Yin watched Zhao pace, and wondered whether he might have forgotten she was there. If he had, perhaps she could sneak out without him noticing. She had only managed to get about half a chapter into Le Hoa Duan.
Of course, if he hadn't, then even the slightest movement toward the tent flap would probably draw his ire, and she'd rather avoid that if at all possible. Even before they'd camped, he had still been muttering unkind things about Captain Ming-Li under his breath, and it was serving as an excellent distraction from the previous misfortunes that had been plaguing him. If she kept being careful, he probably wouldn't even think to investigate the mysterious escape of the ostrich horses.
They were camped along the edge of the north road; they had traveled straight west to the road from Pohuai, and Yin knew Zhao was trying to decide whether to continue pursuing the Avatar north, or return to Jindao. It was a calculation he would never have had to make under normal circumstances—it was not Zhao's habit to include the possibility of failure in his determinations, and yet he could not ignore the way things had fallen out so far. He was feeling what were probably the first twinges of indecision he had ever experienced in his life, and having some difficulty hiding it.
Yin might almost have felt sorry for him, except she could still remember the feeling of that man in Jindao trembling under her sword.
He paced for half the afternoon, barking out orders to the men who interrupted him and occasionally snapping curt questions at Yin, who answered them with as much deference as possible; it was a relief to hear the creel of a messenger hawk outside, and duck through the tent flap with a murmured, "I'll see to it, sir."
The hawk was still circling when Yin stepped outside. She lifted an arm for it, reasonably certain her gauntlet would bear up against the talons, and it landed with a screech. She was braced for it; messenger hawks were always heavier than they looked. "There's a bird," she said, soothing nonsense, and worked the cap on the scroll-case open with careful fingers.
The letter was for Zhao, so, tempted as she might have been, she didn't break the seal. She held her forearm close against the hawk perch set up outside Zhao's tent, and the bird obligingly hopped over to the wood, burbling a little in its throat.
"I'll get somebody to bring you something," Yin told it, smoothing the pad of one finger over its head. "Still bloody all over; you'll like that."
If only Zhao were as easy to please, she thought wryly, and carried the letter scroll inside.
"Admiral Shalah," Zhao said, dropping the opened letter on the table set up in his tent in favor of rubbing two fingers along the bridge of his nose. "We're to head for Port Tsao, as soon as these orders reach us."
"Certainly simplifies things, sir," Yin murmured.
Zhao shot her a sour look, and beneath his fingers, the surface of the letter began to blacken.
"Sir, if I may," Yin said quickly, and drew the paper toward her before it could burst into flames. "This need not mean the end of your pursuit of the Avatar unless you wish it to."
"How so, Lieutenant?" Zhao stood and strode around the end of the table, every motion sharp with anger. "Tell me, please. Should I choose to evade the admiral's orders, I will need the Avatar just to buy my way back into the Navy's good graces; not an efficient choice."
"Not at all," Yin agreed. "Wisdom precludes such a course, in any event—Admiral Shalah, I hear, does not much care for having her orders ignored. You cannot pursue the Avatar personally, sir. But that does not mean you cannot have her pursued." Unkind, perhaps, and Yin spared a moment to think an apology to the Avatar, wherever she was; but this was the best way she could think of to convince Zhao to leave off chasing the girl himself and still keep him on an even keel. As long as he still thought he might have a chance to capture the Avatar, he wouldn't be tempted to do anything extra ridiculous.
Zhao paused, still a few steps away. "I will not hand the Avatar to a provincial governor in the colonies," he said.
"Of course not, sir," Yin said. "But the Avatar has not exposed her existence there. If news of her incarnation has spread from the Earth Kingdoms into our territory, it has likely been slow, and not especially accurate. Who are the governors of the colonies, that they would know the Avatar from a Water Tribe spy wanted by Commander Zhao?"
Zhao's eyes went distant as he turned this thought over a few times. "Yes," he said slowly, "yes, perhaps." He paused a moment longer, and then visibly came to a decision, slapping a hand down against the table. "Have the colonies informed—a girl, likely braided hair, and blue eyes. A spy from the north. None of them ever served with the southern raiding forces; they won't know Southern Tribe from Northern."
"Yes, sir," Yin said, and bowed.
Katara inched back around the slope of the hill; she didn't dare go any faster, when the wrong person might look up and spot them at any moment.
But no one did, and she collapsed back onto the grass next to Sokka the moment it was safe, letting out a sigh of relief. The motion jarred her still-healing shoulder, but she was getting used to the persistent sharp ache—as used to it as she could, anyway.
"That is the third time this week we've almost walked into a Fire Nation colony we didn't know was there," Sokka said. "Seriously, we need a new map."
"And here I thought you were happy with it, Mr. The-Map-Does-Not-Lie," Katara hissed.
"The map does not lie about land masses, okay," Sokka said, throwing up his hands. "This isn't the same thing."
Katara hauled herself into a sitting position, annoyed. "So how exactly are we supposed to get our hands on an accurate map of Fire Nation territory?"
"... Can we fight about this somewhere a little further away?" Suki suggested.
The nearby forest came up to the far end of the hill—it was the trees, Katara thought a little resentfully, that had blocked their view of the Fire Nation village on the other side in the first place. Even Aang hadn't known it was there; he could've passed through them easily enough, but there hadn't been any reason to send him to look.
Once they were back under the cover of the branches, Sokka whirled around and crossed his arms. "Look, you have to agree that we need a new map if we're going to make it to the coast without getting killed, right?"
Katara sighed, glancing down at Gran-Gran's faithful old map. It was true, they could use a new one. Even if Gran-Gran's map had been new, it probably wouldn't have been enough—it got more and more vague the further north they went. Suki's knowledge of the Earth Kingdoms had been a decent supplement when they were further south, but this far north, she didn't know much more than they did. "I'm not going to try to argue that it wouldn't help, but how are we supposed to get one?"
Sokka frowned, but then Suki nudged him with an elbow. "It is a good point," she said. "I mean, the Earth Kingdoms do their best, but mapping enemy territory is always hit-or-miss; and it's not as though we'll be able to just walk right into a Fire Nation village and buy one."
"We could," Sokka protested. "It just ... wouldn't be a good idea."
"Your favorite," Suki murmured, and then dodged the half-hearted punch he aimed at her shoulder.
Truthfully, Sokka was right, Suki thought; but there was no practical way to pull it off, at least not yet. And there was only one of Aang—he couldn't look in every direction at once. They were just going to have to be careful.
And really, in the end, that was why they saw the notice board at all. They could easily have walked right by it, except they were all keeping an eye out for more buildings; it had narrow tiled eaves that looked something like a roof, and Suki had already slowed to double-check when she saw the papers pinned to it.
It wasn't just out in the middle of nowhere; there was a small crossroads where a path that ran roughly west-to-east crossed the north road, and the notice board sat at the juncture. They'd been trying to keep off the road, in case Zhao should come looking for them again, but the board, Suki decided, was worth taking a look at. She took Sokka and Katara's elbows, careful to make sure she had Katara's good arm, and pulled them out of the forest and onto the path.
"Well, look at that," Sokka said admiringly, and pulled one notice down to hold it out proudly to Katara.
"I'm wanted by the Fire Nation," Katara said, tone flat. "This is news to me."
"And you've led a thrilling life of crime, too." Sokka scanned the notice quickly, eyebrows rising. "You're a spy for the Northern Water Tribe? How come you never told me that?"
"... Now that is news to me."
"It must be Zhao," Suki said; there really wasn't any other explanation. "He wants you caught, but he doesn't want anybody else getting the glory for capturing the Avatar."
Katara slid the notice from Sokka's fingers. "What, has he given up on chasing me himself?" she said, thumbing the neat lines of characters with a frown.
"Can you really say you mind," Sokka said, "given that last time, he got you shot?"
Katara glanced up with a sharp look, and Suki decided it might be a good moment to intervene; Katara's shoulder was paining her less and less as time went on, but the wound still made her snappish sometimes. Suki knew what it was like—she'd nearly bitten Mikari's head off a dozen times when one bandit had managed a good slice across her leg. There was nothing that wore you down quite the same way as pain you couldn't make go away. "Speaking of which," she said, carefully unhurried. "I think I see another friend of ours."
Katara's wasn't the only wanted notice on the board; above a white-haired man with a somewhat craggy face, there was a poster with a familiar blue mask.
"Wonder what mischief the Blue Spirit's been causing around here," Sokka said.
Suki glanced over to see that he was grinning; but Katara wasn't looking at the Blue Spirit's poster at all. She was looking at another notice, further down, with a great red and orange dragon curling across the top corners.
"What's it say?" Suki asked.
"A festival," Katara said, slowly and more thoughtfully than Suki would have expected, and then she glanced off at the air next to her in a way that meant she was looking at Aang. "I think you're right," she told the air after a moment, and she pulled the notice from the board and brandished it at them. "Look at this—the Fire Days festival, it says."
"... It sounds nice?" Sokka offered.
Katara rolled her eyes. "A village festival, Sokka—we couldn't ask for a better way to get inside a Fire Nation colony. There'll be plenty of people, buying all kinds of things; and if it's anything like the festivals Aang went to with Kuzon, there'll be masks for everybody. We can go in with masks on and buy a new map and nobody will ever notice."
"With Kuzon?" Sokka said doubtfully. "Doesn't that mean it was a hundred years ago?"
"We know where the village is this time," Suki said, pointing to the paper Katara was still holding out; "there's directions on the flyer. We can send him in—that is, we can ask, begging your pardon, Avatar Aang—to look around first this time."
Sokka crossed his arms, and put on a considering sort of expression. "Will there be sweet-cakes?"
"Almost undoubtedly," Suki said, laughing.
"All right, you've convinced me; I'm in." Sokka rubbed his hands together briskly. "So! Where is this village, anyway?"
In the end, they didn't even have to send Aang to investigate. The village was barely a smudge against the green of the plains that surrounded it when they reached the first booth along the path that was covered in masks. The woman beside it was wearing red, and they nearly turned back the way they'd come out of sheer jitters, but she saw them and waved them closer, and her smile was so friendly Katara could hardly believe she was Fire Nation.
"Come on, take your pick," she said, gesturing to the brightly painted masks that surrounded her. "No charge; it's a festival day, they're free to all."
"And nobody will mind that we're, uh ..." Sokka made a vague gesture toward their green clothes.
"Earth Kingdom?" The woman made a face that suggested Sokka was being foolish. "This isn't the western coast; we're a bit more flexible here, my dear. We can't afford not to be, when the battalions who pass us are as likely to be yours as ours."
She had masks in dozens of colors, and they took their time looking. Suki couldn't help gravitating toward one in particular—pale, the face moon-round, with curving darts of red, and green accents. It was probably stupid, but she thought it might feel a little like being able to put on her paint again, and when they left the booth behind, she had it clutched tight in her hands.
Sokka had chosen a mask of vibrant blue, the face frozen in a huge smile, and Katara had picked out a red-and-yellow one. "Aang liked it," she explained, when Suki asked; "it's almost Air Nomad colors."
With the mask on, Katara felt suddenly safe. Her face on that notice board could easily have made this impossible; but now she was shielded, anonymous, just one more festival-goer. They were the only masked travelers on the path east for about ten minutes, but as they passed more and more mask displays, they were joined by more and more people. Soon enough, they were only a few drops in a great river of a crowd, surrounded by mask-muffled laughter and swirling colors. Katara could see that the woman had told them the truth, too—they were far from the only green-clothed people on the path.
The village looked almost otherworldly, covered in banners and bright colors, and filled to bursting with masked revelers—like spirits, Katara thought, remembering the Blue Spirit, and laughed aloud. They'd had feast days at home during the month of midnight sun when she was younger, before the Fire Nation raids had gotten bad again; but nothing like this.
She didn't quite let herself forget that they were there for a reason; but her shoulder's aching had eased, there was so much to look at, and, after all, they had promised Sokka sweet-cakes.
They were working their way across the village plaza, following a vague smell of baking that was coming from somewhere on the other side, when someone shouted, "You there! In the red and yellow!"
Katara turned without thinking, already grabbing at Suki's elbow with her good arm, and ready to run—but Aang drifted up to her shoulder and said, "No, Katara, it's okay, look." And sure enough, when she glanced back, it was to see one of the performers on a nearby raised stage beckoning to her.
"Yes, you," he said, interpreting her look as interrogative, and gestured to someone else a few steps away—a young man, Katara thought, though she couldn't be entirely sure, with a cloak wrapped around him and a long braid that trailed down almost to his knees. "And you, there, if you please. Come on, step up!"
Katara hesitated, but then Suki nudged her good shoulder encouragingly, and Katara could see her eyes crinkling up in a smile through the eyeholes of her mask. "Go on," she said, and Katara did.
Po-Yu put on a grin as the two volunteers climbed the stairs, even though the whole thing seemed foolish to him. He could understand the village magistrate's reasoning, to some degree; if there were ever a day when a Water Tribe spy might choose to gather information, it would be today. Langshasu was one of the larger colonies in the area, and according to the commander who had passed the information along, the spy had been headed in their direction when she had last been seen.
But he had been calling up people with long hair all day, as had every performer in the square, peering in through the eyeholes of their masks whenever he got a chance, and he felt increasingly stupid doing it. If the magistrate weren't so eager to prove herself, they probably wouldn't be doing this at all—it was quite a lot of effort to go to, to catch a single spy.
He waved them both toward the chairs set at opposite ends of the stage, and pulled the lengths of cloth that would bind them in out of his sleeve. He would tie them gently; it was only a show, after all.
The first, up close, was a little tall for a young girl, and when Po-Yu leaned over to wrap the cloth around the back of the chair, he saw dark brown eyes—and smelled alcohol, which seemed like an unlikely choice of beverage for a spy who was presumably trying to keep a low profile.
Po-Yu finished off the loose knot with a flourish, narrating with the same showman's spiel he used every time, and crossed the stage.
Honestly, he might well not have noticed, if she hadn't turned her head. The raised braziers he used for his act burned orange, and the light from them turned her pale eyes an indistinct color; Po-Yu was tired of this nonsense, and wouldn't have bothered to look more carefully. But she did turn her head, glancing back out at the crowd like she was looking for reassurance, and Po-Yu stared in through the eyeholes of her mask at a pair of distinctly blue eyes, shaded for a moment from the firelight and lit perfectly by the sunlight over the plaza.
"There we are, now," he said, voice jolly, "just a little tighter," and he bound the Water Tribe spy lightly into her chair.
His act wasn't anything particularly special, though he would never confess as much to anyone out loud; he was nothing more than a reasonably talented Firebender, and the only special skill he had was the ability to disguise the motions of bending a little, so as to make it seem like the fire was moving on its own. But half the crowd was green-robed, and to Earth Kingdom citizens, Po-Yu figured, any non-martial Firebending was a novelty.
He went through the whole sequence, appropriately theatrical, as though he weren't sharing the stage with a secret enemy operative. He called the flames up out of the braziers, drew them together into one roaring loop and whipped it around for a moment, and then broke the loop into two vaguely dragonesque comets. They threatened both volunteers with fiery death, and then at the last moment he made them burst apart into showers of sparks. He'd been ordered to report the girl, he told himself, not immolate her in the middle of a festival; she was a spy, not an assassin who'd been sent after a mediocre festival performer.
But his heart wouldn't stop pounding. It was lucky that he'd done this routine so many times; he could get through it even with his hands shaking like leaves. He forced himself to memorize the girl's mask, and when the act was complete and he ushered them both off the stage, he knew exactly what to tell the soldier at the edge of the plaza.
June watched Nyla's face carefully, and ignored the fidgety shuffling behind her. The kid had told her a name—Lao, or Lu, or something like that—but she didn't think it was actually his; and being called "kid" annoyed him, so June stuck with that. It was a good thing for everybody, she thought, that he had contracted with her instead of trying to follow the trail himself. He had no patience.
The old man had plenty, but he also had a peculiar sense of humor, and an odd obsession with tea. When June had told him not to fix any, so as not to distract Nyla from the already-faint scent, he'd nearly cried.
They had had to leave the rest of their companions behind—the fewer people to bother Nyla, the better, and they wouldn't have been able to keep up on foot anyway. June was starting to regret the necessity. Perhaps, she thought, if the kid and the old man were combined into a single person, they would be reasonably bearable.
But they were paying well; and, more importantly, this chase was going to be a good one. June had known it the moment they'd set out. Nyla had tested the air with particular care after June had shown her the sword, every line of her body taut with interest. She loved faint scents, and loved a challenge even more—and this had been both, following a days-old trail near a highly-traveled road.
And, sure enough, today they had almost lost it. Whoever it was the kid wanted to find had been traveling off the road for some time, which had made things a little easier; brushing against grasses and trees left a better trail than setting your shoes on dirt. But they'd been indecisive recently, winding back and forth around a hill and then curving over toward the road, and Nyla needed a minute to catch the scent again.
The kid muttered something that sounded distinctly ungracious, and June rolled her eyes—she would have even if she hadn't had her back to him. But then Nyla edged toward the path that led west, and let out a throaty little whine.
"You can quit your grumbling, kid," June said, catching a hand on the edge of Nyla's saddle and swinging up with ease. "She's got it again." The kid clambered up awkwardly behind her, the old man only slightly more graceful; and then June leaned down to murmur into Nyla's ear: "Go."
They left the village behind giggling madly behind their masks, and when they sprinted the distance from the road to the edge of the forest where they had left their things, it was just for the sake of running, not because they were being chased.
Suki beat them both to the trees, and then slid down to sit back against one of the trunks, breathing hard, and fumbling to pull the mask from her sweaty face. It had been good to wear it—and it would have been stupid to go into the village without it—but it was unlike her war-paint in one way: it didn't breathe at all.
Sokka slumped down beside her and shoved his mask up until the chin of it barely obscured his eyebrows. "Mission accomplished!" he said, and unrolled the map across his lap.
The act Katara had gotten roped into hadn't taken long, and when it was over, they'd bought themselves enough sweet-cakes to keep even Sokka happy, and tracked down the map they'd come for besides.
A bizarre map, Suki thought. She hadn't gotten a particularly good look at it before this.
"That's ... not right," Katara said, peering at it upside down.
"When did the Fire Nation become bigger than the Earth Kingdoms?" Sokka said, eyebrows high.
Never, Suki was pretty sure; but on the map, it was. The Earth Kingdoms looked about right, everything in the appropriate spot relative to everything else, except for the northwest; there, the Fire Nation colonies suddenly took up about three times as much space as they were supposed to, the coast ballooning out. And across the Smoking Sea, the Fire Nation was a great curling continent, at least twice the size it had been on their other map.
"Well, all the geographical features are about right, even if they're too big," Suki said, which was true; the rivers were in about the same places they'd been in on the other map, and so were the mountains.
"Perfect," Sokka said. "We've got one map with accurate shapes, and another with accurate cities. Put them together, and there's one decent map between them."
Katara laughed; and then the sound cut off so suddenly that at first Suki thought there was something wrong with her ears. But Katara had whipped her head around to look at the trees, and the fields behind them. "Aang says someone's coming," she hissed.
Sokka rolled the map up immediately, and they hurried to collect their packs—but not quite fast enough. The man stepped out from between the trees just as Suki was swinging her pack up onto her back, and she flared a fan and kicked out a leg at the same time.
"Wait!" Sokka shouted.
The man had already fallen, feet kicked out from under him; but Suki refrained from smashing the fan down on his head. "What?" she said over her shoulder, keeping a wary eye on the man on the ground.
"Bato?" Katara said.
The man squinted up past Suki, and it was only then that she noticed he was wearing blue. "Is that you, Katara?"
Katara almost couldn't believe it; it was the next best thing to seeing Father again, having Bato there in front of them.
Suki let him up a little grudgingly, but he didn't seem to take offense, and the moment he was on his feet again, he pulled both Katara and Sokka into a hug. "You're both so tall now," he said, laughing, and ruffled their hair.
"But I don't understand," Katara said.
"Me neither," Suki and Aang said at almost exactly the same time—luckily, Katara thought, or she'd have looked ridiculous explaining to someone Bato couldn't see. They had practically identical expressions of confusion on their faces, though Aang's was, of course, translucent.
"This is Bato, he's an old friend of our father's," Katara said. "But he should be with the rest of the soldiers we sent north—what are you doing out here by yourself?"
"I was injured, in a battle in the west," Bato said, looking a little bit sheepish. "We fought the Fire Nation away from the walls of Shengtian, and they withdrew across the gulf—so we weren't needed in the west anymore. Your father took the rest of our troops east, and I stayed behind to heal." He paused, giving them both a considering look. "I'm traveling east to find them, now; you're welcome to come with me, if you wish." He smiled. "I know your father would be pleased to see both of you."
A sudden rush of wistfulness made Katara's chest tighten for a moment; but only for a moment. There was no way she could go, not when they were still racing their way to the north, and never knew when Zhao—or the exiled prince, for that matter—might pop up again.
But Sokka, she thought; Sokka could go. He didn't need a Waterbending teacher, and it wasn't his task to save the world. He'd agreed to come, but that didn't mean he had to stay, not if he didn't want to.
She turned to look at him with a creeping heaviness accumulating in her gut. Dread, she thought, and felt a little ashamed. If he wanted to go, he should be able to. She was the Avatar, and the duty that went along with that was hers alone; if Sokka chose not to keep tangling himself up in it, that was only fair. More than fair.
And, sure enough, there was a look of transparent longing on his face. It had been hard for him, Katara knew, being the oldest of the boys who were too young to go to war, and seeing Father leave without him.
Bato must have seen it, too, because his expression went soft, and he said, "You don't have to answer now. But you must tell me one thing: what are you doing out here by yourselves? You should be almost halfway around the world from here."
"Oh," Sokka said. "Uh. That's—sort of a long story."
Bato smiled. "I've got time."
Suki listened to Sokka's rambling explanation of the current identity of the Avatar and their journey so far with perhaps a quarter of her attention, and kept the rest on the forest around them. She couldn't help it; her heart was still pounding from Bato's sudden appearance, and it was second nature for her to keep an eye out and a fan drawn just in case.
Which was lucky, or she might not have heard the crackle of twigs.
She might have let it pass, but then she remembered the last time she'd dismissed a crackling of twigs as nothing, and elbowed Sokka, who was closest. "Somebody's coming," she said, "somebody else," and she had just pulled her other fan from her waist when the first soldier burst out of the forest.
There were at least a dozen of them. Suki jammed a fan forward into the stomach of one and used the other fan to slam the sword out of the hands of a second, and hoped the warning had been enough. By the sound of things, it had been; she was too busy to turn and look, but she heard the splash of Katara's bending water, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see Sokka's club swinging.
But there were only four of them, and they could only handle so many; Suki had barely started in on her third when there was a great flare of yellow light, and Sokka screamed.
Suki lost all caution at the sound, darting within reach of her opponent's sword so that she could smash a fan into the man's temple and give herself the chance to turn around.
Sokka had been facing a Firebender, and Suki took a moment to wish she had taken more time to train him with the fans—they were more use against Firebending than his club could ever be. He'd raised the club defensively, and it had done him some good; his face and eyes were untouched. But his shirt had burned off one shoulder and most of the opposite arm, flakes of charred cloth still drifting to the ground, and the skin beneath was raw and blistered, bleeding in places. He'd dropped his club, which was still smoking, from the pain of it, and a faint sizzling sound lingered in the air.
He was still groaning, though it was now through clenched teeth, and his legs were faltering under him; Suki rushed forward and caught him before he could fall, trying not to touch any of the burns. "Katara!" she shouted, before Katara's eyes could film with blue—it might get rid of the soldiers, but Suki flinched to think of what might happen to Sokka's burns if Katara called up a heavy wind and started throwing rocks around. "A shield—we've got to get out of here!"
Katara took half a step toward them, a hint of unearthly light already pooling at the corners of her eyes; but then she squeezed them shut and shook her head, and brought her hands up in a wide, flowing stroke, and the water she was bending formed as broad a wall as it could between them and the soldiers.
Bato hurried up and caught Sokka's knees, and together they lifted him easily. Katara pulled the water down into a long whip and used it to fling the four nearest soldiers back at the rest, and while the soldiers were busy trying to untangle themselves, they ran.
They couldn't get far before they had to stop; Sokka's breathing was so labored it hurt Suki to listen to it, and though they did their best to move with care, they couldn't keep the occasional outstretched branch from striking him.
"We've got to clean them," Suki said, "we have to keep them clean; burns get infected in no time at all—"
Bato's hands were clenched tight around Sokka's knees, and he was clearly just as worried; but his eyes were flicking from tree to tree nervously. "We don't have time," he said. "We've got to get away from here. They'll be after us again any moment."
"Just let me," Katara said, half a sob. She'd retrieved her bending water with a motion of her arms after knocking the soldiers back with it, and now she pulled it from the pouch again and made it curl over Sokka's arm. "Just one minute," she said, and then her hands began to flare with light.
She wasn't precisely unused to the idea that she glowed blue sometimes by this point, but it had never happened to her hands before; so Katara stared down at them blankly for a moment, and then started to lift them up, planning to inspect them more closely.
But Bato dropped Sokka's knees and caught her by the wrists, the jerking motion making her injured shoulder throb, and kept her hands where they were. "Don't," he said, "don't, keep going."
"Keep going at what?" Katara said, utterly lost; and only then did she see the way Sokka's skin was knitting closed again beneath her fingers. She wasn't quite touching him, the water hovering between her hands and the burns, and now that she was paying attention, she could feel an odd shifting energy there. It was different from regular Waterbending; she wasn't making the water move, only using it to correct what had gone awry.
"You didn't know you had the healing gift?" Bato said.
Katara shook her head, watching the light chase the dirt from Sokka's burns, skin sealing up after it like ice closing over water. "This isn't—an Avatar thing?" she said.
"I never did anything like that," Aang said, from where he was peering over her shoulder. "But then I never really did any Waterbending at all."
Bato just shook his head. "I don't think so."
The light flared again, and then faded, and Katara was left with water pooled obediently against her palms and Sokka's arm—whole again, though distinctly reddened, and riddled with scarring—still draped over her lap.
"Quick, his other shoulder," Suki said, practical as ever even though her hands were tight in what was left of Sokka's shirt.
"Right, okay," Katara said, and stretched out her hands.
Shao Ya stared at the ground in consternation. She had seen the boy go down; Zulai had gone a bit overboard with the fireball, perhaps, but it was results that mattered, and the spies could not get far with someone wounded so badly. She had been so pleased, too—their timing had been excellent. The spy they had been sent to catch couldn't have managed to report much to her blue-robed superior before the soldiers had reached them.
Granted, the girl had knocked them down; Shao Ya had been a little surprised by just how hard she'd been able to shove them with the water, but when she thought about it, it made a certain kind of sense. Shao Ya had been raised on the western coast—she knew how even a small wave could knock you under without warning.
But it had seemed like a small enough thing, to catch her and her companions again. The boy's burns had been moderately severe, and they had left a trail of broken branches and even some blood in their wake; they could not carry him long, and they should have had to stop.
And yet. The spies had clearly been here—there were impressions from bodies in the leaf litter, blood and water smeared on the ground. But they had left, and without leaving any obvious signs behind them.
It made no sense, Shao Ya thought. Their options had been limited: stop to care for the boy; leave him behind, and escape themselves; or hurry him toward death—and leave a blatant trail—by continuing to carry him through the woods. Yet they seemed to have chosen none of these, and to have vanished besides.
"Your orders?" Weimin asked.
Shao Ya gave the woods around them a considering look, and sighed. Better to be thorough; it would minimize the magistrate's wrath. "Spread out," she told him. "Search the area. If any of you find them, don't attack—return to this location and report back. We may still have a chance of catching them." Not a very good one, given that they apparently had the ability to disappear into thin air; but a chance nonetheless.
The sun was beginning to sink by the time they left the trees behind; being out on an open plain made Katara vaguely uncomfortable, but they hadn't seen a single sign of the village soldiers for hours, and north was north.
Sokka had woken only a moment before Katara had finished fixing his other shoulder, early enough to see what she was doing, and she'd explained briefly in a harsh whisper as they had hurried on through the trees. They had paused to catch their breath and drink some water a little later on, and Katara had demonstrated her newfound ability on her own shoulder; even she had been surprised by how well it had worked. The arrow wound still hurt her, but it was the faint, stretchy pain of an old injury that would soon fade entirely, not the pounding ache it had been before.
The Lei River was a low shadow in the distance when Bato slowed and turned to look at them. "This is about as far north as I should go," he said; "the bridge across the Lei is somewhere east of here." He gave Katara a sympathetic look. "I know you can't go with me, Katara, but I'll tell Hakoda you're well—" He broke off and laughed. "And the Avatar reborn, at that. He's never going to believe me."
Katara couldn't help but snort, imagining what Father would think when Bato strolled up and informed him his daughter had become the Avatar in his absence. But then Bato turned his gaze to Sokka, and Katara felt the smile drop from her face.
Bato said nothing, only looked at him interrogatively, and Sokka's mouth was half-open when Katara blurted out, "I think you should go with him."
Sokka blinked, and then his eyebrows drew down, like that was the last thing he'd wanted to hear. "Uh, I don't think so. I mean, not that I wouldn't be glad to, Bato," and Bato nodded a little, acknowledging it hadn't been meant as a slight. "But I offered to go with you to the North; I'm not going to take it back."
Katara tried not to grimace. He did want to go, and the only reason he wasn't was because he thought he had to keep his word; it was just the way she'd thought, and she was more ashamed of herself than ever. "You don't have to stay," she said, and then, because maybe it would help, "I'll be okay without you."
For the briefest moment, Sokka looked like she had hit him with a club to the gut, and then he crossed his newly-healed arms and glared at her. "Well, tell me how you really feel, why don't you," he snapped.
Katara frowned. "Look, I'm just saying—you don't have to come if you don't want to—"
"Yeah, right," Sokka said, "I mean, it's not like you need me or anything—"
"I don't!" Katara said, frustration abruptly boiling over, and she whirled without another word and stomped off into the grass to the north.
It was like watching a Pai Sho game between two novices, Suki thought, except a lot less fun: a haphazard flurry of moves, and suddenly half the pieces were captured and neither player was happy about it.
"I'm sure she didn't mean it like that," Suki said, when Katara was a little further away.
Sokka had swung his pack down to readjust a few things, and now he tightened the ties that formed the straps with sharp, angry motions. "Then how did she mean it?" he snapped. It sounded like a question, but Suki wasn't fooled; he was looking for a way to keep being angry, not an answer.
"Not like that," Suki muttered anyway, but it didn't matter. Sokka wasn't listening—he was busy yanking his pack back onto his shoulders. Bato was standing by awkwardly, leaning on his club like it was a walking stick and looking like he wished he'd never said anything in the first place.
"You're going with her, huh?" Sokka said, glaring.
"She's the Avatar," Suki said. "I promised that I would, no matter how many mistakes she made. Remember?"
Sokka shifted and looked faintly uncomfortable for a split second; but then his expression went dark and he looked away. "Fine," he spat.
Suki hesitated for a moment—clearly, they both needed to have some sense talked into them. But Katara was getting further and further away, alone except for an intangible former Avatar, and Sokka at least had Bato with him. "You get yourself killed," she said, "and you are in deep trouble," and then she hurried away over the field.
Sokka stomped along for several minutes, thinking dark thoughts and kicking at the grass moodily with every step. But his—completely righteous, he thought grumpily—anger burned off quick, and he was left with a heavy pack and a pair of fans stuck through his belt that felt like they were made of lead.
Bato had dropped behind a little, going at a steadier walking pace instead of tromping the grass punishingly; but then Sokka slowed without really meaning to, staring down at his belt and touching one fan with uncertain fingers, and suddenly Bato had caught up.
"Sokka," he said, in that careful tone people used when they were talking to somebody they thought might still be angry.
Sokka sighed, and didn't answer; but he did glance over, and Bato was there, looking at him with a calm, understanding expression on his face. It was the same kind of look Mother had sometimes, usually right before she told him that she did, in fact, remember what it was like to be sixteen. Adults could be so annoying.
"Your sister only wanted you not to feel obligated—"
Sokka grimaced. "Yeah, right," he said. "You were hearing the same stuff I was hearing, weren't you?" He scrubbed a hand over the side of his scalp—it was getting long, he'd have to shave it again soon—and kicked a little at the dirt. "I screwed up; three times now, letting that Firebender fry me, and getting her shot—"
"... I think you left some parts out of that long story you were telling me," Bato said.
It took Suki a little while to catch up to Katara again; Katara was expecting her to just follow, but once she had, she caught the side of Katara's pack with one hand and yanked, so Katara had to spin or else wrench her spine. "What was that about?" Suki demanded.
"Nothing!" Katara said, but she could hear her tone turn defensive, giving the lie away.
Suki gave her a look, crossing her arms.
Katara blew out a breath and looked away. "I said exactly what I meant," she said. "He doesn't have to come, and if he wants to go see Father, then he should."
"Okay," Suki said, "except that's not what you said—you said he didn't have to come, and that you didn't need him."
Katara opened her mouth, ready to object, and then Aang—who had followed her away with a pinched expression—said, "Oh, oh, you did. Oh, Katara, don't you remember?"
She stared at him, confused.
"Back at Kyoshi Island," Aang said, "when we were in the forest? That was why he was so angry with Suki, because he felt useless—"
Katara shook her head, stomach sinking. "But that's not how I meant it!" she protested.
"What's he saying?" Suki said.
Katara looked at her, reluctant, and bit her lip. "Sokka, he—he takes some things really seriously," she said. "Oh, and I teased him about it at the fort, how he couldn't do anything to help me," and she abruptly wanted to kick herself for not thinking of it sooner.
"And today," Suki filled in, catching up quickly, "he got hurt, and the only reason they didn't catch us all because of it was because you could fix him."
"I didn't mean it that way," Katara said again, helplessly, and let her head fall forward for a moment, staring at her feet with a sharp little sting building in the corners of her eyes.
There was a pause, and then she felt Suki's hand on her shoulder, and a moment later Suki's other arm came up around her neck. "He'll forgive you," Suki said, hugging her tight for a moment; and then she stepped away again, and slapped Katara's pack. "Now, come on, we still have a lot of walking to do."
"And now she tells me it's okay to go like it's a coincidence," Sokka was saying angrily, and Bato's mouth was opening to say something mature and calm and utterly unhelpful; except he didn't get to say it, because there was a shout and they both dropped low reflexively.
They'd been angling along the side of a mild rise—they had passed it heading north and a bit west before, and now they were rounding the northern end, the river stretching out ahead of them. The shout had come from the other side of the rise, and with a quick glance to confirm that they were both on the same page, they crept up the slope on hands and knees and peered over the crest of it.
The first thing Sokka noticed was the giant mole-beast; he'd never seen anything like it, those weird face-tendrils would freeze off in a second back home, and it took him a minute to pay attention to anything else.
But it wasn't just some random wild mole-beast. It had a saddle on its back with a great high pommel, and there was a woman sitting astride it, easy and graceful, with swirling tattoos on her shoulders and sharp dark eyes.
And behind her was an old man who looked vaguely familiar—and the banished prince with the scarred eye.
The shout had evidently been the woman calling for a halt; the mole-thing had been twisting frantically, searching, but as they looked it went still. "The sword," the woman said, holding out a hand without even looking. The prince's expression went sour, but the old man gave him a guileless, expectant look, and he drew a sword from one of the sheaths at his waist and handed it over.
He didn't do it very carefully, and the blade was what landed in the woman's palm; but she curled her hand sideways so that her fingers were around the dull edge, and took it as readily as though he'd given her the hilt.
She leapt from the saddle and tossed the sword up at the same time, for long enough that Sokka could see the dark stain that had dried along the sharp edge of the blade, and landed with both feet on the ground and the sword's hilt in her hand. "Here, Nyla," she murmured, very gently for someone with a blood-encrusted sword in her hand, and she let the mole-thing take a good long sniff of the dried blood.
Sokka stared at it, something about it niggling at his memory, and then glanced up at the exiled prince and bit his lip. The prince—Shuko? Something like that?—was after Katara, he had been for months; what were the odds he was up here with some kind of mole-beast tracker looking for somebody else?
"Bato," Sokka murmured, "that guy—he's been chasing us for ages. He was the one with the ship, when we were on Kyoshi Island."
"Then he is here for Katara," Bato said.
Bato watched the woman and the mole-thing for a moment more, and then looked at him. "Your father misses you both terribly," he said. "He did when we were fighting at Shengtian, and I have no doubt that he still does now. But I think he would be prouder to know you were there for your sister when she needed you than he would be to see you in front of him again. Don't you?"
Sokka let out a long breath. "Yeah, that does sound like the kind of thing he'd say," he admitted, hitching his pack a little higher. "You'll—tell him we miss him, too, won't you?"
"I will," Bato said, certain as a promise, and Sokka shuffled back down the slope and hit the field running.
Katara was lost so deep in thought that at first, she figured she was imagining the faint shouts; but then Suki ground to a halt, jerked her head around, and said, "Hey—is that Sokka?"
Katara blinked and lifted her head, turning. It certainly looked like Sokka, though he was moving a little faster than usual—sprinting, even, from the southeast, and yelling at the same time.
"Hey! It's that crazy prince guy again, and he's got some kind of mole-beast! Run!"
"... Are you hearing something about a mole-beast?" Katara said.
"I am," Suki said, looking about as bemused as Katara felt.
Katara glanced back at Aang, and didn't even need to ask; he dipped his head with a wry grin, and drifted up into the air over their heads, high enough that he could probably see the whole plain. Katara couldn't see his expression, but he darted back down quickly enough that Sokka had to be telling the truth—and, yes, when he was close enough, he shouted, too. "A shirshu," he cried, "it's a bounty hunter! Go!"
Katara grabbed Suki's wrist, and pulled. "A mole-beast it is," she said. "We'd better get out of here."
June loved a difficult trail; but she knew it was the final chase that sealed a job, one way or the other. All the long days of careful tracking were a lead-up to this, and the moment the quarry knew June was there, it came down to speed and luck and little else.
They rounded the edge of the sloping rise that had been blocking their view of the north and west, and abruptly their stop to give Nyla the scent again became redundant. June knew right away that her quarry had been warned somehow: the three tiny figures in the distance were already sprinting, the river a dark snaking ribbon beyond them.
This, then, would be a tough one. The river made things complicated; whoever managed to cross it first would almost certainly have the upper hand, but having to swim its width would leave them weakened first.
She nudged Nyla into a gallop. Nyla went readily, but she'd been running for most of the day already, barbed tongue lolling, and June made a mental note to keep an eye on her as they charged out into the field. The old man kept his seat decently enough, but the kid clutched at his shoulders awkwardly and yelped as Nyla took off, and June couldn't help but smirk into the wind.
They had a good head start, but it didn't take Nyla long to pull close—close enough for June to see that they were kids, too, maybe even a little younger than the boy who'd contracted with her. She wondered what they'd done, that the kid had ended up with blood from one of them on his sword and was still trying to track them down. Not her business, of course; her business was catching people and getting paid. Judging the people she caught was somebody else's job.
So they raced each other to the banks of the Lei. It was close, closer even than June might have expected; but the girl with the long braid reached the river first, splashing right in up to mid-thigh, and did something quick with her hands that made a giant lump of water freeze solid right in front of her. "Hurry!" June heard her shout, her companions already stumbling into the water, and they crowded onto the iceberg, clutching at each other for balance and wincing at the chill of the ice against their hands and feet.
The girl with the long braid looked up, and locked eyes with June for just a second, and June dipped her head a little. Well-played; not many people escaped when Nyla had their scent. Lucky for the girl that the kid had been too stupid to keep June informed—if she'd known their quarry included a Waterbender, she'd have been more careful about the angle she'd approached the river from. And then the girl threw her arms out to one side, and the iceberg sped away downstream, wake frothing along behind it.
June reined Nyla in gently, watching them go. Unfortunate end to the job, but it had been a good chase, and the deal she'd struck with the kid meant she'd still get paid for the effort.
"What are you doing?" the kid cried from the back of the saddle. "She's right there—go after her!"
"I'm pretty, not stupid," June said scathingly. "I'm not racing a Waterbender down a river. Nyla's been working this trail for days, and galloping for hours, with three times—" She paused, and shot a measuring glance over her shoulder at the old man. "Four times the weight she's used to carrying. You couldn't pay me half what it would take for me to push her that hard. Forget it."
"No, listen," the kid said, desperate, "you'd be amply rewarded—the Fire Lord himself-"
"You're the one who's not listening, kid," June said. "I wouldn't care if the Fire Lord and the king of Ba Sing Se were going to get together and build me a palace made of jade. That still wouldn't be half what it would take." She'd had Nyla since she was seven years old, and they'd barely spent a minute apart since; chasing a Waterbender downstream could run just about anything to death, and Nyla's sides were already heaving. June would do a lot of things for money, but there were some lines she didn't cross.
The kid's eyebrows drew together, like he was planning to gripe June to death right there, and her hand tightened a little on her whip; what she wouldn't give to turn Nyla's tongue on him and watch him fall on his face in the dirt. But the old man nudged an elbow back hard into the kid's gut, and smiled. "Our thanks for your service. We would be willing to pay an additional charge for a ride back to where we left our companions—whatever you would consider reasonable."
June sighed, and let go of the whip with only a little reluctance. "Happy to oblige, old man," she said, dry as dust, and slapped Nyla's neck. "Come on, girl."
Zuko spent the long ride sullen and aching and thinking dark thoughts. He was willing to concede, at least to himself, that it might have been a mistake to tell June so little; but Zhao was already on the Avatar's trail, and who knew how many others. She was his only chance to earn back his place—he couldn't afford to tip anybody else off about her whereabouts.
And he hadn't ridden in months. This saddle was killing him.
Uncle was, as always, infuriatingly impervious to the raging disappointment he ought to have been feeling—perhaps especially because he now had permission to brew tea again. He flirted with June relentlessly, and she laughed and called him "old man" and cracked her whip at him; the whole thing made Zuko feel vaguely ill.
"It's not so bad," he said to Zuko on the third night, over a hot bowl of rice.
Zuko snorted, and did not reply.
"It has been almost a month, nephew," Uncle Iroh said. "Mizan has undoubtedly reached Port Tsao by now, and we do, after all, have a fairly good guess as to the Avatar's ultimate goal. Once we reach the port, we will have a ship and a place to point it; what more could you ask for?"
The Avatar in chains, Zuko didn't say, and let out a sigh. "You are right, Uncle," he said. No matter the number of their failures, truth remained: he must capture the Avatar. There was no other choice but to keep trying.
"Of course I am," Uncle said with a laugh, and popped another hunk of rice into his mouth.