It was unusual to see Fire Lord Ozai off his throne while there was a meeting in the War Chamber, but his pent up aggression had forced him to his feet to pace the length of the room in order to dispel some of it.
"Ever since the boy won that Agni Kai he has become more and more…difficult…" He growled to no one in particular. "I knew I should have challenged him myself…"
"The Prince is popular with the troops." One of the council members, Ozai never bothered to learn their names, said softly.
"Because he sees them as individuals…" Another general said coldly. "Not as a tool to be used for our continued glory."
"And that is what makes him dangerous." Commander Zhao, one of the few commanding officers the Fire Lord knew by name, one of the few he actually respected, said. "He could rally them if he chose…attempt a coup…make a play for the throne."
"The Prince is loyal to the Fire Lord…" The first shook his head. "He would never seek to usurp him."
"Perhaps…the boy DOES have an overdeveloped sense of honour…" Zhao agreed with narrowed eyes. "But his…views…are growing popular within the lower ranks…though I am at a loss as to how they have found out about them. He is a thorn in the Fire Lord's side…a thorn that needs to be removed…"
"What exactly are you suggesting, Commander?" The second general demanded. "A threat against a member of the royal family is treason."
"I was not making a threat." Zhao snorted. "I am merely suggesting that we find a way to focus the boy's energy elsewhere…"
"But to what…to where?" The first general frowned. "He shows little interest in anything beyond his training and the war…"
"And the wellbeing of the troops." Another snorted.
"Tell me…" The Fire Lord said softly, almost menacingly. "Thinking of him not as WHO he is, but rather WHAT he is…a teenager. What is it that will most easily distract a teenaged boy?"
The assembled council members exchanged a series of puzzled glances.
"A teenaged girl…?" One finally suggested.
"Precisely." Ozai smiled. He stalked off to the base of his throne and retrieved a scrap of parchment, a broken seal of blue wax still clinging to its outer curl.
"I had not even considered this worthy of my time…" His lip curled as he scanned the lines written on the rough paper. "An offer of a peaceful resolution from the Northern Water Tribe…"
He threw the parchment on to the map the council was seated around. Zhao retrieved it, reading quickly. "They honestly think this…virgin sacrifice…will do them any good?" He snorted as he let it drop from his fingers. "Do they really believe you would taint your bloodline with the ridiculous suggestion? The very idea is ludicrous!"
The cold general frowned as he read the parchment. "Prince Zuko is a fiercely independent young man…" He noted. "Even if you did except this offer, my Lord, that does not mean the Prince will…"
"Oh…he'll agree." Ozai smiled. "As you said…" He glanced at Zhao. "…he has an overdeveloped sense of honour…"
He retrieved the parchment, scanning its lines again.
"He will do his duty."
"You summoned me, Father?" Prince Zuko bowed reverently to the Fire Lord as he entered the War Chamber.
"Yes." The Fire Lord beamed, an act that immediately put the young prince on edge. His father rarely smiled, and when he did, Zuko knew from experience, it was never a good thing.
"What would you say if I told you we could conquer the Northern Water Tribe without doing them any harm or risking any of our loyal men?"
"Is such a thing possible?" Zuko frowned.
"Easily." His father assured him.
"Well…of course…" Zuko said, still not sure what his father angle was. "If there is a way for us to conquer without bloodshed then we should take it…our efforts can be concentrated elsewhere…in fact…"
"I'm very glad you feel that way, my son…" His father slapped him on the shoulder with rarely experienced camaraderie, effectively silencing the boy. He turned to one of the generals. "Send word to the Northern Water Tribe's chief…" He paused as he tried to remember the man's name.
"Arnook…" The general supplied, reading it from the now much handled parchment.
"Yes…of course…" Ozai waved it off. "Your bride should be here by week's end." He glanced back over his shoulder to catch his son's reaction as he continued towards his throne. He wasn't disappointed as the boy's eyes widened and the colour drained from his already pale face.
"My WHAT?" He boggled…surely he hadn't heard that right…
The Fire Lord arranged himself with great fastidiousness, smoothing out his robes before replying to his son.
"How else did you think we were going to manage such a thing without loss of life?" He questioned. "It is an ages old tactic…a tradition almost…unite two lands…by uniting the royal offspring…" He held up his index fingers as he spoke, bringing them together, then lacing them with his other fingers to illustrate his point. "And as this…" He clicked his fingers for the name.
"…has a sixteen-year-old daughter…the honour…the duty…falls to you…"
Zuko lowered his head as he absorbed the implication of what his father was telling him, what he was expecting of him. He was barely sixteen himself, he didn't know if he was ready for this, didn't know if he even wanted this. But he was the prince, and though that afforded him certain privileges, it also burdened him with certain obligations.
He sighed deeply.
"As you wish, Father…"
Avatar: The Last Airbender and all related characters are © of Bryan Konietzko, Michael DiMartino, Nickelodeon and Viacom International Inc