Prologue: aegri somnia
Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen,
And when the borders bleed we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red.
~Marya Mannes, Subverse: Rhymes for Our Times
His coronation had been spur-of-the-moment, more symbolic than ceremonial. To appease the Fire Sages and his people, he underwent the tradition rituals that the heir to the throne must undergo before ascending to the position of Fire Lord. It wasn't all a gesture of conciliation, he also felt that, if he was going to be the new ruler, he had to take care to do the thing properly. And once he set out to do something, he didn't do it by halves.
So, Zuko spent the proper three days in fast and meditation, wearing robes of light linen, not the mourning color of pure white, but robes the color of candle flame for purification. Dyed in saffron, like the robes of the Air Nomads. (The irony didn't escape him.)
These days were spent in special rooms made particularly for this ceremony: their walls of flat, dust-brown stone and a cool flagstone floor, with thin rice paper coating the windows. There, under the watchful eye of a pair of suspicious Fire Sages, he conducted the Trials of the Spirit. Sacred incense burned as he meditated, the rooms heated with steam and hot stones, enough to make him sweat himself into dehydration, and they quenched his thirst only after each set of hours was reached. If he passed out from exertion, he would prove himself unworthy. While he was in deep meditation, he was expected to use his firebending to keep a set of twelve candles burning to rhythm of his breathing, the flame thinning for his inhale and swelling in each exhale.
Traditionally, the Fire Lord to-be moved on from trials of the spirit to trials of the body, engaging in a ritual combat that was more of an intricate dance, positions memorized by the royal children from when they were young. Seong, one of the younger sages, snidely pointed out that his acts in the overthrowing of his father and younger sister surely proved his physical prowess. Surely, he suggested in tones of barely-veiled spite, his eminence didn't feel it necessary to engage in any more combat.
Still tired from the night-long vigil in the meditation sanctum, he felt irritable and unbalanced from lack of sleep and food. Saying nothing, he'd turned brusquely away from the sage, fire coiling savagely in the pit of his stomach, awaiting release. Control it, he thought, savagely pushing the anger away, remember you know what true firebending is and don't give way to anger.
"I will complete the ceremony correctly," he said patiently, his voice given an extra growl with his tightly-leashed emotions. "Every aspect of it."
The moves were graceful, energetic, and aggressive. Complicated enough that he had to focus on each one. Azula, he had no doubt, would have executed them with effortless grace- or had she? Azula, lying broken and chained on the ground, screaming and writhing. Azula, crying and ranting about their mother, their father, their family. She'd fallen a long way from the perfectly-controlled demon she had been- and he wondered if he'd failed to see that control as a spring coiling tighter and tighter, getting ready to break apart. No, he thought, by the time of her would-have-been coronation, even Azula would have had trouble going through these forms. It was a cold comfort, and bitter in the back of his throat.
At the end of his trials, they made him kneel at the foot of the shrine of his ancestors, the scent of vetiver and benzoic rising sinuously from the sticks of incense before the altar. He presented the offerings of sacred oils and fruit- his choice an apple, for peace. His uncle had told him where to find the next set of offerings: four tablets of different-colored jade inscribed with the symbols for each four nations. Red jade, for fire, green for earth, blue jade (the rarest) for water, and yellow for the lost nation of air. A pai sho white lotus tile, for purity and spiritual perfection, (and for the men who took back Ba Sing Se.)
"I offer you these sacrifices," he said solemnly, bowing his head before the Fire Lords before him.
"We offer unto you this man for your approval," Shuei, the eldest Fire Sage intoned, "Zuko, son of Ozai, grandson of Azulon. We attest that he has completed the trials of Body and Spirit, he has laid down before the altar, and he is of royal blood, true-born."
They looked like they wanted his ancestors to express their rage at his coronation by raining fire down at him, or sending lightning sizzling through the air towards his heart. The torch at the altar kept steady, dancing and undisturbed. There was a slightly longer pause than there should have been, perhaps a hopeful last glance at the torch of decision…and then they gestured for him to rise. Shuei came forward with the golden pot of sacred oil, dipped his fingers in it and anointed Zuko's forehead, (the wisdom of a ruler,) to his bare chest, (the breath of fire,) his hands, (the strong hands to protect us with), to his feet, (the brave feet to lead us,) and briefly knelt before him on the floor before rising again to his feet. Then he and Seong offered the traditional show of respect, bow from the waist, knuckles in the flat of the open palm of the opposite hand.
As he was meant to, he turned and lit the fires beneath the sacred Golden Wall behind the throne before he was led out to his coronation to greet the crowd- the crowd assembled of the all the nations and elements, something that had not been seen for over a hundred years.
The Fire Nation royalty did not wear heavy crowns, as the earth kings did. Still, he felt the hairpiece, the shining symbol of flame, as unbelievably heavy on its own, weighted down with history and bloodshed and hatred. He was now Fire Lord Zuko.
His father's paperwork made for some interesting reading, if by the word 'interesting' one inferred a sense of horror and disbelief. Some of it was in his own writing- characters that were rigidly, precisely laid out on the paper scrolls with the finality of a royal stamp, and others were from various advisors and generals, notes on strategy and warfare.
The papers made him cringe inwardly to read, but some of it was horrifying enough to verge on the obscene. Here was the fate of the remaining earth benders that survived Ozai's purge- feet scorched and arms broken and healed incorrectly so they could never bend well again. The plans to level the charred remnants of the cities and erect new ones, to use the surviving people of earth as slaves to work on the building of their tormenters' homes.
He'd only just begun to page through these papers, or at least the more recent ones here that dealt with the plans of the post-comet, post-inferno invasion. Here were the plans he's laid down before the decision was made to raze the land itself to smoking ashes, and here was the newly revised version that told the fate of the remnants of the Earth Kingdom. They were all expertly laid out- his father and his war council had painstakingly targeted the areas they wanted to ravage: the more troublesome pockets of resistance, including New Ozai, (Omashu, he corrected himself,) their most productive areas of farmland, and any place their spies had labeled as a nest of Earth Kingdom forces. All of them neatly picked out and labeled in marks of black, black ink.
A map was blotched with patches of Fire Nation crimson and flame-orange, signifying the areas meant to be untouched, and the areas his fath- the Fire Lord, (the former Fire Lord), had meant to destroy. The map, red and orange and it by the living glow of candlelight, set in his mind images of the nation dying in fire, of the peasants he'd seen and known writhing in the flame. Song, (and he was sorry, wanted to find her and give back the ostrich-horse,) and Li, little angry boy and his village burning, sunflowers turning from yellow to ash-black.
Even worse was finding a copy of the notice that all the cities selected for purging were not to be evacuated even of Fire Nation citizens first. The colonists, it was reasoned, written in his father's hand with its jagged and rigid characters and thick lines of ink, were not to be trusted. Simply by coexisting with the Earth Kingdom peasants, they might be compelled to show compassion or mercy that would ruin their plans altogether. No, the Fire Nation colonials there in the targeted area for destruction had to be killed too, sadly, as a sacrifice to the future greatness of their nation. Horrifying. And all written out in cold rationality, reasoned out as only Ozai had been able to do.
Cull the new benders, execute the old. Make it so that the art was forever lost. Try to breed the bending out of them by weakening the blood.
Set aside inferior land and create small settlements for the Earth Kingdom, (no, not even that term, the Earth Kingdom was erased and its people named only as people of the dirt,) large buildings of adobe and clay with single rooms assigned to each family unit, the people of dirt would be unfit to enter Fire Nation land.
Zuko had originally started reading these to make sure his father hadn't set out anything in advance that he'd have to intercept, since the generals in charge of this had been sent into early retirement and they weren't likely to be amenable to telling him anything. After much deliberation, everyone had agreed to an amnesty instead of imprisoning most of the Fire Nation generals and admirals for war crimes, but he doubted that the soldiers appreciated it as much as they should. His council had either been dismissed or had willingly, (and eagerly), resigned, leaving him with only a handful of people to aid him with the problems of ending a century-long war and dealing with its consequences. He needed to be as well-informed as possible.
Now, reading these documents, thinking of what could have happened, he felt dirty. Reading these was like pushing bile down his throat or bathing in mucus. He had to take some breaks or his anger would rise, scorching fingerprints onto the edge of expensive papers and vellum, and leaving him feeling shaky and unstable. Had any of them really realized the extent of the damage Ozai meant to inflict on the world? Had his uncle, when he gave him the throne?
Aang had given him an accurate map of the world before Sozin had begun his march on the Earth Kingdom. The green expanse of the Earth Kingdom before the war nearly swallowed the map, dwarfing the Fire Nation islands in comparison. His first thought, almost instinctive and with no consideration involved, was: 'No wonder Sozin led that invasion-' and before it was finished he felt a sharp pang of guilt for even forming that opinion. The Earth Kingdom now more or less belonged to the Fire Nation, occupied with its troops and all of its cities fiercely controlled. His job now was to help heal the damage the war had caused them, and move the Fire Nation people back to their rightful place.
Still…he looked at the wide stretch of red on the map that indicated the Fire Nation colonies, almost as wide as the Earth Kingdom used to be, and thought he could see the problems with this.
In the Fire Nation, discord spread like weeds running through a flourishing garden. Their Fire Lord had been overthrown and defeated, the rightful heir displaced and banished to the barbarian tribes of the North, and the exiled traitor prince had taken the throne. Even worse, he'd aligned himself with the Avatar, the enemy of their nation and murderer of their former ruler, the Fire Lord's own father.
And then, to make matters even worse, he'd called a stop to the war just as it had been about to be won. Now, with Fire Nation colonists being driven from their homes and uprooted nobility fleeing back to the home islands, the people began to wonder how he could be trusted to protect his own nation and guard their welfare. The traitor prince who'd sided with the people of the dirt rather than his own Fire Nation?
The gossip, malicious and hateful, buzzed and bubbled like a boiling pot.
In his cell, Ozai heard the news and smiled.