She drew her blade, fast as a serpent-viper, and grabbed the boy by the hair.
“Wh–” he tried to gasp but stopped when she pressed her blade to his throat.
“Be still,” she said. “I don’t really want to harm you.”
The bedroom door flung open, and four of a dozen royal guards managed to charge in before they noticed her hostage. One guard, the leader of the unit judging from his uniform, even dared to take a step.
“Stand aside,” she ordered.
“Release the hostage and surrender,” countered the leader.
“I will not give another warning.”
The boy spoke, his voice tight with fear. “Will you back off already! The last guy she said that to nearly got blown to smithereens!”
A bit overdramatic, but effective. The guards backed off. Inch by inch she edged them out of the room and into the hall with the boy as her shield. It was a surprisingly narrow hall by palace standards. The guards had to cram together two abreast behind their leader. Despite this, none of them had thought to block her path in the other direction.
“Thank you for your help,” she told the boy. Then, in a single fluid motion, she drew back her dagger, released her hold and shoved him forward into the leader of the guards. The two of them toppled backwards, smack into the rest of the unit, who fell like dominos.
Fuse turned and ran.
Behind her the guards shouted, and a few pounded after her. Their cries brought more guards from all directions. Two charged in from a balcony outside and stood poised directly ahead of her. But Fuse was moving too fast to stop now. She leapt aside, wall-running high enough to do a forward flip over their heads. She landed, somersaulted, and was up again before they could even turn. In front of her, the exit to the balcony loomed. She burst into the fresh air, not pausing even as her head throbbed from the change in light. Before her, the balcony railing was easily scalable. But it was three long stories down to the palace courtyard. Alarms blared loudly outside, drawing countless guards from all over. They scurried across the courtyard, shouting and pointing. One called out for archers to take aim.
Can’t go that way.
She turned sharply, still not slowing. At the end of the long balcony, a corner of the palace roof jutted out decoratively. She leapt the railing and grabbed it, arching her body up with the momentum and releasing just in time for her feet to land steadily on the rooftop. She turned and continued up.
If she recalled her history right, the royal palace was surrounded on all sides by a barren stretch of paved rock–to help the watchtower guards spot spies and assassins. It would be a hard sprint and without her bending she’d have to hand-fight her way around many guards. But beyond the palace’s ring of protection there were courtyards and gardens and villas with plenty of suitable hiding places. To the east there was even a sizable lake. If she could cross it under cover of darkness, she’d be able to reach the wilderness. The guards would never catch her if she could make it there.
She reached the top of the roof, pressing tight against the base of the great watchtower out of sniping range. A quick survey and she had her bearings. She’d have to jump to the roof of the east wing, then from there, to the barren ring. Assuming she could dodge the guards and the arrows, a hard sprint would get her to the docks where she could duck away until sundown. After that it was a matter of sneaking on a ship. Or better yet, stealing her own boat to get across the lake and into the forest.
An arrow whizzed past her ear. Too close. It was now or never. She drew a breath.
She moved. The roof was steep adding to her momentum. She would have to time her jump perfectly…
Her vision blurred, sudden and startling, and the roof lurched as if it was alive. She misstepped and fell, landing on already damaged ribs.
She flailed out her arms. One hand caught the edge just as the roof dropped away, and she was left dangling three stories above solid stone. Behind her came the unmistakable sound of twanging bowstrings. One arrow grazed her cheek. The new pain startled her and she felt the dagger drop from her other hand. She heard it clink hard on the stone below.
That will be me if I don’t do something.
She tried to reach, to get hold of the roof and hoist herself up. But the effort made her damaged side spasm. She looked down. Her dagger lay on the stone, its blade broken clean in half. A dozen guards glared up at her, weapons drawn. And more were still coming. If she managed to survive the fall, and that was a big if, she would not be in any shape to fight through them all.
There was no way out of this one. She stared at the ground, the place that would soon be her grave. No sense in delaying it any further, really. She had failed at her mission, her purpose. She was broken. Useless, like her shattered dagger. So why wasn’t she letting go?
No fear. No pain. No mercy. The words echoed, but they had no meaning. Like back when she was still a girl chained in that room.
She heard that child scream now as the tile beneath her fingers broke away.
No! I don’t want to die!
Suddenly, she felt something catch her. And it wasn’t the ground shattering her body into bits, either. It was more like an invisible force, hugging her and pushing her upward. There was a rush a wind. She felt it playing with her hair. Strange, though. The wind seemed to be coming up from the ground…
Fuse closed her eyes and let the darkness swallow her.
“I won’t ask again, Korra. What is the meaning of your behavior?”
Korra winced. When she met Zuko, he’d seemed kind and gentle. She could never picture him raising his voice or losing his temper. Firelord Izumi, on the other hand, was another story. Sitting regally in the Fire Nation throne with Korra several steps below her only made her fierce glare more intimidating.
“Calm down, your highness,” she said, glancing nervously at Bolin and Mako, who stood to either side of her. “I understand you may be… upset.”
“Upset? You bring a combustionbending criminal into my palace without telling me and you think that all I am is upset? I should throw you out of here!”
“No, no, please don’t do that!” Mako jumped in. “I know we can still work together to come up with a solution for the bloodbending attacks that have been happening. And I’m sure if we plan things out right, we can re-take Sunport as well.”
Izumi narrowed her eyes at Mako. At least Korra had that in her favor. Izumi did have a strong sense of responsibility. She just had to keep the Firelord believing that part of her responsibility extended to not kicking the Avatar out onto the street.
“I still plan to come up with a solution for that,” Izumi said firmly, though the abundant vagueness in her statement didn’t sound too promising. “In the meantime, we’ll have that criminal locked away.”
“No, don’t do that either!” All eyes fell to Bolin. He somehow seemed surprised at this.
Dang it, Bolin, I’m having a hard enough time covering for myself here without covering for you, too. “I think what my friend here is trying to say,” she announced through gritted teeth. “Is that we have reason to believe that the combustionbender was merely a captive of the bloodbenders, not a willing participant.”
“Really?” Izumi stroked her chin, and for a few moments, Korra was actually hopeful. Izumi knew better than anyone how easily bloodbenders could manipulate people. Korra might actually have this.
“I obviously did not see you rescue your friend,” Izumi said carefully, “nor did I see what just happened in the palace rooms. All I know is that my guards are giving me mixed reports about what happened when the combustionbender awoke, and my guard captain is complaining of a sore… ego.”
“She was just scared!” Bolin said. “She woke up in a strange place. Erm, not that your palace is strange. It’s nice. Very nice. I like all the… the red stuff.”
Everyone glared at him now. “Look, what I’m trying to say is that when I was captured, Sparky-sparky, I mean– the combustionbender was the only one who actually did something nice. Or fed me anything. And she even fed Pabu, too!” He pointed to the fire ferret, who still had a sizable belly to back up the story.
“She shot a blast at this jerk bloodbender and never once attacked me,” Bolin went on. “Honest!”
Korra raised an eyebrow. Bolin ending a sentence with “honest!” was almost a guarantee that he was lying. Firelord Izumi, however, didn’t know that.
“All right, Avatar, since you seem so intent on keeping this combustionbender in my palace, what exactly do you propose I do with her?”
“Well, she could…” Shoot, what do I say? Korra really wanted to smack Bolin for putting her in such an awkward position. She might very well do it after this conversation, too. “… could help me with training,” she finally finished.
“Go on,” Firelord Izumi said.
Korra scrambled for the right words. “I mean, combustionbending is a rare skill, and I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to fight against it. But if there are gangs of bloodbenders showing up everywhere, I think we have to at least consider that there might be other types of new benders, too. I need to be as prepared as I can be.”
The silence that came afterwards was painful. Every second, Korra kept fidgeting around as she waited for Izumi’s answer. Then, right when she thought she would go insane from waiting….
“Very well, Avatar. We will wait until the combustionbender recovers and then I want to speak with her. I will make a decision about what to do from there.”
Korra breathed a sigh of relief and made a courteous bow. “Thank you, your majesty. We appreciate it.” She turned and walked from the room, motioning for Bolin and Mako to follow. She had some choice words for the two of them that she didn’t want to be lost. But before that, she also had to get to healing that combustionbender. They weren’t exactly friends; she wasn’t even sure they weren’t enemies. But few things tended to bridge rough relationships better than healing someone’s cracked ribs.