They wanted to kill him. They wanted to kill my son. I couldn't let them. I had to protect my Zuko at all costs. And I did.
I knew that my husband, Prince Ozai, wanted to become Fire Lord. And I knew that he was going to ask Fire Lord Azulon to give him that title when he died in light of the death of Lu Ten and Iroh's absence as he lead the siege of Ba Sing Se. But I didn't know the means by which he was willing to achieve his goal.
Halfway through that fateful meeting with Fire Lord Azulon, I took Zuko and Azula out of the great throne room so that Ozai could make his request. I did not hear the outcome of the meeting until later that evening.
I protested, of course. I asked Ozai if there was any other way – anything that could be done to save Zuko. I begged him to please go back to Azulon, to ask for forgiveness, to spare Zuko's life. But he would not. He would do nothing to compromise his honor or status. He was prepared to kill our son and he spoke of the act as if it was a simple, mundane task.
"Tomorrow," he said. "I shall kill Zuko." He did not say it with pity, fear, or any compassion. He did not care that he would be killing his son. To Ozai, his son's death was no more than a means to improve his own image in the eyes of Fire Lord Azulon. I could not appeal to his paternal instincts, so I found a new approach.
Because Azulon did not consent to revoke Iroh's birthright, it would be Iroh who would become Fire Lord. But with Lu Ten gone, Iroh had no heir. According to custom, if Iroh died, it would be Ozai who came to power next – and Zuko would be next in line after him.
"Without Zuko, there is no heir after you and Iroh. Who will ascend to power when you are both gone?"
"Azula." And he continued without emotion – he might have been discussing battle tactics. "We shall find her a suitable husband – a skilled firebender of stature – when it is time. He shall become Fire Lord."
His lack of humanity cut through me. He spoke of marrying off our daughter as if she was no more than a Pai Sho tile; a pawn for use in his plans.
I could not persuade him from his mission.
"What if I find a way to spare Zuko's life that also ensures that you become Fire Lord?"
I knew that I would pay dearly for my actions, but I didn't care. What was most important to me was that Zuko would be safe. And, of course, Ozai had no objections to a plan that ended in his becoming Fire Lord. Not even if it meant my banishment – he was at least merciful enough to not kill me for my treachery.
That night I entered Fire Lord Azulon's chamber as he slept. In my hand I carried a scroll that I had prepared just hours before – though it felt like several lifetimes before. The scroll read: I, Fire Lord Azulon, have reached the end of my life. In light of recent events, I have decided the throne shall pass to my second son, Prince Ozai. This is my dying wish. It went on to explain that Iroh shall retain a General's position in the army.
I left the scroll on a small desk on the side of Azulon's chamber before moving beside his bed. I picked up one of his blood red satin pillows, and held it several inches over his face. My hands were shaking out of control. My lungs rattled. My heart beat wildly and I couldn't even hear his breathing over the rushing sound echoing in my ears.
I took a deep breath to steady myself . . . and then I struck. I pressed the pillow hard to Azulon's face, covering his mouth and nose. In his sleep he struggled slightly, but it wasn't until the last moments that he opened his eyes. But it was too late. And he was too old, too weak, to struggle.
I closed my eyes but kept the pillow pressed firmly until I could feel his body give up its resistance. I removed the smothering redness and saw that his eyes were still open, sightlessly staring. What did I do? But before my body could go into shock at my deed, I pulled myself together. I had something I needed to do. I tossed the pillow back onto the bed and left, swiftly but silently. I made my way as quickly as I could to Zuko's room. I had to see him one last time.
"Mom?" He murmured sleepily.
"Zuko, please, my love, listen to me. Everything I've done I've done to protect you." I hugged him, knowing it would be the last time I would be able to do so. "Remember this, Zuko. No matter how things may seem to change, never forget who you are."
I left him. The last image I have of Zuko was of him sitting up, tired and confused, ready to fall back onto his bed. I lifted the hood of my black cloak and turned away to face my fate, my heart breaking with every step I took away from my son.
I wish I could see him now – see the man he has become.
Zuko, I love you.