“Ouch!” Korra fell flat on her face as Izumi bloodbent her feet out from under her. The Firelord released her hold once Korra was down, and Korra scrambled up to her knees, feeling her nose to make sure it wasn’t bleeding.
“Geez, what was that all about?” she exclaimed. “Your dad always made me announce what I was about to do whenever we practiced.”
“Yes, I’m aware of his training methods,” said Izumi, lowering her arms from their bending stance. “Announcing is pointless. Your opponents aren’t going to announce their intentions to you, so why should I? I’m guessing you even argued as much to my father when you were training?”
Korra felt her face grow hot, and Izumi smiled. “I’ll take that as a yes. Now stand up. And try to actually resist this time. You make it too easy.”
Korra dragged herself up with a groan. This was her fourth day here, and so far her best achievement was that once, she got to wiggle her fingers while Izumi was holding her still. She was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be useful and hoped at the very least that Bolin and Mako were having a better time than she was.
“I can’t believe Korra kicked us out again!” Bolin wailed as he and Mako made their way down the streets of the Fire Nation capital. It was a pleasant enough walk… balmy, warm, and lots of vendors selling all kinds of goods that Republic City didn’t carry. Mako put down a coin for a bag of fire flakes and munched them thoughtfully. Maybe the heat would ignite some creative part of his brain.
“Didn’t you have posters to give out or something?” he asked his brother.
“Gave them all out the first day we were here,” Bolin said with a sigh. “They’re hung up all around town. See?” He pointed and Mako realized that the vendor he’d just bought the fire flakes from had a large Nuktuk poster hung up next to the menu. “Honestly, bro?” Bolin said. “For coming here to deal with roving gangs of evil bloodbenders, I’d have thought we’d see some more action by now.”
“Yeah.” Mako rubbed his chin. “It is weird that all her meetings with the Firelord are taking so long. I thought they would have come up with some solutions by now. Korra’s never been one to talk strategy for too long.”
“Maybe Firelord Izumi is teaching her the art of patience and planning?” Bolin suggested. Mako raised his eyebrows. “Okay, okay, maybe not.”
Just then, the two of them heard the sound of a wings fluttering above them. Pabu let out a small bark, and Bolin looked up to see a messenger bird perched on top of the stall. It pecked at the edge of the Nuktuk poster and tilted its head curiously at them.
“Uh, something for us?” Mako asked.
It titled its head the other way and bowed, revealing a pouch on its back. Sure enough, a small slip of paper with Bolin and Mako’s names on it was inside. Mako slipped the paper off.
“I, um, don’t have anything to feed you,” he said. “But thanks.”
The bird glared at him, then nicked a hole in Nuktuk’s face before sailing back towards the palace. Mako unrolled the slip of paper and began reading. It contained several high-denomination bills, and he tactfully slipped them into his pocket in a way that no one standing nearby would notice.
“It’s a letter from Korra,” Bolin whispered with excitement, noting the name at the top of the letter. Mako got excited at first, too. Then he read the message in its entirety.
“She says she’s going to need at least another week with the Firelord,” he muttered. “But she says to go enjoy ourselves and see the sights of the Fire Nation together.”
Mako had a strong temptation to burn the letter in his fingers, but Bolin seemed in much better spirits. “Oo! Oo! Could we go to Ember Island?” he asked happily.
“I think that’s a bit far out,” Mako replied. “But there’s a few nearby villages with some good theaters, if that’s what you’re looking for.” He pulled out his map. “Here we go. ‘Sunport. A friendly seaside city with plenty of local entertainment.’ That sounds good, right?”
“Anything that takes my mind off Opal sounds good,” Bolin said with a sigh. Pabu gave him a sympathetic lick on the cheek.
Opal. Mako knew it had to come up some time. The best he could hope for was a good distraction. He patted his brother on the shoulder and looked around them. “Come on, there’s a train station a couple blocks up from here. Let’s see what we can find.”
“We need to draw out the Firelord,” Fuse’s handler Jarven announced to his trusty crew, which was growing larger by the day.
He spread a map of the Fire Nation across an old plank supported by a barrel and a bale of hay. Jarven’s kid brother, Kasan, sat on a second barrel. Fuse stood aside, motionless and alert, her arms crossed over her chest. Jarven’s tent didn’t have much room to spare, forcing the leaders of two other gangs to edge in much closer to her than they would have liked. Fuse didn’t protest, even if they did smell like rank fish and nervous sweat.
It was probably her presence that made them all twitchy in the first place. Not surprising. Part of the reason to carry a weapon was to inspire fear as well as respect. Master knew this, and had outfitted her accordingly with black and red mercenary leathers. At his son Eagon’s suggestion, he had even dyed the tips of her bangs a popping red.
“We could start attacking villages… that would lure her away from the palace,” one leader, a bulk of a man, suggested.
“As if, genius. The Firelord wouldn’t come all the way out here just to defend farmers and fishwives. She’d send soldiers,” Jarven spat back.
“So? I’ve already taken out plenty of soldiers now that I can do this…” The leader flexed thick fingers and spread his arms, forcing a nearby underling to conk himself in the head with his own fist. Raucous laughter erupted. The dazed underling laughed, too.
“Good one, boss!” He smacked himself again, this time toppling over backwards.
“Ha ha!” the big man bellowed. “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”
“That’s enough, Crull,” snapped Jarven. “I’m being serious. We can’t risk hitting the palace again. Not until we even the odds…”
These morons really made it into the palace? The Firelord must be slipping.
That wouldn’t be the case any longer, though. Thanks to these careless fools, the best chance they had now of luring out the Firelord was to capture her family. Like it was that easy.
Lord Zuko was off diplomatting with a caravan of heavy guard–flames only knew where. And General Iroh never seemed to go anywhere without a sizable portion of the Fire Nation military. The same went for his wife.
A different target then. If not the Firelord’s family, then someone important to her. Someone indispensable… like the Avatar.
The Avatar didn’t travel with guards. She had power, yes. The four elements plus metal and now bloodbending. It would be a hard fight. But even bloodbending wasn’t a foolproof discipline. It had limits. To control multiple targets, the bloodbender had to sacrifice precision. And maintaining the hold required great concentration, which reduced range. If the Avatar was taken down quickly and from a distance…
Why was she even bothering with this train of thought? It wasn’t her job to plan. She was a tool and was there to follow the commands of her handlers… even if her handlers were incompetent.
“So it’s settled,” said Jarven with a nod, drawing back her wandering attention. “Sibeen’s crew will start hitting villages to the west. Tarman’s to the east. That should give General Iroh enough reason to spread the troops nice and thin. Kasan and I will take the rest south, towards Ember Island, where we will rendezvous with Tomas. Lord Zuko must return to his home there eventually. Once we have him as our hostage that should draw the Firelord directly to us.”
“You plan on taking Lord Zuko hostage?” ‘Skepticism’ didn’t fully cover the level of disbelief in Crull’s tone.
Jarven gave a wide, wicked smile. “I’ve got a source that tells me the old man has a certain… weakness. Tomas will be fetching it for us.”
Crull stared at him blankly.
“Yes, we can take him hostage!” Jarven snapped. “Now stop questioning me and get out!”
The crowd began to disperse, but not without Kasan leaning close to whisper, “I don’t like this plan. What if the Avatar shows up to protect Lord Zuko?”
“Relax. Not even the Avatar can take on all of us at once. Especially not if we have a hostage. And don’t forget we’ve got the weapon.”
Fuse straightened at his mention. Huh. Guess they figured out a plan after all. Go, idiots.