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|Within the Palace Walls|
February 21, 2012
Previously in Air
A remnant of an old Fire Nation rebel group called the Loyal is stirring up trouble again. Several Kyoshi Warriors have answered Zuko's summons for help in protecting his family and his throne. Sokka and Suki, along with Admiral Jeong Jeong, plan to learn just how someone managed to sneak into the Palace.
Chapter Seven: Within the Palace Walls
Most of the stalls in the market place were not open yet. Merchants bustled about their booths, making preparations for a busy day, setting out their wares so they caught the light just right to attract the human magpies that were their customers.
"Well, boys, it looks like we beat the crowd."
A harsh chuckle startled many of the merchants. No one had noticed the group of cloaked figures quietly entering the market. The man standing point cradled a flickering sphere of fire in his palm. His hood hid his eyes in shadows, but his cruel smile was evident. It didn't take a genius to realize they weren't here to shop. They had all heard the rumors about riots on other islands, rebels making trouble.
One merchant boldly stepped forward. Though he trembled in fear, his voice managed to sound strong as he demanded, "What do you want?"
"Oh, don't worry," the cloaked man told him, "We're not here to hurt people." He grinned. "Today." He hurled the fire ball at the nearest booth. It blasted a hole through the straw awning and set the whole thing ablaze.
The rioters dispersed through the market, shouting and laughing, flinging fireballs and hacking at stalls and wares and doors with weapons. Not a ware was left whole or a stall un-scorched. But, true to their word, they didn't harm anyone.
The leader stopped before the merchant who had challenged him. "You'd better watch out, old man," he cackled, his wild eyes shining in the light from the dancing flames. He backed away slowly, joining the cluster of rioters. "Because we'll be back," he said, "And next time we'll be doing more than smashing a few produce stalls."
The rebels dashed down the street, leaving their victims to survey the damage in horror, and cling to one another in fear.
"There's been another attack, sir," the soldier whispered.
Jeong Jeong's face darkened. "How long ago?" he asked softly.
The soldier shrugged. "A day, perhaps. The moment our base received the message, my commander sent me to deliver it personally."
Jeong Jeong nodded. "And it was also on Ember Island?"
"No, sir; Tenzi." The soldier sounded disheartened. "The riots are spreading."
"Hopefully not for long," Jeong Jeong muttered. The timing was bad. These rebels were the remnants of an old nemesis, a group formed after the war who called themselves the Loyal. They had been defeated and their leaders imprisoned, many years ago. Jeong Jeong remembered the day the last general was captured and it couldn't have come later. The Loyal had nearly caused a civil war that could have divided the Fire Nation beyond repair. Remnants of their cause would stir every few years to cause trouble; they were always swiftly dealt with.
Jeong Jeong nodded absently to the soldier. "Thank you." The words were meant as a dismissal, but the soldier hung back.
"Perhaps it's not my place, sir..." he hesitated. "Has the Firelord any idea what they want? Or how to stop them?"
Jeong Jeong cast a glance at the supposed Firelord. He was sitting on his throne and the flames surrounding him obscured his face. His advisors and generals gathered below the dais, hoping to provide some useful insight. Usually, the Firelord did not like to occupy his throne during such meetings: it made him uncomfortable. But the Firelord had not been the same since the...event.
There were whispers around the Palace about the kidnapping, but none had yet left its walls. If this ruse were to work, they couldn't.
"Not yet," he said truthfully. "But the Firelord will not rest until he does."
The soldier seemed satisfied with that; hopeful, even.
"I will send men to investigate," Jeong Jeong said.
A battalion had left only days before to investigate the riots on Ember Island, but as of yet could find no sign of where the rebels had slunk off to. They were being infuriatingly evasive. They came, destroyed, and vanished.
Jeong Jeong decided he would send the 114th Infantry. Certainly Colonel Ryuk and his band of merry misfits had the right wit and wherewithal to beat these rebels at their own game. Hopefully, they would have more luck than their predecessors.
Princess Ursa had the same black hair as her mother and the face of a woman she never knew. Her kind eyes, Zuko always said, were those of the grandmother after whom she was named. But Ursa wouldn't know. She only had the portraits of her grandmother to judge from and she found it impossible to assess a person from a drawing. She often wondered about her grandmother Ursa, though, and sometimes sat by the pond, gazing at the stone memorial in the same way she noticed her father do.
It was early morning, earlier than the Princess usually woke. But she'd heard about the interrogations. Sokka had actually called them 'interviews', but she knew what they really were. He and Suki and Admiral Jeong Jeong were going to find out if Joji was telling the truth. She hoped he was; Ursa liked Joji.
Ursa tossed aside her covers and stretched. A big yawn escaped her, though she fought it. She wasn't tired, she insisted as she blinked wearily. Besides, it didn't matter anyway. She'd had another nightmare. Sleep had been hard to come by since her brother's disappearance. Every time she closed her eyes, she found herself caught underground, being swallowed up by the earth, just as he had.
The Princess swung her legs out of bed. She splashed water from a basin into her face; the cold water helped wake her senses. She quickly dressed, shoving aside the fine colorful gowns in her wardrobe in favor of her less glamorous but far more comfortable play clothes. Automatically, she slipped her special bracelet around her wrist. It was a band of dark leather, inlaid with pieces of brilliantly colored metal in the shape of a fire lily.
Ursa pinned her hair up. She quickly checked her reflection in the mirror, managed a smile, then slid the bolt on her chamber doors to ensure no one entered in search of her. She stuffed a few pillows under the bed's covers just in case someone decided to check on her anyway. People in the Palace were going crazy, ever since the 'event'. Everyone –her mother, the Kyoshi Warriors, the servants and guards– watched her constantly, as if they expected her to suddenly sink into the earth, too. She hated it.
Tutor Gouitn was no help either. She pulled a face at the thought of her tutor, as she crouched beside her bed. He was drowning her in lessons. She barely had a minute to herself! She couldn't bring herself to be angry at him, though. Tutor Gouitn's heart was in the right place. He insisted that, if the Princess spent all her time studying, she couldn't have any time to fret and worry.
"Well, idle hands do welcome evil works," Ursa muttered. From under her bed, she pulled out the lantern she kept there and a map. It was a homemade map; above all, it was a secret. She had been waiting for ages to share it with Roh-Roh, but then...
Ursa's breath caught in her throat at the thought of her little brother. She straightened quickly and blinked away the sharp tears. She carried the lantern and map to the wall. Once she shoved aside a small dresser, she uncovered a bare panel. An almost bare panel. Etched into the woodwork, worn and faded over time, was a small insignia of the Fire Nation.
Taking a deep breath, Ursa stepped confidently into a bending form, circling her arms slowly upward and bringing them down to her center. The power within her was dim, a smoldering ember, but as she swept her hands through the air it flared to life. She felt the heat within her compress with each fluid movement, each controlled breath. She dipped, gracefully stretching her arms down and slowly reeling them in. She caught hold of the energy at her core as its dance quickened and dispersed it through her arm. The warm glow inside was intense now. The fire was caught in her arm, burning impatiently to be set free. It burned, and yet it did not hurt. Still marveling at the sensation, she punched out with a quick exhale of breath.
A spark sprouted in her upright palm. She couldn't help smiling as she watched it flicker. After months of training and timidity, the volatile element had finally begun to feel familiar to her, almost comfortable.
Ursa pressed her palm into the flame-shaped indent. The fire she cradled sank into the depression, causing it to glow bright red. From somewhere behind the wall she heard a muffled click. She stepped back as the wood panel silently slid open to reveal a dark, forgotten passageway. Ursa felt the familiar thrill of excitement, the one she felt every time she stepped into the secret tunnels.
Well, she reasoned, how else was she supposed to hear the interviews? It wasn't as though they would invite her to eavesdrop.
Ursa jumped at the dramatic cry. She had been wandering the tunnels for nearly half an hour. It was the first sound she had heard and for a terrifying instant thought she was discovered. Then she realized to whom the voice belonged.
"How do you know you were at the other side of the Palace at that exact moment?!" Sokka continued accusingly. "No one ever said when it happened!"
"But I..." It was a woman's voice, nervous and stammering. "I heard someone say that it happened about noon. Wasn't the Prince taken at noon?"
"Ye-es..." Sokka answered grudgingly. Ursa could imagine his exaggerated scowl, the one that made her giggle. "But who told you that?"
The woman gulped. "They're all talking about it."
Suki –Sokka's voice of sanity and reason– asked the next question with perfect calm. "What were you doing?"
"I was tidying up the Princess's room," said the woman –a servant, Ursa decided. "I always tidy her chambers at noon."
"Why noon?" Sokka demanded.
"The Prince and Princess have lessons at noon," the servant said. "Either with their tutors or firebending masters."
"Hmm..." Sokka mused. Ursa knew that 'hmm' well; he was probably stroking his fuzzy beard and trying to appear contemplative and brilliant at the same time. It never worked for him. "And did you see anything?"
"From her chambers, sir?" the woman asked, surprised. Ursa's chambers were on the other side of the Palace.
It was Jeong Jeong who spoke next. "That's all we need for now," he said gruffly.
The servant sighed with relief. Ursa heard a chair squeak. A door opened.
"Just don't plan on leaving for vacation any time soon!" Sokka called after her. Then, "Next!"
Footsteps as someone else stepped in, the squeak of the chair as he sat down. The door closed again, and silence filled the room. Ursa wondered if they were trying to intimidate the new arrival with fierce looks. She wished she could see them as well as hear.
"Your name and rank, please," Suki said shortly.
"Kio, Captain," came the reply. But it was Sokka who spoke. "Of the Palace guard, right?"
There was a chuckle. "That's right. Nice to see you're on top of things, Sokka."
"You two know each other?" Suki sounded puzzled.
"You remember," Sokka said, "I told you about him. Hotshot, when Ty Lee and I did that babysitting favor for Zuko a few years back."
"I was only a lieutenant then," Kio said helpfully.
"Right," Suki said brightly. "It was the name I couldn't remember. Sokka only calls you Mr. Hotshot."
Ursa grinned; that sounded just like Sokka. She could hear him protesting, but only barely. Kio's laugh was too loud.
After a moment, Sokka's voice grew serious. "So tell me, what really happened?"
Kio sighed. "I wish I could help you, Sokka, but I didn't actually see anything. I only know what I've heard from others."
Admiral Jeong Jeong spoke softly, "Captain, we are trying to corroborate Joji's story. Have you–"
Suki jumped in testily. "But we're not really supposed to tell you that."
There was a pause and Ursa guessed Suki was shooting the Admiral a meaningful look. Joji must be one of Jeong Jeong's men, Ursa realized. He handpicked most of the Imperial firebenders. She had never imagined anyone could intimidate Admiral Jeong Jeong, but Suki just might. She was good at that.
When Suki spoke again her words were kinder, directed at Kio. "We're having a hard time prying information. Anything you can tell us would be helpful."
The chair squeaked again as Kio leaned back. "All right, then. As for Joji's story, it's simple enough. He was the only other person in the courtyard. The Prince was practicing his forms, waiting for his instructor. Joji heard a noise. He went to investigate, but it turned out to be nothing. When he turned back, the Prince was falling into a hole in the ground. He only caught sight of the kid's hands and then they were gone. Before he could reach the hole, it had been sealed up, no sign that it had ever been there. Didn't stop Joji from trying to follow, but it didn't take him long to figure out there was no way through. Then he raised the alarm."
"That's the story we've heard," Sokka mused.
Kio scoffed. "Everyone's talking about. Not everyone believes the story, but so far no one can prove that's not how it happened." He chuckled ruefully. "Though there are several theories."
"Such as?" Suki sounded intrigued. Ursa could imagine her raising an eyebrow and cocking her head to the side.
"Oh, there're a few whoppers. Some people think it was a freak sinkhole and some people are convinced that the tortured ghost of Ozai crossed over from the other side to sprit him away as some kind of revenge." Kio snorted. "And of course, some of them think Joji himself is the kidnapper."
There was a sudden silence. Ursa held her breath. She'd never thought of that. Even from within the wall she could feel the tension in the room.
"I don't buy it," Kio continued, "But some people don't know Joji like I do. A guy like that doesn't kidnap a kid for any reason; there's no justification."
"It's possible," Suki said slowly, "That he's a spy, playing up an act."
Admiral Jeong Jeong probably wasn't happy with that. Ursa knew he trusted all of his soldiers and he made certain they deserved it. It was a quality for which her father admired and valued him. She was surprised the Admiral didn't speak up.
"He could be," Kio agreed amicably.
Ursa bit her lip, certain there would be an explosion of tempers.
"But I doubt it," Kio finished. "He doesn't fit the part."
"Known a few spies in your time?" Suki challenged, more than asked.
Kio chuckled wryly. "The question is, have you? Do you think it's Joji?"
There was a long moment of silence.
"Joji was the only person around," Suki said slowly. "There's nobody to corroborate his story."
"That's not what I asked," Kio said, and from his voice, Ursa could tell he was smiling.
"I don't know Joji," Suki said eventually. "But I know Jeong Jeong. He trusts Joji and he's not shy about saying it. So, no, to answer your question, I don't think Joji did it. But I'd like proof, because I don't think anyone can be above suspicion either. The fact remains that an earthbender couldn't sneak into the Palace without inside help or information. It's a mystery we have to solve, and Roh-Roh's life is on the line."
"So you do think there's a traitor," Kio said triumphantly.
Ursa gasped. A traitor? In the Palace?
"Well," Sokka quickly jumped in, "It's not that we 'believe' there's a traitor, it's just–"
Jeong Jeong grunted. "The possibility of a traitor is too great to ignore."
"I agree," Kio said cheerfully. "I'll keep an ear out, let you know if I hear anything interesting."
"Aside from the vengeful ghost theory?" Suki said, amused.
"Hey," Kio said defensively, "Everyone likes a good ghost story."
"I do have one other question." Sokka's voice had grown so serious it gave Ursa chills. "There's something that's been bugging me. That servant before said the Prince and Princess always have some kind of lesson at noon, right?"
"Right," Kio said.
Apprehension crept through Ursa. She began to tremble.
"Mai said Roh-Roh and Ursa had just finished their lesson," Suki reminded.
"Then..." Sokka hesitated. "Why wasn't Ursa with him?"
Ursa pulled sharply away from the tunnel wall. She jerked back too far and hit her head on the opposite side. A cry of pain rose in her throat, but she bit it back. She couldn't give herself away.
Tears began to well in her eyes. She hated to cry. It made her feel small and weak and pathetic. She had to be strong. After all, she was a princess; people expected that of her.
Ursa didn't wait to recover. She raced along the passages she knew by heart until she came to her own room. She pulled the catch on the door and blinked as the bright sunlight blinded her. As she stepped inside, the secret door quietly slid closed behind her.
Ursa went to her washbasin. One look in the glass above showed her tear-streaked face was stained with dirt and dust from the passages. She began to scrub ferociously, trying to peel away the muck, the guilt, the sadness.
After several long moments of scrubbing her face raw, Ursa reexamined herself. Her cheeks were red and sore; her eyes puffy. But there wasn't a trace of dirt.
The water driblets running down her cheeks reminded her of earlier tears.
"Why wasn't Ursa with him?" Sokka's words rang accusingly in her ears.
"I should have been," Ursa whispered at her reflection. "If I had, maybe..." But she stopped herself. She couldn't think like that.
That day, when Roh-Roh was kidnapped, Ursa would have been with him. But she had not paid attention in Tutor Gouitn's class. Her mind often wandered from the stuffy lessons, but Gouitn had been especially annoyed. He forced her to stay longer until she learned the lesson while Roh-Roh –a model student– was free to leave.
That was why Roh-Roh had been alone. Ursa couldn't help thinking it was why he was kidnapped as well. No matter how many times Mother told Ursa it wasn't her fault, she couldn't quite believe it.
Ursa scowled at her reflection. Small...Weak...Pathetic...It was all she saw in her face. Why couldn't she be more like her Mother? She was strong and confident; she knew Father would soon bring Roh-Roh back while Ursa couldn't help but wonder and worry. And then there was her Father, the Firelord, risking everything to save his son. And he was risking everything, wasn't he? His own life, his son, even his throne.
Why couldn't she be strong and brave and sure, like them?
June was in the middle of her first drink when her uninvited guest slid into the chair opposite.
"You're a bounty hunter?"
June glared over the rim of her cup. "Who's asking?"
Her self-appointed guest smiled. "Your new client."
June raised an eyebrow.
"They say you're the best in the business, so it really must be you."
June finished her drink. "What kind of job is it?"
"There's a man I need you to catch for me."
"Of sorts," the client replied, amused. "You'll find him in Omashu."
June frowned. "I'm going to need more than that. A description, a scent would be better."
"Oh, he'll be easy to find. He'll be the firebender making trouble."
June glanced her potential 'client' up and down. The peasant garb and tattered straw hat didn't ensure much confidence. "I don't come cheap."
"I'll make it worth your while."
June laughed. 'Worthwhile' consisted of unimaginable piles of wealth –gold, silver, jewels...Definitely not the dagger suddenly pressed against her throat.
"Your life will make a fair trade, I think," her client chuckled. "You'd better leave now if you want to make it to Omashu in time."
June was fast, but she hadn't even seen the dagger coming. She wanted nothing more than to introduce this 'client' to her whip, but she knew all too well that one wrong twitch with the knife blade would be her end. She gritted her teeth and decided not to argue with the obvious order.
- I went out of my way to create a role for June. She is too fun a character not to include. ;)
- 'Tenzi' is meant to be the island where Aang temporarily enrolled in Fire Nation school; it is not officially named.
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For the collective works of the author, go here.