Tools and Masterminds

Prince Ozai, second-in-line to the throne of the Fire Nation, hated his father.

This wasn't, in all honesty, an unusual state of mind for him. He hated his brother as well, and his nephew; his own son was a pathetic, overly-sentimental excuse for royalty, and his wife was much the same, though admittedly she did have her uses. In truth the only member of his immediate family Ozai didn't hate was his daughter, and that had more to do with the fact that she was a quick learner in the art of firebending (as well as the equally vicious art of politics) and was extremely loyal to him rather than any true feelings on his part.

But he hated his father, Fire Lord Azulon, above them all, for it was Azulon who truly stood between Ozai and a chance at becoming the Fire Lord who would finally bring the Earth Kingdom beneath his heel and have his name remembered throughout the centuries as a synonym for greatness. Azulon, for his part, barely acknowledged his younger son's existence, preferring to watch from afar as Iroh- his glorious Dragon of the West- won battle after battle for him. Why it was that the old man so favored his firstborn was quite beyond Ozai- in temperament, Father was much more like him than Iroh. By all rights he should have wanted his throne to go to the one he knew had the ruthlessness to hold it. But no, instead he had his inexplicable love for a man who, while he could be ruthless if the situation called for it, held on to ridiculous notions like the idea that the War's purpose was to establish an empire of perfect order, culture and prosperity, when any fool could see that the only things that really mattered to heirs of the Royal House were power and glory. That wasn't even counting Iroh's numerous eccentricities- his ridiculous jokes, his tea fixation, his insistence that the best way to win the people's loyalty was through kindness rather than fear.

Ozai was certain that if Iroh was allowed to rule, it would mean disaster for the Fire Nation, and more importantly, for himself, and he hated his father for not seeing it. Now, though, with the reports that the great Dragon had been laid low be the death of his beloved son, cracks were opening in the iron gridlock that kept Ozai from the throne, and he intended to exploit them.

If there was one form of power the younger prince had learned to value over the years, it was the power to destroy- to destroy things, and also the more subtle and more rewarding art of destroying people.

Now he knelt before his father's form, barely able to make out the old man's shape from within the flames. What he could see, though, showed that Azulon was indeed getting old, dragged down by the one enemy no man could hope to fight. His fire was still strong, his golden eyes still alert, but to any who knew the signs, it was clear that he was slipping. It was a mistake for a ruler to allow his subjects to see him as a mere mortal, Ozai thought; when he was Fire Lord, he would raise flames about himself so strong that he seemed more god than man.

"Father," he said, carefully keeping his tone neutral, "you must have realized, as I have, that with Lu Ten gone, Iroh's bloodline has ended. After his son's death, my brother abandoned the siege at Ba-Sing-Se, and who knows when he will return home? But I am here, father, and my children are alive."

The flames flickered; Azulon was displeased, but had yet to show the true anger Ozai knew would come soon enough. "Say what it is you want," he rasped.

"Father, revoke Iroh's birthright. I am your humble servant, here to serve you and our nation. Use me!" Ozai was under no illusions that he would get what he wanted this way- all he intended to do now was provoke a reaction from his father. Azulon didn't disappoint.

"You dare suggest I betray Iroh? My first born?" he shouted, the flames roaring up in reflection of his anger. "Directly after the demise of his own beloved son? I think Iroh has suffered enough- but your torment has scarcely begun! You too shall know the pain of losing your first-born son!"

The flames soared higher, and Ozai retreated from the throne room, back to Azulon so his father couldn't see the smile on his face. He didn't fear the old man's power any more- he was strong, yes, but he was also old, and Ozai was quite certain now that he could defeat him if it came to that. But if he did that, the populace would never stand for him as Fire Lord, and the people did need to be humored. Besides, the pieces were in place now- and if the movement of a tapestry against one of the walls was any indication, one such piece was playing her part perfectly.

After Azulon himself had departed, Ozai slipped up beside the tapestry and reached behind it, yanking the small figure out. "Hello, Azula," he whispered. "Eavesdropping again?"

His young daughter looked up at him, her expression utterly devoid of regret. "You taught me yourself that secrets have power," she said with a slight smirk. "So, are you going to have to kill Zuzu, or is someone else going to get the job?"

Ozai snorted. "Much as it would please me to rid the Fire Nation of your brother, tonight we are playing for higher stakes." He knelt down on Azula's level and looked her directly in the eyes. "Now then, there is something I would like you to do for me. Go find your mother and Zuko, and make certain they know what just passed between myself and the Fire Lord."

"Won't telling Mom you're going to kill Zuko just make her try and stop you?" Azula asked. Then understanding flashed across her face. "But it wasn't really your idea, was it? It was Grandfather's."

The Prince allowed himself a tight smile. "Exactly. You know I have long desired the throne, and now I have the perfect assassin to get it for me. Remember this, girl- the great weakness of those who flaunt their emotions. They are so easy to use. There are few things a mother won't do to protect her child, and now we have that force on our side."

"Mom wouldn't do that for me," Azula muttered. "She hates me. And I don't get why you don't just do this yourself."

"Because I cannot have my hands dirtied by this business!" Ozai snarled. "I cannot kill my own father- honor is for fools, but the appearance of honor is one of the greatest tools we have. Your mother will do her job well- no one will ever know that Father died of anything but natural causes, and no one will be able to stop me from taking the throne. Then you can be Fire Lord after me. Isn't that what you've always wanted? But first, you must learn to use the tools you have."

"Yes," Azula repeated, nodding. Ozai could almost see the tiny gears working in her devious mind as she processed this information. Yes- here was one who took after her father, a true gift of a child after the disappointment that was her brother. She would serve him well indeed.

"Now run along and do as I have told you," he whispered. "By tomorrow morning, we will have won."

Azula smiled and then wrapped her arms around her father's neck in a tight hug- a rare show of affection from her, one that made her look for all the world like an ordinary child rather than a conspirator in a plot to bring down the Fire Lord. Part of Ozai was unnerved by this; he wondered what exactly it was that he had created. Then Azula pulled away and raced down the hall, and his dark thoughts vanished. She would bring him victory- that was all that mattered.

The next morning, Fire Lord Azulon was dead, apparently of natural causes, having left behind a note proclaiming Ozai his heir. Lady Ursa, Ozai's wife, had done her work well. Something would have to be done about her, of course- it didn't do to let people get into the habit of killing kings, after all- but for now, the new ruler of the Fire Nation simply sat back and enjoyed his victory.

Truly, Ozai thought, a most impressive bit of scheming.