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|The Gamble and the Gambit|
January 31, 2012
Previously in Air...
Firelord Zuko has gone to the Earth Kingdom in search of his son. Master Ru Yong came to The Jasmine Dragon in search of his friend Iroh with information of utmost importance. After waiting in vain for Iroh to return, members of the Guild watch as Ru Yong leaves and plot his destruction. Later, when Iroh arrives at Ru Yong's residence, he finds Ru Yong in a strange catatonic state with his young friends Longshot and Smellerbee standing over him.
Chapter Four: The Gamble and the Gambit
Mai watched the Firelord. He sat ramrod straight, his face completely devoid of emotion. His eyes met hers, but she turned away.
"We've searched the entire city," Admiral Jeong Jeong was saying, "But we can find no sign of the Prince. It is likely they smuggled him out of the Fire Nation immediately."
It was a small crowd that had gathered in the private sitting room of the Firelord and Lady. There was Jeong Jeong, Zuko's trusted advisor, admiral and friend; General Tzen; Rozen, Jeong Jeong's loyal protégée and by far the youngest advisor to gain the ear of a Firelord.
Ty Lee stood at Mai's shoulder, resplendent in a traditional Fire Nation gown in place of her green and black warrior's uniform. The gown was custom-made for the athletic young woman and showered with pink.
Four elite warriors –Kyoshis disguised in Fire Nation garb– were the last of the secret gathering. They sat together at the Pai Sho table, but they were not here for games.
Lady Mai did not take her usual seat beside her husband. Instead she curled up in the windowsill, leaning against the wall and fiddling with a small switchblade knife.
Mai closed her eyes. She knew Ty Lee was worried about her; she was hovering close. Sighing, Mai looked out the window, down into the beautiful garden. Usually so many bright colors made her sick, but the early morning light dancing on the petals only reminded her that Ursa would be waking soon.
"The whole city?" the Firelord questioned. "You're certain?"
Mai threw the knife out again, flicking her wrist with more force than absolutely necessary. "You've got it all wrong." Her voice was quiet, but her friends heard the passion in those few words. Mai had not said much the past few days; the others looked at her in surprise. "If you keep talking like that, people are going to get suspicious," Mai continued, without looking up.
The atmosphere in the room tensed. The others glanced uncertainly between Mai and the Firelord. Ty Lee felt the stir of confrontation and bit her lip.
"As I can't seem to get it right, Lady," the Firelord said quietly, "Perhaps you'd like to suggest something?"
"You're not showing any emotion," Mai said flatly.
The Firelord thought this was ironic coming from the expressionless woman. He wisely kept this thought to himself. "I am recovering from a great shock," he pointed out instead. "Perhaps my reaction-"
"Your reaction," Mai countered, "Would be determination and an increasingly short temper."
The Firelord sighed. "Very well, Lady," he said. "I shall try to live up to expectations." He turned his attention back to the crisis at hand.
But Mai wasn't finished yet. "One more thing." She jerked her wrist back again, closing the knife with a sharp snap. "Zuko would never doubt or question Jeong Jeong."
"Surely," the Firelord protested, "In such a tense time as this-"
Mai's dark eyes cut him off. "Never."
The Firelord inclined his head. "Very well, my Lady." He glanced around at the others in the room, but none offered suggestions. Carefully, he said, "I assure you, Lady Mai, I am not attempting to replace your husband, but merely masquerade as him for this short time."
Mai turned away. "Then do it right."
Kuzarr sighed. "Of course, Lady."
Kuzarr was an Imperial Firebender of the Royal Procession, not only experienced from his ten years serving the royal family, but a celebrated hero for his many selfless acts protecting them. His physical resemblance to Zuko was uncanny. Kuzarr had posed as the Firelord before when his safety was threatened, but only ever for short periods. Zuko now expected Kuzarr to impersonate him for several weeks –perhaps longer. As long as it took to find his son.
Kuzarr might look like the Firelord, but Mai made certain he knew that's where the similarities stopped. She criticized the soldier over the minutest details.
"Does the court suspect?" Kuzarr asked.
There was a moment of silence as the gathered group anticipated another reproach from Mai. When she didn't speak, the strained atmosphere began to relax.
"No," Jeong Jeong replied.
At Kuzarr's look of satisfaction, Jeong Jeong added, "They are all aware of the kidnapping. Any discrepancies they see in the Firelord's character could be excused with shock, but that will not last forever."
Kuzarr stole a glance at Lady Mai. He half expected her to smirk in triumph, but she was staring out the window, knife clutched in her fist, apparently oblivious.
"Then the only thing is for us to continue on," Kuzarr said, "And I shall perfect my charade."
When no one replied, Kuzarr asked, "Is there anything else?"
Jeong Jeong and Tzen exchanged concerned glances. Was Kuzarr getting a little too comfortable in his new role? Neither relished this idea of Zuko's.
Ty Lee searched Mai's face for any kind of reaction, but found none.
One of the Kyoshis took the initiative, the only man among them. In anticipation of some undercover work, he'd grown his hair out though his small ponytail –which he emphatically insisted was called a 'warrior's wolf-tail'– remained the same. He'd refused to shave his fuzzy beard, despite his comrades protests that it made him look like a cuddly teddy platypus-bear. "Suki and I are going to interrogate everyone," he said, "Find out if they saw or heard anything suspicious."
Suki nodded. There was another reason they wished to interrogate the staff. They were hoping to find someone, anyone, who could corroborate the story of the only man witness to the kidnapping.
A single soldier, Joji, was present in the courtyard when Prince Iroh was taken. He claimed there was no warning, nothing he could do. One moment, the Prince stood in the courtyard, practicing his bending forms, and the next he was being swallowed into the earth. Suki wanted to believe Joji; he was a young man, distraught by the kidnapping. But there were questions, doubts. How could an Earthbender get into the Fire Palace? How would he know that the Prince would be nearly alone? How would he have spirited the Prince out of the city? Why didn't Roh-Roh fight back?
And these questions all boiled down to the same suspicion: an inside man. It was not a voiced suspicion, but Suki and Sokka planned to investigate it.
"I will join you," Jeong Jeong said. "I know many of the guards and servants."
Sokka suspected that was not the admiral's only reason. Joji was a soldier trained and hand-picked to join the Imperial Firebenders by Jeong Jeong himself. But Sokka nodded. "Help is always welcome."
A Kyoshi, called Keiko, giggled, "He usually needs it."
Suki cast her gaze around the room, wary despite herself. She knew Jeong Jeong from the Kyoshi's efforts in settling the peace the first years after the war; he was trustworthy. That left General Tzen who was responsible for many bloodless victories against rebels in the Fire Nation, Councilor Rozen whose ideals all focused on the well-being of the people, and the imposter, Kuzarr, who had saved the Firelord's life too many times to count.
"We'll also be keeping an eye out for any more attempts," Ty Lee added.
"You think they'd be stupid enough to try a second time?" Tzen asked skeptically.
Mai's eyes narrowed. "It worked the first time."
The conversation died.
A sharp rap at the door saved them from another uncomfortable silence. Jeong Jeong opened it a sliver. The thing about secret meetings was that no one else was supposed to know about them.
The messenger bowed, and said quietly, "The council awaits the Firelord."
Jeong Jeong nodded.
As soon as the door was closed, Sokka leaned into the table. "Aha!" he muttered to his band excitedly. "A suspect! How did he know the Firelord was in here?"
"Because these are his quarters," Suki said.
Sokka deflated. "Oh, right. That." He sat down again, face scowling in deep thought. He was no doubt running through every person he'd come in contact with since arriving at the Palace, and arranging their pros and cons on his 'Most Likely To Be a Traitor' list.
Jeong Jeong looked at Kuzarr. "The Firelord has been requested," he said.
The imposter rose. "Then we shouldn't keep them waiting," he said.
His voice even sounded like Zuko's, Mai realized. Even with the fake-scar, Kuzarr's face could not fool her. But his voice...If she didn't look at him, she could almost pretend it was Zuko. So she did look at him; her gaze bored into the face of the imposter with fierce determination because Zuko was in the Earth Kingdom, looking for their son.
The fake Firelord left. General Tzen, Admiral Jeong Jeong and Councilor Rozen followed him out.
With only friends left in the room, everyone suddenly relaxed.
Ty Lee perched on the windowsill beside Mai. "You really shouldn't be so hard on him," she said quietly. "He's just trying to help."
Mai sighed, slipping the knife into her sleeve. "I'm not being hard on him," she said. "I'm being honest."
Ty Lee looked doubtful.
"If he makes one mistake," Mai told her, "If people find out he's an imposter..." The words slipped away, unfinished. It took Zuko many years to gain the people's trust. He worked hard to earn it, to prove that he deserved it, and because of that the citizens became fiercely loyal. If they discovered Zuko was deceiving them...
"I suppose..." Ty Lee agreed grudgingly.
They were silent a moment.
Finally, softy, Ty Lee said, "It was the only way." She didn't know if this would comfort her friend, but she felt the need to say it.
Mai quickly wiped her eyes and pulled her legs tight to her chest. "I know," she said sullenly.
"Are you angry at him?"
"No." Mai looked away. "Not at him." Her eyes clouded. Her gaze bored over the landscape, searching as if for whatever conspirator had caused her heartache. "I'm angry at them."
Ty Lee nodded.
"I want to know their names," Mai said softly. "I want to know their faces." She paused, and her whisper became tight and harsh. "...I want them to feel the same pain they've caused me and I want them to regret it."
Ty Lee didn't know what to say. It had been years since she'd spent time with Mai, busy as she was with the other Kyoshi Warriors. Everyone tried to meet once a year in Ba Sing Se, at Iroh's tea shop, but that was only a few days out of hundreds.
It was clear the years had changed Mai; Ty Lee just hoped it was for the better.
Suki appeared beside Ty Lee. "We'll find who did this, Mai," she said quietly. "I promise."
"That's right!" Sokka cried energetically. "And when I get my hands on the scumbags, they won't know which way's up and which way's down, right or left, or-" He gesticulated wildly, pantomiming just what retribution he would wreak, when an improvised roundhouse kick knocked a priceless ornate vase from the table.
Sokka winced as it shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces. "Oops?"
Suki shook her head, but Ty Lee had to stifle a giggle.
"I really hope that wasn't expensive." Suki glared at her shamefaced husband. Sokka tried for a sheepish smile, but she wasn't having any of it.
"It was a gift from my mother," Mai replied. "Of course it was expensive."
It was early morning. Too early for most people, so the streets were nearly empty.
People had already begun to arrive at the tea shop. Several had even shown up the night before. Iroh knew he didn't have long.
The door was answered on the first knock.
"Oh, Master Iroh. It's you." Cloe's pretty face was void of emotion, her dark eyes wide. She was in shock, Iroh knew, and no wonder.
"Has there been any change?" Iroh asked, stepping into the hall.
The housekeeper looked away. "No."
Iroh placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Everything will be alright, Cloe."
She led him into Ru Yong's bedchambers. Iroh and Cloe had managed to move him the night before. Ru Yong had not budged, but lay sprawled on the bed in the exact position as they'd deposited him. He stared upward with wide eyes yet saw nothing.
Cloe stood at the bedside, gazing down at her master. "I don't understand how this could happen," she murmured. "He was in perfect health! I don't care what that physician says."
Ru Yong's physician, after a thorough examination, diagnosed the nobleman's condition as a temporary state brought on by old age and said it would fade in a few days.
"As youthful as he is," Iroh said quietly, "There's no denying Ru Yong is an old man."
Cloe turned on him in surprise. "Healthy men don't just collapse!"
Iroh frowned, but did not reply.
"Don't tell me you're buying that gold hoarder's story."
Of course Iroh wasn't buying it. In fact, he suspected Ru Yong's condition had nothing to do with his health. The physician only lied for the money he could gain by continually 'treating' the rich man's illness.
No, whatever had happened to Ru Yong wasn't natural. And that worried Iroh.
He knew he couldn't involve Cloe in whatever mess her master had landed in. Finally, he said, "I don't know."
She shook her head in disbelief and turned back to Ru Yong.
"May I have a moment alone with him?" Iroh asked.
Cloe hesitated, unwilling to leave her master's side.
"Please, Cloe," Iroh implored, "A moment with my old friend?"
Cloe reluctantly pulled away. "I'll be in the kitchen," she said softly. She left the door partially open behind her.
Iroh wished she had closed it, but he let it be. He didn't want to arouse her suspicions.
He stood by his friend's side a moment longer. "What have you gotten yourself into, my friend?" Then he turned away. He had not come to visit Ru Yong; he'd come to look for clues. If Ru Yong was neck-deep in something, Iroh knew he'd leave some trail for him to follow. And he knew just where to look.
In the far corner, under the window, was a small Pai Sho table. It was a work of art, a craftsman's shining glory, with brightly painted tiles, intricate carvings and around the tabletop's edge, embracing the area of play, was the outline of a giant lotus in white marble against dark wood.
Iroh sat down and began to move the tiles about. He carefully arranged them in the pattern of the Lotus Gambit, a trick any member of the Order of the White Lotus could do. He placed the last tile and felt the square give ever so slightly. There was a soft click and a secret cache popped out at the back of the table, revealing a small drawer.
The door creaked open. Iroh froze as Cloe stepped into the room, bearing a tray. He folded his arms over the area of play, hoping to hide most of the pattern he'd created. He smiled at Cloe. "I was just remembering our greatest games." He picked up one of the colorful pieces. "Many fond memories were made over Pai Sho tiles."
Cloe smiled sadly. "He does love that stupid game," she murmured, shaking her head.
Iroh took the opportunity to slide the drawer's contents up his sleeve. As carefully as he could, he pressed the cache closed, hoping that Cloe wouldn't hear the click.
"Would you like a cup of tea?"
Iroh jumped at the sudden question. He stood. "I'm afraid not," he apologized. "I really must be getting back. I just wanted to check on him."
They both looked at the oblivious form of Ru Yong.
"You'll let me know if anything changes?" Iroh asked gently.
"Of course," Cloe said, surprised he had to ask.
Iroh nodded. "I'll check in again."
Cloe led him to the door.
Iroh paused before leaving. "Cloe..." he hesitated. "I have to ask: Where were you last night?"
Cloe's lip began to tremble. She bit it to keep it still, and her tears began to stream down. "He told me to leave."
Iroh rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder, but his eyes were intense. "Why?"
Cloe wiped at her eyes. "He didn't say, but..." She glanced uncertainly at Iroh.
He raised an eyebrow. "But what?"
Cloe cast about, as if searching out prying eyes. "I think he was meeting someone," she whispered.
Iroh frowned. "Is that so...?" he mused.
Cloe sniffed. "I don't know for certain, but there were things that he said. Things that he did...Oh, Iroh!" she cried. "Do you think this happened because I left? Did someone do this to him?"
"No, Cloe," Iroh's voice was gentle but firm. "This has nothing to do with you."
"But...if I had stayed..."
"Hush, Cloe," Iroh patted her shoulder. "You did exactly what Ru Yong wanted you to do. He couldn't ask for more than that." He looked her in the eye. "Now stop this nonsense about you being responsible."
Cloe did not look convinced, but she did not protest. She wiped again at her tear-streaked cheeks.
Iroh smiled at the sad housekeeper. "Ru Yong never liked to see you moping about," he said kindly.
Cloe tried to smile but it was hard.
"Cheer up," he told her. "He's a tough one."
Cloe watched Iroh leave, nodding and smiling at everyone he passed. Such a kind old man, she thought. She knew Iroh had come to check in on her, as much as on her master's condition.
Cloe returned to Ru Yong's bedchamber and began to clear away the tea.
"Iroh was here," she told her master as she worked. It wasn't that she found talking to her unresponsive master comforting –usually Ru Yong would have some kind of wry comment for anything she brought up. But she wondered if –deep inside– Ru Yong somehow comprehended her words. "He's worried about you," she went on. She sighed. "He's beginning to act just as odd as you did, before..." Her voice trailed off.
Cloe stared down at her helpless master. "I hope you didn't drag him into whatever mess you're caught in."
Cloe spotted the tiles spread across the Pai Sho board. She went to it, picking up the piece Iroh had showed her.
She sighed. Ru Yong had attempted to teach her the game –unsuccessfully. "You're the best housekeeper a man could ever have," he'd declared. "But when it comes to Pai Sho you're completely hopeless!"
She glanced down at the table and noticed for the first time that the tiles were set in a pattern. But it was incomplete.
Cloe glanced at the tile in her hand. I wonder...
Carefully, she placed it on the table, completing the pattern.
The weight of the tile depressed the playing square, and there was a soft click as a small drawer popped open. Cloe peered into it. It was empty.
Frowning, she glanced toward the door where somewhere beyond, outside, Iroh was hurrying away.
What are you up to?