A/N: 1) All my excuses/explanations for the lengthy delay between updates/medical things are here - . - clickable link at my profile.
2) I've lost track of what I've edited and which of my edits I actually uploaded. Sorting this out will have to come later. But I did finally change the part in Ch. 24 where Toph comes off like an uncaring troll.
3) Special thanks to Boogum and SLWalker for betaing! All the remaining things wrong, are, quite seriously, my own.
4) As always, thanks to everyone with concrit to offer! Please let me know if I didn't credit you or respond to you, because I've been forgetting all sorts of stuff: Terracannon876, Gidon, Boogum, Opalalchemy, Charmed Ravenclaw, Weasel Fu, Anne Camp aka Obi-Quiet, YesNoPerhapsSo, Mafalda157, Claude, PoptartProdigy, Guest
The railcar passed through a tunnel set halfway up the wall. Out of habit, Iroh noticed both the potential weak point and the guard balcony above it, then chuckled at himself. Preparing for a campaign sharpened the senses, but he'd miss the new openings if he got caught up in old architecture. Dim lamps flashed by quickly, hypnotically; then the great city opened before them. Iroh pressed his face to the window eagerly, catching glimpses of colorful fabrics or weather-beaten wood structures in between all the white stone houses that wedged up against each other.
Crowds jammed the station's platforms. It seemed that people here often worked far from where they lived, which Iroh found unusual, but impressive. The streets outside weren't as packed; still, the noise was overwhelming after their past few weeks of relative solitude. Iroh looked forward to getting used to it. The city was a marvel, orderly and neat, able to provide for everyone who came to it. This was the place of refuge for everyone whose life changed violently and unexpectedly. This was the city of second chances.
Zuko looked much less distraught today, though he still scowled and didn't quite keep up his end of the conversation as they walked. Iroh wished dearly he knew what caused yesterday's fit, but he was less worried now. Zuko could never hide for long anything that perturbed him so badly. It was best to let him blow off some steam, sulk and mutter, and eventually, come around to revealing all.
"I think we're here!" Iroh said at the third market east of the gate.
"Why did we come all this way if you're not even sure it's the right place?" Zuko's voice rose.
Iroh gave him a meaningful look. "Hush. It's safer not to have an exact location. Remember, those who know how can always find a friend!"
Zuko grimaced. "That again."
Iroh sighed. Getting Zuko to understand the Society would take time, and since Zuko couldn't attend the meeting itself, chances were high he'd just brood. Maybe it was best to split up. "Have you seen any signs about rooms for rent?" He let his worry show. "I hoped we could stay in this area, so as to be close to our friends."
"No, but there don't seem to be people living in the streets, either. The city must not be as overcrowded as it looks."
In the end, Iroh asked one of the vendors, who told them that there was plenty of newcomer housing, but far away. More importantly, it sounded like a barracks-type setup, which Iroh liked, except for the part where more people meant more chances their cover would be blown. Here, they could try their luck, but the vendor sounded doubtful.
Animation sparked through Zuko's sullen teen attitude. "I bet I could find something. Anything in particular we need?"
"Well, not a hovel!" Knowing Zuko, this was a very necessary caution. "A kitchen, a bedroom or two – we can share if we have to, but you need your space. So don't worry about price too much. We can borrow money until we get on our feet." He also listed a few other things he wanted Zuko to scout out or buy, and told Zuko to meet him here when done.
Zuko turned to go, then paused. He looked directly at Iroh for the first time all morning; looked away again. Then all in a rush, he said, "Would you tell me something?"
"Do I have the ability to be honorable?"
Iroh adjusted quickly. "Of course!" They'd been through this a thousand times, it seemed.
Sometimes, Zuko could be reassured easily, but today, he shook his head in frustration. "No, I mean, the… uh… capability. Not just trying all the time but… honorable enough to always do the right thing."
"Yes," Iroh repeated firmly.
Zuko scowled. "Are you even listening? I don't need your platitudes! I'm asking what you really think!"
"That is what I think."
"Forget it." Zuko turned to go.
"I must say, it doesn't seem sporting, to have my own nephew call me a liar."
Zuko faltered. "I didn't mean it like that. Just…" His shoulders hitched for a moment. "Never mind. What you say doesn't change whether I'll succeed."
Iroh figured out what Zuko really meant. "You've never really considered failure an option."
"It's not!" Zuko flared, confirming Iroh's suspicions. Zuko wasn't ready to give up his quest – but he was no longer denying the possibility.
"Then your capability depends on whether you remember that there is no great honor without small honor."
Zuko gave him his usual scorning, uncomprehending glare. "Fine."
His nephew just didn't have the knack for figuring things out sometimes, so Iroh elaborated. "A magistrate is widely honored for being completely unbribable, and all his judgments are scrupulously fair. Yet when he takes his payment for a case, he often adds just a few more silver to the sum than he is owed. He reasons that he deserves to take far more for all his hard work. What do you call that?"
"That may be. He cannot be called truly honorable, either. Even such small acts diminish him, and the chances increase that he'll eventually succumb to greater dishonor."
"You sound like no one can ever stop working at it."
"Yes, but it's not such a difficult work! Every attempt to be honorable increases one's capacity."
Zuko's eyes widened. "Is that so?" The desperation to hear yes was obvious.
"Yes," Iroh said firmly. "You have always tried hard and done rather well. You just need to think more carefully about consequences."
A smile quivered on Zuko's face for a moment; then youthful pride reasserted itself. "Well, why didn't you just say so in the first place?!" Zuko strode away, a lightness in his step.
Iroh shook his head fondly and went to seek his Pai Sho game. The player said that a new arrival such as Iroh would surely need new furniture, and pointed to a shop entrance nearby. Inside, high, jumbled piles of everything from storage baskets to paintings did a good job of casually blocking sight. At the back, inside a small office, three men had arranged themselves into the very picture of old friends gossiping the day away over a Pai Sho board. Like himself, they cultivated an air of men softened by age, which concealed so well what lay beneath. Iroh gave them the pass phrases and his name.
There was a long, tense silence. Finally, one of the three stood up. Wrinkles creased his forehead so deeply that the skin around them looked puffy. "I'm Shanheng. We were told to expect you, of course."
A second man said that he'd "signal the others" and slipped out. The last man fixed his bright, leaf-green eyes on Iroh and introduced himself as Wu Li (the 'Li', he claimed, was only added to distinguish from others with the same pseudonym). He didn't move. At this, Shanheng dipped his head with a smile that mixed fondness and exasperation, then went to yell to someone that he was taking a customer to the warehouse. Once he returned, he opened a space in the rock of the floor to reveal stairs.
"We cannot hold a large meeting here," Shanheng explained as he led them down. "The Dai Li would suspect us immediately."
Those were the people who took away the boy with the hooked swords. They must have power to take others away, as well, and they had the Society worried. Iroh made note to find out more.
Shanheng paused at the bottom and asked, with all politeness, "Might you provide a little light?"
Iroh appreciated the reassurance that, for all the past history between their two peoples, they would not refuse to let him work with them as a firebender. Though perhaps Shanheng also thought that if Iroh were the sort to attack his hosts, then he'd have to extinguish that light before forming a fireball. Such courteous caution was also very commendable. Lastly, he knew they were challenging him to place into their hands freely what the Fire Nation had often taken by force – safety. After all, the two of them, both likely earthbenders, could try to ambush him underground. The obvious nature of the challenge made him sure that they would not. Dishonorable men would hide their hostility and ask for no proofs. It would take time to show his changed heart to the people of the city he once tried to conquer and burn. Iroh was glad to pay any price to make amends for his past and start earning their full trust, and this was a very small price they asked.
He lit a flame; Shanheng bent the hatch-door closed. They walked through a series of caverns, some opening into each other naturally, and some connected by uncomfortably narrow and twisting tunnels. Columns and spiked draperies of rock limited their sight, but the fantastical shapes and the dancing shadows gave form to unique beauty. It would be easy to get lost, but Shanheng walked ahead confidently. (Wu kept behind. Iroh could feel the chilly assessment between his shoulder blades). As they walked, Iroh did his best to break the tension with his usual stock of cheerful conversation. Shanheng responded to that, and proved to be a man of much sly humor, yet there was an undeniable reserve beneath his explanation of the group's current situation. Wu said nothing.
Shanheng mentioned that name again as he detailed that there were several "safe houses," that they took care to arrange themselves into small groups with minimal contact between groups, that they were working on a larger hiding space near the outer wall to house incoming members but progress was slow because they had to keep hidden…
"Are these Dai Li a troupe of camelephants?" Iroh exclaimed. "It sounds as if they squat in every road that you wish to cross!"
Shanheng laughed a little. "Yes. Their mandate was to preserve our culture. They have instead weighed down the balance of the city towards themselves, and festooned everything they could with the long ribbons of 'culture.' If it seems to you that we take great care, it's because we must, to avoid becoming tangled."
Iroh tried to ask more, but Shanheng cut him off. "We cannot risk them knowing how much we know of their secrets. All you must do is never let them question you, and never underestimate them. They cut down our Lotus nearly to the roots once, and we have been scrambling ever since to regrow without dying."
"When did this happen?" Iroh questioned sharply.
"Soon after –" Shanheng visibly adjusted his words, "– the Fire Nation withdrew from the city. It was expected that some officers would resign, whether to live down their disgrace or because, with the siege's end, they wished to return to a more peaceful life. Yet the changes were more profound than that. Too many people were replaced, and too many of the old leaders suddenly developed an aversion to ever leaving their houses."
"Ah," Iroh said.
"The Society at the time wished to know what happened. We had well-developed ways of doing so. Yet one of ours was arrested – for suspicious loitering. Within days, the Dai Li devastated us. They knew where we were, they knew our plans, our secrets… they missed only a few people in their sweep. All that saved us is that no one fears a flower. They think we are just one more group that is jealous of their power."
Iroh silently absorbed the sobering information, then said, "I will take great care. But why has this never been mentioned? If I had known of your difficulties, I would not have sought to add to them with my plans."
Shanheng's tone sharpened. "We may have regrown in the darkness, but for those who have maintained the balance in all things for centuries, one city's group of upstarts is nothing. We are perfectly capable of protecting those who come here. I admit, my own enthusiasm probably has more to do with the desire to get out of this holding pattern than with the plan itself. Your campaign-planning and strategizing have earned legends, but there are still too many uncontrolled factors. For all the excitement of the Avatar's arrival, no one has even seen this young Avatar in the city yet. You will have the safe gathering-place to which we gave our word, and anyone who wishes to join your campaign will not be hindered. Then, if you can deliver on your promises, we can risk more."
Strange, that the city Society was so cautious. Their part was to be the base camp, not the striking force. The key source of power for the Fire Nation was its money. The war had long since ceased to be profitable, but the colonies made up for that – if the money made it back to the homeland. The collected taxes had always attracted everyone from resistance fighters to pure soldiers of fortune, but the Fire Nation guarded the boxes well (in part, by disguising the shipments as unimportant, barely-guarded other cargo). Even one bad month meant short tempers at the capital, political infighting, and a Firelord whose attention was distracted.
Iroh had detailed knowledge of the secret drop-off points and the short periods those points would be unguarded. He'd used that knowledge before when the Society needed money, but he'd been hampered by the need to appear a harmless retiree rather than a center of trouble everywhere he went. A concerted campaign of multiple attacks in multiple places, timed well, would result in very large gains for the least possible loss of life, and give the Avatar the best chance of success when his destiny brought him to face the Firelord.
True, much depended on how quickly the Fire Nation realized it was a campaign rather than bad luck. In the worst case, traps and countermeasures would appear after only a couple of runs. Iroh had some ideas on how to disrupt communications before they started, but he knew this was the weakest part of his plan. It could only be worth the risk if the end of the war was in sight. Iroh's lifetime of experience suggested this was the time, but he could not blame others if they had not that hope after their lifetimes of experience otherwise. So he answered Shanheng's warning lightly. "What, just because the edge is an untried one?"
Wu finally spoke. "Oh, because of destiny also. We have made our gains with our hands." He shoved a hand past Iroh's shoulder – the glove was rolled down to reveal thin lines tattooed around it. "We've no use for bones and yarrow, and no use for false prophets."
The memory of the last time he'd seen such lines softened Iroh's voice. "Neither have I! Fortunetelling is a slippery fish. Still, one does not need any touch of the weird to know that the breezes of destiny become storm winds around the Avatar. All we need do is use its force to power our sails."
The last days of the siege were vivid in his mind now. Iroh had come across a couple of guards, too new to know better, who stooped to dishonorable means to force one of the incoming prisoners to give up what he clutched in his hand, which had a single line around it. Some soldiers did it to honor their dead, while others bragged about their kills in this way. Because of the latter, any prisoners with such tattoos faced a great deal of anger from the Fire Nation. Iroh had stopped his men and chewed them out. When he saw that the object of contention was just a Pai Sho tile, and heard the desperate plea not to take away "the last thing my brother gave to me," he'd been even angrier.
"He could throw it?" Iroh couldn't believe the miserable attempts at self-justification. "If he could defeat us with such a small thing, we'd deserve to be defeated. Is it honorable to take away the least of what a man has just because you can? No. He is our prisoner, but he fought bravely, and he deserves the respect we'd give our own warriors in unfortunate circumstances. Let him keep it!"
Of course Iroh had known that the tile likely had a second meaning besides a treasured keepsake from a brother. He'd already had a number of interesting conversations with various Pai Sho players by that point. It was an enjoyable mystery that he looked forward to solving sometime he was less busy. So he didn't seek out an opportunity to speak to this prisoner, but when next he walked through the prison, the raspy voice asked him, "Have you known great loss then, General Iroh?" When Iroh said no, there was rueful surprise. "I would not have expected such as you to concern himself with the small losses of other people, unless you knew what it was like."
Iroh had spent his life being not what people expected – in fact, half of his interrogations went so well simply because people who'd braced themselves to withstand torture and horror were often entirely unprepared to deal with respect, humor, and fine tea. Which was all for the best, as far as Iroh was concerned. It wasn't in him to be what they feared. So long as he got results, no one looked too closely at how he got them, and Iroh could then meet and get to know many fine people. Even before he understood the complete worthlessness of the war, he understood the value of that.
On that night he didn't want to remember, he'd put an end to the siege and ordered all the prisoners released. Through the haze, over the noise and his own yelling ("Who cares where they go? We're done here! My son is dead!"), he didn't quite hear the generous words at first. When the halls were almost empty, he felt the tile pressed into his hand. When he'd stared blindly at it, the man told him to meet him at a certain place. Offered to help. Said that he knew about loss.
That was Iroh's official introduction both to the White Lotus Society and to the possibility of entering the Spirit World while still alive. He'd never do less than his best for the people who reached out to their enemy.
Next, they had to squeeze underneath what looked like an overhang but actually was the beginning of a passageway. Once Iroh could stand again and let his chest and belly expand freely with his breaths, Shanheng whispered, "Don't make noise. When I tap your shoulder, flash your light in sequence with the taps."
Iroh did so. A double flash answered. They waited. A sudden swell of sound began to press upon Iroh. Somewhere between a moan and a hum, with an overlay of staccato thumps, it seemed to come from up ahead, but every time he tried to pinpoint where exactly, it played tricks with his ears.
"Eerie, isn't it?" Shanheng said, still quiet but not whispering. "I think this one's just the hourly update signal. It won't be much longer."
As it faded, Iroh rubbed at his ears to make sure it was gone. "What in the world makes that sound?" he voiced his irritation. Then, more practical concerns kicked in. "What purposes does this signaling serve? How do you –"
Shanheng sounded lightly smug. "One at a time! Karez wells are ancient technology from the period when the Water Tribe and the Air Nomads lived together. They store mountain runoff water underground. Sound travels far through them, so there have always been ways to make use of that. As near as we can tell, the Dai Li have found some method of refining the range and direction of sound even further by the strategic cultivation of the glow crystals that grow here naturally. We've spent quite a lot of time trying to crack their code, though with limited success. We're pretty sure they're unaware that anyone has done even this much, because they never change the code."
"But that is – it must be a complicated code indeed, to withstand being sent so openly."
A new voice, somehow familiar, spoke from the darkness. "Yes. Quite unlike anything I've ever encountered."
Jeong-Jeong stepped into the circle of light cast by Iroh's hand. "General Iroh," he bowed. "It is good that we can meet again."
Iroh found himself grinning and bowed deeply to Jeong-Jeong. "He who was among the first to denounce your defection does have to acknowledge your superior foresight and wisdom. If you will forgive the rantings of a young man, permit me to say I am glad to see that you are still alive!" (Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed his fellow Lotuses relaxing a bit.)
"I will permit that the Crown Prince and an able warrior would've been strange to extend much understanding towards a mere deserter." Jeong-Jeong smiled, and perhaps it was not an entirely happy smile, yet it truly held no bitterness. "I am glad for the strangeness of fate myself, sometimes."
"So am I, but what strange fate do you have here in the dark?" Iroh asked.
"I mark down the code and help in the attempts to decipher it."
Wu said forcefully, "He has been instrumental."
Jeong-Jeong shook his head. "Those before me have already determined that the basis of the code consists of five different tones with various lengths and overtones. They merely had difficulty marking it down quickly enough. All I did was simplify the notation. Did you know that the schools here don't teach music theory at all?"
Wu snorted. "Useless subject. One exception makes no difference."
Iroh couldn't resist teasing. "Music, useless? We must –" He broke off at the look on Wu's face and pretended he hadn't said anything. But switching his gaze to Jeong-Jeong brought other questions. The man seemed quiet and banked, quite unlike the fiery, fiercely principled leader that Iroh remembered. Long stays underground, without the sun, might account for that, and of course he could only admire the sacrifice if that were so.
Shanheng cleared his throat. "Wu, you really don't need to stay."
"Leave you waiting here alone? No."
Shanheng shrugged and joked, "All right, I guess we can use your help to pass the time while those coming from the Middle Ring get through the gate queues!"
Iroh asked, "Don't you all use these caves?"
"We would if we could," Shanheng sighed. "The walls have depth to equal their height, reinforced with metal and other anti-earthbending devices all the way down, and patrols check them often."
They moved into the meeting chamber. Aside from a rock slab table in the corner for Jeong-Jeong, it had only a few boulders to sit on. Water trickled down the walls, and the air was unpleasant. Furthermore, the meeting would be held in the darkness, so that none of them could see the others' faces. Only two tiny flames were permitted, one at the circle center so people could find their seats without tripping, and the other at the desk. Jeong-Jeong took his seat there, explaining that while he could not leave, he'd not be part of the meeting.
Soon enough, they could begin. The five new voices in the darkness had three names between them, to maximize confusion. They liked the plan; in fact, despite Shanheng's warning, they accepted it most easily of all the things Iroh had to say. Their insulation from the worst of the war had made it difficult for them to connect with or understand the work of White Lotus members outside their sphere, and Iroh reminded them several times that they would not act alone. Yet this also produced an evenhanded approach to the war, less distorted by personal loss. Iroh, who knew first-hand what striving it took to see old enemies as friends and equals, found their philosophical approach quite soothing. They weren't inclined to change their ways for a newcomer, yet they didn't dismiss his ideas. A space formed for him in their ranks. This generosity of spirit moved him, and he knew he could grow together with them, in time. Yet he still needed to know them, and disembodied voices were hard to know.
They'd finished discussing the plan, had been reluctantly persuaded to make contact with the Avatar, and had been working on the worrying news of the Avatar's vision. A short description filtered through Zuko's upset words wasn't the firmest basis on which to decide anything, yet they must prepare. However vast the comet's power, the Earth Kingdom was vaster. The dragons couldn't be the weapons this time, and despite many efforts, no one had succeeded in creating flying ships yet, so what would it be?
Iroh described all he knew of the technological advances of his nation. As he'd hoped, his fellow Lotuses had several ideas on how to counter them. They spoke of such things as channeling explosive forces with angled earth surfaces and of working in teams to amplify each other's powers. However, they'd need to spend a great deal of time training to be ready in time for the comet, and they still weren't convinced there was a need. Besides that, since they had a few firebenders to call upon who would also get a boost from the comet, perhaps something could be done with that?
This gave Iroh an idea. "Permit me a demonstration." He made a spark only to see the shadowy forms of his new friends throw their arms over their faces. He had to promise to make nothing brighter to continue. "See this rivulet on the wall? My hand is here at the bottom, but –" steam cracked off loudly "– the effect is greatest at the top. When I was at the North Pole, we would combine layers of bent water with this for great effect. If earthbending is added –"
"Geysers!" someone completed the thought.
Another added excitedly, "The reservoirs extend beyond the outer walls in places. We could –"
And they were off strategizing again.
"No!" Wu burst out. "What sense does it make to prevent the destruction of our city by letting him rip holes in the ground?! He'll have to get his kicks elsewhere."
Iroh tried to point out the flaw in that logic.
Wu insisted, "The balance of fire is always towards the side of destruction. We have to counterbalance it, not give it reign."
Someone to Iroh's right made sounds of agreement while others shushed the man, telling him that this wasn't the time.
"Any decent man agrees!" Wu responded. "Isn't that right, Jeong-Jeong?
He answered quietly from his corner, "It's true we are cursed to always destroy, but we work every day to suppress it in ourselves. I am sure General Iroh is as careful as you could wish him to be since he switched sides."
Iroh's breath escaped him in a whoosh. What must Jeong-Jeong have been through, to speak this way? Horrified sympathy prompted him to reach inside himself, to the memory of the two dragons twining around the wind and colors that burned and cooled at the same time. With his hands cupped over his mouth, he breathed out the dragon fire it had taken him so long to understand. It came slowly, haltingly, in a struggle. After all, "Dragon of the West" was merely a nickname. Yet because he needed it, because it was his balance and his sunlight, and because fire was meant to be shared, it flickered into being. Too small to light more than the fingers around it, but multicolored and alive, it burned. He stood and walked over to give it to Jeong-Jeong.
The other firebender accepted with baffled skepticism. For a moment, Iroh feared that like Zuko, Jeong-Jeong would not be able to see the difference between it and ordinary fire. He relaxed at the sharp inhale and the way Jeong-Jeong bent down to study the flame intently.
As Iroh returned to his seat, an annoyed cough sounded from his right. "So. You talk about balance, but instead choose to amuse yourself with odd displays. This is no way to convince us of your usefulness."
Iroh had never been in the habit of explaining himself, and despite his best intentions, he was growing irritated. "Permit me to say that this was a necessary firebender matter, and then I will not take up more of your time."
"A firebender matter. Do we not merit your attention, General Iroh of the Fire Nation?"
Iroh answered simply. "I serve the balance. My past, I can only atone for, but my actions of the past several years should have proven the change in my loyalties."
"They did," Shanheng said unexpectedly. "It seemed too good to believe at the time, but… don't you see? If someone like you could change and want to work with the White Lotus, then we had more of a chance than we thought! Do you understand at all what it was to hear that in the highest reaches of the Fire Nation, someone was on our side?" His voice caught, and Iroh knew that just a few years ago, Shanheng had been a person worn down from the constant effort to resist, who lived always with the knowledge that the Fire Nation was slowly winning the war. Iroh couldn't help sympathizing with that.
Shanheng raised his voice, making it clear he was addressing the naysayers as much as Iroh. "I know you took great risks for us. The information you smuggled out – everything you did to slow down the conquest – all the times you had to sacrifice your pride and honesty for us – maybe it was too much to put on one man. But others here have sacrificed just as much, so what we need to know is whether you are still with us."
Someone laughed. "You spent the past three years hiding. Don't think we'll take your bare word for it."
"You seem curiously misinformed. Yes, I left the council. I wasn't doing much good there, anyway, and I made sure to leave four good people in place who would do all that I could do –"
"Cheng Liu was arrested a month ago." At Iroh's stifled exclamation, the voice relented. "Piandao sent word that he's staying put for now, to see what he can do for her."
Iroh breathed deeply through his fear for his friends. "If anything can be done, Piandao will do it."
"To fix what was caused by your absence! How do we know you won't push off whenever you feel like it and leave us holding the bag?"
It went on like that. To them, his reasons seemed flighty. They would not believe that protecting and teaching Zuko was at all valuable. To them, one boy's life seemed an indulgence, and more evidence that he cared more for his personal concerns, or those of the Fire Nation, than for the balance. Iroh defended his nephew passionately, but when he saw it was doing more harm than good, he redirected the argument. He ought to nurture their growing trust before straining it. He'd just have to make them see Zuko in the proper light later. For now, he'd silence their doubts through action rather than words.
So he stopped talking, listened as they discussed their work, and tried to be helpful. His best opportunity came when he heard of their efforts to reestablish contact with the Upper Ring, lost in the fight with the Dai Li. They had been patiently working to place someone there, but even servants in the Upper Ring normally came from families who'd proven their loyalties for generations.
Since Iroh needed paid work, with a single effort, a dual advantage could be earned. "I'll get a job as a tea-maker! People are sure to talk about the quality. If you use your usual channels of gossip to quickly spread the rumors, we might catch the attention of some upper-ring visitor quite soon."
"Assuming you're that good," either Chen or Fu interrupted, "so what? Some rich lady isn't going to marry you just on the strength of your tea-making skills."
"Ah," Iroh sighed jokingly, "if one offered… But that's not what I meant. The wealthy compete with each other in many things, including who can show off the most exquisite taste. The significant thing is," Iroh held up a finger triumphantly, "tea cannot be served cold. Those aristocrats who wish to impress with tea must invite the tea-maker into their houses. Once there, the tea-maker can look and listen!"
It was settled. Shanheng even knew of an understaffed teashop. As the tenor of the voices changed for the better with this new possibility, Iroh knew that it would be his honor to do all he could to restore hope to them.
On his way back to the marketplace, Iroh clutched a large pot of yellow flowers so cheerful, he was sure even Zuko would like them. Shanheng had let him choose what he liked from the warehouse, where they'd supposedly been all this time. Iroh would find a way to repay the generosity. He breathed in the loamy, comfortably subtle fragrance and let his thoughts roam just as his feet roamed. In his youth, he had dreamed of the city. The true dream of prophecy came only once, but when he'd been a young officer rising through the ranks, confident that he'd prove himself in this conquest, the arcs of the walls hung in front of his eyes waking and dreaming. For two years, he studied them like no other. A conqueror was what he'd made of himself, and paid the price of that – a heavy price for having misread his fate in the arrogance of youth. He'd given so many years of his life to thoughts of the city. The way that light reflected off the walls was an old familiar friend – and, finally, more than walls stood around him. Iroh, not a conqueror, just an ordinary man with a flowerpot, new friends, and a new job, felt tears of happiness touch his eyes. But he blinked them clear, because he wanted to keep looking.
Washing dishes was the worst, Zuko decided the next morning. He disliked wiping tables, serving tea, and all the rest too, but at least he could watch his surroundings and listen to conversations. Sweeping was a lot more difficult than it looked, but he'd made some inroads into reducing the clouds of dust and the grumbling of the teashop owner. Washing, however, was done in the back room, involved no strategy other than "scrub harder," seemed endless, felt nasty, and resulted in stiff, pruney fingers that didn't even feel like his own.
They didn't get much in return for hours of work, either. They'd be here forever at this rate, trapped at the shop every day from before noon till after sundown. Uncle had gone shopping this morning. Half of Zuko's earnings went with him – Zuko was willing to contribute more, but Uncle pointed out that the tea-maker was paid several times as much as the tea-server. "Let's both have some fun!" he said.
Zuko winced in anticipation at the stuff Uncle would drag back and expect Zuko to enjoy. Sure, Uncle had more than earned some fun, if he could just stop having it at Zuko's expense. Zuko glared balefully at the flowerpot – "In case someone brings home a lady friend!" Of all the ways in which he'd like to meet with Mai again, like he'd ever bring her here! The city was a prison. Mai might be more comfortable with prisons than most, thanks to her family, but she deserved better.
Since Uncle remained impervious to serious considerations, Zuko knew he'd have to be the one pushing both of them home out of their latest predicament. He gathered that Uncle's friends were still thinking over whether to help them at all. So Zuko tried to calculate how long it'd take if they didn't waste their resources too much, painfully aware that he didn't know as much about thrift as he needed to know now. Food was always their biggest expense, and from what he'd seen of the prices yesterday, it would be even more so here. Uncle was talking about new clothes and furniture, and Zuko had to admit the campstyle life couldn't be over fast enough, but really, shouldn't all this be minimal? They had enough to do without complicating things. He ran through his task list again, then the much shorter list of things he could do right now, and decided he'd at least figure out how many days' labor it would take to make a spirit offering. He'd seen a shrine near the teashop yesterday.
The shrine grounds were full of overgrown nooks and crannies, so that he had to look sharp to avoid disturbing the other visitors. He wondered whether the tangled growth was an Earth Kingdom thing or plain neglect. When he finally found the sage, however, she enlightened him about all the offering types for different kinds of spirits with great enthusiasm. True spirituality, she emphasized, was meant to be a simple thing, open to everyone. Wealth could even be a barrier to attentive honoring of the land spirits and the ancestors. The way she looked at him, he knew she could tell he was used to wealth.
On her advice, he bought a stick of plain incense and a cupful of sake with two thirds of his money. The low cost startled him, especially when she said this was all he needed. Was she trying to pity him, like the landlord yesterday? An angry flush flooded his face, made worse by how he knew he did look pitiful right now, with his fading bruises and unkempt hair. (He ought to shave it all off – it was getting long enough to soften the edges of the scar. But if he grew it longer, it'd start to hide his eyes as well.)
The sage remained steadfast when he challenged her. Maybe she believed her own words, but he'd been taught that the spirits judged whether you offered your best. Sure, maybe the royal family's semi-public seasonal rituals weren't the right pattern to follow here, but this offering looked far too pitiful. Zuko was uncertain enough about the Blue Spirit that he didn't want to appear stingy. Also, the Blue Spirit had been angry with him and, since then, completely silent. Zuko never enjoyed such silences. They left him with no way of knowing what was coming.
Yet the Blue Spirit would know why his offering was so unprincely, and too much delaying could also be offensive. Zuko compromised with a ribbon of thick green prayer-paper (which ate up the rest of his coins and his plans of thriftiness for today). He could even rent a prayer cubicle, with a bowl to hold the wine and the incense, for the cost of an hour's worth of pulling weeds and stirring a huge vat of something eye-wateringly fermented.
Once done, he ensured his privacy, hung the mask up on the wall, and, with jerky hands, set up the offering beneath. There was no reason for nervousness, right? The Blue Spirit wanted to talk to him, and Zuko had just the one request. The Blue Spirit had been nothing but kind to him. But that in itself was odd.
Zuko centered himself as if for meditation, took a few cleansing breaths, and lit the incense. The wine burned off quickly, but the paper flickered and charred like a coal. He waited, struggling to keep himself respectful and spiritual and all the other things he vaguely associated with supplicants.
The sound of his own blood rushing in his ears became a low humming roar. The cramped shrine cubicle stayed dark, but he kept having the urge to blink, as if looking into bright light. The sensation of presence grew, and he bowed, hoping it was in the right direction.
"I just don't like. Talking." There was no actual sound, but Zuko heard the amused voice clearly. His preparations weren't good enough, after all.
"Sorry…" His own voice jolted through his ears. What more should he do?
"This –" the offering-items suddenly doubled in Zuko's vision, then the second layer dissolved "– is the proper method. You don't have enough. Spirituality. To make it work. But it gives me a. Path."
Something like a rockfall flashed by, with himself trying to dig through by hand and the Blue Spirit pushing through from the other side. Before Zuko could ask the Blue Spirit to just say what he meant, the non-voice went on.
"Words. Don't mean enough. I can use yours. Better now. But then too many others. Can overhear. And there's a cost. To both of us. Speak until. The incense. Burns down."
"I – I appreciate that." He actually got his audience with the Blue Spirit. Astonishing. He bowed low again. He wasn't sure what to do with his hands. His feet were slightly out of alignment. "Thank you for all the help."
A smile he could feel with his whole body. "So that's how you can be. Polite."
He flushed and burst out, "Well, I didn't get much chance to prepare for this! If I'm doing it wrong –"
Kindness. "I'm not. Concerned about that. You know."
The encouragement made Zuko relax enough to speak on a more even footing – "Then what does concern you? And what's the cost you mentioned?"
An image of the mask exploded in his mind with such force that he rocked backwards where he knelt.
The mask's few lines expanded into a face that wasn't human at all, yet had gleaming, intelligent eyes under heavy brows shaped like an expression of constant surprise. The body's shape resembled a panther-ram's; a concentrated force, calm. There could be very little to disturb a being of such power and agility. A place high up in the mountains, where few other creatures could reach.
Then the swooping shadow of a dragon.
"Spirit World. Paths. Have obstacles. Plentifully. But different ones. This world's. Paths. Can be shortcuts. Or." An image of sinking into a bog, complete with sensations of being pulled into squelchy ground.
Zuko gulped for breath, but nothing else followed. Cautiously, he asked, "So, you're looking for a good shortcut?"
A wave of soundless laughter pulsed through Zuko. "What do you think? You know of. What I did in the past."
He thought furiously, not wanting to disappoint. "Well, you're known for helping travelers. People who – don't know where to go. Where to find someone." He braced himself as he guessed, "Can you somehow move better through the Spirit World by helping people move in this world?"
The response took unusually long. "Close enough."
Zuko felt dizzy. "Then… what? You need more of…?"
"Change or die. Many spirits. Are clamoring for. Change right now." More strange images flickered. Some felt bleak. "I ask for. Their strength. To talk to you. But then, they want me to. Change your. Path."
Zuko jumped to his feet. "You mean my destiny?!"
"A destiny. Destination. To know where. You'll go. Before you set out. No one will give you that." For a second, the Spirit sounded oddly like his father. "However, you could. Take a step. To any side. Still end up on a path of destiny. If you wished. Many spirits. Would be glad to hear from you. The dragon spirits. Especially."
Zuko was staggered. He'd always wanted to know that no matter what, in the end, he'd do something great, be someone great – but this was too much. Faintly, he protested, "The dragons have all been killed. How… what would they want?" After a moment's thought, he added, "Revenge?"
"Dragon spirits. Can only fit themselves. Into dragon. Bodies," the Spirit answered, as if it should've been obvious. It wasn't.
"Uh, when they want to change my path…"
"I don't. Your path. Suits me well."
His future had to be a pretty good one, then! Giddy with relief, Zuko acted nonchalant, to learn more and make sure it happened. "Which way's that?"
"As far as possible." Zuko would've taken it for a great compliment, but the Blue Spirit immediately added, "All the distant places." The map of the world drifted across the room.
Then it was obvious why the Spirit picked him. Most people didn't travel that much, and in the last century of warfare, who else could afford to range far – a pirate? Zuko deflated considerably.
"Being special. Is. That important to you?"
The question sounded, felt, only curious, and Zuko answered honestly, if a little tightly, "Why not?"
Memories of his exploits in the mask flashed through his mind, and the Spirit continued, "It's good. But it's an easy. Good. Someone screams. And you don't have to think about whether. Helping them. Is right or. What happens after. You leave. This is not how I. Work." A pause long enough for Zuko to bristle. It wasn't easy! "People. Find a path. After much searching."
Even Zuko had to admit that by taking on the Blue Spirit's name, he had some responsibility not to wreck the Blue Spirit's reputation.
"You aren't doing that," the Spirit half-laughed, sounding like Uncle.
Zuko relaxed despite himself – felt oddly woozy, in fact – but he knew this would nag at him.
"And thank. Your uncle. Never forget." Zuko wanted to protest that he did already, but the feel of the spirit changed to disapproving before he could say anything, and an image of the Ocean Spirit appeared. "Water. Gives me strength. Now. Understand?"
The incense was already half-gone, and they hadn't gotten to the important things! "Not really. Is it time-critical?"
"Then I promise I'll think on it later. Right now, please tell me… since it's beneficial to you, too…" He gulped. "Where's my mother?"
"Is that what you truly want to ask?"
"Yes, it is! Unless… unless you mean that I should ask for the way back home instead?" Something spasmed in his chest.
The next words had an odd cast of sympathy. "No, your. Path. Can lead you to. Each. However, they lie in different directions. Each turning. Will take its own toll on you. Leave yourself enough. Strength. For both. Choose well."
"I want…" His throat locked up. He'd wanted to go home for three years, and that was the way he could help with the war. He'd wanted his mother back for six years, and it was a selfish sort of choice. But she had given him everything.
Without her guidance to fall back on, he knew he would've broken at some of the worst that happened. She had been living as a refugee all this time. Every day was a day she might be suffering. It was his duty to find her. Yet she might also be just fine, away from the place where she had been unhappy for several years before her disappearance. (How could she have disappeared so completely if his father had been searching for her at all attentively?)
There was only one way home. It would take otherworldly help to keep the Avatar captive. It made him heartsick to realize that he didn't want to. Hadn't wanted to stuff Aang in a sack for quite a while. He had to, desperate enough that he was already imagining how he could hide the truth and pretend it was all his own doing. If he arranged for a spirit to do it, that was almost as good as cleverly using his superior skills in battle. Wasn't it? His father wanted results, and if Zuko got results, that would make anyone proud.
It was his responsibility to ensure the Avatar would be no threat to anybody.
None of his responsibilities could be put aside, no matter what. In the case of something as devastating as an Avatar's powers, or that thing he'd imagined his father to be capable of, it made no sense to try to save one person, even his mother, and abandon all the rest. So why wasn't it an easy choice? Because… oh.
He had the feeling that the Blue Spirit was waiting calmly for the decision. "One more question?"
"You may ask." The answer wasn't guaranteed. Okay, he understood that.
"It's not just one… There're all these other problems I've been trying to solve, and I thought everything depended on capturing the Avatar. But if I can have both, then what else can I have, too? Which way can I do the most good?"
Suddenly, the Spirit sounded like Azula. "You know that."
"I do?" Zuko glanced nervously at the incense. Only a short stub remained. "I do. Okay. What do I know?" He ran both hands through his hair, then clenched them there. Why couldn't the Blue Spirit just give him the answer? Why couldn't he figure it out? That was half the reason he wanted to return home – so he could talk to his father, with all his knowledge and wisdom. His mother couldn't possibly know anything useful, so he should put this reunion aside. Wait. If Dad listened, he'd either take care of everything himself or tell Zuko to just handle it already, and either way, Zuko would be left as in the dark as ever. Even when Mom flat-out told him she didn't know how to solve something, she talked things out with him until he got new ideas. Of course, with something this big, it would be best to let his father handle everything, so Zuko had no chance to mess things up. All the same, the Blue Spirit had implied Zuko still had a way to capture the Avatar even if he asked about his mother. If true, this was about his path, and what he should do to honor his responsibilities…
His honor. Uncle was right. What would his honor be worth if he cheated on the way to getting it? What would his mother say if he did that? Dimly, he was coming to realize how often he'd cheated already; the way he'd treated the people in his way, the stealing, and the deaths. He had to start doing better.
He and no one else, not even his father, knew the most about the Avatar. He was the only one who could get close to the Avatar and find out more. Only he could argue on behalf of the Fire Nation to the Avatar. To capture the Avatar right now would be the easy way home, but it wouldn't be right.
"Right. Help me find my mother, please."
Smoke billowed up in the room. "Are you sure?" The non-voice now seemed to hiss through him, vibrating his very bones unpleasantly. "You're the one who. Doesn't want to be considered a child. Yet you miss her and. Need her like a baby."
He nearly quailed, but the injustice of the remark fired him up. "She told me not to forget who I am. She raised me, she taught me, she protected me – she made me who I am. Someone who grows stronger. Of course I miss her! I don't 'need' more from her, because I already have all that. It's the other path where I'd be a child who needs others to solve his problems. I am her son. I will honor whatever sacrifice she made for me, and I will never give up on her. I want to know that she's okay. I want her to be happy. Maybe she doesn't want to come back…"
"Doesn't want you for a son."
Zuko swallowed down fear. The Blue Spirit was just repeating a thought Zuko had before. It was a test. Spirits were annoying like that. "Maybe she doesn't," his voice broke. "Whatever she wants from me, I'll do it. If that's to go away, I will, but first, I have to find out!"
"You will find this. Path. More challenging than you know."
Zuko lifted his head. "I can take a challenge."
The vibration intensified to the point where Zuko could barely keep upright, but he hoped there was a hint of approval somewhere in there. "She cannot be. Found. Directly. Go there first." An image of the city of Ba Sing Se expanded in Zuko's vision as if he were falling from a height. Details flashed by: the palace, an unremarkable wing of the palace, offices of guards in flowing uniforms. With a nauseating wrench, the vision uprighted him and carried him along hallways so quickly he couldn't remember all the turns. Down, then down again, to a vast warren of scroll-filled shelves. The vision stopped at one neatly labeled shelf. It held questioning records from a particular date nearly five years ago.
The vision ended, and so did the physical sensations. Zuko picked himself up off the floor. He felt the spirit wish him well.
"Thank you." He bowed, still uncoordinated, then realized it was dark in the room. "Blue Spirit?"
No one was there.
The need to spend time reinforcing their alibi grated on Jee. Hours had passed since the ship had docked at the field communications tower that served as Admiral Misaki's outpost on the southern coast of the Eastern Lake. After all their efforts, orders to investigate the Water Tribe should've been waiting on their arrival. Under the cover of that investigation, they could've ranged quite far.
The conspiracy was becoming a real force, yet not nearly enough. Even though they stressed how it was all simple, idle talk about a perfectly legal petition, which they'd certainly abandon if the danger was too great, people still hesitated to even confirm they sympathized. Also, now that they weren't recruiting people they could personally vouch for, the danger of informers grew astronomically. If they went carefully, it wasn't a huge risk. It was one thing to suck up to those in command, and another entirely to suck up so much you'd be instantly removed from the reach of any "unfortunate accidents" after you blabbed. Still, to get their numbers up, they first needed to get their numbers up.
Two things favored them recently. First, two commanders had gotten into a drunken spat, using their ships to fire on each other. Sailors died, but the commanders only got slaps on the wrist. The crews of those ships were now among the staunchest supporters of the conspiracy.
Second, while there was always talk that something or other meant the spirits were angry, lately, those kinds of rumors had exploded. The Ocean Spirit's wrath had certainly been terrifying, and the waves had been larger and wilder than usual, even after he took his death toll. Crescent Island proved to be no normal volcano – lava still flowed from it, never cooling and never stopping. As if that wasn't eerie enough, people had started to go missing when venturing near it. Between the missing and those who deserted before they could go missing, the blockade was disbanded. Then there was the drill's failure, and lights over the Painted Rock, and more of that sort.
Even though it couldn't all be supernatural, what if the old stories weren't that exaggerated? If the spirits considered the Fire Nation fair game again, what chance did the ordinary soldier have? People were afraid. They called on the protection of their ancestors and tried to figure out what the spirits could possibly want. Jee had seen his chance. He spread the word that, just as the ordinary soldiers wanted certain commanders gone, perhaps the spirits wanted them gone, too. Ill-use of one's own soldiers quite often went together with disrespect towards the Spirits, after all. The claim was just outrageous enough to work sometimes. With all the rumors flying about, people became suggestible. Heck, sometimes Jee himself started seeing things.
For himself, he wasn't too worried. His grandparents had been even more superstitious than most of their generation, and had spent enough on charms and chants to overprotect him from anything except the real world.
So Jee paid more attention to how Prince Zuko had surfaced at the drill for no plausible reason. The nice touch of disabling the drill without injuring anybody left Jee with no doubts about who was responsible. Enemies of the Fire Nation would welcome the chance to kill whoever they could find. General Iroh, on the other hand, would never hurt his own people, and it was just like him to do something completely surprising, even foolish-seeming, only to make it obvious later that he'd been using some deep strategy with stunning success. It was them. In the four days since, they couldn't have gotten far.
Yet there was nothing to do but stare at the docks, where several ships were being repaired. Even the flock of cramingoes pecked lazily in the shallows. Hurry up and wait, as usual.
When they'd started, it seemed simple: make a list of the commanders to be removed and recruit enough support to be able to present that list. Yet who exactly would fill the vacancies? The Firelord was supposed to pick, but of course, he'd be open to suggestions, with this many choices to make. If they succeeded, they'd need four new admirals, thirteen commanders, and over thirty captains (the exact number kept swaying back and forth, because that was the position at which some of the conspirators grasped). There should've been no room for self-aggrandizement, yet it reared its ugly head.
The idea was to remove only the truly bad commanders – minimal disruption, and the rest would be kept in line by the threat of the conspiracy repeating itself. But even the thought they might finally not have to put up with this or that was too heady for some. More and more, people wanted to add someone to the list for small reasons, or for made-up reasons. Checking the truth of all these claims was a job and a half just by itself.
Another hour of kicking their heels passed before Jee saw an entourage on the dock below.
Admiral Misaki had decided to personally come aboard.
Jee hurriedly remembered who was supposed to be ranking officer and got the man to go and greet the Admiral and provide the Captain's excuses. It didn't help. The Admiral wanted to meet with the Captain, and they couldn't refuse her.
Jee quietly passed the word for Lo Tseng to hide any incriminating messages and Zhen to get ready, just in case. Jee, as the navigator and the notorious leader of a mutiny, was the obvious suspect when investigating why the Captain was not in charge of the ship's movements. He'd try to claim that no one else was involved. If he failed, the communications officer and the helmsman were the next two obvious suspects. When they'd discussed the what-ifs, Lo Tseng and Zhen both told him to give them up if it helped. The plan could go on without the three of them if they successfully averted suspicion onto themselves.
It was one thing to talk it out with your friends, and quite another to be facing the reality.
Jee tried to get some search-area markups done while waiting for the firestorm to begin, but he couldn't concentrate.
He was forty-eight. He'd screwed up his life several times over. Most everything he was proud of, he'd done in the past couple of months, and that could so easily still go wrong. He'd gone in headlong, as usual, and it was a good thing that most of the work of the conspiracy happened without his input. Still, he wanted to see this through, success or failure. Just to know he'd done everything he could to make it a success. For once, people would know they could count on him.
This time, it wouldn't be anything so easy as a demotion. Thankfully, he had no close family. For himself, he feared prison more than death. Death was peaceful. Helplessly sitting around in prison would drive him mad, he knew it.
At last, the expected summons came.
Admiral Misaki looked not much older than himself. Her short-cropped hair was still glossy black. Where he'd always managed to sabotage his own promotion chances, she obviously hadn't.
After his respectful bow, she inclined her head and gestured for him to sit across from her. "I know you're aware," she said in a startlingly deep, thrumming voice, "that this ship is a political leaky egg, owing to the small matter of the North Pole events."
He gave a short nod.
A crooked smile flashed across her face. "I've always been of two minds whether you showed more good thinking or more unthinking compassion that day."
That didn't sound so bad, yet.
Her expression sobered. "Neither you nor your men deserved the charges brought against you. However –" her tone sharpened and she leaned forward "– your past mistreatment does not give you the right to play about. Your Captain doesn't know where he is, who I am, or what day it is, for that matter. I'd suspect him of being a drunkard, but for that kind of brainlessness, he'd have to reek of it. A garden-variety fool, who didn't have the courage to put you in your place right from the start, that's who he is."
Jee tried to look surprised. "That bad? I knew he didn't have the first clue when he refused to leave his room and told me to go write a report, but he concealed the extent of his confusion from us. I gave him his reports, and he approved all of this ship's actions since he took command."
"Yes, indeed." It was more disquieting than an accusation. "With his approval, you've brought yourself onto my doorstep. I'm sure you're prepared not to tell me why, so I won't ask. Instead, I'll let you know – I'm in charge now."
Jee became intensely aware of just how small this room was. Admiral Misaki was one of the four admirals they didn't seek to replace, but right now, Jee could see the temptation to put her on the list. "You're quite mistaken, Admiral. I'm happy to tell the reason. Some of our crew have had experience in fighting the Water Tribe successfully, so when we heard of your troubles, we thought that this could be a good way to, ah, seal the cracks in the egg some."
"My troubles," she repeated thoughtfully. "Quite kind of you. I have no troubles that couldn't be solved by basic organization. Because of Admiral Zhao's need to show off, the fleet's in shambles, and this outpost is getting the worst of it. The dreg ends of supplies and the rawest of new recruits, that's who they send me after they've taken away all my best people. Because of Admiral Chan taking his well-earned vacation at this time –" she couldn't have been more acrid "– my division of the Southern Fleet has been sent all the way here when we could've been doing some actual work." She focused in on him. "So I do plan to make use of your kindness. You and your crew – Petty Officer Jee – not only survived the disaster yourselves, but were able to help those less fortunate. Those kinds of skills are always valuable, if properly directed."
He nodded cautiously. "It sounds like you have something in mind." Please let it be the investigation.
"Tell me," she said, "how many combined years of experience do the six engineers on this ship have?"
He blinked and tried to estimate by subtracting the usual enlistment age from their ages. "One's about to transfer, so it's actually five people. Eighty or ninety years, I'd say."
"Your lieutenant couldn't answer this question for me, but you know your people. That's good. Even if their tendencies towards troublemaking and inadequacy halve it, that's still a good number. Now, my engineers – all thirty – would struggle to scrape up sixty years of experience altogether." She nodded with satisfaction at his shocked expression. "You can see why I'd be a fool to let all that experience go."
"As I said, Admiral, we place ourselves at your disposal." He tried some subtle flattery. "Especially since you seem to understand our situation so clearly."
"For a mutineer, you're very accommodating." She dipped her head. "The latest project that has been thrown in our laps is this: to create a controllable gate between the two lakes. It should've been an easy job – the only place ships can pass is a very narrow gap, and we control the Western Lake and maintain a good presence in the Eastern. However, between the lack of skilled people and a giant monster harassing everyone who comes near, not to mention the possibility that the Earth armies will once again consider it a valuable target when they realize what we're trying to do, we haven't accomplished squat."
She placed both hands palms-down on the table. "For this job, you can request any of our supplies and people, such as they are."
"So… you're trusting us. With something that big," he said slowly. This could be really good news. They'd be fairly close to the target area, and nobody ever expected a building project to finish on time –
"Of course not. I'm giving you the job you can't refuse, because you won't get a better deal elsewhere. I'll put a few of the people I do trust onto this ship, and I'll be very curious to see what they have to report." He couldn't make his face quite blank, and she nodded again. "Do keep your noses clean, obey orders, and we'll have no problems with each other. After that, we'll see."
This wasn't good. Could they hide the abnormally large number of messages this ship sent and received, never mind the actual content? They couldn't afford to go silent for long, either. This ship was the central hub of all planning precisely because they were so independent. Well, it'd take a little time for the spies to familiarize themselves with the ship. They had a small grace period. Anyway, they really couldn't refuse. Not without risking a lot more than an unwanted job and a few spies to dodge.
He realized that the silence had stretched too long when she broke it. "Subordination has always been a problem for you, hasn't it? Here you are at last, Petty Officer Jee, without proper oversight. It's a sweet setup, and pardon me for breaking it, but so long as you are a Navy officer and not a privateer, you will have to give an accounting of yourself. You may remain unofficially in charge aboard this ship; in fact, I'm sure it's better if you do. Do we understand each other?"
Hah, a privateer, when they'd been working so hard to reform the Navy? He had a feeling she understood that, too – not the plan, but that he remained a Navy man despite everything. "Yes, Admiral."
"You'll have our inventory list, construction preliminaries, and maps of the area within the hour." She stood up, gave him a small nod of acknowledgement, and swept out of the room without waiting for his response.
He followed at a discreet distance just long enough to verify that two of her people did not exit with her. He sent his own people to "help them settle in."
Meanwhile, Lo Tseng, Zhen, and himself rushed to gather up anything incriminating and either burn it, or stick it into hiding behind randomly-chosen sections of wall plating. No spy could possibly check the entire ship for this without giving them plenty of advance warning to move the documents. However, the seams had to be welded back evenly enough to pass inspection.
Once done with that hot, stressful work, they began to compose messages to the safest other ships. The problem was, none had all their crew in on the plan, or the level of freedom and lack of scrutiny this ship had until now. It wasn't even clear what would compromise them more; the known spies here, or the potential spies elsewhere. All they could hope for was to reroute things enough to avoid any suspicious-looking message flurries, but as they worked, they saw it was impossible. They added a quick explanation for the rest of the crew, complete with a request to write some "letters home" as a cover.
It still clearly wasn't enough.
"At least some of the hawks get told to fly to me, not the ship," Lo Tseng said suddenly. "Together with all this…" he swept his arm around to compass the three of them, with their half-baked plans and half-drunk tankards, "it could be enough. Right. Get me ashore. I'm gonna be senile enough not to get back on time for your sail-off, and wander away into the wilderness besides. If someone notices I'm gone, well, with your urgent orders, you searched for me, but couldn't wait up. I'll send my hawk with any news, and you send one back to me when it's safe."
"No," Jee protested reflexively. "What if the urgent stuff comes here, and you're the only one who knows where all else to resend it?"
"Wen's been backing me up pretty well in a pinch."
Zhen said what Jee feared most of all. "Look, are you Admiral Chan now? They'll force you into a dishonorable discharge for 'concealing unfitness for duty.' What'll you do then? You always complain about landlubbers like your daughter –"
"Just blowing steam," Lo Tseng cut him off. "She's all up in her farm, alright, but she'd always have room for her father. That's no reason not to do what needs doing."
He was right, but Jee still didn't want to be the one to approve this decision. For all his brave talk, Lo Tseng wouldn't do well if restricted to napping by the hearth, and a "dishonorable" meant he wouldn't see one coin of the pension he'd earned. Jee didn't want to be the guy saying "Okay, you don't matter so long as our plan goes well." The entire conspiracy was in place to prevent people saying that so often. Yet he couldn't deny that it had to be done, for everybody's sake. Lo Tseng had the right and the duty to do it, and Jee's waffling didn't mend anything.
There had to be another way, but they didn't have time to find it.
Lo Tseng said, "No gloomy faces. Prob'ly nobody will even miss me."
Jee struggled to respond to that, and finally found the thing he needed to say. "If any crap happens, you know you can always send a hawk to us. Not just about the plan, but about, well, anything."
Zhen sounded relieved. "Yah. Hey, if life on land gets to be too much, we'll come and smuggle you out to sea."
Jee knew he'd gotten it right when Lo Tseng joked, "No need to butter me up, I already agreed," and topped up their mugs.