The prisoners were wrong.
General Iroh knew it at once. Their hair, cropped in the manner of outcasts, nonetheless gleamed with the healthy luster afforded only by nobles. Stranger still were their features. The man on the right, his skin an unhealthy pallor, boasted comically wide blue eyes. The man on the left...
His curious disfigurement could have had any number of mundane explanation; what did not -- could not -- was this prisoner's body temperature. An aged master like Iroh could sense it through his firebending. No man could have blood so icy and still be fully conscious. It was physiologically impossible.
The cold-blooded thing simply stared straight ahead as he was inspected. The posture was casual, relaxed even. Iroh wasn't fool enough to think the prisoner wasn't studying him just as closely in turn.
The rage Iroh had carried since the depot explosion, anger at both the irreplaceable materiel loss, vanished at once. He needed to be cautious around these chained men.
"Trespassing," Iroh began. "Impersonating an officer. Destruction of military property. These are ALL punishable by death."
Neither prisoner spoke.
"But... I am not a cruel man. If you answer my questions truthfully, you will even find me to be merciful."
The other, human prisoner glared at Iroh. "Merciful? Is that what you call burning a man alive without warning?"
"You're saboteurs," Iroh countered. "The fact we bothered taking some of your party alive to interrogate was an indulgence on the part of my soldiers."
"Surely," said the Cold Man, "the continued safety of your base would be better assured by gaining information on the source of threats to it, rather than merely neutralizing security breaches."
"Good God, man, don't give the devils advice!"
"I was merely pointing out the illogic of his statement."
"I know who you are," Iroh said. Torn from their private squabble, the prisoners glanced askance at him. "You made this."
The crown prince of the Fire Nation pulled a hand out of his pocket and leveled a fire lance at the blue-eyed prisoner.
There was a moment of surprise on the man's pale face, but his expression quickly hardened. Rare was the man who could stare down the Dragon of the West, but here General Iroh found such a specimen. "Well, either shoot me or say something. Make up your mind."
"Who are you?"
"You already said you knew, remember?"
"Answer my question."
"I'm a healer being held at gunpoint."
Iroh lowered his weapon. He couldn't help by smile tightly at the sabetour. "If the men of the Earth Kingdom had one tenth of your bravery, even these fire lances wouldn't have been enough to push through the Outer Wall."
"You'll forgive me if I don't blush, taking a compliment from a tinpot Napoleon."
The Dragon of the West filed that strange title away for a future interrogation. "Those who crafted a device with the power of one hundred firebenders should possess equal spirit. Who else but a superior breed could fashion such technology?" The general turned over the foreign weapon in his hands. Its sleek grey and black exterior belied the raw destructive force sleeping within. "Our people are alike in that way, even if yours chooses to hide away across the sea while my kind seeks our rightful place under the sun."
"Across the sea...?"
"There's no sense denying it." Boyish wonder filled Iroh. The Setting Sun Sea covered a whole half of the globe; so vast it hopelessly wrecked any map that tried to incorporate it to scale. Why waste half your parchment with featureless blue ink when the Four Nations were all that was important? Yet there had always been myths of about the Setting Sun Sea. Lost continents and lion-turtles alike were said to make their home there. As Iroh well knew from the Sun Warriors, there was far more to the world than common knowledge claimed.
"The general is correct," said the Cold Man to his companion. "Denying the obvious would be impertinent, Healer."
"I must admit," Iroh said, "that I'm almost more curious about your homeland than I am about these fire lances. What do your people even call themselves?"
Neither prisoner spoke.
Iroh pointed the fire lance between their chairs and pulled the trigger. A shrieking beam of blue light shot out, blasting a cabbage-sized hole in the stone ground.
Iroh shifted his aim to the blue-eyed man's left foot.
"The Federation," the Cold Man answered, tone still bland and impersonal. "We call ourselves the Federation."
"A federation of... what? Islands? Villages? Cities?" How big was the homeland of these strangers? Iroh had to know. This Federation was the greatest potential threat to his people since the Avatar. They were clearly protective of the fruits of their marvelous industry.
"Nations," said the blue-eyed man. "It's a federation of nations."
Iroh mulled that notion. The implication that some Air Nomads potentially survived across the sea was troubling enough, but the idea that there were Fire Nationals who spurned rule by their rightful lord was simply hateful.
"Which nation rules this Federation?" They had to be oppressing the Fire Nationals that clearly lived among them. Who else could fashion such an ingenious weapon as the fire lance but Iroh's own race?
"No one nation rules the Federation," the Cold Man explained. "Everyone has an equal voice in our government."
Iroh opened his mouth to scoff at that, then caught himself. The truth was obvious if you gave it a half-second's thought. "Who runs the military?" That was where the real authority had to lie.
"Officers and non-commissioned officers are welcomed from all members of the Federation, just as they are in all other walks of life."
"Don't be ridiculous!"
"Is it so hard to believe?" The blue-eyed man gestured to his partnet as much as he could, chained as he was to his interrogation chair. "Take this pointy-earred hobgoblin. His mother is from Earth, like me, but his father is from Vulcan."
The Cold Man added, "Your own nation practices multiculturalism. We talked with soldiers from your colonies. Some of them had wives and children who are geokinetics."
"Those are the colonies," Iroh countered, "and just because it's not practical to ban intermarriage there doesn't make miscegenation morally right."
"God Almighty," said the blue-eyed man, voice thick with disgust, "do you ever listen to the hot air coming out of your mouth?"
"Who are you to lecture a prince of the Fire Nation on morals? You snuck inside my camp to destroy what the Fire Nation lawfully salvaged from that airship crash. You failed." Iroh raised the fire lance at the blue-eyed man's chest. "And now you're going to make up for it."
"The hell we are!"
"You're in no position to argue," Iroh said. "Escape is impossible, and if you think that the Earth Army is going to save you then you're dead wrong. You may have destroyed most of our fire lances, but this," he waved his weapon, "and the others will be more than enough to hold back Kuei's hordes."
The Cold Man cocked an eyebrow. "If those 'fire lances' are indeed enough to hold the line, then why are you asking us to provide more of them?"
"Because more is better!" Iroh laughed, but his smile quickly waned. "It took five of these fire lances to crack the Outer Wall. With fifty of them, the war would be over in weeks. No rebellion could ever hope to resist us. The world would have eternal peace within our lifetimes."
Iroh had never dared hope for such a thing, before. The thought of losing it was too bitter to endure.
"There is a crude logic to argumentum ad baculum," the Cold Man admitted, "but I am afraid that your thesis has two fatal flaws. Firstly, not only will we not teach you how to build 'fire lances', but we cannot supply them to you. Every officer of the Federation swears an oath to sacrifice their life if necessary rather than let our technology fall into the hands of developing cultures. Torturing us will prove quite fruitless."
Iroh said, "Your superiors--"
"Will honor our sacrifice." Nothing in the Cold Man's tone, nor in his blue-eye companion's stony expression, suggested falsehood. "Secondly, there were exactly seven 'fire lances' aboard the crashed shuttlecraft your troops found. We confiscated the one sent back to the War Ministry laboratory in your capital along with the rest of the shuttle salvage, and we set the five you used here at Ba Sing Se to self-destruct. That means the one you are pointing at us is the last one left. Judging by the indicator light, the battery is almost drained. Thus your claim that you can hold off the impending attack of the Earth Kingdom 'horde' is an empty one."
"NO!" Iroh shouted, arm trembling with both rage and fear. "My soldiers have families! Wives! Children! Your fire lances are the only thing that can save them!"
"You're wrong," said a new voice.
Iroh wheeled around. A fire lance screeched, and it was not his own. The weapon in Iroh's hand exploded. He roared in pain, dropping the smoking, half-melted fire lance and clutching his bloodied hand. Iroh knew his burns The flesh was superficially singed but otherwise undamaged.
The newcomer held his weapon on Iroh, but the killing blow never came. Instead the newcomer used his free hand to remove the skull plate face guard from his stolen uniform. There was no hatred in the man's hazel eyes, only concern for his comrades.
"In the corner," he ordered Iroh. "Nice and slow."
The general obeyed.
"Took you long enough," the blue-eyed man grunted.
"Apologies, Bones. Security's been pretty tight. Fortunately the locals just launched a counterattack in the east. Do you need a hand?"
The Cold Man snapped out of his restraints: left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg. He moved over to the blue-eyed man and broke the steel restrains with his bare hands.
"Or not," said the newcomer. He looked back at Iroh, who was busying starring in disbelief. "You claimed you were concerned for your men's lives. Prove it. Pull back behind the Outer Wall. Break the siege."
"And then what?" Iroh asked, suddenly feeling very tired. "We'll never be able to conquer Ba Sing Se until the comet returns, and then millions will die. The world's greatest and most ancient city will be burnt to ashes. The fire lances were our only chance to take the city bloodlessly."
"There's never anything bloodless about war," the newcomer declared. "If you're as concerned for the people of Ba Sing Se as you say you are, end the war. Make peace with them."
Iroh laughed mirthlessly. "You make it sound so easy. Should I just invite the Earth King over for tea?"
"It's not easy. Peace never is. But what's the alternative? Death. Destruction. A battle without victors, a war to end all wars, with only the hollow-eyed survivors left to eek out their lives amidst the rubble of shattered dreams. Is that really the glorious, honorable cause you've dedicated your life for? Is that the world you want for your son?"
Iroh said nothing.
"And even if you win this war, despite the price in blood, what about the future? Do you think you can keep the whole world under your boot heel forever? The people of the Earth Kingdom will rise up, one day. Because if there's one universal truth about the human race, it's that our spirit is indomitable."
"And despite what you might think to the contrary," the blue-eyed man added, "shooting fire from your fists doesn't make you a separate species, let alone a superior one. You and your enemies are human, just like the rest of us." He glanced at the Cold Man. "Present company excepted."
The Cold Man nodded in silent thanks.
The hazel-eyed man reached into his pocket and pulled out a small black and gold rectangle. "I've heard your men talk highly of you, General Iroh. They'd walk barefoot through Hell itself if you give the word. Choose peace. They'll support you."
"...I'm sorry, but it's too late for peace."
"Is that doubt I hear?" The hazel-eyed man raised the black-and-gold box to smiling lips. "Kirk to Enterprise. Three to beam up."
The music of unseen instruments filled the air, and the three foreigners dissolved into starlight. Slowly, hesitantly, Iroh stepped out of his corner and moved over to where they had stood. He reached out with trembling fingers and grasped empty air.
General Iroh arrived at his command tent in a daze. His entire staff had already gathered there in silence. There was no sound of fighting in the distance, so the earthbenders' probe had clearly been repulsed. This time. Iroh opened his mouth to explain the loss of their last fire lance, of their prisoners, of what he had seen and learned, but couldn't find the words.
And then the Dragon of the West noticed that Major Mongke was cradling Lu Ten's battered helmet in his hands.