T-minus three days.
Outside this rented room, a storm is blowing. It's mid-morning, but you wouldn't know it from the weather.
It's been like this for days now, on and off. Rain and wind and hail and rain again. I'm not built for this sort of thing. Drenched to the bone is no way to be.
But I suppose I should be thankful. After all, rain is a good cover, and we're going to need good cover.
And that is why I am here, in this cramped room, leaning over the sink and staring at the mirror, blade in hand.
My last sacrifice. After so many, this one shouldn't even count. It does, though. It's a scrap of my old life, a link to the man I used to be, and while I abhor everything that man stood for (when he stood for anything at all), it's harder than I expected to take another step away from him. After all, without him, who would I be?
Still, I understand what I have to do, and I do it without hesitation.
Sighing, I ready the blade, and begin to shave off my beard.
T-minus two months.
"Ah, Piandao, lad, good to see you again. Thank you for coming to see me."
I nod, neutrally. When Bumi calls, you damn well answer.
"Always a pleasure, your Grace." What does he want, I wonder? Please, please don't let it be that Flopsie needs to be taken for a walk again. If he asks me to involve myself with that damnable gorilla-goat again, I swear I will... I will... grumble to myself as I do exactly as he says. Because a: he is quite possibly the most intelligent man I have ever met, and so I have to trust his judgment, b: as the Grand Master of the Order of the White Lotus, he his my immediate superior, and so he has every right to tell me what to do, and c: because he scares the crap out of me, to be perfectly honest.
I'm still trying to get used to it, really. Even after all these years, the man we used to call the Mad King, the scourge of the Southern Earth Kingdom, the man that got all the most outlandish stories told about him (a popular one was that he was literally too old to die. Another concerned the tale of the myriad assassins sent to end him, and in its entirety it went like this- "did you ever hear what happened to the assassins that were sent to kill the Mad King? No? Well neither did anyone else) was... well... he was a King, and technically he almost certainly was Mad, but...
The stories left out the puns. The awful, awful puns.
"So formal, lad. Come, sit down, have a kumquat. They'll make your hair curl, you know."
"Thank you, but I ate before you summoned me."
"Oh, you're no fun, my boy. Come on, I insist."
I fold, of course, and sit at the long dining table, where a flick of Bumi's wrist sends the plate of fruit spinning towards me. I manage to stop it before it slides off the table altogether, and take a kumquat, as directed. They are nice, I suppose. Although I don't think curly hair would really suit me.
"Very nice, your Grace. Thank you. But I doubt you summoned me just so I could sample fruit."
"You know, you don't have to call me 'your Grace'. I looked it up, since you kept doing it the last time we talked, and only my subjects are supposed to call me that." His gaze turns piercing and suspicious. "You haven't sneakily applied for citizenship behind my back, have you?"
"No, your Grace."
"Married someone from the city? Because I wasn't invited to the wedding, so colour me quite hurt."
"No, your Grace."
"Had my name changed to 'your Grace', while I wasn't looking?"
"No, your Grace."
"Then knock it off."
"Of course, Grand Lotus."
Bumi looks almost comically disappointed.
"I swear, Piandao, one of these days I will find a way to stop you being to ridiculously formal, you see if I don't."
"Just as you say, Grand Lotus"
"Hah. Anyway, you're quite right. I didn't summon you here just to give you kumquats. I have a job for you. Nothing too major, certainly nothing beyond your capabilities. I need you to go pick up a friend of mine." He suddenly coughed a name I couldn't catch into his fist, and I blinked.
"I... beg your pardon, Grand Lotus?"
"Kuei. I said Kuei."
"Kuei. Earth King Kuei."
"No, Kuei the potter from Gaoling of course Earth King Kuei. Honestly, some people."
"I was just making sure."
"You were trying to annoy me, and you know it."
"I thought you wanted me to stop being so formal."
"I... damn, you've got me there."
"Let me get this straight. You want me to go to Ba Sing Se- once considered the most secure place in the entire world- and break out the most valuable hostage the Fire Lord has ever taken?"
"Yep. The time is right." And that's Bumi to a tee. He'll do almost nothing for years, and then ask the impossible as soon as the time is somehow 'right'. So far, it always has been.
"Oh thank Agni for that. I thought you were going to have me muck out the stables or something." My time as an apprentice member- traditionally known by the flowery (hah) name of lotus buds- had been …interesting. Bumi had been an idiosyncratic master, to say the least.
"Piandao!" he cries, scandalised. "Why would you ever think I'd waste a man of your capabilities on something so trivial?"
"Well, there was that time you made me deliver packages all over the city with a strict time limit."
"That was to give you a practical lesson in how the flow of commerce and information shapes us all, and to help you learn your way around the city."
"And the time you made me hunt catfishes?"
"Teaching you patience, and an eye for fine detail."
"And when you told me that I had to make sandcastles for three days straight?"
"Teaching you self-control, of course, as well as a practical course in the satisfaction of making something with your hands."
"And then when you told me to take Flopsie on a walk all over the sandcastles I had made?"
"To teach you the impermanence of all things, and an object lesson in when to go with the flow."
"You mean go with the two-tonne gorilla-goat, otherwise he was going to pull my arm off."
"Exactly! I can see that lesson was well learned."
"And the time you made me answer all your mail for you."
Bumi sniffed, deep in thought. "Frankly, that was because I couldn't be bothered to do it myself. But anyway, enough reminiscing. You know your job, and I trust that you can get this done. But before you go, take this." He pushes a scroll down the table towards me, earthbending rippling the marble table and sending the scroll flying into my lap. I read it. A name, and an address.
"June. Who's that?"
"Someone I want you to take with you."
"An Order member?"
"Oh no. A bounty hunter."
I can feel my brows knitting. "A mercenary."
"A bounty hunter. She's the best there is at what she does."
I open my mouth to protest, but Bumi speaks before I can.
"I know you're the best there is at what you do, my boy, but what you do is chop people up with a big sword, and what she does is bring people back alive. I have a feeling both skillsets are going to be very important on this little venture."
I sigh, but nod. I shall have to trust his judgment.
T-minus six weeks.
So it came to pass that I was sitting in this smoky bar, trying very hard not to think too much about the fact that my elbows were stuck to the table, instead determined to occupy myself with trying to decide what quality of the sake I am drinking is the most repellant. It might be the taste, but the texture is definitely a close second.
And then she walks in. And the mood changes.
It's nothing immediately obvious- nobody drops into stunned silence, nobody screams, nobody waves to her or calls her name- but it's there nonetheless. She's like a drop of black ink hitting white sheets- she seeps into the atmosphere until everything is just background to her and I'm staring.
She's really made to be stared at, but occasionally I like to pretend that I am a gentleman, so I simply give her a respectful nod as she pours herself into the seat across from me and gives a carnivore's smile. Around me, I can feel the stares of the other patrons, but whether they're looking out of jealousy or pity it's too early to say.
"So," she says, and I can't help but marvel how she turns a single syllable into both an invitation to bed and a warning that if I try anything I will find myself nailed to seven different trees at once, "you must be the contact."
"With a flower at my lapel, as the letter promised." A white lotus, because dammit, we have a theme and we are sticking to it.
"Speaking of the letter, apparently you owe me an explanation," she said, producing the letter in question from some pocket, smoothing it on the table, and clearing her throat in an almost magisterial manner before quoting. "Blah, blah, if you are at this address at this time and talk to the guy with the white lotus riches beyond your wildest dreams, you get the drill. And then it goes 'Also, now I think about it, taking this contract might actually fall under the purview of your patriotic duty. You'll have to ask your contact about that, he's become quite the expert on patriotic duties. Either way, you will be paid well.'" She lowered the scroll, and raised an elegantly crafted eyebrow.
I sighed. "I'm afraid it's just someone having a joke at my expense again." I didn't realise I had been annoying Bumi quite this much. Still, it makes for an elegant segue, if nothing else. Our table is in the corner, in the shadow of the band, so it's unlikely we'll be overheard, at least. "He's referring to three facts. Firstly, that you are being hired by King Bumi, so if you consider yourself a vassal of his, you are doing your patriotic duty. Secondly, the mission you are being hired for is the rescue of the Earth King." She takes this impassively, which could mean any number of things, so I continue. "So, of course, if you felt any loyalty to him, you could be said to be doing your patriotic duty. And of course it's also a dig at my expense. My name is Piandao. You may have heard of me."
She leant back, and observed me over steepled fingers.
"That's a hell of a moniker to be claiming ownership of. If you're an imposter, then you've got one gigantic a set of balls. And even if you are who you claim to be, it's pretty bold of you to just come out and say it. I mean, you're probably the third-most wanted man in the entire world right now, at least as far as the Fire Nation's concerned."
I rolled my eyes. "I was getting it out of the way. Knowing my luck, it was going to come up sooner or later, and I'd rather get it out of the way while we're both sitting down having drinks. It saves... unpleasantness."
"Uh huh. And what if I decide to just paralyse you and drag you off to the highest bidder right now? That's pretty much all I'd have to do to realise my lifelong dream of doing the backstroke through an enormous pile of money."
I'm almost flattered. "The Fire Lord has posted an open bounty on me?"
"Not the Fire Lord, no. Pretty much everyone else of note in the Fire Nation, but not him. If I played my cards right, I could hold an auction."
I shrugged. "Well, if you really want me to give you a good reason why you shouldn't attack me, there's the fact that" I'd probably kill you if you tried. No, too aggressive. Also probably a sign of mental instability, should probably get that checked out, old man "I guarantee none of the War Council can match the King of Omashu penny for penny, no matter how much you try to play the market. Also I'd probably try to escape every hour of the day, and whenever I wasn't trying to escape I'd make it my sworn duty to annoy you as much as humanly possible."
She teeters on the brink of convince, and I lean in for the kill.
"For example," I breathe "I know all seventy-two verses of The Littlest Teapot Song, and I have a singing voice like cats being beaten to death." A white lie- I only know forty-seven verses, if I'm honest (although I could probably have a fair crack at ad-libbing the rest), and my singing voice is actually fairly pleasant. But she doesn't need to know that.
"So," she says, leaning back in her chair languidly. "What's this about rescuing the Earth King?"
And we're back. "We would like you to rescue the Earth King."
"I got that. What I don't get," she says, leaning forward, her elbows on the table, "is why Bumi sent you to tell me this. He's a king, I'm sure he can scrounge up some lackeys that, you know, aren't Public Enemy Number Three."
How astute. "I have a brief with the particulars, but the salient point is this. I am to accompany you on this mission."
She scowls. "I don't take tourists. You hire me, I get the job done. I don't like people dictating terms."
"And I" I say, softly "am not overly fond of private contractors, yet here we are. I am not in the habit of arguing with the man in charge."
She laughs, suddenly, light and mocking. "Didn't you hear? Out in the colonies, they're calling you 'the Defector'. I'd say that you're uniquely experienced when it comes to butting heads with authority."
Well, that's hardly fair. I only did it the once. It's not like I was dancing back and forth along the loyalty line like a man who can't decide if his bath is too hot for him or not. But you fight with the weapons you have. "In that case, then you should defer to my greater experience when I tell you that this is not the time to be arguing with orders. Or, in your case, the terms of the contract." I shuffle a little, to break the growing tension across the table. "Look, make an exception for this job. Despite his reputation, Bumi doesn't do things for no reason. If he says that we'll both be needed to complete this mission, I'm inclined to believe him. You won't need to concern yourself with my being able to keep up, and at the end of it you'll be paid obscenely well. And I promise not to sing. Everyone wins, except the Fire Nation, of course."
She holds my gaze for a long time. This contract has her spooked, I can tell. It's outside her comfort zone, and she's gearing up for fight-or-flight.
After a second, she extends her arm, and we shake.
T-minus one month.
June's doubts about allowing me to join her for the operation seemingly evaporated once it was demonstrated that not only was I potentially extremely useful should it come to a melee (and it always does when I'm involved, it seems) but I was also completely uninterested in appropriating a share of the profits, and it was agreed that we would meet again at the gap in the wall.
The gap in the wall is... well, it's the gap in the wall. The place where Iroh's forces finally broke through. It has never been repaired, presumably to make a point.
We would make our separate ways to the gap, in order to decrease suspicion. The ride north gave me time to reflect on my new partner.
I do not particularly like her.
Her attitude is mercenary, but that is really to be expected. She sneers at everything, but if I was bothered by that, I would have beheaded Pakku years ago. No, she annoys me on a much deeper level.
She carries a damn bullwhip as a weapon.
At the risk of sounding stuck in a rut, what, precisely, is wrong with a sword? They're versatile, easy to carry, relatively concealable if you like that sort of thing, not exceptionally difficult to learn to use, and fairly easy to get your hands on. So why do some people insist on wielding preposterous nonsense as weaponry? Certainly, a bullwhip does carry with it some element of surprise, but the same could be said if I were to charge into battle wielding a stuffed flamingo.
Honestly, I will never understand some people.
T-minus two days.
Not only was I compelled to bid farewell to my goatee, but in the end I put my hair into the braided tail that seemed to be in style in the Northern Earth Kingdom, and donned one of the conical hats that were practically a uniform, as far as I could tell. I felt ridiculous.
June evidently thought the same, from the way she smirked when I met her in the lobby of the inn.
"Nice hat. Almost didn't recognise you without the beard."
I cannot tell if she's mocking me, so I shall have to operate under the assumption that she is, and the best way to deal with her mocking me is to act as though I don't think she's mocking me.
It's that kind of mental gymnastics that epitomises the way the Order of the White Lotus trains you to think.
"Well, that's the idea. So. Shall we get going?"
"Alright." She pushes herself up out of the chair she had been occupying, and leads the way out into the grey, fog-stained morning.
T-minus one day.
We rode hard, headed for the gap in the wall. Shirshus are fast, but no match for a purebred eelhound, so I was left feeling very smug. Of course, my eelhound isn't also a living weapon, so there are a few drawbacks there.
"Easy, Boy," I muttered, as we hit the plains, and I felt him strain at the leash- even in this grey and uninspiring weather, he felt the urge to charge at the horizon, and it would be poor manners to leave my companion in the dust.
And there, through the haze of clouds, was the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se.
It's impressive, even now, abandoned and defeated. But the breach is what really draws the eye- the splinter in the horizon, the one dent in that line of stone, the effect is almost surreal- the eye is drawn to it like the tongue to a missing tooth.
I wait as my travelling companion pulls up next to me. I wonder for a moment if she will see fit to comment on the view.
Instead she brings up an entirely different topic.
"So, what did you name him?"
"Your eelhound. What's he called?" An odd question, I think, but hardly one I'm opposed to answering.
She continues to look expectantly.
"...I'm sorry, I was waiting for you to finish."
I'm blinking, now. "What?"
"You just said 'oh, boy', like you were going to say something like 'oh, boy, we're in trouble now and no mistake, golly gee willikers', or something charmingly anachronistic like that."
"What? No. His name is Boy."
She blinks, a solitary flutter of dark eyelashes. "What an amazingly unimaginative name."
I shrug. "It saves time."
"I'm sure it does. So, shall we go?"
Well. This is it.
We're at the gap in the wall. No turning back from here until we're done.
I'm a little concerned. There's no Order presence in the city. The original cell died in the purge, and since then there haven't exactly been floods of people rushing to live in this corpse of a metropolis, so there was no safe way to insert a group. Besides, there was never a pressing need for one. Nothing revolves around Ba Sing Se these days. Until now, that is.
We have a contact, certainly, but all he knows is that we act on the behalf of King Bumi. I don't know how much help he is going to be, but I have to assume the worst. This is going to be an exceptionally challenging assignment.
"Will you hurry up already?" June calls, from the other side of the wall. "What are you waiting for, someone to swing by and make the hole a little wider for you?"
In response, I spur Boy onwards and we ride through the breach.
Eventually, everything outside the wall is obscured by the evening mist.
"So, Piandao," June says, on the third hour into the ride. "You used to be a Fire Nation soldier."
"That I did."
"You wouldn't happen to remember where you were twelve years ago, around midwinter?"
What a specific question. If she's feigning nonchalance, she's very good at it, but unfortunately for her it's wasted, because of course her nonchalance is feigned, because nobody casually asks a question like that.
"Twelve years ago? I believe I was still attached to Iroh's Expeditionary Force, heading up toward Ba Sing Se. That would have been the year I deserted, though. Why?"
We passed through blasted scrubland and blackened wastes on the first day- this land had seen the bloodiest fighting of Iroh's campaign, and will bear the scars for years to come, but this was worse than I had imagined possible.
It is clear that nobody has made even the most token attempt to undo the damage. The thought is disquieting.
We made it into more cultivated land after a day of hard riding. Perhaps it was simply the circumstances- the rain was heavier again today, and since I am no farmer I can but assume that people would not be tilling the fields in the rain- but we still saw little sign of organised harvesting.
I feel like I should be taking notes or something.
We camped that night on the shores of what the map called Lake Laogai. Charming view, if you like rocks and water. I suppose it was fortunate that it didn't rain again, at least, but when the sun went down, the temperature dropped like a stone, a bone-deep chill that kept the both of us huddled by the fire.
June had taken the extra precaution of wrapping herself in her blanket as we waited for the fish we had caught to cook- she was little more than a dark-haired head sticking out of a vaguely conical pile of green fabric. I had not emulated her, mainly for the sake of my dignity, but I was beginning to regret it.
"Hey," she said, as I prodded our dinner. "I was wondering something."
I turn my head slightly, acknowledging her.
"After you contacted me, I hit up a few old friends to dig up whatever they could find on you." Sensible enough, I suppose. "So let me see if I've got this straight. You're basically raised in a military camp, you first see real combat aged... what, thirteen?"
"Twelve, actually. We were ambushed by raiders in the colonies." We lost fifty recruits that day. None of them a day over fifteen. We weren't even supposed to see combat- we were being moved to the colonies to complete our training there. Circumstances forced it to be a little more on-the-job than anyone intended.
"Twelve, then. This kick-starts the most amazingly meteoric rise in living memory. You're a Fire Nation national hero by twenty, a living legend by twenty-five."
"Please, you're making me blush."
"And then, right before your twenty-eighth birthday, you just vanish. One minute you're taking out bandits in the colonies, the next you're gone."
"If you're going to ask me what I was doing-"
"I don't give a crap. I wanna know why you left. What, your midlife crisis hit a couple decades early?"
"You had everything. You're the biggest success story since the Dragon of the West, and you throw it away for..." she waved her hand expansively, tapered fingers brushing the view "...this."
The muscles in my face locked down.
"I had my reasons." How far do you suppose I will get arguing honour with a mercenary?
After a moment, she tosses her head, dismissively.
"Fine. Be like that."
The ruin of the Lower Ring is the most horrifying thing I have ever seen.
I'd read the reports of Iroh's purge- dispassionate, detached, nightmarish in their own special way, statistics and figures (the number- an approximation really, nothing more concrete- six hundred thousand sticks in my mind, for some reason) painting a picture, analysis calmly breaking down what precisely this meant for the Order and the war at large (we're fucked. Not in such blunt terms, of course). I also read transcripts of statements given by those that escaped and were willing to speak- how when the lines broke and the Fire Nation descended on the city, the middle ring locked its doors- how the destruction of the Lower Ring was far from random savagery, loot and pillage gone out of control- how the Fire Nation soldiers were organised and methodical every step of the way. Iroh wanted this. It wasn't until afterwards that anyone understood why.
This cuts deeper than either. The blackened shells of buildings, the roads warped and twisted, the only colours left in the world ash-grey and charcoal black, every step echoing in the unnatural silence. Every once in a while, you can hear the bark of a feral dog, or see a shadow flit down an alleyway- scavengers, still scrounging in the wreckage.
And once, we came across an almost intact house. One wall was missing, leaving it exposed to the elements, but the roof stubbornly remained. June stuck her head in the door, an urge I understood- there had to be something left, anything at all- but withdrew quickly, tight-lipped and silent. I understood. There was nothing there.
After hours of dead silence, I suddenly feel compelled to speak.
"You asked me why I left?"
"Yeah," she says, softly.
"It was a little like this."
There's nothing really to add to that.
The middle ring is hardly better.
Certainly, by the time Iroh's forces had breached the middle ring, his fury had been spent, and after his ...demonstration, the rest of the city had surrendered quickly, giving him no cause to complete his extermination of the city. But the damage had been done, and those that remained quietly began to flee the city in a hushed exodus towards the south. Today, a city built for a million souls is home to scant thousands.
It's a very lonely place.
It was also where we were to meet our contact.
The middle ring, it seemed, was where most of the remaining people lived. The lower ring was the preserve of the wild and the desperate, and the upper ring was little more than a Fire Nation fortress, now. They sent out patrols, of course, and June and I took the opportunity to observe one, from cover, lying on the roof of a tea shop where we could not be observed.
It was illuminating. The way the squad moved through the lower ring spoke volumes, and June's venomous grin told me she saw it too. The patrol was not the imposing swagger of soldiers surveying their conquered city- they moved like men deep behind enemy lines.
Interesting. Do we have our contact to thank for that? Possibly.
Abruptly, I noticed a scuttle of movement following the patrol. Simultaneously, June and I sat up slightly to get a better look, and for an instant I saw a man riding a komodo-rhino down the road, following the patrol at a leisurely pace.
It was only for an instant because as soon as I saw him, I flattened myself against the roof, dragging June down with me. She shot me a glance that promised unpleasantness in my future, but had the good sense to stay quiet until we were both sure that the rider had passed us by.
"Alright," she said, softly, when he was gone. "You think he saw us?"
"If he's who I think he is, I know he saw us. We just have to hope he didn't recognise us."
"Mind being a little less cryptic?"
"Did you notice his tattoos? The man was Yu-Yan."
"The Fire Nation archers? Didn't know they were a cavalry unit." She doesn't sound particularly concerned. Either she's trying to show off how tough and professional she is, or she has no idea how much of a bad thing this could be.
"They aren't. I think he left the group."
"No, if he's who I suspect he is, he was re-assigned. He's a man called Vachir, and if we're lucky that is the absolute last we shall see of him." No, wait, that's not particularly comforting. "I mean, that is the last he shall see of us. Because he could kill either of us before we ever knew he was there." That last elaboration was probably unnecessary, but better safe than sorry.
"Shame. Always kind of wanted to see the Yu Yan in action."
"There are probably easier ways to do that than starting a fight with one of them. I understand they sometimes give displays at festivals and charitable events."
"I guess. If you want to be boring."
"Trust me, there is nothing in life I'd like more than to be boring."
"So, who's this contact of ours?" June asks, as she paces back and forth in the abandoned building that was to be our rendezvous point. The contact was half an hour late.
"A former bureaucrat. That's all I've been told."
June rolls her eyes. "Great. Sure he'll be loads of help."
"I'm sure I will."
I can't take too much pleasure in watching June jump, because I didn't hear him enter either.
"You would be the contact?" I ask, taking the opportunity to observe him. A small man, thinning hair, the remains of a neat little moustache and beard (I scratch my shaven chin subconsciously) almost engulfed in stubble- wrinkles, but I'd put him at about forty and under a great deal of stress, and dark robes that must have once been fine indeed, but by now have seen much better days- they're torn and stained with old blood and mud, but he's wearing them anyway, possibly in an attempt to seem presentable.
"Yes, I am the contact." A shudder of suppressed agony crosses his face, and he takes up a ramrod-stiff stance, raises his hands up to the sides of his head and takes his earlobes between forefingers and thumbs, and intones in the most pained voice imaginable: "See the little goblin, see his little feet."
Ah. Yes. Of course. I, in my turn, put my left hand on my hip and raise my right to hang limply roughly vertical with my eyes, and declare: "And his little nosey-wose, isn't the goblin sweet."
In unison, we both declare "Yes."
And June asks us what exactly we think we're doing.
"Password," I explain. "Bumi tried to come up with something nobody would ever say by accident."
"Safe to say," our contact drawls, "he succeeded. Greetings. My name is Long Feng. Welcome," he says, with bitter humour, "to our magnificent city of Ba Sing Se."
We spent the night in a safe-house provided by Long Feng, and the next morning we got down to the business of actually planning the rescue of the Earth King.
Long Feng holds court.
"I have known how to enter the palace without being observed for many years. I know where the Earth King is being held, and I know how I can smuggle him out of the palace. What I have been unable so far to do is remove the guards from the palace, and I have been unable to procure transport that could outpace any pursuit. If you are truly who you claim to be, you should have little difficulty causing a... distraction impressive enough that I can extract the Earth King without the prospect of harm coming to His Majesty."
"We brought an eel-hound," June interjects, trying to be helpful. "So that's problem two down as well."
Long Feng smirks. "I know." June looks somewhat put out by his unapologetic admission that he was spying on us, and I try not to frown. The man is just being rude now.
"So what are we wasting time for?" June asks, clearly annoyed with our contact now.
Long Feng glares at us, eyes wild and staring.
"My assistance comes with a price." It always does, with men like this. "He has been a stain on my city too long. If you wish for my aid, then Governor Mongke must die." Mongke? Governor Mongke?
"Of course," I say, before June has time to object. "If you will give my colleague and I time to discuss our strategy? I would not want to take up too much of your time."
He holds my gaze for a moment. Then he speaks. "Do not leave this house until we are ready to begin. Food and water will be delivered to you, and there is a small cache of medical supplies on the second floor, should you require them. There are maps and other materials in the main room. I shall see you again when we are ready." With a cursory nod to June, he spins on his heel and marches down the stairs into the cellar, where a temporary tunnel waits to take him who knows where.
"Mongke," I mused, as June and I moved away. "Mongke, Governor of Ba Sing Se? Well, isn't that a thing."
"You knew him?"
"Knew him? I used to fight with him. Not that I was a cavalryman, of course, but we were on the same expedition. Must be nearly fifteen years ago, now. Good man, and a good captain. I can't imagine him as a Governor, though. Not exactly his forte."
"Is this gonna be a problem?"
I seek to reassure her. "I fought alongside many men, on many battlefields. Better men than Governor Mongke, too." A couple. Depends what you mean by 'better'. "It hasn't saved one yet."
Despite my assurances, I can't help but feel that I'm spouting little more than braggadocio. Mongke was a friend, once- they all had been, back in the halcyon days when I thought that conquering the Earth King in the name of Fire Lord Azulon was generally speaking a good thing, if I thought about it at all.
In spite of everything, I miss those days. I don't really want to kill the people I spent them with. I will, though, because I have chosen my side, and I will stick to it.
And whenever my role seems unpalatable, I just have to remember the cold silence of the Lower Ring.
The plans were made. The streets were memorized. Every possible avenue of preparation had been exhausted. All there was left to do was engage in a few mental exercises, to keep the brain sharp.
June flopped backwards on the settee, eyes turning heavenward.
"I spy, with my little eye," she droned, a breath above a sigh, "something beginning with... c."
I nod to myself. "Ceiling."
She raises her head just enough to look at me, long black hair cascading down the side of her face.
"Got it in one. Again. You have got to tell me how you're doing this."
I smile. "Well, the fact that you were looking straight at the ceiling did help, I admit."
Finally, after an eternity of sitting around the house reading the same five books and getting on each others' nerves, Long Feng deigned to return.
"It is time."
Let's get this over with.
The plan, on our end, is simple. Long Feng is going to enter the Palace from the west, so June and I are going to start a fight in the east. Not exactly the most subtle of plans, perhaps, but we haven't got anything better to work with. Besides, my somewhat overinflated reputation might help convince them that we really genuinely mean to storm the bloody palace all by ourselves.
As much as I begrudge my preposterous image, I'll admit it does come in handy sometimes.
The morning fog still sticks to the walls and piles up in the corners, thick and liquid, as we make our way to what June had colourfully designated the Official Distraction-Fight-Starting Point, which was accurate enough, although I had seen fit to remind her not to use the name in public. After all, the point of the distraction- that we were supposed to make them think we were sincere- would become exponentially more difficult if we went around shouting things like 'Phase One: Trick Idiot Fire Nation Dickheads Into Getting Slaughtered Over Away From The Main Event is going pretty well, wouldn't you say'. Also I told her to stop being racist.
She had simply shaken her head at me.
"You aren't even interesting when you're about to go fight people. So far this trip has been pretty disappointing."
"I'm not going to apologise for having a sense of decorum."
"Just because you salamanders get hard calling things stuff like Project Falcon or Task Force Shining Spear or Operation Hammer Time or The Omega Conspiracy."
"Operation Hammer Time was an overwhelming success, thank you. And I note you aren't stopping with the casual racism."
"You're not the boss of me."
"Also, where did you hear about The Omega Conspiracy?"
"A girl has to keep her ear to the ground, you know."
"Honestly I was actually just making that one up."
"Oh. Perhaps it would be best if you forgot I said anything, then."
I am slightly unnerved by June's style of fighting. It's... vindictive. Effective, unquestionably- she's keeping pace with me easily, and (if you don't count the bullwhip, which I don't and you shouldn't, because it's a stupid weapon and frankly a handicap more than anything else) she's doing so unarmed.
But... she's showboating. And it's getting annoying.
Perhaps I should recap a little. We got to the right area, and found a patrol. June took point, since the idea was at first to simply drive the majority of the soldiers to get reinforcements- killing them all straight off would be counterproductive.
So I got to watch June do her thing.
She's good. She's very good. However, she's good enough that she's not taking the fight seriously, which is dumb because there is no such thing as an easy fight when swords are drawn- any idiot can get lucky, after all. Her fighting style reflects this flippant attitude- all poise and pose and laconically raised eyebrows, the sort of nonsense that would be completely unforgivable except for the fact that she's got reflexes like a caffeine-doped meerkat-squirrel, a punch like a lightning bolt, and a kick that, frankly, looks like the most painful thing since some idiot experimented on the interaction of carpentry pliers and testes. Still, I'm concerned that she might eventually inspire some poor idiot to try and emulate her, and subsequently get killed very quickly because they aren't lucky enough to have 'terrifyingly strong' as a family trait.
Eventually, the men tire of their beating, and retreat, sounding the alarms. We advance by three streets, just to enhance the illusion that we're trying to accomplish something.
Then things get serious. Serious enough that I have to get involved, anyway.
The fight is... well, it is fairly typical (it says a great deal about my life that a running street battle with twenty heavily armed men in which no fewer than three houses are set ablaze can be described as 'fairly typical', although exactly what it says about my life is nothing I want to actually think about, because if I do I might start to cry). I keep an eye on June- partly because I want to watch her back and I haven't been fighting with her long enough to get a feel for how she moves, and partly because I don't trust her to watch my back- and it's at this point the whole vindictive thing starts to kick in.
She's fighting to kill, now, and she's still doing it unarmed, more or less. She ducks (more like bows) under the lunge of a spear, then simply wrenches it out of her opponent's hand and drives it into the gut of another assailant. She disarms a swordsman and impales him on his own weapon (and a tiny part of my brain starts hopping up and down in rage screeching 'she even knows how to use a sword, and she's still carrying that bloody whip! We are going to have Words with her, you see if we don't'), and in a smooth motion she reaches her hands out to another soldier and breaks his neck. On the fly.
Do you even know how difficult that is? Because I don't. Because I use a sword, so I don't have to do things like that. It's what a sword is for.
I begin to suspect that June may not be as unflappable as she pretends to be. -She just head-butted someone. Only one person involved in the head-butt was wearing a helmet, but it wasn't June who fell backwards, although I do notice with a little disquiet that the skin of her forehead is broken from the contact- not an entirely surprising consequence of head-butting an armoured man, but the disquieting thing is the sneaking suspicion I'm getting that June herself hasn't noticed.
And then things go terribly wrong. Because Vachir arrives.
And he isn't alone.
Yeh-Lu. A taciturn man, as far as anyone could tell. He never said enough for people to figure out whether or not he possessed true taciturnity, or if he was just cripplingly shy. No-one could ever get his story out of him- many of the younger recruits romantically assumed he had some Tragic Past, and the helmet he never removed in public was to hide some Disfiguring (read: not actually disfiguring) Scar.
Personally, I had been of the opinion that he just really loved to blow shit up. And he didn't take his helmet off because he was covered in burn scars- the natural result of a lifetime spent blowing shit up in close proximity. He was one hell of a beatboxer, though, and to this day I have no idea how he managed it through the helmet.
And, of course, Ogodei was here too. He'd been a fun guy, fifteen years ago. Loud and gregarious, he'd considered it a hanging offence for a man not to buy his round, often held court on the duties of Real Men (and they always seemed to involve pressups, consumption of vast quantities of meat and alcohol, fighting, or some combination thereof. And also close-harmony singing, because in spite of an overabundance of testosterone, Ogodei considered himself a true gentleman, and his logic ran as follows. 1- a true gentleman must have some skill at music; and 2- a Real Man never bothers with simply having some skill at anything; he excels or he finds someone else who does, and beats them until they do it for him. So therefore Ogodei had determined that it was his duty to become a truly prodigious baritone, which he did with no obvious difficulty) and in all the time I had known him, in all weathers, not once had we ever managed to persuade him to put a damn shirt on.
Together, they were three-fifths of the Rough Rhinos, and they were going to cause us significant difficulty.
"Alright, you sorry sons of- sorry, Ma'am," Ogodei begins, nodding respectfully at June, "let me start again. Alright, you sorry bitches and sons-of-bitches, let's see the colour of your- Piandao?"
I suddenly feel a little sheepish. "Hello, Ogodei."
He doesn't look happy to see me, and the expression is mirrored in Vachir's normally impassive face.
"I didn't want to believe it, at first. Everything else, I figured I could deal with. Sure, you deserted, but that was fine- nobody who'd talked to you for five seconds could think you were a coward, so when you dropped off the map for ten years, I guessed you were entitled to an early retirement. You'd done your part. Even after the, you know, the bit with Red Hammer company, I thought, well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, you know? You were just protecting your privacy. It's not like you provoked them or nothing, but this, this is too much." He shakes his head, slowly, and on cue Vachir notches an arrow. "You're a full-on traitor now, Piandao. Why? Why'd you have to go and do a thing like that?"
This really isn't the time or the place for that kind of conversation. Nonetheless, I find myself talking.
"Do you remember Fire Lord Azulon?" Of course he does. He remembers that old psychopath well- we all do, and to be frank, we spent about a year and a half just waiting for the insane bastard to give up and die already- after senility took his wits and he just stopped caring about things like friendly casualties but- and this was important- he wouldn't give up command. We would send reports saying things like 'ten villages seized, five hundred prisoners taken', and Azulon would order us to execute them all and burn the villages to the ground, for no readily apparent reason. And it would be high treason not to obey.
"His son turned out worse." Much worse, because Azulon in his bloodlust at least had the saving grace of not being a particularly good general. His son lacks that quality.
"He's still your sovereign. And you've killed a lot of your own people, Piandao."
"We can't let that slide, Piandao."
"But we'll do what we can. We won't bring you in alive." And that's more mercy than I was expecting, to be honest.
"Good of you."
"Look, can we just shut up and fight already?" June interjects, and I notice she's unhooked her bullwhip, which annoys me more than I can possibly articulate. Now? She thinks now is the time to employ the gimmick weapon? Does she think that the bullwhip counts as stepping up her game or something?
"Fine," Vachir spits, and before I can even think of moving he's aimed and loosed.
And yet, after a second or two, it appears that neither June nor I are dead.
And I suddenly realise that I heard a sudden crack as the arrow took flight. And I look down at the ground. There's an arrow, split roughly in two.
And June's whip is uncoiled in her hands, and she looks intolerably smug.
I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. Nobody's that good. Nobody bothers to get that good with such an inefficient weapon.
Of course, the alternative is that Vachir missed. Which is nearly as preposterous. And from the look on his face, he's as confused as I am.
"June," I murmur out of the corner of my mouth. "Do you think you could do that again?"
Her mouth screws up in indecision. "Maybe."
I nod to myself. The exchange has thrown them, but not much, and not for long. They're starting to move.
"Okay then. Run."
We run. It does us no good. We know the streets from the maps we've studied, but they've got the home advantage, and it takes them no time at all to run us to ground in a courtyard. Four entrances- Vachir covering the one to our left, Ogodei directly in front of us, and a whole pile of soldiers to our right. There's no sign of Yeh-Lu, which is no comfort at all.
The way behind us appears clear. A long, straight line. I'm fast, but there's no way I can outrun a komodo-rhino, not in this terrain.
"June," I mutter, keeping my eyes trained on our opponents- they seem unwilling to make the first move, which worries me slightly, but there's not a great deal I can do about it, "run." There's a knot of firebenders that aren't quite moving as a unit- they keep glancing about to each other, making sure that everyone's in the right place, so they're the weak point I'll break first, and then... I'm imagining a thousand scenarios, but the distressing thing is that they all end 'and then Vachir puts an arrow through my throat'. So. Pick the one that lasts the longest before that happens, I suppose.
There's really no time for this.
"You were hired to do a job. Pretty sure the contract doesn't say 'die in a gutter'."
"I can't go running away from fights. Think about my reputation," she mutters, through clenched teeth. They're moving now, we can both see that, but they's being oh-so dainty about it, it's practically an affront to my national pride. Which is remarkable, because I didn't think I had any left.
"I won't tell anyone. Promise."
"Not if you get yourself killed pulling some stupid heroics, sure. But screwing up on a job so bad it gets the most dangerous swordsman in the entire world killed is what we'd call a black mark on my resumé."
"Technically, I don't think any of this is actually your fault." Yes, they're definitely moving now. Vachir is as implacable as ever, but I see why he hasn't fired yet- June's little performance spooked him, and he doesn't want to waste an arrow. So he'll wait until we're tied up by the footsoldiers, and take his shot then.
"Doesn't matter. I get hired for the job, I take a share of the responsibility. So let's figure out a way to keep everyone alive."
"It doesn't matter any more." Because they're moving faster now, with more certainty. Damn her, but she's made herself right. Either we both walk out, or... or we don't. "I'll go right. Watch for arrows." If I can get among the footsoldiers before they fall on both of us, then we might have a chance.
And before I can move I hear the sound of something heavy slipping and slapping onto the ground- like a pile of sacks dropping from a roof- directly behind us, and there's the shuffling scratching of a komodo-rhino getting its bearings after, say, dropping from a roof.
I forgot Yeh-Lu. It turns out they were waiting for him to get into position. And the position was behind us.
We're dead, is about my last coherent thought that goes through my mind as something small and round hits the ground at our feet, and starts fizzing.
Don't be so fucking negative, is my first incoherent thought, as I pivot on the ball of my right heel, and with my left foot I kick the bomb as hard as I can right back at the grenadier. I wouldn't be so concerned if the incoherent voice didn't sound just a little like June.
Even with the added distance from the bomb, the explosion knocks June to the ground and sends me flying across the courtyard, where I land extremely badly on my left shoulder, and decide to very briefly go blind, deaf, and mad with pain.
All in all, one of my better ideas today.
My left forearm is on fire.
My left forearm is on fire.
The pain is liquid, running up my arm and it's so hot it doesn't even register, it's like knives or like ice or like having your nerve endings shredded with a cheese grater and the pain is anything except heat and I can't help but note that this seems terribly unfair.
I nearly tear my coat apart, but only succeed in ripping off the sleeve, and it takes some mental gymnastics but I eventually remember to stop, drop, and something else. Panic. No, wait. Flail about. No, wait, it's roll.
So I'm not on fire any more. My arm still feels like it's about to die. Ignore it. Survey the battlefield.
A lot has changed in ten seconds. The footsoldiers have hit June. June is hitting the footsoldiers back, rather harder. It appears that Yeh-Lu is dead- the grenade must have hit his satchel. Poor bastard. But I suppose that's how he'd want to go.
And Vachir, directly in front of me now- some twelve feet- is notching an arrow and staring at June.
"June!" I yell a warning, and sprint toward the archer. He doesn't even seem to notice- archer tunnel vision, they get like that- and I have an opening and a chance and I. Don't. Take it.
Yeh-Lu was killed on instinct- pure reaction, no time to think. It was, quite literally, him or me. No matter what I might regret, it's done now. Nothing can change that. But when it comes to this- the single, momentary chance I have to kill Vachir- I can't. Some part of me baulks at it, a cowardly instinct shies away from doing what I know I will have to do if we are ever to leave this city alive.
I'm not prepared to take the life of a former comrade, even as sour a man as Vachir.
At the last instant, I change target, and slash at his mount's flank, shearing his saddle's bellyband in half. He slips, and overbalances sideways, but even as he falls he looses the arrow, and as he crashes to the ground I look over, and see June.
There's an arrow lodged in her left shoulder.
He really is a very good shot.
I'm expecting her to fall. She staggers backwards, deeper into the throng of soldiers, and for an instant she almost tips and falls backward.
It doesn't last. She rights herself, and though she's looking hunched and tired- it's too far to make out details, and her hair is like a curtain, falling over her face- she snaps the arrow shaft as close to her shoulder as she can- sensible- and straightens, twirling the remains of the arrow between tapered fingers. And then she jams the shaft into the eye socket of the nearest firebender.
Like I said, vindictive.
But she's off her game, and can barely move her right arm, and in the three seconds it takes me to glance left and see Vachir beating an involuntary retreat, tangled in the reigns of a pain-maddened komodo-rhino and glance back again, June is bested.
A blade flashes behind her, and she stumbles and falls in a spray of blood.
The world suddenly shrinks to the twelve long strides across the courtyard that separate me and her.
I make three of them before my footing is torn away from me and I fall directly onto my burnt arm. And it hurts. It hurts like buggery.
And I roll onto my back just in time to feel an animal bellow and stare wide-eyed at a set of descending claws before they slam into my torso.
I hate komodo-rhinos. Hate. Hate. Hate.
I can hear my ribs creaking but maybe that's just my imagination and I scrabble desperately- I can reach my sword just fine it's just hard to move when six two-inch claws are digging into your chest with all the weight of a fucking komodo-rhino behind them and this is pretty much the most ignoble death ever. Here lies Piandao. He killed lots of people and was generally considered pretty good at it. Then a komodo-rhino jumped on him and he died. The end.
My eyes are starting to go- white spots dance in front of my vision and my throat is constricting and maybe, just maybe, I'll pass out before the weight punctures my lungs, but it doesn't look like I'm going to be that lucky and for some reason the only thing I can think of is I never learned to play the sungi horn when I hear a crack
And another. And another.
And the weight is suddenly torn from my chest as the monster screeches in pain, and a black-booted foot suddenly materialises to the right of my head. I stare at it, blearily.
I follow it all the way up, and oh look, it's June. How the hell did she not die?
I try to sit up, and the flash of pain in my chest punishes me for it. Okay. Sitting up is impossible.
I stand, instead. Bend from the hips, not from the spine, that's the ticket. I still feel like I'm dying, but it feels like it might be some time in the next half an hour, rather than the next thirty seconds. An improvement is an improvement.
Ogodei (for it was, of course, him) is on the back foot. He tries to nudge his monster forward, but the beast is wary of the woman in black with the whip, and shies away.
I understand the urge. The look on her face is almost making me want to run away too.
She's grinning. It is not a happy grin.
Chains spin in the air, and he swings his weapon, the weighted chains swinging at her head, but she- it must be reflex, because she cannot be stupid enough to decide to block his attack with her right arm. But she does, and I can hear something snap in her arm from here. I think people in the upper ring must have heard it.
The only response from June is a slight tightening of her grin. Her broken arm grabs at the chain before he can pull it back, and yanks hard, pulling Ogodei down until they're almost nose-to-nose.
Her voice is half breathless screech, half manic hiss.
"Fuck," she breathes "OFF." Her left arm- I would say the uninjured one, except I can see the arrowhead embedded in her shoulder- swings, and catches him across the jaw. Flying teeth punctuate the arc of her swing.
So he does what she says. With remarkable efficiency.
And suddenly we are alone in the courtyard. It takes less than a second for June's knees to start to give out. She leans on me, at my insistence. I'm not certain I'm any better off than her, but damnit, one of us has to pretend to be healthy enough to get us back to the safe house, and it's going to be me.
After all, she did just save my life. Only fair that I try to return the favour.
I'm almost dragging her by the time we're back in the safe house- she's lost a lot of blood. Under less terrifyingly urgent circumstances, I might be worried that they could just follow the trail she's left back to us.
Right. First order of business is that enormous gash along her back, then.
The table in the dining room isn't clear, but a sweep of the arm takes care of that problem. With as much delicacy as I can, I lay June down on it, face first.
"Hold on," I tell her, and before she can reply, I'm gone to get the worryingly inadequate-looking first aid kit. Bandages, needle and thread, a scalpel, a cream for burns (thank you, thank you Long Feng), and some rubbing alcohol. It will have to suffice.
I return as quickly as possible, and try to remember everything I can about first aid. Here's hoping I don't forget anything important.
"Right." I examine the cut on her back. It's about a foot long, a nearly vertical straight line. Not deep, but it's been widened by the journey back. Looks painful. "First order of business- I'm going to need to take off your shirt."
She raises her head, clearly amused.
"Haven't heard that in a while."
No. Damn. Don't want to move her arms more than I have to. Going to have to operate.
"Actually, I think I'd better just cut it off you."
"You must be really popular with the Fire Nation girls if you can get away with lines like that."
I fight a growing urge to smack my own forehead. "Can we, for five minutes, pretend that you're a fully-grown adult?"
"Let me have my fun." She almost sounds like she's pouting.
"Five minutes. Then you can leer as much as you like."
"Deal." And doesn't she sound far too pleased with herself. Never mind, focus on the task at hand. My sword makes short work of the cloth, and in moments I have an unobstructed view of the cut. And, inevitably, a good deal of her back.
By Agni's burning eye, she's pale. I have no earthly idea how she managed that. I mean, she has a job that means she has to spend a lot of time outdoors, doesn't she? Maybe it's a family trait.
Anyway, the cut. I take a small cotton pad, and apply the rubbing alcohol. Got to clean the wound before I sew it up. As I'm about to apply it to her back, I remember to warn her.
"By the way. This is going to sting."
"Like an absolute bitch," she affirmed, grimly.
"I'm afraid so. You can swear, if you like."
She doesn't. She remains stoically silent throughout the entire process, which shouldn't really surprise me now, but it's a little disconcerting to find that there appears to not be one single fibre of this woman that isn't made of wrought-iron.
I hold the tip of the needle in the flame of the candle for a while- until it's good and sterile- and begin the unpleasant business of sewing her back up. Some people might have the decency to perhaps pass out at some point during the proceedings, but not her, it appears.
Eventually, it is done. Not the tidiest piece of work I have ever done, but then I didn't really have the use of my left hand, so what can you do. Her torso is wrapped in bandages, and slowly, she risks sitting up on the edge of the table.
"Right. Now for that arrowhead."
The removal of the arrowhead- a process that requires very, very careful use of the scalpel to dig out the barbed metal without damaging her any more- is more obviously unpleasant for her. A bead of sweat rolls down the side of her head from the effort of staying still, and she has a great deal to say about my erstwhile comrade Vachir.
"You were lucky," I tell her. "He tends to use fire arrows, if he can. Today was too damp."
She's a little quieter, after that.
Cleaning the wound takes more rubbing alcohol and bandages, but hopefully I have managed to save her manoeuvrability. Shoulder wounds can lead to permanent disability, but I have hopes that she will be mostly alright.
Setting her other arm is impossible. I only have one working hand, and it's definitely a two-hand job. We are simply going to have to wait for Long Feng to get back.
In the meantime, I should tend to my own injuries. My chest has stopped bleeding, at least, but my shirt is sodden and useless. So, with a care that comes from a heartfelt desire not to agitate a burn wound any further, I peel off what remains of my shirt.
From somewhere behind me, June wolf-whistles. I roll my eyes, but say nothing. After all, it has been at least five minutes.
The view from the front is pretty uninspiring. Looks like someone's tried to carve a map on my chest. Still hurts like the worst kind of bitch.
I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to fix this. Some of the cuts need stitches, and really I need two arms to pull this off.
Luckily, at that moment there's a rumbling from the cellar, and Long Feng emerges. Alone.
He looks unhappy. He's sporting a black eye, and from the looks of it the end of his braid is singed.
He glares at both of us in quick succession.
"I take it, then, that we have all been miserable failures today."
"That about sums it up," June concedes. I have more pressing concerns.
"Are you any good with a needle and thread?"
After approximately two solid days of sleep, I feel a little better. Well enough to move around the house, at least. Perhaps get something to eat.
Long Feng has vanished again, to plan. Because his plan went so well last time.
I find June lying in the living room, stretched out on the settee. She's propped up in such a way that her lower back isn't touching anything, and lying on her lap is an open book. Her right arm is in a stone cast, provided by Long Feng, and it sits heavily across her stomach. She looks up as I walk in, and scowls.
"Okay. I've given you enough time to come up with a decent excuse, so here we go. What the fuck happened back there? You know, with the Yu-Yan you for some reason didn't kill?" She's annoyed, and with pretty good reason.
"I believe you saw as well as me."
"I was trying to give you a chance to explain yourself. You choked. That happen often?"
I shrug. "I was not expecting them so soon. I wasn't ready."
"Why not? You're supposed to be this unstoppable hardass, aren't you? You said this wasn't gonna be a problem."
"I know. I suppose I was wrong."
"Look. You need to get this off your chest or something? Hit me, I'm listening."
Hell, there's only so much it can hurt. "...Alright. We were friends, once. Comrades-in-arms, all that. I suppose you could say that those days, the campaign in the Southern Earth Kingdom, were the happiest of my life. We were all young and brilliant and immortal, doing the glorious work of the great Fire Lord Azulon. It was a hell of a time to be alive."
"But you were -you know, burning the Earth Kingdom, destroying villages, and generally being incredible dicks."
"I know. But we didn't see it like that. We were heroes, once. I would be much happier if I still believed that."
"So... what's the problem? These guys, I seem to need to remind you, are still incredible dicks. Just because you all used to get drunk together-"
"And sing. They loved to sing." Funny, the things that come back to you.
"And sing, yeah, sure, but that doesn't make them any less deserving of being shortened by a head. I mean, just look at the state of this fucking city. I mean, this whole thing might have not been their idea, but they sure as fuck helped." And it's true. Mongke and his unit had been present for the purge of the Lower Ring, if that's what she meant. But she's missing the point.
"June," I try to explain, "if Governor Mongke and his mean are so deserving of death, what does that mean for me?"
"One act of treachery hardly undoes twenty years of just obeying orders."
"What, you don't believe in redemption?"
"You do?" She averts her eyes, scowling. I can't help but smile. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone."
She throws her book at my head.
"Listen to me. No, listen, Long Feng. This plan will not work." It's an uphill battle, trying to convince him to abandon his slightly-altered version of our original plan (the one that was a failure on all fronts, I for some reason had to remind him), especially since June, for some reason, had decided to take his side.
"Listen to me," I said, patiently and reasonably and in a tone that completely masked my growing exasperation, "June, you are a bounty hunter. For some reason, I am having to explain to you the basic tenets of your own profession. Your skills lie in getting people. My skills lie in hacking people to bits with a sword. There is little to no overlap. This is why you should accompany Long Feng to rescue the Earth King, which I seem to have to remind you is the thing you were hired to do, and I will go and kill Governor Mongke."
That seems to do it. It takes about another hour of arguing with June, who for some reason wasn't comfortable with the idea of us splitting up, and arguing with Long Feng, who took umbrage at my insinuation that he couldn't plan his way out of a wet paper bag, and arguing with June again, who had decided to point out that if we couldn't defeat the Rough Rhinos when there were two of us, why should I be able to do any better alone and injured?
I explained to her that all the injuries I had incurred had been directly caused by my failed attempts to make sure that she was not injured. It's a miserable cliché, but I really do fight better alone. Or at least, not surrounded by people I feel responsible for the safety of.
That seemed to work. She certainly offered no more argument.
All that remains for me to do is work out a plan.
So, with my arm still screaming and my chest swathed in bandages, I sit down with maps and notes, and begin to plot the death of a man I once called friend.
I hate my life, and it hates me right back.
We allow ourselves ten days to heal. Not enough, but better than nothing. We shall just have to be careful.
I spend most of the first day lying on the sofa. June spends it in bed.
The next day, both of us are in the sitting room. I'm trying to read, but am hampered by the distraction of rain pattering on the windows, June drumming her fingers on the floor- left hand flopping languidly down by her side, tapered fingers rattling out a staccato beat on the floorboards, and most of all by the fact that it's a terrible book.
June breaks the monotony by speaking.
"So. I've been thinking. What was going through your head? You know, during the whole- what did the shirtless guy call it? The thing with Red Hammer Company? Those were the guys who you beat solo, right?"
"Right. What was going through my head?" What an odd question, to come out of nowhere like that. "As far as I can remember, it was something along the lines of 'oh shit, oh shit, I am about to die.''"
"Huh. Well that's kind of mundane."
"Why all this interest in my colourful past?"
She makes a kind of vocal shrug. "Thinking of writing your biography. Though based on the circumstances, maybe your obituary's a more realistic project."
I'm getting a little exasperated with her lack of faith. "I'm telling you. I'll be fine. This sort of thing is literally my job."
"And if you choke again?" she retorts, looking up at me, grey eyes flashing.
I sit back, and close my eyes.
"I won't. I promise."
"I'm holding you to that." And that, insanely, helps a little. Gives a little bit of an anchor. Lets me pretend that someone actually cares whether or not I die in this ruin of a city.
And isn't that a terrifying thought? Certainly, my comrades in the Order might be less than pleased to learn of my passing, but that's war. You can't get too sentimental. And Bumi might be unhappy, but he has other tools at his disposal. More versatile than me, too.
The only person that I can imagine being genuinely affected if I die in nine day's time is my butler. And he isn't even my butler any more.
I swear, if by some miracle I don't die, I am going to have to get some more friends from somewhere.
"So," I begin. "What happened to you, twelve years ago, around midwinter?" Don't look at me like you thought I'd forgotten that. I just didn't think it polite to ask. "I mean, since you keep asking me a great deal of personal questions, I think I'm-"
"My Dad died," she says, bluntly.
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. It wasn't you. I checked."
So you did.
"We were in the Northern Earth Kingdom," she continued, blithely. "He was a bounty hunter too, you know, taught me everything I know, apart from the stuff I taught myself later, of course. But yeah. We were in the Northern Earth Kingdom, and he had the bad luck of getting hired by some Fire Nation bigwig, and the bad judgement of trying to get paid once the job was done. He got jumped in an alley and knifed to death. It was very sad, but I'm grateful to him for raising me the way he did, and I make sure to get absolutely shitfaced once a year in his honour," she concluded, in a singsong voice. A sad tale, but one repeated the world over.
She's looking at me, obviously waiting for a reaction. Does she expect empathy? My father gave me to the military when I was six years old, so she's out of luck there. Commiseration, maybe?
"That's life," I say. I have never been good at commiseration.
She looks at me for a second, then suddenly laughs.
"It fucking is, isn't it?" she says, through her amusement. "It fucking well is."
"So. Here we go."
I nod. "Here we do, indeed, go. Very observant of you."
"Anyway," I say, as Long Feng emerges from the cellar again, nodding at both of us- I nod back, June simply inclines her head the tiniest fraction she can get away with. "Good luck to you both."
"Yeah," she replies. "You too. And don't forget, you made a promise." A promise to see this through.
"I remember. I'll see you once this is over."
I tread lightly on the carpeted floor of the small apartment, but evidently not lightly enough. The man staring into the fire turns to look at me, blearily. Odd, that he would choose such a small living space once he was given the largest city in the world, but then he never was an indoors kind of person. He saw his house as the place he slept, dressed, and had breakfast in, nothing more. Life was outdoors.
"Ogodei? Yeh-Lu? Kahchi? Vachir?" He sounds drained. Wrung out.
"They're dead." My voice sounds loud and stupid in my ears.
"Heh. Stupid question. You're standing here in front of me- how could they be alive?"
It would be infinitely easier for me if I just said nothing and attacked him now. However, I have absolutely no interest in making this easier for myself. I am about to kill an old friend of mine- what would it say about me if I found it easy? Besides, it has been years since I saw him last, and damnit I am going to catch up.
"Agni's breath, old man, you look like hell."He does. Three days' worth of stubble on his chin, deep bags under his eyes. He's lost weight, too, it looks, and his stance sags. I can hardly imagine I look any better. What a pair we make.
"Speak for yourself. Almost didn't recognise you without the beard."
I shrug. "We all have to make sacrifices. It seemed a simple way of augmenting a disguise."
"Didn't fucking work- I can still recognise you."
"Well, I tried. So how's the last decade and a half treated you?"
He laughs, worn and devoid of real humour. "Like dog shit." He never was a man for complicated similes. "And it doesn't look like you've had the better of it, either." Abruptly, his voice changes, shedding any pretence of levity. "So. You're here to kill me."
I almost close my eyes, until I see his stance- bunched up, and coiled, ready to pounce.
"Yes," I simply say, and as he lashes out, the pommel of my sword catches him across the jaw.
"Heh," he coughs, recoiling and spitting blood, and against all odds he grins. "How the fuck did it come to this, Piandao? Look at us now. I'm Governor of the biggest smoking wreck in the damn world, and you're a turncoat sent to kill me. If fifteen years ago you'd told me that this was where we'd end up, I'd have told you to lay off the sandbender booze."
I shrug. "It's a funny old world."
"That it is, that it is. Still, can't say I blame you. I mean, looks like you're doing a damn sight better than me. I'm a reaver, for fuck's sake, and that's where I belong. I made Colonel, did you know that?"
"You always were talented, Mongke."
"Too fucking talented, it looks like. I made my name on how quickly I could tear apart a column of earthbenders, and so Iroh decides to reward me by making me a Governor. I have no idea what I'm fucking doing any more, and that's the truth."
"Everyone gets promoted above their level of competence eventually."
"Too right. But look at you- at least you're doing what you're fucking good at. I'm all used up, Piandao. I want to ride again, to feel the wind on my face and the sun on my back, and more than anything I want to not be Governor of Ba Sing Se for one more fucking second. I figure you can oblige me that last one, if nothing else. Besides, outliving my unit... that's just poor fucking form, Piandao, and you know it. So let's get this over with, shall we?"
We do. He shatters my knee, but my blade finds his heart.
In the end, I'm not sure who got off easiest. After all, I'm the one still hurting.
June is waiting at our mounts, with a small, nebbish looking man in glasses. He must be the Earth King. Long Feng is nowhere to be seen.
"He decided to stay behind," is the only answer June gives.
"Your Majesty," I bow, carefully. "We must be off."
"You okay?" June asks, once we are riding, leaving the rubble of the lower ring far behind.
"I kept my promise," I tell her, my eyes trying to focus on the horizon through the pain in my knee.
"You did. Tell you what, soon as we're done here, let me buy you a drink." She looks at me, as though sizing me up. "In fact, let me buy you about ten drinks. I'm willing to class it as a medical emergency."
I open my mouth to politely decline, entirely on reflex, but I stop to think about it. No. I could use a drink. A lot of drinks, and a holiday in the sun for preference, but one thing at a time.
"I'd like that," I say, and she nods, approvingly.