Intermission 1: Iroh
(A/N: Apologies for not having posted sooner. To be honest I'm not really 100% satisfied with this chapter, but the muses are currently refusing to work with me. So as the saying goes… something is better than nothing, right? Compared to most of the previous chapters, this one is rather short.
Kudos to all that caught the homage to Vathara's Embers in the last chapter. My oopsies: the herb/veggie garden Cho was tending to is a winter herb/veggie garden in a partially enclosed area which protects it from some of the weather and it can be covered with a thick layer of hay. And general spelling/grammar errors I missed.
I'm putting names to FN Islands now. With high recommendations from Kally Lass I'm using as the translation site instead of google. hatsuhinode = First sunrise (of the New Year) though Crescent Island is the most eastern island, it is not populated so #23 on the ATLA map (Fire nation Bazar) gets the 'honor' of first sunrise.)
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Back at Pohuai Stronghold, Iroh, Jee and all the other men who pensioned out were dealing with their own preparations to depart the western coast of the Earth Kingdom and return to the Fire Nation.
~~ ( - ) ~~
It was a little over two weeks since Prince Zuko left Pohuai Stronghold and in that time everyone settled as if he had never been there. Nothing was discussed, debated or even whispered about that involved the banished prince. Most of the former crew were starting to go stir-crazy with the lack of anything to do, especially since they were now considered civilians, they were barred from most of the day to day routines of the fortress. Almost every day someone came looking for Jee to ask if he could pass on a request for Iroh to ask Col. Shinu when the next transport ship from the home islands would arrive and if there would be places for them aboard it.
As it turns out, they didn't have to wait for a free spot on any of the ships returning to the Fire Nation. It seems that a Royal Cruiser was sent for Iroh and his return trip to the home islands. Since he was no longer traveling with Prince Zuko, he was once more welcomed back with open arms (as well as unlimited access to his estates, properties and accounts, Prince Zuko's was still frozen of course.) And with Iroh being who he was, he somehow wrangled, finagled and outright out ferret-foxed the ship's captain into taking every one of the old ship's crew as well. It wasn't like the Royal Cruiser was a tiny, severely outdated model with cramped quarters. Even with a full crew and a couple extra servants to see to Iroh's every need, there was plenty of space for the old crew to rattle around in. No one needed to crowd four to a tiny room, instead they bunked two per room at the most.
The day of departure, Jee stood on the observation deck, leaning against the railing as he watched the crew deal with the last minute loading of Iroh's personal effects onboard. Most of the stuff was directed down to the hold but a few select items such as the Tsungi horn, the Pai Sho board and tiles, his chest of teas and the accompanying tea pots, the gold (that went without saying) were taken instead to his private quarters. In comparison the rest of the old crew's personal effects could all fit into a small sea chest or a larger sea bag that they could carry aboard on their own. As for his possessions, he had a medium sized sea chest, his pipa and a sea bag. Overall not a lot to show for 20 plus years of service.
He had no family left, his mother died when he was young, his father never remarried. A few years after he entered the navy his father's health had started failing and he had little choice but to put him into an assisted care home. With no siblings or even a wife of his own, he sold the family property and the money went to help care for his father, who lasted another three years before he succomb to sickness of the lungs. It was at that point he turned his back on life on land and instead chose the sea as his home. Now, he didn't even have a home there. He had always presumed he would have a very long career in the navy and either die at sea in battle or some other mishap. He never pictured himself as one of those old timers hanging around the docks reliving their glory years to any that would listen.
"Ah there you are Jee," Iroh said as he emerged onto the observation deck.
Jee straightened up as he turned around. "Yes sir, what can I do for you?"
Iroh chuckled as he tucked his hands into his sleeves, "No need to be so formal anymore."
"Yes sir," Jee shrugged then clasped his hands behind his back. "But after so many years in the Navy.. well it's hard to break Sir in so short a period of time."
"So true…." Iroh replied as he stepped up to the railing. "So tell me, what are your plans until I can acquire a new ship for you to captain?"
Jee opened his mouth then closed it. "To be honest sir, I don't know. I've been a sailor all my life," he unclasp his hands and turned to face the same direction as Iroh, leaning on the railing as he turned his head to look at the elder prince. "Other than playing the pipa, my only skills are related to running a ship."
"Hmm.." Iroh nodded. "Not to pry, but do you have the finances to live comfortably until late spring or even mid summer?" He held up a hand suddenly. "Wait, don't answer that one. Instead, do you have employment waiting on you when we reach your destination port?"
It was Jee's turn to look thoughtful for a few moments. "I haven't thought that far ahead sir. It's been over 20 years since I last saw my hometown so I don't think I'd even know where to start there, let alone anywhere else." He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "Sir, I have a question for you."
"Go ahead," Iroh gestured as he watched the last of the Royal Cruiser's crewmen board and prepare for castoff.
"When are you going to tell Prince Zuko the truth?" Jee asked.
"The truth?" Iroh asked.
The ship's captain had come to inform Iroh of their departure, but paused far enough away not to be immediately noticed. And like all good sycophants to Fire Lord Ozai, he decided to listen in and see if he could get any good information that just might get him promoted, or barring that, enough blackmail material to ensure he had a good life. With the general background noise and ambient heat sources, neither neither Iroh nor Jee realized a third person had joined them on the observation deck. For someone like Iroh who was both royalty (thus being 'spied' upon should be the norm and guarded against) and an expert in tactics, if not a genius, it was either a huge blunder or else another of his plans within plotting within plans.
"Yes, the truth. About the mutiny and your involvement in it."
There was just a few seconds pause before Iroh answered. "I don't know what you are talking about Jee. I informed Prince Zuko of what occurred and that was the end of that."
Jee reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I see Sir," he said with a sigh. "So you did not tell him how you gave permission to have him drugged then placed in…" Jee shook his head. He had at least come clean to the young prince about his involvement, that he had in essence forgotten about him at that critical point in time simply because the boy had aggravated, annoyed and angered him to no end since the start of the voyage. "Sir.. you do realize Prince Zuko will one day figure out that you knew of the mutiny before it happened and not only gave permission for it to be carried out, but agreed with the men about his attitude and the reason why they wanted to mutiny?"
The ship's captain really perked up at the mention of the mutiny on the banished prince's ship, there was a lot of speculation once it had been announced that the boy had vanished. It seems that the esteemed General Iroh, Dragon of the West, Elder Brother to Fire Lord Ozai, and a Prince in his own right, had either orchestrated or assisted in the mutiny. The moment Iroh made a shushing motion with his hands, the captain slipped back inside the command tower and waited for the right moment.
Iroh motioned for Jee to speak quieter. "Shhh.. this ship, like the palace, has ears everywhere…" The elder prince glanced around then over the railing at the crewmen below before looking back at Jee, his hands slipping into his sleeves. "Prince Zuko is not ready to hear the truth. Even with his new found maturity he is not ready for some of the harsher truths about our nation and its place in the world." He let out a soft sigh, "Please, do not speak of what occurred in the days before it happened until a time when I can explain it to my nephew and he will listen and accept what I have to say."
Jee frowned, lips pressed into a thin line. "Prince Zuko has changed, for the better. He deserves to hear the truth and the reasoning behind your choices, but I will hold my words until then." He didn't say out loud that he thought Iroh was making a really big mistake that would one day come back and bite him hard.
The sound of the observation deck door opening drew both men's attention. The ships captain stepped through the door and approached the two men. Stopping several paces away he bowed respectfully to Iroh. "Your Highness, we are about to cast off. Are there any requests or orders before we do, Your Highness?" he asked.
Iroh exchanged a look with Jee, who shrugged. "No, carry on Captain."
"As you wish, Your Highness," the captain said, bowing again before departing.
"I remember now why I prefered not to stay at court unless I absolutely had to," Iroh muttered as he turned back around to look out over the deck below. "Too many people fawning over anyone who might have some form of influence in the hopes they will gain something for nothing."
Jee let out a snort of laughter. "No offense sir, but thank the spirits I was born a commoner. I don't have to deal with court politics."
"No.. just politics of a different nature."
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On their way to the Fire Nation, the Royal Cruiser picked up a pair of warships as escorts. Iroh knew that the cruiser and the escorts was all part of his brother's little show of power and control. Even as a child his younger brother was never subtle about how much power he had.
Iroh knew it was petty and childish, but with Zuko safely out of his father's reach, he felt it was time to engage in some subtle sibling warfare as a means of undermining Ozai's reign as Fire Lord and putting the idea that Prince Zuko would be a better ruler into peoples heads. As only he could do, he somehow found a crewmember that very good at drawing and was able to talk the woman over to his side with a combination of flattery, truth and a tiny bit of bribery of sweets. Within a few days he had drawings of Prince Zuko with Kasai in various poses.
The first one was in the style used by the court artists when making official portraits of the royal family. The drawing made Zuko appear very stiff, even severe looking and Kasai was not in it at all. The second one he decided to keep for himself. It was from a moment in time when he spied his nephew standing on the parapets of Pohuai Stronghold, Kasai cradled in his arms, as the pair looking off towards the west and home. The next few were of Kasai in various poses, from majestic flight to regaly sitting, even one of her playfully chasing a small sphere of flame across the paper. Several more were of the pair in various settings: a cutthroat game of pai gow, a child's game of flame-paper-rock, the pair about to fall asleep while listening to what looked to be either a sage or a politician droning on about something. The woman, a Seaman 2nd class named Ran, even managed a whimsical drawing of the pair playing Pai Sho against him or rather him and Kasai playing while Zuko looked on.
The one that was finally chosen for the small commemorative set was a simple yet elegant portrait showing Zuko from the waist up with Kasai draped around his shoulders. Zuko was looking forward with an expression that was serious yet relaxed with a hint of a smile. Kasai's head was turned so she was looking 'up' at his face. Along with the poster, the set would include a medallion. On one side would be Zuko's name, written in the way that translated as 'Resurrected Rule' imposed over the symbol for the Fire nation with the year of his birth on the outer ring. The other side was currently blank, the only idea of what to put on it so far was a 'Sun in Glory' and the date it would be given out. That way if additional sets were made there would be a way to tell the difference between the first edition and later editions. Also first editions would be coated in a thin layer of gold, even though that gold would most likely be stripped off at some point to be used, while later editions would be either painted gold or be glazed.
For everything to be crafted in large enough quantity to be handed out at each port stop, it would take time. It would also depend on how good the craftsmen were when it came to making the printing plates and the molds for the medallions. The gold he had plenty of at the moment and if he ran out, he could request more from the local goldsmiths which in turn would be resupplied from his personal accounts.
With all the subtle plotting he was doing, Iroh decided to tip the balance in his favor just a tad more by gaining the approval of the Fire Sages, thus the Fire Temples in general. When they were within a few days of Crescent Island, he took advantage of his position and ordered a detour to the island. The captain had little choice but to comply. Once there at the island, Iroh made the trip up to the Fire Temple with only Jee and a small unit of Imperial Firebenders as escort. As he spent most of the day there, the captain took advantage and sent out the first of several messenger hawks with all the information he'd gathered so far. The captain wouldn't receive a reply until they reached their first port of call, the port city of Miyazaki. The city was also home to one of the largest bazaar's in the Fire Nation thanks to being the port closest to the Earth Kingdom and first stop by almost every merchant who traveled along the trade route.
When they returned to the ship, Iroh was openly smug while Jee was tightlipped about the whole thing. The Imperial Firebenders weren't sure just what happened while up in the Temple so had very little to report back to the captain about. There was also no way the captain could question the Fire Sages without drawing attention to himself.
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Port City of Miyazaki, Hatsuhinode Island….
Captain Masaki had this look on his face that indicated he wasn't sure if he believed what Prince Iroh was planning on doing or not, but was too polite (or too political) to say out loud, that he thought the elder prince was a crazy. He glanced over to the prince's right hand man, Jee, and raised an eyebrow while tilting his head in the prince's direction. 'Is he serious?' his expression read.
Jee just smirked as he crossed his arms over his chest and nodded subtly. For once it was nice not to be in command when Iroh started scheming. It was way past time someone else had to deal with the chaos created by the elder Prince when he decided on one of his 'projects'. Though to be honest, not all of said projects turned out disastrous. The Music Nights turned out pleasent, and the Pai Sho tournaments weren't that bad either (as long as Iroh wasn't playing in them). The repainting of the ship's interior to a non-regulation color 'in order to brighten everything up' was an unmitigated nightmare though. Not only was everyone onboard the ship suffering everything from mild headaches to extreme nausea for the weeks it took to air out the ship as the paint dried, but he had to put up with an absolute terror of a spirit-spawned, snap-at-everyone, 13 (almost 14) year old brat as well. Everything else fell somewhere between the two extremes, mostly grouping towards the middle. Glancing at the captain of the ship, he sighed and shook his head as he looked heavenwards. Taking a few steps back until he was even with the younger man, he leaned towards him slightly. "Captain Masaki, do you wish to hear my advice on how to deal with Gen… Prince Iroh and his… exuberance?"
The Captain raised a hand and motioned for Jee to continue. "Please?"
Though hard, Jee did manage to suppress his chuckle. "First and foremost, remember that he is The Dragon of the West. He doesn't need anyone to guard him, he's perfectly able to take care of things himself. If possible, any guard you assign to his escort, have them dress down. Prince Zuko never allowed that." He waited till the captain nodded his head. "Second, expect him to spend all day at the markets. He loves to browse as much as he loves to buy…. things. Don't worry about sending anyone to act as porter. Either the guards you send will end up carrying everything or you can send along some extra coin and hire someone to carry everything for him." Once again, he waited for Captain Masaki to indicate he understood before he continued. "Third and last….always have at least three different contingency plans along with damage control ready and waiting. By the time you reach the Capital, you will know how to play Pai Sho if you do not already know and you will either gain greater appreciation for tea or come to loath the stuff."
"I.. see…." Capt. Masaki uttered. "And if I may ask, which was it for you?" He turned slightly to look at the older, (now) scarred veteran sailor.
"Hmm… I'm a decent Pai Sho player, though half the old crew could still beat me," Jee admitted with a shrug. "When it comes to tea… well, I can tell the quality of the brew by the care that went into making it and I've gotten better at telling the quality of the leaves as well. But if you want true tea brewing mastery," he nodded towards Iroh, "there he stands."
"Come now Jee.. I am but a humble practitioner of the art, nothing more," Iroh said as he turned giving the two men a grin. "And speaking of the art… Once we reach port, I really must see how well the tea leaves grown here in the Fire Nation compare to those found in the Earth Kingdom...perhaps you would care to join me this evening? Captain, Jee?"
"I apologize sir… Your Highness.. I've made other plans for the evening, seeing how we will be in port for at least a week, if not more," Jee said with a bow.
"OOhhhhh?" Iroh's grin grew even bigger. "Does your plans include the company of a companion for the evening?" He held up his hand to forestall any reply. "I understand. I cannot in good spirits, take up all your time. When we dock, go. Enjoy yourself Jee. You and the rest of the men have more than deserved it." He then eyed the ship's captain. "And what about you? Planning on spending an evening ashore?" there was a tone of teasing in his voice.
Capt. Masaki just bowed. "No Your Highness, I'm afraid my duties don't include shore leave at the moment. Once I have you safely delivered to the Capital as per my orders, then I shall be free to enjoy some down time." His eyes darted in Jee's direction a moment having caught the subtle hand gesture. "But.. I would most assuredly enjoy a cup or two of your tea..I've heard much about it." Again his eyes flicked towards Jee, who was grinning and subtly rubbing his nose in the age old way meaning 'sycophant'. Once Prince Iroh turned around and was no longer looking at him, he made an equally subtle, but quite rude, gesture in Jee's direction.
Jee, in response, just burst out laughing.
The elder prince (and retired general) just smiled fondly and shook his head at what he considered 'antics' of the younger generation. "Captain Masaki, how long till we dock?" he asked as he folded his hands into his robe sleeves, fingers going automatically to the lotus tile. It wasn't so much as he was eager to go bargain hunting, he was anxious to locate members of the White Lotus Society here in the Fire Nation and make contact with them. He already had plenty of contacts throughout the western coast of the Earth Kingdom, so now he needed to add those in the homeland to his list. Besides, the more contacts he had, the better chance of keeping closer eye on what all was going on, including keeping track of his nephew.
"We should be docking within the hour Your Highness. Apparently there had been a small collision between two small trading vessels which resulted in a brief conflict between the crews. Harbor Patrol was in the process of rounding everyone up when they received our messenger hawk," Captain Masaki explained.
"Was anyone injured?" Iroh asked, raising an eyebrow as he turned.
"No Your Highness. No physical injuries at least. The only injuries that occurred was to the pride of the men involved and some cosmetic damage to the ships in question."
"Aahh… I see," Iroh said as he nodded his head several times before he turned back around again. "I see….." Taking a hand out of the opposite sleeve, he reached up and started stroking his beard. "Well then, since it will be within the hour, I think I will stay here and enjoy the view."
Captain Masaki, bowed, understanding the dismissal and the order to carry on with his duties. "Yes Your Highness. With your permission I shall return to my duties." He waited long enough to see Prince Iroh wave his hand in dismissal before he backed away, straightened and did an about face.
Once the captain was gone, Iroh glanced around a moment then turned his head in Jee's direction. "So what did you do and what was the result that had you laughing?"
Jee grinned. "I am innocent sir…..er.. Your-"
Iroh held up a hand. "Please. You've known me for a long time jee. I know I cannot break you of calling me 'Sir', but there is no need to use my honorific."
"As I was saying sir, I'm innocent. I was just giving Masaki a few bits of helpful information," Jee shrugged, still grinning. "I can't help it if he took it wrong as I scratched the end of my nose…."
Iroh smacked the palm of his hand against his forehead then drug it down his face with an exasperated sigh before shaking his head. "Go...off with you…" he shooed the now retired lieutenant away. "You said you had plans for when we dock, so go and prepare whatever it is you need." Once Jee was out of hearing range, he looked up towards the heavens. "Oh great Agni.. I know you test us so that we may be worthy of you… but what have I done to be tested in such a manner?" he asked softly. It was a good thing Zuko was no where around to see such behaviour or to ask the meaning behind such gestures (if he did not know already that is).