Thanks CACrest for proofreading!
Chapter 40: Fever Schemes
The wind seemed to rip through his russet robes. The cold bit at him and held on. It was like a hungry thing snapping at any exposed skin, trying desperately to draw blood. The cold even tried to bite at what was beneath his robes. It wanted to devour every part of him, and yet Iroh didn't leave the deck of the ship. He stood there still and watching as the Kensaku, his nephew's ship, neared a Fire Nation port.
Iroh had never hated the cold, he had accepted it for what it was. The opposite of heat. It offered balance to the world, hot and cold mixing, bouncing against each other and yet feeding one other and the world. But right now, he found himself hating it as it nipped at his cheeks and snapped at his aging hands. The cold was trying to steal something from him, the very heat from his body. Hadn't it taken enough from him recently?
The Dragon of the West closed his eyes and released a breath, mist rising into the air like smoke.
Finally, the town of Leng Gangkou had come into view. In truth, they could have stopped sooner, at a town that claimed to be neutral if only to keep alive in these troubled times, but the reality of the situation was that Iroh had plans. First and foremost, he had to see to the needs of the crew and ship. It needed repairs after the water tribesmen's attack. The crew was lucky that the hull hadn't been breached when they had been beached on the iceberg. The crew had made the repairs they could, but some were far more substantial … especially if he had to go chasing down Zuko and wherever he had ended up. He prayed to the spirits that his nephew was looked after and kept a low profile.
Closing his eyes, Iroh sighed, a hand becoming a fist around the lotus tile he held. This would have never happened if he had more trust amongst the White Lotus, but … since the last Water Tribe Avatar, Avatar Avaka, there was very little trust given to the Fire Nation members in the society. He was only invited given he was too powerful to be ignored. Young Avatar Avaka hadn't had a chance after being brayed by a Fire Nation Lotus member. The traitor had given the Avatar's location away like a spare thought to the wind. It was a wonder the entire organization hadn't been revealed that day by the traitor, a man long dead. To this day, no one knew his reasoning.
But those were the mysteries of the past and Iroh had done what he had to. Air-bender's were flighty things, like small sure-winged birds. They had to be lured in with seeds and scraps of bread. From the sounds of it, Zuko had been presented an Air Master during his stay in the ice city.
Iroh tried not to grind his teeth. That hadn't been planned, Zuko's stay in the Norther Tribe, but his nephew was free now. It was just a matter of time until they were reunited ... even if it took Iroh's last breath.
The sound of heavy footsteps pulled the aging prince from his thoughts, a flicker of warmth behind him.
"Lieutenant Jee … you seem to be in higher spirits. I trust you are feeling better in these warmer waters?" said the shorter fire bender as he turned to greet his loyal Lieutenant.
The man looked pale, having started to fall ill from the Chill and lack of sunlight. He honestly should have been in bed or in the steam room instead of outside in the cold, but Jee was too proud to be dotted on by the ship's healer and Third Officer, Ryto. Well, perhaps dotted wasn't the right word for Ryto. The man was a like a tiger-mink. He just lurked in the shadows, quiet and still as he eyed his prey. Then, when your guard was down, he pounced on your back digging in his teeth.
Well, maybe Iroh was exaggerating a bit … Ryto never bit anyone, but the rest of that was pretty accurate. Once, Iroh had caught the flu and had been all but grounded to his chambers as the Third in Command had the entire ship scoured for the disease. Zuko had never looked so traumatized, all the fire-benders forced to boil the water for every surface. The ship had seemed almost new after that.
Iroh forced a smile at the thought of the young prince, bandages on his face, as he whined to Uncle about how un-princely it was to clean sludge off the floors. Then again, if Iroh had had Dragon Fever and not just a flu… it might have killed someone Zuko's age. Iroh had had it before, during one of his sieges, and he would have survived unscathed. Zuko had still been recovering from his burn. The young prince might have … he might have … Prince Iroh banished the thought, turning his full attention to Lieutenant Jee.
"I will be better soon," said Jee as he dragged out his pipe, filling it. "I had to get away. The steam room smells like feet."
Iroh chuckled. Yes, that sounded about accurate.
"How long until we are to port?" said the lieutenant as he created a spark on his fingertips, smoke curling around his face. The man longingly looked up at the port that was sparkling in the distance. Early morning was daring to peak and yet unwilling to rise, a distance glow promising that the sun would soon be here.
"We should arrive shortly after sunrise." said Iroh, a smile still pulling at his face, a little humor raising his spirits.
Smoke rolled out of Jee's nostrils as he stared at the port town. The destination promised many reliefs … as well as many failures. They had not recovered the young prince. At least, it was obviously a Fire Nation colony. He could even see the huge steamers from here, clinging to the port like elbow leeches that would soon be falling off.
"That's what I am worried about," said Jee. "What if someone inquiries about Zuko's whereabouts? It has been a while since anyone has seen us."
The next thought hit Jee like a wave pulling him under the waters. He almost sputtered. Instead, he exhaled, smoke lingering around the man for a moment before the wind stole it away. "Then again, this might be an opportunity. We could … claim he caught Dragon Fever. I doubt he encountered it while in the palace. No one would think twice if we claimed a fever took him. You could go into mourning and then he could, both of you could, start anew."
Standing up a little straighter, Iroh ponder is silence. Jee's words had cut him like a knife. He did not trust his own tongue. When he was finally able to speak, his words were almost captured by the wind. A whisper. He knew it was a stale thought he couldn't let go of, but so was the nature of hope. It did not let go easily. "How can a dead prince claim a thrown, Lieutenant Jee?"
Tasting the smoke on his tongue before it rushed out his nose, Jee leaned on the railings of the ship. He stared out at the ocean for a moment before he carefully answered, "You and I both know, the moment he used air, Zuko would never be able to claim that thrown. It is lost to him."
"Then who will claim it? His sister? Azula? Azula's betrothed?" said Iroh, trying to keep the disgust from his voice. "Something is very wrong with her. My brother ruined her somehow. She will never be the princess her mother was."
Jee snorted, "No offense my Prince, but betrothal? As if anyone would want to marry her. I hear everyone has politely declined whenever our dear Fire Lord has inquired about a marriage proposal … Well, unless that rumor about that upstate Zhao is true."
Both men shuddered. Ugh, would their babies have sideburns as well?
"Then who?" said Iroh, anger starting to form in his belly.
Looking at his Prince, Jee chose his words carefully. He knew his thoughts would dig in deep, but they needed to be said. If Prince Iroh had an heir … he could make a legitimate claim for the thrown. He was the first born. It was his right!
"There are others that could make a claim. Anyone with a drop of royal blood in them can rule. But, if you do settle down in the Earth Kingdom with your nephew, perhaps you can find another wife. You could produce another heir. You still have time for it. It would give you claim to the throne again and, with that power, you could even protect Prince Zuko, the Avatar."
Iroh closed his eyes, the memory of his late wife ripping into his heart, yet the truth to Jee's words dug far deeper.
"You know what I say is true, my Prince. Look how long your father reined. You are a strong bender. You will live a long life. There is still time," said Jee, voicing what probably half of the Fire Nation population thought. Prince Iroh was much beloved, still was. If he had a son, an heir, a want to claim the throne as well as the Avatar in his pocket … perhaps there would be a chance.
Iroh's silence spoke volumes, though.
"Prince Iroh?" said Jee quickly, standing up straight. Had he overstepped his bounds? Should he bow and beg for forgiveness?
Yet, before Jee could even incline his head, Iroh put out a hand, stalling the other man. "There is no need for that lieutenant. It … is indeed something to dwell on, but first we must get to port and then find Prince Zuko. I must find him first before I dwell on other options."
Jee still bowed, feeling the Prince's misery. He did not regret his words, though, for he felt he had never been so truthful before. There was still time.
Sokka … heard wheezing, a wet sound. Miki had sounded the same way before they abandoned her and left her to the mountain. All the half dead sounded that way. Was … he dead? Everything was so black and cold yet surprisingly hot at times.
Was he one of them? The jiangshi? Was he barely aware of himself? For all time was he bound to wander the mountain as the very earth whittled away under the rain and the wind? Would he forever be buried away in a rice bed, surround by forgotten warlords, villagers and fire-bending jerks alike? Would his soul never be returned to the moon and ocean?
He almost sobbed.
No, no. The Mountain Spirit wouldn't do that. Yes, he recalled the giant tiger-elk. He also recalled the darkness … inside him. Was it still inside him?! Was it still there in his gut waiting to devour his village?! Get it out!
Before Sokka could truly comprehend anything, he was leaning over his bedside and throwing up. Surprisingly, there was something in his stomach and it was white. Maybe soup or rice gruel, but it wasn't black. Thank the moon, it wasn't black! He couldn't help but stare at the floor for a moment, his mind fuzzy and exhausted yet strangely relieved. He was only vaguely aware that someone had come up to him, grumbling as they started pushing him back into bed. A healer maybe?
"Was it black?" came another voice, outside of Sokka's range of sight as he was pushed back into the cot, the maybe-healer covering him up. The healer was a graying man with a slightly heavy face which was adorned with a thin mustache and beard. Where was Grangran or Katara? Whenever he was sick, it was always one or the other that knelt at his bedside. But … he wasn't in the South Pole anymore, was he?
Where was he?
"No, it was not," said healer as he checked Sokka's eyes and wiped off his face with a damp cloth.
"Are his eyes still black? The sage's asked for a hawk if there were any changes in the spirit touched boy," came the voice again as another figure came up to Sokka's bedside. He was a regal looking man with his hair up in a stern topknot. He seemed to carry this air of authority on his broad shoulders. He was also dressed in red. In fact, both men were in red.
Where? What … What was going on? Why was he surrounded by Fire Nation?! Better question: why wasn't he being barbecued?
"No, they went back to their original color yesterday. Well, I presume his eyes were originally blue. He isn't a water bender, is he? I should sedate him now if he is. I don't need frostbite," said the mustached man.
"The YuYan do not believe so. During the incident, the boy did not strike out with any water, only weapons. He had terrible aim, apparently," said the regal looking man, his lips frowning in thought. "Are you sure the spirit didn't win and this isn't a possessed corpse like those hopping spirits? I don't want him near any more of my men if there is a risk of him turning. We barely recovered a fraction of the new unit for the stronghold, and I cannot afford to lose any more soldiers to spirits."
Sokka, even slightly disoriented, was insulted about the aim comment, but he couldn't even voice his opinion. His throat was raw and the healer was all but forcing a spoon of some foul-tasting concoction down his throat. He then was forced to swallow some water a moment later, nearly choking at its spiciness. Who knew water could be spicy. Ugh. He felt like he was going to throw up again. Thankful, the graying healer was now allowing him to lay down completely, a wet towel placed on his forehead.
Moon and Ocean, that was cool. Ugh, why had he been pushed back under these blankets? He was so hot. Did he have a fever?
"I am not a fire sage, Colonel. I am a healer, but he's not throwing up or choking on that black tar anymore. He also now has a fever instead of being freezing cold. I think whatever the Mountain Spirit instigated, has passed," said the healer. "If he survives the night, you probably can send another hawk to the sages then, Colonel Shinu. Anything before would be impromptu."
The Colonel tightened in the shoulders before nodding, folding his arms behind his back. "Very well, I'll allow him to stay in your care, healer Rhije. We have more than enough bodies to keep the funeral pyres burning for days without the boy added to its cleansing fire. Plus, it will not do us any harm to be in the good graces of the Fire Sages. It's not often that we can offer them a recruit from the conquered colonies, especially one that can apparently commune with spirits."
The healer nodded, "Yes, the archers said he was speaking with the Mountain Spirit. They didn't hear a thing. Apparently, it's not a common gift I take it?"
Colonel Shinu shook his head, frowning again as he looked down at the delirious boy. He seemed to be water tribe, though the YuYan were sure he came from one of the surrounding villages. Not entirely uncommon to have mixed blood like that. These cold shores were close enough to the southern waters for there to be some mixed breeding with the Southern Water Tribesmen. The boy was a little old for integration, but Shinu was sure the Fire Sages would accept the challenge given the boy's apparent gifts. For Agni's sake, he spoke with a great spirit. An uncommon gift.
"It is a rare ability, from what I understand, which is why we are going through the effort to keep him alive and in the stronghold. I would have sent him to the farms for the villagers to deal with otherwise," said the Colonel, still frowning as he watched the boy's eyes flicker shut. Colonel Shinu didn't care for spirits, but he was educated enough to realize the importance of keeping the peace as well as one could.
The spirits were old and did not like to be stepped on. He was going to have the villagers rebuild the Mountain Spirits shrines as soon as most of the crops were collected. He knew better than to tempt fate.
Rhije nodded, turning over the wet towel. "I will do my best with his fever then. The boy should live."
Nodding, the Colonel gruffly replied, "Good to hear. I hope to see the boy up by the time the Sage's appear. I want him out of my hair. I do not care for spirits."
Little did the Colonel know, that neither did Sokka care for spirits either, but it seemed choices were being made for him that he would have little control over. Nonetheless, he was alive and if he was alive … he could deal with anything. At least that was always what he told himself.
Iroh's words held true as the Kensaku made port shortly after sunrise. The ship seemed tiny and minuscule compared to the larger Fire Nation warships that swayed in port around it, but that never bothered Iroh. He knew in some battles, it paid to be small and quick … especially if you were catching octopus-eels as the saying went.
The first order of business was getting the ship resupplied and repaired. He planned to leave with Zuko once he found his nephew, but knowing that boy it would take three months to find him and he would also be imprisoned by Earth Kingdom generals.
Nonetheless, he planned to get some funds from their yearly accounts so the two of them would have something to live off of while Zuko was training. He also wanted to get some news about refugee locations. The best way to become invisible was to fall in with the rest of the crowd. He was also thinking of settling in a small mountain village if he could, but that offered its own concerns. Yes, a deserted area would offer plenty of space for Zuko to practice, but then there was the problem of finding him elemental masters. He would have to see of Zuko was taught anything in air-bending during his visit with the Northern Tribe, but as for earth and water, Iroh was now reluctant to just ask anyone to teach his nephew … even the White Lotus.
Perhaps in time …
Currently, Iroh was wondering if he could falsify Zuko being a mix-blood that had discovered himself to be a water or earth-bender. He would play the concerned uncle that spirited his nephew away from the Fire Nation colonies. Zuko would just have to keep his other elements to himself during training. He knew that would be hard on the younger bender, but now was a time to swallow his pride … for Zuko had promised him and the spirits that he would live.
And life was messy sometimes.
Then there was the query of what Lieutenant Jee had said earlier that day. During Zuko's training … should he try to find a new wife and produce an heir? He knew he had aged a bit since Lu Ten had passed, his hair completely graying from grief, but the lieutenant's words were true. It was unlikely Zuko would be allowed to rule as the Avatar if this war ever ended. Plus, an heir would give Iroh the chance to take back the throne from his brother.
Prince Iroh honestly held little interest in being the Fire Lord, but if it brought protection to Zuko … should he seek out that heavy crown?
Stepping onto the dock, his arms folded behind his back, the aging Prince was ashamed to say he had not been minding his surroundings. On the battlefield, such a thing would get you killed. Mind you, he wasn't on a campaign, but enemies come in all forms.
"If it isn't the Dragon of the West," came a familiar voice from in front of the dwelling fire-bender, Iroh's head snapping up. "There was worry that you and the banished Prince had been lost to the sea … It is good to see that such a thing has not occurred."
Back straightening, Iroh met the gaze of none other than Captain Zhao. The man had barely been able to keep the smirk out of his tone though a smile did tug at this lips. The captain, at least, managed to show some respect, bowing slightly when he met Iroh's gaze. Though Prince Zuko had been banished, Iroh had not. Many merely thought he was still in mourning, having lost his son and his crown, and thus traveled the world.
Even with the slight show of respect, Iroh had to school his features and act like a tired old man. He did not trust Zhao, especially when he had seen the man's smile during Zuko's famed Agni Kai. A man that smiled at acts of cruelty was a man to be wary of.
"Good morning to you, Captain Zhao. It is indeed good to see a familiar face after such a long journey," said Iroh in a warm voice, a soft smile settling upon his features. "It is nice to know that during my absence; this old retired General was thought of."
Zhao's smug face slowly dripped away, the man standing up straight out of his bow, towering over the retired General. "Actually, it's Commander now."
"Ah," said Iroh, noting how the ex-Captain puffed up at the proclamation. "Congratulations on the promotion. I take it you are settling into the position well?"
"Yes, I have been," said Zhao, already bored with the pleasantries as he turned and eyed Iroh's ship for a moment, a frown pulling his jawline as he stared at the scars in the ship's metal. "It looks like you have been in a skirmish. I'm surprised that old tub held together. Tell me, was it in these waters? We have heard rumors that the Northern Water Tribe has been more active lately."
Iroh struggled not to frown, instead chuckling, a calculated lie flowing off his tongue like water. "Yes, she held together. And you are correct, the water tribe seems increasingly agitated. We ran into a small party that managed to thrust our ship into an ice flow. The damage was significant enough to the propellers that we were stuck out there in the ice for weeks."
Zhao, still looking at the obvious ice damage to the ship, slowly nodded, "Again, it is good to hear that you and the crew returned mostly unscathed, but I can't help but inquire, what of our banished prince? Princess Azula has sent out letters of inquiry. She has been most concerned about the health of her brother."
"I'm sure she is..." said Iroh, his voice becoming chilled. Azula? Concerned? Unlikely. That girl was probably just wondering if it was time to celebrate being the only heir or not. Why hadn't she been sweet, like Princess Ursa?
Instead, she took after her father with his disease: his hate.
"Yes, yes. She was growing quite concerned," said Zhao, showing false worry if only to keep one step away from fully insulting the eldest Prince. "In fact, I would be glad to invite the two of you to my ship for tea so I could tell the princess just how well you both are. Perhaps the young prince can tell me of his travels … to regain his honor, I mean."
Ah, there it was. He was probably going to poke at Zuko's banishment with every word that spewed from his mouth. The man was indeed an antagonist. He was always looking to start a fight. Then again, Zhao might just be snooping. Finding the next Avatar would regain Zuko's honor after all … if he, himself, wasn't the Avatar. Lieutenant Jee and the others from the rescue team had mentioned that Zuko had gone into the Avatar state to escape the Northern Water Tribe's city. Were the Fire Sage's now aware that a new Avatar was amongst them? Was Zhao looking for boys Zuko's age or did they think the Avatar was just a baby, Avatar Quiang having finally passed? He hoped it was the latter or better yet, not at all. Zhao was the last thing Zuko needed on his trail.
He hated to do this, but again Jee's words echoed in his head like an insect bumping around in his skull.
Slowly, Iroh put on a deep frown, part of him noticing that the first of the Kensaku's crew were departing the ship behind him. "Ah yes, as much as it pains me to turn down tea, I fear Prince Zuko is not well enough to leave his quarters."
He just couldn't say he was dead. Not yet … what fools hope he carried around!
"That's unfortunate … it is nothing serious, I hope," said Commander Zhao with a gleam in his eye, once again putting on the act of false sympathy if only to keep in Iroh's good graces. "I could have one of my medical officers take a look if you like. It would be no trouble, my prince."
A strained smile pulling at his lips, Iroh continued with this little game. "What a kind offer, Commander, but I fear it is Dragon Fever. The crew has been suffering for weeks and I would not want to expose anyone unnecessarily to it."
Zhao nearly tripped into his two guards with how quickly he reeled away from Iroh. He even pulled out a small piece of cloth to cover the lower part of his face. Not that Iroh blamed him. Dragon Fever could be very deadly and was very contagious, even for fire benders. Anyone who had had it usually developed an immunity, but those who had never had it, were best to be weary.
"I-is your ship in proper quarantine?" said Zhao, trying not to squeak though he failed miserably. Again, Iroh didn't blame him for being alarmed. It didn't happen often, but sometimes if a bender caught Dragon Fever, it would burn up their chi networks, crippling their bending. It was a fear for all fire benders.
"Yes, yes. Most of the ship is under quarantine. Isn't that correct, Medical Officer Ryto?" said Iroh, turning to their ship's Third in Command and Medic as he walked by with a list of supplies he was planning on ordering in the port town.
Stalling, having been completely absorbed in his list of healing supplies, the usually quiet yet serious man stood up straight. "Prince Iroh. Sorry, sir. What were you saying?"
Giving the man a serious look, hoping he would catch on quickly and act accordingly, Iroh continued, "That you, as the ship's Medical Officer, are keeping most of the crew under quarantine due to the outbreak of Dragon Fever on the ship?"
Eye's going wide, ready to deny it, he quickly sputtered as he caught Iroh's deadly glare. "Ah, y-yes. That's right. Just terrible. Most of the bending crew was affected. I, having had it before, was going into town to order supplies right now. Yes, right now. Quarantine, like the Prince said."
Zhao's sharp gaze turned towards another crew member of the Kensaku as he all but tripped off of the ship and onto the docks. Chim was still fighting off the Chill and was looking two shades from death because of it, but nothing, even nearly having his inner flame gutter out, was going to stop him from going to the nearest Inn for a good hard drink.
"Then what about him?" growled Zhao, his voice muffled by the rag over his mouth, one hand pointing accusingly at a possible cotangent.
Chim, half hunched over, sneezed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Then, looking up, he noticed that everyone on the dock was staring at him like his hair was on fire. "What? Is there snot in my beard again?"
Ryto and Iroh exchanged a panic look quickly before Ryto launched himself into action. "Private Chim! What do you think you are doing on the dock?! You are under quarantine like the rest of the ship. Dragon Fever is no joke."
Chim, having had Dragon Fever as a child many years ago, blinked in confusion. "What are you talk-youch! Don't tug on the beard! Not the beard!"
The healer, having grabbed Chim's beard if only to shut him up before he blew Iroh's cover, all but dragged the other man back up the ramp to the ship, "Back to your quarters now! In fact, I should remind the entire ship that only those I designate can leave this ship."
Iroh and Zhao both watched as the medic herded a few other men back into the ship, his demands sending them all running like scared squirrel-mice. Ryto could be terrifying when he wanted to be. Personally, part of Iroh was glad for the quick excuse. Yes, he didn't want to deny the crew their shore time, but at the same time, he didn't need Zhao interrogating his men. Most of them seemed to be on his side, but one slip of the tongue … and Zuko would be as good as imprisoned for the rest of his life. If not dead. Then again, how this lie was running, he might just have to claim that very thing.
Prince Zuko died of Dragon Fever when out to sea. He hadn't even said the words aloud and already his tongue tasted bitter, his inner fire flickering in disgusted. Such a lie would have to be a last resort.
"Well, it looks like you have this under control, Prince Iroh. I will leave you to it," said Zhao, eyeing Iroh like he was a contagious as well.
Smiling, part of him deeply satisfied with the terror he was putting into the Commander's heart, Iroh added, "Certainly, certainly. When it is a better time we must have tea."
"Yeah … tea," grumbled Zhao as he all but turned tail and ran away, two armored guards stumbling after him.
Watching the display, Iroh chuckled. Who knew that someone like Zhao would make his day?
Paw07: Hello loves, just a quick update to show I am alive. I looked and looked to see if Zuko's ship had a name, but I couldn't find one so I dubbed it: Kensaku, which I believe translates into searching. And I've been promising it forever, but we finally got some Iroh time! Yeah! Plus, Zuko's adorable crew. I honestly want to sit down and name every single one. Alas, it is not really necessary … at the moment! :P
We also got to see Zhao. Mmmm, hot man with mutton chops. A great weakness of mine.