Note: While working on the next chapter (which promises to be long) I realized... certain events wouldn't make sense without first taking my readers on a quick trip to the Fire Nation.
Imperial Guard Yuu made sure to keep his steps slow and even, in deference to Prince Ozai who walked beside him. The Prince's cane made a sharp tap on the hallway's stone floor at every other step. Under his expansive robes, Ozai's left knee was bound with tight fabric to keep the leg straight so that it may support his weight.
No one with any sense spoke of the Prince's disability within the Fire Palace. Yuu never allowed his eyes to even flick to Ozai's leg. Ozai had killed for less, before.
Together, guard and prince made their slow, stately way down the stone corridor which led to the antechamber, and, eventually the Fire Lord himself.
Ozai broke the silence when they were halfway down the hall, well out of earshot of other guards. "How is Fire Lord Azulon fairing today?"
"He is.. In exceptionally rare form," Yuu said. It was part of the code that had been established between the guards and Prince Ozai. 'In rare form' meant that Fire Lord Azulon was having one of his increasingly uncommon lucid days.
There was a pause. "I see," Ozai said at last. He did not seem disquieted, although Yuu knew that the summons to the Fire Lord's chamber had caught Ozai unawares.
As Fire Lord Azulon declined in mental capability, Prince Ozai took over more and more of his duties. Prince Iroh was not around to help—or curb his younger brother's ambitions. Now, it was an unspoken fact that Ozai all but ran the country.
Yuu had wondered more than once what the fallout would be if Azulon ever realized this. Perhaps this would be the day he found out.
"The Fire Lord did not share the reason for the summons today, my Prince," Yuu said, after an anxious moment.
Ozai did not even turn his head to look at him. Only raised an eyebrow. "Of course not, or else you would have told me right away. Isn't that right?"
Thinking of his young daughter, confined to her sickbed with the only healers able to help manage her illness directly under Ozai's pay, Yuu bowed his head. Yes, he disliked Ozai—he feared him even more, but the Prince had bought Yuu's absolute loyalty.
Together, they came to the large stone and steel double doors that separated the hallway from the antechamber. Beyond, lay the Fire Lord's receiving room.
Yuu exchanged salutes with another guard, Rykyto. Within moments, Ozai was officially announced and called in. It seemed Azulon did not want to make his son wait.
As Imperial guards, Yuu and Rykyto accompanied Ozai and stood on either end of the large receiving room.
Fire Lord Azulon, gray and spindly with age, sat at the head of his throne. The flames around him rose and crackled with not a hint of lost control. It seemed today he was both lucid and feeling powerful.
There was no expression on Ozai's face as he strode slowly to the foot of the raised dais. Setting the cane aside, he knelt — stiffly for the left leg was obviously giving him trouble— his forehead touching the lacquered floor in supplication.
Azulon let the Prince stay like that for quite some time.
Finally, after what felt to Yuu like in agony of waiting—and what must have been an agony to Ozai, considering he was putting weight on the bed knee—Ozai was bid to rise.
The only indication Ozai had been in any pain was a sheen of fine sweat over his brow. "I am here as summoned, Father. How may I serve?"
Azulon snorted, and the fires crackling around the dais did not lower an inch. The Fire Lord was in a fine mood today.
"You may serve your Fire Lord by listening to the message I have received from the North pole." Azulon indicated a rolled scroll which rested by his right hand. "A letter from your esteemed brother."
Finally, a reaction from Ozai, though one had to be looking very hard to catch it. The skin over his right eye twitched, just slightly. "I was not aware Iroh had gone to the North."
"In pursuit of the avatar, yes." Azulon did not reach for the scroll. It was apparent he had already read the contents. "The Northern Water Tribe is now under control of our forces."
A slow, satisfied smile twisted Ozai's lips. "That is excellent news—"
"Not, thanks to the efforts of Azula."
Ozai's smile slipped. "I don't understand."
Now Azulon was the one who was smiling. "According to Prince Iroh, the girl got herself involved in a foolish Agni Kai. One, which she lost. Meanwhile her own Commander committed the highest treason and almost led our forces to ruin. Iroh was forced to step in and secure the victory."
It was clear that Ozai had not known any of this, though Yuu knew that his network of spies and messengers was impressive. It seemed that Prince Iroh had a few tricks up his sleeve to get a scroll through before Ozai could intercept it.
"I don't understand," Ozai said again, a note of concern coloring his voice. "Did my brother not use Azula's armada to conquer the Water Tribe? How is this not her victory?" He grew visibly angry. "Why did Iroh engage her in an Agni Kai?"
"You assume that Prince Iroh would sully himself by challenging a fourteen-year-old girl? His own niece?" Azulon snapped, and Ozai actually flinched. The anger of the father had long ago taught the son to fear. "No, Ozai. Azula did not lose an Agni Kai against Iroh. She lost against Prince Zuko."
Only years of hard-won discipline kept Yuu from reacting. Prince Zuko? But… that boy had been dead for, what, over five years now. Or more. How was this possible?
Ozai must have thought so too, because he snarled. "That Water Tribe impostor is not my son!"
"Surely, no mere impostor could best a Royal Princess of the blood." Azulon sat back in his high throne, a self-satisfied look across his face. "Iroh claims it is no mistake. He is bringing the boy to the Royal court, where the Fire Sages will easily be able to tell the truth of his parentage. What will they discover, Ozai?"
Ozai said nothing, his fists curled at his sides.
Azulon openly smirked. "I am old, but no fool. I remember clearly how you sought to use Lu Ten's death for your own purposes. I remember, Prince Ozai, how I instructed you to dispose of one child and let the stronger be Iroh's heir. That was to be your punishment. Now, I see you could not do even that—"
Ozai exploded. "I should be heir!"
"You are weak, second born son." Azulon made the phrase sound like a curse.
"Iroh wants nothing of the crown." Ozai swept his hand around the room to indicate the palace, perhaps the entire Fire Nation. "He has spent the last few years sailing around on a pleasure cruise while I ran the kingdom. He would rather drink tea and play Pai Sho, then manage troops. He failed at Ba Sing Se. Now he seeks to take Azula's victory from her—"
"Enough!" Azulon barked. The flames around the dais rose up.
"I am your loyal son!" Ozai insisted. It sounded almost like a plea.
"You are a cripple and second born, not chosen by the gods. And you have disobeyed me for the last time," Azulon vowed. "Until the paternity of Prince Zuko can be established, you will be held in the Capital Prison. Guards!" Azulon motioned for Yuu and Rykyto. "Secure the Prince."
Yuu didn't move. His legs locked where he stood.
A smile twisted Ozai's lips. "That's where you are wrong, Father. I have been working diligently for the sake of the Fire Nation, taking over administrative duties that you and Iroh have neglected, including hand selecting the Imperial guards." He paused. "These men are loyal to me."
Yuu didn't know what Ozai had on Rykyto — it was different for all the high-ranking guards. Some could be bought with women, the promise of wiping away massive gambling debts, political positions in the family… Whatever it was, Rykyto made no move, either.
"What is this?" Azulon's voice rose again, a querulous tone that made him sound, briefly, like the old man he really was. "Treason! Seize him!" he yelled again, pointing to Ozai with desperation.
Ozai stood to his full height and swept a casual glance at Yuu and Rykyto.
"Leave," Ozai said.
Yuu and Rykyto stood outside the stone door. Neither could meet the other's eye. No sound came from the room behind them—the stone and steel doors were too thick—but they both knew what was happening inside.
I have betrayed my Fire Lord and my Nation, Yuu thought, heart contracting. But my daughter's life is in the balance. I would do it all again.
After some minutes, Ozai stepped out. There was only one expression on his face: Satisfaction, long coming.
Ozai turned to Rykyto. "The Fire Lord has collapsed. Send for the healers at once."
Rykyto visibly swallowed, nodded, and pelted down the hall. They all knew the healers would be too late.
Prince—no, Fire Lord Ozai then turned to Yuu. "I have read your records. You have naval experience."
"I do," he paused. "Majesty."
Ozai smiled. "Then, I have a job for you."