“Mai, come take a look at this.”
It’s rather unnecessary to ask when Mai can’t be more than two feet behind Azula, but she likes the way it sounds – casually authoritative, the way she so often doesn’t. Anyone can make demands; not everyone can secure compliance with a simple request, and she never wants to let herself forget that she belongs in the latter category. Mai’s put-out huff as she approaches, though there’s not much of an approach to be had, is as satisfying as the jolt of lightning leaping from her hands. Azula waits until she’s sure that Mai is curious as to why she’s been summoned – peering over her shoulder at the scroll in her hands, posture inquisitive – to speak again.
“This invasion plan isn’t half-bad,” she says offhandedly, as if discussing the weather or something equally mundane. “Two-pronged – they’re planning for a naval assault, followed by a land one. Then the Avatar is going to confront my father when that the comet leaves us vulnerable, apparently – not a bad use of that time.”
“But we know about it now,” Mai replies, deadpan despite her obvious curiosity. “So how’s any of that going to help them?”
“Well, even if we’re prepared for them, the invasion force is going to make a dent.” Azula’s father may believe that his forces are invincible, but she’s not even halfway stupid enough to agree. He hasn’t seen how much damage a clever, outnumbered enemy force can do if they leverage their advantages well the way she has. Superiority in battle is a tactical matter and it’s clear that their adversaries are more competent in that respect than she’d like. “Ideally, it would be best to keep any fighting as far away from the Capital as we can, partly because it’s good sense and” – she rolls her eyes – “partly because the delusional old officers who’ve let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security are going to throw a hissy-fit when they’re forced to realize that our control is slipping.” She pauses, then adds, “of course, they’re right to be concerned, but stupid not to have realized-“
“Your point?” Mai interrupts, arms crossed. Azula’s fists clench, but she says nothing – Mai knowswho’s pulling the strings, and it’s hardly worth the provocation to chastise her for her choice not to move as directed.
“What we have to do,” she says, drumming her fingers across her forearm as she inspects the scroll laid flat in front of her, “is ensure, beyond a doubt, that the Avatar will fail.”
“Can’t the Army take care of that?” Ty Lee cuts in from the other side of the room. “It seems like they’d be able to do that better than the three of us could.”
“It would seem that way, wouldn’t it?” Azula manages an even tone though she wants to spit at the mere idea of putting something so vital as this in any hands but her own. “But the Army isn’t going to be able to prevent the invasion, only defeat it. They could repel the invasion from the city, true, but that doesn’t do much good when our goal is to stop the invasion force from reaching the city in the first place.”
“And you’re suggesting…what, exactly?” Mai asks.
“Well, we need to keep the Avatar and his allies as far away from the Capital as we can, so the tidiest solution is to scatter those allies.” Azula pauses for a beat, thinking, then nods. “Yes, that should work. We already know who’s aided the Avatar in the past, so it won’t be difficult to figure out who might be involved. Once we do, we cut them off.”
Ty Lee’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “You mean we-“
“No, Ty Lee, we don’t have to kill them.” Azula scoffs – these people are far too predictable. “That would be neater, but we need the Avatar and his companions distracted, not vengeful. Giving them even more cause to strike than they already have wouldn’t be smart.”
“So what would be?” Ty Lee asks, visibly relieved. She’s loyal, but altogether too softhearted; Azula’s growing tired of this need for coddling.
“Well, without the advantage of the comet, this plan wouldn’t have a chance of succeeding,” Azula replies. This is what she’s been driving at this whole time. “We need to do two things: one, keep their allies out of the picture; and two, send them on a wild goose chase so that they miss the only opportunity they have to do any real damage.”
“Prison?” Mai guesses. “That’d get them out of our hair.”
Azula smiles, offering her friend the smallest of nods. “That was my plan,” she says evenly, trying not to let Mai see how pleased she is that she’s guessed – maybe I didn’t choose entirely useless allies. “We’ve already got the Kyoshi Warriors in lockup at the Boiling Rock, and I don’t see why we can’t do the same to – oh, the Southern Water Tribe forces, the Earth Kingdom bureaucrats who signed off on this plan…you know. Anyone with ties to the Avatar or to the invasion. They can hardly mount an invasion from a maximum-security prison, and I’d bet half my kingdom” – she likes saying that, throwing around her status even though it isn’t really hers yet – “that they’ll drop what they’re doing and try to spring them before the invasion. They’ll fail, of course, and there goes their chance.”
“And then what?” Mai asks.
“Oh, I forgot to mention the best part of this whole thing.” Azula’s eyes glint – she’s built up to this too well to lose momentum by answering Mai’s question. “This is the easiest chance we’ve gotten yet to corner the Avatar. Capture his allies, and he’ll be nothing but a child running from an army.”
Mai nods, though her expression is too blank to betray what she really thinks of that. “So we capture him once he comes for their friends at the Boiling Rock?”
“Whenever we get the chance, but yes, that is ideal,” Azula confirms. “And there’s more.”
This oughta be good, she thinks she hears Mai mutter under her breath, but she chooses to ignore her.
“The first thing we need to take care of is this alliance they’re forming with the Earth Kingdom,” she continues. “And to get the Earth Kingdom’s forces out of the way, we have to take Ba Sing Se.”
“I’m proud of you, Zuko.”
It’s the last thing Zuko expects to hear after the spat his uncle has just witnessed, so he stiffens, unsure how to respond. “For what?” he asks, trying not to let his voice rise.
“You’ve taken a big step.” He pats his shoulder, and again, Zuko stiffens. “There’s a long ways between stopping your search for the Avatar and agreeing to ally with him. I’m impressed that you’ve chosen to. That’s all.”
“I have nothing to do with the Avatar,” he spits. “I’m meeting with his allies because I thought his girlfriend was going to kill me and you know that.”
“I highly doubt that she’s his girlfriend,” Iroh says lightly.
“What does that mean?”
“Just an observation,” Iroh replies. “Anyways. I know that this is an alliance of necessity more than anything, but it’s still an important step.”
He bites his tongue – there doesn’t seem to be much to be said to that.
Jae sets down her basket of linens and hefts it onto her shoulder again, hoping that it will stay balanced this time. She doesn’t yet have the easy grace that seems to come so naturally to the other laundresses, and she hasn’t yet been able to find an angle at which the baskets of linens she spends half her days carting around would stay situated on her shoulder or hip yet. These kinds of stops to readjust are more frequent than she let on. Besides, they serve their purpose.
The halls are nearly always eerily deserted, and no one ever sees her stop or suspects much if they happen to pass her by. She’s new, and no one expects much of her yet; that is an advantage she intended to use. It isn’t a coincidence that the sound of voices often prompts her stops – if she can, she’ll wait to shift a slipping load until there’s a reason to, something to overhear, the far-off sound of a voice she recognizes. Most people whose whispers closed doors can’t conceal fall into the category of those whose voices prompt her stops; Jae rarely needs to have heard a voice more than twice or thrice to have it filed away in her memory, and its sound brings a face to mind within seconds.
This voice – so memorable because its owner sounds like she is snarling even when she isn’t – belongs to one of the Kyoshi Warriors who’d been meeting with the King when she’d last been sent to deliver a load of freshly-ironed linens to an unmade bed mere yards away from Kuei’s war room. Surely she’ll have something interesting to say; gossip is invaluable currency in the laundry rooms, so she pauses, pretending to struggle with her load, and keeps her ears open. Jae knows that she is a terrible laundress, but she’s an excellent spy, and as far as her fellow laundresses are concerned, a coworker with a gift for the acquisition of tantalizingly forbidden gossip fodder is a thousand times more valuable than one who can starch napkins to perfection. This job is the only thing keeping her from the streets of the Lower Ring, and, so long as she has information, they’ll vouch for her no matter how poorly she performs. Chances like this are all too important not to take.
“Are you sure?” that second voice – bright, high, nasal – Jae can’t place, but she’d seen the Kyoshi Warrior whose voice she recognizes with two companions; perhaps this girl is one of them.
“Am I ever unsure, Ty Lee?” the leader challenges. “You saw what they did to that drill. How did they do it? From within.” She pauses, and Jae wracks her brain – drill…? Where have I heard that before? But nothing comes up, and she has to divert her attention back to the girl’s voice when she continues speaking. “But we’ve got to do it soon. Strike while the iron is hot and the Dai Li’s leader is in prison,” she says lightly.
“What are we doing, though?” a third voice, this one more toneless than should be possible, interjects. “For all this talk of ‘bringing them down from within,’ you haven’t actually said much about how you’re gonna do that.”
“I know what I’m doing, Mai.” Now there’s a sharp edge to her voice that wasn’t there before. “Leave the logistics to me.”
“But won’t you need backup?” the second girl asks. “You can’t take on the whole Dai Li alone!”
Pieces begin to slot into place as Jae works through what she knows: three nameless Kyoshi Warriors, appearing out of nowhere in Ba Sing Se mere days after the news of a war (serving up that bit of gossip had been the greatest accomplishment of Jae’s life) rocked the palace on its foundations; talk of bringing something down from within; the repeated references to the Dai Li and the absence of its leader – Jae’s picked up enough political savvy in four months of constant eavesdropping to complete the picture.
The Kyoshi Warriors are planning a coup.
Her survival instincts tell her to drop her linens and bolt before the palace falls, or at least try to find someone she can warn because an attack like this, when the court is already in chaos, has every chance of succeeding. But curiosity – and the realization that her reward (hopefully monetary, though she’d accept a promotion) will probably be greater if she has more information to fork over – keep her from moving. She tips her basket of linens so that it’ll look like…well, she’s not sure what, but a little less suspicious (maybe someone tripped and had to be carried off, their linens forgotten?) than a basket of pristinely-folded napkins abandoned in a hallway halfway to their destination, and presses herself flat against the wall behind an oversized silk wall-hanging. She’s missed a sentence or two in her haste to hide, but she picks up the threads of the conversation quickly.
“He’s not in the city right now. We know that.”
“But he’ll be back, and your father sent us to capture the Avatar, not Ba Sing Se,” Mai protests.
“Perhaps, but we have to focus on what we can do now. The Avatar can wait.”
Jae feels like she’s swallowed a stone, the way the words sit in the pit of her stomach. She hardly wants the only home she’s ever known to fall, but she can’t let the Avatar be taken. After all, it had been she who, sensing a piece of information the laundry ladies would kill for, had overheard a group of teenagers trying to break into the palace, left a back door unlocked and cracked open when she’d gone to fetch water for the laundry.
Normally, she’d never risk her job that way, but all she could think of when she’d realized who was trying to infiltrate the palace was the picture of Avatar Kyoshi her mother had kept on their mantle, and the stories she’d told of the Avatars and their exploits, and she’d known that her mother would’ve been sorely disappointed in her if she’d failed to aid him. “Someday, we’ll have an Avatar again,” she’d always said, stroking Jae’s hair, offering reassurances that would’ve seemed emptier than air to anyone else, and she believed them with all she was. She’d have marched into the room to give these women a tongue-lashing (and a swift push out the window, failing that) if she’d heard what Jae is hearing now.
And she may not be anyone’s idea of an altruist, but she’s not willing to let this happen.
She bolts, flinging her basket of linens into a nearby room without staying to watch them scatter. She doesn’t know where to go or how to find any of the people she needs to warn of this plot, but she doesn’t think about it – what matters now is that she tries.
So she crosses her fingers, and she runs.
Katara narrows her eyes, unsure what to make sure of the scruffy, panting, panicked girl who’s come banging on their door in the middle of the night. “Come again?” she asks, a little suspicious, and she’s grateful when Toph pads down the hallway to join her. “Do I know you?”
“No.” The girl pushes her bangs out of her face. “Sorry. Bad introduction. I’m Jae.”
“Um…okay,” Katara says uneasily. “And what are you doing here?”
“Oh, man, it took me, like, an hour to figure out where you lived,” she pants, dodging the question. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get-“
“Someone told you where we lived?” Toph cuts in, her hackles raised.
“Who?” Katara follows up. “And why did you need to know? Who are you?”
The girl’s eyes widen until they show more white than pupil and her breath, even though she’d caught it, starts to go again. “I swear, I’m a friend!” she cries, insistent, with nothing of the casual tone she’d maintained only moments ago. “You have to believe me. There’s someone at the palace after the Avatar and I have to warn him before-”
“The Avatar?” now it’s Katara’s eyes that widen. “Wait, back up. Who, what, and why?”
“I don’t know,” Jae says, shaking her head frantically. “These Kyoshi Warriors who showed up a few days ago. I don’t know their names but they’re planning a coup and one of them kept talking about how her father sent her to capture the Avatar and…” she trails off.
“Oh, Spirits,” Katara mutters. “How do you know that?”
“I’m a laundress,” she explains hurriedly. “At the palace. I overhear a lot of things and I…I thought I should warn you.”
If she’s telling the truth, this girl is nothing short of Spirits-sent, and Katara knows not to take this lead lightly. “How do I know you’re not trying to throw us off?” she challenges, testing the waters.
“She isn’t lying,” Toph cuts in. “If this is part of the plan, she doesn’t know anything.”
Jae crosses her arms. “I’m risking my job to warn you. Why would I lie about this?”
“Okay.” Katara takes a grounding breath. “Do you remember anything about these people? Anything at all?”
Jae nods. “There were three of them, all Kyoshi Warriors.”
Toph elbows Katara’s side.
Azula. Her fists clench. “Okay. And do they know that you heard them?”
“They shouldn’t,” Jae says. “They didn’t hear me pass by.”
“And will anyone know that you left the palace?”
Jae shakes her head. “No one cares that much, but I don’t want to risk it. I’ll probably just camp out somewhere for the night.”
“No, you won’t.” Katara cracks the door open wider. “You have information. You’re staying with us.”
“Katara, it’s three.”
Zuko can’t say he’s surprised, but he’s still a little disgruntled to find her at the tea shop at an hour like this.
“Azula’s in the city,” she says by way of a greeting, gesturing to a scrawny girl he doesn’t recognize. “This girl’s a servant at the palace-“
“Laundress,” Jae corrects.
“Sorry, laundress.” Katara looks like she’s trying not to roll her eyes. “She’s a laundress at the palace and she overheard three girls dressed as Kyoshi Warriors talking about a coup. It’s gotta be her.”
“Um, no, it doesn’t.” Zuko’s five seconds from slamming the door and going back to bed when Katara grabs his sleeve.
“Jae here says that their leader was talking about how her father send her to capture the Avatar,” she hisses. “Who else is that going to be?”
That has his attention.
“What is she doing here?” Zuko asks. “Does she know that I’m-that’ we’re in Ba Sing Se?”
“I don’t know,” Jae says. “Just that she’s trying to do a coup and something about the Avatar.”
Zuko gives Katara a hard look. “You really think we can trust this girl?”
Katara shrugs. “Toph says she’s not lying, and I’m not taking any chances.”
“And what are we supposed to do about this?”
“Um, leave?” Katara posits. “If the Fire Nation takes Ba Sing Se, we’re going to be trapped. Forget trying to stop her – we have to get out of here.”
“And what am I gonna do?”
“…come with us, you idiot.”
“You must be joking.”
“Do you want to be sent back home in chains?”
“No, but what are the rest of your friends gonna do to me if I do that?”
“Have you met Aang?”
“Fine, then. Your brother?”
“He’ll deal with it.”
“This seems like a terrible idea.”
“Yeah, but so does sitting around, waiting for her to take the city,” Katara counters. Jae scratches the back of her neck, obviously listening and obviously a little uncomfortable. “Aang and Sokka just got back and I told them I had to pick someone up before we left, so we’re just waiting on you-“
"You mean they don't actually know you're trying to bring me with you? Katara, this is a terrible idea."
She never answers, though.
“When are you leaving?” Zuko jumps at his uncle’s voice in the doorway behind him.
“As soon as possible,” Katara tells him, straightening visibly at the first sign of compliance she’s had this entire conversation. “Appa’s waiting, and we didn’t want to leave you stranded after all the help you’ve given us.”
This, Zuko knows, is a bold-faced lie. Katara would leave him without a second thought if she didn’t have a good reason not to. (Why is she offering, then? He thinks, but he quickly shoves the question down.) But Iroh seems to buy it.
“Zuko, you’re going with her,” Iroh says flatly.
“No, I’m not.” He pauses, realizing that Iroh hadn’t said anything about joining them. “And what are you going to be doing?”
Iroh doesn’t answer, and it doesn’t take long for Zuko to realize what he’s getting at.
“Someone has to try to stop her, and it’s not going to be you.”
“You need to get as far away from your sister as you can.”
“So do you!”
He shoves Zuko out the door and doesn’t say another word, and before he can get out a single word of protest, Katara is taking his hand, and they are running.