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|The Coronation and the Coup, Part Two|
Jan. 8, 2013
Previously in Air
Many people have turned out for Kuei's coronation. Lee and his family, the Guild who intends to strike, and the Gaang who plans to stop them. Ursa overhears her captors discussing their intent to assassinate Kuei and escapes with the hope of stopping them.
Chapter Fifty-Two: Jitters and Jailers
Ursa didn't know it, but directly underneath the bank of windows, many levels below, the black and red banner of the Fire Nation fluttered in the breeze. On the balcony from which it hung, the Firelord and Lady peered out at the massive crowd.
Kuzarr looked down on them and smiled. It was not a kind smile.
"The great city of Ba Sing Se." He laughed scornfully. He didn't need to watch his words, not in here. The guards surrounding him wore the armor of Imperial Firebenders, but they were his own men. "And such a great city will certainly thrive under Fire Nation control."
Mai showed no reaction, but Kuzarr knew she was alarmed. It didn't matter. It was too late for her to do anything about it now.
"...our beloved crown prince," the herald droned on.
Smellerbee rolled her eyes. How long was this speech anyway?
Longshot gave her an encouraging look.
"I know, I know," she muttered. Soon enough, the speech would be over. And as boring as it was, she wasn't exactly looking forward to the next item on the Guild's agenda.
It was a day Lee wouldn't soon forget. To him, it seemed the sun shone brighter than he'd ever seen it before. The heat was not unbearable; it seemed more a sign than anything. A new day, a bright future. Lee stood between his father and his brother and he knew it was true, not just for Kuei or even the Earth Kingdom, but for himself as well.
He was happy. Only...he couldn't help feeling watched. He cast about, not for the first time, half expecting to find someone staring at him. Again, he saw nothing suspicious. Of course, he wasn't exactly trained to detect those kinds of things.
Lee glanced at his brother and sighed. Today was almost perfect. He didn't want to cast any dark shroud over the bright light washing over the audience. But he couldn't ignore this prickling at the back of his neck any longer.
He gently tapped Sensu's arm, hoping not to alert their parents.
Sensu, still grinning like a fool, turned from the ceremony to glance at his brother. Almost immediately, his smile fell. There was a look on his kid brother's face. He knew that look, but he'd never expected it from Lee.
"What is it?" He dipped his voice; Lee could barely hear him, but that meant their parents definitely couldn't.
Lee shifted uncomfortably. "Do you notice anything...weird?"
Sensu frowned. Weird? Something in Lee's eyes told him what he really wanted to know was whether something seemed wrong. Sensu, absorbed only a moment before in the herald's speech, tuned out the list of Kuei's accomplishments thus far. He scanned the crowd with a trained eye he had not used in years. A frown tugged at his features.
"There–" he pointed– "That woman. She's..." His voice trailed off, uncertain why exactly the sight of her sent his spine tingling.
Lee looked, but the pink-clad woman appeared normal to him. He glanced back at Sensu.
Sensu felt Lee's gaze, but his eyes were still glued to the woman. "It's like she's expecting something to happen," he explained.
Lee looked back at her. The woman was alone among the crowd, facing toward the ceremony just like everyone else. For a moment, she stood there, another spectator in a crowd of spectators. A body a few paces from her shifted suddenly, and the woman's head jerked toward the movement, eyes nailing down the perpetrator in an instant, hands twitching.
Lee's eyebrows shot up. "Great," he muttered; "But what's she expecting to happen?"
Sensu didn't reply. He exchanged a quick glance with his brother. The two brothers had the same thought –was it the Guild? Lee had told Sensu everything, about the Guild, about the Prince, about Jomei. The only thing he had left out was the fact that 'Li' was Firelord Zuko; he didn't feel it his secret to share.
The woman must have felt their eyes on her. She inspected them a moment out of the corner of her eye. Enemy or bystander? Lee could almost see the question pass through her head. Evidently she settled on the wrong impression. She decided to acknowledge their stares. Flicking her braid over her shoulder, she winked and treated them to a little wave of her fingers before turning away.
Both Sensu and Lee blushed violently, but she didn't give them a second glance.
A frown tugged at Sensu's brow. Lee felt bad, ruining their perfect day. But he could tell from his brother's expression there was definitely something going on.
"...and who was it that banished the treacherous Dai Li from ever returning to the city?"
The herald paused dramatically, but he was not looking for an answer. The crowd had learned this nearly twenty minutes earlier, when they raised an emphatic response and received a haughty glare. With nothing to do but listen, the crowd was growing restless.
"And who broke your 'beloved Crown Prince' out of the metal prison the Dai Li threw him in?" Toph muttered. "Toph Bei Fong!"
Haru rolled his eyes. "Stop complaining and keep your eyes open."
Toph snorted sarcastically. "Yeah, I'll get right on that." She adjusted the pack biting into her shoulder, shifting it to a more comfortable position. Something heavy clanked inside, but she ignored it.
Haru frowned. He gestured at the bag. "You're sure you won't–"
Toph slapped his fingers away. "No touching. This is my bag of tricks. You just keep a lookout for suspicious characters."
Haru pulled his hand back with a sigh. For a change, she was being annoyingly tight-lipped. She refused to tell him what was in the satchel, except that it could very well determine their victory or defeat today.
He turned his attention back to the crowd. The mood was festive, almost everyone was smiling, but he wasn't fooled. Beyond the crowd, he spotted Palace guards in their innocuous uniforms lining up along the walls, forming a ring around the courtyard. They had not been there a moment before, but as the crowd shuffled in and settled, they moved seamlessly through the people to block off all exits from the grounds and entrances into the Palace.
Haru just hoped they were the good guys, and not their enemy. Whether Aang had managed to warn Kuei in time was still a mystery. These guards could very well be under the Guild's thumb. He, Toph, Aang and all the others may have just walked into the perfect trap.
"See anything suspicious yet?" Katara whispered.
Aang glanced at her. She looked beautiful. Even in their uncertain predicament, it was the first thing that struck him. She'd worn her hair mostly down again, a flower clip pulling some of it back. Her kimono was in the colors of the Water Tribe, blue and white, and it made her eyes sparkle. It was loose enough to hide any indications of her growing stomach and covered the bandages that still bound her wound. Even the neck of the gown rose high enough to cover the scarring. It was like she had never been injured.
"Not yet," he said. "But with so many people out there, it's hard to notice anything."
Tora, beaming out at the crowd, shot them an easy glance. "This could very well be the most important day of my husband's life," she said out of the corner of her mouth. "Do you mind?"
Aang avoided her gaze, afraid she might spot the worry in his eyes. "Of course, your majesty. Sorry."
"Anything...interesting yet?" Hakoda asked with a sidelong glance at the Palace sentries barring entrance to their balcony. Were the guards truly there merely to protect the visiting Water Chieftains or were they spies for this Guild organization? It was a question that, for now, remained unanswered.
Batu, sitting to his right, shook his head once.
Arnook watched the ceremonial proceedings through the pale blue gossamer with the eyes of a dragon hawk. "See how two men support the support the crown? I wonder, is it perhaps symbolic in that it takes many men to govern such a nation? After all, Kuei has been the mind behind Gorou's crown for years."
Hakoda hid a smile. That was a no from Arnook. He'd wondered, as they'd filed into the balcony, whether the same Madame Bei Fong had paid his Northern counterpart such an...interesting visit as well. One glance exchanged between the Chieftains and it was clear they were expecting the same thing.
Between the two, Pakku grumbled under his breath. "If something interesting is going to happen, I certainly wish they'd get to it sooner rather than later. This speech is beginning to make my ears bleed."
The other three men chuckled softly.
The Palace guard made the mistake of offering his hand to the hunched old man.
The King of Omashu's personal guards shook their heads in silent pity.
Bumi paused to stare at the offering. He snorted. "I made it all the way up your grand staircases without any help," he said, slapping the hand away, "But now you want to lift me into my chair? Find a better use for your time, boy." He rolled his shoulders, wincing as they crackled. "My creaking old bones might not be as strong as they used to be, but I can certainly seat myself!"
The guard scraped and bowed, murmuring apologies. The King of Omashu cackled, and the mad sound sent chills up his spine.
Bumi settled in. "Well, well," he muttered, scanning the crowd. He spotted Aang in the midst of the ceremony and his eyes twinkled with mischief. "I understand we're in for quite a show today."
Sokka was pretending to be a tea server. How hard it could be? You just stand there, keep a straight face, and hold out a tray of teacups for the benefit of the world.
Of course, it was Iroh's tea, so the cups went quickly. Sokka wasn't exactly standing still. He ran constantly back and forth between his station and the tea cart. When he went for refills, more often than not, the crowd had swept them all up before he returned to his position and he had to go back for more. It was a little inconvenient, considering everyone had been intentionally stationed throughout the courtyard to form a grid-like pattern, but he'd learned long ago it was usually necessary to improvise.
The tantalizing smells floating on steam from the cups was proving hard to ignore. Sokka wasn't a huge tea fan but it was Iroh's, after all. Each waft of a breeze tempted him and he fought hard not to guzzle it all down in a very un-tea server-like fashion.
Suki, Ty Lee and Keiko were also dispersed throughout the crowd, dressed as onlookers. Everyone was on edge. Who could blame them? The girls jumped anytime a spectator made a sudden movement, but so far Ty Lee had only paralyzed one unsuspecting limb. In Sokka's book, that was a win.
Momo shifted under Sokka's hat, painfully yanking his hair. Sokka's animated wince of pain scared off a few potential customers. He prodded the hat to remind the lemur that pets were not allowed in the courtyard. Why was beyond him, considering this was Kuei's courtyard. But if anyone figured out that it was a tail swinging down Sokka's back and not a ponytail, they would both be kicked out of the ceremony.
A sudden flash of gold in the crowd caught his eye. There was no mistaking that gleam. It usually meant trouble. Sokka brushed unceremoniously past the customers hounding for their tea; he would be hearing about that from Manish for sure.
Lee jumped as a meaty hand grasped hold of his shoulder. He had stepped away from Sensu, distracted, searching for more suspect spectators. Their parents had gone for tea; someone told them it was celestial nectar and they couldn't resist. Sensu and Lee had barely noticed them leave.
The strong hand jerked Lee round —and he found himself face to face with Tani.
The bear of a man grinned down at him. "So there you are! Jomei said he might bring you along, but to be honest I didn't think you two were going to make it in time."
Lee swallowed hard, trying to catch his breath. His mind raced. Tani! Tani was here? But why?
Tani's eyes softened as he looked down at Lee. "I'm glad you could make it, son." He glanced around eagerly. "Where is Jomei?"
Lee's heart pounded so hard he could feel its beating in his throat. "He...I..."
Tani frowned and Lee's heart beat faster still. His tongue tripped more incomprehensibly over uncertain words.
They both turned. Sensu, leaning on his crutch, took a step closer. "It's been awhile."
"Sensu." Tani's voice was guarded. He tried to treat Sensu to a friendly smile, but it was just bared teeth through his thick beard. "Yes, well, I'm afraid I've been busy. You look good." He glanced meaningfully at Lee. "I'm a little surprised to see you here, though."
Lee gulped, tried to speak, swallowed the words back.
Sensu's steady gaze never wavered. "We all came for the coronation. Same as you."
"Same as... Right." Tani's eyes shifted to Lee, narrowing to suspicious slits. "Came with your family, did you, Lee?" His fingers tightened around the young man's shoulder. "I thought you were coming with Jomei."
With Jomei. It hit Lee like a rock ball to his gut. That smile on Jomei's face when Lee mentioned the coronation; Perfect! he'd said with a laugh. Tani, leaving early to spearhead the resistance. The Guild, biding it's time for the perfect moment.
They were going to move on the Palace, on the King.
Lee knew it as surely as he'd known Jomei had the Prince, as surely as he'd known that the firebending soldier was the Firelord.
Tani could see the realization dawn in Lee's eyes. "If Jomei isn't with you," he hissed, "then what are you doing here?" He shook Lee, hard. "Where's my son?"
An image of Jomei –stretched out with the dagger protruding from his side– popped into Lee's head and he flinched.
"Let him go, Tani," Sensu ordered.
Tani almost did. There was an authority in Sensu's tone that neither had heard before. Tani caught himself and turned on the cripple.
"Stay out of this, Sensu," he said darkly. "This is between me and Lee."
The cripple hobbled a pace closer, his crutch wobbling uncertainly on the cobbled courtyard. But Sensu's gaze bored into Tani, determined and unwavering.
Lee felt a chill at the sight of those fiery eyes. There was more than just anger smoldering in his brother's gaze. There was the light of battle there and Lee suddenly felt very sorry for any soldier who'd had to face those eyes in a fight.
"Let go of my brother, Tani," Sensu said again, his voice dark and steady. He paused, poised, leaning heavily on his crutch.
Tani's lips curled into a sneer. "Or what? You may have been a soldier once, even a good one, but now you're helpless." He clenched his free hand into a fist and gestured at Sensu. "Step back, or I'll push you back." Lee felt a burst of hot anger in his chest. His face flushed. He wrenched in Tani's grasp.
Sensu swung his leg forward, and slammed his foot on the courtyard. He was a cripple, not helpless. He was still an earthbender. The skill was rusty, but it was there; it was the maneuverability he lacked. He could feel the power of his thrust quiver through the solid rock, but it was like looking through the world with only one eye. He could perceive things visually –position, depth– that he couldn't necessarily feel physically.
The stone under Tani jerked. Tani stepped back as one of the cobbles burst up from the ground and struck his arm. He grunted, involuntarily yanking his arm back and releasing Lee.
Lee staggered away, unbalanced.
Sensu swayed, clutching desperately to his crutch, silently cursing himself. His aim was off and the power of the blow had petered on its journey. Tani wasn't incapacitated, merely annoyed, and Sensu wasn't ready for an attack.
Tani rubbed at his arm and glowered at Sensu. He took a step forward and as he clenched his fists, cracks opened in the cobblestone beneath him.
What exactly happened next, neither Sensu nor Lee was ever certain.
Tani stalked toward them, thirsty for blood, both brothers defenseless. Far away, the steward droned on. The crowd lifted in a joyful cry, shifted, and in a flurry of colored cloth, red hair and a bright flash of gold, Tani fell senseless to the cobblestones.
"Oh my!" A young woman whirled in alarm just in time to watch the man fall. Her arms, raised in an exuberant cheer, quickly lowered.
Lee blinked. Sensu steadied himself. The woman covered her mouth with her golden fan. The three of them –alone in an absorbed crowd– stared down at Tani's limp form.
The woman glanced up at them. "How clumsy of me! Is he alright?"
A man materialized at Lee's shoulder. His fuzzy beard reminded Lee of a stuffed toy he'd loved in his childhood, and he wore the gold and green of a tea server's uniform. He dipped down to check the man's condition and almost immediately popped back up again with a wide smile. "Clonked out cold!"
"I'm sure he'll be alright," Lee said quickly, backing toward Sensu. "Whoever he is."
"I feel so foolish," the woman cried, her innocent eyes wide with shock. She fanned a gentle breeze over her face as though she might faint. "I'm terribly sorry."
"It's alright, miss," the tea server assured her, "It happens all the time." He swiveled toward Lee and Sensu, thrusting his tray toward them. "Tea?"
"Uh..." Lee glanced at his brother, but Sensu wasn't eyeing the tea. He was staring at the woman's golden fan as it reflected the sun back in his eyes. "No thanks. We should get going."
"Very well." The server nodded so fast Lee wondered his head didn't fly off. "Good, good. Enjoy the show." He crouched down beside Tani, lifting his torso while the woman scooped up the unconscious man's legs. "Don't worry about this fellow," he sang, "We'll take care of him!"
The woman glanced up, beamed, and the two shuffled off through the crowd, making their heavy burden somehow look effortless.
Lee blinked. "That was..."
"Weird," Sensu finished.
Lee glanced sharply at him. "I was going to say convenient."
"That, too." Sensu nodded. "Flawless."
"You think she did it on purpose?" Lee asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Definitely." Sensu's gaze bored into the crowd, as though peering straight through the pressed bodies to watch the odd pair who had long disappeared behind a curtain of eager limbs. "Her fan," he said, "That wasn't a trinket."
"What do you mean?"
"It was solid, metal. Couldn't you tell? That wasn't just a fan; that was a weapon."
Jeong Jeong did not pay much attention to the crowd. His soldiers, the Avatar, and the Kyoshis were already doing that. The Admiral was keeping his eye on the Firelord.
When he got the chance, Zuko had told him, he was going after Kuzarr. And he insisted he would do it alone.
Jeong Jeong did not approve. Too much could befall the Firelord if he attempted to take down the traitor on his own. He would not get in Zuko's way, but if Kuzarr still held the strings to more puppets, Jeong Jeong would deal with them.
He glanced uneasily through the crowd. The Firelord seemed calmer than before but he was, the Admiral realized, almost too calm. He feared Zuko was beginning to shut down as blow after emotional blow was dealt him. This could merely be the calm before the storm. And who knew what turbulence such a storm could wreak?
Jeong Jeong would not get in the Firelord's way. Not unless he had to.
Zuko's dark gaze locked on the balcony far above, occupied by the supposed Firelord.
Was Mai up there? He couldn't tell.
He blended into the crowd, nearly identical to the two dozen soldiers and friends they'd smuggled in, garbed in every available uniform from his Uncle's tea shop they could scrounge up. The one thing that set him apart from the others was the tray held in his left hand, as opposed to the right. He hadn't applied the face paint today; only the tray and his dark loose hair now covered his scar.
Zuko was finished hiding.
As close to the steps as the crowd was allowed, a pair of dark eyes scanned the courtyard. The brim of a straw hat was pulled low, obscuring the view, but the eyes were not watching for anything particular. They were simply waiting, waiting for the perfect moment.
And it would come very, very soon.
The Dai Li agent was close behind Ursa. Sounds of pursuit echoed in the hall behind her. She couldn't shake him.
There was a room to her right. She ducked into it, catching the door as she whirled round, slamming it shut.
Two chunks of earth pounded into the thick wood. Ursa slid the feeble bolt into place and breathed a sigh of relief. Those missiles would have caught her if she had moved any slower.
The door shuddered under the blow. Alarmed, Ursa threw her small body against it, trying to hold it in place.
The door groaned, jumped in its frame. It thrust Ursa forward, jarring her teeth, dragging her feet across the floor.
This wasn't going to work. She had to find something to bar the door. She cast about the room for something, anything. There, a small decorative table. Ursa shoved it hard, grunting under its weight. Halfway to the door she paused to catch her breath. The table was small, but sturdy. It took her another precious moment to push it into the door, but it was worth it.
This time, though she rested against the table, she could not feel the door jump forward. Perfect. Ursa brushed off her hands in satisfaction and turned to take in the rest of the room. Now was the time to look for the second door and make her escape.
A perfect plan. Except for one tiny detail, Ursa realized as, frowning, she scanned the room again.
There wasn't a second door.
"Finally," Toph muttered, as the herald drew to a close.
The crowd seemed to share her sentiments, treating the ceremonious occasion to another deafening roar of approval.
Toph tensed. It was almost time to act.
She found herself glancing up at the flying-boar crest fluttering in the gentle breeze. For once, she hoped that her mother had actually listened to her and brought The Boulder and Hippo along for the ceremony, as much as she loathed the 'hooligans'.
Whatever went down today, she wanted her parents safe.
The room was a stand-alone. Ursa was cut off from the rest of the Palace and the Dai Li agent still pounded at the door.
She bit her lip, running her eyes over the room and its contents. Surely there had to be something helpful in here. Aside from dozens of gaudy gold ornamentals, there was only the table she'd pushed in front of the door, thick billowing curtains, a small divan, and a writing desk sitting before a small window. It looked directly over the crowded courtyard, too, as if to mock her.
Behind her, stone fists punched into the door again. Harder this time. She could almost feel the vibrations pulse through the air.
That window was beginning to look like her best option. She knew it would be useless, of course; she was hundreds of feet above the ceremony. Merely glancing out gave her an uneasy twinge of vertigo! But she went toward it anyway.
Bracing herself against the wall, Ursa peered down. What she saw directly beneath her was not the milling crowd far, far below. She saw a balcony. It was closer than hundreds of feet below —but not by much.
Stone struck the door again. This time, the wood strained against its hinges, knocking into the table, rattling its drawer pulls and knickknacks.
Ursa pushed the window open and leaned out, judging the distance.
The balcony might be close enough. It was hard to tell.
The door splintered.
Nothing for it. Ursa gulped down a deep breath and –hands trembling– pulled herself onto the window ledge.
"Well," she said aloud. She hoped the sound of her own voice, filled with confidence, might give her some courage. Unfortunately, her voice was only as confident as she was. Inconvenient. The sound cracked and her words wavered.
Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe she should try something else.
That was most certainly the door. Too late for another option.
Ursa gripped the window frame. "At least I looked before I leaped!" And she stepped out onto thin air.
Poppy Bei Fong frowned. "Did you hear something?"
Her husband looked amused. "I hear a lot of somethings."
She eyed him with frustration. He was developing some of their daughter's irritating habits. "I thought –"
She did not get the chance to finish her thought. At that moment, she was rudely interrupted by something crashing into the green gossamer fabric over their heads.
Poppy gasped. Her husband gave a cry of surprise and moved to protect his wife. He was not quick enough; the Bei Fongs were a family not traditionally trained in such techniques.
Fortunately, this was one skill The Boulder possessed. He kicked up a column of earth, the tip of it bowed in the middle to catch this mysterious falling object, and lowered it back down to the ground.
A girl leapt from the rock. "Thanks!" She tripped almost immediately, tangled in the green-sheened gossamer.
The Boulder did not seem to think anything unusual of such a finely clad child falling from mysterious heights into his lap. He nodded. "The Boulder is glad to assist." He caught the gossamer and –despite a gasp of despair from Toph's mother– rent a child-sized hole in the fabric and held it open for her.
The girl, however, ignored him. She turned her back on the balcony's occupants and trod carefully over the net of gossamer toward the rail.
The Boulder frowned and glanced at the Hippo. "Now The Boulder is confused."
"And now," the herald declared dramatically. "The moment you've all been waiting for!"
Yes; yes, it is.
The herald nodded and the two men holding the crown began to lower it toward Kuei's head.
"I give you..." the herald cried, as the crown descended over the royal brow.
The assassin acted before he could announce 'the Earth King!'
Ursa allowed herself an instant to take in the scene. The balcony was adjacent to the Palace stairs and on those steps she spotted Kuei, the crown hovering above his head. He wasn't dead yet!
She turned her searching gaze on the crowd. The attack, where would it come from?
There! Sparks in the crowd. Lightning sparks. Ursa's mouth went dry. Her heart stopped beating.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- I love that warm, fuzzy glow you get when a cluster of minor characters you don't anticipate show up to help out with a really climactic moment. *squee*
- Momo is hiding out under Sokka's hat, just as he did that first time the Gaang snuck into the Earth Palace. Nostalgia. Aww.
- "It's alright, miss; happens all the time." A callback to a scene in 'Princess Diaries 2', which was a callback to a scene in 'Pretty Woman', both directed by Garry Marshall. Ah, film trivia. ^_^
I bet she just wanted to see how many characters she could get into one epic battle and that's why I have to wait through five parts to get it all.
- You'd be on the right track. After all, wasn't The Day of Black Sun awesome just because so many minor characters showed up? XD
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