Chapter 15: Suspicions and Distractions
Author's note: First, my apologies to everyone for the lack of action in this chapter; this one is mostly just setting up for events that will be happening soon. Also, a few words—okay, a lot of words—about what was depicted in the last chapter, what Suki did to Azula and what it was revealed Azula had done "off-camera" during the war.
I was expecting what Suki did to Azula to be seen as highly controversial, because frankly what she did was kick somebody already down—not just down, but pretty much at rock-bottom. That's very Not Cool, to put it mildly. But Suki's no saint (or Air Nomad), to just forgive her tormentor as soon as the tormenting stops. She forgave Zuko for partially burning down her village, yes, but Zuko apologized to her and was sincerely regretful for what he'd done in the past, while it was made clear at the start of their encounter that Azula didn't regret it at all. If Zuko hadn't made Suki swear to not do serious harm to his little sister, she probably would have done a lot more than just chi-block Azula and threaten her like that. But it should have been made obvious in the later scene with Izem, just why Suki had been having nightmares of Azula, and why she needed revenge so badly as to inflict it on a helpless mental patient. The revenge wasn't really about making Azula suffer the way Suki herself had suffered; it was what Suki had to do in order to prove, to her own badly scarred subconscious, that she would never, ever be Azula's victim again.
As for Azula... the horrible thing is, everything she did would have been considered reasonable by her nation's standards in time of war. She tortured Suki and the other Kyoshi Warriors to find out what they knew of Ba Sing Se's defenses, and to get information on Kyoshi Island customs and such that she and her buddies needed to know in order to impersonate the KW and enter the city unchallenged. And later on, she burned down the BSS university's library and killed the astronomy and geography professors in order to prevent anyone in the Earth Kingdom from learning about the upcoming eclipse; it's basically what Sozin did 135 years ago, but she didn't bother trying to cover it all up as a series of accidents. So yes, what she did was all just part of the war effort as far as the Fire Nation was concerned... but like that old anecdote about the priest who ice-skated up the frozen canal to his church on Sundays, the question is whether or not she took pleasure in what she did.
And yes, I believe Azula enjoyed herself considerably while torching the library and while torturing Suki, just as she obviously enjoyed gloating to Sokka about her 'favorite prisoner' later on. I agree with Vathara's views on the matter; Azula's portrayal for all of the show's second season and most of the third matches that of a classic sociopath. That was obvious even in her childhood, as shown in the flashbacks in Zuko Alone, and the portrayal didn't falter until very near the end of the series, in "Sozin's Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno." Only then are we shown her cracking under pressure... and apparently expected to believe that her crackup was a long time building, and it was all her cruel father's fault, he pushed her until she broke, oh pity poor Azula.
I can't really know the show creators' minds on why they chose to do that to someone who'd been such an excellent villain up to that point, but I'd guess it was because of what they had planned for the Big Showdown between Aang and Ozai, and the aftermath when all the battles were over. Because Azula couldn't die in that Agni Kai, and not just because she was still a young teenager herself and Heroes Don't Kill Kids in Western Animation. If Zuko killed Azula in that Agni Kai, it would be seen as sibling killing sibling for power, which was the very reason Iroh said he wouldn't face Ozai in battle. And if Katara killed Azula in battle, it would cause a huge rift between her and Aang, and that couldn't happen either because the Hero has to get the Girl in the end.
But if Aang had to use energybending twice, first on Ozai and then on Azula to keep her from being a threat to Zuko's reign, then not only would the second use of that Super-Awesome Secret Weapon cheapen the effect of its first usage, it would open a big can of worms about how often Aang would use that power, if he would end up doing it to every dissenter to Zuko's reign, etc. That would also ruin the rosy optimism of the all-problems-solved, time-for-the-Hero-to-get-the-Girl ending the show creators wanted. But if Azula has gone so crazy by the end of the show that she's lost most of her firebending, well then, she's not a real threat anymore, is she? Problem solved; proceed with the happy ending...
Suspicions and Distractions
The Tower Prison. Iroh had spent more time in that horrible place than he cared to remember, in the weeks between Azula and Zuko's "triumphant" return to the Fire Nation with him in chains, and his escape on the Day of Black Sun. The building was filled with memories for him, but none of them were good ones worth cherishing.
When he'd broken out of his cell, fought his way through the ranks of shocked-but-still-battling prison guards and finally burst through the main doors into open air, barefoot and bruised all over but feeling so alive with victory after the fiercest fight he'd had in decades, he'd paused for only an instant, to discard on the steps the sandal he'd been carrying—a reminder to Zuko of a perilous time they'd faced together less than a year ago; a silent invitation for his nephew to search him out now, if Zuko had finally realized for himself the truth about his power-mad father and the need to restore balance to the world—and then he'd run for freedom and the nearest White Lotus agent without a backward glance. He would have been happy to never see the inside of the Tower Prison again... But this visit was necessary.
He had deliberately not sent word ahead of his coming; the guards at the entrance were visibly startled to see him. One of them started to ask him to state his business, but the other—a young man he recognized from his breakout; nice to see that the broken leg had healed without complications—quickly shushed the first guard and gave a quick, nervous bow. "General, er, Your Highness, shall we alert the warden of your arrival?"
Ordinarily, Iroh would have said yes, courteously thanked the guard for his thoughtfulness, and passed the time with one guard by with talk of tea and other pleasures in life while the other went to fetch the warden. But this was not an ordinary visit. "No; instead, you shall take me to see the prisoner, this very instant," he rumbled with thunder in his voice. "Any delay in my seeing Ozai, for even the briefest moment, will result in dire consequences."
Both guards paled at hearing the words of the Dragon of the West, and unless his nose was mistaken, that sudden and acrid odor meant that one of them had just 'disgraced his uniform'. If he was wrong about this—and part of him truly, dearly hoped he was wrong—he'd have to make some apologies afterwards. But for now, he strode ahead into the darkness of the prison, with the guard that he hadn't met before scrambling to keep up with him while frantically waving for a third guard just inside the doors to accompany them.
He knew exactly where Ozai should be held, from a conversation with his nephew just before coming over here. And less than two minutes later, he was standing in front of Ozai's cell, staring hard at the cell's sole inhabitant.
Prison garments, and long black hair gone stringy and greasy-looking from lack of care; sallow cheeks and a downturned mouth under golden eyes gone dull yellow in the light of the flickering lamp that was the cell's sole source of illumination. Eyes that peered at him in silence for a moment before he spoke in a voice heavy with sarcasm. "And to what do I owe the honor, and the irritation, of a visit from my tea-obsessed brother? Have you come to try out some new blend of yours, on someone who can't make polite excuses and leave first?"
Well, that was one question settled, to Iroh's internal relief. That was truly his brother in the cell; besides the unmistakable resemblance, only Ozai would dare to speak so familiarly and mockingly on a surprise visit from the Dragon of the West. But that still left other questions to be answered, and he would do his best to get those answers, starting now. He glowered at Ozai and growled, "You know why. You're showing your hand, little brother."
Predictably, Ozai bristled at the reminder of his familial status, which had been Iroh's intention; angry men tend to reveal more than they planned. But the anger was clearly mingled with confusion: "What are you talking about? If this is another of your cursed proverbs, go spout that foolishness somewhere else; I'm even less fond of them than I am of your tea."
Iroh was about to respond when he heard a clattering on the stairs, and very shortly Warden Qian Wen appeared in the doorway, out of breath and trying very hard not to glare indignantly at his abrupt intrusion. "Good evening, General Iroh; may I ask what brings you to the prison so unexpectedly?"
"Good evening, Warden," Iroh said evenly, his level gaze saying that yes, he'd caught the unsubtle rebuke in Qian Wen's words for violating protocols in this manner, and no, he wasn't going to apologize. "I want to see your records on every single visitor to this prisoner's cell for the last six months, as well as your guard duty rosters for that same length of time."
"Those records are available in my office," Qian Wen retorted immediately, which Iroh noted with both relief and frustration; there had been no guilty flinch, or hesitation that would indicate he had something to hide. "If the esteemed general would deign to accompany me there?"
Ten minutes later Iroh was sitting in the warden's office with a cup of warmed-over and mediocre tea, and the warden's rather pointed apology for not having a better quality beverage available for him "on such extremely short notice", while the warden himself sorted through a floor-to-ceiling shelf of scrolls and records to retrieve the documents he had requested. Coming back to the table with an armload of records, the warden said, "I believe you'll find that we have tightened and improved security considerably since Warden Poon's tenure and, ah, the incidents of two years ago," as he gave Iroh a quick but telling glance. The retired general mentally gave the warden a point in his favor for referring so obliquely to Iroh's own imprisonment and escape.
Setting the records down on the table, the warden continued, "Every guard in this prison has been subjected to a rigorous background check, reviewed by both myself and Captain Hoshi up at the Palace. Every single visitor to the prison is accompanied by at least two guards at all times. The guards themselves see the prisoners only in pairs, even just to bring the meal trays or pick them up again later. No one has permission to be alone with any prisoner, for even an instant. And all visitors except the Fire Lord—and royal family members, such as your esteemed self, General—are searched by a member of the same gender before being allowed to see any prisoner, so there are no opportunities to pass along contraband items like, say, blasting jelly for blowing open cell doors, or ropes for tying up guards while escaping..."
The warden's voice trailed off, and Iroh could almost see the man choke back his questions of How did you get those items smuggled in here for your escape? Who was your mole? Not that he would have answered those questions if they had been asked, anymore than he would have told Zuko back then who had brought him the royal hair ornament and delivered his coded scroll to the palace. One did not become Grandmaster of the Order of the White Lotus by giving away their secrets.
Over an hour later, after reviewing all the warden's records as well as his personnel files, Iroh left the prison both marginally relieved and far more frustrated than when he'd stormed into the place, less than half an hour after Suki, Captain Hoshi and Agent Huong had given the reports on their capture by Hizem.
Ozai was still firmly imprisoned, and Iroh could find no evidence that the cruel ex-tyrant was masterminding these assassination attempts from behind bars with the help of his old pro-war cronies. But the two most recent assassination plots, with one of the perpetrators being from Ozai's finest death squad and the other being his old chief torturer... If Ozai wasn't behind these attempts to kill the Fire Lord and his family, then who was?!
The next two weeks saw progress in the investigation into the three guards' capture and thankfully foiled interrogation, but every lead came all too soon to a dead end.
The investigating team that Iroh and Hoshi put together learned quickly that most of the tenants of the building that had been used for a trap, had been forced out over the last six weeks before the trap had been sprung. One former tenant had come forward immediately after word had begun spreading of what happened, marching right into the nearest city guard station to tell everything she knew, and with her help they were able to find many other families who used to live in the building. All of them were reasonably cooperative with the investigators, but their stories were all the same; either they had been forced out by sudden increases in their rent that were too high for them to pay, or they had been evicted from their apartments on the slightest provocation, by a professional eviction team.
The rent collectors were easy to find, as was eviction team; both were professional service providers that were used by many landlords in the city slums. But they both said that they had been given the rent increase notices or eviction notices by a courier from the building's landlord, never meeting the man face-to-face. Inquiries with the courier service determined that the courier the eviction team named and described, had never been on their payroll. And when a review of city records revealed the home address of that landlord, the guardsmen breaking in found his rotting and maggot-ridden corpse in the bedroom; he'd been dead for at least two months.
"What about those two kids that lured us into the trap, by setting off that firework?" Suki asked. "Has anyone been able to find them? If we put out word that we just want to talk to them, and there's a reward for whoever brings them in..."
"You didn't know? I guess you were on nursery duty when I received that report. My apologies for not telling you sooner," Hoshi said, looking very grim. "The kids were found on the city guardsmen's second sweep of the building; stuffed under a bed in a first-floor apartment, with their throats cut. Best guess is that they were told by Hizem to hide there after luring us in, and when he gassed the entire floor, he knocked them unconscious as well as us. Then he took a few moments to 'tidy up loose ends' and silence them for good, before hauling us upstairs to his torture chamber."
Suki's Kyoshi Warrior makeup prevented her from looking as green as she felt at the news. "For Kyoshi's sake, they were little children..."
"That wouldn't have stopped Hizem, believe me. And they weren't the only bodies in the building, either; the guardsmen found nine more corpses in the basement, stacked like cordwood with quicklime poured over them. Guardsmen are still trying to make positive identifications, but I'm reasonably sure that they're the remains of the four families that weren't forced out by higher rent and couldn't be justifiably evicted..."
But in amidst all the grim news of the investigation, came a day of more lighthearted tidings. The merchant ship that had carried Zuko's, Katara's and Sokka's letters to Chief Hakoda along with the assassin Vachir's broken bow, came back from the Southern Water Tribe with an entire crate of blubbered seal jerky for Sokka to enjoy. And a letter from Chief Hakoda to his son, that Sokka was delighted to read aloud at the dining room table:
"Sokka, if you're trying to make your already proud father and tribe even more proud of you than before, you've succeeded! From what Fire Lord Zuko described of the assassin's position and distance relative to your party, you have now beaten the entire Southern Water Tribe's record for farthest accurate boomerang throw, as well as saved your friend's life and kept the Fire Nation from returning to war.
"But all the same, we would prefer it if you don't scare your family quite as thoroughly as you did this time, upon reading about your injuries. Bato and Pakku nearly had to restrain your Gran-Gran and I from launching our fastest ship on a voyage straight to the Fire Nation, to come for you and pull you out of there. We know that we all have our parts to play in restoring balance to the world, and that you've become a warrior and a man in your own right. We know we have no right to keep you from fulfilling your vow to your friend, no matter the cost... but you can't keep us from worrying.
"The broken bow and its plaque are mounted in the roundhouse now, so the entire tribe can see it and be reminded of your feat whenever we get together for celebrations and ceremonies. And I'm enclosing something we thought you'd like to see; the first draft of the ballad our songmaster Kivu is composing of your feat-a ballad, just for me?!" Sokka yelped, interrupting himself in his excitement. He quickly turned to the next sheet of parchment, scanned it and nearly bounced in his seat with excitement. "It is! It is! 'Sokka's Greatest Throw!' Katara, they're making a ballad about me! I'm going to be immortalized in song!"
"Sokka, they've already made story-songs about us!" Katara said from her spot at the table, looking up from cuddling Roku to give him a lopsided smile. "You and Suki sent me a transcript of 'The Rising of the Avatar' while I was still training up north, remember?"
"Wait, your people have made ballads about you too?" Zuko asked with interest, while Iroh perked up as well. "Do you still have a copy of that other one, or can one of you sing it for me?"
"Ah, this might not be the best time and place to sing that one," Suki interjected hastily, with a glance around the room at all the guards and servants loyal to the Fire Lord standing by the doors or waiting on the family. "Certain persons in the song aren't, uh, aren't seen in the most flattering light."
"...Oh." Zuko looked momentarily dejected, while Iroh just shrugged philosophically.
"So, Sokka," Katara said hastily and a little too loudly in the sudden silence, "Why does this ballad count for immortalizing you in song, but the other one doesn't?"
"Because in 'The Rising of the Avatar' we're mostly just called 'the brother and sister', and I'm only mentioned by name three times in all sixty verses, while your name is sung eleven times! Face it, that ballad is mostly about you and Aang; I'm treated like I was just along for the ride," Sokka complained. "But this ballad, this one is mostly about me! Oh, it mentions you when you had to heal my injuries, but still... I'm finally being truly recognized for my achievements!" as he all but preened his wolftail, with pride almost visibly radiating off of him.
"Because being known clear from here to Ba Sing Se as 'Sokka the Brave', and an inventor second only to the Mechanist himself, wasn't enough for you?" Suki asked dryly.
Katara eyed her brother while shaking her head with a smirk. "You know, Sokka, it's a good thing you primarily stand guard outside the nursery, instead of inside. Because if your head swells any bigger, you wouldn't be able to fit through the nursery door!"
Two days later, Iroh and Captain Hoshi gave the Fire Lord their official and regretful report on the latest foiled plot. "Your Majesty, we have no more leads to follow in this case at this time," Hoshi said, his expression grim. "If new information emerges, we will pursue it to the ends of the world if necessary, but right now all we can conclude is that Hizem's employer is currently beyond our grasp, and almost certainly plotting other ways to kill you."
Sitting in his office, Zuko sighed aloud while pinching the bridge of his nose, trying to ward off another headache. "In other words, it's business as usual."
"Captain Hoshi and I have given you our report... And now we give you our recommendation," Iroh said gravely. "We highly recommend you refrain from making any unnecessary visits to places outside the palace, from now until these conspirators are captured and the threat to your life and reign is over."
The Fire Lord gave a most un-royal roll of his eyes. "You make it sound as if I go gallivanting around the capital whenever I feel like getting some fresh air! I already keep all my public appearances to the bare minimum; just enough to counter my detractors who claim I'm hiding inside the palace walls," as he picked up another scroll to review.
"Your Majesty, we're not talking about planned public appearances, like your visit to the factory last month," Hoshi responded somewhat acerbically. "I made sure the ways had been cleared for both your departure and your arrival, and double-checked security for the factory site before your arrival there; I just hadn't anticipated that damned ex-Yuyan archer setting up just outside the perimeter I'd cleared! Which has now been extended an extra 20 meters for all future public appearances. But what the General and I are referring to, are your unpublicized appearances."
Zuko paused in the act of opening the scroll, giving them a wary look. If they were talking about that secret trip outside the walls that he'd made with Katara six weeks ago, the one that only Katara, Sokka and Agent Huong were supposed to know about… That nondescript stranger who'd been shadowing them for part of their evening; had it actually been a palace guard in disguise? Dammit, couldn't he have any privacy at—
The Uncle Iroh added, "I will be blunt, nephew; it would be for the best if you stopped making trips to the institution to see Azula."
Oh. Zuko was instantly relieved. And harshly ashamed of himself in the next instant, for being so relieved. Azula was his sister, dammit! It was his duty as her brother to— Nobody would ever dare tell Sokka not to see his sister!
Aloud, he said to his uncle and guard captain in biting tones, "Oh, would that be more convenient for everyone? Well, your convenience is outranked by my familial duty! As Azula's older brother, I will not give up on her recovery! I thought you of all people would understand, Uncle Iroh; you never gave up on me!"
Iroh visibly winced, but then his frown grew heavier. "You misunderstand, nephew. I am not just concerned for your safety, but for hers."
Hoshi gave a short but emphatic nod of agreement. "That institution is designed to keep patients in, your majesty; it's not so well designed for keeping other people out. We could tell them to put more than one lousy guard at the main entrance, but that whole building and the landscape it's on have too many security flaws, that anyone with even a tenth of our unknown conspirators' evident resources could exploit, to break in and kidnap or kill your sister."
Zuko's stomach turned cold as ice and plummeted to his knees as Hoshi continued, "Hizem and his employer took advantage of your return trip to see your sister to capture and try to interrogate me, but the shop merchants I questioned in the vicinity of where it all began, told me that those kids had been hanging around in that spot for six days already. So Hizem probably didn't know when you were making a day trip away or who you were going to see, just that you make at least one unpublicized trip every month. But if you keep going to that island to see her… we can change the sea route every time, like we've been doing all along, but sooner or later someone will figure out who you're going to see so often and so discreetly. Figure out where they can get themselves an easy hostage to use against you… It's for your sister's safety, sir."
Zuko grimaced, but finally nodded and agreed aloud, "No more visits, until the conspirators are captured." And then he scowled, after catching himself thinking that he could use the now freed-up day every month to just relax in his quarters or the nursery instead. He really was a lousy older brother…
One week later, Katara was playing tickle with Roku and loving his little baby giggles when Kumo came to the nursery, looking perturbed. "Ahem. Ah, Lady Katara, Fire Lord Zuko requests that his son be brought to him immediately."
"Okay," Katara said, blinking in surprise but scooping Roku up to carry him. "Where is he now?"
"He is in the formal luncheon with his privy council."
Katara stopped dead in her tracks. "Formal luncheon? And he wants Roku brought to him?" as she looked at Roku's wrinkled and drool-stained baby clothes, then at her own clothes in similar condition. "Are you sure?"
Kumo swallowed hard. "Quite sure, Lady Katara; I verified the order myself."
Katara made a split-second decision, and called out "Suki!" On guard duty, Suki popped her head into the room as Katara quickly dug into the dresser holding Roku's clothing. "I need you to get Roku into clean clothes right this minute, while I get into a clean outfit myself!" as she flung a cute little red silk kimono and matching red booties onto the day bed. She plopped Roku into the middle of the day bed, giving him a quick tummy tickle to keep him in a good mood, then dashed into her bedroom to put on the super-fancy nursing robe that Zuko had bought for her in Ba Sing Se.
Luckily, the robe only looked like typical formalwear; whoever had designed it had taken into account how children's grabby fingers can throw most clothing into disarray, and most of the adornments that would ordinarily be tied on just so with intricate bows were instead sewn firmly in place, as were the bows themselves. She quickly put it on and then grabbed her hairbrush. Once her hair was decent if not in a formal hairstyle, she tossed down the hairbrush and zipped back into the nursery. Suki had put Roku in the embroidered red kimono and was just then putting the second bootie on, giving his feet a tickle as she did to make him giggle instead of fuss. Katara grabbed two small toys and stuffed them up her sleeves, then snatched up a baby blanket, quickly bundled Roku up in it and picked him up, saying cheerfully, "We're going to go see your daddy now! Going to see Daddy, yes you are!"
Kumo led the way to the formal dining hall, while Katara thought back to breakfast, when Zuko had talked about the formal luncheon. Grouched about it, actually; he said he'd rather sit in a patch of muck in the Great Foggy Swamp and eat those giant bugs that Sokka had told him about, than sit through any formal dining experience. But his uncle had insisted that a formal luncheon was appropriate for the occasion, and the Fire Lord was expected to host these affairs at least twice a year. Zuko had grumbled some more but approved the menu and signed off on the seating arrangements, all the while insisting that they'd get more done and probably have a better time if the council members just brought bento boxes with them into the main council chamber.
Just before they went inside the formal dining hall, Katara checked Roku's face for traces of drool, wiped him with the corner of the baby blanket, and then whipped the blanket off to leave him in the red kimono, handing the blanket to the nearest passing servant. She took a deep breath and stepped into the hall, saying formally, "Your Majesty, at your request I have brought your son, Crown Prince Roku."
She saw Zuko sitting at the head of a table with fourteen of his council members, including his uncle Iroh, who was looking at him askance but keeping his mouth shut. "Thank you, Lady Katara," Zuko said with a gracious incline of his crowned head. Then he wordlessly held out his arms for his son, even though he was wearing formal robes. Inwardly praying to whatever spirits were listening that Roku wouldn't spit up or drool or anything else for the next few minutes, Katara handed the baby over and respectfully stepped back.
To her surprise, Zuko gestured to an unoccupied place setting in between Lord Hujo and Lord Honsho, both of whom were looking decidedly uncomfortable. Katara swallowed hard, then almost timidly took her seat between the two nobles, thankful she'd taken the time to put on the fancy gown. What was going on? If Zuko had wanted her input on something the council intended to discuss, he would have invited her from the start.
Still holding Roku, Zuko began talking to him in a conversational tone, as if he were a much older child. "Good day, son. I trust you've behaved well for Lady Katara? Are you doing well in your studies? I believe you're working on learning the difference between red and orange… And your firebending training; how's that coming?" Roku gabbled at him, and he smoothly interpreted, "So you're almost ready to sit up on your own now? Quite impressive. You'll be firebending in no time. Yes, you're growing and learning so much every day… But the question is, are you ready to be betrothed in marriage?"
Katara had just picked up her chopsticks, preparing to eat the food set in front of her, but at Zuko's words she dropped the chopsticks with a clatter and gaped in astonishment. "What?!"
Thankfully, none of the other nobles present took notice of her outburst; they were all too busy either gaping at Zuko or staring at their own bowls, most of them blushing in embarrassment. Zuko went on talking to Roku, "It seems Governor Shumi has a granddaughter, a lovely young lady who must be quite remarkable, given how he's been praising her virtues for the last fifteen minutes. She's of betrothal age; how do you feel about marrying an older woman?" Roku squealed with baby glee, and Zuko smirked. "Yes, I've heard that about older women too, but do keep in mind, son, that we're in formal company at the moment."
Holding Roku in his lap, Zuko addressed the rest of the table. "Noble lords, I have heard of the custom of betrothing children to bring their parents' houses together before those children are actually of the standard age for arranging marriages. However, after due consideration, I must regretfully conclude that Prince Roku is not yet of an age for betrothal. I suggest that all such talk be tabled for at least another decade."
Governor Shumi gulped and protested, "Your Majesty, I believe there has been a misunderstanding…"
"Oh, really?" Zuko drawled. "I thought I just made it plain enough. Roku will not be betrothed to anyone for at least another decade. I'm sure you had been thinking of him, because you couldn't possibly have been trying to match your granddaughter up with anyone else in this room. After all, if you intended to match her up with the son or grandson of another noble present, that discussion would surely be more appropriate to a more private meeting, strictly between the two families." His voice had already acquired a hard edge; now it became as hard and sharp as obsidian. "And of course you could not possibly be suggesting her as a match for the Fire Lord, given that Fire Lady Mai died only a few months ago. And even if it were a full year after her death, or a full decade, no one could ever take her place in my heart or by my side!"
Governor Shumi cringed like a whipped polar-dog under Zuko's furious glare. Katara almost felt sorry for him… but not quite. The very nerve of the man, trying to match the Fire Lord with his granddaughter even before the official period of mourning for Mai was over! If he weren't already looking thoroughly sorry he'd even hinted at it, she'd have bent his soup out of his bowl and all over those fancy robes of his on Mai's behalf.
Roku squealed again, slapping his little baby hands on the table, and Zuko broke the glare to look down at him fondly. Since he'd had the servants set a place for her, Katara knew that Zuko meant for both her and Roku to stay at the luncheon; she beckoned to a servant and passed to him the two toys, a rattle and a little stuffed lion-puppy, that she'd tucked into her sleeves. The servant bowed and immediately passed the toys on to the Fire Lord, who took them and proceeded to amuse his son with them while deliberately ignoring his guests and even whatever his uncle was trying to whisper to him.
It could have been a disaster. Zuko was clearly mad at his uncle and the entire council, for not shutting Governor Shumi up for him long before he'd had Roku brought in to deliberately deflect the matchmaking. But while he had good reason to be mad, even Katara knew it was a bad idea to snub all the nobles like this, with an unspoken 'fuck you; I'd rather listen to baby talk than your blather.' These men had power and influence, and Zuko needed their support and help to keep the country running smoothly.
But Kumo, old and wise and probably knowing Zuko better than any of them realized, discreetly whispered in the ears of Lord Botar and Lord Nobun while Zuko was preoccupied. After Kumo had stepped back, Lord Botar cleared his throat and said, "If the Fire Lord will permit a personal observation, the Fire Prince appears to resemble his mother to a great degree; I believe he has Fire Lady Mai's chin."
"He also seems to have her nose, in his royal profile," Lord Nobun chimed in.
Zuko looked up and smiled, agreeing with the gentlemen, and a third council member dared to observe that the prince also clearly resembled his father, in the eyes and the hair color. A fourth council member chimed in that Roku might have his father's jawline and cheekbones as well, but it was really too early to tell. Then Lord Nobun said (glancing at Kumo as he did so), "It is a rare pleasure to see the young prince… indeed, a pleasure to see him at all, considering how close we came to losing him. Saved only by the grace of Agni, and by your skills at healing, Lady Katara," as he rose up to bow to her in thanks.
Katara thought fast as she stood up and bowed back, and replied smoothly, "I could do no less for the son of a dear friend who is also the greatest of world leaders." As she sat back down, she saw Zuko not only smiling but blushing slightly.
Nobun went on, "I understand that besides being a master healer, you are also a master of combative waterbending. I would consider it a rare privilege if you would allow me to witness a demonstration of your skills one day. Indeed, I would almost beg the Fire Lord's indulgence that he allow a demonstration here at this luncheon, but regrettably, we have still other matters to discuss. Such as the matter of Pohuai Stronghold..."
Still holding Roku, Zuko nodded as he said, "That recent epidemic of Fire Fever that Pahuai region suffered cost the lives of over a hundred people, but it was recently brought to my attention the epidemic will cost our nation more than that, in terms of lost harvests. Pohuai's famed orchards are full of fruit that was left to fall and rot on the ground, for lack of workers able to rise from their sickbeds and pick them when they ripened. Nobun, give us your estimates for how much of the crops were lost..."
And with that, the derailed formal luncheon was back on track. Katara was seated too far away to do it, so Iroh took a few bites of his food, then held his arms out for Roku to be passed over to him. Zuko passed the baby over so he could eat several bites, then gestured for Iroh to hand his son back, just as he and Katara did at the family meals. Katara smiled to herself and wondered if the council would suggest that Roku be brought in for the next formal luncheon as well. Probably not, but if he could have his son there too, maybe Zuko wouldn't dread these formal affairs so much.
Then came a blatant reminder of why babies are usually not welcomed at formal affairs: an unmistakable sound came from Roku's nether regions, followed very shortly by an unmistakable smell. Zuko wrinkled his nose, as did the nobles sitting nearest him, though some of them tried hard to keep a straight face and pretend they hadn't noticed anything for courtesy's sake.
Zuko sighed, "Oh, Roku; your timing needs improvement." But instead of beckoning for Katara to come take Roku and deal with it, he stood up from the table, saying to his guests, "Continue in my absence."
"…Your majesty?" Governor Shumi said, as if he simply couldn't understand why his monarch was leaving the table.
Zuko said matter-of-factly, "His diaper needs changing; it will take me a few minutes. You may continue eating in my absence."
If Lord Hujo's mouth hung open any further, a sparrowkeet could build a nest in it. He finally shut it to squeak incredulously, his voice gone up two octaves, "Y-your majesty! Y-you… you change diapers?!"
Other than Hujo's squawk, the room was absolutely silent with appalled astonishment. But Zuko looked the noble right in the eyes and said with a perfectly deadpan expression, "Of course. It's a thoroughly unpleasant necessity that will continue for years to come; remarkably similar to cleaning up the messes the prior Fire Lord left behind." Only at the end of the sentence did he quirk his lone eyebrow in a subtle 'get it?'
After a moment of stunned silence, the entire room burst into laughter. Laughter interspersed with praise and applause; Zuko had just won the unofficial award for Funniest Fire Lord of the Century.
Katara grinned from ear to ear, then got up and approached Zuko with a quick bow. "If you please, let me take him for changing; it's nearly time for his feeding as well. And there is one thing that the spirits didn't bless any man, even your own royal personage, with the capacity for doing."
"True indeed," Zuko said with a smile, as he handed Roku over to her and sat back down. She left with Roku, and with more chuckles floating through the air behind her.
After the luncheon was over, Zuko went straight to the nursery, and Iroh followed him inside with an ear-to-ear grin. "Very, very well done, both of you! Zuko, if I didn't know better, I'd have thought you had staged and rehearsed the entire thing as a joke to play on the court."
"I did rehearse the line I gave them when Hujo asked," Zuko admitted with a sheepish expression. "I thought of it nearly two months ago; I knew someone would ask me about the diaper-changing sooner or later."
"And you practiced it in front of a mirror, until you could actually say it with a straight face, eh?" Iroh asked shrewdly. Zuko nodded even more sheepishly, and Iroh gave him a hearty clap on the back. "Well done! The entire council is sure that you were merely joking with them, of course, but they are admiring your quick thinking in turning an embarrassing moment into a humorous one, and any sovereign can only benefit by having a reputation for quick thinking under pressure. Also, Katara, please accept my compliments on your own behavior during the luncheon; you displayed just the right blend of familiarity and deference for the formal occasion."
Katara also smiled wryly. "Actually, I've been practicing that too; after Zuko publicly declared us as all but family, I asked Kumo to give me tips on how family members are expected to act in court. He coached me on when and how far to bow, and stuff like that; I think he was pleased that I wanted his advice."
"You probably made his entire week, with that request; Kumo dearly loves to give advice, whether or not it was requested," Iroh chuckled. "Well done, both of you! I'm sure that quote will spread to all the islands before the week is out, and make you even more popular in the eyes of our people."
"So, do you think I can bring Roku to all the formal affairs from now on?" Zuko said hopefully.
"Ah, no." Iroh shook his head. "Today, we were very lucky in that Roku was extremely well behaved for the few minutes he was present. When he begins teething, or spirits forbid, if he develops a case of colic, his presence would make such affairs even more tortuous that you find them already. Today, you made it clear to the council that you have an heir and have satisfied the requirements of succession; that you will not tolerate any pressures to marry again. You've proved your point; now let the matter rest."
The next day, Iroh had tea with Lord Toromi in his private garden, and patiently listened to the head of Toromi Clan complaining bitterly about the Fire Lord's decision to rule in favor of the Mio Clan, in their dispute over some prime agricultural land on Hokkano Island. As he sipped his ginseng tea and invited Lord Toromi to try the spiced almond cookies, Iroh reflected that there was some truth to the saying, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
Iroh had spent much of his and Zuko's three years abroad, acting as peacemaker between his nephew and the crew of the ship he captained; listening with sympathy to the crew's many complaints about "the Royal Pain" and his abrasive behavior, while deftly steering them away from any talk of mutiny. Now that Zuko had finally let go of the pain-fueled anger that had driven him for so long, had accepted his true destiny and was doing his best to restore balance to the world alongside the Avatar, he was a far better leader than before. But it was impossible for a sovereign ruler to please everybody; there would always be those who hated Zuko simply for not letting them do whatever they pleased, like Lord Toromi. So Iroh had taken it upon himself to hear out the clan head's complaints, make enough sympathetic sounds to let Toromi think he was commiserating with him, and add in enough carefully worded suggestions—often in the form of questions and subtle reminders, to cause Toromi to think the ideas had been his own, instead of the retired general's suggestions—that would give Toromi something more productive to do than foment political unrest.
Finally, all the tea had been drunk and the food eaten, and Lord Toromi left with new purpose in his stride. Iroh gestured for a servant to tidy up as he left the private garden, heading for his suite of rooms in the family wing. But before he entered the wing, he was paused by Kumo the majordomo, who bowed and said, "My apologies for the interruption, General, but Fire Sage Shyu has arrived in the palace; he wishes to speak with you at your earliest convenience."
"Does he now?" Iroh asked with interest, as hope surged unbidden in his heart. If Shyu was here about the project Iroh had quietly talked with him about, three months ago... But no, that wasn't likely, not after all this time had passed. Surely Shyu was here on another matter, one more urgent or apt to have poor consequences for his nephew. Iroh really would not be surprised to find out that the Council of Sages had decided to refute Shyu's claim that little Roku had been born on Fire Nation soil, which would make the babe ineligible to inherit the throne. Too many of those Fire Sages were still hostile to the reigning Fire Lord, and suspicious of anything with the slightest connection to the Earth Kingdom. Schooling his features to a neutral expression once more, Iroh directed Kumo to show Fire Sage Shyu to the guest wing's finest parlor, and to prepare another tea service to be brought there.
After freshening up a bit, Iroh went straight to the parlor, arriving while the servants were bringing in the tea service; he bowed to Shyu in greeting and invited him to share tea with him. "I would be delighted, Esteemed General," Shyu said with a bow in return. And after the tea—oolong, this time—had been served and duly appreciated, Shyu pulled something out of his robes and laid it on the table between them with a quiet smile. "I believe this is what you were hoping for."
His breath caught in his throat, Iroh looked at small paper-wrapped bundle on the table that was roughly the size of his fist, and then looked back at Shyu. "You are certain?"
"As certain as I can be, considering the decades since it was made and used," Shyu said modestly as Iroh carefully unwrapped layer after layer of rice paper surrounding the object, until he had uncovered a small lacquered box of red and gold, tiny enough to fit into the palm of his hand, sealed with a thin band of paper that had writing on it in someone's finest script. "I spent five weeks tracking it down, and another three weeks verifying its provenance. That is the original seal on the box; its contents have been undisturbed until now."
"Then they shall remain undisturbed a while longer," Iroh said as he carefully rewrapped the box in layers of rice paper, to make it an undistinguished bundle once more. "If this quest is successful, Shyu, you shall have the thanks of the entire royal family! Until then, please accept my own gratitude for the help you have given me. Is there a favor I may do for you in return before I leave?"
Shyu smiled. "Actually, if you are not in a great hurry to depart, perhaps you can spare the time to tell me a story? To satisfy my curiosity; I have heard that you worked with the High Earth Sage of Ba Sing Se and the new Dai Li to rid their city of an oni that had escaped from imprisonment…"
"A tale that I would be pleased to relate to you! Although much if it is second-hand information, as I was only an active participant at the very end, once the Dai Li had cornered that foul spirit," Iroh cautioned, as he poured himself another cup of tea. "But I can also tell you of the wide variety of artifact-spirits that the Dai Li faced and trained against while I was there..."
At breakfast the next morning, the chef introduced a new dish, spiced sea prune loaf; his latest attempt to make sea prunes into something that people besides the resident Water Tribe members would enjoy. Sokka liked the new dish so much he asked for and received a whole loaf all to himself, Katara liked it too, and even Suki found it okay, which was indeed an improvement. But Zuko took one bite, shuddered, and washed the taste out of his mouth with copious amounts of tea. Iroh chewed thoughtfully for a few moments before commenting to the chef, "Perhaps for next time, you could add some mashed mango and cinnamon."
The chef nodded and returned to the kitchen, and Iroh turned to Zuko as he said with a smile, "Nephew, I'm afraid I'll be leaving soon, and will be gone for a few weeks; perhaps a month or more. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Where are you going?" Zuko asked as he looked up from cradling Roku in his arms while Katara ate her miso soup.
"To renew an old acquaintance, and hopefully get answers to some old questions." Iroh met everyone's curious looks with a rueful smile. "My apologies for being so vague, but right now I'd rather not say more; my quest calls for discretion."
"Looking for someone to play pai sho with?" Sokka hinted, referring to the White Lotus organization.
"You could say that," Iroh nodded. "And I think the second-smallest royal yacht would do for the journey."
Zuko nodded. "Go ahead; pick your own crew and stock it as you see fit. Including a couple of dragon-hawks?"
"I'll keep in touch as much as I'm able," Iroh assured him. "And in turn, I trust you'll keep me supplied with news about my grandson!"
Iroh left two days later on a yacht staffed with a crew of six capable sailors, and stocked with enough supplies to sail anywhere in the world. And for the next five days, the atmosphere around the dining room table felt just a little... off, when they gathered for breakfast and dinner. "It's odd, y'know?" Sokka finally said out loud, fiddling with his chopsticks instead of eating his spiced sea prune loaf. "As Team Avatar, we went up, down and across the whole wide world... just a few kids, not an elder in sight most of the time... and we did fine on our own! Now I keep finding myself looking at where Iroh usually sits and missing all his tea proverbs, even the ones that don't make any sense! And he's not even my uncle! He just..."
"He just feels like everyone's uncle," Suki suggested, her smile wry as she too glanced towards the empty seat.
"That's Uncle Iroh for you," Zuko agreed while rocking Roku in his arms, his body angled away from his uncle's usual spot as though trying hard to not look at it.
"Well, I'm sure he'll be back soon enough," Katara said firmly after swallowing another bite of roast duck. "And that he doesn't want us to just sit around missing him in the meantime! Sokka, how's your latest invention coming?"
That evening, after Katara finished feeding Roku (while Zuko averted his gaze by looking out the nursery window; it was too hot even at night to keep the baby under a blanket while he was getting his supper), the young father took his son over to the rocker to rock him to sleep; it was part of their nightly ritual. But as he sat down, Katara said with a smile, "Zuko, do you know how I've been saying I should teach you a new lullaby to sing to him?"
"I know, but that 'Little One, Little One' is your song to sing to him," Zuko retorted with a shake of his head, smiling to soften his words, as he began rocking back and forth. "'Leaves on the Vine' is what I sing to him. Well, what Uncle and I sing to him. Isn't that right, little man?" he cooed to Roku in his arms.
"I know that's what we've been doing, but I think Roku might like it if you started singing this song to him," as she brought out the scroll she'd hidden earlier behind the stack of clean diapers, unrolled it and held it in front of him, waiting for his reaction.
He read the first line of the scroll's contents, and his mouth fell open in surprise. "The Dragonfire Lullaby? Katara, how did you…?"
"Oh, I have my ways," Katara said with a smug smile, hoping he would let her leave it at that. She really didn't want to tell him just how much trouble she had gone through—and not just her, but who knew how many Imperial Guardsmen and other servants in the palace—until she'd finally gotten the lyrics for that little-known lullaby that Zuko had only half-remembered from his childhood.
The day after she and Zuko had enjoyed their 'night on the town', walking through the poorer parts of the capital city to listen to common gossip and just get away from the palace for a while, Katara had requested a portable scribe's kit from the palace staff. Then she'd put on the plain brown nursing robe again and quietly left the palace, to go back down to the tenement building that had caught Zuko's attention that evening, when they'd overheard some unseen mother in one of the apartments singing the lullaby for her baby.
Since Zuko had made it plain he didn't want anyone knowing that they'd been out wandering through town like commoners the night before, Katara had made up a cover story that she was newly arrived from one of the colonies that were being completely disbanded and evacuated. Zuko had said a few days ago that the first shipload of colonists from Gouzen, the last of the three colonies that had been settled during Fire Lord Ozai's brief reign and were being evacuated on Fire Lord Zuko's orders, had arrived in the harbor with more colonists looking to resettle on Capital Island, so one more stranger wandering around wouldn't the that memorable. Yes, 'Ling' was a new arrival along with her husband and infant son, and last night she had heard someone singing a lullaby while she'd been doing some last-minute shopping for her family's dinner; a song that she wanted to sing for her own child. Surely, speaking as one mother to another, the woman would be happy to help her learn and write down the lyrics to such a lovely lullaby…
It hadn't taken her long to find the right tenement hall, but finding the right mother proved to be more difficult. She and Zuko hadn't overheard any grumbling about it last night, but when she talked to the building manager, she had quickly discovered that people re-settling from the colonies weren't exactly popular in some quarters.
"So you think that you can just barge in anywhere you please with your sob story, and expect everyone to just fall all over themselves to help you out?" the manager, a heavyset man with thinning hair and an increasingly sour expression, had interrupted her while she was still telling her cover story, before she could even ask him if he knew which apartment-dweller she might have heard the night before. "All the help you've already been given, wasn't enough for you?"
"Wh-what?" as Katara had blinked at him in surprise.
The manager had raised a hand and began ticking off points on his thick, callused fingers. "You got free transportation from your colony to the Home Island of your choice, and don't think people haven't noticed that a lot of you are taking the opportunity to move to better places than you came from when you first left as a settler! And before you even set foot on the docks, you got a resettlement grant straight from the Fire Lord's own money pouch that's more than most folks make from a full month's work! And the Fire Lord ordered that you re-settlers get hiring preference over everybody except ex-soldiers coming back, so you've got job opportunities practically falling into your lap, while the people who've lived here all their lives have to take the shittiest jobs out there just to get by! And now you think you're entitled to even more help, just 'cause you're new here?"
"But, but I just—" Katara had found herself sputtering in amazed indignation.
"Beat it!" and the man had slammed the door in her face.
For long seconds, she'd just stood there, red-faced and rigid with anger, and so very tempted to whip out the waterskin she'd hidden beneath her robes, break the door down and illustrateto that manager, in the most memorable way possible, the importance of being polite to strangers. But that would have given her true identity away to not just the building manager but everyone on the city block, and then people would start asking why Master Waterbender Katara was down in such a poor section of the city and what the Fire Lord had to say about it. So in the end, Katara had just gritted her teeth and stomped her way back up to the palace.
Two days later, she had gone downtown again, even more determined than before and this time armed with a pouchful of silver and copper coins as well as the portable scribe's kit. If the building manager was that resentful of re-settling colonists, then he'd probably welcome a chance to take good money from one of them in exchange for something as easy as pointing her towards the right apartment door.
And she'd been right... but in the end, it had done little good. "Yeah, I know a family that lives on that side, second floor," the manager had said almost grudgingly after pocketing three silvers. "The mom likes to sing her little girl to sleep; I've heard them a few times. But they went out of town yesterday; the dad said something about an in-law being sick, maybe dying, over on Hokkano, so they'll be gone for a while." He'd given her a rather nasty smile as he added, "I could maybe give them a message from you when they get back, if you pay me enough..."
"Never mind," Katara had sighed as she slumped slightly, disheartened; she knew it would do no good to give them a message with a fake name and address on it. Maybe she could come this way again in another month or two, and see if they'd returned...
She'd started trudging back up the hill towards the palace, but after walking two blocks she'd paused for just a moment, before walking another block upwards. Then she'd turned to the left to go down a side street, walked sedately around a corner, spun around while whipping out her waterskin, and ambushed the man who'd been following her uphill, knocking him back and freezing him to the nearest wall.
"Lady Katara!" the man had gasped as he hit the wall, and Katara had gasped as well when she recognized him; Taro, one of the palace guards!
She'd felt a blush of combined embarrassment and annoyance staining her cheeks as she returned the ice to water and drew it away from him, returning it to her waterskin as she demanded, "Were you under orders to follow me, or did you just decide to stalk me on your own?"
"Captain Hoshi's orders, milady," Taro had admitted with a rueful smile, rubbing gingerly at the shoulder that had hit the wall first when she'd slammed him into it.
Crossing her arms, she'd frowned at him while asking, "And just why does the captain think I need a secret escort every single time I leave the palace on an errand? Just because I'm a girl, or because I'm not native to the Fire Nation? Don't tell me he has Sokka and Suki followed whenever they leave too!"
" The captain doesn't have them escorted anymore, milady, but that may be because they always go out together instead of alone, with each providing the other's backup," Taro had replied, his tone both respectful and reproving, and making Katara blush further. "If I may ask, milady, what errand were you running in this part of town?"
Thinking quickly, Katara had come up with a tale of half-truths well seasoned with little white lies. She told him that she'd heard a young mother in that building singing a Fire Nation lullaby to her child, but not while out walking with Zuko; instead, she'd heard it while she'd been coming back from the hospital in the middle of the night, after that first healing session she'd given to the three men who'd been badly hurt in the bar brawl with the Dai Li agents.
After hearing her story and the few bits of lyrics and melody that Katara could remember from the lullaby, Taro had rubbed his chin in thought while saying, "That's not one that I'm familiar with, but I can see why you'd want to sing it for the young prince, with him being the Dragoneye's son. If you're ready to return to the palace, milady, we can ask a few of the other guards and servants if they've heard of the song." And Katara had agreed, after cautioning Taro that she wanted all this kept quiet; Zuko probably wouldn't be happy to know that people were putting serious effort into fulfilling a wish of his, that was so trivial in comparison with all of the Fire Lord's other goals and responsibilities.
So they'd returned to the palace, and quietly met with Hoshi and Kumo... who had quietly polled everyone on their staffs about the lullaby... who had quietly sent messages to their families out in town, and then hawk-messages to friends, relatives and other royal employees on other islands...
And finally just that morning, nearly two months after the inquiries had begun, Kumo had quietly passed word to the nursery that Lady Katara's presence was requested in the east wing's parlor. When she'd arrived there, she'd found Kumo waiting with a stranger who had an old but clearly well-cared-for koto lying on the low table in front of him. The middle-aged man had a lean build, skin only a shade or two lighter than hers, and rather rakish features but kind eyes; he had given her an elaborate bow as Kumo made introductions. "Lady Katara, I present to you Reijin, a traveling musician who has plied his craft in nearly every part of the Fire Nation, including the farthest colonies, and who has recently been pleasing audiences on Ember Island. The caretaker for the Fire Lord's vacation home found him at the main marketplace there, and discovered that he does indeed know the Dragonfire Lullaby; we paid his way from Ember Island to here, so he may teach the song to you."
Reijin had bowed to her again as he declared, "It would be my honor to teach such a renowned warrior, beautiful lady and loyal companion to the Fire Lord! And my delight to see such a touching song flourishing and spreading across the land once more."
"It used to be a popular tune, then?" Katara had asked with interest.
"Indeed, good lady; when my master secretly taught me the song decades ago, he told me that it used to be commonly sung by mothers all across the Fire Nation, particularly those in firebending families. But it fell into disfavor, after Fire Lord Sozin not just condoned but encouraged the slaughter of the dragons," as the corners of Reijin's mouth had turned down in a frown. "Over the decades, few women have dared to sing the lullaby to their children, for fear of those children innocently repeating the song to others; of their family being marked as dragon sympathizers disapproving of Fire Lord Sozin's campaign."
That had made Katara wonder why Zuko's old nurse Keiko had dared to sing the lullaby for Fire Lord Sozin's own great-grandson... But rather than say that out loud, she'd just listened attentively as Reijin played the koto and sung for her, until she knew the song well enough to sing it back to him. Then the troubadour had presented her with a pair of scrolls that he'd written for her while on the journey to the capital; one scroll had all the lyrics for the song, while another held the musical notation for the melody as well as for playing stringed instruments in harmony.
"Thank you very much!" Katara said, well-pleased with the gift; that would make it so much easier to teach the lullaby to Zuko, and when Iroh came back, perhaps he could play along on his liuqin. "Is there any way we can repay you?"
Reijin had bowed once more as he said humbly, "All I would ever ask for recompense is that I be allowed the inestimable honor of seeing the infant crown prince, and playing the lullaby for him."
Kumo had frowned at the suggestion and started to refuse him, because Fire Lord Zuko had made it plain more than once, when other visitors to the palace had asked to see the infant prince, that his son was not a prized komodo-rhino to be trotted out on display for others. But Katara had overridden the majordomo with a smile, one that showed a hint of teeth. "I'm sure the Fire Lord would understand and make an exception, just this once." And when Captain Hoshi muttered that they hadn't gotten the final security report yet on Reijin's background, Katara had set aside his concerns as well. "I'm sure this minstrel wouldn't dream of hurting the Fire Lord's son! Because surely he understands that if he dares do anything that would even make us think he might harm the infant prince," as her bright blue eyes turned back to Reijin to pin him to his seat, "he doesn't leave this room alive." A few beads of sweat had gathered at Reijin's brow as he hastily agreed with her.
Katara had brought Roku from the nursery herself, and held the infant as he listened with wide-eyed wonder while the traveling musician played the koto and sang for him. Reijin had such a fine baritone singing voice and fantastic stage presence, it was easy to see why he had rapt audiences wherever he traveled. But now, after Zuko read the scroll of lyrics to learn what he'd only half-remembered before and settled into the rocking chair to sing to his son, she listened to his earnest rasping voice and decided this was much better.
"You are small, but complete,
You have your head, your hands and feet,
And in your heart, light and heat,
It burns hot, dragonfire
It burns bright, dragonfire
It burns pure, dragonfire
It burns in you, dragonfire.
You're so young, so newly made,
But within a flame, to keep you unafraid,
Most unafraid, ever unafraid,
It burns hot, dragonfire
It burns bright, dragonfire
It burns pure, dragonfire
It burns in you, dragonfire.
The world can be a scary place,
It may be hard to stay in the race,
But here in you is just what it takes,
It burns hot, dragonfire
It burns bright, dragonfire
It burns pure, dragonfire
It burns in you, dragonfire.
In the dark, dragonfire.
In the cold, dragonfire.
In the dark or the cold,
You are never alone,
If you summon your own
Six days later, Aang flew in on Appa to let them know that he'd witnessed the formal return to the Earth Kingdom, of the land that had been occupied by Gouzen Colony; the last of the recently-created colonies that were to be completely evacuated before being turned over to the Earth Kingdom, unlike the long-established colonies that would remain intact and simply undergo a change in governance, as the Earth Kingdom began gradually taking them over in five years' time.
"This time went so much better than the first time, when Mugoi was dismantled and turned over to the Earth Kingdom!" Aang told them with a smile over dinner that evening. "There was no name-calling, no threats, no accusations about having burned everything down or salted the fields; the ex-governor of Gouzen just handed that big symbolic gate key over to the old mayor from back when the town used to be called Xin Nian, and the mayor took the key and wished the governor a safe trip back to the Fire Nation. And I think he actually meant it!"
"Thank Agni something's gone smoothly at last," Zuko sighed with relief as he picked up his chopsticks. "I just wish the colonists' reintegration into the Home Islands was going as smoothly. Today I read a report of a small riot on Denchi Island, between re-settlers who chose to live there, and what seemed like most of Clan Naraku. Though how anyone could blame Denchi's tato-choke blight on the re-settlers, when the first signs of blight on the crops appeared a full week before the first shipload of re-settlers did..."
Aang looked Zuko over with concern as he asked, "Are you feeling okay? Not getting sick, are you? Because no offense, Zuko, but you look more rundown every time I see you."
"It's because he's been working nonstop ever since the day we arrived here, never giving himself a break," Katara said while leveling her own concerned frown at their friend. "Every single day, he spends at least ten hours in that office, usually up to twelve hours." And when he wasn't working in his office, he was in the nursery with Roku, or training in his firebending to keep in shape, or making official appearances that required a ridiculous amount of pomp and preparation... And one of the results of all that work was if the Fire Lord got an average of even six hours sleep per night, Katara would eat her waterskin.
"Sheesh! It sounds like you really need a vacation," Aang said sympathetically. An instant later, he brightened and added, "So why not take one; a secret vacation? I can fly everyone to Ember Island in the middle of the night! We can stay there a few days, have some fun in the sun, but mostly do a lot of relaxing!"
"Gee, what a great idea, Aang," Zuko said flatly, his irritated expression showing clearly that he thought it was anything but great. "Too bad I already promised my uncle and my head of security that I'd stop making any and all unnecessary trips."
But then Hoshi, who'd taken a regular guard's post by the door of the dining room (Katara had noticed that Hoshi had made a habit of being present whenever the Avatar and the Fire Lord were in a room together,) whispered a few quick words to a nearby servant leaving the room, and then left his post to step up to the table and bow to Zuko. "Your cooperation in the matter of your security is most sincerely appreciated, Your Majesty. However, I believe that if your uncle were here, he would agree with me that in this instance, the trip may be necessary."
"Necessary for your health, Zuko," Katara immediately chimed in, while silently thanking Hoshi for that paranoid streak of his where the Avatar was concerned. "And that makes it necessary for the whole Fire Nation; you won't be doing your country any good once you collapse from overwork!"
"And Aang actually has a great idea for getting you that vacation, without giving the assassins a chance to take another shot at you," Sokka added, with Suki nodding beside him. "Even in the middle of the night, it would be noticed if a royal palanquin or even just a guy on a komodo-rhino left the palace to go down to the harbor and get on a ship. But so long as you lie low in Appa's saddle and he goes up fast enough, especially at night, no one is going to know the Avatar's giving you a lift somewhere."
A few minutes later Kumo showed up, Hoshi having sent a servant to fetch him before approaching the sovereign, and the majordomo gave his full support to the idea. "My lord, if you will give me four days and free reign to adjust your schedule, I can arrange for you to have two full days in the upcoming week, perhaps even three days, without any meetings or appointments; more than enough time for a trip by sky bison to Ember Island and back. And the vacation home on Ember Island can be made ready for your arrival, without actually alerting anyone there that you are coming; I can send a message saying that I am coming to look over the house, as part of the annual round of inspections."
With not just his friends but his majordomo and guard captain ganging up on him, it didn't take long for Zuko to give in and mumble with some embarrassment that a vacation would be nice, so long as his friends and family joined him. Which is when Katara turned to Sokka and said sternly, "While we're there, you're not going to drag us out to see the Ember Island Players again, right?"
"Oh, they haven't reformed the troupe yet," Aang spoke up, overhearing her. "Haven't you heard? I guess not, since you've been stuck on just this island since you arrived. Anyway, I heard that the Ember Island Players pretty much disbanded nearly a year ago, after they lost three of their actors at once in a bad boating accident; the guys that played Sokka, Ozai and Zuko were all drowned, lost at sea. But there's lot of other fun things to do on Ember Island besides go to plays!"
"If we're going, Aang, we really shouldn't leave the vacation home's estate the whole time we're there," Zuko said firmly. "Keeping the vacation secret means we can't risk being seen and recognized by anyone." Both Katara and Suki agreed with Zuko, though Sokka looked rather disappointed before shrugging his agreement as well. "But still, we'll have a private beach there, and a good stretch of forest for taking walks in, plenty of sunshine... and no appointments, no meetings..." as the teenaged monarch sighed blissfully just at the thought.
"Then it's settled!" Aang said with a grin. "As soon as Kumo says you have a few days free in your schedule, we're going to Ember Island!"
"In between now and then, Aang, you should get into the habit of taking Appa out for flights after dark," Suki said, tapping her fan handle in thought. "Perhaps fly him down to the harbor once or twice, or out to meadows where he can be seen if people look through their windows. Tell everyone who asks that it's so hot out right now, that Appa prefers flying at night when it's cooler. Get everyone used to seeing the sky bison take off at night, and then no one will notice just one more flight later on."
"Good idea! And I'll take passengers with me too, so people get used to seeing extra people on Appa as well. It really is a lot cooler to fly at night now, anyway. How about it, Katara; want to go flying on Appa tonight?" as he smiled at her.
She smiled back as she replied, "Sure! Just let me put Roku to bed first." It really would be nice to see the night sky and sea from Appa's back again; she'd enjoyed most of the nighttime flights they made while traveling the world together. There was something magical about how the sea looked on a calm, clear night, reflecting the moon and all the stars above them...
"Sounds like we've got a plan in place!" Sokka said with a grin. "Ember Island and fun in the sun, here we come!"
To be continued...
Author's note: the Dragonfire Lullaby has been adapted from the song "Dragonfire" by Sandra Boynton, found on her album "Dog Train" and well worth listening to at any age.