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The Long Game

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General How, leader of the Council of Five, the greatest Earth Kingdom general in Ba Sing Se, gave up in disgust. He had served Ba Sing Se and the Earth King faithfully his entire life. He had fought the Fire Nation, he'd held the damned Wall during the Siege, he had been there when the Earth King finally arrested Long Feng, and he'd put together a plan to take advantage of the Fire Nation's weakness during the eclipse.

For his troubles, he had been imprisoned throughout the Occupation of Ba Sing Se, and when he was freed, he discovered that Long Feng and the Dai Li were right back where they were before everything went wrong.

To hell with it. Omashu needed rebuilding, and it was as far away from the Cultural Minister as it was possible to get and still be in the Earth Kingdom.

Kiet tracked him down while he was packing. His aide dressed as an earthbender soldier, in tunic and pants with bare feet. He was too lanky to be an earthbender, though, and that was why the man carried knives.

The slate, he carried because he was deaf.

'Where are you going?'

General How read the words written in chalk, then raised his eyes to Kiet's. He spoke clearly and directly so his aide could read his lips. "Omashu."

Kiet erased his previous message, then scrawled only one character. 'Why?'

"Because after every damned thing we went through from the Avatar's arrival to the retaking of Ba Sing Se, they are still letting Long Feng and his Dai Li run around this city."

Kiet gritted his teeth and scrubbed unnecessarily hard at his slate to clear it. He wrote rapidly, each slash of chalk against slate loud and sharp. 'If you go, there will be no one to oppose Long Feng. Hyo would crown him Earth King if he asked.'

That stopped How. Yes. Kiet was entirely and utterly correct, and even without the Earth King here, How had a duty to the people of Ba Sing Se to protect them from all enemies. He simply could no longer trust the Dai Li to handle enemies within.

He never could, really.

He wanted to slam his fist into the wall, but with his earthbending, he'd bring the whole house down. Like hell he was explaining that.

"Find that idiot young Dai Li captain," he ordered Kiet. "I owe him some well-chosen words."

***

"I don't understand how they can let him just take over again," How complained over lunch with one of the assistant deputy ministers of the Ministry of War.

Fa Lu shrugged. "He understands how the city works as no one else does. Because the Fire Nation killed the others when they brought in their own governor," he added thoughtfully. "So we need him for now."

"He'll just entrench himself again. He's already doing it."

"Yes, and there's nothing we can do about it." Fa Lu raised a hand to forestall objections. "The Earth King had him arrested, yes. But the Earth King never made it clear why, and while you know and the others of the Council of Five know, everyone knows you and Long Feng are political enemies. No one will listen to what you say about him."

General How frowned down at their simple lunch, then tipped a touch of rice wine into his tea. His friend had it unpleasantly correct. "He's the Director of the Dai Li. Everyone knows the Dai Li brought down the Wall."

"Everyone also knows he was under arrest at the time," Fa Lu pointed out. "I have already heard people saying the Fire Nation would not have taken Ba Sing Se if Long Feng had been free."

General How snarled.

***

A few days later, Kiet brought him a slip of paper reporting the presence or absence of all Dai Li that could be ascertained. Long Feng, of course. The polite but mute captain. Xin Wan, Kiet's smiling friend. The crystalbender captain. Hyo and his daughter. A number of others who had never left Ba Sing Se, and still more who had gone to the Fire Nation and returned.

But there were holes. The earthquaker captain, twin to one of How's own good officers Captain Rui, hadn't come back. In fact, a handful of Dai Li who had gone to the Fire Nation hadn't returned but were not being reported as dead.

And Captain Jae, Long Feng's pet fanatic, had supposedly been killed during the Occupation. By Long Feng.

General How believed that as much as he believed Sozin had been misunderstood.

"Is your friend well?" How asked out of politeness.

Kiet's chalk snapped in half, his expression briefly furious - moreso than broken chalk called for. 'I wouldn't know.'

***

Putting Ba Sing Se back together was both easier and harder than General How expected. Easier in that the Dai Li did not care if people talked about the War, and so How's job of controlling the Earth Kingdom military wasn't hindered. Harder, too, in that the Dai Li weren't trusted or feared anymore, and so they did their job less effectively. Easier in that Long Feng knew how to run the city, but harder in that Long Feng was the only person who knew how to run the city and How sure as hell wasn't letting the Cultural Minister take back the control he had before.

When riots broke out in the Lower Ring, How was not surprised. Nor was he surprised to see the riots had not caught Long Feng off guard.

Putting them down was wearying and ugly, and coming back from putting the biggest one down How almost walked into the middle of an argument between Long Feng and Hyo.

Their voices were low and intense, and only the shaking in the stones warned him this wasn't another bit of Dai Li conspiracy. They were angry.

At each other, and that tipped the world out of balance almost as much as the Earth King ordering Long Feng's arrest in the first place.

"-You abandoned the Dai Li, left us to take the fall while you hid!" Hyo snarled.

"I did not abandon the Dai Li," Long Feng said, voice tight with anger. "Not like you abandoned your daughter."

That was a killing insult, and How slammed open the door to Long Feng's office before he could tempt himself into letting Hyo deal with the bastard. They needed Long Feng, and he cursed that fact as often as he was reminded of it. However, things didn't stop being true just because he didn't like them, as any soldier knew.

Hyo and Long Feng both whirled on him, and almost, almost a three-way earthbending duel between masters erupted. The walls of the room cracked.

It would have torn the city to the foundations, and whatever else How thought of Long Feng and Hyo, they loved Ba Sing Se as much as he did.

"The riot has been put down," he said, voice sword-hard.

"Very good," Long Feng replied, and the cracks in the walls closed slowly.

Hyo delivered an abbreviated bow.

And that, How thought, was the end of that.

***

It took a week for anyone else to notice what How had noticed three days after the fight.

Long Feng and Hyo weren't speaking to each other. The Dai Li were conspicuously avoiding Long Feng. The Joo Dees had been dismissed from Long Feng's service.

Rumors fired the Earth King's Palace and the Upper Ring. They had quarreled, the rumors said, and How cursed himself for even mentioning the incident to Kiet while there were guards in the room. The Occupation had broken what lay between them, according to rumor, and How didn't quite know what to make of that because while Long Feng and Hyo had been very close, he still had no idea why people thought they had been sleeping together.

However, he had his own work to do, and the troubles of the Dai Li were only important in how they affected How's people.

***

The Dai Li, unfortunately, affected one of How's people very closely. A month and a half after Long Feng and Hyo's argument, Kiet went missing.

When one of his own spies reported that Xin Wan wasn't in his little house in the Upper Ring, fury raced through How and he wondered how he could ever have trusted the Dai Li enough to not put them all to the sword immediately after the retaking. Kiet, deaf as he was, was immune to the Dai Li's ugliest trick, but that didn't mean the Dai Li couldn't hurt him.

The floor trembled under his feet as General How stalked down the hall, and servants scattered out of his way. He strode past Long Feng's new secretary, slammed open the door to the minister's office hard enough to crack the wood, and drove an earthbending spike through Long Feng's desk. "Where is Kiet?"

"Why do you think I know, General How?" The Cultural Minister gave him a look of annoyance. His copper-burning fire cast weird shadows in the room, making them both look a little less than human.

"You know exactly what I'm referring to." The room shook. "Your Dai Li took him-"

Long Feng raised his hand to interrupt. "I do not control the Dai Li. That would be Commander Hyo's business. Speak with him."

"You expect me to believe that you, you, don't control the Dai Li?!" How gestured sharply in something too like a punch and the floor surged towards Long Feng in a tidal wave of stone.

Long Feng slashed his arm, and the stone-wave split around him, slamming into the walls and crushing shelves. "I do not care what you believe, general. I am the Cultural Minister of Ba Sing Se. Commander Hyo controls the Dai Li. Get out of my office before I throw you out."

General How almost attacked him. But an earthbending duel between the two of them would wreck the palace and would not bring Kiet back. Instead he stalked out to search for Commander Hyo.

The walk from Long Feng's office to Hyo gave How enough time bring himself under control. Hyo kept his daughter with him all the time he was in the palace these days, and scaring Mi-Cha would do How no favors.

Hyo was just finishing a quick lunch with his daughter when How pushed his way into the Dai Li Commander's office. Mi-Cha smiled at him, her impeccable dark green dress looking like cut-down Dai Li robes.

"I haven't seen your aide," Hyo said before How could ask.

"And Xin Wan?"

Hyo stiffened, and Mi-Cha looked worried. Very, very faintly, the room trembled. "We don't know."

Not the answer How wanted to hear, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about it with Mi-Cha in the room.

***

The next three days, How spent having his own agents tear apart the city, looking for Kiet or some sign of Xin Wan. The Dai Li also seemed to be out doing the same, and conspicuously, Hyo never brought a report to Long Feng. General How didn't believe Long Feng didn't know what was going on, but he found a number of his subordinates willing to believe otherwise.

If finding Kiet weren't more important, How would have yelled at them for being fools.

The third morning, Xin Wan escorted Kiet into his office with a smile. His smile sent most of How's subordinates scattering for cover, which was Xin Wan's usual inexplicable effect on people.

Kiet looked worn, and he clutched one of the ubiquitous green light-crystals like it would save him from the Fire Nation. General How enveloped his aide in a bear-hug before the other man could hold out his slate with his explanation of whatever had happened.

He'd been so sure he'd never see Kiet again, no matter what assurances Hyo made. Having the man back felt like a personal favor from the Avatar.

Men who could resist the Dai Li's machinations were in too short of a supply. Good men who could do the same were even harder to find.

"Where did you find him- How did you find him?" General How demanded of the smiling Dai Li agent. "I didn't receive a ransom note or anything similar."

"I have access to resources you do not, General How," Xin Wan said.

Dai Li. General How growled and released Kiet from his hug before the poor man's ribs creaked. "Thank you for finding him."

Xin Wan performed an abbreviated bow. "You're welcome. This won't happen again."

"No. It won't."

Xin Wan performed another abbreviated bow, this one of departure, and left How's office heading in the direction of Commander Hyo's. General How overcame the urge to perform some extremely petty earthbending and trip the man up.

"What happened?" He asked Kiet instead.

Kiet wrote on his slate in a very small and careful hand, holding the light-crystal in the crook of his elbow. His hands started to shake while he wrote, forcing his aide to go back and erase the characters that came out unreadable. 'I was jumped from above. They knocked me out. I woke in the darkness, blindfolded, and they kept my feet off the floor. I don't know where I was, who was with me, or how long I was there, or anything at all. Then Xin Wan came and got me out.'

"Got you out?"

'He took the blindfold off and untied me. Then he helped me out. The light was too bright to me. I couldn't see.'

"But?"

'I think he killed them all.'

Well, that was a problem. If the Dai Li had already killed them all, who did How get to turn over to the Army's torturers?

***

The Dai Li were attempting to be discreet about cleaning up whatever Xin Wan had found. General How kept too close an eye on their movements, though, and that many Dai Li in one place was troublesome to begin with.

The place was a small set of concealed rooms below the eastern Middle Ring. Looked like it had been earthbender shaped. Well, except for the blood. The spikes were definitely earthbender work, but not of the rooms' creator.

Most earthbenders favored crushing their opponents and breaking bones. Xin Wan seemed to favor spikes and saws. Effective, How had to admit, if more likely to paint the walls red. Though in some cases that looked deliberate rather than accidental.

General How was a career soldier. The gore didn't bother him, beyond a vague sense that his nightmares would have a new setpiece. What bothered him was the evidence that one Dai Li had done this. The Dai Li he, and most everyone else, thought of as the mostly harmless one. The one who lived in his little house in the Upper Ring making music boxes, except when the Dai Li needed him for their business.

He considered that, Dai Li working around him to clean up the gore and earthbending. Ah. Obviously he had been a fool. He assumed Xin Wan stayed in the Upper Ring by choice, but it was easy enough to turn it around and view it as Xin Wan being confined there.

"The ones Xin Wan left alive suicided," Hyo said, stepping up beside How.

"Even that one-?" How indicated one of the corpses hanging from the wall. It didn't look like its owner would have bled out on his own.

"We think he had help," Hyo said with a very slight wince.

General How would never have noticed it if he wasn't used to trying to read Long Feng's face. Hyo, at least, was easier to read than the Cultural Minister.

"Who were they?" How asked, wondering when the Dai Li would begin stonewalling him.

"We don't know. They're all too dead to ask."

That could just as easily be the truth as a lie. If it was a lie, How wouldn't be surprised. If it was the truth, the Dai Li were being disturbingly helpful, and he wasn't quite sure what to make of that possibility just yet.

"I'll have one of the trainees get you a basin to wash your feet in," Hyo said before drifting away to check in with Liu, the mute Dai Li captain handling the clean-up.

General How changed his evaluation to 'frighteningly helpful'.

***

Two months after Long Feng and Hyo's fight, How sat in the monthly conclave of Ba Sing Se's ministers, generals, and assorted lackeys. Fa Lu sat nearby, standing in for the Minister of War. The minister had not wanted to be publicly linked with the How during this proposal, not after he had found out the general would not allow it to be mentioned casually to Long Feng first.

In theory, all of the ministers and generals were equals, working together to restore Ba Sing Se to glory. In practice, there was not a single minister in Ba Sing Se who wasn't afraid of Long Feng and at least half of How's generals were willing to roll over for the Cultural Minister.

General How had spent too much of his life giving into Long Feng's will over matters of the War and what the Earth King did and did not need to know. He refused to do so anymore.

Unfortunately, Long Feng had the annoying habit of making excellent, reasonable decrees for how to handle problems.

The Minister of Agriculture finished speaking and sat down. Long Feng indicated his approval, and the conclave's attention shifted to General How. He did not stand, merely raised his voice to project.

"The Mechanist has provided us with improved designs for airships. Based on information from our ministries, Ba Sing Se can begin producing our own airships in three months if we do a concentrated shift in labor, nine months if we don't. We'll have our first airship finished six months after the factories are up and running." He frowned. "We need an initial number of four to train on, then when we have a sufficient corps of experienced troops, we should ramp up production to provide a number for every major city in the Earth Kingdom, as well as for free-ranging patrols."

The Minister of the Treasury leapt to his feet. "Airships? With all due respect, general, do you know how much those would cost?"

"Yes," How said levelly. He held his hand up, and Kiet handed him a slate, which he waved in the minister's general direction. He handed it back to Kiet, who passed it to a page to run around to the minister's own secretary. "The Army has many mathematicians, minister. We've worked out the amount."

The secretary blanched as he read the numbers, then handed it to the minister himself who looked distinctly displeased.

It took all of How's will not to look at Long Feng to see how he was reacting to the argument. A slight jerk of the Treasury Minister's head said he could not resist checking on the Cultural Minister himself.

"While I am certain you understand the cost," the minister said, not actually looking at How while he spoke, "Perhaps you do not understand the resources currently available to Ba Sing Se." He finished with a gulp, still not looking at How.

Kiet passed him a slate. 'He is disagreeing with Long Feng.'

'I noticed,' How scrawled in reply, then turned his attention back to the conclave. "The Fire Nation has a fleet of these already. They are new enough that we've never seen the Fire Nation use them in battle, but we will sooner or later. If we don't match them now, we're not going to get the chance next time they attack."

No one, not one person in the conclave, disagreed with that assessment.

"The Fire Nation has authorized some of its airships to be used for trade," Long Feng said, and all of the ministers and their secretaries turned towards him in one motion. "The influx of Fire Nation spices to this city has given us a higher amount of import duties than one would expect this late in the year. It has also made those spices much more commonly available. The market seems as if it would bear an increase of import duties in the short-term, and having our own airships available for similar trade endeavours would increase Ba Sing Se's finances in the long-term."

The Minister of the Treasury nodded jerkily and sat down, something too like fear on his face. His secretary did not look precisely happy by this turn of events, either. There was a history of ministers who annoyed Long Feng finding themselves plagued with competent, hard-working subordinates who asked for the minister's input less and less on decisions.

Poor man. Disagreeing with Long Feng had to have taken considerable courage. Perhaps they could find a use for him in the Army, if he did not decide to move out to the countryside.

Long Feng's secretary passed him a slate, and the conclave's attention turned to someone else.

***

"Airships? Are you mad?"

General How finished giving instructions to Kiet before turning his attention to the lesser general who had approached. He was an older man, another member of the Council of Five, and ostensibly How's equal.

Ostensibly, the other ministers were Long Feng's equals.

"No," How said simply.

The other general scowled at him. "And what brilliant thing have you thought of to deal with them being damaged in flight? If an ostrich-horse gets injured, a man can at least get off it!"

That problem had been bothering How too, but he couldn't admit it without losing people's support on the airships. The Earth Kingdom needed them, especially given how useless their navy was.

Of course, he thought ruefully, there was a link there. Earthfolk didn't like taking their feet off the ground, and if fighting over water was bad enough to make most soldiers virtually useless at it, fighting in air would be even worse.

It still had to be done.

"The Fire Nation does it," How pointed out. "Are you suggesting our soldiers are less brave than those of the Fire Nation?"

It was an ugly tactic that didn't address the problem at all. It also made the other general flush darkly and stop questioning How about using airships.

***

A week later, the Minister of the Treasury was still the same man with the exact same subordinates as the week before. He had a tendency to eye the Dai Li warily whenever they were about, but so did three-quarters of everyone else who worked in the Earth King's Palace.

General How filed that away as very interesting.

***

Three and a half months after Long Feng and Hyo's fight, Kiet was in a bad mood. The slashing of his chalk against slates to write came particularly loudly, he'd broken his chalk twice, and he kept slamming doors.

The fourth time the vibrations of a slammed door reached How's feet, he went out to have a talk with his aide.

"What is going on?"

'Long Feng's secretary keeps beating me at mahjong. And shogi. And makruk.'

General How paused, something about that particular games list jangling in his mind. "... I didn't know you even played makruk."

'Not very well.' Kiet sulked, his characters coming out smaller than normal. 'He plays for money, too. It makes Xin Wan all amused, and he's always buying me dinner. I don't need him to do that!'

General How didn't even want to know why Xin Wan thought it was appropriate to buy dinner for Kiet in the first place. Likely, the smiling Dai Li agent didn't care how inappropriate it was, or what sort of talk it might inspire in malicious minds. People could get away with saying that kind of thing about the Dai Li because the Dai Li had the security of the Avatar's blessing and their own traditions to weed out anyone who actually was. The Army did not have such, and rumor of that kind of thing had ruined more than one good officer.

"Perhaps you should play Long Feng's secretary less often," How suggested mildly.

Kiet glanced at him, then wrote a set of very tiny simple characters on the edge of his slate, his arm mostly shielding them from view. 'What sort of man does Long Feng trust when the Dai Li have turned away?'

That was the question, wasn't it?

"It's your money," How said and returned to his office. It seemed Kiet was picking up more from his Dai Li friend than just free meals.

***

Five months after Long Feng and Hyo's fight, Mi-Cha showed up at How's office door with one of the Dai Li trainees in tow. The pickpocket Lanh, whom How promptly banished to the outer office with Kiet. His hair had gotten long enough to braid over the last two years or so, though he still didn't wear the conical hat of a full Dai Li agent.

General How, unfortunately, had to get in arm's reach of Lanh to accept the tea-tray he'd been carrying for Mi-Cha. After raising a small table to set the tea-tray on, the general checked his pouches. He was mildly irritated to find his seals had wound up in a different pouch.

At least Lanh had given them back. General How recalled some jokes from his own men about Fire Nation soldiers 'losing' things around the trainee. He sighed; he would have to do something very nice for Kiet to make up for forcing him to share space with the pickpocket for however long this would last.

"Good afternoon, Mi-Cha," he said finally as he sat down across the tea-table from her. "What brings you here?"

"Daddy said I could visit you if I stopped asking him if I could visit Uncle Long Feng again yet." The little girl smiled guilelessly. Her dark hair was pulled back in mimic of a Dai Li braid today, though she wore the traditional clothes of her family's people. In Dai Li green, but the high skirt and tiny jacket looked sufficiently different that she was cute rather than disturbing as she would be in something more like Dai Li robes.

The girl did love her father. General How did not especially like it, given what he knew of the Dai Li, but he could hardly protest Hyo raising her with proper filial devotion.

"That was kind of him," How replied. He couldn't recall the last time Hyo had let the girl out of his sight, except when the Dai Li Commander was attending directly to Dai Li business.

Mi-Cha nodded and stood up to carefully pour hot water from the small clay teapot into their tea cups. Steam immediately rose up, and the little girl seemed pleased. General How silently counted how long she let the water heat their cups, smiling slightly as she poured them out precisely on the count of thirty-six. Then she picked up a set of carved bamboo chopsticks and filled their tea cups half-full with green tea leaves.

She smiled and set the chopsticks aside, then poured more water over the tea leaves to cover them. This was immediately poured out into the waste-water container, but the infusion of hot water had brightened the tea leaves and released their soft scent. Mi-Cha then carefully refilled the cups almost to the brim with hot water, then sat back to let it steep.

"Very well done," How murmured. "You're quite skilled at that."

Mi-Cha beamed up at him. "Thank you, General How."

At the end of a mental count of thirty, How reached for his tea and took a sip. Mi-Cha also picked up her own, cradling the tea cup in her hands. Say what people would about Commander Hyo, he was at least raising his daughter right. She had quite respectfully served tea to her elder, and she'd waited for him to drink first.

"Do you play shogi, Mi-Cha?" How inquired, knowing full well she did. Yet if she did not want to play, it was politer for her to pretend not to know it than to decline the request of a respected general.

"Yes, General How."

With that answer, How stood up and went to fetch his set while Mi-Cha cleared the little table to create room for them to play on. She was a little girl, so he would play the game very lightly, not like he would with Kiet or one of his officers. However, he would not play to deliberately lose either. She would learn nothing that way.

General How set his battered old spruce shogi board on the table and laid out the individual pieces. Most of the pieces had been replaced at one time or another, out of whatever material was handy, so they were mismatched of different stones and woods with their ranks written in various levels of readability. A few had blood on them, to match the bloodstains on the board itself.

He let Mi-Cha have the opening move. "You seem very happy today."

"Alak and his brothers are talking again!" Mi-Cha smiled brightly as she picked up a piece and put it down. She glanced up at him, then elaborated, "Alak is one of Daddy's trainees. His family disowned him when he accepted Daddy and Uncle Long Feng's offer." Her shoulders slumped in remembered sadness. "Alak has to live with Hyun Su, but that's good because Hyun Su is one of Qin's, and Qin rather likes Alak. I think he's going to be put under Qin when he earns his hat."

"Mhm." How didn't remember exactly which Dai Li agent Hyun Su was, but he recognized the name of the crystalbender captain. "That's good to hear."

He hadn't heard about Dai Li trainees getting disowned before. To be fair, he hadn't cared about how the Dai Li handled their agents before the Occupation.

"What's changed?" He asked Mi-Cha out of curiosity. She was a clever little girl, and even if he could trust Commander Hyo not to use his little girl in the Dai Li's games, she was very quiet and no one paid her any heed. She listened.

And if she happened to overhear something interesting, How had no doubt her father would hear about it.

Mi-Cha frowned slightly, looking much more serious than any nine-year-old usually could manage. "I think it's because the Dai Li have been helping so much," she finally decided. "They were before, of course, but no one could see because they weren't supposed to know about the War. But now everyone can see, so everyone can see how good they are!"

General How resisted the urge to roll his eyes. She was the daughter of the Dai Li and much too young to be aware of some of what the Dai Li did. "Is that so?"

She nodded, and he shifted the conversation to her schooling. She happily chattered about what Qin and Liu and Tai and an incredible smattering of Dai Li names were teaching her.

***

After Mi-Cha left, How looked at his aide's desk. It looked nothing like it had when they'd started the day - everything was in the wrong place.

Kiet clutched a piece of chalk and his slate protectively close and glared.

"A raise," How offered.

Kiet nodded emphatically.

***

One evening six months after Long Feng and Hyo's argument, How could not leave the Earth King's Palace through the West Glorious Gate. One of his officers, Captain Rui, had gotten into an idiotic fight with someone else, and they'd wrecked the entire area. Earthbender crafters were already working to get the gate back into shape, but it would be several days until it could be safely used again.

General How suspected the delay had more to do with the workers being annoyed at the gate being destroyed over something so idiotic than with any practical concerns.

He could have opened a hole in the wall and let himself out. Breaching walls, however, was nearly as taboo in Ba Sing Se as men loving men. Instead, he turned and crossed to the other end of the Palace and the East Glorious Gate.

It was a comfortable walk next to the Inner Golden Water River that meandered through the Palace's squares and courtyards. People bustled all around, secretaries and bureacrats making to leave for the night, palace servants tending to their duties. Royal Earthbender Guards stood like islands in a sea of motion.

Passing by one of the bridges over the little river near the East Glorious Gate, a phrase caught his attention.

"-Dai Li."

He paused and glanced to the side. Long Feng stood on the bridge with a man wearing symbols of the Ministry of Ceremonies. A minor ministry since the War began, as it dealt in matters of spirituality and treating with foreign dignitaries. Long Feng's secretary stood nearby, something about the way he held himself naggingly familiar.

"As I have said often in these last few months, I am not the Commander of the Dai Li," Long Feng replied to whatever the man from the Ministry of Ceremonies had been saying.

"They are the Cultural Authority of Ba Sing Se, which falls under the office of the Cultural Minister," the man pointed out, tone very polite and formal. "The Minister of Ceremonies simply seeks some reassurance that you are planning to do something about them."

"Does he?" Long Feng glanced down at the man.

"He does," he said firmly. "They have failed in their duties to a gross extent, especially in the latter days of the War. He feels this has offended the spirits of the Earth Kingdom."

It's offended more important people than that, How thought drily. They should be drawn and quartered as traitors for the coup attempt and bringing down the Wall. He had found, in the little casual conversations that were the rice and salt of Ba Sing Se's politics, that he was one of the very few with such extreme views. Most would be happy to merely have the organization abolished.

"They have not been doing their duty as protectors of culture here in Ba Sing Se," Long Feng said, tone agreeable. "I will think on this."

- What?

General How could not have heard that.

He walked away, maintaining a brisk pace. Long Feng acting against the Dai Li? The idea was preposterous. Ridiculous. Unthinkable.

As unthinkable as Long Feng and Hyo refusing to work together had been.

No, it was purely ridiculous, he decided. Long Feng had made the proper words to make another minister feel as if he had some value to the government and would ignore the matter entirely.

***

In the morning seven months after Long Feng and Hyo's argument, How finally received an answer to the delays plaguing the airship factories' completion.

'There are number discrepancies in the work being done on the airship factories.'

General How frowned at the slate, then looked up at his aide standing by his desk. "Someone is finding out where these number problems are coming from."

Kiet nodded and reached for his slate. General How passed it back to him, then eyed the stack of memos that had wound up on his desk when Kiet came into the office in the first place. That would take the rest of the day to read and issues orders on. Probably some of the evening, too, if he stretched it, and then he could politely bow out of Fa Lu's attempts to introduce him to his niece.

His aide chalked a new message on his slate. 'Someone is. Ministry of War and our own. Receiving many of the usual excuses.'

"When we find the people who are skimming, they will be publicly caned," How decided, cracks appearing in the granite of his desk. He scowled at them and pressed his fingers into the stone to smooth it. How dare people try to embezzle money for building an air defense force to match the Fire Nation? Their one chance of ever matching the Fire Nation!

Kiet smiled, then carefully erased the message from his slate. He took his time, and the smile had faded before he chalked in his next message. 'It would be enjoyable. However, caning was outlawed as punishment three hundred years ago, sir.'

"They will be punished severely." If not by official means, then by unofficial.

'Yes, sir,' Kiet agreed. Then he paused and erased his slate. The next words he chalked on almost hesitantly before showing the slate to How. 'There are Dai Li involved.'

"In what way?" How bit off the words, holding back the split threatening to smash its way out of his hands and into his battered desk. A Dai Li skimming was ludicrous; a Dai Li investigating standard corruption almost equally so.

'They are helping the Ministry. They have eyes for details like a skilled clerk. They intimidate. Some do not give the usual excuses to Dai Li.'

"So they are making themselves useful." How knew the scorn in his voice would not register with Kiet.

The deaf man could read expressions well, however, and he shrugged in response to the general.

General How reached for the stack of memos, scanning the characters on the first sheet. "Is that everything that needs special attention?"

Kiet nodded, then tucked his slate under one arm. He tilted his head slightly, waiting to see if there were any orders for him before he left.

"Are you still losing money to Long Feng's secretary?"

Kiet's shoulders slumped, and he nodded.

"Quite the gamer," How commented, attention drifting to the paperwork. Something distracted him from the words, though; the memory-flash of Long Feng's secretary standing in the darkness near his master. "-He stands like a Dai Li. Kiet!"

His aide had already turned away, and How stomped down on the floor so the vibrations would get his attention. Dai Li Captain Jae, Long Feng's pet fanatic, had been well-known as a skilled games-player.

"Long Feng's secretary, how long is his hair?" He demanded when his aide turned back to him.

Kiet gave him an odd look, then gestured just at the base of his skull. No Dai Li would ever cut their hair so short, not with all the years spent growing their long braids.

But the man did stand like a Dai Li. It was worth considering. "I want him watched. Carefully. He can't know he's being observed and neither can anyone else."

Kiet nodded and left to deliver the orders.

***

"It's been almost a year since the retaking," Fa Lu said as he picked up a pan-fried dumpling in his chopsticks. "It's good to see everything so normal in Ba Sing Se again, don't you think?"

"I think nothing's changed since before the Wall fell for most people," How said quietly, looking around the street he and his friend had stopped to have lunch on. It was a beautiful day out, and How had simply earthbent a bench into place for them to rest on.

"Nothing has." Fa Lu waved his chopsticks in the direction of the lower two rings. "Oh, the Lower Ring, certainly. But even there, not much has changed. People have left, gone back to their homes now that the Fire Nation is gone. But a lot have stayed, too. They have lives here. Whatever else you may think of Long Feng, the policy of not letting the War exist inside the walls has provided Ba Sing Se with a continuity and stability few other places in the world can match."

General How growled and picked up a dumpling in his own chopsticks. "He is the same as he ever was, and everyone knows the Dai Li are traitors. Yet no one will do anything about them."

"Why don't you do something?"

His whole body reverberated at how wrong the idea was, and How froze in shock. Not just wrong but anathema, detestable. "If I did that," he said carefully, working out the reasons why almost as he said them, "If I used the military might and power of being a respected general in that manner, I would invite rebellion and ruin. I would be saying the laws of the Earth Kingdom do not matter, that we are as we were before the first Earth King united us."

Fa Lu nodded. "If Long Feng is to be brought down, he must be brought down legally." He hesitated, then turned his attention to his lunch.

"But?"

"He will never be brought down. Ba Sing Se is a city built on tradition as inviolate as her foundation-stones. Long Feng has become part of the traditions."

General How laid his chopsticks down before he could break them. "Long Feng may get out of this unscathed, but the Dai Li still have to answer for their crimes."

"Indeed. Treason, bringing down the Wall... What they did is unforgivable." Fa Lu glanced at him. "I have it on good authority that the Ministry of War will be adding pressure to the Ministry of Culture to deal with the Dai Li very soon now."

***

It was nine months after Long Feng and Hyo's argument when anything came of the comment Fa Lu had made at that lunch.

Near the end of the monthly conclave, the secretary to the ancient Minister of Ceremonies finished delivering his report and stepped back. A few had questions regarding the upcoming arrival of the envoy from the Fire Nation. General How thought there were far fewer questions being asked than people would usually have, though.

There was a sense of expectancy hanging over the conclave, a jittery nervousness, and everyone's eyes kept slipping back to Long Feng. When the questions were finished, all attention turned to the Cultural Minister.

Long Feng placed his hands on the stone railing in front of him and stood. "Many of you have asked that something be done about the Dai Li. I have been, as I have told anyone who asked, running an internal investigation to root out those who collaborated deliberately with the Fire Nation. These men betrayed their fellow agents into forced servitude and betrayed the city of Ba Sing Se to the Fire Nation. They will be drawn and quartered the day after the autumnal equinox." He paused then recited three names.

Shock ran through the assembly in little whispers, and How glanced at the Dai Li representative. The man looked pale and shaken, his hat pulled down to hide his eyes and his hands in his lap. A captain's symbol decorated his hat, but he wasn't one who had been a captain before the Occupation.

None of the Dai Li slated for execution were captains, but the captains still remaining from before the Occupation were much too obviously anti-Fire for anyone to believe they could collaborate. Liu was mute because of a firebender's blast destroying his lower face and throat, while the crystalbender... Everyone had heard the whispers and seen the tell-tales of his new fear of fire.

General How narrowed his eyes, his attention turning back to Long Feng as the Cultural Minister seated himself. Bold, decisive, and utterly brutal. Executions like that of men who loyally followed him would convince the rest of the government of Ba Sing Se as nothing else would. Maybe it was even true.

***

Hyo was not speaking to Long Feng. The Dai Li Commander had not been speaking to Long Feng for almost a year, but it seemed to intensify in the days after Long Feng's announcement. The set of his shoulders, the stiffness of his spine, the shards of silence whenever someone mentioned the Minister of Culture, every bit spoke of how much he had nothing to do with Long Feng.

General How noted the change in attitude, but was too busy dealing with the celebrations. A year ago, the Occupation of Ba Sing Se had ended, and Firelord Ozai had been broken by Avatar Aang. For a week, the city was a riot of festivity. Beer and wine flowed like water, dumplings of various stuffings sold to anyone who had a coin. The parades drove anyone who wanted to travel half-insane, and every business in the city was doing a brisk trade. Fireworks, the first show in as long as anyone could remember, lit the night sky on the actual Comet Day.

Crime, as expected, picked up right along with everything else. The soldiers of the Earth Kingdom did their best to keep the peace and prevent actual riots from breaking out, but there was only so much they could do. Especially when many of them wanted to be off-duty as much as possible.

General How did his best. At the end of the celebrations, all major buildings were still standing, so he counted it as a success.

Kiet approached him the morning after the celebration with a cup of Fire Nation coffee and a slate. He offered the cup first and refused to turn over the slate until How managed to force down the vile drink.

'Long Feng's secretary was picked up by a Dai Li two nights past.'

General How glowered down at the words on the slate, then looked at his aide. "Which one?"

Kiet shrugged and held out his hands for his slate. When he received it, he erased the characters and chalked a different set. 'Bad light. I've seen the man before, but that's all I can tell you. I have been checking all the Dai Li I can, but they are often out and about.'

"Do what you can," How said. "What else can you tell me?"

'Their body language was very strange. Chang, the secretary, did not fight much, and the Dai Li was just- very odd.' Kiet frowned at his slate, fiddling with the piece of chalk in his hand. 'Very odd,' he added when How finished reading what he had written, then he erased all of it.

"How odd?"

Kiet's mouth thinned and he shook his head. 'I need to find out which Dai Li first.'

Very odd. Had Hyo lost his temper with Long Feng finally and let one of the more "playful" Dai Li have some fun with the Minister's secretary? Or was there something else going on?

***

Kiet had many other duties besides tracking down Dai Li. Ten months after Long Feng and Hyo's argument, his aide brought him news that the primary embezzler of the airship monies had been discovered. Captain Rui had just arrested the man in his office on the second floor of this very hall.

General How stormed out of his own office to find the man who had been delaying his vital project. Military men and officials from the Ministry of War ducked out of his way.

The Dai Li standing outside the office with Captain Rui and the prisoner did not. The scarred Dai Li kept eyeing Rui askance; he was the identical twin of one of the missing Dai Li captains, and it evidently bothered this agent.

The frightened look on the arrested official's face changed to outright terror as How bore down on them. Rui drew himself up in a salute, while the Dai Li offered an abbreviated bow of respect.

The door to the office opened, and Commander Hyo stepped out, hatless. He seemed more relaxed than he had in days, but the tightness around his grey eyes said he still walked a fault-line. Following behind him, looking both gloriously happy and deeply startled, the pickpocket Lanh came out wearing his hat. The scarred Dai Li agent brightened and smiled, reaching out to clap Lanh on the shoulder. Someone had evidently completed his training.

"General How," Hyo said. "It's good to see you. I've a report you should hear."

"Yes, you do." How gave Rui a hard look. "See that he's punished as is appropriate for the crime, Captain."

"Sir." Rui glanced at the two Dai Li agents and jerked his head towards the main exit to the Hall of Military Glory. "Bring him along."

The scarred Dai Li grabbed the chains around the official and dragged him after Rui, his stone hands providing help where necessary. Lanh followed along behind, looking a little too dazed to be good for much of anything. General How suspected it was a ruse and confirmed it when he checked his pouches out of habit and found his seals missing.

Hyo sighed, checked his own pouches, and returned the seals. "I'll need to speak to him about that."

"Why were your Dai Li involved in this?" How asked mildly.

"Hyun Su felt examining the accounts ledgers would serve as a lesson for Lanh. Your Captain Rui noted several staggering descrepencies in the process, which he pursued. Hyun Su went along with him to provide assistance."

"I see. Walk with me for the rest of the report?" How turned it into a request with a shift in tone at the end. He could not legitimately order Hyo to do anything, and irritating the man would make it that much harder to get information out of him. Irritating Hyo could have other consequences as well. With the autumnal equinox looming ever closer, Hyo's mood had turned towards earthquakes. A discourtesy between them could turn to an argument, an argument to a fight, and a fight would smash the Palace.

"Of course," Hyo said.

***

The autumn equinox, and its attendant executions, came and went. The rest of the Dai Li seemed to walk on glass that day, and Kiet hugged his slate tightly to his chest after a run-in with Hyo.

Two weeks after, Kiet approached How while he walked a troop-inspection on the Middle Wall. His aide scrawled something on his slate, chalk clacking with the force of his strokes.

'It was Sang Min. With Long Feng's secretary.'

General How stared at the characters, then drove his arm down in one powerful motion. The section of the wall he and Kiet stood on dropped like it had no support, wind roaring past as it fell. His aide yelped and froze, eyes wide. The soldiers on the wall around rushed over, their shouts of alarm lost in the wind. General How ignored them until the wall-section reached the train-way. Then he dragged Kiet off and sent the wall-section back into position.

Sang Min. Captain Jae's partner. Rumors implied partners in more ways than one, but rumors always liked to imply that about the Dai Li. They were certainly close, however.

Long Feng's secretary, who won most any game he played, getting picked up by Sang Min of all the Dai Li? Too much coincidence to be believed anymore. Hair could be cut.

Train-ways were not supposed to be used by an earthbender without a train. General How ignored that and earthbent his way along the raised causeway. The stone was used to being earthbent and lent him even more speed than he could have generated alone.

At the spot closed to the walls of the Earth King's Palace, he leapt from the train-way, causing Kiet to shriek as he dragged his aide after him. The side of the train-way slanted into a ramp. If something as steep as this could be called a ramp.

He let go of Kiet when they touched the street in order to put the train-way right, then stormed off in the direction of the Palace. Kiet followed at his heels, easily keeping up.

He'd never believed Jae was dead, but this- No, he hadn't expected this, and he should have. Jae adored Long Feng too much to stand with the other Dai Li against him. The insolent whelp had proven that during the coup.

(- The Dai Li holding the chains pulled, forcing How to his knees. The one in the captain's hat bent down, grinning. "Too bad Long Feng isn't here to see you give him the respect he deserves. But maybe he'll let me convince you to kiss the hem of his robe when he sits on the throne."

"Stop being a dick, Jae," one of the others drawled in a soft eastern accent.

General How studied Captain Jae's face, remembering it so he could teach the boy respect when this was all over.)

The Royal Earthbender Guards at the gate got out of his way. The gates, however, did not open fast enough, and How simply smashed through them. These he didn't bother to fix, and more people scattered out of his way as he passed through the first courtyard. The gates between this courtyard and the section of the Palace containing the Hall of Literary Glory were thrown open at this time of day. Nothing further barred his way as he shoved open the doors of the Hall, Kiet still trotting at his heels.

Long Feng claimed to have killed Jae during the Occupation. With the man safely 'dead' and his hair shorn, he could move around as just another unimportant palace official. He could talk, read, listen; he could be a Dai Li in all the very most dangerous of ways without anyone the wiser. He could do Dai Li things that Hyo didn't 'know' about. His friends could slip him tidbits without the Dai Li Commander 'knowing', either.

He could be Long Feng's stone glove, and Long Feng could continue to protest to people that he did not command the Dai Li, they did not report to him, they only reported to Hyo.

He let Long Feng lie in the best possible way - by telling the truth.

What How couldn't figure out was how much of Long Feng's quarrel with Hyo was lie and how much was truth. He'd accused Hyo of abandoning his daughter, and the earth had trembled with their restrained earthbending. He executed Dai Li agents, and Hyo had been furious.

But Long Feng could play that coldly.

Hadn't he sacrificed his own as-good-as-son to the Fire Nation?

General How slammed open the outer door to Long Feng's office, striding past the secretary towards the inner door. "Where is Long Feng?"

"In a discussion with the Minister of the Treasury," Jae said, voice pitched soft but still recognizable.

General How smiled viciously at the door of Long Feng's office, then turned and slammed clamps down over the other earthbender. He pinned Jae's arms to his body and encased his legs in stone. "Unfortunate."

He studied the young man's face, noting that he hadn't even disguised himself beyond cutting his hair and not wearing his uniform. Jae struggled against the stone binding him, and How knew there was only a short amount of time before the Dai Li broke free.

Rock shards flew when Jae did, but instead of raising a shield to protect himself, How bulled through it and slammed the Dai Li into a wall. He paused, cracked Jae's skull against the stone, then pulled him away to dangle at the end of his arm by the throat. "You earthbending prodigies are all the same. You think sheer power makes up for experience."

Jae spat curses at him. General How ignored him, except for his hand tightening on the Dai Li's throat. Insolent whelp. Did he think How had forgotten his part in the coup?

"I think I'll break your spine," How decided, and the Dai Li's eyes widened in alarm. He struggled and the stone around him responded to his struggles, at least until How redirected its energies with his own earthbending.

He was not as powerful as Jae. Few people were, even in Ba Sing Se. But he was much older and had been earthbending for much longer.

"Earthbending won't help you," he told the Dai Li. "I break people across my knee when they need breaking like this."

Jae went ashen.

Kiet tapped his arm, then held up a slate. 'Crippling a minister's secretary would earn you only an ignominous execution, general.'

His aide's hands were shaking.

General How stared at the slate and Kiet's trembling hands. He found he didn't want to look at his aide's eyes, not right now. Not until this was well past.

Instead he growled and slammed Jae against the wall again, then let the Dai Li crumple to the floor. "Let's go, Kiet."

***

A year and four days after their argument, Long Feng and Hyo were seen having tea together. Carefully, with both standing on a wooden floor, and not another Dai Li around.

But it was tea, and then there was the day Hyo brought Long Feng a report. Then there was the day Mi-Cha led Long Feng through the halls to show him something interesting, and there was the day after that where Long Feng stopped by Hyo's office for a chat.

General How listened to the gossip flowing around him and tried not to stare at all the people who were pleased by their reconciliation. He wanted to yell at them, remind them a year ago they had bayed for the Dai Li's blood when they hadn't cowered in fear of Long Feng using the Dai Li to destroy them.

"A lot can happen in a year," Xin Wan said with a smile one afternoon, evidently in response to something Kiet had written on his slate.

General How closed the door to his office and went to stare out the window at the Earth King's Palace.

A lot could happen in a year. Ba Sing Se could fall and rise again, the Firelord could fall. The Dai Li could no longer be hated and feared. Long Feng could consolidate his power.

But a year wasn't so long in the scheme of things, not to people with stone instead of bone. A friendship could last a lifetime of being apart, as King Bumi and Avatar Aang had proven.

What was one year of avoiding each other to men who still had most of their lives in front of them?

General How sighed and closed his eyes. Omashu. He would go to Omashu.

***

He did not go to Omashu. Between one crisis and another, How barely had time to think about eating, much less retiring and traveling to the other end of the Earth Kingdom. This batch of crises ended after two weeks, however, with How roundly threatening to have the heads of his officers if this sort of problem ever happened again with the airships.

Kiet brought him a memo one morning. His aide always brought him memos, but they were usually in stacks with the more important ones on top. This one he handed directly to How, then stood back and shifted awkwardly from foot-to-foot.

It was from the Ministry of Culture.

General How read it and stared, appalled at how easily Long Feng and Hyo had made everything fall into place. "Did you notice," he said, "That he said the Earth Kingdom government, not the government of Ba Sing Se?"

Kiet nodded.

"The entire Earth Kingdom. Not just Ba Sing Se."

Kiet nodded again.

"Damn him."

Due to the increasing corruption in the Earth Kingdom government, the Dai Li's duties have been expanded to hunting down corruption in the bureacracy and delivering the appropriate punishments to corrupt officials. The office of Commander of the Dai Li has been abolished, and the Dai Li will now report to Inspector-General Hyo of the Ministry of Culture.


-End-