Facing Up to It
Ruling a country is far harder than apologizing to people you've wronged. But somebody's got to do it…
an Avatar: the Last Airbender post-series fic
By Kimberly T.
Standard disclaimer: I own none of the characters used, and I'm not making a dime off this, so please don't sue.
"Aagk! Come on, you stupid beast… You're eight times its size; why are you freaking out? I swear, this one's egg must have been scrambled before it was hatched!" Fire Lord Zuko snarled as he fought once more to keep the first ostrich-horse he was leading from bolting off the road, at the mere sight of a stray pygmy-puma sitting and grooming itself a few paces ahead. The second ostrich-horse, tied by its lead to the saddle of the first, started backing up just to avoid getting kicked by the first
Behind Zuko, Iroh chuckled as he held the lead for another pair of ostrich-horses. "Calm yourself, nephew, and the ostrich-horse will be calm as well. Though I will admit that first ostrich-horse was much more level-headed and reliable than any of this lot. But perhaps that was because it was an older beast and these four are all yearlings, newly trained for the saddle."
"I hope you're right," Zuko said grimly as he finally succeeded in getting the ostrich-horse to behave and start walking forward again. "They'd better settle down soon; these are supposed to be compensation for Song and her mother, not just more trouble for them to deal with."
They kept walking as the late afternoon sun shone down on them, warming the crisp autumn air to a pleasant temperature again. It would have been a fine day for enjoying a walk, if not for the ostrich-horses they were leading. Not ten minutes after encountering the pygmy-puma they ran into a spider-snake, sunning itself on a rock next to the road. At least this time Zuko saw the other animal first, and had a split-second to brace himself before the lead ostrich-horse saw the spider-snake and started squawking and bolting again. But this time the second ostrich-horse got so annoyed with the first one's antics that it reached out its beak and nipped the first one's tail. Outraged, the first one turned around and shrieked challenge; Zuko lost the lead and had to scramble out of the way to avoid getting trampled as the two beasts started fighting.
"Koo Fong! Huonh! Calm yourselves, gentlemen," Iroh ordered as he moved in with quick steps and quicker strikes; in seconds he had both beasts by the halters, yanked their heads down to his level and was giving them both such stern looks that the two ostrich-horses wilted and made little cheeping noises of submission.
"You named them after two of the Earth Kingdom ministers back in Ba Sing Se?" Zuko said incredulously as he scrambled back to his feet, dusting off his clothes. Not the official and ornate robes he'd worn in Ba Sing Se, for the first meeting to negotiate troop withdrawals and the start of reparations for all the damage done to the Earth Kingdom in the last century of war; now he wore a simple tunic and trousers, though the official robes were packed in a saddlebag. Wearing them on the road would only attract more attention, and he didn't want any more audience than necessary for this particular, very personal reparation.
"Why not?" Iroh said as he handed the lead back to Zuko. "These two bicker at least as much as those two officials. I think perhaps we should redo the leads, so we have different pairs tied together. And I'll take Koo Fong, the more skittish one."
They untied and retied the leads, Iroh musing aloud as they worked. "To be fair to the human Koo Fong and Huonh, they probably will settle down once King Kuei is found and the monarchy is restored. Once they have a better semblance of order to rely on, then the stalled talks can resume and you can begin making real progress in bringing peace back to the land."
"You're assuming he's still alive to be found," Zuko said grimly as they began walking again. "From what Sokka said, the 52nd Earth King was such a hopelessly naïve man that he didn't even know there was a war on until just before the city fell to Azula! And then the idiot decided to just start roaming the countryside as a commoner, all on his own, when he'd probably never even gotten his sandals dusty before in his life."
"Not entirely on his own, nephew; Sokka did say Kuei had his pet bear Bosco with him when he left."
"Riiiight. A bear that whistled instead of roaring, used a pole to fish, and couldn't even climb a tree because his claws were manicured too short. Assuming that Sokka wasn't sipping cactus juice again when he saw all that, then that's not the sort of animal that makes a good bodyguard."
After a few moments' silence, Zuko continued, "Frankly, it's that bear that makes me even more certain that Kuei's dead. It's been a full month since we ended the war, a full month that nearly everybody in the whole Earth Kingdom has been looking for them, and still no sign of either Kuei or the bear. That animal's too unusual to go unnoticed for this long, if it was still alive."
"Do not give up hope, nephew. You hear a lot of gossip in a tea shop, and I've heard there were confirmed sightings of the bear and his human companion in a trail leading to the west and north from Half Moon Bay."
"And how long ago was the last confirmed sighting?"
"…Four months ago."
"While the war was still going on, and troops were spreading out from Ba Sing Se to deal with the remaining pockets of resistance." Zuko shook his head. "If they weren't killed by our troops, then they were probably killed by bandits, or died from eating a plant they shouldn't have touched," as he shot his uncle a meaningful look. "The kingdom would be better off if their government officials just figured out which distant cousin is actually closest in line for the throne, slapped a crown on his head and started handing him papers to sign, so we can actually start working on restoring balance to the world!"
"And here I thought you were thankful for the talks having stalled temporarily. It gave us the time to return to this village, to personally apologize to young Song and her mother Ping for the poor thanks we gave them for their kindness. …Although I thought you'd said once that you had sent her a letter with enough gold coins to buy another ostrich-horse, just before leaving the capital to join the Avatar?"
"I did, but I never found out whether she actually got the letter and the money." Zuko grimaced wryly as he added, "Besides, as Mai pointed out to me, if you're going to apologize to someone, it means a lot more if you do it personally instead of in a letter."
"Very true, nephew. Mai is wise beyond her years," Iroh said fondly.
"Yeah," Zuko sighed with a smile tugging at his lips, and was lost in reverie for a few moments. Then he shook himself back to the present, and looked at their surroundings. "I think I recognize where we are now; we're getting close."
"Ah, good; these old legs of mine are tired of walking."
Zuko glanced at him apologetically. "You could ride one of them, you know. For that matter, you didn't have to come with me at all; stealing their ostrich-horse was all my idea."
"But I went along with it then, so I'm coming along with you now. Besides, the Fire Lord should have some sort of bodyguard on his travels, and since you insisted on leaving yours behind on the ship, you shall have to make do with this old man for company."
"The old man who re-conquered Ba Sing Se with only four other old men," Zuko added with a grin. "That's why your legs are tired; they're still sore from marching clear from the Outer Ring to the Earth King's palace in one day."
"The stone railways weren't running that day, for some reason," Iroh shrugged. "As for riding, why aren't you riding in comfort, nephew?"
"…It didn't feel right. I didn't buy these for me, but for them. Even if they can't forgive me, I hope they accept the ostrich-horses."
"We shall see, nephew. Very soon now, I believe," Iroh finished as they rounded a bend in the road.
Now that Iroh had the most skittish ostrich-horse firmly in hand, the last stretch of the walk went quickly and easily. They rounded another bend in the road, and there stood the house that they'd visited, over six months ago; the residence of Song and her mother, who ran the local village's clinic. Zuko was silently relieved it was still standing; he'd had a nightmare the night before that he'd arrived to find it burned down to the ground and the women's skeletons lying amidst the ruins, killed by his countrymen before he'd ever had a chance to apologize and try to make right the wrong he'd dealt them.
But even in the midst of his relief, he swallowed hard at the sight of that closed door. He knew he needed to do this, but it was going to be hard to face Song and her mother again. Even if they'd needed that ostrich-horse to stay ahead of Azula's strike force, even if it had saved their lives at least once in escaping the Rough Rhinos, it had been flat-out wrong to steal it. And even worse, to steal it from two people who'd shown him and his uncle nothing but kindness and charity. If only he hadn't still been such a spirits-damned arrogant ass of a spoiled prince that day, still convinced he had the right to whatever he needed just because he was royalty… if only he'd just explained their need of it, Song's mother might have agreed to let him work for the price of the ostrich-horse instead of stealing it…
And 'if onlies' were about as useful as shoes on a fish. He'd stolen from a lot of people while they were refugees but he'd done the greatest wrong to these two women, and they were the only ones he knew by name; the only ones he could even hope to make personal reparations to. Time to face the dragon; to face up to what he'd done and beg forgiveness, and let them decide whether or not they would grant it. He squared his shoulders, handed the ostrich-horse leads to his uncle and went up to the porch. He knocked twice on the door, then dropped down into a full kowtow, touching his forehead to the wooden porch; he didn't deserve to look the ladies in the face at first sight.
He heard footsteps behind the door, and the sound of it opening… and heard from above his head a voice gasping "No!" before the door slammed shut again.
Damn, damn, damn. They were afraid of him! That wasn't what he was expecting, but they must have figured out later that his and Uncle's gold eyes meant they were Fire Nation. Probably reasoning that nobody from the Earth Kingdom would be so horrible as to steal something valuable from a host who'd just shown them such kindness! He sighed as, still in full kowtow, he lifted a hand to knock again. Then his uncle said from where he was standing, "Perhaps we made an error, nephew; that was a young man who answered the door."
Huh? He got back to his feet, rubbing the back of his neck in puzzlement. He was sure this was the right house… Had they moved elsewhere, and sold the house to somebody else? …Or had Song gotten married? She'd seemed a little young for it, but some Earth Kingdom provinces believed in marrying young; Song was certainly pretty and kind enough for any common man with sense to court for a wife. But either way, why had the man slammed the door as soon as he saw them? Two strangers leading ostrich-horses shouldn't look particularly threatening, especially since one of them had been in a full kowtow.
He called out in a voice pitched to carry through the door, "Pardon our intrusion; we mean no harm to anyone in this house! We're looking for two women who live here, or lived here recently. Their names were-"
The door opened as he spoke, and he found himself looking at a familiar face, already scowling at him. "Song," he finished lamely.
"You!" as her eyes widened.
He dropped back down into full kowtow, so fast and hard he saw stars from bumping his head on the wood. When the sharp pain faded and he could speak again, he said rapidly, "Please accept my most humble apology for stealing your ostrich-horse, and accept these ostrich-horses to replace the one that was stolen, there's a week's worth of feed for them in the saddlebags and I'm truly very sorry and-"
"Would you please get up?" Song interrupted, with a trace of amusement in her voice. "I'd rather talk to your face than your hair."
He got partway up, sitting back on his haunches to look up at her in the doorway. "Song, I am truly very sorry for the wrong I did you and your mother. I deserve to be hung as a thief, but I hope that instead you will accept these ostrich-horses as compensation for your stolen steed."
"Just a moment," Song said, and then turned to call over her shoulder, "Lee!"
Zuko gave a start, but she was definitely not addressing him by his false name. "It's all right; these are people we met a few months ago!" Song continued. "Would you call Mother in from the garden to greet our visitors?"
A male voice from somewhere within the house agreed to do so, and Zuko heard the back door open and close. Then Song turned back to Zuko and Iroh with a smile. "Mother will be in soon. I'd offer to let you come inside now, but we'll have an easier time with her later if she accepts your apology out here and invites you inside herself. She was furious when she found out the next day that you'd taken our ostrich-horse; she's probably going to yell at you a little first."
"She can yell at me till sundown, if that's what it takes to make her feel better," Zuko said determinedly. But Song herself was just smiling at him, instead of yelling, so he dared to ask, "Um… did you receive the letter I sent?"
"Yes, and the money… Zuko, yes? You said in the letter that was your true name; is it all right to call you that now? It would get rather confusing if I called you Lee; that's the name my husband goes by."
"Ah, so you've married!" Iroh said with a big grin. "In addition to our apology, please accept our most heartfelt congratulations!" When a tall young man with spectacles and a scraggly beard appeared in the doorway behind Song, looking over her shoulder at them, Iroh asked him, "And you would be Song's husband, Lee? A pleasure to meet you, young man! I hope you know what a lucky man you are, to have married a woman of such grace and beauty, and so kind of heart as well."
"I know very well how lucky I am," the young man said with an adoring smile at Song, who looked over her shoulder to gaze just as adoringly back up at him.
Feeling like an intruder on an intimate moment, Zuko backed up a few paces to take one of the ostrich-horse leads back from Iroh. "Yes, please call me Zuko." He did not add his title, since he hadn't said in the letter that he was a prince, and it was even less appropriate to bring it up now; Fire Lords did not go around apologizing for stealing ostrich-horses. "And congratulations on your marriage, both of you!"
"Thank you," Song said with a sincere smile, and Lee echoed her thanks. "We were married just over a month ago; the money you sent was used to pay for our wedding!" Song's smile grew a bit impish. "It made Mother so happy, to be able to put on a fancy wedding for us; she just might decide to not yell at you at all."
"Then you still need a replacement for your ostrich-horse," Zuko said with satisfaction; he'd been right to bring the new steeds after all. "These are younger than the one we took, but they're still all yours if you'll accept them."
Lee lost his smile, looking uncertain. "Song?"
Song kept her smile on, but it turned wry again. "Zuko, you're far too generous. And while I gladly accept your apology again, we can't accept the ostrich-horses."
"Why not?" he asked, puzzled, but just then they heard a woman shouting in alarm from behind the house, "He's loose!"
"Oh, no! Bos—I mean, Kao!" Lee said as he pushed past Song and ran for the side gate that led to the family's garden and stable. "Kao, go back to the stable!"
But just as he reached the gate, a brown furry behemoth came charging out from the back, bellowing as it busted through the wooden fence like it was made of rice paper.
All four ostrich-horses shrieked and bolted at the sight of the strange animal. Zuko and Iroh did their best to hold on, but when the dust settled Iroh was sitting in the road rubbing his head, Zuko was flat on his back and gasping for breath after having been hit hard in the stomach by a panicked wing, saddlebags and their contents were scattered all over the place, and the four ostrich-horses were far down the road and making tracks for the village.
"I'm really sorry about that," Lee said earnestly from where he was standing with his arms flung around the massive neck of the furry brown creature, which seemed to be grinning evilly at them all. "Kao must have smelled them! He just wanted to play with them; he really wouldn't hurt a sparrowkeet!"
Struggling up to his elbows, Zuko stared at the creature and croaked, "What is that thing?"
"He's a skunk-bear who was born without stripes! …And he used to have a big tail, but it got cut off in an accident when he was a cub, and-"
"He's a bear," Iroh interrupted, staring at he creature. "I've seen his likeness before." And then he began to laugh out loud, while Song gasped and Lee went white as a funeral sheet.
"Uncle?" Zuko was now thoroughly confused.
Iroh finally stopped laughing enough to say with a chuckle, "Mistress Song, you have the most unusual hobby! That of entertaining royalty under assumed names. Please, permit me to make introductions," as he got to his feet.
First he bowed to Song and Lee while gesturing to Zuko, saying grandly, "May I present the first Lee, better known to the world as His Royal Majesty, Fire Lord Zuko; ruler of the Fire Nation."
Then he bowed to Zuko while gesturing to Lee. "And may I present the second Lee, better known to the world as His Royal Majesty King Kuei; the 52nd Earth King and ruler of the Earth Kingdom."
Song's mother, Ping, poured herself a cup of sake and then tossed it back like it was water instead of strong rice wine. Zuko completely understood the reaction; he was tempted to ask for a belt or two himself. After a swallow and shudder, she said slowly, "Let me be sure I understand all this…"
She rounded on her son-in-law and pointed at him. "You're the Earth King."
"I was," Kuei said quietly, looking at his feet.
"So you're not actually a refugee herbalist. You came to our village, then into my home and married my daughter, and you've been lying to us the entire time?"
"I only lied about my name," Kuei said firmly, lifting his chin up. "I do know a lot about herbs and their uses; I had dozens of scrolls on them in my library, back in the palace." He looked at his feet again as he admitted, "I'd just never had the opportunity to use that knowledge before; that's why I…was unwell, when they brought Hong the miller in with those crushed fingers."
"And that beast of yours isn't a poor malformed and mutilated skunk-bear; he's The Bear. The missing Earth King's ever-so-rare and precious pet."
Kuei squirmed. "Um, you're right, I lied about that too. But if I told people the truth about Bosco, someone would have figured out who I am, even without any pictures to go by."
"How did you know what he was, Uncle?" Zuko asked Iroh in a low voice. "The bear's not pictured on this country's money, any more than Kuei himself is."
"There's a royal portrait of the bear in the palace's east wing," Iroh murmured back. "I saw it after we liberated the city."
Ping heard them and rounded on them with a glare. "And you two… you're the Fire Lord, and the Dragon of the West! Foreign Royalty stole our ostrich-horse?"
"I wasn't the Fire Lord at the time," Zuko said defensively. He'd already kowtowed three times that afternoon, the third time just for Song's mother before coming inside, and he wasn't about to do it again; his forehead hurt! "Just a banished prince who'd been marked for death by my own father, the former Fire Lord; we were on the run for our lives, and needed a speedy mount to stay ahead of the troops! And besides the money I sent earlier, we did bring four ostrich horses to replace the one we took from you; it's too bad you never got to see them," as he glared at Bosco, lying sprawled in front of the hearth fire. Bosco utterly failed to look repentant.
"With luck, someone in the village will find and hold them until we can identify them by the beak markings," Iroh said soothingly. "And if they can't stay in your stables due to Bosco's presence, then they can be sold and the money used to buy a more steadfast and sturdy mount. Might I suggest a komodo-rhino?"
Ping blinked at Iroh, then shook her head and turned back to Kuei. "You're the Earth King. The Earth King! And you married my daughter without telling us the truth?"
"Because he didn't want to be the Earth King, Mother," Song said, stepping forward to rest a comforting hand on her husband's shoulder.
Zuko thought that was pretty obvious, given that the war had been declared over nearly a month ago but the Earth King still hadn't returned to Ba Sing Se to reclaim his throne. No wonder Kuei had panicked and slammed the door at first sight of them; he must have mistaken Zuko's kowtow of apology for a royal servant's greeting to his king, and thought his courtiers had tracked him down to drag him back to the palace. But Ping just stared at Kuei as if she absolutely couldn't believe that was even possible… no, not at Kuei, she was staring at Song right next to him. After five long seconds of staring, she breathed, "You knew?"
"He told me when he proposed. He didn't want to start our life together with a lie between us."
"You KNEW?" Zuko winced as his hands flew to his ears, and Ping ranted on, "You knew, and you didn't tell me either? Bad enough you knew that these two stole our ostrich-horse," as she gestured blindly in Zuko's direction, "that you even saw it happen and did nothing to stop them; you didn't tell me your husband is the Earth King!"
Zuko gaped at Song as he interrupted, "Wait—you saw us? You saw us, and you didn't even try to stop us? Why?"
"Don't interrupt!" Ping barked. "Song, why didn't you tell me? A woman should know these things about her son-in-law!"
"She didn't tell you because I asked her to tell no one," Kuei said abruptly, putting his not-quite-scrawny body between Song and her ranting mother. "Because I'm not going back there, ever! Let them find someone else to be the next Earth King; this is where I belong! At least here I can be useful, helping you and Song in the clinic with my knowledge of herbs and remedies; I never belonged in the palace!"
After glancing at his uncle, Zuko decided it was time to set his torch out. "Never belonged in the palace?" he asked, doing his best to keep his voice just mildly interested. "How do you figure?"
For an answer, Kuei launched into a long, long rant about having been orphaned when he was four years old and basically raised by his most trusted advisor, Long Feng; how Long Feng had kept him in the dark about nearly everything worth knowing about his kingdom's true state of affairs, so much that he hadn't even known there was a war going on! About how he'd had no friends growing up except for Bosco; no one who cared enough to tell him the truth about anything. About how horribly betrayed he'd felt, when the Avatar had exposed Long Feng's treachery. And about how, after Long Feng had been thrown into prison, he'd attempted to do all the duties Long Feng had been doing for decades… and been immediately swamped. So utterly out of his depth in all the paperwork and meetings and everything else, knowing he was so useless and helpless and basically worthless as a ruler that it had almost been a relief to be captured by Azula and thrown in prison, even before he'd been broken out by Toph to escape with Bosco.
When Kuei finally finished, Zuko spoke again. "I know exactly what you mean. We've actually got a lot in common, you and I—and not just using the same false name, which is pretty funny even if it is the most common name around."
"It does explain why Mother Ping gave me such a scowl when I first introduced myself," Kuei said with a small smile.
"No doubt. Anyway, we were both born to royalty and lives of luxury and privilege, both abruptly lost those royal privileges—if under very, very different circumstances," Zuko said, briefly pointing to his scar, "and both discovered that we were personally a lot better off without them. A few of the happiest days of my life weren't spent in a palace; they were spent working in the first Jasmine Dragon teashop, alongside my uncle. And even more happy days were spent camping with the Avatar and his friends, once they accepted me as Aang's firebending teacher. I slept on the ground, had to go days without a bath, even went hungry a couple of times, but I was actually pretty happy. If not for the pressure of defeating Fire Lord Ozai before he destroyed most of the world and conquered the rest, I would have been pretty happy to stay camping with them for the rest of my days. Well, after finding Uncle and coming up with a way to bust my girlfriend out of prison; they and the Avatar's friends were the only ones who ever cared about me—me, Zuko, not the Fire Nation prince."
As he spoke, he dug into the saddlebag he'd brought into the house, until he fished out the Fire Crown. He held it up enough for everyone to see, staring at it as he said contemplatively, "Life as a monarch is hard, when it doesn't just suck ashes. You don't know who to trust; who's there because they honestly care for you, or at least honestly care about their country, and who has a hidden agenda. Everyone either expects you to have all the answers and make everything perfect with the wave of a magic fan or something, or thinks you're a hopeless idiot who's so out of touch with the real world that you can't possibly understand their problems."
"You said it! That's it, exactly," Kuei said with feeling.
"Yup. There're times when I'd like nothing more than to chuck this thing at my council members—and hope it hits the most obnoxious one right in the face, points first—and tell them to find some other poor sap to take the job. But I don't," as he set the crown on his lap, then dug into the saddlebag again until he found his hair tie and the crown's base that went around a topknot. He began to gather and bind his shaggy hair into the topknot, as he continued, "Because somebody's got to do it; got to be the one in charge, to set the course the whole country will steer by. And in the Fire Nation's case, it's got to be someone who's willing and determined enough to steer them away from a century of war.
"Considering how many of the nobles in my country profited from that war, I can't really trust any of them to do the job; it's up to either me, or my uncle here," as he nodded to Iroh. "Uncle could do it, but he insisted it was up to me; it's up to my generation to set right what the previous ones have done."
He finished binding the topknot, then picked up the crown again. Without being asked, his uncle got up to take it from his hands, and stand ceremoniously behind him as he finished, "So as much as I hate it, as much as I'm already sick and tired of wearing ridiculously heavy robes and reading hundreds of reports and dealing with lying courtiers and nobles all jockeying for power, doing everything I can to make things better and knowing I can never get everything right… I get out of bed every morning, and I put on the damn crown," as he felt its weight settling onto his head. "Because somebody's got to do it, and right now I'm it. Like it or not, I'm the Fire Lord," as he looked straight at Kuei. "And like it or not, Kuei, you're the Earth King."
Kuei stared at him, then looked bleakly at the floor. "You're not going to keep our secret, then."
"Not a chance. Not when Ba Sing Se and the rest of the Earth Kingdom is still in an uproar without someone sitting on the throne and clearly in charge, and I can't even get the negotiations over the Fire Nation colonies started without you! So what if you're actually new to what it takes to run a country; your people need you! And you wouldn't be hiding out here, scared of taking the crown back, if you weren't aware of what an awesome responsibility it is and how hard it can be; that puts you wayyyy ahead of the people who want the crown only for the power and privilege, and would happily let the entire country burn so long as they get what they want out of it."
"It's not just fear, curse you!" Kuei burst out. "I don't want the crown back because I know what else comes with it; a spirits-damned arranged marriage to some noblewoman that the council thinks would make a good brood mare for breeding the next king! Royalty aren't allowed to marry peasants, but I love Song! I'm not going to set her and our baby aside for anyone else!"
"Then why don't—wait, what?" as Zuko did a double-take. "You just said… baby?"
All eyes turned to Song, who blushed deep red but admitted, "I, um, think I might be pregnant. I'm not sure yet, but my cycle is late; I told Kuei when he found me throwing up yesterday morning."
Ping threw her hands in the air. "Nobody ever tells me anything!"
"And I'm going to be a father to our son or daughter, not some crown-wearing pompous ass who only sees his offspring when they're paraded in front of him for inspection once a week!" Kuei snarled, glaring at Zuko and Iroh in outright challenge.
"Well, I should hope so!" Iroh said firmly. "And just the fact that you are determined to be a good father, means that you will make far more time for your children than your father apparently did for you."
Zuko said dryly, "Kuei, if I can tell my whole damn country to stop fighting a war that they were winning, then you can tell your nobles that you'll damn well marry who you please, and take some time out for your family every day. If some noble says 'No, you've got to marry this oh-so-blue-blooded daughter of a noble house instead'… just tell 'em to shut up or they'll get fed to Bosco. He looks like he could eat a noble for you every day," as he eyed the bear's considerable bulk. "He could clear out half your court for you in no time!"
"Um, uh… Bosco doesn't actually eat people," Kuei said, paling.
Zuko rolled his eyes. "I was joking. See, Uncle, this is why I don't tell jokes; everyone still thinks I'm serious!"
"It helps if you smile while you're joking, nephew. But Kuei, Zuko is quite right. Right now, when the country misses their Earth King and is desperate to have you back, is the perfect time to demand some changes be made in the ruling traditions as necessary conditions for your return." Iroh stroked his beard in thought. "In fact… this could work out very well indeed. One could possibly make the argument that Ba Sing Se and the Earth Kingdom would not have fallen to the Fire Nation, if the monarchy had been both stronger and more connected to the people who make up the land. And what better way to renew that connection to the people of the land, than to marry one of them?"
"Sounds good," Zuko said agreeably. "And I know it'll sound good to the Avatar; that kid's a hopeless romantic. I bet he could sell the idea to the Earth Sages for you, and once you've got the religious leaders publicly behind you and Song, not to mention all the common folk, your court will have almost no choice but to bow down to it."
Zuko glanced out the window at the setting sun. "I've got to head back to the ship; I told them I'd be back by sunset, and we don't want my people to come looking for me. Uncle, would you mind staying to keep talking to Kuei?" He knew that his uncle would be able to persuade Kuei into taking his throne again, given enough time. The spirits knew Iroh had a golden tongue when it came to getting people to do stuff they didn't really want to do, whether persuading a ship's crew to take orders from a surly teenager, or talking that same surly teenager into putting on a tea server's apron.
He said his goodbyes to the family, and Song stepped into the kitchen for a moment while he was taking off the fire crown and putting it away. She walked him to the door and smiled wryly as she pressed a wrapped package into his hands, explaining, "I figured you haven't eaten yet; this is leftover roast duck from our dinner."
He couldn't decide whether to cringe or laugh out loud, so he just said, "Thank you. If I find the ostrich horses, I'll have them stabled for you in town. Good evening," as he stepped out the door.
Three days later, Zuko sat astride the ostrich-horse Huong, while his uncle rode Koo Fong. Song and her mother rode the other two ostrich-horses, all four of them well behind Kuei as he rode Bosco down the street, heading through the village on his way to Ba Sing Se.
A platoon of Earth Kingdom soldiers marched in front of and alongside the bear; soldiers from the nearest garrison. After Iroh had sent a courier to the garrison, they'd first sent one skeptical sergeant over to find out whether the Dragon of the West had been at the cactus juice; then an entire platoon had quick-marched all the way to the village yesterday afternoon, and spent the evening polishing their armor to be ready.
Behind the four ostrich-horses, a team of earthbenders were stomping, thrusting and grunting in unison as they moved an entire field; the crop of cabbages from Ping's garden that Kuei had been growing as treats for Bosco. "Displaying his renewed connection to the earth," Iroh had explained when Zuko had first gaped at the sight. "It adds a little something to the royal procession, don't you think?"
The village's main road was just barely wide enough for the royal procession; people scrambled to clear the way before falling to their knees in kowtow. One weathered-looking old pushcart merchant rose up from his kowtow after Kuei passed, to openly gape at the crop being transported. Zuko heard him almost shout in awe, "Royal cabbages…!"
When they were close to the harbor, Zuko dismounted and turned the reins of his ostrich-horse over to Iroh; it would be kept in the procession as a spare if another ostrich-horse went lame or Bosco needed a break from carrying Kuei. "This is as far as I can go with you; my ship is waiting for me," Zuko told Kuei. "Good luck and safe journey, your majesty!"
The bear bellowed as if in farewell, and Kuei waved to him and wished him a safe journey too, calling over his shoulder, "We'll meet again in Ba Sing Se!"
He gave a quieter and more heartfelt goodbye to his uncle, who luckily didn't insist on an affectionate hug this time; not that Zuko would have minded it if they'd been alone, but the Fire Lord did not get or give hugs in public. As they parted and the royal procession continued on its way, the Dragon of the West began singing aloud, "It's a long, long way to Ba Sing Se! But the girls in the city, they look so pretty…"
Zuko rolled his eyes as he recognized the tune, then smiled and began singing under his breath as he walked to his ship, "And they kiss so sweet, that you've really got to meet… the girls from Ba Sing Se!"