Shyu looked nervously left and right at the pair of Royal Guards that were his escort. After months of being locked away in the darkness of the prison tower he had thought, hoped, that he and his fellow Temple Sages had been forgotten. But finally they had come for him, finally he was to face the Fire Lord.
He had been given fresh clothing and adequate time to prepare himself. They had taken him to a bathhouse, allowing him the opportunity to make himself presentable, it would be inappropriate to present a ragged, dishevelled and pungent old man to the Imperial Majesty after all.
He didn't know where the remainder of the Temple Sages were. Perhaps they had already been judged and sentenced...he was the youngest of their number after all. Or perhaps they had been pardoned, they had been loyal to the Fire Lord, he had been the only one loyal to Roku, he had been the only one to assist the Avatar.
As he was led into the antechamber before the throne room he was startled to find he was not alone. Three others waited, each with their own pair of guards. Two he recognised immediately, by sight, by reputation, though he'd never actually met either.
The former Prince Iroh, the infamous Dragon of the West, the first born son of Fire Lord Azulon, Shyu wondered absently how different things may have been if he had taken the throne instead of his younger brother, was chatting amicably to the stony-faced Jeong Jeong. Both had been highly placed in the Fire Nation military. Both had been highly respected. Both were highly renowned traitors to the Nation and the Throne.
Their presence here did nothing to still the turmoil in Shyu's stomach.
The third he had never seen before, but given the company he too must be a traitor to the Throne. He was noticeably younger, his dark hair only lightly peppered with grey, though for some reason he leaned heavily on a walking staff. It wasn't until he turned at something Iroh said that Shyu saw the cloth that covered his eyes. The man was blind.
The recently returned curtains were parted by the pair of guards that stood on either side of the throne room's entrance and a tall, regal man stepped out. Council member Shen glanced at the quartet and their guardians with a gentle smile.
"Gentlemen..." He said with a slight bow. "The Fire Lord is most pleased to see that you have accepted his invitation. Now...if you would follow me..." He smiled with a nodding bow of his head as he re-entered the throne room.
Iroh and Jeong Jeong followed, and Shyu wondered at their apparent lack of concern. He passed through the curtains after them, the other man trailing behind him, silent except for the click-click-click of his staff on the highly polished floor.
The former Temple Sage's eyes widened as he took in his surroundings. He'd never seen the throne room before, there were precious few who had, but it was nothing at all as he'd expected. Well, not entirely...
The Fire Lord, perched on his throne, half hidden behind the veil of the Eternal Flames looked exactly as he'd expected. The council members lined up on either side of him and his companions, gazing at them with placid faces, were also as he'd expected. It was the non-council members that surprised him.
There was a trio of bearded men in the soft blues and white furs of the Water Tribe. A pair of men of totally contrasting demeanour in matching shades of green. And closest to the throne, a quartet in saffron, one of whom he recognised immediately. The young Avatar completely devoid of any injuries or bindings as he would have thought to have found on him, beamed at delight at the sight of a familiar face.
Shyu was beginning to think he was somewhat out of touch with current events.
His attention was caught by the parting of the Eternal Flames. The Fire Lord had risen from his throne and descended to meet them, a strange animal at his side. He was shorter than Shyu thought he'd be.
"I am glad that you could all accept my invitation." He said as he approached. Shyu was sure he'd heard his voice before even though he had never met the Fire Lord. "Though I am sure you are wondering as to why I summoned you."
Shyu almost gasped at the youthful face that smiled at them. His smile was genuine, his eyes, gentle and kind, despite the harshness of the wicked scar that marred his face. He had been expecting Ozai...but he was facing Zuko.
"This esteemed council believes that I am ready to lead our nation." He said, glancing towards them as he spoke. "I am not so sure I agree with them." He smiled a little sheepishly as he returned his gaze to the quartet before him. "I can be brash...impulsive...and, at times, somewhat lacking in tact."
He began to pace.
"I may have managed to organise an army to stand against my father, but I did not do it alone." He paused in front of Jeong Jeong, than glanced to the international guests. "I had advisors. A representative from each of the four nations. It was their guidance that allowed me to accomplish all that I did. I believe the same arrangement can work for me now..."
He glanced from one face to the next.
"...with a representative of the different aspects of our nation." He walked along the line. "The nobility..." he smiled at his uncle. "...the military..." he nodded to Jeong Jeong. "...the spiritual..." he acknowledged Shyu. "...and the people..." he placed a gentle hand on the fourth man's shoulder.
He looked back along the line.
"It is a great honour that I offer you." He said. "But it is one burdened with great responsibility...so I will understand if any of you wish to decline..."
Three heads bowed almost immediately to indicate their acceptance, but the fourth man frowned.
"You hesitate, Hocho?" The young Fire Lord questioned.
"Forgive me, my Lord." Hocho said softly. "But these three are great men. Highly regarded amongst our people. Well versed in their particular fields. They can easily offer you the guidance you seek. But me..." He shook his head. "I am a common soldier...born with nothing..."
"Which is precisely why I chose you." The Fire Lord assured him. "You can provide me...if you will excuse the expression...a secular vision. For too long this nation has been governed by those born into privilege. We have lost touch with its people. It is you who will speak on their behalf. And as for guidance...you have already given me more than you know."
A smile spread slowly across the blind man's face.
"Then I am honoured to accept." He said bowing with the others.
The young Fire Lord turned to address both the council and his guests. "The Fire Nation will no longer be ruled by a single individual with absolute power. Though the Fire Lord will retain the final vote in all matters, it is only through a majority consensus with the four Prime Ministers that the Fire Lord's word will become law."
He turned, his robes flaring elegantly behind him as he ascended to his throne. While he had spoken, four beautifully carved, short-legged stools had been placed below it, two to either side. Iroh was directed to Zuko's immediate right, Jeong Jeong to his left. Shyu took the seat beside Iroh, Hocho, a little gingerly, took the one that remained.
Zuko glanced at those assembled before him, keeping the Eternal Flames low. "Now...to the first item of business..." His golden eyes fell on the two men in green for a moment. "...the Earth Kingdom..." He turned to his councillors. "Shen."
The regal man rose graceful, acknowledging his Lord with a reverent nod before turning his attention to the two Earth Kingdom monarchs. "Returning your cities to you is an easy enough task, Your Majesties." He said respectfully. "The orders for our troops to withdraw have already been dispatched. It is the Fire Nation civilians dwelling within your lands that are cause for concern."
"Many were born there." Zuko said. "It is the only home they have ever known."
"It would be very difficult to relocate them." Shen continued. "Many will not wish to leave. We are hoping some sort of agreement can be reached..."
"I can't believe this was painted so fast." Katara commented as she gazed up at the several-times-larger than-life portrait of Fire Lord Zuko. "He's been crowned less than a week."
"I can't believe we didn't notice these things the last time we were here." Sokka said, glancing down the line of equally over-sized depictions of the rulers who had come before the newest and, by all appearances, youngest.
"We were a little preoccupied the last time we were here." Toph reminded him.
"Good point." Sokka conceded as he returned his attention to the painting before him. Though the pose was almost identical, Zuko's portrait was far less ornate than his predecessors'. Apart from a fiery halo around his head, there was no background. His hands were held up, a flame hovering above the right, a globe representing the world held gently in the left. Itoko was curled comfortably but protectively around his feet. The golden animal's head rested on one exposed foot, a ribbon of red flowing from the bare toes to represent his ability to bend lava.
Zuko's clean-shaven face was serene, a slight smile curving his lips, in complete contrast to the stern, bearded faces of the other Fire Lords that lined the wall. The scar, its dark colour obvious against the paleness of his painted face, certainly drew the eye.
"I'm surprised he didn't have them do something to lessen the impact of the scar." Suki frowned. "He could have toned it down in some way."
"That would be a lie."
The group jumped at the sound of Zuko's voice, except for Toph, who had sensed the approach of the young Fire Lord and even younger Avatar. They too gazed up at the portrait, Zuko with a curious mix of emotions on his face.
"I'm not ashamed of it." He said. "It symbolises all that I've been through..." He glanced at the likeness of his father. "...all that I've suffered in order to bring peace to my people." He lowered his head.
"It's kinda stark though." Sokka said. "The portrait. I mean...look at the others and there's all this other stuff going on...but yours is just you and your...what is he again?"
"A kylin." Aang provided as the animal in question tossed his head.
"The portrait will be altered as my accomplishments come to light." Zuko said. "I haven't really done all that much yet."
"You found the Air Nomads." Aang reminded him.
"They found me." Zuko countered.
"You raised an army to defeat your father." Sokka suggested.
"The armies were already raised, I merely helped in unifying them into a single force." Zuko snorted. "And it was the Avatar who defeated my father." He shook his head. "I won't take credit for actions that are not my own."
Katara glanced at Sokka, who arced a brow. It was hard to believe that this humble young man was the same one who had stormed into their village and demanded they had over a little boy, who had chased them around the world, who had stood by his sister and almost allowed the last hope of the world to be killed.
"So..." Toph said, feeling the need to fill the awkward silence. "Is it all over with?" She jerked her head back to where several dignitaries where milling about.
"Hardly." Aang snorted.
"We felt if best to take a recess before the Avatar's snores became too obtrusive." Zuko said with a deadpan voice and expression.
"I was not asleep!" Aang protested. "I was just resting my eyes!"
"Maybe." Zuko allowed with a smirk. "But Bumi was definitely asleep."
"Oh yeah. Definitely." Aang agreed with a grin. "But he IS one hundred and twelve years old."
"So are you." Sokka smirked.
"Which would explain why he had to...REST his eyes." Toph teased.
"Politics are not to everyone's tastes." Iroh's welcome voice entered the conversation. "Especially to the young." He smiled at the Avatar. "Why, I remember when I was your age I would much have preferred to be playing the sungi horn or enjoying some fine tea."
"So nothing much has changed then." Zuko smiled.
Iroh threw his nephew a narrow-eyed look which quickly became one of sheepish acceptance. "I cannot deny it." He shrugged.
"The fact is, I'D rather be enjoying a cup of tea." Zuko admitted.
"I didn't think you cared for tea." Aang frowned.
"Which is exactly my point."
"My Lord?" Shen bowed deeply. "The kitchens have informed me that luncheon is prepared."
"That's the best news I've heard all day." Sokka grinned.
Shen threw the young warrior an unamused glare. "You consider lunch to be the most important occurrence for this day?"
"He does not know about the changes in government structure." Iroh soothed. "Or about the treaty we have worked out with the Earth Kingdom. He was not part of the meeting."
"Very well then." Shen sniffed. "I guess we should dine then."
"Wait." Sokka frowned as they headed out of the Royal Gallery. "What changes in government structure?"
"He did WHAT!?"
Azula's voice echoed angrily across the dinning hall, causing Ty Lee to duck for cover. Mai chewed delicately on the morsel in her mouth as she gazed at her friend with her usual impassive expression.
"He probably had this planned for months." Azula growled.
"Probably." Mai agreed.
"If he was going to lessen his power why did he bother to be crowned in the first place?"
"Because he needed the absolute power of his position in order to pass the law that lessened it?" Mai suggested.
"It was a rhetorical question, Mai!" Azula snapped, her eyes narrowing as her brother entered the room.
"Here comes trouble." Sokka muttered as Azula stormed towards them, her face darkened with her rage.
"And what's troubling you, Princess Azula?" Zuko asked calmly as she strode right up to him.
"You know exactly what's TROUBLING me." She hissed, glancing left and right at the quartet of figures who flanked him. She baulked slightly as his creature snorted and pawed the floor with a glittering hoof.
"You don't approve of my Prime Ministers?" He quirked his brow, absently stroking Itoko's mane. "I am merely returning our nation to its ancient form of government. I'd have thought such a devotee of our nation's history would appreciate that."
She simply continued to glare at him.
"It was the fact that our great-grandfather held absolute power that the war began in the first place." Zuko continued. "If he had had his own cabinet of Prime Ministers all this suffering could have been avoided. He would have had to get their unanimous approval to pursue it...as will I in any major endeavours I intend to undertake."
"As would I, no doubt, if anything were to happen to you." She growled.
"Heaven forbid." Zuko said.
"Of course." She sneered.
"Perhaps." Zuko smirked, returning to her previous question. "It would only be by their unanimous decision that you take the throne at all if anything were to happen to me."
Azula's eyes widened slightly. She had thought her brother an imbecile, unfit to take the throne, but the polices he had put into place had made it nigh on impossible for her to usurp his position. She could not overturn them without possession of the crown, and his hand-selected cabinet of Prime Ministers would never vote in her favour. She would never be allowed to wear it. And she couldn't possibly take on the five of them, four of whom she knew to be high-level firebenders, nor, given who they were and what they had done for the Fire Nation, would she be able to find allies to stand with her against them.
He had her totally blocked...and by the uncommonly smug look on his face, he knew it.
She pursed her lips as she narrowed her eyes. She leaned in close to him, lowering her voice so only he could hear her.
"Bravo, brother." She conceded. "I guess there's a little bit of father's cunning in you after all."
It felt like it had been the longest day of his life, but finally Zuko had made it to the Fire Lord's private chambers...he still found it difficult to think of them as his own. He had dismissed the servants who had been awaiting his return, prepared to bow to his every whim, as soon as he had asked for them to draw him a bath.
He pulled the golden pin from his hair and removed the crown himself, something, he thought absently, that no Fire Lord before him would ever think of doing, and shook his hair free. All he wanted to do was take a good long soak, crawl into bed and sleep.
But it would seem even that was to be denied him. He hadn't even placed the golden flame on his dressing table when there came a quiet knock at the door.
"Is a little time to myself too much to ask for?" He muttered to Itoko who had raised his head sleepily at the sound. He dragged himself across the carpet and pulled the double doors open.
"You should not be opening your own door." Iroh said, glancing about the room. "I could have been an assassin. Where are your servants?"
"I sent them home." Zuko sighed as the old man brushed past him, several more servants trailing him with food-laden trays. "And Itoko would have warned me if you were a threat."
"You missed dinner." Iroh said as the tray-bearers busied themselves setting up the impromptu meal.
"I have some fruit..." He gestured to a bowl filled with brightly coloured morsels.
"You appointed me one of your chief advisors." Iroh snorted. "And my advice is for you to eat a proper meal for once." He took Zuko by the shoulders and walked him over to the now heavily laden dinning table, forcibly sitting him before a plateful of his favourite foods. Zuko let out a resigned sigh as his uncle dismissed the servants, assuring them that they could look after themselves.
Zuko stared at his plate until he noticed the look he was getting from Iroh. Picking up his chopsticks he began to poke through the contents of his meal.
"You did well today." Iroh said absently. "We accomplished a great deal. You should not doubt the Council's decision. You are ready for this."
"I can't believe that sitting around all day can be so exhausting." Zuko said as he sampled some poached fish. He glanced at Itoko who had trotted over at the sight of the food and was about to pause to feed the creature when Iroh placed an already prepared plate on the floor for him.
"But there is still much more to be done." Iroh said as he stroked the animal's mane. "Jirho has requested an audience with you. He is very persistent."
Zuko ran a hand through his hair, half expecting to come away with a clump of it due to his current stress levels.
"He wants me to set a date." Zuko murmured.
"He is not the only one." Iroh frowned as he noticed Zuko had lain down his chopsticks and was now staring at the pattern in the carpet. "The Council...the people...are concerned. When my father took the throne he already had two heirs...as did your father. Now that you have successfully put in place the means to stop your sister from taking the throne...if anything were to happen to you..."
"I know..." Zuko frowned. "It's just..."
"You are reluctant...you feel...trapped." Iroh nodded. "I understand this. I have been through what you are going through. I have felt what you are feeling. It is not as unpleasant as you may think."
"I don't even know her." Zuko protested.
"Then perhaps you should get to know her." Iroh suggested.
"And what if I don't like what I find?" Zuko whispered.
"You are Fire Lord." Iroh shrugged. "Though you have deemed to share your power with me and your other Prime Ministers, your word is still law."
"But my mother made this match." Zuko shook his head. "I don't want to disappoint her. I've disappointed too many people..."
"Your mother wants you to be happy." Iroh said. "She will understand."
He sighed when Zuko wouldn't meet his eye.
"Zuko...you have lived almost your entire life doing what is expected of you as Fire Nation royalty. You followed without question the orders of your father and when you dared to speak out against him you were unfairly punished for it. But still you remained loyal to him, so much so that your manipulative sister was able to coerce you with her words...with her promises of his acceptance...even though you knew in your heart what she was asking you to do was wrong."
Iroh placed a comforting hand on his shoulder when he saw the discomfort that was clearly showing on his nephew's face.
"Personally..." He smiled. "I have always found that you are at your best when you think for yourself."
It took over a week for Zuko to follow his uncle's advice. The old man was right, there was a lot to be done, though some of the tasks that needed tending were far more rewarding than others.
Reuniting Song with her father was definitely a highlight...he'd never seen the girl so happy. Like Shyu, and so many others that filled his father's prison cells, the man had been completely unaware of the changes that had occurred in the outside world. He was even more surprised to find the young Fire Lord was actively trying to reunite everyone with their loved ones. Song had run up to embrace him in her joy but had paused upon seeing his robes, the glittering crown on his head, the marks of his station. So she had given him a dazzling smile and a deep, respectful bow instead. Hugging the Fire Lord was probably not the most appropriate way of thanking him. He was still working on getting Gansu and Sen Tzu home. The Earth Kingdom farmer had been stunned to say the least to find the boy who had once spent the night in his barn was now wearing the Fire Nation crown.
He had used the time constructively though, trying to learn more about his possible intended so he knew better how to approach her. Iroh had asked Jirho about his daughter in the most unobtrusive way he could. Unfortunately the former general was as good at spinning lies as his nephew was. Luckily Jirho took the interest as a sign that the royal family were seeking to learn more about his daughter's likes and dislikes in order to plan the perfect wedding.
He had discovered that, like Azula, Nozomi had attended the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, though, despite the connection between them, they hadn't belonged to the same clique, a definite plus in Zuko's eyes. Whereas his sister had focused on history and politics, Nozomi had favoured art and music. Both had attended firebending training, but Nozomi had never taken it to the ferocious extremes that Azula had, she had only learned to defend herself and those in her care.
And to look at...he HAD seen her after all...she was always perfectly attired. No wrinkles, no stray threads, not a hair out of place. She was cultured, regal and serenely beautiful, she had been raised to be the perfect princess. In short, she was the ideal wife for a young Fire Lord.
She reminded him a lot of his mother...which made what he planned to do even more difficult.
Nozomi's daily routine showed little variation. She continued to hone her perfect princess skills, reading poetry, practicing the biwa or painting what she saw within the walled gardens of her ancestral home. It was while she was pursuing her artistic endeavours that he had decided to approach her. To do so she would wander quite some distance from the house itself, and, most importantly, away from her father.
He had decided to forgo his robes and crown, they had made Song uncomfortable and he didn't want Nozomi to look at him as her Liege and Lord, he wanted her to see him as he truly was...a seventeen year old boy who really wasn't ready for everything that was expected of him.
Scaling the wall had not been at all difficult, he had managed to breech the innermost tower of the Pahuai Stronghold without raising attention and it had been swarming with guards. Here he only had to slip past a few servants.
Nozomi had set up her easel before an ornate aviary filled with beautifully plumed birds. He watched her for a while from the shadow of the trees, her simple strokes of bright coloured paint capturing the shapes and lines of the feathered creatures. He recalled when he used to watch his mother...
He shook the memory from his head, he didn't need it right now, and stepped into the light.
The girl looked up at the sound of his unfamiliar voice. She turned towards him with a frown, her eyes widening in shock as she saw who it was that had called her. She swung around the easel in a graceful flaring of many skirts, clinging to the top of her canvas as if it was some sort of shield, a physical barrier to protect her from him.
"You should not be here." She gasped. "We should not be alone without the presence of a chaperon."
"That would make for a rather awkward marriage, don't you think?" Zuko arced his brow. The girl ducked her head and blushed. "I just wanted to talk. Surely there's no harm in that?"
"No..." She agreed. "I guess there is no harm in that..."
She led him to an ornate bench where she sat very primly as far away from him as possible, though she kept stealing glances at him and blushing. Zuko let out an exasperated sigh as he tried to think of what to say to the girl so as not to hurt her.
"The world has changed." He said. "The Fire Nation has changed. Everything is different...and we all have to change and adapt. There are laws...traditions that...though they were fine in the past and they worked then...they don't really work now..."
She frowned at him in confusion and he knew he wasn't expressing what he wanted to say.
"I'VE changed." He said. "I've seen the world and experienced things that those who came before me never did. I have different expectations. I mean...we don't even know each other and we're expected to be...to share...to do..."
Her eyes widened and he knew she understood him.
"I was raised to be whatever you want me to be." She said, bowing her head respectfully. "To be your companion...your lover...the mother of your children..."
"But don't you want more than that?" Zuko countered. "Don't you want to learn...to meet people...to travel the world?"
"I will do all that at your side, my Lord." She answered, bowing her head even deeper.
"But that wouldn't be what you want." Zuko protested. "That would be what I want."
"My life is to serve you, my Lord." She said. "To answer to your every whim and to your every desire."
"How could you do that when you don't know me?" Zuko asked. "You don't know what I like. You don't know my favourite food...my favourite colour...and I don't know anything about you either."
"We will learn." She said earnestly. "It is how it has always been...with out parents...our grandparents...our great-grandparents...they did not know each other either when they were wed."
Zuko shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You're not getting me..." He muttered.
"Yes." She said tersely but quietly. "That would seem to be your intent."
His head snapped towards her, his eyes wide in shock as she gasped. She obviously hadn't meant for him to hear that. She lowered her head and clasped her hands in subjugation.
"Forgive me, my Lord." She said. "I did not mean to speak so disrespectfully. I will accept any punishment you deem appropriate."
"Nozomi..." He said with a smile, tilting her head up with a gentle hand. "I'm the last person to punish someone for speaking their mind. And my intention is not to hurt you in any way. I just feel that if two people are going to spend their lives together it should be because they want to, not because they're expected to."
"I am certain our parents did not come to this decision lightly." She said. "They took everything into consideration when they made this match."
"The match was made when we were six years old." Zuko said. "How could they know what we wanted then? They didn't know what we'd become." He sighed deeply. "Maybe they were right...maybe we are destined to be together. But don't we have the right to find out before we're forever bound to each other? Don't you think we should get to know each other before we commit to such an arrangement?"
"So..." She frowned. "...you wish to...court me?"
"The common people are free to court or be courted by whoever they please." Zuko said. "I just think we should be granted the same opportunity."
The way she was looking at him he wasn't sure if she agreed. He was Fire Lord, he could absolve the arrangement with a word, but he had meant what he said, he didn't want to hurt her. All her life she had been certain about where she was going, what her life would be. He had been in the same place and he knew how daunting it was to have all that taken away.
"I know it's scary." He said. "To find your perfectly planned future is suddenly so very uncertain. I felt the same way when I was banished. But I learned so much, I became a better and stronger person for it. I learned who I truly am and who I was meant to be. You can do the same. And you won't have to do it alone. Even if I'm not your husband, I can still be your friend."
"I have never had a boy for a friend." She said, smiling shyly at him. He was a little startled to see a mischievous twinkle come into her eyes. "Of course now you have to tell my father of theses changes you have planned."
"That's not going to be pretty." Zuko admitted.
Avatar: The Last Airbender and all related characters are (c) of Bryan Konietzko, Michael DiMartino, Nickelodeon and Viacom International Inc