To anyone who asked, she was never here.
She kept her legs crossed and her piercing gold eyes half lidded from her sunglasses, facing forward, staring directly into the rear-view mirror. Her driver, wearing sunglasses as well in the dead hours of the night still, kept making surreptitious glances at her eyes in the mirror. She could tell from the way his eyebrows moved.
Azula never so much as blinked whenever he was looking. The most she would move would be a simple tilt of her head. Her lips never moved from her pout. One might easily mistake her as one of her shadows from the way she kept so still. She liked the way she made him so afraid.
As the car slowed to a halt, the sound of rain against her windows became more prominent. It was the only time she allowed for her gaze to drift, out into the streets, to survey her surroundings. The soft thrum of the car’s engine had died. Before her, the streets were barely lit in the dim orange glow of streetlamps. Sewers and storm drains were clogged with nearby litter and tiny flooded puddles pooled around everywhere.
It was clear that there wasn’t another soul in sight in this filthy, rat-infested corner of the city. The slums were the last places she would ever be caught dead in and yet, and yet – she was sent here on a task. And she was not one to fail; she was not her brother.
“We’re here,” said her driver.
He kept his leather glove-clad hands on the steering wheel, ready for her instructions. Lightning-quick (and she would know) did her eyes return to him and she watched him swallow his fear, the tell-tale movement of his throat as she lingered in the anticipation. Azula raised a neatly maintained brow at him and watched him shiver. It was almost enough to get her to smirk, if she were not so dreading leaving her vehicle.
“Double back to the convenience store we passed,” she said, angling her sunglasses up to cover her eyes. She straightened her bright red coat tighter against her as she picked up the silver briefcase by her feet. “Get yourself something instant and then come back. I won’t be long.”
Normally, she would have had him open her door for her – as was customary. They did not have the time to spare that night on formalities.
She opened the door on her side – princesses, after all, did not slide – and opened a black umbrella to shelter herself from the rain. With the hand that carried the briefcase, she shut the car door firmly shut and it drove off immediately.
Immediately, her senses were overwhelmed by the stench of it all. The fetor of stale piss and rain-soaked filth was almost enough to get her eyes to water in disgust. Almost. Cockroaches scurried from grates, escaping the incoming floodwater, she found, and she heard the squeaks of rats as they jumped from hole to hole. An iron gate greeted her, as the instructions told her she would face, with white walls surrounding it – if it could still be called white, what with all the posters and multi-coloured graffiti that vandalised it.
Despite her distaste, this was not a social call. She went on.
Azula passed through the squeaky gate and up the rain-soaked stairs. As she reached the door at the top of the stairs, she entered the premises and was able to tuck her umbrella back into a cane. Immediately, the smell changed from stale piss to that of decay… as if something had just died in these halls, like that of a half-eaten mouse or a bird who did not quite know where it was flying. The sound of rain, at least, was muffled here.
Upon entering, she was greeted by the sight of a long stretch of a hallway where, at the end where the hallway forked into two directions, there was a woman at the other end. Her face was painted pure white with red markings and she had her hands behind her back. Poise intact, she gave no indication that her surroundings had unsettled her – and they hadn’t. It would take more than that to get her to be uneasy. This, she told herself, was nothing more than a petty nuisance. She sneered and walked leisurely to the other woman.
She raised her brows in greeting, angling her head so as to reveal her gold eyes from being covered by her sunglasses that she insisted on wearing despite the hour and the weather. She might not be as inconspicuous as requested but she would be damned before she let her aesthetic drop. The other woman revealed that she was holding a scanner behind her back and gestured that she would have to scan her. Azula rolled her eyes.
“Is this really necessary?” she said. “You know who I am.”
“Protocol, ma’am,” said the other woman. “Arms up, please.”
Azula did as she was bid – but not without showing her disdain with a disapproving scoff and another roll of her eyes. As she was scanned, the other woman nodded and bid for the princess to follow her down the right side of the hallway.
“This…” Azula started. “This is your headquarters?”
“No,” said the other woman. “As a precaution, we never meet our clients in the same place. This office was chosen for you.”
“So it’s personal,” she deduced.
The other woman gave no sound to indicate a response. All she could hear was the click and clack of her boots against the tiled floors. The cheap fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered as she passed through the hallway and she could tell that there were tiny insects that had perished within the casings. Every part of this building screamed of disrepair.
“Tell me, do I know him?”
“We’re not at liberty to disclose personal identities,” she replied.
“But is it a him?”
“We’re not at liberty—”
“You bore me.”
That was that.
The hallway stretched on and Azula said nothing else as this woman was clearly not one who held any cards at the table. Nothing more than a glorified guidebook, she was, and she had no time to spare for anyone who was not part of the board.
Finally, they reached one of the rickety doors and the other woman opened it for her and gestured for her to enter the room. She did and she was greeted by another woman in identical makeup, in the same kind of green-suit, with the same kind of red markings on her face. She knew what and who these women represented, of course. Everyone in any business knew how there was no such defense as that one offered by Kyoshi Security Services LLC. There was a stark difference between the other women of Kyoshi and the one who greeted her at the table, however.
The difference was that this one had grey eyes and a short haircut that Azula could place anywhere. It was as if she weren’t even hiding. Bold of her, Azula had to admit, and dangerous. Perhaps it was a clue as she was not one to believe in coincidences.
“You,” Azula greeted. “You’re him?”
“No,” said the other woman. “As a precaution, they never meet their clients face on. They outsource us at Kyoshi Security for maximum deniability.”
“And you’re with Kyoshi Security?”
“Have we met?” said the other woman, a faux innocence in her lilt – bait, if Azula ever heard it. She would know; she invented that tone. And she would not fall for it. So, she simply sat on the chair in front of her.
“You know… working for a third party goes against the Conflict of Interest you signed,” Azula goaded.
“That would mean you would have to testify that you were here,” said the woman from Kyoshi Security. “And that you’ve associated yourself with this office to have any inkling of who and what I am, assuming that a jury would accept your testament as anything more than hearsay. And, as it is, there are no records of your currently being here, isn’t that right?”
“Is that any way to speak to a client?”
“Feel free to take your business elsewhere, Princess.”
“Do you actually know who you’re working for?”
“That’s neither here nor there,” the woman responded. A beat later, she asked, “Do you have what you were asked to bring?”
Azula rose from her seat and placed the silver briefcase on the table before them with gusto. She unlocked the mechanism that fastened it, opened the case, and spun the case around to show the woman the inordinate amount of cash that was inside the case. As promised. The woman showed no response of shock or awe to the amount; she simply nodded and closed the case and placed it next to her. To add insult to injury, she smiled with pressed, dark lips.
The princess simply returned to her seat and leaned against the back of it, her arm atop its frame with her hand bent toward her face, her fingers in a relaxed but graceful position.
“Your man better be good for the money he’s demanding,” she said. Her every word was calculated. They might have agreed to this course of action but they were not so completely incompetent so as to give them blind trust. Yet this person they were hiring, it seemed, knew what they were doing when they hired Kyoshi Security.
“You already know they are,” said the woman, not taking the bait.
“We want this done quickly,” said Azula. “Quietly. And we want the package alive.”
“They charge by the hour, plus expenses, for a job like this, as you know,” said the woman. “Cash. Non-traceable, as agreed.”
“Check the numbers. You’ll find we’re good for it and more.”
“We’ll contact you once we’ve ensured that your payment is solid and fits the parameters, and that your case isn’t bugged,” said the woman. She opened a drawer, reached for papers inside, and placed it on the desk. On top of it, she placed a pen.
“Sign on the dotted line, please,” she said.
“You expect me to sign something without me reading it? This cannot be legal.”
“We don’t have the most orthodox ways of doing things but isn’t that why you need us?” Azula simply rolled her eyes, scoffed, and leaned forward to give her begrudging signature on the dotted line, as instructed. The woman smiled and folded the contract, and tucked it into her inner coat pocket.
“The contract will begin once we’ve cleared your payment and you will receive regular updates at the settled upon schedule with a burner phone that you will find in your home within the next 48 hours and the document you signed gives them the legal right to enter your premises, in the unlikely event that they’re caught for trespassing. Which is purely precautionary, really. They never get caught.”
“Does your man have no faith?”
“In you?” she asked, amusement clear in her voice. Even with her painted face, there was no missing the smirk. “No. But they’re willing to work for you, at least. It’s why you’re here.”
“Your customer service is appalling,” said Azula, finally getting up to her feet. Her phone in her pocket buzzed, which could only be her driver who had pulled back up to the building.
“And yet, you’re still here,” said the woman from Kyoshi Security. “Is that all?”
“Yes, that’ll be all,” the princess replied. “I expect results, Kyoshi.”
“Only the best,” she replied, bright as ever. “Speak soon.”
As Azula left the room and walked down the hall, escorted by the same Kyoshi Warrior who walked her into it in the first place, she heard that woman’s voice answer a call. Her voice was as bright as it was just then and it made her cringe. She loathed to leave something as important as this matter to a third, unknown party but her father had been clear in his order. The Royal Family could not risk being exposed in this particular matter.
And so, finally, as Azula left the building in which she was never in, the last thing she heard from that office that she legally did not know about… was the woman speaking into her phone with the same clear, high, ‘customer service’ voice that she’d used on her when she first entered the number to contact them in the first place—
“Hello, Blue Spirit Investigations. How can we help?”