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|The Governess, Part 3: The Rat|
8 January 2016
There it was, the confirmation I needed. Inside a secret compartment in Uma's wooden desk was a package baring the Crimson Wolves insignia. If that isn't damning evidence, I don't know what is. I couldn't take it, of course; Uma likely checked often to make sure it was still there, and I had two more days until I was to poison her. So, I placed it back in its hiding spot and memorized the combination of the lock.
I experienced a moment of pause. She was a Crimson Wolf, a member of an organization consisting of high-profile movers and shakers within the Fire Nation seeking an end to Sozin's conquests and military practices. Was the enemy of my enemy my friend? I also didn't understand why the Governess would wield such cruelty over her subjects if she was ideologically opposed to the war and the occupation. It didn't add up, but I had more pressing matters to attend to.
I stepped over the body and ran downstairs.
"Please help!" I looked distressed, nervous, concerned. "A guarded fell and hit his head!" my voice cracked.
The two axemen posted at the bottom of the stairs leading to Uma's floor snapped into attention and looked at each other. "Where?" demanded one through the red handkerchief covering his mouth.
"In Uma's office!" I clarified. "I was soaping the floor and he slipped. He won't wake up!"
The soldier ran out into a grander hall and called for other guards, who ascended with him up the stairs while I waited with his partner, a man whose suspicious glare was almost as sharp as his axe. The men returned carrying an unconscious body, and one of the guards clasped my arm forcefully and tugged. "You're coming with us," he commanded.
I was directed to a room I hadn't been in yet and released. I clutched my hurt arm with my hand and gritted my teeth while the guards laid their comrade on a table, resting his surely-damaged head on an ornate merlot pillow.
One soldier pivoted to me and folded his arms. "He wasn't wearing his helmet," he noted.
I shook my head as if to say I don't know. "I think he took it off because he got hot," I postulated.
Another, familiar, figure flounced into the room. "Just what is the matter here?" Sanje yelped in his perpetually-hilarious squeaky voice.
A guard pointed his finger my way. "This girl says-"
"He slipped on the wet floor!" I interjected. "I was scrubbing, and he walked over and fell. He hit his head on the fireplace mantle and got knocked out."
Sanje's face morphed into a bright red. "Oh for the love of!" he stammered. "You two!" he barked, facing the axemen, "get back to your post and inspect the gubernatorial suite to make sure no one's upstairs!"
As they left, a faint grumble came from the table, and everyone still in the room spun on their heels to examine the slowly-moving body.
I had to resist biting my nails. My plan was dependent on the hope that the guard would fail to remember the incident, but there was no way to guarantee.
"Are you okay?" Sanje asked of the man, standing at his side.
His eyes fluttered open. "Unghh... What... What happened? The ceiling is spinning."
I interposed before anyone else could speak. "You were going to help me move the office furniture so I could scrub, but you slipped and banged your head hard on the corner of the mantle. I tried to catch you!"
"Ugh..." He brought his hand to his forehead, gradually sitting upright with the aid of another guard. "Yeah..." he muttered. "I think I'm starting to remember."
My throat quivered as an exhale nervously escaped my mouth. My plan, the mission, everything I'd done up to that point was in the hands of that poor man. My life depended on what he said next.
"Yeah," he repeated. "I remember you said to be careful. Oh man, I remember slipping too. And I think I remember you trying to grab me."
I ignored Sanje's look of concern in my direction. "I did grab you but I was too late, and you were too heavy."
The guard laughed softly. "Mmm. It's my fault for not being careful. Thank you for getting help."
"Of course," I bowed. That's how it's done folks.
Sanje actually dismissed me early that day, and I must admit I felt rather smug after the stunt I pulled off. I earned myself not only the confirmation I needed to proceed with my mission, but extra time in my day to finally visit Nightmare at the stable. The manager, the same one who tricked me into opening my door to Zhang, was there. And it was awkward, but I paid no mind to him when I saw that vicious, disturbing reptilian face I knew and loved. I wrapped my arms around his scales and pressed my cheek against his cold body.
"I'm sorry you have to stay here," I whispered, petting his hard spine. "Not too much longer, I promise."
I tossed him some slices of fruit. "Are they feeding you enough here?" I asked my animal friend. "They better be."
A good portion of the afternoon had passed when I retired to my apartment. There was nothing else to do that day but sleep. I wouldn't meet the resistance again until the following day, but I did lie in bed a while and think about my new allies.
Sen was a mystery, but one I wanted to explore further. She was standoffish. There must have been a reason for that, a story. Her past likely held the clues. She wasn't trusting, even of someone who saved her life. She rarely smiled or laughed. It could only be because someone she trusted, or perhaps even loved, hurt her. And if that was the case, I couldn't really blame her.
Kasar was... something. He seemed like a good enough guy, but also arrogant, cocky. I was tempted to think he shared similar qualities with Jirou, but without the evil. But he did somewhat embody what many people in my homeland believed of earthbenders: brutish, rough-around the edges, messy. But he wasn't an animal or a savage. I could tell he was competent, and brave.
Then there was Lahn. There was something about him, an energy. His looks alone would make any woman deem him husband material. Not the hunk his older brother was, but so handsome and proper. His charisma is what struck me the most. He could sell ice to people at the North Pole, just as long as they looked him deep in his eyes and listened to him speak. He struck me as a direct contrast to Sen, maybe even too trusting and genuine for his own good.
But I liked him. Too bad the only face the three of them saw on me was a lie.
My fourth day at work was uneventful, at least at first. When I arrived, I had to overcome nerves anytime I was approached by Sanje or Uma. There was, lurking in the back of my mind, a fear that they had discovered me, but it blew over. Sanje said nothing out of the ordinary, and Uma didn't seem more protective of her desk or paranoid like I assumed she would be if she knew. It was a normal day, until Uma stood up.
"Tu Lin," she began.
"I need to show you something. Come with me."
Unsure of what to think or expect, I followed in Uma's tall shadow to the palace courtyard. It was cold enough outside to see my breath, a phenomenon I did not often witness in the Fire Nation.
Something was unusual, however. In between the gorgeous hedges, bushes, and walls, was a small gathering in front of a stone badgermole fountain. When we got closer, I saw several guards and a woman wearing the same uniform as mine: Meng.
Suddenly worried, I looked to my boss. "Governess?" I prodded.
She neglected to acknowledge me, raising her chin and widening her stance. "Strip her," she ordered.
Immediately, two skull-faced soldiers seized a grimacing Meng and tore off her shirt. She then growled and momentarily wrestled herself out of their grip to cover her breasts with her hands. I wanted to ask Uma what was going on. More than that, I wanted to scream and demand she let my friend go.
"So is this my punishment?" Meng spat, staring Uma down without fear. "To make my nipples hard in the cold?!"
The Governess was resolute, not stooping to the level of Meng's crass words. "You know I have no tolerance for the behavior you displayed yesterday. In fact, I consider it treasonous and therefore a crime against me, the state, and the Fire Nation."
I put my hand over my mouth. What did she do?
Uma removed the fir coat she was wearing and handed it to a guard, revealing a sleeveless vest. At that point, I turned around and saw that the other maids had also been gathered in the courtyard. They looked equally as horrified, some crying, some angry, but no one said anything.
"For those who are unaware," Uma bellowed for the entire audience to hear. "This woman, this rat, decided to return to the palace yesterday after being dismissed, and evidently after a visit to a local pub."
Oh no. I closed my eyes. Meng actually did it.
Uma continued after two guards shoved Meng to the ground. "She approached me as I was being escorted through the grand hall from my throne room back to my chambers, and she yelled out a long list of obscenities and violent insults. Meng, would you like to specify what you told me?"
The half-naked handmaiden shot the dictator a look of pure disgust. "I told you that you had no business ruling Taku, and that if I could I'd kill you myself!"
Uma nodded slowly. "Yes. You did. And I am sure you are aware," she raised her voice, "that you are all aware of the treasonous undertones of words like those. That type of message is something that betrays us all, up to Fire Lord Sozin himself! Of course, he is far to high to deal with the ramblings of a filthy peasant."
"-But you're not, apparently," Meng retorted. I wanted to cheer so badly after that.
Uma hissed and laughed at the same time. "Of course, I am a merciful leader, and I don't believe a young woman should lose her life over a drunken rant."
I expected to see an expression of relief on Meng's face, but she simply continued to pant furiously on the ground.
"However," Uma continued, "actions such as these must be punished!"
She waited no longer to throw back her hand, and a line of orange fire followed her fist. She lashed out, and the whip struck a flinching Meng on her back.
I looked away as she howled in pain- all the maids did- but I glanced back to see a monstrous line of scorched skin running along her body. It was soon joined by another, and another, and another. Each crack of Uma's "mercy" sounded like it hurt more than the last, and she didn't top until Meng lost consciousness, bleeding on the cobblestone.
"Guards!" called illegitimate ruler. "Remove her from my palace... from my city! She is hereby banished my this province!"
Soldiers cleaned up the mess Uma made, including the removal of my nearly-dead friend, and people quickly cleared the area until just Uma and I remained.
"So you see Tu Lin," the Governess slipped back on her fur coat, "much of my job is to keep order in my city, which includes administering harsh reprimands and punishments when they are necessary. Savages need to be educated."
I nodded uncomfortably, but didn't utter a word. If there was any confusion or any qualms I held in regards to killing the Crimson Wolf, they were long gone.
I didn't say anything for the remaining duration of my time in the palace that day. The other women and I went about our chores in deafening silence. Uma's methods of maintaining control were effective as they were cruel. What she didn't know, was that in my mind she sealed her own fate. Wolf or not, I couldn't be bothered to sympathize with such a monster.
My later meeting with the rebellion was restricted to the three people I had befriended. Lahn and Kasar rented a room in an inn for us to congregate in. It was located in a poor area of the city, one in which there were no Fire Nation citizens, so the chances of being overheard by anyone who would do anything about it were low.
"Let's get right down to business," suggested Lahn to nods around the room. Formalities were kept to a minimum, even though it was only my second time with the group.
Kasar leaned against a wall. "So Tu Lin, how exactly are you going to cary this out?"
"Like I said," I took a seat on a bed, "Uma trusts me. I bring her breakfast every morning."
Sen sat next to me and sighed. "You can't just attack her."
"I don't need to." I dug into my pocket and pulled out a small, cylindrical flask. "Lady and gentlemen, this substance is known as gu. It's one of the deadliest poisons in a all four nations."
It served as a metaphor for the four nations as well. Gu was originally prepared by trapping various venomous creatures- snakes, scorpions, you know it- and waiting until they devoured each other, leaving all of their toxins absorbed by and combined into one lone survivor.
"Where did you get that?" Sen shifted away from me, astonished.
Lahn was equally stunned. "How does a maid come into the possession of such a fatal poison?"
I had an answer prepared. "I told you my father died for this cause. This is the work he did. He was an herbalist, and he maintained a secret garden inside our house where he grew all kinds of deadly flora, including the white jade leaves he mixed with snake and scorpion venom. A couple drops of this, and no medicine or healing can save Uma."
Kasar threw up his arms. "Oh so what, your dad was just a mastermind gardener? I mean-"
"Can it be detected?" Lahn asked the important questions.
"It has no smell," I confirmed, unsure if I was telling the truth. "It has a distinct, terrible taste, but at that point it's too late. She won't even be able to call for help."
"And you are alone when you serve her?"
"I am, thanks to her own arrogance and stupidity."
"How is it that an Earth Kingdom girl can even get this position? Surely, she had to know someone would attempt to infiltrate the palace."
I shrugged. "This isn't a position you apply for, so an assassin intentionally going undercover as a servant isn't really a possibility. They draft poor women who otherwise would have no jobs, probably because they would never take the risk. It was a safe bet, until now."
A silence filled the room for a moment, and I knew why. There were trying their hardest to find a fault in my plan, racking their brains until there was a hole or miscalculation. But there wasn't.
Sen was the first to ask what was on everyone's mind. "What if you fail? What if you can't escape the palace after she's dead?"
"Then you guys lose a new recruit you barely met."
"Fine," admitted Kasar, "let's say you succeed and Uma is dead and you get out. Where do we go from there? The Fire Nation will replace her unless we overtake the palace and the city, and even with our full force we wouldn't have enough."
Lahn shook his head. "We'll continue our operations until the movement is big enough to overpower the Fire Nation occupation. Until then, removing one dictator is enough of a victory for now."
"No," I stood up, "it isn't." I couldn't believe I was agreeing with Kasar, but given that Uma was actually a member of an anti-war society, I couldn't imagine that whoever followed would be much better. I also had a good hunch as to who that man might be. "When Uma falls, the next dictator will come down hard on the civilians. He'll be even crueler, less forgiving, and he'll never allow us an opportunity to strike."
"You speak as if you know this man," noted Sentoki.
I paused. "I don't know him, but I know of him. His name is Zhang, and he's here in Taku. I overheard a conversation between him and Uma. He's the next in line, and it almost sounded like he wanted her to die. As soon as he gets word of her death, he'll eagerly place himself on the throne and commence the retributions against the people of this city. If that happens, then our plan would only act as a catalyst for a disaster."
"Am I the only one who can't believe how Tu Lin talks like she owns the place?" gawked Kasar.
Lahn agreed, but phrased his concern much more diplomatically. "You do speak with a certain level of authority that's... unexpected."
"My father was a brilliant strategist," I explained. "He imparted in me this idea long ago."
"So assuming you inherited his strategic prowess, what do you propose as our next course of action?"
"I leave the palace and meet with the three of you, and we wait close enough to the palace to catch Zhang's procession when he arrives. When we see him, we ambush. You should gather another squad of your best people to watch from the other side and join when the fight breaks out."
"Hmmm," Lahn considered it. "An all-out battle should be our last resort. The primary effort should be to target and eliminate him with stealth. Luckily we have someone with the ability to bend icicles," he gestured at Sen to everyone's agreement.
"And," he continued, "Kasar and I are both earthbenders, and I know some others who would be well equipped for this task as well. If we can attack Zhang from a distance as he approaches the palace, we can all escape the day with our lives and a major victory."
No one had any objections, but Kasar and I were the only ones who displayed visible excitement.
I was sure to get plenty of sleep that night. What lay ahead of me was the most daunting mission of my career as an assassin, of my life. Day Five under Uma, the last day. The last day with that wretched clepsydra too. I planned to smash that water clock when it was all over, assuming I wouldn't be leaving the palace as a corpse.
I strapped the gu flask to my bare abdominal muscles, concealed under my dirty robes. It was the last day I had to wear those shoes, the last day I had to put my hair up, the last day I made my way to the palace before the sun was up. Like I said, the last day with Uma.
The face of the palace was a blur as I first neared it. It didn't clearly materialize in my vision until I took a moment to stop and breath. I couldn't hear the sound of my heels clacking on the marble steps over the sound of my pounding heart, and I had no recollection of showing the guards my certificate or retrieving Uma's food from the chef. All I knew was that I was suddenly standing before the same two soldiers with axes that had always guarded the way to my target.
"I don't understand," I whined. "I've deliver her breakfast every day this week."
"The Governess is wisely taking precautions after the outburst of that maid. Now comply with her orders or you'll meet a similar fate."
My eyes slowly drooped down, the platter of pastries and ham staring back me, taunting.
"One bite is all you need," the guard reiterated.
Certainly, they noticed my hand tremble as I reached for the plate, which could only tighten their suspicions. I picked up one slice of the ham and ate it slowly, but the men wouldn't step aside until the last swallow slid down my throat.
I brushed past them and proceeded up the stairs. Idiots. Like I would poison it before the checkpoint.
Before I got to the final corridor and Uma's master bedroom, I brought my hand down my shirt to retrieve the flask. I pulled the cork out of the opening with my teeth, which in hindsight was incredibly stupid, and poured the contents over my master's food. The ham was getting a new sauce, secret recipe.
I could practically feel my pulse leaping out of my neck as the door drew closer and closer. I almost didn't hear the bell indicating my summoning ring. I didn't look at Uma when I entered, doing my best to place her breakfast down calmly and pull back the curtains without doing anything unorthodox.
As usual, she did not stop me before I left, but someone else did.
I was so startled when I saw the soldiers in the hallway that I gasped. "You scared me," I accused honestly. One of them was the guard I knocked out, accompanied this time by another.
"There are- there- they're usually no guards up here," I stuttered.
The man I had previously attacked responded. "The Governess has ordered extra security."
I nodded. "Makes sense." With that, I proceeded down the hallway and prepared to go back downstairs.
The guard I hadn't met called out to me. "Aren't you supposed to go into her office?" He pointed at the door I passed.
"I will," I stammered. "The Governess asked me to fetch her a tub of hot water for her feet."
"You need to prepare her office," he stated, turning to his partner. "Why don't you go downstairs and call for another girl to bring the tub." The man agreed and complied, walking by me to go downstairs.
"Well?" the remaining guard nodded his head at the office, and I slowly made my way there, closing the door behind me.
Think, Nalia! I looked frantically around the room, considering jumping out a window. When my vision crossed the desk, I suddenly remembered that I forgotten the secret package I found earlier. Fortunately, the combination to the hidden compartment was the same, and I stuffed the small, mysterious item into my garments. From there, I had no move. Eventually, that guard would check on Uma and find her dead. He'd probably send the other one to alert the palace before confronting me, and at that point I'd be toast.
I decided to wait and listen. When I eventually heard the door to Uma's room open, it would mean that the guard went to investigate. I'll attack when he comes back out, and I won't let either man leave the hall, I determined. They won't be expecting my firebending. It was the only plan I had.
It took longer than I anticipated, but I heard footsteps. I knew he was making his move.
I took off my shoes and prepared for combat. The footsteps grew louder; they were getting closer. I was confused, at first, because I never heard the guard enter Uma's room in the first place.
Something happened outside the door, multiple footsteps. It was time to strike. I-
The door opened.
"Governess," I gasped. She didn't eat her breakfast.
Uma said nothing, marching to the middle of the room and not once breaking eye contact.
"Do you want to know a secret?" she began. "It's more of a confession, really."
When I didn't respond, she reached into her sleeve. She then tossed something onto the floor, and it took me a second to identify it as a dead rat.
"It was my pet," she elaborated. "I never told anyone I had it."
The room began to blur out as I realized what was happening.
"Not very professional, I know," laughed Uma, "for a governor to keep a rat in her room, but he proved rather useful, I must say."
I glanced at the window. We were too high. I'd never survive the fall.
"You know," Uma walked closer, "I never thought it was fair that rats had so little to eat, so I would share with him every day. Just a small bite from my food, so he wouldn't go hungry."
I gulped, then braced. Let's do this.
"And you know what I've learned," Uma demanded, raising her voice. "There's no room for rats in my city!"
Both her fists shot forward, and I quickly raised a wall of blue fire to block the attack she launched. When the flames subsided, she stared at me, stunned. She wasn't anticipating fire, especially not blue fire.
"Who are you?" she barked, readying another attack.
I dove left to evade the orange pinwheel disk that hit the Fire Nation flag above her desk and responded with my own horizontal line of blue that Uma barely ducked under. I then jumped and kicked, sending a burning sphere in her direction for her to block unscathed. The fire provided cover, however, for me to run up and push her into the wall. She roared in pain when she hit her head, and I let out a ferocious grunt as I swung her around and shoved her halfway across the office into her desk.
"I am the Lioness!" I bellowed thunderously, "and you will face the vengeance of my father!"
Her eyes shot open wide. "You! You're supposed to be dead..." she whispered.
"Yeah, that was your son-in-law's job. But I put him where he belonged: on the ocean floor!"
She gritted her teeth, then dropped to the ground and kicked out a blazing wave. I leapt over it, but she crawled out of the way before I landed, erupting her desk in flames. With a scream, I sent out a speeding fireball, and although she blocked it, she was pushed back through her office window. The sound of the smashing glass masked the approaching footsteps.
My head snapped left, where I saw Janda standing in the door's threshold, appalled.
"Ugh!" I barely saw the incoming fire out of the corner of my eye and evaded, only to see that Uma was hovering outside the window, propelling her own to feet with her bending.
I pivoted, and my left arm swooped down, raising a wall of flames between me and Janda, who jumped back in fear and shock. Next, I had no choice but to dive out the window and tackle Uma mid-air, sending us both spiraling down to the courtyard until she kicked out and eased our fall with a desperate blast.
Bruised but not broken, we both sprung to our feet and traded a series of blows. Fire vs fire, red vs blue. It wasn't long before palace guards had rushed onto the scene, and I was suddenly heavily outnumbered. One soldier came at me with a spear, but after I easily deflected and disarmed him, I stabbed him in the back and hurled the spear at Uma, who disintegrated it just in time. Another attacked with a sword, and I did the same to him. This time, I nicked Uma's calf with the blade. I dove to retrieve the projectile, but another soldier got to it before I did and almost took my head off, followed by a powerful blast from the Governess.
I smashed my fists on the ground, and a thick ring of fire exploded around me, creating a distance between me and the three remaining guards, one of which went down with a toss of that sword, the other two meeting my brand of fire.
While I was distracted, Uma began her escape. She ran at a palace wall and jumped, conquering the remaining hight with a propelling fire kick. I followed suit, blocking an incoming attack with a rapid wave of my right forearm. I pursued her onto the roof of a lower wall, than a higher one... than a higher one, blocking and dodging every flame she threw at me and striking down the occasional soldier who attempted to intervene.
"There's no where left to run, Uma!" I declared. We were finally as high as we could go, at the top of the palace, surrounded on both sides by Fire Nation banners pinned to the roof by metal spears.
"An appropriate setting," commented an out-of-breath Uma. "You'll die surrounded by the flag of the country you're betraying!"
"You're the traitor!" I spat. "I know everything!"
Uma responded with a fiery uppercut that singed the tips of my hair, which had completely fallen out of its bun. I yanked back my arm, creating a blue fire whip, and lashed it out at Uma's legs.
"That's for Meng!" I cried as she howled and stumbled.
I hit her with another one, this time on her chest. "That's for the waterbenders you murdered!"
I prepared another whip, but she spun on the ground and forced me to all but dive off the roof to avoid the blaze.
She jumped up and discharged a series of quick jabs. I blocked each one, except for the last, part of which hit me directly on the elbow. I screamed as I clutched it. It was a weak blast, but I almost fainted in pain.
Uma sprinted closer, took a deep breath, and brought about a stream of pressurized fire with the edge of her palm. I brought my left forearm up to knock away her wrist, and the flames soared up into the sky.
Then she did something I wasn't expecting. Her feet spread into a wider stance, and she lowered her soldiers. Static crackled as she held out two fingers in each hand and moved her arms in circular motions, electric lines growing longer which each swing.
It was an imminent attack for which there was no defense, and I had no where to escape.
The call came from Janda on a balcony below, and when Uma lost her concentration for just one second, the lightning subsiding.
I took my chance and tripped her, then ripping one of the banner-baring metal spears from the tiles and jabbing at her face as she dodged left and right and crawled back to escape. She gasped when she reached the edge of the roof, and look down on the street below. I stood above her, the point of the spear aimed at her chest.
In a desperate last move, she brought her palms together and pushed. The column of flames my missed body but ignited the flag, and I knew what I had to do.
I pulled back the spear one last time. "Say hi to my father for me." It slid through her throat like butter, and the stunned woman coughed up blood onto the metal shaft. Her arms and feet shook vigorously for a moment as she choked, then everything stopped.
When I let go and stepped back, the spear stayed in place, the flag still burning... over the edge of the roof... on top of the palace. I let out one final scream as my arms jetted out, lighting the remaining Fire Nation banners.
There was only one thing left to do: escape. I looked back, catching a glimpse of Janda, who had just helplessly witnessed the death of her mother. I shook her image out of my mind and walked to the edge of the roof. The wall of the palace had a stone windowsills every few yards. Carefully, I slid down the side, my hand burning with the fiction, to each window, until eventually I was close enough to the ground to dive at a bush. The branches cracked as I crashed, but I quickly leapt out and ran for street.
"There she is!" I heard behind me. "Stop!"
I didn't know how many guards were chasing after me, but it didn't matter. Within seconds, I was in the middle of a hectic street market during the busiest time of day, and I kept running.
"Tu Lin!" I heard Sentoki's voice dart out from an alleyway, and I hurried to join her.
She noticed my elbow, grimaced, then pulled water out of her patch. With gentle wrist movements, she guided it to my burn. I felt instant relief when it began to glow, and seconds later my wound was cleared. "That's incredible," I whispered gratefully.
She nodded. "Let's get going."
Surprisingly, she didn't ask if Uma was dead, but instead left that honor for Lahn.
"Did you succeed?" he jumped up the second I walked into a quant flower shop, joined by his brother Kasar.
"She's dead," I confirmed. "The poison killed her." My heart had not stopped pounding since I walked into the palace that morning. "Where are we?"
Kasar walked over to the shop's window and peered onto the street. "The old lady who owns this place is one of us."
Lahn clarified. "She isn't in the resistance but she's sympathetic to our cause. She's currently at a friends house on the other side of the city where she's safe, but she generously offered her establishment as a watchpoint."
"When that Zhang guy walks by, we're gonna send him right to Uma!" Kasar boasted.
"Don't celebrate until we've won," Lahn cautioned, turning to me. "Kasar and I will be manning a fake fruit stand we set up early this morning. It's just across the street at the tail end of that marketplace. Sentoki will be on this shop's roof, pretending to water the flowers."
He looked out the window, frustrated. "We have an archer coming who's going to hide out in the shop with the window partially opened, but he hasn't arrived."
"He's a damn no-show!" Kasar grunted in anger.
"Is the bow here?" I inquired.
Kasar raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, why? Can you shoot?"
I nodded. "Yeah... my father taught me.
"Ooooof course he did."
"Fine then." Lahn was stressed. We all were. "Everyone get into position. We have three other groups waiting on other sides of the palace and street, and if a fight breaks out they'll signal us or we'll signal them. If they assassinate him quietly, they'll send a representative here."
Everyone understood the plan and took their places, including me. I sat on a stool behind a window cracked open just enough for an arrow to whiz through. I ran my fingers across the bow and closed my eyes. It had been so long since my last archery lesson.
I'm not sure I blinked the entire time I was in that shop. Occasionally, I looked over to the brothers' "fruit stand" or heard Sen's footsteps on the roof above me, but the majority of my concentration was on the street in front of the palace gate. He's coming. I know it.
I waited, for hours, my eyes fixated on that spot, so focused that I didn't hear the ruckus that eventually occurred down the street, out of my line of sight. I was confused when I saw Sen land in front of the shop and start running. Then I saw the brothers abandoning their fruit stand and head the same way. With the bow in hand, I dashed out of the store.
The scene I entered was a catastrophe. A brawl had broken out between Fire Nation soldiers and what I assume was one of our other groups. There was an earthbending girl who looked younger than me. She was quickly taken care of by a man on a komodo rhino. One man, probably in his late forties, his shirtless torso revealing tattoos across his arms and shoulders, and sweat covering his light brown mustache and nearly-bald head, hit a soldier in his skull-mask with a war hammer, then got another one in the chest.
A woman a few years older than me fought with a weapon that looked like two chains with blades attached to them. But they were all outnumbered. I spun around. Zhang had to be nearby. Then I saw a dragoon-moose drawn carriage fleeing the seen, and I was off.
"Where are you going?" called Sen.
"Zhang! I'm going after him!" she said something after that, but I was too far gone to hear.
The carriage was making a turn, exposing the side of the beast of burden. Arrow in place, I pulled back the string and fired, nailing the animal in its neck and causing it to collapse. The carriage spun annd flipped on its side, sliding several more feet. Two delirious soldiers hopped out, but they were no match for my adrenaline.
When I got to the carriage, I saw an unconscious driver and a dragon-moose flailing its legs, bleeding, and yelping. I stared down the center console. "Zhang, come out!" I demanded.
The carriage went up in flames, forcing me to recoil. When I looked back, Zhang was escaping on foot. I chased until I saw him turn a corner, and I sprinted down an alley to cut him off. He was passing a glass window panel when I darted from the alley to tackle him, and we both went crashing into the front room of an empty bakery.
He stood first, dusting himself off and bleeding. "You fool!" he spat.
"Give up, Zhang! You're not taking over this city!"
"I have to!"
"I won't let you! Uma may have been cruel, but she was a Wolf and a more fit leader than you!"
Zhang violently shook his head, catching his breath just as I was. "No! Don't you see! Uma was never a Crimson Wolf!"
Disgusted, I pulled out the package and threw it at his feet. "The insignia!"
He picked it up and waved it. "I know what this is. I'm the one who put it there!"
"What?" I stepped back, bewildered. "You're lying!"
"I framed her Nalia! She's not the Wolf. I am!"
"Liar!" I pulled back my fist.
"Why do you think I had my men take you past the statue of your father, huh? Why did I set you up so close to the museum? Why would I let you go when I clearly knew you were the Lioness?"
I dropped my guard slightly, but didn't say anything.
"That portrait of your father I gave you! I told you to avenge his true memory! Don't you see? Everything I did was to put you on the path to kill that tyrant!"
He was making sense, but I still wasn't convinced. "The compartment in her desk?"
"She showed that to me a long time ago. It's where she instructed me to put her documented orders should I ever take over after her possible death. Instead, I planted evidence tying her to the Wolves. She never checked to see what was inside! There's also a Crimson Wolves flag strapped underneath her bed and a pin behind her throne."
"What? There was no guarantee I'd find any of those!"
"It wouldn't matter," he retorted, "your orders were still to kill her after five days."
I couldn't believe it. "You're telling the truth..."
"I knew your father's true history. I admired that man more than you'll ever know! He's my inspiration in all of this!"
"But the rebels! You can't kill them!"
"This," he paused, "is a delicate operation. I must rule with an iron fist. I can slow down executions, ease up on the innocent civilians, but I can't just stop Fire Nation rule altogether without being exposed. Any rebellion is bad for a leader. I can't have people taking out my soldiers and causing unrest! If they start a revolution, the army will have to quash it! How many innocent people will die then?"
"So that's why you sent me to kill them?"
"I sent you to stop them! I thought you'd warn them and tell them to leave the city! And that's still what you have to do!"
"I can't, I-"
"Nalia," he grabbed my shoulders. "You have to take these rebels and leave. I will return to the palace and do the best job I can."
"You hear me?" he shook. "Get out of my way."
|Prologue - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -|
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