Shadow of the Dragon King

- An Avatar: The Last Airbender fanfic by Lunatique

Part 1: Dragon Dreams

Chapter 1: A Royal Visit

Thus freedom is not just the matter of saying "Yes" or "No" to a specific decision; it is the power to mold and create ourselves.
- Rollo May, Freedom

On the day that began the ruin of a Prince, his ship swept in upon the waves to the coast of Azhoran Island. Its sails swelled on a spring wind and shoals of vivid fish swirled in the water as though in celebration.

A boy in his early teens, just coming into his growth, leaned over the railing as if anxious to reach the thick vegetation along the coast before the rest of the ship. His face had begun to develop the angles and definitions of the man he would grow to be, but at this moment his exuberance was very much that of a child.

"Look!" His voice cracked, his tight ponytail flying in the wind, as he pointed at grey stone walls rising out of the dark green forest that lined the coast of this easternmost island of the Fire Nation Archipelago. "Is that Lord Zhen's castle?"

"One of his outlying fortifications, your Highness." A man, wearing his early middle age with the same grace as his formal robes, pulled the adolescent back by his shoulders and prevented a royal splash into the sea below. "We will travel inland with Lord Zhen to speak with him and see his subjects."

"You mean, to be seen by them." The boy turned to lean back against the railing, hooking his elbows around the top bars. "I'm a big show wherever I go. I think I'll declare myself a traveling circus so I can charge attendance, Master Lu." He looked up at Lu with an open smile in his face. "You could you draw up the decree for me."

"Prince Zuko, I am fairly certain I did not become a Master of Laws and Decrees to declare the Firelord's son a circus." Master Lu sniffed, fingering his thin mustache. "Or to have my head presented on a platter to His Majesty, for that matter."

Zuko chuckled, his eyes and whole face crinkling in mirth. He then detached himself from the railing to stand before Lu, a little more serious now. "I just wish I could... talk to people." His eyes were downcast. "I want to hear more than 'You honor us with your presence, Prince Zuko,' or 'May your royal father's reign be peaceful and prosperous.' Isn't that why Father sent me to travel the nation, to find out how the people are doing?"

Master Lu opened his mouth as if to say something, then stopped himself. He put a hand on the boy's shoulder, and his voice was gentle when he spoke "You do important work here by letting the people know that their prince is with them, and available to them. It raises morale to see their future Firelord."

"I suppose so." Zuko nodded, his eyes lighting up again, if not wholeheartedly.

"Prince Zuko," came a voice lowered by habit and not necessity. "Master Lu." The young man had come up beside them without a creak on the wooden deck. He bowed to the prince and his teacher, the hair that had been left out of his topknot falling like curtains on either side of a watchful face. "We are ready to dock."

"Thank you, Shun." Master Lu turned to Zuko. "We will disembark soon, your Highness. This way."

"One traveling circus, coming up," muttered Zuko as he followed his Master to the prow of the ship. The gullbatrosses by the shore circled and cried out as if in greeting, the approaching shouts of the crowd drowning them out as the ship sailed into the docks.

"All hail Prince Zuko, first son and heir apparent to the Firelord, Lord of Taga, Haishan, and Kelu, Protector of Meiran and Prince of the Realm!"

Excited cries greeted the announcement as Zuko stepped from the gangplank and onto the pier. The herald bowed low to him, as did the attendants on either side of his path. Hands clasped behind his back, Zuko walked among people who bowed in his path like grass before wind.

At the end of the double line of attendants waited a trim man in his fifties, his thinning hair so neat as to look sculpted. He bowed to Zuko in precise movements.

"Welcome to Azhoran, your Highness."

"Thank you, Lord Zhen." Zuko acknowledged him with a shallower bow. "My royal father bade me give you his regards."

"We are most honored." Zhen rose from his bow to sweep a hand toward the road away from the harbor, where a rhino-drawn curtained carriage awaited. "We can only hope the arrangements will please."

"I am certain they will, thank you." Zuko walked past Zhen to the carriage, his attendants in tow. Once he had Lord Zhen behind him he grimaced and rolled his eyes, earning a shake of the head from Master Lu.

Zuko swung himself up to the carriage, Lord Zhen following behind. Master Lu came up side by side with a slender young man who had unusual reddish hair swept up in a ponytail.

"Prince Zuko, this is my nephew and captain of my guard, Kang." At Zhen's words Kang bowed, palm and fist together in the flame position. Zuko nodded, and Master Lu and Captain Kang both bowed again before climbing into the carriage next to their respective lieges.

At a word from the driver the rhino started off with rolling steps that had the carriage trundling forward. Their guards walked alongside, ahead, and behind while the crowd of merchants, journeymen, farmers, and children cheered on either side of the road. Zuko watched them through the curtains, sometimes waving at the more boisterous calls.

Paying no attention to Lu and Zhen's polite conversation about the people's morale and crop yields, Zuko eyed the road and the people outside, some trying to get closer to the carriage only to be pushed back by guards. The air had a sharp, dry taste as though it would burst into flame with a single spark, and despite the festivity the crowd seemed listless from the heat.

"It's quite dusty," Zuko said without complaint. The small procession kicked up clouds of dust and sand, rendering the view outside fuzzy.

"I do apologize, your Highness." Zhen made a small bow in his seat. "We have had a drought here for some months-"

"-which would explain the crop yields-" said Master Lu,

"-but the situation is fully under control." Lord Zhen looked at the Master of Laws and Decrees. "Please inform your royal father that there will be no problem with this year's tax collection."

Zuko nodded without much interest, his eyes glazing over as though with the veil of dust outside. "I'm sure it'll be fine," he mumbled, something Master Lu seemed less than happy about.

Just then the rhino drawing their carriage bucked and reared, prompting a stifled curse from the driver. The whole carriage rocked before it settled; Master Lu slipped almost off his seat while Captain Kang caught Lord Zhen. Zuko caught himself with a hand against the carriage frame and sat up, alert eyes searching his surroundings.

"What is the disturbance?" Kang started from his seat. Outside, the guards were moving in to ring the carriage, weapons out and looking for any sign of attack.

"Prince Zuko! Son of the Firelord, hear us!" called a man's voice from the path ahead of the carriage. "Do not ignore us in our hour of need!"

An Azhoran guard hurried up to Captain Kang's side. Zuko half-closed his eyes, concentrating on the low voice. "Sir, there's a peasant on the road, blocking the way."

"Seize him, and move on." Kang's red ponytail flew as he turned his head to the guard. "This could be a distraction, and I want him questioned."

At a sign from the guard, there was the sound of a scuffle and the unseen peasant's voice changed to a snarl. "Get those filthy hands-" dirt scraped and flesh struck flesh. "Prince Zuko!" The man's words were strangled with exertion, "Don't let them blind you! I'm begging you!"

Zuko moved before anyone could stop him. He swung out of the carriage, foot on its large wheel, and jumped to the ground to dart under the arm of a guard who was watching the action at the front of the carriage. The prince ran front past the guards and the rhino until he was abreast with the beast's horned head in full view of shocked eyes.

In front of the rhino a big, grey-haired man in a worn tunic and working pants struggled with two guards who held him on either side. His eyes widened, as did everyone else's, at the sight of Zuko. The guards hesitated, and the peasant used the pause to fling his captors off and prostrate himself at Zuko's feet.

"Look at me." Zuko demanded, his hand hovering near the knife tucked into his silk sash. He raised a hand to stop the guards who would seize the man again. "Who are you, and why do you intrude on us?"

"My name is Sanwai, Highness." The man raised his head a fraction. "A farmer from the village of Tamalan. I'm sorry, but I saw no other way."

"Prince Zuko." Shun came like a shadow to Zuko's side. "You are too exposed here." He stood between Zuko and the crowd, dark eyes darting left and right as guards formed a defensive perimeter around them.

"Take him away." Captain Kang strode forward through the guards, amber eyes flashing. "The insolent peasant will learn a lesson he'll not soon forget." He flanked Zuko's other side, shielding him. "My Prince, please return to the carriage. This may be a plot to harm you."

"Come to the village and see for yourself!" Sanwai shouted as he was seized and dragged away. "You're our only hope, Prince Zuko!"

Zuko watched him for a few moments as the crowd murmured among themselves. He nodded when Kang called to him again, his thoughts elsewhere. "All right." He turned back, Shun following a few paces behind.

Before he boarded the carriage again, Zuko looked back at the dusty road and the troubled faces he saw there. He stepped up with a small frown, with Kang choosing to ride a rhino alongside the carriage to keep an eye on the situation. The procession started off toward Lord Zhen's castle again as everyone tried to rekindle the festive spirit. It never quite took, like flames put to a wet log.

Princess Azula's sitting room was quiet. The evening dark flowed over the stone floors and into corners and shadows behind expensive ceramics and painted hangings. The flames in sconces along the papered walls and two candles before the Princess's desk were the only steady points of light.

The Princess herself sat upright behind the desk, reading. Two locks of hair that had been allowed to escape the topknot on her head framed a face just on the cusp of adolescence. Yet the hard intelligence in her eyes seemed to belong to a much older woman, as did the darkly amused set of her mouth.

"It has been a month since Prince Zuko's departure." The voice came from the left of Azula, where, in the shadow, sat a woman who had long sunk into old age as she had into her silken cushions. The ornaments hanging from her done-up hair cast shadows on the wall behind her, alternately horned creature and festooned pagoda.

"A month," agreed an identical woman in the corner to Azula's right. "The people see him, and know him as the Firelord's firstborn and heir apparent."

Azula's eyes never wavered from her book; the candlelight did not waver in golden eyes. She turned a page, the rasp of paper on paper loud in the quiet.

"Yet the Princess is content to stay in the Fire Palace, unseen and silent." The crone on the left sighed.

"None know her, except a name and a title," her twin replied.

"Surely she can do more," they said together, "and must."

" 'He who exposes himself to adulation exposes himself to peril,' " Azula read, or perhaps recited from prodigious memory, without lifting her eyes. She turned the last page and closed the book, then stood in one motion. "What my brother does is his business. I trust Generals Shu and Chin are coming to see me tomorrow, as arranged?"

"Yes, Princess." The crones chorused, and bowed in unison from where they sat.

"Good." Azula stepped out from behind her desk and stretched like a cat. "I am going to my bath."

"Then to dine with your royal father?"

"And my royal uncle." She grimaced, then waved jauntily to her aged attendants. "Good night, Li, Lo." Azula left the room, her steps light on the carpeted floor. Left on their own, the crones Li and Lo lowered their voices in conversation.

"What can she be thinking?"

"I know not, sister. Her thoughts are her own."

"She stays at the Firelord's side while her brother is far away-"

"-and unable to speak to their father. She makes connections-"

"-and alliances. I begin to see the shape of the thing."

"We will know more," they said together, "in the fullness of time."

The darkness deepened as they rose as one and went from the room. Outside the night poured like water into the bowl of the crater where the Fire Palace sat. The lights twinkled in the night, awaiting the dawn and the renewal of fire over the world.

Next: An old salt has no patience for dreams and legends.