Shalah liked things simple. It wasn't that she couldn't handle complexity; she had commanded fleets of hundreds of ships, even thousands. And it wasn't that she had no interest in politics, in the hidden meanings that could be expressed through a careful choice of words; after all, she had managed to become an admiral.
But frankness appealed to her, and, even better, it was sometimes the best possible choice. When faced with a battleship's worth of rank-and-file soldiers, plain speech was ideal.
It was also ideal, Shalah thought, when faced with a mad idiot.
She had never met Captain Zhao—Commander, now, and soon to be a sub-admiral—in person before; but she had heard of him, vague rumors coming up from the southeast that he had left the blockade he commanded in the hands of a subordinate and gone haring off to the north. After a band of Water Tribe spies, some said; Earth Kingdom agents working for Queen Yujun, others said; and, of course, the ever-present murmurs of the Avatar's return always took whatever foothold they could get. Inconvenient. After a hundred years, you'd think hope might finally die.
She'd summoned him to Port Tsao as ordered with a secret feeling of satisfaction; it was pleasant to think she would get to be the one to rein the man in. She had a reputation for stern orderliness for a reason.
But she had told him his assignment, and now he was smiling.
"You understand, Sub-Admiral," she said, "this command is a gift. The Fire Lord is generous and forgiving; though you have acted erratically and without care, he has granted you a final chance to prove yourself. If you should waste it chasing spies, or ghosts, or—whatever rumors of the Avatar—"
"Not rumors," he interrupted. Impolite, bordering on insubordinate, and Shalah raised one slow eyebrow at him; but it took him a moment to notice, for his gaze went briefly far away, and the expression on his face turned stormy. "Apologies, Admiral," he added, grudgingly, when he looked at her again. "But they are not rumors; I saw her myself. She attacked the city of Jindao, though it was under the august protection of the Fire Lord."
Shalah had to fight to keep her expression neutral. That was not good news—not good news at all. The war had dragged on a century already, and that was without the Avatar's intervention; the Fire Lord was not going to be pleased to hear that the Avatar had somehow finally managed to reappear. "Then you have failed to report that to the capital," she said, voice even as polished stone, "and abandoned your post only to let not a ghost, but the Avatar herself slip through your fingers. I remain somewhat less than impressed, Commander."
He narrowed his eyes; but his gaze did not quite manage to sharpen itself into a glare before he remembered himself and dipped his head, so Shalah let it go.
"The defeat of Kanjusuk is a far more urgent matter," she said, though she wasn't entirely sure it was the truth. "The Southern Tribe is nearly crushed, and the loss of Kanjusuk would be a heavy blow to the Northern Tribe. Our victory is almost complete. Even the Avatar cannot bring back the dead." Probably, she did not add.
And at that, the funny little smile he'd been wearing before resurfaced. The gravity of the situation seemed to escape him entirely; the thought that he might well face an execution if he could not bring down a city that had survived every siege they'd thrown at it for a hundred years apparently refused to cross his mind.
Shalah wanted to shake her head, but resisted the urge. In the end, she decided, it didn't matter. If he succeeded, then all was well; and if he failed, then his thoughtlessness would no longer be an issue.
"Commander," Yin said, and bowed.
Chu Lai and Anshi hurriedly followed suit; they hadn't been sure how long Zhao's audience with the admiral would take, so they had been waiting on the parade ground with their backs to the building, and he had caught them by surprise.
"Sub-Admiral," Zhao corrected, chin high, and Yin suddenly had cause to be glad that she was bowing, because she knew she was making a face. Perhaps if he had actually managed to retrieve the Avatar and escort her to Da Su-Lien, the promotion would make sense—though Yin would have expected admiralty, in that case. But he had done nothing of any particular note since, and it was not the way of the Fire Lord to dispense favors for no reason. In reality, he was lucky he had not been dismissed from the Navy entirely.
By the time she stood straight again, she had managed to wipe her expression clear. "Congratulations, sir," she said.
He tipped his head at her, brief and dismissive. "And we have our orders," he said. "We are to take a fleet from the Gulf of Gungduan, and assault the city of Kanjusuk."
That lent the situation a little clarity. Far less ridiculous, to remove him from an assignment he had left without much explanation and throw him at a new problem, to see whether he would sink or prove able to swim. And the promotion—obviously necessary before he could command a full invasion fleet.
But he did not look like a man facing a test, not even like a man facing a test he was sure he would pass. He looked self-satisfied, even outright pleased. It was unsettling.
"A fleet?" Yin said.
"Admiral Shalah has assigned as many ships as she feels able to spare," Zhao clarified, "and I am given authority to press ships in the area, if their assignments are not urgent."
"Good," Yin said; "I expect we're going to need them. Sir—"
"Relax, Lieutenant," Zhao said, and then laughed aloud. "I will prevail, have no doubt of it," and then, more softly, as though mostly to himself: "I knew our mission could not go poorly forever."
Yin stared at him for a moment, uncertain. Either the stress had broken him, or he knew something she did not—but whatever it was, if it could put such a light in Zhao's eyes, Yin wasn't sure she wanted to know it.
They returned to the docks only to hear yet more news that pleased Zhao: though they had been inland for quite some time, his orders to report sightings of Zuko's ship had not been forgotten, and it had been spotted while they were gone. Not directly, but by second- or third-hand report, it was almost certainly headed for the port.
If he had been a child, Zhao would have been clapping his hands together and dancing with glee; but as it was, he just smiled. Whatever feeling he had had that the universe was making up to him for its earlier cruelty, Yin thought, this, to Zhao, was a sign that such a feeling was indeed valid. If he had ever been on the brink of acknowledging his own capacity for error, he was safely away from that particular cliff's edge now. And there were the words Yin had been searching for to describe his expression: not like a man facing a test; like a man who felt the world owed him, and was now finally beginning to pay out.
They rode the iceberg as long as they could stand it, but shifting position could only help so much when what you were sitting on was a giant block of ice. Suki called a halt when she couldn't feel her feet anymore, and Katara guided the iceberg over to the bank and held it still long enough for them to climb off without hurting themselves. Granted, she couldn't get it all the way over; but the water felt as warm as a fire when Suki stepped into it, compared to the penetrating cold of the ice.
"Wimp," Sokka said teasingly, and poked her in the side; but he was shivering, too.
For once, Suki was genuinely glad to start walking. She took off her wet shoes, and everything felt blissfully warm against her feet, grass and dirt and even the faint breeze.
Of course, that only lasted for a little while. But even over the next few days, she found herself resenting it less—she wasn't nearly as sore anymore, and while she was still bone-tired every time they rested, it got easier to get up after. She didn't have to keep reminding herself that it was good for her in order to make herself keep going.
It got cooler as they went further, which had Sokka and Katara both practically dancing with joy. Suki was mostly just disoriented—it felt like a year had gone by in two months, with the first stirrings of spring at home followed so quickly by the heat of the middle kingdoms, and now the growing chill of approaching winter in the north.
The Lei curved to the northwest, so they had gotten off on the more northerly bank, and were following the water toward the northern straits of the ocean. They could have gone straight north, but both of their maps said there were mountains there, and Suki was just barely getting the hang of walking for days over flat ground; she'd rather avoid hills as long as possible.
It was a relief to see the walls of Hansing rising out of the plains in front of them. The city was marked in a poisonous, angry sort of green on the Fire Nation map, but to Suki, it was the most reassuring color she'd ever seen. It was going to be wonderful to be safe in an Earth Kingdom city again—not a captured one, not a village with a Fire Nation prison offshore, but a true Earth Kingdom city.
Hansing wasn't quite on the coast of the Black Sea, but Suki bet you'd be able to see the shore from the walltop, and there was a great, wide, well-traveled avenue covering the miles between the city proper and the port on the true coast. The crisp air held a hint of salt, and Suki didn't know just how much she'd been missing the smell of the sea until she could breathe it deep again.
The gates were wide open, the guards only there to watch for any signs of Fire Nation soldiers on the horizon, and Suki could tell all three of them were relishing the feeling of walking right in without having to compose some kind of cover story or worry about curfew gongs.
The first plaza they came to had a fountain, just like the one in Jindao; but Katara's face only went shadowed for a second.
"Okay," Sokka said, flopping down with a sigh onto the steps that led up to the fountain pool. "So. Yay us, we made it. Now how do we get a boat?"
There was no way that what remained of their money would get them a ship, but then that wasn't really what they needed. True, it would be nice if they could get a boat that was sturdy and well-equipped; Suki wasn't exactly dancing at the thought of sailing to the North Pole in someone's cast-off fishing boat. But someone's cast-off fishing boat might be the best they could do, unless whoever they found at the docks happened to be feeling exceptionally generous.
They stared down at their little handful of coins, and Katara sighed. "Maybe we could get jobs, or something," she said. "Just for a day or two, carrying messages or cleaning. Then maybe we'd have enough for a boat."
"A boat?" someone said, and they all whirled around at once.
It was a boy, maybe a little older than Sokka, with a pleasant, expectant sort of expression on his face. "You need a boat?" he repeated. "I could help you find a good one, if you want. I know everybody at the docks by now, my mother's been working so hard on the submersible."
"... The what?" Katara said. "Who's your mother?"
The boy laughed. "Oh," he said, "so you're really new in town. My mother is the engineer."
Dai Kun—that was his name—led them to the east end of the city. "The noble district," he explained, flashing a little seal to the guard at the district gate. "Or it used to be, anyway. It's about two years ago now, but the Fire Nation almost got a pretty good grip around here; they killed the city governor and her family." He flashed them a half-rueful, half-proud smile over his shoulder as he led them over the bridge and through the gate. "Now my mother's pretty much the closest thing we've got to a governor."
Katara tried not to let herself grimace visibly. "Has that happened a lot?" she asked, dreading the answer. She'd hoped they'd finally found a place where they would be able to relax, take some time to breathe; but if the Fire Nation attacked Hansing all the time—
But Dai Kun shook his head. "No," he said, "no, not since then. We've barely seen a sign of the Fire Lord's armies in ages."
Katara glanced at Suki and Sokka, who both looked faintly puzzled, and Aang, who twitched his shoulders in a tiny shrug. That didn't sound much like the Fire Nation to her, managing to successfully murder a city governor and then backing off. "Really?"
Dai Kun shrugged. "I know what it sounds like," he said, "but I don't think it was only luck. After all, it was only a week before Queen Yujun established the new capital in Zhanlo and started fighting back—they probably just didn't care so much about us anymore."
Even this sounded a little too optimistic to Katara—if anything, she thought, Queen Yujun's resurgence ought to have made the Fire Nation tighten its fists around its best prospects for defeat, not let them go. But Dai Kun would know, she told herself; she didn't know how anything worked this far north, where the walls were high and made of stone, and you could walk through a whole city without seeing a single person you were related to.
They walked past houses of increasing wealth and complexity, and Katara was starting to wonder just how ostentatious this engineer's home would be; but when Dai Kun finally slowed in front of another gate, it was one that was set into a low garden wall around a yard stacked with chunks of metal.
"Nice sculptures?" Sokka said, a bit doubtfully, and Dai Kun laughed.
"I'm not sure Mother's junk piles count as art," he said.
The house was actually not especially large; it looked like most of the effort had been put into a huge building around the back, a great blocky thing with large heavy doors, smoke belching out the top, and a loud steady pounding sound coming from inside.
Dai Kun glanced back at them, and grinned. "It's okay," he said, and picked up a middling-size bar of metal. He banged it against the door a few times, and the pounding stopped. "Mother!" he said. "I've brought you some guests."
There was a pause, and then a new round of clanging; Katara backed up a step, a little nervously, as the sounds came closer to the door.
But when the door opened, it didn't reveal the forty armored soldiers it had sounded like - it was one woman, only a little taller than Katara, with some kind of hammer in her hand and her shoulders bulky with muscle. Her clothes and skin were streaked with soot, and she rubbed the worst of it off her face with one arm, and then bowed to them.
"Welcome," she said, gracious and formal. "I am Shu Sen, the engineer of Hansing."
Mizan wasn't going to say it, but it was something of a relief to have everyone back on board again. They had sailed into Port Tsao bold as brass, and she was still confident that the neutrality of the port probably wouldn't be violated; but there were Fire Nation ships everywhere, banners with a curling red flame hanging from rails and observation decks, and she couldn't quite shake the gut feeling they'd be arrested any moment.
She helped Isani over the rail, and then bowed to Zuko, appropriately low, fist to her palm. "Sir," she said. After all, she did want him to know she was at least a little bit glad.
The time away apparently had not increased Zuko's store of patience, and it took not even ten minutes for him to resettle himself in the bridge with their charts spread out in front of him and his gaze fixed on the pale lines that marked the ice of the north.
"Clearly we'll have to go around Gungduan," he said, half to himself, as he glared down at the map. "Even if we could get the ship all the way up the Lin Wei and down the Lei, we'd never get past Pingsu."
"Quite right," General Iroh said; but, Mizan noticed, he wasn't looking at the map. He was looking out through the bridge windows, over the observation deck outside.
She followed his gaze: a massive warship was creaking past them, Fire Nation emblem prominently displayed. "They aren't headed for us," she said.
General Iroh turned, expression inquisitive.
"They've been sailing by for a few days now," she explained. "It's been much busier than it was when we first arrived. There must be a fleet gathering near here - the Fire Nation could never launch one from Tsao without violating its neutrality."
"See, Uncle?" Zuko said. "Nothing to do with us."
"Mm," General Iroh said, noncommittal, and kept his eyes on the warship until it disappeared from view.
Shu Sen's workshop was full of hot air and the smell of metal, and for a moment, all Katara could think of was the prison ship by Lingsao, and the great gaping mouths of its boilers.
But Shu Sen shoveled her coal herself, and she took them around back to show them how she had dammed up the wide stream that passed through the noble district, and set up a waterwheel to pump her bellows for her. "Much easier to run a decent furnace that way," she said, and laughed.
"Engineering humor," Aang surmised in a whisper, and Katara nearly laughed herself.
Inside, there were more stacks of metal, though these at least looked like actual pieces of something, and not just scraps. Off to the side, there was a great curving shape, and Shu Sen patted it fondly as she led them past it. "The submersible prototype," she explained. "It is only a frame, but I will have the sheets to plate it soon enough, and then Dai Kun will take it for a test."
"Just a prototype?" Suki said, tipping her head back, and Katara could see what she meant: even unfinished, the thing looked huge, and she couldn't imagine putting so much work into something that would only be a test model in the end.
But Shu Sen smiled and nodded. "Despite all my calculations," she said, "flaws are inevitable; even extensive mathematics cannot account for all eventualities."
"Don't worry, though," Dai Kun said. "I'm a great swimmer."
Shu Sen made her own molds, the water-powered furnace evidently hot enough that she could simply melt her metal down and pour it right in. Little wonder she was so pleased about the water wheel, Katara thought; she'd probably never have been able to experiment with things like the submersible if she had to wait for other people to make the parts for her.
"Mother's done amazing things for Hansing," Dai Kun said. "The city gates are all automated—a baby could close the Great North Gate, and five hundred soldiers couldn't pry it open again."
"Gears and pulleys," Shu Sen said modestly, waving a hand. "Simple work," but she gave her son a fond smile, and ruffled his hair as she passed.
Shu Sen insisted she wouldn't hear of them staying anywhere else for the night, and gave them excellent rooms—perhaps, Katara thought, to make up for the glow from the workshop chimney and the incessant banging. Still, they were on the far side of the courtyard from it, and once she piled the blanket over her head, it was quiet enough. She was almost—almost—grateful for all the walking; she might not have been tired enough to fall asleep without it.
Sokka woke to a loud bang, and instantly regretted it; if he'd had the sense to keep his eyes shut, like Katara, maybe he'd have been able to get away with grunting, rolling over, and letting it go at that. But now that he was paying attention, there were a dozen small things bothering him—the irritating lightness to the sky outside, and some flock of stupid birds that wouldn't quit chirping at each other, not to mention the clanging—
Actually, the clanging had stopped. He frowned, and sat up. There was still a fair amount of smoke belching from Shu Sen's workshop—the shutters were ajar, and he could see it over the roof of the rest of the house. But there wasn't any noise coming from it anymore.
The windows were low; he pushed the shutter further open, and slipped over the sill before he could talk himself out of it. The air was crisp, but at home it would be nearly summer and still quite a bit colder than this, so it didn't really matter that his arms were bare. At least, not in any sense except that he still wasn't used to all the burn scars yet. He rubbed a thumb over the shiny new skin Katara had given him, and shook his head. Like the wacky Avatar things weren't enough, now there were wacky non-Avatar things, too.
He rounded the corner of the house, and almost as quickly stepped back; there was a figure there, leaving around the back of the workshop. Shu Sen, Sokka guessed, and something about her posture was niggling at him—it wasn't quite furtive, there was only a faint suggestion of unease, but he couldn't convince himself to leave it be.
He hesitated, pressing a little closer to the wall. Pretty good odds it wouldn't work, given that Sokka had no idea whether he was even here; but if he wanted somebody to follow Shu Sen, somebody who wouldn't get noticed, he did know exactly who to ask.
"Aang?" he murmured. "I hope you can hear me, dead guy."
It was dark, inside the cave; but Shu Sen did not need a light to find the lever handle that would open the door. "Exalted War Minister," she said, and bowed, though she knew Qin was probably still blinking helplessly into the darkness.
Petty, perhaps, but she had few enough satisfactions, these days. She would take those offered to her.
"You have made us so many fine machines," Qin said, annoyed, "and yet you cannot remember to light a lantern?"
She smiled at him, her eyes now adjusted to the dim morning light that had followed him through the door, and said nothing.
Two years, now, since she had traded her honor for the city. Some would argue it had not been a worthy trade, but to Shu Sen, it smacked of presumption, to treasure personal honor more highly than forty thousand lives. She still didn't know where they got the designs for the machines they had her build for them, but in the end, it didn't matter; she hired workers in the city to help her cast the parts, and after that, all she had to do was put them together. She had some idea how many extra soldiers she was killing, handing these things over to the Fire Nation, but they had already put themselves in the line of fire, and it could never equal the disaster of a city destroyed.
She had done the math.
Qin sighed, and pulled a roll of papers from one sleeve. "More plans," he said. "Our other ... assistant has been most fruitful," and he tossed them at her; she let them land at her feet. She would not bend down to pick them up until he was gone. "When will you have the rest of the airships prepared?"
"It will be only a few days, War Minister," Shu Sen said, and wished it were a lie.
Katara rolled over, and then squinted helplessly into the sun that was streaming through the open shutters. Someone was saying her name, over and over and over, with increasing impatience.
"Mmph?" she said, letting her eyes drift shut again.
"Katara!" Aang repeated, one final time; and when she reluctantly cracked an eye open, there was a translucent blue nose about an inch away.
But it was Sokka who said, "Finally, you're awake!" and bounded off his bed to slap her shoulder. "Come on, come on, sit up, and tell me if Aang's here."
"What are you talking about?" Katara said, yawning. "And if you wanted me awake so much, why didn't you just roll me off the bed like you usually do?"
Sokka looked briefly sheepish. "Well, it was really early, and I needed to give Aang some time to come back, and—well, and then I fell asleep again."
Katara blinked, and then frowned. Something about what he'd just said was weird, but it was taking her a second to figure out what. "Aang?" she said at last. "For Aang to come back? From where? I thought you didn't—"
"I do, I do, I believe in the dead guy," Sokka said, "I really do. Is he here?"
"... Yes," Katara said.
Sokka punched the air in triumph. "Did he follow her?" he said, nonsensically. "What did she do?"
"Yeah, I did," Aang said, grinning; and then the smile fell suddenly from his face. "And, uh, you're not going to like this."
"Meeting with a Fire Nation war minister?" Sokka said. "Are you serious?"
"Aang is," Katara said. "I'm a little stuck on the part where you actually sent him out to follow somebody."
"But why would she do that?" Suki said, frowning. "She seemed so—"
"—nice, I know," Sokka said. "I mean, sure, she spends all her time tending a thousand-degree furnace, so I guess if she were Fire Nation, it wouldn't be the most ridiculous thing ever."
"She's not," Aang said, and Katara held up a hand to quiet Sokka and looked at him. He had that strange, grave expression he got when he was thinking about the Air Temples, his lips pressed together tight like he'd never smiled in his life. "She wasn't—pleased to see him, and they weren't nice to each other." He hesitated. "I think he must be making her do it, somehow, and I don't think she's the only one. They get the designs for the machines from somebody else, and then she makes them work."
"Okay, well, even if she's not," Sokka said, when Katara had relayed the gist of this, "she's still helping them. We've got to do something—"
Katara had her mouth half-open to reply when there was a sudden clatter, and the door swung abruptly ajar, a thin stream of rice porridge seeping over the floor. She jumped up and pulled the door the rest of the way open, and had to leap a pile of overturned dishes to reach the corridor. "Dai Kun!" she shouted, because it was his back that was vanishing around the corner ahead of her, and ran.
She was fast, but he had a head start, and he knew the house and grounds better than she did; so by the time she reached the workshop door, Suki and Sokka a half-step behind, he was already inside, pulling a lever that brought the bellows to a halt.
"Dai Kun," Shu Sen said, vaguely scolding, without so much as setting down her hammer. But she had to turn toward him to reach the lever again, and when she saw his face, she went still.
"Is it true?" Dai Kun said, low and choked. "Are you helping the Fire Nation?"
"I am," said Shu Sen. Her tone was very calm, but Katara recognized the look on her face—she was pretty sure it was the same one she herself had been wearing when she'd flipped the top of her pack open, knowing the Waterbending scroll had been inside and Sokka and Suki were about to see it.
Katara couldn't see the expression on Dai Kun's face, but she saw the way he shook his head, sharp and disbelieving.
"They murdered the governor and her family, and their armies were camped in the foothills, waiting to strike." Shu Sen turned away to set her hammer down, and sighed. "And then Queen Yujun reappeared and declared Zhanlo her new capital, and began to drive the southern armies back; so they came to me, and offered a deal. For reasons I was not to know, they had designs, and sometimes prototypes, for many great machines of war. But they needed someone who could understand the schematics, and build more—quickly, and without needing transports back and forth through the Smoking Sea."
"And, what, you offered?" Dai Kun said, almost scornfully.
Shu Sen pinched her eyes closed, muscles shifting in her shoulders as she leaned forward over her anvil. "Nothing so simple," she said. "The city. That was their deal. The safety of the city for their war machines." She turned her head, and looked at her son with somber eyes. "Many lives rely on me; I could not do anything with such a responsibility but shoulder it." She looked past him for a moment, and met Katara's eyes—not for any particular reason, Katara thought, because she hadn't said anything to them about being the Avatar, but she felt a sudden well of fellow-feeling anyway. And then Shu Sen looked back at Dai Kun, and said, "Would you have had me throw them all away?"
"Hey, whoa, hang on," Sokka said from the doorway, lifting his hands. "You're acting like there are only two choices here: build the war thingies, or let the whole city get burned alive."
Shu Sen raised her eyebrows at him.
"How about, um, fighting?" he said. "You know when the war minister's going to be coming back to collect whatever you're making for them, and I'm guessing he's going to have some soldiers with him; and you're the genius who built the things. Are you seriously telling me you can't prepare a way to fight them off?"
Shu Sen hesitated, rubbing a thumb along her hammer and gazing down at it speculatively.
"Mother, please," Dai Kun said, and reached out to touch her elbow gently. "I understand, I do; I'm sorry. But don't you see you can't keep doing this? If they win the war with your machines, nothing you can give them will buy our safety then."
Shu Sen stroked the hammer's handle for a moment longer, and then caught it up suddenly in her fist, swinging her wrist so that the heavy head whirled in a circle. "All right," she said. "When Qin returns, I will tell him he cannot have the airships."
"Airships?" Aang said, glowing ears almost visibly perked, and Katara grinned.
Mother spent the next three days leaning over diagrams and shouting, describing the weak points of Fire Nation machinery to the benders and soldiers of the city guard; or taking the benders out to test the ground around the city walls. She was not precisely transparent, not even to Dai Kun, but he could see, now, the guilt that came over her sometimes. On the second day, Sokka came up to her and said, "I know, you're the one who built those unfolding siege ladders, aren't you?" and Mother's jaw went tight.
Of course, Sokka hadn't meant anything by it; he went away snapping his fingers and saying, "I knew it." But it still meant something to Mother, that was easy enough to see, and Dai Kun wished for the dozenth time that he'd kept a better hold on himself. He should have known Mother wouldn't do such a thing without a good reason—he had just been too surprised, too angry to think it through.
The evening of the third day, Mother told them she would go to meet War Minister Qin in the caves of the foothills, east of the city, and Dai Kun barely let himself think about it for a moment before he said, "I'll go with you."
"We all will," Katara added, almost as suddenly.
Mother shook her head. "He can't see you there—"
"He won't," Dai Kun said. "We'll hide in the caves." He was still unused to thinking of his mother as a person, someone who could feel uncertain or unhappy; but he was sure, right now, that she thought of going alone as something of an act of penance. Another responsibility to shoulder, after they had all let her shoulder the first alone, not even thinking to wonder why the Fire Nation should spare them beyond a combination of luck and chance.
"You must be silent when he comes," Mother warned them after a moment, and Dai Kun let himself smile.
The caves were intimidatingly huge and empty; Mother had had the airships she had already finished moved back to the city, since they might not have time to do it after War Minister Qin was gone. It was safe enough—he wouldn't notice their absence until he was already inside the caves, and by then it wouldn't matter.
Dai Kun was an Earthbender. Not a master, but good enough to raise a small outcropping of rock where there had been none before, so that he and the other three would have somewhere to hide that was close by.
They didn't have to wait long before there was a bang—on the small door, not the big hidden one that opened when there were machines to move—and Mother pulled the appropriate lever.
"Engineer," the war minister said, rather coolly, and then stopped; Dai Kun could see just far enough around the rock to watch him go still. "Where are the airships? What do you mean by this? Where have you put them?"
"Somewhere you cannot get them," Mother said. "The terms of our arrangement are no longer acceptable, Exalted War Minister. I will keep the airships; you will depart empty-handed; and the city of Hansing will defend itself by other means. Thank you for your service."
"My service?" Qin said. "You are the servant here, Shu Sen, and it is your paltry offerings that have kept the fist of the Fire Lord away from your home. You will not get away with this; there are many legions across the river, and it will not take them long to come. Be sensible."
"You are too kind, Minister," Mother said, "but you are also too late. I would barter every last inch of myself for a guarantee that lives might be spared, but you cannot give that to me. You can only delay what will one day be inevitable if we do not take our fate into our own hands. The city is agreed. Go now, and do not come back."
Dai Kun grinned into the shadow of the outcropping, and felt his heart might burst. Mother had often been honored before for the improvements she made to the city with her skills, standing in the city square at the governor's right hand with crowds cheering; but here, in a dank cave in the mountains, watching her face down a single man, Dai Kun thought he had never been so proud to be his mother's son.
The Fire Nation troops came up from the southwest, from the colonies, across the river—although they'd probably used a bridge, not an iceberg, Katara thought. Shu Sen had predicted as much, and the city was prepared as well as it could be.
The hinges and gate mechanisms weren't the only adjustments Shu Sen had made to the defenses of Hansing. There were catapults by every gate, that could be launched with the pull of a lever and rewound themselves into position immediately after; the only thing they couldn't do was load themselves, but that was easy enough for Earthbenders.
And, more importantly, they had not only catapults, but a plan, which was a great comfort when there were several dozen Fire Nation tanks rolling toward them over the plain.
They were stationed in front of the city, with hundreds of benders and soldiers, the wall looming high behind them, and Katara's newly-refilled pouch of bending water was heavy and fat against her hip. "Remember," Shu Sen cried from the top of the wall, her blacksmith's lungs carrying her voice easily out into the still morning air, and then raised her fist. The hammer in it looked tiny from below, but it glinted in the sun like a beacon, and she brought it down against the parapet with a deep clang Katara imagined she could feel in her feet.
That was the signal; and Katara fought the reflexive urge to duck as a dozen rocks as long across as a person went spinning out into the air overhead.
"They've loosed the catapults," Tai Ma reported, and Luzung braced himself.
They'd been angled well, and from the top of the tank, Luzung could see their long, low trajectory, the way they would skim close over the ground. The far left and right flanks were bound to lose some soldiers, at the very least.
He ordered the flanks to draw in close, but half of his shout was drowned out by the pounding impacts, and one tank off to his right flipped entirely over, a catapult stone having crumpled its right side like a child's fist around rice paper. "Close in!" he repeated, and then Tai Ma clutched at his arm, and pointed.
"Yes—sir, look, look," she said.
He aimed his gaze along the length of her arm: the catapults were rewound, and Earthbenders were even at that moment punching a new set of great boulders into place, but not a single catapult had turned. They were all facing straight forward, out across the wall.
"Looks like they can't aim them," Tai Ma said, "at least not quickly, or you'd think at least one of them would have turned toward the center of our line."
Luzung let half a grin break onto his face, and turned to shout from the top of their tank. "Toward the center of the line! As close as you can get!"
"It's working," Suki said, and Katara could see that she was right. The catapults had wrought a fair amount of devastation along the edges of the Fire Nation army's formation, and in response, the block of soldiers was thickening into a tightly centered box, tanks close around the edges.
"But they aren't close enough yet," Dai Kun said, eyeing the distance that remained critically; and a moment later, the captain of the guard let out a shout and waved his signal flag.
There were at least a hundred Earthbenders arrayed outside the gate; not bad, but it probably looked like a relatively paltry force to the Fire Nation, who didn't know about the spare half-thousand who were still waiting inside the walls. Katara did know, and it still felt a little paltry to her, facing down at least a thousand Fire Nation troops. But she sucked in a fortifying breath, put a hand to the cap of her bending pouch, and leaned into the wind when the ground beneath her lurched forward. They'd practiced this part once or twice on a smaller scale, so she managed to keep her balance, riding the Earthbent dirt; something about it reminded her of the feeling of coaxing a canoe over the crest of a sudden wave.
Two tanks had gone down under the catapults, one twisted by a partial strike and one simply crushed; the Earthbenders took down four more with carefully placed hits. Shu Sen had explained the blueprints to everyone, the inner workings of the treads that made the tanks so maneuverable, and the Earthbenders knew now that two pinching juts of stone in exactly the right place could crush the gears almost irreparably.
But that left the soldiers inside alive, and they were sweeping forward like a wall—the rocks that were struck straight forward into their lines were met with blazing shields of flame that deflected most of them away, or slowed them down so much that they dropped harmlessly to the ground.
"Okay, here we go," Sokka said next to her, fans flaring in his hands; and there was one breathless moment of stillness before the Fire Nation soldiers hit them.
Katara had fought raiders at home before, and the soldiers who had tried to invade Shinsotsu. But the raiders came in groups that hardly ever topped forty, and the Fire Nation lines had been thinned at Shinsotsu, coming up the ladders one at a time.
This was nothing like that at all.
She let her bending water loose a second before Aang shouted "Left!" from over her shoulder, and she pushed her arms out to the left before she even knew what she was trying to hit. She was grateful, suddenly, for all that practice she'd done with the scroll on the way up; her hands and feet were doing what she wanted them to without her even having to think about it, and without the edge of panicked anger that meant she was about to get all blue and shiny.
The water looped around the neck of the soldier who had been coming up on the left, and Katara yanked her sideways into the guy whose sword Sokka had just knocked aside with the edge of one of his fans. They both tumbled away to the right, in time to slam into the side of the spur of rock Dai Kun had just used to hurl the soldier facing him into the air.
It was like that every moment, six things happening at once, so quickly she barely had time to notice each one before they all changed again. Aang helped as best he could, but he could only warn her—he couldn't make her move any faster than she already was. By the time the shout came to retreat back to the city wall, she'd been cut in a dozen places, and there was a nasty slice on the side of her thigh.
She'd almost forgotten the plan entirely, and the call for retreat made her look back in confusion, until Sokka caught her elbow and said, "Come on, come on, we have to get them to follow us back, remember?"
They retreated toward Hansing, and, as they had been hoping, the Fire Nation army followed them eagerly—Katara spotted a couple of the unfolding siege ladders being rolled forward, clearly ordered ahead in anticipation.
At last, the rear flank of the army must have crossed the small rise Shu Sen had had the Earthbenders construct as a marker; Katara couldn't see that far from where she was standing, but there was a great roar from the soldiers on the wall, and the vast west gate swung open like a fan.
Five hundred Earthbenders pressed their bare feet to the ground, lined up their hands, and shoved at once; and the earth beneath the Fire Nation army slid away with a rumble that made Katara's knees shake. Stone shuffled and groaned, and at the far side of the Fire Nation army, Katara could see the plains crumpling up like a bundled sleeping mat, all that shifting earth pressed for somewhere to go. Shu Sen had been so precise, so methodical, testing the boundaries of the rock beneath the fields that surrounded the city, and it had clearly been worth it: what good were maneuverable treads when the tank they were attached to was twenty feet deep in a pit?
"Awesome," Sokka said.
It hadn't been exactly perfect; Shu Sen could calculate a lot of things, but not how soldiers would flee when the ground beneath their feet got yanked away, and perhaps a battalion's worth of Fire Nation troops around the army's fringes managed to scramble to a safe edge. But they clearly weren't planning to invade Hansing on their own, and even before Shu Sen could call for surrender, most of them had dropped their swords.
As soon as it was safe to, Katara sat down and drew a little water over the wound on her thigh—it was starting to throb noticeably, now that the fighting was done. Or it had been, at least, until the cool blue light in her hands smoothed it away into a new red scar.
"I bet there's a couple other people who could use a little healy-hands," Sokka said, helping her up, and, sure enough, when they got back inside the city wall, the wounded were being lined up just inside the gate.
She healed until her head was spinning, and she probably would have kept on through the evening if Suki hadn't come by and yanked her away by the elbow. "You got all the worst ones," she said firmly; "there's nobody left who's hurt so badly that they'll die if you take five minutes to eat something."
She installed Katara on some steps by a fountain—maybe the same ones they'd been sitting on when Dai Kun had overheard them, Katara thought—and shoved a bowl of rice into her hands; Katara was so tired that it took her a minute to realize Suki was gone again, and she was alone on the steps, except for Aang.
She had gotten through about three bites when Aang drifted a little closer, and said, "You killed some of them."
Katara stared down at her bowl, prodding absently at a lump of rice. "Yes," she said. "I did."
She turned her head and looked at Aang: he was looking back at her, eyes huge and faintly troubled. "Doesn't that—bother you?" he said, very quiet.
She thought about it for a moment. "Well, they've been trying to kill me and everybody I know for as long as I can remember," she said, "so, no, not a lot."
"At the Temple," Aang said, "they always taught us to preserve life. I'm sorry," he added hurriedly, "I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I just—" He trailed off, and shrugged his translucent shoulders helplessly. "You weren't really in the middle of it, in Shinsotsu, but this was different." He sighed and slumped forward, like a heavy weight had just landed on his shoulders. "Then again, I guess we all know how far preserving life got the Temples."
Katara grimaced at the bitterness in his voice, and wished again, as she so often did, that she could at least put her arm around his shoulders. "It wasn't their fault," she said. "You shouldn't have to defend against something like that. Killing other people shouldn't be the only way to avoid getting killed yourself."
"But it is right now," Aang said.
"We're in the middle of a war," Katara said, as gently as she could. "It won't always be that way."
Aang forced a tiny smile. "At least, not if you do your job right," he said, tone deliberately light.
"You say that like you doubt my Avatar skills," Katara said. "For your information, I am excellent at glowing."
Shu Sen was more than happy to make sure they were given a boat, and Dai Kun carried them down to the port himself on a wave of moving earth. It definitely wasn't Suki's favorite sensation in the world, feeling the very ground under her feet pitch and shift like that; but it was certainly faster than walking.
"I know I wouldn't want to be them right now," Dai Kun was saying as they drew close to the harbor, a grin wide on his face. "Must've been a pretty unpleasant night, down in that pit, with winter coming on. There was even a little frost this morning," and he beamed like he had never heard anything so pleasant as he made the ground beneath them slow.
Suki grimaced a little at the thought of frosty ground and no sleeping mat, and leapt from the little ridge Dai Kun was bending before he could stop it entirely—the worst parts were the beginning and the end of the ride.
"But we'll let them out eventually," Dai Kun finished, making the ridge sink back into the ground with a flourish. "Anyway, she'll be there," and he motioned broadly toward the harbor. "On the docks, all the way to the end—she should fit the three of you nicely. Mother wanted to give you a submersible," he confided, "but they're still not done yet. Oh, and before I forget—" He drew a rolled-up sheaf of papers from the tie at his waist, and handed them to Katara. "Designs. Something big, that was supposed to be in one of the next couple shipments. Mother said you should have them, just in case they find somebody else to build it. You might need them."
"Thank you," Katara said, and tucked them away in her pack. "I wish there was something else we could do for you—"
"Besides helping my mother stop the Fire Nation from blackmailing her, and helping us fight them off when they came to kill us for it, and healing just about everybody you could find afterward?" Dai Kun said, laughing. "I'm not sure there's anything left for us to need help with."
"Well, still," Katara said; but she looked pleased, almost shyly so, and Suki couldn't help but squeeze her shoulder as they turned toward the docks.
Yin was leaning on the flagship's rail, staring out over the water, and she didn't notice Kishen was there until he spoke.
"Something's going on," he said; it wasn't quite a question, but it still somehow sounded like he was expecting a reply.
"Yes," she said, tapping a knuckle against the rail. It was true—something was going on, and, worse, she wasn't sure what it was. Zhao had gathered a few soldiers together, murmured their orders and clapped their shoulders and sent them off the ship and onto the docks, and he'd been smiling ever since in a frankly unsettling fashion. They were still in the harbor, Zhao sending every battleship that entered the port off to the gathering point for his burgeoning fleet; and the enforced lack of activity wasn't exactly helping Yin feel at ease.
At least Kishen wasn't enjoying it, either. When she glanced over at him, he was gripping the rail like he expected somebody to try to throw him over it, and the expression that crossed his face looked more like a muscle tic in his cheek than the polite smile she thought it had been intended as.
"He's got some kind of a plan," Kishen said, "and, unless I'm entirely wrong about why you're out here, I take it your moderating influence was not exerted on this one."
"On the contrary," Yin said, wry, "you are entirely right. It must be something to do with the fleet—it's all he can think about, since we went to see the admiral. But I don't know—"
The sound didn't come from especially close by, but that didn't matter; it was painfully loud, and Yin had flinched back from the rail and put a hand to her sword before she even had time to realize the breadth of the distance.
Kishen had dropped back, too, and they twisted around at the same time to scan the massive harbor. Huge as it was, it wasn't exactly difficult to spot the great fist of smoke that was billowing up from somewhere to the west. A ship, almost undoubtedly, because there was no question in Yin's mind that this had been what Zhao was orchestrating; but evidently a small one, because she couldn't see it from here.
"I take it back," she said. "I do know."
"But what is it?" Kishen said. "What would Zhao send soldiers to blow up, in a neutral port?"
Mizan came to with every muscle protesting, an irritating amount of blood gumming up one eye, and a door on her back. Lucky, probably—by the look of it, it had been blown off its hinges and hit the wall above her, and then fallen down just in time to shield her from the worst of the fire. But she could tell already that it had left a thick line of bruising on her side, and she shoved it off with a grumbled curse.
There had been very little warning; otherwise, she thought darkly, she'd have made sure she was further away. She scrubbed the blood from her eye, her hand already covered in it from a deep scrape along her thumb, and forced herself to sit up.
She'd been on her way in, away from the bridge, when it had exploded, and she couldn't have been unconscious for long; her ears were still ringing. She could remember only a little of it—she'd come in off the deck, passed the door, and started off down the corridor, and then there had been a flood of light and heat and something had hit her in the head.
Most of the bridge was still alight, so Mizan resisted the urge to rush in herself; she snagged the three closest Firebenders out on the deck, and sent them back to douse the flames. It would have taken them a while alone—the fire was roaring, smoke billowing out over the observation deck—but the lower decks had evidently felt the blast, too, and more soldiers came hurrying up from below.
She should've known, the minute she'd seen the first Fire Nation battleship float by, and gotten them out of there. No good could come of a fleet amassing nearby, not for them, and she probably could have argued Zuko out of hanging around, with General Iroh's help.
If either of them were hurt, she was going to kill Zhao herself.