Chapter One: Zuko Receives the News
Iroh nervously tapped his fingers on the edge of the table. He eyed the steaming pot of jasmine tea. He had chosen jasmine especially for this occasion. He had a strong feeling both he and the man he was meeting would desperately need its calming effects. His fingers tapped faster as he contemplated what he had to tell his nephew. He looked at the tea as the steam curled upwards and floated near his nostrils. Iroh wondered if he should have just a cup before he had to give Prince Zuko the news.
He was just about to pick up the teapot when the door opened. Prince Zuko stepped in. Iroh poured tea.
"Come, nephew. Sit. Have a cup of calming jasmine tea."
"Uncle, you called me here to tell me something important. Why are you serving me tea?"
Iroh took a deep breath. "First, we have tea. Then, we must talk." Zuko looked annoyed, but sat at the table in front of Iroh and accepted a cup of tea. He held it loosely. Zuko did not like tea, as Iroh was painfully aware.
"Drink your tea. You'll need it," Iroh warned Zuko. Zuko was slightly annoyed at his uncle. He needed to know what was going on. He quickly downed the small cup of tea. Iroh, pleased that Zuko had had so much and so quickly, poured Zuko another cup of tea despite Zuko's protests.
"Uncle, what is it you have to say to me?" Zuko asked. Iroh took one last sip of jasmine tea. He wished to Agni that he had had time to let the calm settle.
"Prince Zuko, I have some…unsettling news. After the war ended, to make peace with the other nations, your sister, Azula, was imprisoned."
Zuko nodded. His life in the Fire Nation had never been more peaceful. Iroh took a sip of tea. Zuko began to drum his fingers impatiently against the table.
"The people have been muttering. Azula has been in prison for two years now. Many of our citizens still lament the loss of the war. They still see her as a war hero, the only conqueror of Ba Sing Se."
Zuko knew all this. He was living history. He knew that his name would be in history books, and he had a gut feeling history wouldn't treat him very kindly.
"Uncle, what are you trying to say?"
"We cannot risk a revolt. I am serving as regent Fire Lord until you reach twenty-one years of age and can ascend to the throne. To keep the people happy, Azula is being released from prison in two weeks."
Zuko blinked. He set his cup of tea on the table. "Uncle. You're releasing Azula from prison?"
Iroh winced. "Yes. It is important to keep the people happy. We cannot risk an uprising and the people would certainly put Azula on the throne. She would without a second thought wage war again on the world. She would destroy everything we've been building since the war ended two years ago. We must placate the people. She will be here in two weeks."
Zuko felt a cold dread in the pit of his stomach.
"Uncle, she'll try to kill you! I have no doubt that she will do anything to gain the throne!" He began to panic slightly.
"I've been thinking on this problem ever since I heard that the people think Azula has suffered enough. We must protect your place on the throne."
Zuko nodded. He could understand this. Iroh gulped. This was the hardest part of the news he had to tell Zuko.
"You remember that my throne was usurped by Ozai?" Zuko nodded. Any Fire Nation citizen with half a brain knew. "My bloodline ended with the death of Lu Ten." Iroh stopped speaking. Zuko knew better than to ask what he was trying to say. Iroh drained his cup. He poured himself a fifth cup of tea. He still wasn't calming down, he noticed.
"Prince Zuko… I have thought and tried to think of another way to do this, but I have no choice. Keeping Azula off the throne is of utmost importance. Would you agree?"
Zuko nodded fervently.
"I have arranged your marriage. You must marry and have heirs to protect the Fire Nation and the whole world."
The hand still holding Zuko's cup of tea began to heat up in anger. Iroh winced as he saw the tea still in the cup begin to boil from the heat.
"What?" Zuko asked in a low dangerous voice that Iroh knew he had only really used with Zhao. Iroh wrung his hands and poured his sixth cup of tea.
"You have to understand. There is only one other option: have Azula executed. We cannot do this. The nation is bristling at Azula's imprisonment. We must release her, and to protect the throne from her, you must have someone to pass the throne to."
"I understand," Zuko said in a pained voice. "I'm not very happy; quite the opposite." Zuko looked at the cup of tea, the amber liquid swirling around. He remembered his uncle's words. He downed the calming liquid. Iroh smiled to see a second cup of tea drunk by his nephew. It was time.
"So, who I am being forced to marry?" Zuko asked.
Iroh smiled weakly as he threw back his seventh cup of tea. "The princess of the Southern Water Tribe."
Zuko sipped his third cup of tea while Iroh worked his way through his eighth.
"Why the Water Tribe, for curiosity's sake?"
Iroh explained. "One, the Southern Water Tribe has the last princess, and two, because the most friction between the nations is between Water and Fire."
"'The last princess?'" Zuko asked.
"The Northern Water Tribe princess died when Zhao attacked them. The Earth King has no daughters, the Air nomads are all wiped out, save the Avatar; the Southern Water Tribe is it."
Zuko nodded. He finished the third cup of tea. Iroh poured himself a ninth cup. He knew what the next question would be. He had to be prepared.
"What's her name?"
Zuko's hand tightened around the cup until it shattered. Pieces of pottery went flying and cut into his hand.
"The Water peasant? The Avatar's Waterbending master? HER! Well," Zuko snorted. He got up, knocking over his chair as he went. He gripped both ends of the table and glared at Iroh. "If you want peace, Uncle, you'd better prepare for war. If I know anything at all about her, it's that she will fight this. And so will I!" Zuko stormed out of the room, his hand dripping blood. A servant scurried into to pick up the shards of the cup.
"He took the news badly?" asked the servant, who had been listening.
"Actually, he took it rather well."