People are stupid.
Did you only just realize that?
Behind his blank expression, the Firelord was busy calculating the trajectory his body would follow if he were to launch himself across the room and strangle the slimy little leech in the other chair. Zuko's clothing, chosen for solemn grandeur rather than ease of motion, was thick and restrictive, and there was a heavy, hip height desk separating him from his intended target. He figured that if he did snap and make the leap, the guards at the door would have enough time to drag the man away before their monarch killed him.
That was probably a good thing. Probably.
"I find these . . . accusations hard to believe," Zuko said, after the silence had stretched to the point of breaking. That was a nice, neutral answer, he thought. He found lots of things hard to believe, like his ministers' assurances that he was loved by the populace, and the monthly budget reports sent out by each department, which were surely inflated to hide embezzlement. He also had little faith in the goodness of humanity. People, he knew, if not evil, were angry, greedy, and capable of terrible things. The only thing that varied was the amount of vice in each individual, and their level of control.
There were exceptions, but not many, and Zuko liked to think that he knew most of them: the Dragon of the West, the Avatar, the Queen of Omashu, Katara, and sometimes Sokka, depending on how annoying he was being. He knew them, and he trusted them. Which was more than he could say for this . . .politician.
"Regardless, Firelord, the evidence—"
"What evidence?" Zuko interrupted, some of his anger leaking through the gaps in his vise grip. "All that you've presented thus far is secondhand gossip from untrustworthy sources. A smuggler from Ba Sing Se? The secretary of a disgraced politician? And somehow from these vague rumors you've dreamt up a conspiracy involving some of the most powerful people in the world! What would they possibly be trying to accomplish, and why would they need all the secrecy?"
"Their goal is to eliminate you," the courtier said. His aura was calm, his diction precise. If he had been intimidated by Firelord's attitude, he gave no sign. Instead, he raised his eyes and said the terrible words that haunted Zuko late at night, the words that drove him out of bed and back into his office to look over more paperwork. "Because you weaken the Fire Nation."
After a moment, the man—his name was Lord Shuzon, Zuko remembered suddenly—dropped his gaze to the floor. "At least, that is what they believe, Firelord."
"According to your sources," Zuko corrected, his voice just as pleasantly bland. Lord Shuzon's use of the delicate pause had been masterful, and deeply insulting. Even Toph would have applauded, right before she flattened him beneath a wall of dirt. Unfortunately, imprisoning the man beneath a similar structure made of fire would probably kill him.
Shuzon was wise enough to not contradict him. He remained silent, sitting patiently in his chair. Looking at him, so poised as he said these poisonous things, made Zuko weary. "You may go," he said, abruptly dismissing the older man.
The lord remained seated, his muscles suddenly tense. "There is more to tell," he said, gesturing towards the bundle of scrolls he had brought with him.
"That may be, but I've heard enough." Zuko rose from his chair and moved out from behind his desk, positioning himself within easy striking range. "Rest assured, I will not forget a word you said, and will begin investigating these . . . conspiracies immediately," he said, smiling dangerously.
"YOU HAD MY BROTHER ARRESTED."
"No, Katara, he's not under arrest!"
"THEN WHY IS HE IN JAIL?" Aang placed himself directly in his fiancée's path, palms up and a placating smile on his face. Zuko had to admire his courage; facing down Bridezilla!Katara in a temper was something that even his most experienced warriors were hesitant to do. He wished he could speak in all capital letters like that. It might make meetings with his more recalcitrant ministers go by much faster.
"Temporary holding," the Firelord responded, from a safe distance across the room. "And may I stress the temporary? Sokka knows what is going on and he's agreed to cooperate."
The Avatar nodded, his eyes huge and pleading like a puppy seeking approval. If he had a tail it would have been wagging. "It's one of the nicer jails we've been to. They've fed him and he's got a bed and everything!"
Katara stared, stunned into silence. Zuko raised a hand to his temples and sighed. "It's temporary," he repeated. "At least until the search of his ships is finished. I promise, nothing bad is going to happen to him, and he'll be here in time for breakfast tomorrow."
"Why do you need to search his fleet?" the waterbender asked, her threat levels lowering slightly, in response to his reasonable tone.
"There have been rumors—"
"What rumors? Smuggling? Sokka is an idiot, but he isn't that much of an idiot."
Despite the circumstances, Zuko laughed. "Well, at least you think he's innocent."
"Innocent of what, exactly?" she asked, hands on her hips, a disapproving frown on her pretty face. A pose he had seen a thousand times, it felt like. Zuko blinked, suddenly lightheaded and so, so tired. Was this déjà vu?
"Taking part in a conspiracy to assassinate the firelord," he said.
"I had a rather interesting meeting earlier, with a man named Lord Shuzon. A courtier, and a rather insignificant one at that. At least until this morning, when he brought forth evidence implicating several very important people in a plot against me. Sworn testimonies from witnesses, letters, and receipts, that sort of thing. He must have known how much I love paper work." He tried to smile at his own joke, but instead of turning up at the corners, his mouth twisted into a grimace.
"Oh, Zuko." Katara found a chair and sat, while Aang stood at attention behind her, one hand resting on her shoulder. "What's going on?"
Zuko took the seat across from her. "According to Lord Shuzon—and his supporters, whoever they are—my uncle was behind the most recent attempt on my life."
"The attack at our welcoming party?"
He nodded. "Yes. I'll admit, the chain of events is a touch . . . suggestive. First, you all arrive unannounced. Then a celebration is hastily arranged, and security protocols are not followed because it's the Avatar."
"Sorry," Aang muttered.
Zuko waved away the apology. "Usually our team would spend weeks vetting the guest list and cordoning off parts of the palace. We've had slip-ups before, but four fighters bypassed past our defenses. It's unheard of.
"And then my uncle, who has not been in residence for years, steps in to handle the cleanup. Although it's been two months, he has yet to turn up anything relevant. Shuzon said that Uncle should never have been allowed to oversee the investigation, since he has no official rank and is not technically a member of the military or my staff. He also claims that Uncle has buried important evidence. That he'staking advantage of my trust, and going behind my back to contact people in power and . . . make plans."
"That's ridiculous!" Katara exclaimed, clearly outraged. "Iroh would never betray you. You offered him the position of Firelord and he ran away to Ba Sing Se so you would have to take it!" Her head tilted, eyes narrowing as she thought. "But that's not exactly common knowledge, is it? You kept it quiet, so that people wouldn't think that you, that you . . ." her voice trailed off, and she shrugged her shoulders.
"Didn't want to be Firelord?" Zuko suggested dryly, realizing even as he said the words that they were inaccurate. He had been confused and overwhelmed and probably a little bit hysteric when he asked his uncle to take his place at the coronation. He had wanted to be Firelord, but he had also wanted moretime.
"Of course you wanted—still want—to be Firelord. You just had no faith in yourself," Aang said, startling Zuko with his insight. "But we all have faith in you. And so does your uncle, which is why he refused the title."
Aang spoke in the present tense, Zuko noted. The pressure behind his eyes lessened a little bit. "I know. It's the most glaringly obvious hole in Shuzon's story. His theories could almost be convincing, if Uncle and I really had argued and he was so angry with me that he moved to the Earth Kingdom."
"So how does Sokka fit into all of this?" Katara asked. Then she answered her own question. "He's controls a merchant fleet, and he has contacts spread out over all four countries. Does Chewpon, or whatever the hell his name is, think that he's their errand boy?"
"Something like that. Shuzon," he said, stressing the correct pronunciation, "Is convinced that this 'conspiracy' has its roots in the Earth Kingdom. Which makes sense from his point of view, I suppose, since Uncle has been living there for the past four years. And the Dai Li might have been dismantled, but a lot of former members have managed to wiggle their way into positions of power. If they aren't masterminding the entire thing, they are definitely funding it, according to him. He had copies of messages indicating that Sokka would be delivering some sort of payment."
Katara exhaled a long, gusty breath. "I see. But why detain Sokka? We know he's not guilty, but if he is part of some sort of villainous plot, wouldn't that tip off his partners?"
"Two reasons," Aang said, picking up the thread of the story. "First, if we dismissed the accusations and did nothing, Shuzon could come back later with falsified evidence, and we wouldn't be able to disprove it. This way we have it on record that the guards found nothing and your brother is completely innocent of all charges." He squeezed his fiancée's shoulder and leaned down to kiss the top of her head, lingering a moment to breathe in the scent of her hair.
The Firelord coughed and looked away, feeling as if he had just witnessed something very intimate. "And second," he said, talking fast to hide his embarrassment. "Shuzon was strongly in favor of arresting Sokka. I think his plan was to cast suspicion on both Sokka and Iroh. We were supposed to find . . . something, confiscate it, and then once we had it locked away as evidence it would mysteriously disappear, in such a way as to further incriminate my uncle."
"Clever," Katara said. "But risky. So many things could go wrong, and something obviously did. Why didn't you tell me earlier?"
"Err . . . we would have brought you in this morning, but you were in a dress fitting," Aang said, a sheepish smile on his face. "I didn't want to bother you."
She smiled back, the smug expression of a woman who has her future husband well trained.