Long Feng’s office was ornate in the very specific style of a man who intended only people of refinement to notice. As a result, there was no gold, nor silver. Gems, of which he no doubt had immense access to, were similarly absent. One wall was taken up by a plain bas relief carving of Oma and Shu - only someone accustomed to the rarities of upper-class culture would note the age, quality, and rarity of the Gaipan blackwood used in its construction. Other details were quite the same. A dully coloured clay statuette of Yangchen on the desk - carved by her own hand. A paperweight of marbled Calderan steel which had to have been at least a century old. Probably older.
Such was accessible to those of refinement, and therefore, unsurprisingly, Azula took in every aspect of it.
Equally unsurprisingly, Sokka said, “He’s pretty boring, isn’t he?”
“I suppose,” Azula replied. No need to start a dispute with Sokka. Not in the enemy’s camp, because the Grand Secretariat’s office was surely one. And not in general, either. At least, little desire for it. He had proven his competency in the battle, for all his crassness. And Katara valued him and that was - and that meant alienating him through uncalled for scorn would knock down into other allies, other friends, in problematic style.
“And bad at keeping to schedule, too.”
“That’s a political play. To prove how we’re less important.” So said the scholars of such matters, anyway, and Arnook’s own teaching. As applicable here as in the north.
They lapsed back into silence, though not uncomfortably, for a further few minutes until Long Feng made his appearance through the door on the other side of the office. He walked without haste, despite his lateness, pausing behind his desk to bow before taking a seat. Azula and Sokka - the latter somewhat following the former - mirrored the motion.
“My apologies for the lateness,” he said, an obvious lie, but well-practiced, Azula thought, given the lack of any trace of insincerity on his face. “I was unavoidably detained. I was given to understand I would be able to speak to Avatar Aang and Princess Yue?”
He absolutely had not been given to understand any such thing. Two could play at politics, after all. As Toph had pointed out upon their arrival in the city, if the Earth Kingdom wouldn’t let them speak to the king, then whoever they did speak to would equally not be graced with the most senior members of their party.
Sokka had been quite indignant to discover his relative unimportance, and Katara had made great fun of him for it. Particularly given that Suki was running a more interesting task with the garrison. Azula suppressed a smile at the memory, for this was hardly a place for such, and answered smoothly.
“Her highness and the Avatar deemed us fit representatives.”
“Of course,” Feng said, dipping his head in the simulacrum of polite acknowledgement. “As a prince and princess - if you might excuse my use of the Earth Kingdom rank - you are worthy envoys. I am pleased that General Fong has been victorious, but I cannot be certain as to your purpose here.”
Another lie, in Azula’s estimation, and the estimation of anyone with knowledge of the Dai Li. Their business was intelligence, as Fong had warned before dispatching them to the city, and they kept an especially close eye on the army. Even so, there was no profit in bringing it up.
She gestured to Sokka, who gladly took the lead. An agreed part of the plan, and within his ability. Within his enthusiasm too, and the conjunction of those - while in her mind quite rare - was fortunate.
“Have you heard of the Day of Black Sun?” he asked.
“No, I can’t say that I have. A spiritual phenomenon?”
“Sort of. In a few months, there’ll be a brief window where the sun is eclipsed and firebending won’t work. If we - if the Earth Kingdom, I mean - reinforces its armies in the field now, and exploits its success with more troops, we could use it to kick the Fire Nation off the continent entirely. Perhaps even land forces in the Fire Nation. The war could be over by the winter solstice.”
There was a brief silence.
“Where did you obtain this remarkable information?”
“The library of Wan Shi Tong in the Si Wong Desert.”
“What a store of knowledge,” Feng said, tapping his fingers idly on the paperweight. “Could you provide directions for an exploration team? If we verified such information, I am confident that the Earth King would be most curious.”
“Um, well, the thing is - “ Sokka began, clearly stumbling, because this wasn’t part of the plan.
Azula moved in to cover for him. “Unfortunately, Wan Shi Tong objected to human interference and moved his library into the Spirit World.”
Another moment of quiet, one Azula was content not to fill, Sokka seemingly didn’t know how to, and Long Feng clearly weaponised - because after the pause had grown long enough to become uncomfortable, he broke it.
“So you intend for the Earth Kingdom to commit men and materiel in a gamble based on unverifiable information?” The tone was mild, and that only served to make the words even more cutting in character.
“We could end the war - “
“We aren’t ending anything,” Feng cut Sokka off. “Conscripts from the slums of Ba Sing Se, from Reizan and Chameleon City, they will bear the brunt of this scheme. They will die in their tens of thousands. Taxation would have to rise to meet the demands, and it would leave many impoverished.” His smile was almost genial. “Without ironclad evidence, I cannot take such a scheme to the king.”
“The information comes from the spirits,” Azula said, coming to Sokka’s defence in a way which did actually surprise her somewhat, and certainly seemed to surprise the object of her protective efforts. “As Jianzhu was so guided at Zhulu. It has value.”
“While I respect the belief,” Feng replied, with a slowness and a softness a less tutored individual might have taken for consideration, “in the Earth Kingdom, we must make our decisions based on tangible reality. That is, I regret to say, the final answer. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Final answer? The cheek of the man! I should - I should - ugh.”
Katara, Azula had to say, was not taking the political set back especially well, all things considered. Although, in fairness to her, the rest of the group seemed equally dispirited. Aang had spent a good hour trying to think of ways around the issue, Toph had turned the back garden of the ambassadorial residence into a maze of walls, and Sokka was simply - uncharacteristically - despondent.
Suffice to say, Yue and her were very glad to see Suki when she returned.
Partly, perhaps, because it seemed to revive Sokka’s spirits a little. But only partly. Zhao at Agna Qel’a had caught them unprepared. They were not about to make the same mistake again.
The group assembled in the main retiring room, a palace of green silk chairs and hanging drapes - and the fact it had several different rooms for the same purpose had struck Katara, in particular, as wasteful. Azula knew this because she had been informed of the fact several times during Katara’s admirably wide-ranging rant.
“So,” Yue said. “Long Feng doesn’t want to help us. I am disappointed, but not especially surprised, given what I’ve learnt about the Earth Kingdom in the past months. Therefore, we are going to remove him.”
“Remove him?” Aang asked. “You mean kill?”
Toph laughed, loud and long and crass. “That’d be gutsy.”
“A coup. Hopefully we would just imprison him.” Yue’s voice was calm, even, and Azula was torn between pride - more than that, raw admiration - at her sister’s ability, and a creeping, desperately unusual grief that it was necessary. “Suki?”
So named, Suki sat forward. “I spoke to some of the garrison soldiers while delivering correspondence, and listened to far more. None of them like the Dai Li, and all seem to resent the conduct of the war. If it were phrased in the right way, and if the Avatar were leading them, I think they would be willing to participate.”
“It’d be risky,” Sokka said, engaging with the issue at hand. “How sure are you of this, Suki? Not that I want to insult you or anything but - “
Seeing the risk of a descent into gabble - and recognising from Suki’s amused expression that she might well let him do so purely for the entertainment factor - Azula decided to head him off at the pass. “We can take some time to develop this further. But our standing with the army is high, we have the spiritual authority of the Avatar on our side, and the need is absolutely pressing. We should do this.”
All eyes turned to Aang, not at once, but person to person. Because he was the Avatar. Because while Yue had political skills, Azula strategy, and Sokka valour, he was the only one with that unique mandate. That unique power. That unique position.
It hinged on him.
“I think you’re right,” he said, slowly. “We need the Earth Kingdom’s support if we’re going to end this war. Let’s do this.”