked. "Fine, I won't scream. But just because you're kidnappers doesn't mean you can't be hospitable, you know. Someday you'll pay for this act of unkindness."
Scarface snorted, but he resumed his position by the door.
Ursa hid a smile as her bonds loosened and fell away. Dirt showered onto the spotless bed linens. She quickly stuffed her hands under a pillow and pulled it down to cover the mess.
She was free of her restraints. Now she just had to break free.
It wasn't a terribly brilliant plan, Ursa knew, but she didn't have a lot of time to think. She could still hear the crowd cheering in the distance but for all she knew, it could already be too late. The assassin was doubtless already in place. Any instant, and it could all be over.
Ursa hopped off the bed.
Scarface tensed. "Back on the bed."
"It's cramped up there," she told him. "I just need to stretch,"
"On the bed," he repeated.
"Do you realize how cold you sound?" Ursa asked him, marveling. "A man who is cold of voice, is a man who is cold of heart. No wonder you're a villain. You should try lightening up, maybe smile a little."
Scarface took a threatening step forward.
"What about if I stay on the rug?" Ursa negotiated. "It's a pretty small rug. And the bed is on the rug." Her voice grew shrill and desperate as he continued toward her. "It just gives me some room to walk. I promise I won't leave the rug!"
The Dai Li agent reached down for her. This pathetic attempt of an escape didn't surprise him in the least.
What did surprise him was the sudden jab at the nerve in his neck and the resulting paralysis that swept through his body.
Spikes did not see the attack. His view blocked by Scarface's back, he watched impassively as the Princess dodged around the Dai Li agent and waited expectantly for him to cut her off. Instead, Scarface slumped forward. Spikes frowned, in an instant trying to process what was happening, because surely a tiny girl like that couldn't bring down such a skilled bender with a single blow.
Ursa ran at Spikes, skipped, hopped, and swung the heel of her foot into his kneecap. It was a self-defense move she had learned from Yuki; ideally, the force of her momentum should have broken the soldier's knee, but it was protected by a piece of armor. However, it did provide an adequate distraction. Spikes staggered under the blow, surprised, and Ursa took the opportunity to yank off his glove.
Understandably, this also caught Spikes off-guard.
Ignoring the odd attack, he lunged for the Princess, catching her around the waist as she wrapped her fingers around his pinky.
He did not know he had already lost, because he did not know the incapacitating pain brought on by tweaking a particular nerve located in the smallest finger. But Yuki did, and when it came to teaching the Princess self-defense, the bodyguard cut no corners. Yuki probably foresaw all the trouble the little Princess would encounter in her life.
"I'll have to remember to thank Ty Lee," Ursa muttered. "And Yuki," she added as she watched Spikes drop to his knees, writhing in pain.
The door began to creak open. Spikes had let out an impressive squeal as she wrenched his pinky. The second Dai Li standing guard must be on his way.
Ursa didn't wait for him to catch her. Before the door was fully open, she dodged through the crack and burst into the hallway.
She collided with the Dai Li, jabbing her elbow into his side. It was a weakness in all armor, Yuki had told her, in favor of mobility. He gasped as the air was driven from his lungs.
The Dai Li agent fell back a step, opening a gap between him and the wall. Ursa charged through it at top speed.
She didn't have time to look back or worry about being chased. She would be chased; it was a fact. Scarface was only temporarily stunned, Spikes would quickly recover, and the second Dai Li wasn't even incapacitated.
They were more skilled and experienced than she, but Ursa was young and flexible against three middle-aged men who probably didn't have the same stamina for running as she did. Don't think, just run, she ordered herself, rounding a corner.
In the wall beside her, at waist height, a stone jutted out.
Ursa yelped. She swerved, bouncing off the far wall as another large stone popped out of it just in front of her. With her momentum, Ursa managed to jump onto the stone slab. The instant her foot touched down, the stone shuddered and began to slide back into the wall. She bounced to the edge and leapt, landing in the middle of the hallway, stumbling slightly but quickly regaining her balance.
The walls, she decided, were best avoided.
Breathing hard, Ursa couldn't help casting a quick glance over her shoulder. The second Dai Li agent followed close behind. She glimpsed the last of a bending move as his arms jerked upward.
Her heart pounded. Bending move? What was he bending?
Ursa jerked her gaze back to the corridor ahead, just in time to see the floor heave upward in a jagged point. She spun to the right to avoid the obstacle. As she passed, she did not hug the wall, but jumped to the opposite one.
A stone in the right wall thrust out behind her, proving her guess correct.
She quickly jerked back to the right to avoid another attempt along the left wall, willing her pace to quicken.
When the Dai Li again tried to attack from there, Ursa swerved into the center of the hall. He had anticipated her to move back to the left and wasted a valuable instant on the futile move instead of trying to outpace the Princess.
Ursa took advantage of his stationary position. Swerving sharply to the left, she pivoted as she aimed a fiery kick at her pursuer.
The Dai Li was forced back a step, heaving a defensive wall of rock against the scorching flame.
Ursa twisted around in the same movement and kept running.
She spotted another hallway to her left and ducked into it. When it spread into another, she jerked sharply to the left, startling a servant struggling with a loaded basket. The servant dropped his burden with a startled yelp and the contents scattered in her path. Ursa leapt to avoid them just as the floor beneath her rumbled. The stone morphed into a jagged point, lunging at her as she sailed overhead. Fortunately for the Princess, she'd jumped just in time. She cleared the obstacle before it could pierce her legs.
The servant shrieked in terror, fleeing to the nearest room.
Ursa kept running. Behind her, the skidding and scraping of her guard as he followed her on rock skates echoed through the corridor. He would overtake her, but she pushed herself harder, and ran on. She dove into a branching hallway. The move surprised her pursuer, and she gained a few yards.
A bank of windows revealed the crowded courtyard far below. She spared a quick glance down. Was she too late? No, the crowd erupted in another energetic cheer. How many of those were left, she wondered, before the screaming began?
One thing she knew for certain.
She was running out of time.
TO BE CONTINUED...
A five-parter!? That's freakin' awesome! This'll be so cool! I can't -wait, that's the end?! I have to wait a whole week to read more?!
- Yeah... The reason this is a five-parter is because it all takes place in the same day. It's all one event, so I thought I'd connect them in a five part Epic Extravaganza!
...I really hate you right now.
- But you love me, too. ;)
- Shuriken-jutsu is basically the art of knife-throwing. But you probably figured that out. Poor Kuzarr has no idea, does he?
- 'Tora' means 'tiger' in Japanese. It seemed appropriate. ;)
*stares blankly* Scarface? Really?
- Hehe, I totally made that reference. Originally it was going to be 'Scar', but I liked the allusion of Scarface better. XD
- The nerve in the pinky that Ursa pinches to incapacitate Spikes actually exists. When given the right amount of pressure, it crumples an opponent with excruciating pain and has been known to make grown men cry. Interestingly, you cannot inflict this pain on yourself. Oh, and don't try this at home. I can trust you guys to be discreet and responsible with this information, right? Right? ...um, guys?
Oh yeah. And Happy New Year, everybody! Let's make the most of 2013!
For the collective works of the author, go here.