Drinking Tea and Waiting
By Kimberly T.
The Jasmine Dragon had ended its business day over an hour ago. The front doors were closed, but not locked. Iroh sat sipping a cup of tea in the kitchen, knowing that the back door leading from the kitchen to the service alley was not locked either. Both doors were unlocked at all times, day and night; he preferred to avoid property damage when possible.
This was his nightly ritual, in the past six months since he had reopened the Jasmine Dragon. After closing the tea shop he would sit in the kitchen for a few hours, experimenting with new tea blends and reading or writing letters, and waiting.
Most of the letters were to and from the Fire Nation. Iroh had promised his nephew that he would always be willing to give advice when asked, but he suggested his nephew restrict his explanations of problems and requests to no more than one messenger hawk a day. Which meant, of course, that he found a messenger hawk waiting for him out on the terrace Every. Single. Day. It was so ironic; where had all this eagerness to hear his advice been for the three years they'd been in exile together? But he never said that aloud; they both knew the answer, and there was no use bringing up old personal wounds. Most of the messages were about dealing with the wounds inflicted upon entire nations by a century of war.
All things considered, given that he was a hot-headed teenager who had been banished for three years before being virtually shoved into the position of Fire Lord, his nephew was probably doing very well indeed to keep the messages to one per day. Iroh had a strong hunch that Lady Mai, she of the deadpan expression and the terrifying skill with blades, was taking on Fire Lady responsibilities even before they were married and thus taking some of the burden off Zuko's shoulders.
Still, even with Mai's help and with messenger hawks flying back and forth on a daily basis, his nephew was clearly struggling to keep the country together and steered on a course away from war. Iroh dearly wished he could be there at his nephew's side, to help more directly. He was still remembered and respected in the Fire Nation; the council members who were balking at the new Fire Lord's commands would be less apt to do so if he was there quietly backing his nephew up.
But instead, he was here in Ba Sing Se. Drinking tea, and waiting…
Waiting for the assassins. Waiting for someone to come for him, and take revenge.
He had decided months ago, when he first began to let himself think about a life past the end of the war, that this was the way it had to be. Once upon a time, he had been the Dragon of the West. And as the Fire Nation's most brilliant tactician and general, his hands were so stained with the blood of Earth Kingdom soldiers that they would never wash clean. Liberating Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation in the span of a single day, might have made up for the 600 days he'd once spent besieging it. But it certainly did not make up for the other three great cities of the Earth Kingdom, and countless smaller towns and villages, that he had conquered in his forty years of fighting before the Siege of Ba Sing Se.
He'd fought with honor whenever possible, yes, but he'd also been effective, and one side's effectiveness was the other side's brutality. In the war of conquest he had been responsible for the deaths of thousands; of even tens of thousands. And each of those slain soldiers had been someone's son, someone's brother, someone's father… He knew this as certain as he knew the sun rose every morning: at least a few of those who had lost loved ones would come seeking revenge, a thirst for vengeance that could only be satisfied by his lifeblood spilling onto the floor.
That was the reason why he hadn't taken the Fire Throne when his brother had been defeated, even though Zuko was woefully inexperienced at ruling. The Fire Nation could benefit from being ruled by an old general with plenty of experience, but whether they knew it or not, they needed Zuko on the Fire Throne; a young man that the rest of the world knew was the Avatar's teacher and innocent of war crimes.
That was the main reason why he was here in Ba Sing Se, as far as one could get from the Fire Nation without moving clear to the Northern Water Tribe, which was frankly too cursed cold to even consider. The reason why he'd sent leaflets advertising the Jasmine Dragon to all the major cities in the Earth Kingdom; it wasn't to drum up more business for an already thriving tea shop. If people wanted revenge, here was a highly visible and apparently vulnerable target for them to focus on, far from the shores of the Fire Nation itself.
The colonies were still highly vulnerable targets, and his heart ached whenever he read or heard about Fire Nation citizens dying there in clashes with Earth Kingdom citizens. But the Avatar was spending most of his time in the colonies, doing all he could to quell the fighting and persuade people to get along.
If Zuko ever found out the real reason Iroh had decided to stay in Ba Sing Se after the war, and everything that had happened in the last six months, he had no doubt that there'd be a platoon of Fire Nation troops deployed around his shop before the week was out. Or Earth Kingdom troops, if Zuko decided to be more diplomatic and ask Kuei to keep an eye on him; Kuei would no doubt do it in a heartbeat. In the months since he'd been found living as a commoner and not-quite-forced to return to the throne, Kuei had often summoned Iroh, who was obviously not politically ambitious, to seek his experience and advice on matters of politics and court intrigue. More irony, that Kuei trusted the former Dragon of the West more than most of his Earth Kingdom advisors, but the spirits have always feasted on irony.
There were no protective troops from either nation around his tea shop because in his letters to his nephew and his visits to the Earth King's court, Iroh only told tales of customers' foibles and passed along news he'd heard of the Avatar and his companions. He made no mention of assassination attempts, and if anyone finally proved to be successful… The assistant who opened up the shop each morning had long since been instructed to quietly remove and burn anything found on his corpse or in the tea shop proclaiming that vengeance had been served. With luck, people everywhere—including his nephew—would assume it was simply a robbery gone tragically wrong. Zuko would be grieving and angry, yes, but he would not declare a robbery gone wrong as an act of war and retaliate against the Earth Kingdom for his loss. Iroh intended to do what he could to make sure the cycle of vengeance stopped with him.
There was a slow creak, as the kitchen door eased open. Without visibly moving a muscle, Iroh glanced at the discreetly placed mirror that gave him a view of the kitchen door.
Black clothing, check. Mask covering all but his eyes, check. Visible weapons: daggers in sheaths on both thighs, dart-launchers on both wrists.
Too many weapons for an amateur looking for vengeance; this was a professional assassin. Right, then.
Fling up the tea tray to take the first burst of darts; follow up with the kitchen table (he'd have to replace the metal table soon; it was getting dented from repeated use this way), then a leg sweep to bring him down, followed by a few well-placed blows. Typical; this man had trained on how to kill silently but not on how defend himself when he was down.
Thirty seconds after entering the shop the assassin was out cold, and the only damage done was another couple of dents on the table and a ruined tea tray. Well, he'd saved money by buying the trays in bulk; he still had a few spares in the stockroom.
A few minutes later he had the assassin unmasked, hog-monkey-tied and set outside on the front porch. As fortune would have it, he saw a member of the city watch two blocks down the street, coming by on his rounds; he didn't have to make a special trip down to the local guard station this time.
He sent up a tiny fireball for an alert flare, and soon the watchman came jogging up, identified as Jianguo when he got close enough. Jianguo saw the tied-up assassin at Iroh's feet and his eyebrows shot up. "Another one?"
"Another one," Iroh agreed. "I'm fairly sure this one is on wanted posters; would you mind taking him off my hands?"
Jianguo nodded, but frowned. "You take too many chances in that tea shop, old dragon. One of these days they'll get lucky, and you'll get dead."
Iroh shrugged. "If the one who kills me has the courage to come do it himself, instead of hiring assassins, then my ghost will leave in peace for having died in honorable combat from vendetta. But I refuse to be killed by assassins working for money."
Jianguo shook his head. "Crazy Fire Nation ideas of honor."
"But it has served you well, hasn't it? Seven wanted posters have been taken down, because the men have been captured after trying to kill me." Iroh smiled benevolently. "Consider it my civic duty."
"I consider you crazy as a badger-toad," Jianguo snapped. "And if the captain wasn't getting all the glory for these killers being captured from 'anonymous tips' before they could strike again, we'd have your tea shop either barricaded or just shut down for public safety!"
Iroh only grinned wider. "Why, my dear sergeant; I could almost believe you care!"
He was surprised when Jianguo looked away while grumbling, "Well, you kind of grow on people. Like a fungus."
Jianguo was, or had been, one of the most vocal anti-Fire Nation watchmen at the local station; his father had been one of the many, many soldiers killed on the Wall. The first time Iroh had brought an assassin in for them, trundling him down to the precinct in a wheelbarrow, Jianguo had growled that it was a pity that the assassin hadn't been just a little bit better at his job. Not that the watchman had ever let his hatred for the Fire Nation affect the professional way he carried out his duties; he guarded the citizens of this section of Ba Sing Se from harm no matter how he personally felt about them.
After a few offerings of free tea and cookies had been coldly turned down, Iroh had sighed and resigned himself to a more-or-less polite détente. But perhaps, like with his dear nephew, this watchman's attitude was in the process of slowly improving.
"It will take me a few minutes to get the wheelbarrow out of the shed," he said with a smile, gesturing inside the shop. "Would you care to come in and have some tea while you wait?"