The procession had come through the gate just after dawn, a slowly advancing cavalcade of steel and flesh, unfurling like a glittering rose in the red light as its parts swelled into the main city. At the head of the column sat Lord Fu, flanked on either side by his retainers and banner men, the thick cloth furling and unfurling in the wind, giving the single white fang set against a field of deep crimson a kind of entrancing dimensionality, almost a life of its own. Behind the head of the column came the other members of his clan; the smiths who had not been summoned to forge weapons for the military front, the artisans who weren't frantically embellishing pieces of armor and the hilts of weapons with personal and imperial insignias, and the entertainers, the jugglers, the fire throwers, the dancers and singers, all who had been plucked out of the ever growing crowd of displaced and disenfranchised professionals that had nothing to directly contribute to the war effort besides their ability to distract and beguile.
Zuko turned from the window with those two words burning in his mind. He was surprised it had taken him so long to arrive at so concise a distillation of what the whole festival had been cobbled together to accomplish, but there it was, scratched in like a seal. Now that he thought of it, the banners flying so freely also gave him pause; the whole procession was marching in dragon formation, with the leader at the very front, his most important men rippling at his sides like long whiskers, and the rest forming the body and tail. If they had truly kept with formal tradition, they would have arranged everything so that all the fire benders were part of the head and jaw, and could produce a massive but controlled plume flame upon command without breaking step. Most likely Fu had chosen the formation for other, less ostentatious reasons, but...Father had to know that.
Ozai was planning something, but Zuko didn't know what, and it always made him uneasy when he couldn't plot out the general mold of his father's machinations. It was like he'd been following a straight path that had suddenly bifurcated and now presented him with rapidly diverging alternatives that he couldn't discriminate between. And now the Fu clan had decided to show its full strength in the capital, at a festival commemorating the Fire Lord's strategic prowess, nonetheless, and with the anniversary approaching, serendipity couldn't be the scapegoat. Zuko frowned and tsked. And as I was in shadow and loss, Agni gave me light and I could see the world in its balance and simplicity.
He paused his recitation and waited, but no revelation came. He supposed that the Fire Sages couldn't be blamed for trying.
"Is something wrong?" Mai didn't look up from what she was reading, but it was as if for the duration of the question all of her attention was directed solely at him, and he felt both anticipation and the cool sense of detachment that came from years of conversing, point and counterpoint, argument and agreement.
"I don't know yet."
She sighed. "Is that supposed to mean something to me?" Now she set her scroll aside and turned her head to look at him.
Zuko simply looked back for the moment. She lounged on a padded bench, its legs and back left simple, just finely cut rods of wood. The silk of her shenyi was loose but still fitting enough that the curve of her leg rose out of the fabric as it fell along.
"No, I guess not." He walked closer and placed his hands on the foot of the bench, flexing them as he did so as though that would somehow relieve his stress.
"I didn't think so." She glanced towards the window before returning to her reading. They were in silence then, the atmosphere being punctuated only when Mai unrolled her scroll further; the slow, rhythmic hum of the increasingly close clan had long since been assimilated into the background and now only served as a grating reminder of Zuko's surprise at and ignorance of the reasoning behind their sudden appearance.
"Why is he here?" Zuko asked suddenly, not to her, or even to himself, but to the invisible presence tucked away in a tight corner of his mind that could answer all his questions.
"Are you really that bothered by him?"
"It's not just him, it's the whole clan. It doesn't make any sense. They haven't shown their faces in the capital in any number for years, have barely acknowledged that they're even a part of the noble clans, and then suddenly they answer the Fire Lord's request to appear at a festival that isn't even part of an official military procedure."
Mai was unperturbed. "It's not unusual for the clans to show off their strength."
"That's what the Festival of Fire is for. That's all it's for, and it happens every year, and Lord Fu hasn't showed his face there since my mother left." That's what she wanted to hear, he knew. You're not quite so subtle with me as you used to be.
"So it's about that, then?" She sighed again, thought not out of frustration.
"No. I've told you, I'm not brooding over that." Mother never gave a reason though, did she? Did she know I knew the truth? "My...uncle hasn't bothered to even send written correspondence in all that time."
"Yes, I've heard the stories."
"It's not a story. It's fact. He doesn't hide it, no one at court hides it." And why bother? The Fire Lady's departure had been a relatively uneventful affair, given only scant official public voice by the Fire Lord, and almost incidental scrutiny by the more influential clans. It was only when word reached Lord Fu that his sister had "absconded in the middle of the night like a common thief," that he'd gathered the bulk of his forces, given his respects to the Fire Lord, and retreated to his lands in the south under some thin pretext of reinforcing the coastal cities. If Lord Ozai had felt offended by the abrupt and unceremonious departure of his brother in law, he hid his indignation well, requiring only that a representative of the Fu clan be kept in the capital at all times, and regular reports be sent from the clan's heartland to ease the uncertainty that the vacuum of the clan's forces had created.
"And you never did like surprises, did you?" She spoke faintly, as though she were fatigued, or her voice came to him from the other side of a heavy door. The scroll sat ignored in her lap, her chin resting in the palm of her hand as she looked to the window, not really taking in any of the sights.
What are you thinking now? Zuko tried to puzzle out her train of thought but he could only grasp and feel nothing, like trying to capture the breeze with his hand.
"I don't know what's happening. I don't like it." He spoke with finality. She still didn't look from the window, apparently lost in thought. No. He knew better than that.
"Do you know your uncle well?" She turned slightly.
"No. Just whatever face he chose to to show me at court. He never had any great love of me. He always just considered me my father's son, nothing more."
"There's no grudge between the two of you then?"
He frowned. Could he have been stoking some kind of resentment during all those years since he retreated? Was this just an opportunity for him to try to settle something with me?
"There shouldn't be. He only knew me as a child. If anything, he still hates my father." If anything, I'm just an instant replacement for my father, should anything happen to him, though not quite so difficult an obstacle to remove. Could it be...
"Is it your father?"
He paused again. They rarely spoke of his father or court in private, Mai having grown up in an environment that so emphasized court conduct and appearance that she felt as though some part of herself had long ago been permanently displaced by rhetoric and pretense. And Zuko...he felt no need to allow his father's presence to pervade his personal life more than necessary.
"It could be. I can't believe that Lord Fu would come to the capital with his entire court purely on his own volition." His whole court. Zuko felt the bile rise again. He muttered, "the benders, the soldiers, the singers, the craftsman, all summoned up from Agni knows where. It doesn't make sense."
"There's nothing you can do now. You know that." And she looked at him full on, her eyes glittering with the light, her hair draped along one shoulder, seemingly languid and almost fluid in the heat. He followed the motion of her hair, from her head to her eyes, her mouth, her shoulders. Suddenly he wanted to touch her, just her face and her neck and her hair, something that at the moment seemed almost oppressively intimate even in the increasing light and the view of the seemingly endless expanse of land and sea from the window.
He settled for sitting next to her, resting his hand on her thigh, rubbing the fabric of her outfit between his fingers, letting his arm rest along the length of her leg. He focused on the rising and falling of thread along his skin, briefly thinking of how it would feel to have a length of the silk running along his whole arm or his chest. His own arms were bare to the heat, and if he pressed her against him, he could have his curiosity satiated. He almost smiled in wonder. It never ceased to amaze him how fleeting his retention of those sensations were, and he stopped his motions when he felt her hand on his, resting but not tightening, like a fresh leaf landing just so against the surface of a placid pond, its weight barely being reflected. He could hear her, hear her breathing when he sat this close, and if he wanted to, could detect the minute differences in the heat of her body with each heart beat. He again compromised, feeling the pulse through the bottom of her hand. He couldn't effect things now, she was right, but he could still prepare himself.
"Ryo returned, didn't he?"
Zuko faced her. "Two weeks ago. He and his father have been making formal preparations for the arrival of all the other clans. I've barely seen him since he returned." His fist tightened reflexively, the mark of the tile still seemingly fresh against his skin.
She closed her eyes and tilted her head upwards slightly, for her a gesture verging on extravagance, though her hand remained on his. After a moment he could see the crinkle of skin around her eyes.
"Two weeks. That was at the same time that your father gave the order for the invasion, wasn't it?"
"And Lord Fu received the summons and gathered his court to enter the capital in that space of time." She spoke more to herself, voice slow and detached.
And there it was. Zuko cleared his throat, almost smiling. "Ryo did ask after you, if you were wondering."
"Mhm. I know. He sent me a letter." She gestured as if to retrieve it from some unknown pocket or satchel on her person, only to lower it to her side a moment later. "He's so formal it would make my father uncomfortable."
"True," he mused, recalling Ryo's almost forced decorum upon seeing him and Li for the first time in two years. "But, that's how he is. With or without noble blood, he could have been the most well mannered and collected fisherman's son on the entire coast."
Mai sat up more. "Ryo as a fisherman's son?" She sat back, frowning. "No. Unbelievable."
"He can fish, at least with a sword or a stick. Better than I can, but I suppose he wanted to make perfectly sure that he would survive in as many environments as possible."
Mai only nodded, her attention seeming to focus on her scroll again. She sighed. "And how are things at the front, according to Ryo?"
Zuko hesitated. How would he explain spirits rampaging through the forests of the Earth Kingdom without sounding like a lunatic? He'd believe Ryo implicitly, but Mai had never been bound by constraints like that.
"Poorly, according to the number of people he says he lost in his division. Fighting in the flat, open lands is nearly impossible to bear, for both sides. The strategy is now to attack the water caravans and wait until thirst drives the enemy back towards the forests, and then..."
He shrugged. Logic evaporates. "Ambush tactics. The earth benders have trouble bending around the roots of old forests, and there's enough water, both in rivers and rain, to keep the divisions sustained."
Her hand closed around his, still light, her voice the same steady tone. "It doesn't seem to have much, point does it? A few scattered platoons aren't going to do anything as long as Ba Sing Se and Omashu aren't occupied."
"As Admiral Yu and several others have been pointing that out for a while now."
"You seem to believe what Admiral Yu says most of the time."
He shrugged. "He knows what he's talking about. Most of the time, like you say."
"And the North?"
"Will probably remain unconquered for quite some time." Unless Admiral Yu has a way of melting the ice caps.
"And how is Azula doing in Ba Sing Se?"
Zuko's fingers stiffened beneath hers, just for the span of a beat, but the action was noticeable enough that he may as well have given verbal confirmation of his guilt.
"I knew that she was there before now, Zuko. I just wanted to see how long it would take for you to decide to tell me on your own."
He sighed, removing his hand and drumming his fingers against his thigh. "My father is the only other one who officially knows. We had to keep this as secret as possible to make sure it had the greatest chance for success."
"And you thought that telling me that my friend hadn't actually died in a gruesome attack would help ensure the success of this mission? Interesting strategy, Zuko, but maybe next time you'll be able to remember that I'm not actually an Earth Kingdom spy."
"That's not what this was about. All your emotions had to be convincing. You spend a lot of time at court, and if someone like Yu happened to observe you closely enough I'm sure he would have been able to tell that something wasn't right with your reactions."
"Meaning, what, exactly?" The tightness in her voice made him want to sigh again, but he restrained himself.
"You're not good at expressing yourself, Mai. Don't try to deny it, because you know it's true." When she said nothing, he took it as leave to continue. "Any kind of deviation from your usual calm, even if it's small, draws attention. And hearing about the "death" of your friend is something that would have made even you react, and not lightly. I'm not going to get into whether or not you would have been able to put on a good front or not, but I thought having a genuine reaction would be the safest course. I'm sorry."
Her head turned sharply, gripping the scroll, crinkling the paper and distorting the characters. Zuko looked at the writing with what might have been disappointment, regret even. That scroll was from one his family's private collections, from his mother's side, in fact. Iroh had somehow convinced Lord Fu not to ransack that section of the library when he left, probably out of long standing favor or respect for the old general. If either of them could have seen how it was being handled now...
"And you couldn't have told me after all the acting was over? A month, two months? No one would have been paying attention at that point, no one would find it odd that I'd returned to normal by then."
"Well I didn't. I said I'm sorry, and there's nothing else I can do now. Some things are more important than common courtesies."
"It's more than a common courtesy, Zuko. It's trust."
Zuko shook his head. "No. Not this again. You've told me this before, and I said that there were certain things that I wouldn't tell you outright until after the effect. You agreed to that."
"I didn't agree to be deceived into thinking that people I care about are dead when they're really not."
"What did you think that would entail then? Trivial facts, meeting times and war room plans? Azula and I both agreed the we wouldn't tell anyone what was going on."
The scroll had hit the floor by now, rolling across the marble like a child's toy. "And did Azula come up with that, or you?"
"I said both of us." He couldn't help but raise his voice, though her's remained low and flat, always in that same, chocking control. "I don't even see how this is relevant now. You and Azula hadn't spoken for months before she left, even when you were both in the city."
"All right Zuko. I won't push this. But I refuse to accept that you had good reason for not telling me about what really happened months after this plan had been set into action."
Did I have a good reason? Or was it just comfortable apathy that came from having one less contingency to plot out? He looked as she rose from her seat, ignoring the scroll and moving to the door. The silk obfuscated the shape of her body, rendering her almost columnar, except for the sash that narrowed around her waist. "And how did you find out, if you don't mind my asking?"
She stopped but didn't turn. "Your uncle and I have interesting conversations from time to time." She exited without elaboration.
Zuko waved away any innuendos. Now I have to guard myself around uncle as well. And I thought I could forge emotions around him. He stood slowly, with feigned effort, pushing himself off the bench with both hands. The scroll had completely unfurled, the head resting against the opposite wall. He picked it up, glancing briefly at the first few lines of the poem before he started rewinding the paper, thanking whatever had prevented Mai from selecting an illustrated hand scroll. This at least had some duplicates that he was aware of. He placed the bound scroll on a stand next to the bench, tracing the thin paper with his thumb. She'd left lingering traces of her scent...jasmine. He couldn't place a description, just identify it for what it was.
The reverberations of a gong drew him to the window. It seemed that the procession had come close enough to warrant an official notice. They'd reached the first inner gate. The palace guard should be moving out to greet them. He almost smiled at the absurdity of a detachment of a hundred or so men moving to escort a throng of over a thousand. If the other clan bring this many with them, it will look like the war isn't even happening. Guile and distraction.
He turned from the window and removed his vest, tossing it on the bench and pausing in the center of the room. There would be a formal greeting once Lord Fu reached the audience room, and then he would be ushered to the Fire Lord's chamber where his father would demonstrate his infinite restraint and have his vassal kneel before him while the pleasantries of normal greetings were embellished to the point of absurdity. Lord Fu had to know that that's what was expected of him. No one saw the Fire Lord without bending a knee, even his own son.
Zuko lifted his chest plate from the stand next to his wardrobe. It felt...heavy was the wrong word. When he'd first donned armor, he'd spent the remainder of that day nursing the bruises he'd received from the blunt end of Chu's suddenly faster and more precise sword, and then putting salve on the junction between his shoulder and arm. Too much for the bastard to have mentioned that the straps were on too tight. Now he could sheath himself in metal almost casually, like a robe or his vest, his body having developed a layer of muscle along his shoulders, chest and arms, a sharp, almost too rapid step from the soft body of childhood and into the province of an adult's muscular physique. I can wear it as casually as I would a robe. He couldn't laugh, only tighten his grip around the cold, polished metal. They always erased the scars, so it looked like new. A failed parry had carved a jagged line through the center of the bloody flame embossed on the center of the chest piece. Now it was whole and clean. Was I really in the right for not sharing that with you?
With the armor still in his arms, Zuko stepped into the hall.
"Luping!" He called sharply.
He heard footfalls, and a moment later, his retainer came into view at the end of the hall. He'd likely been sitting on the chair just around the corner, as he usually was when he thought he might be needed in an official capacity. Zuko didn't even bother to reprimand him for wasting his time like that.
"Prince Zuko." He bowed and moved forward when Zuko motioned him forward, standing to the side with his hands outstretched as the prince approached him, taking the armor without pause and holding it like he were a stand rendered in human form.
Zuko pulled on the deep crimson shirt, thick and stifling. He shook his head and muttered. There would be a ceremony outside, just so everyone could see the royal family, and he'd be standing in heavy fabric and metal. If he concentrated enough, he could make it so the heat wouldn't touch him, but that would mean distributing it to the others around him. If he dumped just a small amount to each of them, they wouldn't notice enough to single him out.
He walked back to Luping, who by everything Zuko could tell hadn't moved from his position in the slightest.
"You can relax, you know."
"I'd just have to be at attention a few minutes later, so I don't see the point right now." He spoke without affectation.
"If you say so." He held his arms out at shoulder height. Luping placed the chest plate around his shoulders, the straps keeping it loosely in place. Zuko often wondered how the boy managed to know exactly how tight the straps should be every time without even questioning him in the process. Boy. Only three years younger, and he was already delegating a diminutive title, bordering on derision. Luping had few boyish features to his face, his cheeks high and his chin sharp, his hair long but held in a tight top knot that followed the style of some of the older students in the academy.
Zuko inhaled as the strap on his right shoulder tightened, lowering his arm and feeling his muscles relax.
"Have you seen Ryo since he returned?" Zuko could only take Luping's diligent silence for so long.
"Only once, on the day he returned. My father decided it would do me good to see my oldest cousin and hear first hand news from the front."
"Is that all you consider him?"
Zuko heard the irritated sigh. "And he's the future head of the Zheng clan. I have many cousins, and I'm closer to most of them in both blood and personality than to Ryo. I've told you that before, whenever you've asked, so I don't know why you keep asking." His hands stopped abruptly at Zuko's left shoulder. "I'm sorry, Prince Zuko. I forget myself." The strap on his shoulder was becoming uncomfortably tight from the increasing strain of Luping's hands, but Zuko kept his silence on the topic.
"Don't worry about it." The pressure subsided rapidly as Luping realized his mistake. "It's just that, people and their impressions of others can change over the course of a year, especially during war, or things done to aid in its progress." Didn't Ryo say that there was more to the war than blood and steel? And is Azula going to be able to keep herself together for that much longer?
Now the left strap felt as well adjusted as the right. Luping only grunted in acknowledgment, moving to duplicate his work on the lower straps, his hands working rapidly and with the precision imprinted from long regular repetitions.
"If I may ask, why aren't you wearing the ceremonial armor? This is the armor you usually wear on the field."
Zuko glanced over his shoulder. Luping's eyes narrowed in concentration for a moment as he finished the last adjustment on the strap. "It's a military gathering. Ostentation isn't supposed to be the focus."
Another grunt. "Someone should tell the Fu clan. They were never very good at concealing their ambitions and pride." He muttered the last part; if Zuko hadn't been standing so close he wouldn't have been able to hear.
The prince again said nothing. Luping finished fastening all the straps on his chest armor and stepped back so Zuko could move and feel the fit. He moved both arms in circles and twisted his torso as far as he could. He turned around.
"You did well, Luping. Thank you."
The boy bowed in reply. Zuko winced internally at his slip.
"Will you be requiring anything else, Prince Zuko?" And he sounded tired, but there was nothing to indicate that he hadn't slept long enough. Zuko had made sure that Luping didn't have any other obligation except to him, something which had delighted the...boy's father. Zuko sighed and shook his head. It couldn't be helped.
"Oh, no. I can manage the rest on my own. You're free to go."
Another bow. "An honor to server, as usual." He left without further comment.
Ryo would have reprimanded him for something like that. Maybe Li was right about him having a sword up his ass.
Zuko manged the rest of his armor without incident, adjusting it so that it didn't press the cloth too tightly against his skin. Lastly he added the hair piece, his scalp feeling strange for the first moments before he acclimated. He stood before the mirror, the ideal image of a warrior ready for the field. Or a prince ready to play host.
The hallways were almost entirely empty, and Zuko almost walked at a leisurely pace, taking time to admire the light coming through the tall windows and polished columns, and let himself relax in the quiet that was punctuated only by the sounds of birds from the courtyard gardens. He smiled and thought that he might even have even sat in the gardens and watched the sun move over the water while he ate ripe fruit. Any other day. But then, any other day and the halls would be busy, the birds would be grating on his nerves, and the peaches wouldn't be ripe yet.
He turned the corner and saw the chair where Luping usually sat when he was anticipating Zuko's call, but he'd left, vacating the seat to someone else.
"Ah, Prince Zuko I hoped I'd run into you." Admiral Yu rose and inclined his head slightly, a gesture which Zuko probably would have missed if he hadn't been focused solely on the man's face.
"Odd, since it seems like I ran into you." Though you'd never admit even that, would you?
Yu waved the comparison away and fell into step beside Zuko, inhaling deeply.
"A beautiful day, wouldn't you agree?" He smiled, an expression Zuko couldn't help but associate with the man.
Zuko nodded. "I won't be able to enjoy any of it."
"How true, but such is life at court. I sometimes prefer being on the ocean; I can step on deck if it's a nice day, enjoy the son and the sight of the water, observe the sea birds and fish."
Zuko snorted. "Nothing like being on a scorching metal deck with the sun bearing down on you for hours on end and salty air stinging your eyes. I'm sure the deck hands love their work."
Yu laughed, long and low. It never ceased to amaze Zuko how well he could manifest genuine amusement at almost everything. "You've caught me, I'm afraid. I admit I don't envy their jobs, come the height of summer, but I still stand by my assertion that the solitude of a naval career can be its own reward."
"I'll be sure to let my father know you enjoy it so much. He might send you out on the first detachment to the North Pole."
"That would be very cruel of you, I'm afraid. I know of no firebender who would relish spending an extended time period in the North Pole."
"And yet you recommended a full frontal assault on that very location. Weren't you planning on at least joining your own men at the front?"
"I merely suggested, Prince Zuko, neither condemning nor condoning. Your father took my suggestion as the best course of action, and decided against withdrawing. As for my presence on the field, I fully intend to join my men once the third division is dispatched, which I expect will be within a few weeks of our little ceremony."
"You mean this display? It's going to be difficult to foot this expense with the war effort bearing down on us. Exactly how far have you managed to stretch the treasury, admiral?"
Another smile. "I have my ways. The Fu clan has actually been extremely generous with their treasury and man power. Your father's invitation has apparently had a diplomatic effect on our relations with Lord Fu."
Zuko almost stopped mid stride, his eyes widening before he could control himself. And Yu looked him straight in the face, that same pleasant smile shaping his features, while Zuko's face nearly snapped into a frown.
"Your father didn't tell you about his communication with the Fu clan?" He sounded surprised, an innocent bystander to a shared revelation.
"No, admiral, he didn't." And were you part of that exchange, Yu, or is it just convenient for you to gloat at this point? His hands curled into tight, trembling fists.
"I must admit, I was surprised as well, though not quite so livid." Zuko relaxed his hands as the admiral continued. "Apparently, the only reason I was informed in advance was because I was needed to handle the accounting associated with Lord Fu's...generosity." He left enough hesitation and uncertainty on the last word that Zuko almost congratulated him.
"Do you really think the unofficial finance minister and an admiral need to be informed of all the workings of the court?"
"My ego would prefer it, I admit."
Zuko rolled his eyes, no longer caring if the gesture was noticed.
Yu made no comment. "It's interesting, though."
A sigh. "What?"
"It seems that General Xi was also left in the dark, as it were, with regards to this extension of cordiality to Lord Fu."
Zuko hesitated. "And what are you trying imply by that dual lack of disclosure, admiral?"
"Nothing terribly incriminating, my prince. Simply that it's well known that you and Xi have been something of political collaborators for a time now, and I'm sure you've noticed the more recent connections that have been forming over the last few weeks."
"Say that you and Xi are becoming allies and leave it that, Yu. If my father has already noticed what's going on, I don't see the need for you to step lightly with words."
"Mhmm, but Prince Zuko you seem to be missing the key point that boasting your guilt isn't quite the same as merely being suspected of it."
"My father has never been one to observe the finer points of what constitutes treason as opposed to mere curiosity, and he knows I know that. What does he know about you, admiral?"
Yu's smile broadened. "More than I'd like, unfortunately. Still, I wouldn't have risen as far as I have, nor kept my head, if Ozai hadn't at some point assured himself of my usefulness and loyalty."
Zuko shook his head, forcing down his own smile. "It's all an act then, is it admiral? I wouldn't say that too loudly, if I were you."
"No," Yu conceded. "That would be a mistake, if spoken in any other company."
Zuko didn't bother to respond. He struggled to keep his hands relaxed at his sides, and his breath in calm steady streams. Did father promise Lord Fu something? Lands? Titles? He had those in droves. What could...the reinstatement of his sister? He flexed his hands out of want start gesturing. He couldn't just forgive high treason without any consequence from court. And if she did return, what would, what would she think. Me. Azula. Father.
"Machinations going awry?" Yu spoke pleasantly.
"Never mind, admiral." He probably knew anyway. And Xi decided to stay quiet, even after the difficulty of positioning him in the North Pole.
They moved in silence then, encountering more and more people as they progressed towards the Fire Lord's throne. He hoped he might see Mai, or even Ryo amongst the streams, but Ryo would be with his father and Mai would be avoiding him. He glanced to the admiral, who was cordially greeting anyone who was within earshot. So he had Yu.
"Have I ever told you about my own son, Prince Zuko?" He had the pleasant smile on his face again, a totally useless expression, as far as Zuko was concerned.
"No. I wasn't aware you had a son." And you obviously didn't care enough to tell anyone.
"Mmm. I suppose I'm neglecting my duty as a parent to boast of his child's exploits and prowess."
"Assuming there are any, of course."
That earned him a bigger smile. "Right you are, my prince." He sighed, almost dramatically. "I'm somewhat disappointed, to be honest with you."
"Why, if I may ask?" Zuko glanced at the windows, not caring for the answer either way.
"Just dashed expectations. I suppose every military father would expect his son to follow in his footsteps to at least a limited extent, if only by expressing a passing interest in the workings of the institution that provide for his family."
"Is your son not taken by martial life?"
"Taken? He rejects it as dull and tedious. I could barely get him to take up swordsmanship when he was younger. I had to threaten him with a severing from the family name on more than one occasion."
"My father was always of the opinion that a quick, painful lesson on the first offense is far more effective than the thin promise of an overwrought punishment."
"I expect nothing less from Lord Ozai. Perhaps if I'd adopted the same attitude, my son would have turned out differently."
At this Zuko laughed. "Don't be that quick to change yourself, Admiral. There are worse ways your son could have been molded."
"I trust your word on that. But, I could have made him join the navy. Instead, he wastes his time on the beach, using my name to puff himself up."
As though we need to deal with someone like that at a time like this. He'd only be killed in a skirmish somewhere.
"I find it odd, Prince Zuko, that Lord Fu brought so few soldiers with him, but an excess of court performers and artisans. It's a military occasion, after all. We need fighters, not entertainers. You've noticed, I hope?"
But haven't made a connection. Say it, admiral. "I have. What of it?"
He shrugged. "It's something you should keep in mind while Lord Fu is here." He paused. "It's something your sister would notice easily, even if you don't." He stopped short of entering the cavernous hallway that lead to the Firelord's chambers, bowing and smiling pleasantly. "Good luck, Prince Zuko. And try to keep yourself alert. It would be rather empty without you around." With that, he turned and walked down the hall, hands behind his back.
Zuko's now trembling fist flew open as his arm snapped up, the air in front of him wavering with heat that quenched at the last moment by exhaling sharply and scattering it all around him. He turned from the minister before he saw a second attempt through, his face slowly relaxing from its contortions.
Treason, is that what you're edging at, Admiral? Would you like me to run to my father for protection like a scared child? Or would you like me to think...He took a heavy breath, slowly his pace and looking ahead. Would you like to think that ours and the Fu clan has reached some sort of agreement that I'm not allowed in on?
His pace slowed further as he mechanically raised his arms so his father's guards could search him. He had to stop from rolling his eyes as the process concluded. As though anyone could throw a knife faster than a fork of cold fire could travel. He recalled the man's hand, frozen as if in pose for a sculptor, the skin splitting then charring away into ash and dust, smoking bones, seared flesh, and the white-hot twisted bulb of metal being the only markers of the would-be hero of the Earth Kingdom. And that, Admiral Yu, is how I learned that we were really at war.
Taking another breath, he took the plunge. The entire chamber seemed to react to his presence; the shadows on the floor flickered as the heavy drape was shifted and fell, pushing against the cold, smooth columns that that flanked the walkway to the throne. He could feel the change in heat as well, his own body adding to and disrupting the previously steady flow. It really was alive. As a child he'd always wondered why no one else seemed to notice the changes when someone entered or left room, how in the first everything seemed to become brighter, stronger, more vivid, and in the last everything dimmed, like the first glimpse of an early winter arrived and chilled him.
Zuko stopped in the center, confronted by the presence of Ozai, a bonfire amidst candles. Gaze into the sun. See the soul of fire. He went to one knee, bowing his head, his fist pressing against the cold floor, the fires above him dancing on the floor. The heat rose, his clothing became stifling, his face flushing, like high noon, only to fall a moment later as his father's voice reached him.
"Rise now, Prince Zuko."
He did just so, standing in a fluid motion, using only the strength of his legs. Now that he looked forward he saw that his uncle stood to the side of his father's dais, wearing his own formal armor, his hair sleeked back and styled up in a topknot. From afar he looked well built and imposing in his armor, aged but with a strength honed from experience. Yet as Zuko stepped forward to ascend the dais, the shadows on his face peeled back, running up to reveal a receding hair line, sunken eyes, and a thick, pointed beard that Zuko thought looked like more of a prop used to conceal the sagging jowls on his uncle's face. Zuko frowned as moved up. Had he looked like this on the day of execution? Was I so distracted by my new assignment that I couldn't even turn an observant eye towards him? Drinking. Not just tea anymore, was it? Or had the field of battle been that unkind to him? He knows. Zuko assumed his seat on the cushions, shifting his eye as his uncle let his arms fall to his side. He knows about Azula, and he's been back for less than a month. Yu must have known as well. Were they...
His father's attention shifted to him. Zuko gazed forward.
"I trust you weren't taken too much by surprise by Fu's arrival?" It was barely a question. Almost an expectation.
He swallowed a retort. "No. Although, I can't say that I was expecting him to show up with this much fanfare."
"The Fu clan is arrogant enough for two noble lines. It's just a reinforcement. One that they needn't have bothered with a this point."
Oh, so you do have someone dancing in your palm. How soon will we see you make a fist? "Has Lord Fu been away from the capital for so long that he forgot we have entertainers of our own?"
The heat flowed out evenly suddenly, like a large animal sprawling itself contentedly in the sun's rays. Zuko fought to keep from indulging in the sensation.
"Oh no. Don't think he's forgotten anything that's happened at court. He has a long memory." A whisper, barely audible, but rough as broken stone.
"Long memory." He turned to his father. "Something you two have in common, I think. Long memories make for long grudges. That's what's at play here for both of you, isn't it?"
"Keep your theories under your tongue, Zuko. Our guest is approaching." And a faint, thin smile broke his father's face just as the Fu clan's retainer passed through the threshold. He met the center of the room and dropped to his knees.
"Fire Lord Ozai. It is an honor and a privilege to serve you and the Fire Nation here at court, my lord..."
But Zuko's thoughts were moving quickly past the fool on the floor. Damn Yu. He should have come straight out. Something your sister would know. So he knows as well. He almost growled at the man's flippancy again, keeping his rage in check by funneling the energy into the flames behind him. Ozai's head turned slightly, more out of curiosity, Zuko sensed, than a repremand. Zuko continued to fume. And what good are all the idiots in the procession? It's not a subtle jape, father wouldn't even care about something that trivial. Then...
The profile of heat changed yet again, growing and assuming a more domineering feeling, making Zuko uncomfortable in his clothing again. He compensated quickly, tensing at the same time. He saw the veil of thick cloth lift, and then his younger unlce strode into the room, alone and without hesitation.
Zuko's eyes narrowed. Now this, this could be the Dragon of the West.
Tall and broad shouldered, his hair dark as Ozai's, face clean shaven, he carried himself with a poise that could have distinguished him even if he were garbed as a fisherman. His eyes gleamed gold as they reflected the fire, pale and hard. His face wasn't sharp, but fuller and more handsome, the dual to a woman's beauty. Mother's face.
He came to the center and fell to one knee, his back straight even as he lowered his head, an act of supplication which was once again offset by his cool and precise demeanor.
Zuko waited for the heat to change, to spike or die or come off in oscillating torrents. Instead it remained still, like a candle burning at a steady rate.
"Rise, Xen Fu."
Zuko hid his incredulity. Only a brief moment, barely longer than the amount of time he'd spent kneeling before being given leave to rise.
"It is an honor to finally return to the capital after so long an absence. I've missed being at the heart of the Fire Nation, away from its vitality."
"And it's an honor to bid you welcome again, brother, though you were always welcome from the start."
As a silent supplicant, no doubt. Zuko strained to maintain his own silence.
"I left on my own volition, I admit. My sister's abrupt departure still troubles me, though I doubt I can gain anything more than a reassurance that at least she left with no harm being done to her." Here Xen met Ozai's gaze, calmly and unflinchingly, his eyes appearing almost limpid in the shadows. Now the heat spiked, the flame incinerating the wax at a furious clip. Only for a moment. Ozai's voice remained steady.
"I was surprised to discover her ulterior motives. I did what was dictated to me as heir to my father's throne."
Zuko bit down on his tongue to suppress a fit of hysterical laughter. It was too good, like watching a brilliant piece of satire unfold in front of him.
Xen merely nodded, his expression remaining the same. He'd kept the temperature around him nearly constant during the entire exchange, his body giving off no more heat than Uncle Iroh, who stood silently, if not conspicuously in his clinking armor. Is that just an act uncle, or do you really not care that an assassin may have just walked into our midst? Zuko tensed, drawing deeper breaths.
"I would be lying if I said that I didn't bear any sort of grudge against your house, Lord Ozai." He paused as though for effect, and, receiving only silence, continued. "I've spent the last eight years focused exclusively on marshaling forces in the south, training them to defend the coasts, and bolstering our efforts in the Earth Kingdom. I lost a son." He let that sink before picking up another weapon.
You think my father's armor is vulnerable to that sort of attack? Did you think before you approved your sister's marriage to the man? Zuko nearly sneered.
"However, I'm not here to open old wounds and lay my grievances at the feet of the Fire Lord. I'm here to unite our houses as they haven't been since my sister's absence. I'm here to ensure that the Fire Nation will continue to prosper for centuries to come, and that this war will not be our downfall."
The flames burst from their constraints, their peaks flaring to life, almost licking Zuko's back as he flew into action to contain them, his eyes never leaving the man standing so serenely beneath him.
"Downfall." Ozai's voice was as quiet and harsh as ever, gravel grinding under the churning of steel. "You speak of downfall when you yourself have remained hidden in your lands for near a decade, sending only a pittance of your actual forces to the front. Oh I know the men you've been committing, Fu, and I've tolerated your delinquency for no other reason than the stability of the nation during a time of war. Infighting is not something that bodes well for us at this juncture. So speak your true purpose at coming here with your entire court, and remember that you have blood kin who would be more than willing to serve as head of clan."
And Xen smiled, something that seemed pleasant and cordial, something that if the man had directed at Zuko in his youth would have instilled him the feeling of security and comfort, and now only served to set him even farther on edge as he couldn't help contrast his outward appearance with his pale, still eyes.
"I said I wished our clans united. I mean that. However I first need to set aside my own mistrust and resentment." He still held the casual smile. "If you would allow me, I can even make it a show of my own strength, and that of the Fu clan."
Ozai might have been taken aback, from how the flames reacted. "You wish to fight me in single combat?"
"You? Oh no, Lord Ozai. I have no desire to test your mettle in combat. It's something that no one in the entire nation doubts. Anyone else is a child or a fool. Likely on the latter, for even children show the occasional grain of wisdom. No." His eyes became animated in that moment, as if soaking up the flames to enliven them through some sort of alchemy. "There's one here who shares the blood of my clan, and then yours. The distillation of the strength of both our clans. As per our discussion."
He turned his attention to Zuko for the first time, his eyes flashing now. "Zuko. I challenge you to single combat through Agni Kai."
It's just a few months shy of a year since this had been updated, and as anyone who has looked at my profile can see, I've been toying around with other ideas in that time period. I never abandoned work on this story, I just haven't been focusing on it as much as I should have. I'm going to set my other projects on the back burner for the time being to focus on this, so expect to see more regular updates, and be assured that the action will pick up after this point. We'll be seeing more of Azula next, and possibly a few other characters from the cannon. I think I've done a fairly good job at keeping Zuko in character, given his changed circumstances, but let me know if you think there are any major discrepancies that detract from him as a character.