It had been quite the speech. Bold. Intimidating. Powerful. In all of his time as an agent of the Dai Li, Yi had never heard such a thing. The Fire Nation Princess was charismatic and driven in a way uncommon even among generals and royalty.
Long Feng was a fool.
From the beginning, First Agent Yi had been wary of taking princess Azula in as an ally of the Dai Li. Long Feng, however, had insisted the girl would be useful, and made it clear by his oh-so-subtle remarks and intonation that he believed she would be dealt with easily enough when the time came. But Long Feng hadn't seen her in action just now.
Azula had crafted a subtle and impressive plan. Yi could find no flaw in it; the Earth King could be captured, his most loyal servants neutralized, and the Dai Li's absolute power secured once again in less than an hour after reconnaissance was complete. And then…
Well. There was an opportunity. A dangerous, previously unthinkable, deliriously tempting opportunity. An opportunity Yi was on his way to present to his most important subordinate.
Yi knew the corridors of the Earth Palace better than his own mind, but it was still often a challenge to make his way here. As he swept silently through the crystal-lit halls of the under-palace, past dozens of identical doorways, Yi kept careful count. At last, he found the proper doorway, and slipped through.
The cell was plain. Barren, even. If he hadn't known better, even Yi would have assumed it was empty. Lifting the mandatory portrait of the Earth King hanging off the wall, however, it was easy for Yi to find the hidden trigger in the cracked stonework and activate the mechanism to open the trap door. It slid open silently, allowing soft golden lamplight to leak into the cell. Replacing the portrait, Yi moved quickly down the stairs and pressed the complimentary trigger on the wall near the base, sealing the way behind him. The precaution may have been unnecessary given just how difficult this place was to find, but Yi couldn't help indulging in paranoia considering why he was here. Approaching the familiar oaken door, Yi knocked—two heavy raps, then three quick ones, then two quiet ones. Then, he waited.
After a moment, the door opened, almost blinding Yi with the lamplight.
"First Agent—what a pleasant surprise. How may I be of assistance?" Lady Joo Dee asked, smiling.
"I have something do discuss with you, my lady. May I come in?" Yi asked.
"But of course." Lady Joo Dee said, stepping aside and motioning Yi inside.
Her room was spacious, almost lavishly so. An entire corner was devoted solely to lounging space—a couch festooned with cushions of many shapes and sizes, all in warm yellow and spring green, next to a long and finely crafted table of mahogany wood bearing pots with fresh flowers and a half-finished painting of lake Laogai. A pair of doors in another corner led to a lavatory and hot-spring room, respectively, and next to them was a small kitchen. In the center of the room there was a grand hardwood desk, polished and shining in the lamplight, covered in carefully stacked scrolls and papers. Bookcases lined almost all of the wall to the left of the door, broken only by an enormous painting of Tui and La styled as the ocean and moon. Beneath this painting was an unassuming bronze Pai Sho table with a cushioned armchair at either side. This was where Yi went, sliding into his customary black chair. After a moment, Lady Joo Dee joined him with a tea tray she set the table.
Agent Yi watched her with mild suspicion as she poured a glass and held it out to him.
"You are too gracious, mistress." He said, taking it. "To have tea ready before your guest has even made himself known is remarkably fortunate." He said, watching her pour her own glass.
"Fortunate indeed, First Agent." She said, smile unwavering. There was mischief in her eyes as she glanced down at Yi's cup and back up at his eyes, and with a huff of irritation he took a sip. It was perfect, as always. She must have known he was coming—but how? It must have been reported by the Joo Dee. Or she'd heard the news and assumed he was coming. Did she have leaks within the Agents, just as he had his own people in the Joo Dee corps? If so, that would explain—
Ugh. She'd distracted him. Again. This was not why he was here. He'd been glaring at her far too long at this point, because her lips had drawn up at the edges and he was certain she was laughing at him—she knew exactly what she was doing. Shaking his head, he took another sip before speaking.
"We've captured a princess of the Fire Nation. The princess. Azula." Yi said. Lady Joo Dee raised an eyebrow.
"Oh?" Was all she said, before taking another sip. So she'd known. Of course she'd known.
"Yes." Yi replied. Best to wait, see what she'd say.
"A great victory for the Earth Kingdom, then. Congratulations." She said. They stared at each other across the table, eyes locked. Eventually, she sighed, and Yi felt a small rush of pleasure at the victory.
"You'd mentioned before that there was something you wanted to discuss. I presume there's more you wanted to say." She said. Yi resisted the urge to grin.
"There is." Yi said, pausing for another moment, and taking a sip of his tea. Lady Joo Dee's smile became noticeably thinner, and after a rapid reflection on the dangers of excessive gloating Yi decided to continue.
"Long Feng has decided to use her to our advantage. Due to the Avatar, we've lost the trust of the Earth King and his closest advisors. The Dai Li have been weakened, and our enemies may take advantage—this cannot carry on. So—" Yi leaned forward slightly, "we're taking control of the palace, and the King, and using Azula's plan to do it." Yi said.
"Ah." Lady Joo Dee said, taking another sip of her tea. She'd known that, too. Ugh. How? How in Kyoshi's name—confound it, no. Yi hadn't figured out how she did all she did over the last twenty years of wondering, and he wouldn't manage it now. He had time to be irritated and more amazed than he'd ever willingly admit later.
"Afterwards, of course, Long Feng's plan is to take her prisoner and use her as a bargaining chip against the Fire Nation." Yi said. Lady Joo Dee nodded.
"A sound plan, I'm sure." She said, smile unwavering. Her eyes gave her away, however—to Yi at least. The slight narrowing of the eyelids she always got when discussing Long Feng.
"Of course, of course. However, we've received an alternate plan. From Azula." Yi said, watching Lady Joo Dee closely. She didn't so much as flinch.
"Have you." She said, taking another sip.
"We have." Yi replied, taking a sip of his own.
"How interesting." She said.
"Indeed." Yi said.
"Scandalous. Absolutely scandalous." She said.
"You don't know the half of it." Yi said.
"No. No I don't." She said, dropping the smile completely. "Are you going to enlighten me?"
"Yes." Yi said, grinning. Lady Joo Dee didn't respond other than to stare at him, blankly. In silence. For what must have been a full minute.
"First Agent Yi." She said, a note of wrath entering into her voice, "I must I enquire as to the timetable of this revelation? You must have seen my latest artwork. Perhaps I should finish it so that the paint has time to dry while you continue to waste our time." There it was—the fire. The passion. The fury. Spirits…
"Azula intends to take this city, end the Earth Kingdom, and capture the Avatar. End the war. Tomorrow." Yi said. That earned an eyebrow raised, but he could tell it was for his benefit alone. When truly surprised her eyes widened ever so slightly, and a crinkle formed in her brow. She'd known already, somehow, or suspected.
"A bold proposition. I suppose she's found a way, then, and it involves he Dai Li?" Lady Joo Dee asked.
"She has, and it does. Extensively." Yi said.
"And she must have made some sort of offer. Promised something of immense value in exchange." Lady Joo Dee said.
"Power, wealth, prestige, and the City of Ba Sing Se." Yi said. This, at long last, surprised the Lady. She brought a hand to her mouth, but couldn't keep the mirth out of her eyes.
"A marvelous proposal, to be sure. I must wonder if that's how Omashu finally fell—perhaps old King Bumi was given a similar choice. How could he resist?" She said, silently snickering at him. Yi tried to ignore her and continue.
"We are to capture the council of five, the king, and the Avatar. Then we are to bring down the walls of the city and open the way for the Fire Nation's armies." Yi continued.
"And then on to build an enormous and anatomically exaggerated statue of Firelord Ozai, naturally." She said, brightly. Yi scowled.
"No—then we join the winning side of this war, serve as the personal guards and enforcers of the Fire Lords as they rule over the world, and finally take Ba Sing Se for ourselves." Yi said, genuinely honest.
"For ourselves, indeed." She said, nodding gravely. Had Yi been anyone else, he might have thought her sincere. He scowled even further.
"Spirits, why can't you take this seriously?" He growled, before taking a calming breath. "Chunhua…"
That got her attention. Her not-quite-grin bent into a frown. "The walls have ears, first agent." Chunhua said.
"Of course. But we own those ears, dear." Yi said, letting the mask of the Dai Li's first agent fall away completely. Chunhua sighed, putting down her tea cup.
"So it's that dire, then." The love of Yi's life said, letting her own mask as mistress of the Joo Dee fade into a small smile. "What's wrong, Yi?" She asked.
"Well…" Yi found himself fumbling for words. "I…I think we could do more. Be more. We've wasted so much time working as Long Feng's shadows." Yi grimaced. "I remember the early days when he had such plans, such passion… I convinced you he was a worthy man to follow, against your better judgement. I… I thought he was going to lead us to a better future, a safer future. I was wrong. I know you've never liked or trusted him, but he was my friend, once… and he had such potential! Such brilliance! But... after all of that horrible business with Agent Lu, and losing Joo Dee…" Yi put a hand to his face. "It seems as if all those dreams and ideals just rotted away. I've been telling myself he was the same man he's always been, that his goals justified his methods. But today the Fire Princess took charge and reminded me what a true leader looks like, and… at last I have to see that the righteous and driven mastermind I knew has become little more than a grasping husk."
Chunhua shook her head, reaching across the table to take Yi's hand. "You weren't completely wrong, dear. I never believed that Ba Sing Se could be a city of any kind of peace or safety. We've made things so much better—we cleansed the Dai Li of the Gaozin clan, shattered every Daofei bandit gang in the outer ring. Do you remember the city when we began all this, when we joined the Dai Li? How our families suffered, how far the city had gone into panic and destruction? How the Dragon of the West pawed at our gates? The hunger and famine of that siege? No, I would not have followed you down a hopeless path. Long Feng did better than I'd ever dreamed possible, wretched man that he is."
Yi melted a little at her touch. "That is… reassuring to hear. I forget, sometimes, how far we've come… it is so hard to ignore all that could have been, what should have been."
Chunhua smiled at him, rubbing soothing circles into the back of his hand with her thumb. "I know, Yi. This is what makes us such a good match, you and I. You always see what could be, and I see what was. Together we see what is."
Yi put his hand over hers, letting himself sink again into her eyes… they were the most beautiful he'd ever seen, a wondrous honey-brown. "Always, Chunhua."
Chunhua cupped his cheek in her hand. "Always, Yi." For a moment, they stayed there, taking joy and peace in each others' presence. Then she patted his face and leaned back. "So… this business with the Fire Princess."
Yi nodded. "It is an opportunity we cannot afford to pass up."
Chunhua fixed him with a piercing gaze. "Have you thought this through?"
Yi nodded. "Thoroughly."
Chunhua raised an eyebrow. A bad sign. "Really?"
Yi opened his mouth to respond, then thought for a moment. "As thoroughly as I could in the last few hours. The Dai Li have an opportunity to not only survive, but thrive—to join the winning side of this war and become a force of peace and security with a reach extending beyond Ba Sing Se to the entire world. We would be able to rule our city openly, with all the wealth and power of the Earth King and Queen. All of this could be done tomorrow."
Chunhua took a sip of her tea. "It could."
Yi frowned. "You aren't convinced. I know it has its risks, I know we'll be branded as traitors by some, but you know as well as I that most desire peace above all else. Malcontents can be dealt with, and the rest will be grateful to have food on their table and safety in their homes. We would have our pick of recruits from across the Earth Kingdom; we would even gain access to the Fire Nation's war machines, manufacturing secrets and metalworking skills. The Fire Lord is far away; the Fire Nation will need administrators who know this land to ensure it provides its share of taxes and remains peaceful. We could maintain our way of life, the survival of our people and the tranquility our Dai Li have established at the cost of a change of flags."
Chunhua nodded. "This is true. It's a reasonable offer. The Fire Nation should accept—they can hardly expect to rule the whole Earth Kingdom or even Ba Sing Se without administrators who know our land. The people will always resist direct foreign rule; our way would save them centuries of growing pains."
Yi blinked. "Indeed. My thoughts exactly. They would be foolish or mad to pass up this chance."
"You are correct." Chunua said. She gestured up to the great painting hanging above them—one of Yi's personal favorites of hers. The ocean and moon cast as yin and yang, two lovers with hands entwined whose faces bore a remarkable resemblance to their own.
"Yi, you recall the night a few months ago when the moon underwent those terrifying changes, yes?" Chunhua said. Yi stared at her, a shiver running up his spine.
"How could I forget?" It had been one of the most terrifying things he'd ever experienced. The moon had eclipsed suddenly and out of season; then it had disappeared completely from the sky. Yi had been on duty, keeping watch on a residence of new refugees. The shock was absolute. He'd been frozen in place, staring up at the suddenly red moon, when the screams began.
The city had rioted. For the first time in decades, there was panic throughout the lower districts. Long Feng had led the royal guard to restore order before the situation had gotten completely out of control, but it was a near thing. Fires had spread, only being doused by the efforts of a particularly determined handful of Dai Li members, but Yi was not among them.
It had been revelatory to Yi in hindsight how quickly he'd abandoned his duties. The world seemed to be coming to an end; he'd been filled with a mix of existential panic and determination. The only thing that had mattered in that moment was fighting his way back to Chunhua and dying in her arms, if it truly was their time. They'd spent that night together, horribly afraid, consumed with passion and devotion. Yi would never forget those desperate hours for the rest of his days…
Yi snapped back to attention as Chunhua began to speak.
"My contacts have finally learned the cause of that event. Our suspicions were correct—it was a direct result of the Fire Nation's invasion of the Norther Water Tribe. Admiral Zhao killed the moon spirit—it was only through the efforts of the Avatar and the sacrifice of the princess of the North that the moon returned and balance was restored." Chunhua said.
"Zhao." Yi said like a curse, seething with contempt. "Of course it was Zhao."
"Yes," Chunhua said, hiding a sneer behind her cup of tea. "The butcher of the north is no more; his grasping ambition at last met its end in the arms of the sea with almost a third of the Northern fleet. Against the orders of their high Admiralty."
"Against…?" Yi asked, startled. He'd heard of the northern invasion, of course, but assumed it had been part of the broader plan. It had seemed a strange use of resources, and such an extravagance did not seem out of place for Zhao, but Yi could understand the necessity of neutralizing the until-now dormant Northern Tribe. They had been a relative wild card in the past few years; if they'd intervened more actively the Fire Nation's shipping could have been seriously threatened and their supplies of critical machine weaponry cut off from the front lines.
But the North had turned inward in the last few decades of the war, leaving the Earth Kingdom to face their foes almost alone. Considering what had happened to the Southern Tribe, whose history of resistance and active support of the Earth Kingdom war effort had seen their people gutted and almost wiped out by the Fire Nation during Azulon's reign, the Northern stance was understandable if contemptable. The North would not act except to defend themselves from direct attack—at least, that had been the status quo, before Zhao.
"Admiral Zhao apparently requested authorization for the invasion directly from the Fire Lord. It is unclear why this request was granted. It does appear, however, that Admiral Zhao set out with the express goal of killing the moon spirit, in order to destroy waterbending at its source." Chunhua said, and Yi felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
"Meaning this was likely the keystone of plan he presented to the Fire Lord." Yi concluded, schooling his face into a fragile expression of calm at Chunhua's affirming nod. "Madness…"
"This is not the only news I must bring to you, my love. There is a graver picture to be painted here." Yi stared deeply into her eyes—even in such a situation he couldn't help but admire their beauty.
"Then paint it, dear one." Yi said, taking her hand in both of his own. She smiled for a moment, before her expression grew stormy.
"Sozin's comet returns once more. We've seen the Fire Nation's armies recede; they bide their time, building their strength. They've certainly let a few grandstanding fools and ambitious captains keep up their assaults—the Northern Invasion and the Fall of Omashu being two of these, and the more recent drill attack." Chunhua said—Yi nodded.
"We've spoken of this before. Just enough pressure to keep us on guard, but nothing bold enough to seriously risk a costly defeat." Yi said.
"They're planning something. One last great offensive." Chunhua said.
"Yes. An offensive that we cannot hope to hold back—the day we will lose this war, unless we end it sooner. If we side with Azula, if we join the Fire Nation, the war could be over before that happens." Yi said.
"It could be, Yi… but our people are defiant. Even the fall of Ba Sing Se would not mean the end to their resistance. The Dai Li could take this matter in hand and keep watch over the Earth Kingdom, but still… Ozai may not be satisfied." Chunhua said. Yi froze.
"You think… surely he would not…" Yi said, stopping short of spelling out his newfound nightmare. The realization of its existence shook him to his core.
"I do not know, dear one. But I suspect, and I fear. We both know Ozai is a cruel and evil man, even for a Firelord—but it is worse than we imagined. I shudder to think what the kind of man who would scheme against his own family and plot to destroy one of the spiritual pillars of this world for a mere battlefield advantage would do with the power of that comet." Chunhua said.
"A man without mercy or reason… perhaps he would seek to recreate the atrocities of his grandfather. Perhaps he would rather see the Earth Kingdom a smoking ruin than broker any resistance." Yi said, deathly calm. Chunhua nodded, horror flickering in her eyes.
"That cannot happen. I will not stand by and allow it." Yi said, almost growling.
"It isn't certain, dear one; perhaps this is not Ozai's course, or he could be persuaded otherwise with a more profitable alternative. It is only a possibility." Chunhua said, cautious.
"But one that can never be risked. We do this for each other, our people, and our way of life. I would sacrifice any of the others, or myself, before you—but I will never allow our people to be slaughtered, as the Air Nomads were, while I still draw breath. If this is the will of the Firelord, then we must grind him into dust." Yi vowed. Chunhua smiled—a full smile, this time.
"Very well—I am in agreement. I suppose we must then capture the Fire Princess. Much as I despise Long Feng, he is the lesser of two evils." Chunhua said.
"No. Long Feng has proven to be a disappointment. It was at his command that we focused on internal matters and allowed the war to take its course outside of Ba Sing Se's walls. We must move aggressively and without hesitation—Long Feng's incessant scheming and obsession with this city would be a hindrance. I think… I know, it is time for you and I to move into the spotlight. If we are to win this war before the summer is out, we will need official power and many allies. This is our city and our kingdom—they shall hail us as heroes or curse us as villains before our work is done, but none is better suited than you or I." Yi said. Chunhua's smile widened.
"You always know just what to say… I wholeheartedly approve of this path. The whole world shall tremble in our wake." She raised her teacup. "To security, and victory."
Yi raised his own. "To peace, to sanity—and to the death of Ozai."