Mako flipped through page after page, blowing away the dust that choked his lungs when he got to a particularly aged volume. The Firelord kept meticulous notes of all the goings-on of her nation. Unfortunately, it seemed, that while she read everything carefully, there was no system in place to look for an organized pattern across events. Once recent events were no longer recent, they were simply filed away by day and year. But Mako could handle re-organization. Really, after dealing with the way Lin handled police reports (“Put this in a place” was her favorite phrase when handing him something important), this was a breeze.
It took him a few days, but soon he was able to find something interesting. The Fire Nation suffered a number of civilian uprisings in the past few decades, starting from the time Firelord Zuko came into power. There were quite a few direct assassination attempts in the first few years. Although those trickled off after some years, the village riots and attacks never did cease completely. In fact, they seemed to be quite a regular occurrence. Once a moon cycle, more or less. And always in the chaos, one small village would get attacked by bandits who left no survivors. It was all just too regular. Too organized. And then there was the Firelord herself. Mako could not find a single account of a nonbending Firelord in the nation’s history. What did that mean for her? Mako could tell he was on the edge of discovering something big. Very big. He just need a little more data. A little more time.
Fuse twitched when something cold hit her arm. There was a dripping sound, and the air was dank. She opened her eyes slowly and flinched when another drop of condensation hit her on the cheek. She tried to raise her hand to wipe it away. Her arm didn’t budge. Her wrists were bound.
She sat abruptly. Her body ached, and there was a tightness around her head. Metal bars surrounded her, seemed to close in. She sucked in a panicked breath, drawing her power to blow apart the accursed cage–and a make a hole through the wall if necessary. But before she could focus her chi, another drop of water hit her, this one down her neck. The sudden chill forced out her breath in a gasp.
She drew another and exhaled again, slower, just like Master taught her. Each time grew easier, let her think a little clearer.
I nearly killed the Avatar. Of course I’d be imprisoned.
No fear. Breathe.
And this is the Firelord I’m dealing with. She’d take precautions so I can’t combustionbend my way out.
No fear. Breathe. That would explain the tightness around my forehead. It’s probably a restraint.
No fear. Breathe. I’m trapped. Breathe. I’m going to die here. Breathe. Unless… unless I can bargain with her.
What was she saying? Weapons didn’t bargain. Weapons did what their handlers commanded. But the Firelord was commanding she stay in a cage. The Firelord who was also a bloodbender…
No fear. Breathe.
I can’t be locked up again.
No fear. Breathe.
Not ever again.
Izumi stomped down the stone steps leading to the dungeon. She was a fool, an utter fool to have let that madwoman loose in the palace for even a moment. Korra might be the Avatar, but she was no judge of character. Nor did she have the stomach for dealing with criminals as they needed to be dealt with.
Izumi, however, had plenty of experience. She did not take a guard with her. In fact, she did not even inform the guards of where she was going. This was going to be clean and simple. And if that combustion woman tried to make it anything else… well, Izumi was more than capable of defending herself.
She approached the prisoner’s cell. Fuse… was that the young woman’s name? Whatever her name was, she was not doing well. She sat on her knees, swaying forward and backward, her chains clinking together in a dark, musical rhythm. She could not stand being caged. Korra was right on that count. Izumi would be able to have her talking quickly.
At the sound of Izumi’s footsteps, the prisoner’s head shot up. The swaying stopped, but the chains still clinked, as Fuse continued to rattle them in a rhythmic fashion. Her breathing was fast, like that of an overheated rabbit-dog.
“Release me,” she said.
“You’re in no position to make demands.” Izumi narrowed her eyes at the metal restraint covering Fuse’s tattoo. She had never met a combustionbender in person before, though she had seen plenty of photos of P’li when the criminal was still at large. Her father had come home especially to protect her. He couldn’t really do otherwise without looking like a terrible parent. They’d had a mild chat over tea, him quickly leaving for the South Pole once Zaheer and her cohorts had been defeated.
The chains clinked a bit slower now. “It was not meant as a demand, milady. More like a… bargain. Release me from this cage, and I will keep certain secrets about miladyship’s bending abilities… secret.”
Izumi’s chest tightened. No, it can’t be. No one had ever accused her of bending, even firebending. Her people’s vision of her as history’s most helpless Firelord was nothing short of infuriating at times. She took a slow breath and readjusted her glasses. “Your memory must still be a little hazy. Otherwise you’d recall that I don’t have any bending abilities, and it was the Avatar who fought you off.”
“An impressive lie, calling yourself a nonbender. You’ve honed it well. Though I imagine you would after a lifetime of practice. Under different circumstances I might even have believed you. But as it was, I watched the Avatar fall unconscious before I was attacked. I know you are a bloodbender, milady. And a skilled one, at that.”
This was enough. The woman’s signs of panic were quickly fading as she no doubt perceived herself to be gaining the upper hand. Izumi had to assert herself. She could not lose ground so quickly. “How dare you presume to know anything about–”
“You are the daughter of Lord Zuko, a hero of the Hundred Year War and a skilled firebender. You, however lack this skill, a fact that you resent bitterly. You resent this almost as bitterly as your command of bloodbending–a skill you shouldn’t even have.”
I need to leave. I’m not gaining anything by staying here. For a moment, she did turn towards the door. What would really happen if this woman spread such a rumor? Who would believe it? But still, the uncertainty ate away at her. She had to know how she’d revealed herself and how much she had done so. She faced Fuse once again. “Though your theory continues to be woefully wrong, I’ll remind you that many citizens now possess abilities they shouldn’t otherwise have. It was called Harmonic Convergence.”
Fuse shook her head. “No. Your skill level is too advanced for that. You were born a bloodbender. And you’ve sharpened that skill from a very young age.” She struggled against the chains again, taking a few heavy breaths. “You also push your glasses up with your index finger when you lie, so there is no point in trying again.”
“I do no–” Izumi began, only to realize her finger was already on the bridge of her glasses. She scowled and put her hand down. What am I doing wrong? Have I really become so obvious?
“No,” Fuse went on. “It isn’t that obvious to everyone else. I’ve been specially trained to read body language. Even cues as subtle as yours.”
She shifted back and forth a bit, trying the chains again. When she discovered they had not magically melted away, her signs of panic resurfaced. Izumi watched a drop of sweat trickle down her cheek.
“So then,” Fuse said between shortened breaths. “Do we have an agreement?”
For the first time since she’d walked in, Izumi finally felt like she had control. Just a bit more of a push and she wouldn’t have to compromise at all. “If I truly am a bloodbender, and as skilled as you say, would it not make sense for me to simply kill you? I could fake a heart attack, a complication from your concussion, any number of natural-looking deaths that no one would think twice about.”
The woman’s breathing only picked up more speed. Izumi kept her hands firmly at her sides. It was a monstrous bluff, but being the granddaughter of a man who nearly exterminated an entire nation did tend to make people take her threats seriously.
The combustionbender lowered her head. “If milady is willing to murder a Fire Nation citizen, who has had no trial, in order to keep a secret, then no, I don’t suppose there is anything I could do about that.” She raised her head just enough to make eye contact. “The Avatar would know, though. And she would not rest until she revealed the truth. I believe your highness should consider whether or not you would be willing to murder Avatar Korra along with me.”
Izumi clenched her jaw. She had lost; she could no longer deny that. Whoever had trained this woman, they had stopped at nothing to make sure she could read others as clearly as if their thoughts were being broadcast to her. But Izumi had gleaned one thing from this conversation, at least. This woman, however many times she might label herself as a weapon, did not completely think of herself that way. Weapons did not care if they died. Deep inside, this woman knew she was human.
Izumi straightened and cleared her throat. “Your release will be granted on two conditions. First, you will perform menial labor here at the palace until I decide you have been sufficiently punished for your crimes in Sunport. Second, you will face Korra and offer only your most sincere apologies to her.”
“Apologies?” For some strange reason, this seemed to strike Fuse as even more outlandish than the idea that Izumi had been born a bloodbender. “Why would I do that? It was the heat of battle.”
“If you’re human enough to try and blackmail me, then you’re human enough to take responsibility for your mistakes.” Izumi smiled. “I will send the guards down shortly to make sure you are properly chained and prevented from combustionbending before your release.”
“Fine,” Fuse snapped. Izumi at last turned and walked away. She never thought she’d hear so much relief in a person’s voice at the suggestion of chains.