Chapter 8: Eavesdropped
Yesterday the Fire Nation ship Wani had been battered by a brutal out-of-season storm, but today the storm had passed; the skies were blue and the seas were calm, and in the captain's cabin, a little boy was being shamelessly spoiled. Or at least, that's what Zuko decided was happening, watching with a wry smile as little Teiji squealed and giggled while shaking a meticulously crafted, state-of-the-art accounting abacus like it was his personal toy rattle.
After the storm had died down last night, Zuko had received the engineers and quartermaster's reports on the ship's storm damage, and what they could not repair themselves with supplies on hand. He'd pulled the abacus out of his sea chest to help him refigure the ship's budget and decide what repairs they could afford to get fixed at Pohuai, the closest port with an adequate shipyard, and what would have to be put off until the next quarter.
Teiji had been absolutely entranced by the abacus and the way Zuko had flicked the beads back and forth during his calculations, staying close by the desk and frequently whining while making grabby gestures. But Zuko had stood firm last night, telling his son sternly that the abacus was a tool, not a toy, and kept it out of his reach.
But that was last night; this morning, after wrestling Teiji into his clothes, Zuko found himself letting his son play with the abacus after all. Mostly because he was proud of Teiji for having learned yet another new word, 'abacus'! Well, actually he was calling it 'abakah', but close enough; such efforts deserved a little reward, Zuko told himself as he finished getting dressed and started binding up his phoenix plume, while Teiji batted beads back and forth and spun them on their spindles.
His uncle knocked on the cabin door and entered with his usual tea tray, though a little more slowly and cautiously than he had yesterday. "How are you feeling, Uncle?" Zuko asked with concern, after the fall and head injury Uncle Iroh had suffered yesterday morning.
"Oh, just a bit of a headache left; I'll be fine," Iroh said with a dismissive shrug. He smiled at the sight of Teiji with the abacus, and then looked inquiringly at the papers and slate on Zuko's desk. "How does the budget look?"
"Not as bad as I thought it would be, thanks to that massive catch we netted two days ago. Chu Si said we won't need to buy any fish at all for another two months, and the catch included a few dwarf swordfish, considered rare delicacies, that he can barter for spices and vegetables in port," as Zuko finished binding up his hair and walked over to the table to point out budget items to his uncle. "We'll still need to buy rice and other essentials, but by reducing the food budget for the quarter, we can afford to replace the lost telescope and repair the worst of the damage to the bridge without touching the payroll money."
"That is a great relief," Iroh said sincerely. "Delaying the crew's regular pay should never be done, except as a very last resort." He looked over the repairs lists and the budget again and nodded in approval. "Good decisions on what repairs can wait until next quarter; those are mostly cosmetic concerns… Excellent budgeting, nephew!"
Zuko smiled proudly. "Thank you, uncle! I-" He abruptly cut off and flinched as they both heard a crack evolve into a crash, followed by many little rattling noises.
Iroh looked over Zuko's shoulder and sighed. "Oh, Teiji…"
Without turning around or even opening his eyes, Zuko said resignedly, "He just broke the abacus, didn't he?"
"Quite thoroughly, by bashing it against the sea chest," Iroh reported, sounding wry. "It's surprising how strong toddlers can be at times… Well, we'd best pick all the beads up before he chokes on one of them," as he nudged past Zuko, while Teiji's whimpers began to fill the air.
Zuko finally opened his eyes and turned around to see Teiji sitting there with the broken remains of the abacus in his hands, and his lower lip quivering as he stared tearfully up at his father; he'd done wrong, and he knew it. "You did a bad thing, Teiji," Zuko said sternly as he gently took the remains from Teiji's hands, and then picked him up and set him in the crib. "No more abacuses for you! And you stay in there until we have all the beads picked up."
Teiji wailed and sobbed his distress, but Zuko just hunched his shoulders and ignored him while getting down on hands and knees with his uncle and chasing scattered abacus beads all over the cabin floor. When they were almost done, he leaned in close to his uncle and hesitantly murmured, "Should I punish him further?"
"You could leave him in there while we take tea together, but no more than that," Iroh murmured back. "Excessive punishment at such a tender age will only teach him to fear you, instead of have more respect for others' belongings. I shall buy you a new and better abacus when we reach port, nephew. I seem to recall that Pohuai has excellent craftsmen…"
As they drew near the docks and buildings of Pohuai City, the colony that supported and was protected by Pohuai Stronghold, Zuko found himself actually eager to leave the ship and venture out amongst strangers for the first time in well over two years. He knew he'd be stared at for his shocking ugliness again, just as always, but this time he had a purpose in mind that far outweighed the dread—and this time, his purpose wasn't to hunt the Avatar. The Fire Sages stayed in the Home Islands except for annual tours of the colonies, but Pohuai was old and populous enough to have its own Fire Cleric, and the cleric would be able to begin the process of Teiji's official adoption!
Then his gaze wandered over the water to the towers of Pohuai Stronghold, visible over the trees of the forest surrounding the harbor. He frowned in thought at he pondered how to get inside the stronghold, wearing the all-black clothes and theater mask that he wore for sneaking about, whether to gather information on Avatar sightings or just to get off the ship for a while without anyone knowing. Pohuai Stronghold was the communications hub for this region, so the fort's inner offices could have a wealth of information useful to his mission, but getting to those offices would be no easy task.
He'd managed to infiltrate the fort during his visit to Pohuai last year, but he'd come within a hair's breadth of getting caught. He'd only escaped because the soldier who'd glimpsed him had been clearly tipsy from drinking instead of sober for duty, and hadn't dared report what he'd seen and draw attention to his condition. He couldn't count on getting the same luck this time, because Zuko knew too well that he was just not lucky; he'd have to find a better way in.
But he'd have to find more than a new route into Pohuai Stronghold; he'd have to find a way to sneak out of his room without waking Teiji. His son was now used to sleeping by himself for midday naps, but when nightfall came Teiji insisted that his daddy belonged in bed with him, and cuddled up close even before Zuko put the candles out with his bending. The one time he'd tried to get him to sleep in the crib instead of in their bed, the poor boy had suffered nightmares, just like Zuko did all the time—
All the time, except not all the time anymore. Zuko paused and thought back, counting up the nights… and then his jaw dropped in shock as he realized that he'd had only one nightmare in the past three weeks! Only one in all that time, when he used to get them at least one night in four! And the only time had been that one night he'd tried to get Teiji to sleep in the crib instead!
He looked over his shoulder, staring in the direction of the nursery where Teiji was playing until the ship docked. Roll him in cinders, but this was just the opposite of what he'd heard fatherhood was like! One time when he'd been hiding from Azula up in a tree in the royal estate's orangicot grove, he'd accidentally eavesdropped on two gardeners working nearby, while talking about how one of them was expecting his and his wife's first child any day now. The older gardener, already a father of three, had told the younger, "Get all the sleep that you can now, because once he's born, you'll never get a full night's sleep again." But now that he had Teiji, Zuko was actually getting more sleep than before!
Grinning, Zuko started to head towards his uncle's cabin. Uncle Iroh used to be bothered a lot by his nightmares, especially back when he still wore the bandages; his uncle had come in nearly every time back then, waking him up if he hadn't already screamed himself awake, fussing over him and making him drink calming tea and such. He'd be so happy to know that not only was Zuko good for Teiji, but Zuko himself was benefiting from-
Oh hells no. Zuko skidded to a halt, then turned around with a scowl and went right back to his favored spot on the prow. If he told Uncle Iroh that he was sleeping better now that he had somebody cuddling with him while he slept, then sure as sunset, his uncle would say something like 'I told you we should have brought your old toy cuddle-rhino with us on the trip! All those months and years of nightmares could have been avoided if you'd just listened to your old uncle's wisdom! You said you'd outgrown it, but…'
We interrupt this narrative for an Author's Note, before anyone accuses me of completely butchering Prince Zuko's character by making him a blatant cuddlebug:
Yep, Lil' Zuko had a stuffed toy komodo-rhino, given to him by his uncle when he was a toddler. And he managed to save it from Azula's cruel intentions clear to his early adolescence, by hiding it very well after she started burning all his other toys, and hardly ever peeking in on his old friend's hiding place. But no, bringing his old cuddle-toy with him into exile would not have prevented the nightmares he used to suffer on a frequent basis.
The worst of Zuko's frequent nightmares usually focused on the Agni Kai, and being burned by his father. But sometimes they reflected other moments in his childhood and early adolescence; times when Azula found some new way to hurt him (while their father just looked on with cold disregard), or just times when he was outright declared to be a disappointment and failure in comparison to his sister. Whatever they featured, most of Zuko's nightmares sprang from his desperate desire to please his father, to somehow make Ozai love him, and the subconscious knowledge that nothing he did would ever really be enough.
So why are the nightmares so infrequent now? Well, Zuko doesn't realize it yet, but since finding a baby alone in the woods and agreeing to adopt the child, his priorities have shifted. His greatest desire is no longer to please his distant and unapproachable father, but to protect and care for his son, the baby that shows so much affection for him—and so clearly needs him, too. Iroh was right on the money in his little speech last chapter about why Teiji is so good for his father.
They docked without any trouble despite the damage they'd taken from the storm yesterday, and the port authority even greeted them more cordially then he had last year. It was not stated outright, but Iroh gathered that last year, everyone in Pohuai had figured that Prince Zuko had been sent on a fool's errand… but now that the Avatar had returned, Prince Zuko was no fool but a man with a mission, that had a far better chance of succeeding now than his father and grandfather had ever had.
Immediately after greeting Prince Zuko, the harbormaster passed on the information that there had been no Avatar sightings within the Pohuai territory, even before Zuko could ask about it. "But if he is seen anywhere nearby, we shall immediately send you a message by the swiftest messenger hawk," the official said with a deep bow, as all his associates followed suit. "We most earnestly wish you success in your mission, your highness."
Zuko stood tall as he graciously accepted their well-wishes, while standing a short distance away, Iroh considered that the officials might well be earnest in their desire for the prince to succeed. After the destruction of the Fire Temple on Crescent Island, no doubt most of the Fire Nation was convinced that the Avatar was just as big a threat to their empire as Sozin had always said he would be. But it was also possible that the officials had decided to be more cordial and respectful of Prince Zuko just in case he really did end up being reinstated as the crown prince and heir to the throne. Better for the crown prince to have fond memories of Pohuai's officials than bad memories, particularly if the colonies' taxes were raised again, Iroh thought to himself with more than a little cynicism.
The day's good luck continued, when the harbormaster and shipyard engineers gave them an estimate for repairing the damage that actually cost forty-five less gold pieces than Zuko had estimated. They were also assured that all the parts they needed were in stock, so there would be no long delays in repairs. After seeing to the Wani's repair needs, Zuko, Iroh, Teiji and two honor guards made a small procession through Pohuai City to the local Fire Temple, perched on a hillside facing the rising sun. Unfortunately, when they reached the Fire Cleric's residence at the temple, they were greeted with unpleasant news:
"Out of town?! What do you mean, he's out of town?!" Zuko demanded, scowling at the cleric's assistant bowing before him. "Since when does a Fire Cleric leave his temple and his duties behind?"
The layman swallowed hard in the face of his royal temper and bowed even deeper while explaining, "Cleric Soyu had applied for and been granted leave by the High Fire Sages six months ago, when his sister told him that she was expecting her first child. He went to Yashu Colony to bless his nephew's birth, and give Agni's Blessing to all the other children born there since the traveling Fire Sage's last visit on circuit. I received a hawk-message just this morning saying that all the children were blessed and healthy, and he was on his way back by merchant vessel; he will return in only three days, your highness!"
"I don't have three days!" Zuko growled, his fists smoldering and his face a distorted mask of frustration. "I have to be offshore again before sunrise tomorrow!"
As per the terms of his banishment, Iroh thought sadly, standing nearby with Teiji as the toddler determinedly gnawed on a chewy sweet-stick. Prince Zuko was not allowed to set foot within the Fire Nation's formal borders for any reason, until he captured the Avatar. He was allowed to visit every colony and military outpost, but each for only one day every six months, unless the ship was so badly damaged that it needed extensive repairs that would take more than a day. And even when the ship stayed in port for repairs, Zuko was allowed to go ashore only one day and night of the visit; if he tried to stay any longer, any colonial governor or base commander could order his arrest for violating the terms of his banishment.
Ozai had been thorough in arranging his unwanted son's ruination, Iroh thought bitterly. He had branded Zuko with a disfiguring scar, driven him away from his home and nearly everyone who knew him, spread lies about how he'd gotten the scar, given him a ship that was barely seaworthy and a crew that could charitably be called a ragtag bunch of misfits, and then prevented him from staying anywhere long enough for people to see past the horrifying scar to the lonely and good-hearted boy underneath.
"There is no point in blaming the assistant, nephew," he said as he stepped forward to lay a firm but comforting hand on Zuko's shoulder. "We shall simply try again at the next colony we come to. Yu Dao is north of here, and certainly large enough to support a temple and Fire Cleric. In the meantime, while we're in port let's do some shopping. I'm certain that at least one of the shops here will have a fine set of toy soldiers!"
As they left the Fire Temple behind, Zuko was acutely disappointed that he couldn't start Teiji's official adoption process that day; disappointed, and very worried as well. He still hadn't received any messages from his father concerning his decision to adopt a foreign child as his ward, and every day that passed without receiving a black-ribboned scroll from the palace made the knot in his stomach clench just a little bit tighter.
Uncle Iroh was worried as well, which was why he'd suggested a few days ago that they stop in at the first Fire Temple they could find in the colonies, and get the adoption process started without waiting for further word from the palace. Uncle Iroh was confident that he could talk any Fire Sage into agreeing to the idea, so long as they emphasized that Teiji would officially be Zuko's ward, not his son and certainly not his heir. And once they had the papers in hand, proof of the Fire Sages' support of the adoption, then his father would have one less reason to object to the idea.
But now they'd have to go clear to Yu Dao to get the process started, and Yu Dao was another six days' travel by ship. What if the message from his father arrived sometime between now and then—and what would it say? If the Fire Lord refused to let Zuko keep him as a ward, if he ordered the baby be turned over to an orphanage instead, how could Zuko ensure Teiji's safety from the superstitious people who'd think his eyes made him a witch-child?
Zuko's train of thought was disrupted by his uncle abruptly handing him an armful of squirming toddler. "Here, nephew; you can have him back, now that we need no longer worry about the Fire Cleric hearing Teiji call you 'daddy' and disbelieving your claim of adopting him merely as a ward."
"Dada!" Teiji said cheerfully, as if on cue, popping the sweet-stick out of his mouth long enough to thwack Zuko on the chest with it, leaving a sticky residue behind. Zuko didn't even sigh over the stain anymore; over the last few weeks he'd grown to accept the fact that parenting was a messy business and he'd never stay clean for a full day again.
Not far from where the Fire Temple lay, Pohuai City had a thriving marketplace. The air was filled with scents of all kinds, ranging from the spicy aroma of flaming fire flakes to the salty tang of fish and other seafood straight off the docks. Vendors called out their wares as people bustled to and fro with their purchases in baskets and sacks or, in the case of small livestock, being tugged behind them on lead ropes.
When they reached the marketplace, Uncle Iroh asked a local where the sellers of toys and child-rearing supplies could be found, but then took off in a different direction. "Uncle? Where are we going?" Zuko asked in confusion.
"Well, I am going in search of a lotus tile, to replace the one Teiji teethed on," Iroh said cheerfully over his shoulder. "You surely don't need my help to find a good set of toy soldiers! I'll find you again soon, either in the toy sellers' area or back on the ship."
Zuko gave a wry half-smile of resignation; trust his uncle to think of his pai sho game over nearly everything else. But since Iroh hadn't gestured for either of their two honor guards to accompany him for fetch-and-carry duty, maybe this time he'd come back to the ship with just a pai sho tile, instead of more piles of souvenirs and useless trinkets.
Teru, their honor guard to the fore, looked back at him in silent question. "To the toy sellers," Zuko directed him, loud enough for Tetsuko to hear behind them, and they set off.
Along the way Zuko noticed a few other members of his crew shopping at stalls, the first crewmen on the brief shore leave rotation he'd authorized before setting out for the Fire Temple. He also saw Chu Si at a stall arguing vociferously with one of the merchants, probably bargaining to get the best possible deal on the dwarf swordfish they were trading for other supplies.
It wasn't the first time Zuko had been on solid land at the same time as his crew on shore leave, but this time was different. Usually when he was on the docks they acted like they didn't even see him, unless he gave them a direct order; trying to pretend they didn't know him, probably ashamed to be part of the crew belonging to the disgraced and banished prince. But this time, as soon as they saw him they gave short but respectful bows of greeting, which startled him so much the first time it happened that he almost forgot to respond with the appropriate nod of royal acknowledgment. And a few of them were even not-quite-smiling in his direction again…
It must be because he was holding Teiji, he decided. Everybody loved his son… well, everyone who wasn't a superstitious fool, anyway!
Just then they passed a peasant woman sitting on a bench while holding and trying to comfort a crying toddler, a boy who looked to be at most a year older than Teiji. The child in her lap sobbed and wailed broken-heartedly while clutching an akebeko hippo-cow in his hands, the bobbing head torn from the body. Zuko winced when he saw the damage and was silently grateful to Goro for having warned him ahead of time that such toys simply weren't safe for toddlers to play with, and keeping Teiji's akabeko cow-pig high on a shelf to let the waves do the bobbing for him.
"Sshh, ssshhh, it will be all right, only the thread is broken, I can fix it when we get home," the peasant mother said to her child in a frantic whisper, while her eyes darted everywhere in embarrassment and silent apology to the passersby, most of whom were frowning at her for keeping a crying child out in public view. Didn't she know that such displays were unseemly? Why hadn't she taken the little boy home already?
Then Zuko spotted the worn old crutch, lying atop a sack of vegetables next to the bench. His eyes went immediately from the crutch to the woman's feet… make that, her foot. Only the sandal-shod left foot poked out from beneath her peasant yukata; the other was conspicuously absent.
It wasn't any concern of his, how peasants lived their miserable lives. Royalty never concerned themselves with such things; the peasants were there to serve them, not the other way around.
So why did Zuko find himself heading straight for the nearest stall selling sweet treats, and tossing the surprised vendor there some copper pieces before grabbing a handful of sweet-sticks and other goodies? Probably because the peasant woman reminded him somewhat of Teiji's mother, Zuko decided while heading back to the bench, as a wide-eyed Teru and Tetsuko scrambled to keep up with him. Not that they looked anything alike, but they were both peasant women-and besides, he was a prince; within the limits of his banishment he could do whatever he wanted to do, so who cared why he was doing it!
"Here. This should keep him quiet," he said gruffly while shoving one of the chewy sweet-sticks right in front of the little boy's face. The child stared at it in open-mouthed astonishment for only a second or two before dropping the broken akabeko sections and grabbing for it with a child's innocent greed.
The mother was just as astonished, at an utter stranger giving her child candy without so much as a by-your-leave. "What? Why-" as she turned to look Zuko right in the face… and then her expression got stuck somewhere between shocked and dismayed when she saw the phoenix plume and gold emblem on his uniform collar that marked him as royalty, and the hideous scar that marked him as a disgraced failure; the banished prince.
"Oh, just stay there," Zuko muttered with some embarrassment when she started to get up from the bench, possibly with the intent of kowtowing, though how she was going to do that with a toddler in her arms was a mystery to him. "That's an order!" The woman subsided, still staring at him wide-eyed, and he looked uncomfortably away from her expression to the broken akabeko at their feet. "Teru, see if that can be fixed."
Teru scrambled to pick the broken toy up, and looked the pieces over critically. "The string inside is broken, sir, but someone with small fingers and great skill might be able to replace it without breaking the outer shell. Sir, shall I see if there is a toymaker here at the market with the skills to repair it?"
"Do so," Zuko ordered with a nod, while digging into his belt pouch for a few silver pieces, which he handed over with the additional instructions, "And if you can't find someone to repair it, then buy a replacement as much like it as possible."
"Sir!" as Teru saluted before nearly sprinting on to the toy sellers' area with the akabeko in his hands.
The mother was still staring at him in shock, and Zuko still had no idea what to say to her—he'd never spoken to peasants before, except to give them orders—so he spoke to Teiji in his arms instead. "Now that is the reason why your own akabeko stays high on the shelf, Teiji," he told his son quite seriously. "You are too young to play safely with such a fragile toy." Still gnawing on his own sweet-stick, Teiji gave him a thoughtful look as if he was gravely considering the limitations of his toddler years, though the effect was somewhat spoiled by the drool dripping off his chin.
About ten seconds of increasingly uncomfortable silence followed his pronouncement, before Tetsuko broke it with a wry smile as she gestured towards the peasant woman while asking, "By your leave, sir?"
"Granted," Zuko said with relief that he hoped wasn't too obvious.
"Sergeant Tetsuko, of the Wani," Tetsuko immediately introduced herself to the peasant mother. "I've served in the military these past ten years, and served aboard Prince Zuko's ship for nearly three years now. Were you in service, ma'am?"
"Yes, I was; former Corporal Ling Ma, of the 87th Infantry Division," the peasant mother said with what seemed like as much relief as Zuko was feeling. No doubt she'd had no idea what to say to a banished prince, either.
"87th Infantry," Tetsuko repeated with a thoughtful expression, before pointing to Ling Ma's feet, or foot. "Let me guess; Ba Sing Se?"
Ling Ma nodded as she said, "Boulder I couldn't dodge in time. Happened two weeks before the siege ended, when-" Then she abruptly caught herself and shut up, glancing at Zuko with a stricken expression.
When my cousin died, and my uncle lost all interest in fighting, Zuko silently finished the sentence for her. But instead of saying aloud what she dared not even imply while in his presence, he said solemnly, "This war has cost us all dearly."
…Wow, that sounded like something Uncle Iroh would say, when he wasn't talking about tea. Even Tetsuko was looking a little impressed! Maybe it wasn't so hard to talk to peasants after all…
But after saying something so wise and profound, he had absolutely no idea what to say next to follow it up. He'd better just shut up and look regal again, while Tetsuko did the talking.
In addition to a Fire Temple and a marketplace, Pohuai also had a post office, for packages and for every message that was not so crucial that it needed to be flown to its destination by messenger hawk. Only the nobility had mail delivered right to their doors, but a small crowd of town gossips always flocked around the pier when the postmaster came to pick up the mail from the courier ships, and word always got out when someone had received a letter and needed to go pick it up. The Fire Nation government's mail system was the fastest and most efficient in all the world; a letter could travel from the northernmost colony or troop encampment to the Fire Nation capital, or vice versa, in only twelve days!
A fact crewman Shoda was well aware of, as he paused momentarily outside the post office before turning sharply away from it. He had no scroll to drop off today. Unlike last year when they'd passed through Pohuai, when Shoda had mailed a long and chatty letter to his Uncle Bogai… that was actually full of coded information for the royal spymaster.
For nearly three years, Shoda had been quietly spying on General Iroh and Prince Zuko, as per orders from the palace. The spymaster had promised a hefty bonus to his pay, which always went straight to his parents on Ember Island instead of to the ship so no one there would get suspicious.
Shoda had understood Fire Lord Ozai's concerns, relayed by the spymaster, about General Iroh. Ozai's elder brother had once been the heir to the throne, and undoubtedly resented being passed over in favor of his younger brother in Fire Lord Azulon's will. But like any good citizen and dutiful soldier, Shoda supported Azulon's chosen successor, Fire Lord Ozai. Besides, given the way Iroh had just crumbled after the loss of his son, he probably would not have handled the pressures of running an entire nation all that well. But rather than blithely expect Iroh to accept his fate without even a murmur, it was far more sensible to have someone quietly keep an eye on him, and on Prince Zuko as well, and report any possibly seditious behavior.
The spymaster had also taken care to brief Shoda on how Prince Zuko had gotten his scar, despite the official news that it had been a 'training accident'. A good spy should know the truth before listening for others' lies, the spymaster had said. Ozai had gravely accepted an Agni Kai challenge from his headstrong son Zuko, only for the boy to change his mind when he realized the Agni Kai would really happen, and then shame himself in front of all the nobility by falling on his knees and begging like a child. After such weak and disgraceful behavior in front of all the court, Ozai had but little choice but to burn and banish his son, hoping that a few years of travel and hardship would toughen him up and make him more fit to hold the throne he would eventually inherit.
Once more, Shoda silently cursed the spymaster, and himself for believing him. After all, hadn't the spymaster told him at the initial briefing that the most dangerous lies were the half-truths?
The spymaster had said that, like the foolish headstrong teenager he was, Zuko had marched right into a war room meeting in progress and challenged his father to an Agni Kai in front of all the generals, claiming that he was ready for the throne and could rule better than his father even at such a young age. The spymaster had said nothing about the 41st Division, and General Bujing's plans for them.
But then, when he'd been recruited for the long mission, Shoda hadn't said anything about having a younger cousin in the 41st Division either.
It had been over two-and-a-half years since he'd received that letter from his Uncle Delun, two months into this long mission. The letter that had sorrowfully informed him that his cousin Deming had died when his division had been massacred by earthbenders. Shoda had burned incense for Deming, mourned his passing and eventually just accepted it and moved on. But what he'd learned yesterday, in the story Iroh had told, had brought back all the old grief and rage… but this time, his rage wasn't against the Earth Kingdom.
Deming had been proud to become a soldier. He'd meant every word of his oath to serve the Fire Lord and his military commanders. He'd served with honor… and been used as bait for a trap. To General Bujing, and to Fire Lord Ozai, Deming and all his comrades in arms had only been 'fresh meat'.
To cold ashes with generals like Bujing.
And to ashes with Fire Lord Ozai, too.
Now Shoda was glad that he'd spoken aloud his doubts about little Teiji when the baby had first been brought aboard, and Jee had informed him that his letters home would be inspected as a result. He'd sent no letter to his 'Uncle Bogai' on the next mail ship, for fears that someone might realize by some of the awkward phrasing that the letter contained a secret code. Instead he'd been holding onto and gradually adding to his letter to the spymaster over the last few weeks...
But no more. Last night, after the storm had passed, he'd gone up on deck and thrown that letter over the side. He would never spy for Fire Lord Ozai again. Instead, the next time he received any coded instructions from 'Uncle Bogai', he'd turn that information over to his prince and captain. He'd have to be careful about it, finding a way to alert Prince Zuko without actually admitting he'd been spying for his father all these years; he knew that information wouldn't go over well at all, and had no desire to find out just how bad the reaction and his subsequent burns would be. But from now on, instead of spying on the prince and his uncle, Shoda would be spying for them.
…And it looked like he'd be starting that counter-espionage right now. Just before he turned a corner, Shoda glimpsed Kunio walking quickly towards the post office, alone and with a sealed scroll in his hands. Shoda knew well that Kunio was never allowed to go ashore by himself in port, not after that nasty business in Yashu last year; Jee always directed at least one sergeant or corporal to go ashore with him and make sure he didn't stir up more trouble for the ship. How had he slipped his watchers this time? And more importantly, what was Kunio planning to mail out now that he thought he was unobserved?
In the span of just a few minutes, a small and mostly silent crowd of commoners had gathered in the vicinity of the bench that Zuko and Ling Ma sat on. All of them were ostensibly busy doing something, whether counting the coins in their belt pouches or better securing their bundles of purchases, but anyone could tell that all of them were also eavesdropping, curious to find out why in the world a banished prince would be consorting with a crippled peasant, let alone carrying a little boy in his arms.
Tetsuko had managed to put both Zuko and Ling Ma more-or-less at ease, or at least as much ease as a peasant dared have in the presence of even banished royalty, and they'd learned a little bit more about each other's families. Ling Ma was married to a Yuyan archer named Ichiro, and little Taro was their first child. Tetsuko had informed Ling Ma (and all the eavesdroppers) about how Prince Zuko had found a starving Earth Kingdom baby next to his dead mother in the woods, and decided to take him in and make him his ward to show the Earth Kingdom how beneficent the Fire Nation could be, if the stubborn fools only accepted Fire Nation rule instead of constantly fighting it.
After hearing the tale, Ling Ma praised Prince Zuko for both his mercy and his wisdom, but it sounded too much like the drivel the fawning courtiers back home spouted all the time for Zuko to give any weight to her words. Still, it was… nice to hear other people saying stuff like that about him, whether they really meant it or not. And it was also nice to see all the silent but blatant eavesdroppers nodding their approval of the idea, meaningless though it was (only the Fire Lord's approval really mattered.)
But so far Tetsuko hadn't said anything about Teiji's eyes, or the superstition about mismatched eyes being a sign of witch-blood. And while he was keeping Teiji occupied with the sweet-stick and tummy-tickles and firmly facing away from the curious onlookers, Zuko knew that sooner or later someone would look the baby square in the face instead of from the side, and the squirrel-cat would be out of the bag. What was taking Teru so long to return with the mended akabeko, or its replacement?
Just then Tetsuko picked up Ling Ma's crutch and looked it over with a mild frown. "I don't know much doctoring, but I do know wood, and this looks like it's about to break; see this stress fracture starting right here? After you get your prosthetic fixed, you should get this crutch repaired too. One thing I've learned over the last few years is to always have your backups in good repair too."
Zuko started to flush with embarrassed anger, at the reminder of how many times the Wani's primary systems had failed and they'd had to resort to the backups. How dare Tetsuko bring up their ship's shortcomings in front of strangers?! But before he could say anything, Ling Ma gave a bitter smile as she echoed, "Prosthetic? Don't I wish. But I don't even have a wooden leg properly fitted to the stump; the local carver charges more than we can afford. Homemade crutches like this one are all I've had for the last six years."
That halted Zuko's sharp response to Tetsuko before the words passed his lips. No prosthetic? But the Fire Nation had made great advances in prosthetic limbs over the last few decades; no amputee should have to hobble about on wooden sticks any longer. Zuko had seen at least one example with his own eyes; whenever his father had called for a war council meeting, Admiral Maza came striding into the palace with his left leg and foot made of steel, and often making better speed than some of the other officers! And he had heard rumors of a bounty hunter, the very best in the business, that had his right arm and right leg replaced by prostheses but was slowed down by neither.
"Report to Pohuai Stronghold with your discharge papers as proof of service," he addressed Ling Ma directly. "The surgeon there will be able to provide their quartermaster and armorer with the specifications for a prosthetic replacement that will fit you properly."
Ling Ma gave him a look that somehow combined irritation, apprehension and pity, as if she was trying to decide how to break bad news to him; news that she thought he should have been aware of already. "Prosthetic replacements are only for officers, and those who are rich enough to afford them," she said patiently. "My husband and I do not—"
"You're wrong," Zuko said bluntly. "Prosthetic replacements for lost limbs are available to all war veterans, not just officers! Fire Lord Sozin decreed it so in the 46th year of his reign!" He proceeded to recite from memory, one of the many, many historic decrees that his tutors had rigorously drilled into him during his childhood. There was no arguing that Azula had the better memory for historic battles and strategies, but Zuko remembered this one well, because he'd thought it was one of the kindest things his ancestor had done in his long reign: " 'All military personnel and all military veterans are eligible for free treatment with the latest advances in medicine, up to ten years after their last date of service.' That decree was made one hundred and three years ago, and it has never been revoked—and medical treatment includes providing prosthetic replacements for lost limbs!"
Both Ling Ma and Tetsuko were staring at him wide-eyed, as were many of the eavesdroppers; it was clear that none of them had ever heard of Sozin's 117th National Decree before. Didn't peasants study their national history at all, beyond just reciting the names of the Fire Lords for the last few centuries?
Teru came back five minutes later with the akabeko hippo-cow mended good as new, and with the news that the toymaker who'd mended the figure also had some fine sets of toy soldiers for sale. But by that time, after further conversation with both Ling Ma and Tetsuko, Zuko had reluctantly decided he had more important things to do now than shop for toys for his son. "We're going back to the ship," he ordered while getting to his feet, settling Teiji into his carry-sling while directing Tetsuko to pick up little Taro; the boy may have settled down enough to walk alongside his mother again, but he didn't have time to move at a toddler's pace right now. "Teru, find my uncle and tell him to forget the pai sho tile and hurry back; we're going on an expedition."
"News of the Avatar, sir?" Teru asked distractedly, looking with visible confusion at how Tetsuko was picking up a civilian's child, while he almost automatically helped the mother retrieve her crutch and stand up from the bench.
"No; news of blatant governmental neglect that needs to be dealt with. You, and you," as he pointed firmly to two of the eavesdroppers, who both flinched a little guiltily as they were singled out. "Lend your shoulders and help this woman keep up with us; we need to move fast! Pohuai will close their gates at sundown, and that's only a few hours away…"
Shore leave was precious indeed to the crew of the Wani, but still, a few of them cut short their time ashore or at least checked in with the crew still aboard when they heard the gossip spreading through the docks; that Prince Zuko had first returned to the ship accompanied by a local, a crippled peasant woman—a married woman, no less!—and then lowered the bow less than an hour later, to go back ashore mounted on a komodo-rhino and leading an important-looking procession… that included the crippled peasant. What was going on?
That was the question Tadao asked, when he came back aboard with his most recent purchase tucked under his arm. He was directed down to the nursery, where he found Lieutenant Jee watching over not one but two little boys, happily playing with the wooden farm animals together. "Ashes, is he adopting another one?!" Tadao blurted out in shock.
"Watch your mouth, and no, we're just minding this one until his mother comes back for him this evening. What's that under your arm?" Jee asked, eyeing the bundle curiously.
With a sheepish smile, Tadao pulled out and showed him a soft toy komodo-rhino, explaining simply, "For Teiji. I know, he has lots of toys already, but he doesn't have one of these yet."
Jee gave him a smirk in return as he said, "Finally decided that the witch-child nonsense is all ashes, eh?"
"I guess," Tadao shrugged, though in truth he still had some concerns about that. There had been just one too many coincidences happening in Teiji's vicinity, from the meeting with those pirates who'd had an Avatar encounter to the massive fish catch a few days ago. But last night he'd decided that there was something more important than that:
After what he'd learned yesterday, and after seeing Prince Zuko risk his own life to save Jiro during the storm, Tadao had vowed he would support his prince and liege lord in any way possible… including supporting his adoption of an Earth Kingdom boy. Teiji might possibly be a witch-child, but he was definitely Prince Zuko's son-by-heart.
Mounted on a komodo-rhino moving at a rapid clip down the dirt road to Pohuai Stronghold, Iroh fought to keep a serious and concerned expression on his face instead of a still-slightly-stunned smile. And he glanced surreptitiously to the side from time to time, half-expecting to see the spirit-kirin that he'd once seen hovering over Teiji to appear alongside, pacing the procession. Events were turning so fortuitous for Prince Zuko at last, he was beginning to suspect more spiritual intervention…
At first he'd been more than a little annoyed, when Teru had come running up to disrupt the pai sho game he'd just started with a colonial shopkeeper. He hadn't even had time to set out his chewed-on lotus tile, to begin the ritual of signs and countersigns that would establish both him and his opponent as members of the White Lotus Society, and he really needed to check in with his contacts in Pohuai! The agent he'd surreptitiously met back on the docks in Laosing hadn't had any news for him other than what he already knew, and he needed word on what was happening with Bumi in Omashu.
But his irritation had turned to stunned delight when he'd learned that Zuko wanted his presence as backup while he performed an act of charity here in Pohuai—for a crippled veteran, no less! Zuko seemed to be justifying his actions to himself by claiming he was dealing with governmental neglect, but Iroh had seen the actual concern for Ling Ma's plight in his eyes. Zuko seemed to see her primarily as a mother in need of help, like Teiji's poor dead mother, but Iroh would try hard to ensure that the gossip about today's events would focus on her status as a disabled veteran instead; sheer patriotism would ensure the gossip would spread even further, throughout the colonies to possibly even the Home Islands.
Gossip about such a charitable act could only help his nephew's reputation, showing him to be a noble prince who actually cared about his people; just the sort of man they would want for the next Fire Lord. And to think they owed this opportunity to improve Zuko's standing with the colonists, to an ancestral decree that Fire Lord Sozin had made solely as an incentive to get more people to enlist in the military; to build their forces up as much as possible before he'd declared that trumped-up war on the Air Nomads.
Neither Azulon nor Ozai had dared outright revoke the 117th National Decree, once their efforts to conquer the Earth Kingdom had begun resulting in so many military personnel being grievously wounded or crippled in combat, and honorably discharged still in great need of medical care. To revoke that increasingly costly decree would have been to declare that they cared less about the wellbeing of their soldiers than Sozin had, and that would likely have led to a coup d'état by some opportunistic generals.
So instead of revoking the decree, the Fire Lords done their best to bury it in history. It had been 'accidentally' left out of all the military regulation manuals created in the last eighty years, and schoolchildren were no longer given complete lists of royal decrees to memorize. But royal children were another matter, and Agni bless his idealistic nephew's memory, for remembering one minor lesson that his tutor had probably included only because questions would have been raised about the gap between the 116th and 118th National Decrees!
Iroh was drawn from his musings by the sight of Pohuai Stronghold's massive gates at the end of the road in front of them, and the sound of signal-horns from the watchmen perched atop the giant walls. A tradition for land-based fortresses, the horns simultaneously warned those within the walls that a sizeable party of strangers approached, and challenged them to declare themselves and their intentions. In response, Taozu whipped out the signal-horn they'd grabbed out of storage on the Wani and blew the series of notes that Iroh had quickly drilled him on just before they'd left the ship. A particular sequence that Iroh had once ordered played on a regular basis; the signal that a general who was also royalty was fast approaching.
The massive gates started groaning open the very instant they were close enough for visual confirmation of the horn's announcement, and Colonel Shinu himself met them as they dismounted inside the courtyard. "Greetings, General Iroh! …and Prince Zuko," he added, almost as an afterthought. At Iroh's side, Zuko bristled at the implied insult but said nothing as Shinu continued with a smile for his old acquaintance, "So what has brought the Dragon of the West to my doorstep?"
"We are here on a mission, one that will result in improving the well-being of your local veterans," Iroh informed Shinu with a return smile, before gesturing to his right. "But as my good nephew Prince Zuko is the one who both discovered the need and knows the solution, I will let him give you the details."
Getting help for Ling Ma took hours. Zuko was acutely aware of the sand trickling through the metaphorical hourglass on his time ashore, but he doggedly stuck to his mission, until they finally had Colonel Shinu's understanding and full support.
Colonel Shinu had been politely courteous towards Ling Ma when he'd introduced her; it turned out that the commanding officer had briefly encountered the commoner during the last colony festival, and remembered vaguely that she was married to one of his Yuyan archers. He hadn't been aware then that she was also a veteran, but once he was informed he immediately thanked her for her service to her nation.
Shinu's polite courtesy vanished soon afterwards, when Zuko informed him that he was obligated to see to it that Ling Ma was immediately fitted for a prosthetic replacement, one with the latest advances in mobility. He turned away from her timidly hopeful expression to icily inform Zuko that he was under no obligation to drain his base's budget for medical care, to take care of people who were no longer on active duty; they had a hard enough time keeping the infirmary stocked with the rare and costly medications for treating Fire Fever, for which the Pohuai region was downright notorious for having epidemics on a frequent basis.
And when Zuko insisted that medical treatment for veterans was covered under Sozin's 117th National Decree, Shinu retorted that he'd heard of no such thing! Zuko couldn't decide whether he was actually that ignorant, or that ox-mulishly obstinate (but he managed, just barely, to hold in his temper enough to keep from saying that aloud.) He actually had to send a hawk-message to the Fire Temple back in town, ordering the layman there to send them a copy of the decree from the archives that every Fire Temple kept on hand, to prove to Shinu that the decree existed.
Thankfully it took less than half an hour for the hawk to return with the cleric's response, confirming word-for-word Zuko's memory of the decree. Shinu begrudgingly admitted his obligation, as the highest authority in the region, to see that Ling Ma got proper medical treatment for at least another three-and-a-half years. "But she's not the only crippled veteran living in the colony," he grumbled. "When word gets out that she's getting special treatment and why, I'll be honor-bound to give the same to all the others who were discharged in the last ten years. Cursed if I know how we're going to pay for all this…"
Uncle Iroh had been quiet for most of the last hour, except for suggesting they have tea (of course) while waiting for the messenger hawk to return from the Fire Temple. But now he spoke up to say with a sly smile, "And that is why I am here. Prince Zuko is well versed on all our ancestors' decrees, as befits the heir to the throne. But I have had rather more experience than he has, in navigating the seas of finance in our nation's capital. I know exactly which treasury fund the money for these veterans' treatment should be coming from, and how to requisition it for your budget. Would you kindly send for your chief quartermaster? It would be easier to explain this to both of you at once."
Shinu's eyebrows shot right up to his pepper-gray hairline as he sent for his chief quartermaster. And soon Iroh was lecturing both Shinu and the quartermaster, who was writing information down as fast as he could. Listening in, Zuko tried hard to memorize everything his uncle said, in case they had to have this conversation again at the next colony.
By the time Iroh was done and the quartermaster was drafting the formal request for Shinu to sign and send to the capital, the sun was sinking in the west. And Shinu had gone from frowns to wide smiles again, as he sent for not just Ling Ma's husband Ichiro, but the Yuyan archer's lieutenant as well. "I'm going to send a message to Admiral Maza, to find out who crafted his prosthetic leg, and then request the man be sent here on special assignment to show our armorers how it's done," he informed Ling Ma and her husband together. "I expect you'll be running after that toddler of yours before the month is out! Lieutenant Heng, what was the name of that archer we lost two years ago, when that wolf-gator took his hand?"
"Hiroshi, sir," the leader of the Yuyan archers said with a bow and a hopeful expression. "He still lives nearby; shall I send a message to him?"
"You shall indeed; to tell him he's next in line after Ling Ma."
"Thank you, sir! May Agni bless your generosity!" as both Yuyan archers simultaneously bowed deeply to the colonel.
"Your thanks should go to their royal highnesses," Shinu said as he gestured towards them. "Without their knowledge and wisdom, this generosity would not be possible."
"Your thanks should go entirely to Prince Zuko," Uncle Iroh said hurriedly before the commoners could bow again. "It is not just his knowledge of our nation's history, but his passion for the welfare of our people and his determination to see justice done, that have created this happy occasion." And then everyone—including Colonel Shinu—bowed low to Zuko in thanks.
Was it really possible to grow two inches taller on the spot? Because he sure felt like it right then…
After they all straightened up, Colonel Shinu dismissed the Yuyan archers and Ling Ma went with them, to spread the happy news through the archers' barracks. "This is a happy occasion indeed; I've always hated seeing former good soldiers reduced to begging in the streets," Shinu said as he signed the request the quartermaster had just finished writing, then sent the man off to the hawk-tower. "This decree will result in far less of that in the future. Your highnesses, will you be staying for dinner? My cook sets an excellent table, if I do say so myself."
"Thank you for the invitation, and we gladly accept!" Iroh said with a grin before Zuko could say anything. "Allow us to send a message to our ship, to let them know we'll be here a while longer." And then, displaying his uncanny and irritating talent for mind-reading, his uncle turned to him and said, "Yes, it will be long past Teiji's bedtime by the time we return, but most children are delighted to stay up late if given the opportunity! And if Lieutenant Jee puts him to bed before we get back, you can simply show him his new toy soldiers tomorrow morning."
"What toy soldiers?" Zuko said with a resigned sigh, glancing out the window at the sun beginning to sink below the horizon. He knew from experience that the more respectable shops closed their doors at sunset, leaving only the taverns and whorehouses open for business. Even if they left the base right that minute, the toy shops would all be closed by the time they reached the market.
"Toy soldiers—and children?" Shinu echoed, staring at them incredulously. "You have children aboard your ship?!"
"We do indeed," Iroh said as he turned back to Shinu with a firm nod. "It's highly unorthodox and bending regulations to the breaking point, but we have a permanent 'guest' aboard; I think of him as my grandson by adoption. Let me tell you the story…"
As they walked from Colonel Shinu's office to the hawk-tower, Uncle Iroh told the story of how they'd found Teiji and decided to take him aboard their ship, leaving out the part about the kirin-spirit, but including his mismatched eyes and the peasants' accusations that he was a witch-child. Zuko guessed that his uncle knew Colonel Shinu well enough to know that he put no stock in such superstitions.
While not expressing any superstitions about witchcraft, Shinu was clearly skeptical about the wisdom of a sixteen-year-old, unmarried and currently banished prince adopting an Earth Kingdom peasant child as his ward. But he didn't express those doubts, other than one neutral comment about it being rare for someone as young as Zuko to become a father-figure. He also surmised that no doubt Zuko was benefiting from his uncle's presence and experience in child-rearing-and smiled, as did Iroh, when Zuko fervently agreed.
Colonel Shinu also agreed that the adoption would be a highly visible sign of the Fire Nation's beneficence towards the Earth Kingdom, "Once the rock-heads stop fighting and accept our rule. And you were looking for a good set of toy soldiers for him before you came across Ling Ma, eh?" He grinned and made an expansive gesture as he said, "Your Highnesses, as a fellow father and grandfather, permit me the honor of buying and sending to you the finest possible set of toy soldiers for your little boy. A set that will include a squad of Yuyan archers!"
"Wonderful! Thank you very much for your kindness!" Uncle Iroh said with a grin as they reached the hawk-tower, and Zuko gladly echoed his thanks. Inwardly he was a little disappointed at not being able to find and choose the toys himself, but most soldier sets didn't include archers; Shinu was probably planning to get them a custom-made set, one that Zuko just wouldn't have had enough time in port to wait for. It would be worth the wait to have a really high-quality set of toy soldiers for his son!
While they'd been walking across the fortress, Zuko had been discreetly eyeing his surroundings, and by the time they'd reached the hawk-tower he was sure he'd figured out a better way to sneak into the stronghold and the inner offices than he'd used last time. But after sending a message to the Wani telling them of the delay, since Shinu was in such a good mood and treating them as guests, he dared to openly ask, "While we're waiting for dinner, may I review all the reports on recent activities in the region, to see if there are any signs that the Avatar is in the area?"
That got a frown from Colonel Shinu, but a slow nod as well. "It's against regulations to show those reports to personnel outside the appropriate chain of command, except on a 'need to know' basis… but given your mission, the two of you definitely have a need to know. And more experience in finding and tracking that flying menace than anyone in Pohuai has, that's for certain. Let me talk to the cook, and then we can return to my office until dinner is ready."
Shinu let him read every report that had arrived within the last four days, but all Zuko could find worth noting was one report that a strange animal had been sighted yesterday morning, a massive white-furred beast with an arrow-like marking on its forehead, grazing in fields near a small fishing village far to the south of the stronghold.
"The Avatar's sky bison!" Zuko said with excitement in his voice as he checked the time given on the report, and the location against a map of the region that Shinu had on the wall of his office. "This was just a few hours before we ran into that out-of-season storm. And Jee told me last night that right after the lightning struck, we actually had sightings right in the middle of that storm…"
"Crawling Koh's coils!" Shinu swore as he stared at them. "You mean to say the Avatar caused that storm?!"
"I do not believe so, Colonel," Iroh interjected, looking grave. "I was actually on deck for that first brief sighting, while the prince returned below deck with the crewman he'd just rescued from falling to his death. It was only a short glimpse, no more than a minute before the driving rain and massive waves hid him from our view, but from what I could see that sky bison was floundering, barely staying out of the water. Even if he had the ability, I doubt the Avatar would deliberately cause that storm and then endanger his animal companion in it."
Zuko barely paid attention to their exchange as he studied the map. The Avatar sightings fit the pattern he'd already established, that the boy and his companions were traveling steadily northward; probably heading for the Northern Water Tribe for training in waterbending. The sighting in that fishing village confirmed that the Avatar was still following the coast of the mainland, instead of trying to skip from rock to rock in that chain of tiny and largely uninhabited islands far offshore. Probably because there wasn't enough vegetation on some of those islands to keep that massive animal well-fed, he decided.
Assuming that his uncle's impression during their glimpse was right, and the sky bison had been hard-pressed by that storm… By all reports, the Avatar regarded that animal as more a friend than a beast of burden. After exhausting his mount in the storm, it would make sense to find someplace to hole up for a couple of days and let his bison rest and recover before journeying on. And the mountains of this region probably offered many places for even a massive white-furred creature to hide for a while… He just knew it, he could even feel it again; the Avatar was somewhere close by!
But before Zuko could announce his deduction, Colonel Shinu's cook appeared to let them know that dinner was ready, and Uncle Iroh eagerly all but dragged him after them to the dining hall.
Dinner was delicious, but Zuko barely tasted any of it. At first because he was preoccupied with thoughts of tracking down the Avatar, and what could be done to flush him out of those mountains. Capturing him there would be next to impossible, so long as the sky bison was still capable of flying; Zuko had no catapult on a portable platform that could be brought into the mountains for taking him down. But if they could determine just which mountain or valley he was hiding in, then perhaps they could make deliberately loud approaches from many different angles at once, to flush him out in one particular direction; back to the shore where the Wani would be ready and waiting…
Then Zuko was drawn from his silent planning by Colonel Shinu saying curiously, "How has your crew reacted to having a child with mismatched eyes aboard your ship? That's got to have an effect on morale and discipline."
"Indeed it has, but the effect has been mostly positive!" Iroh said proudly. "Zuko, why don't you tell our host about some of the changes that have occurred with the crew since Teiji was brought aboard?"
"Well…" Zuko rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment at being put on the spot so unexpectedly—especially since the first change he'd thought of had been 'the crew doesn't seem to hate me as much as they used to.'
There was absolutely no way he could say that without sounding pathetic, so he didn't. Instead, he talked about the cribs the crew had built, the nursery they'd made out of the auxiliary armory, and even the toys a few crewmen had whittled out of scrap wood in their free time; crewmen who normally turned to gambling or other vices when they were off duty, which had more negative effects on overall morale. He also talked about the 'nursery watch' that most of the crew seemed to think was as much a privilege as a duty; they worked harder and behaved more responsibly at their primary duties, because those who slacked off were considered ineligible for the nursery watch.
"Most of them have even cleaned up their language, not swearing nearly as often as they used to, and without my having to remind them of Teiji's innocent ears," Zuko said just before taking a bite of komodo-chicken—and was mildly surprised to find it was his last bite, looking down at his now empty dish; he'd actually spent most of the meal talking about Teiji and his crew.
"All in all, morale and discipline have definitely improved," Iroh concluded with a cheery wave of his chopsticks before he set them aside, patting his belly. "Ahh, that was truly an excellent dinner; the finest I have had in years! Please pass on our highest compliments to your kitchen staff. But now we really should be going; in addition to our Teiji, Ichiro and Ling Ma's little boy is no doubt wishing his parents were there to tuck him into bed."
Colonel Shinu smiled and said he understood, and he magnanimously gave his Yuyan archer permission to accompany his wife back to the Wani, and spend the night and next day in the colony with his family. Ichiro bowed his thanks to the colonel and mounted up behind Taozu, while Ling Ma got back onto Tetsuko's komodo-rhino. Their party was just about to signal for the gates to be opened when the watchmen atop the walls blew their horns in warning; another unexpected party was approaching the fortress!
Shinu and Iroh traded questioning glances, which still weren't answered when the approaching party sounded their own horn, in a sequence Zuko wasn't familiar with. "A naval officer—a commodore?" Shinu murmured. "It can't be Commodore Butan; his flagship left a week ago for the Northern Fleet."
"Well whoever it is, he's high-ranked enough to warrant opening the gates for him after curfew, particularly since you were going to open them anyway for our departure," Iroh said as he swung onto his komodo-rhino with practiced ease. "Thank you again for your hospitality, Colonel; do send us a message to let us know how your veterans take to their new prostheses!" The massive gates groaned open, and the watchmen saluted them as they rode outside.
Less than a minute after they cleared the gates Zuko saw the approaching party, also mounted on komodo-rhinos, as well as who was leading them—and he hissed in shock and anger, while the komodo-rhino's reins began to smoke in his grip. It was Zhao! Zhao, the execrable gloryhound who'd tried to interfere with his mission to capture the Avatar, and then dishonorably attacked Zuko from behind after he'd been fairly beaten in the Agni Kai.
Zhao stared at them with a scowl of surprised anger that might have matched Zuko's own expression, but it melted into a haughty sneer as he drew near enough to greet them. "Well, if it isn't the disgraced and banished prince!" he said loudly. "Still daring to show your face—or what's left of it—around civilized people?"
Zuko was so furious at the insults that he was momentarily rendered speechless, but Iroh was under no such handicap. "Greetings, Zhao," he called out from several paces behind, his voice seemingly pleasant, but with such an edge that Zuko knew without looking that his smile was showing all his teeth. "How was your visit to Crescent Island?"
Zhao flinched, and his face reddened in angered embarrassment. At the reminder of Zhao's own and far more disastrous failure to capture the Avatar, Zuko found himself snickering as they passed each other on the road.
Zhao heard the snickering, and his expression turned positively livid as he passed on Zuko's left. Just as Uncle Iroh kicked his mount into a faster pace, drawing up not quite abreast with Zuko on his left; getting between Zuko and Zhao, with his grim expression warning the officer against trying anything like he had last month. But Zhao kept his fire to himself this time, instead spurring his mount into a final burst of speed towards the still-open fortress gates.
After they heard the massive gates clang shut behind Zhao's party, Zuko asked his uncle, "What's Zhao doing here? What do you think he's after?"
Iroh could only shrug in response and say, "I expect we'll find out sooner or later. For now, let's just get back to the ship; it's been a long day, and a man needs his rest."
Rested and refreshed from Taozu and Tetsuko's care while they'd been at the fortress, the komodo-rhinos made good time, and just under an hour later they arrived on the docks where the Wani was moored. Zuko looked out towards the mouth of the harbor, where the colony had anchored a huge floating platform and crane for servicing the much larger ships that had keels too deep for mooring at the piers. There he saw a destroyer-class vessel over twice the size of the Wani, presumably Zhao's flagship, and he again wondered uneasily what purpose Zhao had in visiting Pohuai Stronghold.
Just then the faint, high-pitched screech of a messenger hawk reached his sharp ears, and he searched the twilight sky until he saw its barely discernible silhouette, approaching from west-by-southwest—coming from Zhao's ship, or clear from the Fire Nation?
Zuko's heart began pounding as the hawk flew closer, closer—and then right over him, continuing inland. Whatever message it carried wasn't for him, then; it was not the letter from his father that he both hoped for and dreaded in equal measure. The hawk seemed to be heading right for Pohuai Stronghold; probably a message for Colonel Shinu, he decided, and then dismissed the matter as his crewmen began to lower the boarding ramp for their return.
Once they were aboard, since the ladders between decks were too difficult for Ling Ma to handle, he told her husband Ichiro to follow him up to the nursery where their sons were being minded while she stayed by the still-lowered ramp to the dock. The archer followed without a word, evidently choosing to embody the Yuyan's reputation of being as silent as they were lethally accurate, even when he was off duty.
But the Yuyan archer's silence was broken when Zuko opened the nursery door for him, and they both saw the two toddler boys playing with (and teething on) wooden stacking rings. "Taro!" Ichiro said happily, his voice warm as springtime.
Taro dropped the wooden ring he'd been gnawing on, squealed "Daddy!" and ran straight for his father's arms, with Teiji scrambling right behind him but making a beeline for Zuko instead. Both men scooped up and cuddled their sons, then smiled at each other in mutual recognition of fatherhood.
"And here's your son's little hippo-cow, in his very own stall," Jee offered as he picked the mended akabeko figure up from the nursery's changing table. The hippo-cow now rested in a small oblong and high-sided basket with a handle, one that had been modified to put a dip in the front end so the bobbing head just peeked over it. "After we heard what had happened to it, two of our crewmen whipped that up this afternoon," Jee explained as he handed the basket over. "Now your boy can carry it in the basket; safer that way."
"Thank you all, for your great generosity," Ichiro said quietly as Taro grabbed the basket handle. Moving more slowly with his son in his arms, he bowed to Jee, and then bowed again to Prince Zuko. After straightening up the archer said very seriously, "Your highness, you have given hope and happiness to my family, and to the whole of the Yuyan Clan. If ever you have need, my bow is in your service."
"Thank you," Zuko said formally, with a regal nod of acknowledgment. Just then Teiji interrupted his own happy and largely incomprehensible babbling to give a huge yawn. Zuko figured he hadn't even had a nap in the nursery that day, not when there another little boy his own age to play with. "Ready for bed, aren't you, son?" Zuko murmured.
"It is time I put my own son to bed as well," Ichiro murmured, before his voice shifted into the warmer tones as he addressed Taro. "That's right, Taro, I'll be going home with your and your mother to put you to bed tonight; another special weekday treat!"
"Daddy sing?" Taro asked, looking hopeful.
"…Yes, I'll sing your lullaby tonight," Ichiro said after his eyes darted sideways at Zuko and Jee. "Now it's time to go; wave bye-bye to your new playmate. Your Highness, Lieutenant, thank you again for everything you've done; may Agni bless you for all your generosity. There's no need to escort me down to the ramp where my wife is waiting; I remember the way."
Of course there was a need to escort him; regulations expressly stated that no guest aboard the ship would traverse it unescorted for at least the first 48 hours aboard. And ordinarily Zuko would have pointed that out, but he'd noted the suddenly darting eyes and increased tension in Ichiro's shoulders. Suddenly, the archer was hiding something, and just as suddenly, Zuko was determined to find out what. If whatever the unknown factor was turned out to be a possible threat to his ship, he was going to deal with it personally!
So he held up a hand to forestall whatever Jee was about to say (probably quoting the same regulations Zuko had been thinking about just then) while saying with what he hoped was still a friendly-looking smile, "Fare well, archer; I hope to receive a letter soon about Ling Ma's new prosthetic limb."
Ichiro bowed once more, then held his son to his chest with one hand while carefully descending the nearby ladder with the other. Zuko had made a show of turning away from the ladder to walk down the passageway in the opposite direction, deliberately hitting the creakiest spots in the deckplates, but as soon as he heard Ichiro descending six rungs on the ladder—his head would be below the level of the deck at that point—he pivoted and ghost-footed back to the nursery, to hand Teiji back to Jee, put a finger to his lips for silence, and urgently gesture for his lieutenant to go back inside the nursery. Jee gave him a weird look, but silently obeyed and shut the door.
No one knew the Wani better than Zuko. In the past two years and ten months at sea he'd been over every single inch of his ship, not just from the bow to the stern but from the whistle to the bilge spaces. He knew where to step to avoid making any noise, and as he crouched and listened intently at the ladder well, he could tell just by the sound of the archer's steps exactly which way he was going. So far, he was backtracking along the way Zuko had led him, going back in the direction of the bow ramp. Down the next ladder, which was Zuko's cue to tuck and flip himself through the access hatch, and hang by his hands for just a moment before landing lightly on the deck below. He snuck to the next ladder well, and listened in again as the baby Taro asked for the third time, "Daddy sing? Pwetty pease?"
He heard Ichiro give a resigned sigh and say, "All right, son. At least we're not on base right now…" The archer cleared his throat and sang in a light tenor,
"Earth rumbles, then settles as we do for sleep,
The fire crackles with a warming glow,
The wind rushes high, and the river runs deep,
As they sing what you already know,
You already know:
Evermore I will love you, evermore I will stay
Ever with you in spirit, never so far away.
And though I know some day you'll go to find your way alone,
Evermore I will love you, you are ever my own.
Zuko was absolutely transfixed as he listened in. Now that he knew what the archer had been hiding—an almost feminine-sounding singing voice; definitely not something expected of a Yuyan—he knew he should return to the nursery and give father and son their privacy, but… the song Ichiro was singing, it sounded so right…
'Though nothing's as certain as seasons and time,
And nothing will be as before,
Still every way and always, it's certain that I'm
With you forever, evermore:
Evermore I will love you, evermore I will stay
Ever with you in spirit, never so far away.
And though I know some day you'll go to find your way alone,
Evermore I will love you, you are ever my own.
Ever my son,
Forever… and evermore."
Then Ichiro stopped singing; the song—lullaby?—was over. And Zuko found himself scrambling for the quartermaster's office, on the same deck but half the ship's length away from where he'd been crouched and listening. If he could just get there in time!
Ichiro had been raised to stoicism as well as the bow. Displaying too much happiness was considered as childish and unseemly as bawling or throwing temper tantrums. Which was pretty much the only reason why he hadn't started dancing a jig or cheering till the rafters echoed with his joy, after all the good news he'd received that day.
He'd been surprised and worried when he'd heard that Ling Ma was at the stronghold, instead of home with Taro; the rumors flying across the base hadn't said why she was there, only that she was in the company of banished royalty, which hadn't eased Ichiro's worries one notch. But then he'd been called to the colonel's office, and seen the look on Ling Ma's face…
It was very the nearly same look of shocked hope and joy that she'd had on her face four years ago, when she'd realized that the panda lily in her hands hadn't been given out of pity for the cripple, but because Ichiro had finally gotten up the nerve to confess the crush he'd had on her since they were schoolchildren together.
He'd had to tell Ling Ma more than once, even after they were married, that he didn't care that she was missing her right foot; it changed nothing about how he'd always felt about her. But the truth was, he did care, because he knew how much she hated being handicapped. How frustrated she became, having to rely on cursed crutches all the time; not being able to even walk while carrying things in both hands anymore. Thank Agni his in-laws made wonderful grandparents, since they really needed the live-in help with handling Taro while Ichiro was away on base all week.
Ling Ma's parents must be frantic with worry by now, if no one had thought to send them a message explaining why she hadn't returned home from the market hours ago. But they'd be happily surprised soon enough, when he came home with her and Taro, and likely as delighted as he was right now with the good news about medical care for veterans. With a really good prosthetic replacement for her missing foot, Ling Ma would be able to do so much more! Not just run after little Taro, as Colonel Shinu had said, but go on long romantic walks with him, cook meals and do other work in the kitchen more easily… maybe even spar with him again, her naginata against his—
"Ichiro!" And suddenly Prince Zuko was right in front of him, and it was all he could do to keep from shifting into a one-armed fighting stance, surprise triggering protective instincts. He'd left the prince behind at the nursery; how had that teenager gotten in front of him?! Had he gotten turned around on the ship after all?
The prince thrust a slate board and chalk at him, and ordered, "Write it down."
"Your highness?" Ichiro managed to get past his suddenly too-dry lips.
"That song you were singing earlier," as the prince blushed hot pink on one side of his face, while shoving the slate board out further. "You want to thank me for helping your wife, and your old comrade? Write down that song for me, every word."
He'd been overheard?! Ichiro just knew his ears were burning nearly as red as his Yuyan tattoo… But the prince wasn't mocking him; instead, he just wanted to know the words to the song. Probably because the prince wanted his own son to hear it, Ichiro privately decided as he sat down right there in the passageway, set Taro and his akabeko-in-a-basket down within the circle of his legs, and accepted the slate and chalk. Taro played with the akabeko and happily accepted a sweet-stick that the prince had been keeping tucked up his sleeve, while Ichiro began writing the words to the Pohuai lullaby he thought of as 'Evermore'. It really was the least he could do for the prince today.
When he finally finished writing it down and handed the slate and chalk back, the prince snatched them up, now blushing almost as red as his scar, and vanished around the nearest corner without even a thank you. Ichiro didn't mind, though; he understood. When someone violated the Man Code in such an obvious fashion, even for a good cause, it was best not spoken of afterwards. He got back to his feet, picked up Taro and his toy, and hummed 'Evermore' under his breath as he strode back to the ramp where Ling Ma would be waiting.
The next morning brought overcast skies and scattered thundershowers, though they didn't look to be nearly as bad as the storm that had battered the Wani two days ago. Aboard the ship, Cheung approached the royals' table at breakfast time and said he had finished the portrait Prince Zuko had commissioned; would His Highness like to see it? Zuko smiled and said he would, and asked Cheung to bring it right into the mess hall.
Cheung came back five minutes later with a portrait under his arm, and bowed before revealing it with a flourish: a double portrait of Iroh and Teiji, both elder and youngster grinning happily at each other. Teiji babbled and clapped when he saw it; Zuko smiled and said he'd done excellent work, and Cheung could stop by his cabin later for his payment. Iroh praised both Zuko's thoughtfulness and Cheung's consummate talent with a brush, and declared it a finer portrait of him than the official one hanging back in the palace!
And then he declared the portrait had inspired him: "I am determined to look as good once more as this wonderful portrait of me! Cheung faithfully included nearly every line that a long life of experience has carved on my features, but he left off at least thirty pounds, and so I shall lose them too! But I shall require the assistance of our fine cook, Chu Si," as he turned to the cook, who had stepped out of the galley to see the portrait too. "Chu Si, from this day forth, I can be allowed to have only one serving of each dish you make for our table. Please don't serve me seconds, even if I succumb to weakness for your culinary delights and beg for more!"
Chu Si looked a little sad but solemnly agreed to the general's wishes, while Zuko fought to conceal a smirk. His uncle had complained two weeks ago of having to eat far more than he really wanted to, because he'd gotten into the habit of asking for seconds to please their volatile-tempered cook. Trust his clever uncle to find a way of breaking that habit at last, without insulting Chu Si and resulting in burned dinners for everyone!
By high noon the worst of the damage to the bridge had been repaired by the Pohuai shipyard workers, and they'd taken on enough supplies and replacement parts to fix more damage themselves later on. After Taro made one more trip into the markets at Zuko's request, the crew cast off and the Wani left port, hugging the coastline as they cruised north instead of going out into deeper waters. The towers of Pohuai Stronghold were still visible over the trees lining the rocky shore, as Zuko called both Lieutenant Jee and his uncle over to the map table and explained his plan.
"It's going to take a lot of fast movement over land and synchronization, but if we can pull it off we'll drive the Avatar right where we want him, within catapult range. We land two different expeditions, in this inlet here… and this one here. And once they're ashore, each expedition splits in half, so there will be a total of four units out in the mountains, each unit being one komodo-rhino and two riders. One rider will be a firebender of level 4 or above in power, and the other is going to be equipped with a signal-horn, a drum and a sack filled with fireworks that I had the quartermaster buy this morning."
"I believe I see what you have in mind," Uncle Iroh said, stroking his beard and looking thoughtful. "Send out four parties to make a lot of noise and fireballs, in hopes of flushing the Avatar out like a fox-pheasant and sending him in the direction of the ship. But Prince Zuko, if you'll forgive me saying so… the Avatar is human, and considerably more intelligent than your average fox-pheasant."
" 'A man surprised out of a sound sleep is apt to leave his wits behind in bed.' You told me that yourself just last year," Zuko retorted, secretly more than a little gleeful to be able to toss one of his uncle's proverbs right back in his face. "If we plan for the diversion to start at the first light of dawn, then we have an excellent chance of startling the Avatar awake. Throw enough fireballs into the air while the riders shout, blow and beat for all they're worth, and they'll be able to fool someone at a distance into thinking they're much larger forces. For all his power, the Avatar still prefers to run instead of fight. And if we can get the men into the right positions, drive him in the right direction, he'll run right into our trap."
"Where are you planning to deploy the beater units to?" Jee asked, staring at the map with interest.
"That's going to be the hardest part," Zuko admitted. "Getting four komodo-rhinos carrying double mounts far enough inland, to these points: here, here, here and here," as he pointed to four spots on the map, each one miles apart, setting small markers on each spot. Connecting the four spots made one-third of a circle, with Pohuai Stronghold to the south completing a half-circle on the map that encompassed the region's stretch of coastal hills. "The first two will be reached from this inlet—see these trails? And the next two from this inlet. This route will be the hardest, and longest distance to travel; that unit will take my komodo-rhino. Thunderstrike is bad-tempered for everyone but me, I know, but they can bring along one of my shirts for her to scent. And as many sugared apricot pieces as they can sneak out of the galley," he added with a smirk that Jee returned.
"We'll have to spread the net wide, I know, but without knowing exactly which hill the Avatar is hiding on, this is our only option. At first light, the beaters will start making noise and-" Zuko was interrupted, not by Jee or his uncle, but by the sudden blaring of a ship's horn—and not the Wani's horn, either! Everyone traded startled glances, and then scrambled outside to see a much larger warship bearing down on them.
Zuko stared at the much larger ship, which was now slowing and gradually changing its angle of approach to indicate coming alongside instead of ramming—thank Agni for small favors—and had his worst suspicions confirmed when he glimpsed the officer standing at the bow. They were still too far apart for him to make out individual features, but he just knew in his guts that he was looking right at Zhao, looking to interfere in his mission again.
"Jee, go back in and take those markers off the map," he ordered without looking at his lieutenant. "And tell everyone on the bridge that they'd better forget every single thing we've said for the last ten minutes."
"Yes, sir," Jee said crisply. "Shall I also change out the map for one further north, such as the Yu Dao coastline?"
"Good idea; do it. You can even tell the crew that Uncle and I have been heard muttering about going to Yu Dao next; that's actually the truth."
Jee turned and went back inside, but Zuko stood his ground as the warship drew nearer, refusing to give even the slightest sign of weakness or backing away from the likes of Zhao. Twenty minutes later, the ships had matched course and speed, a boarding ramp between the two ships was set in place, and Zhao came aboard with three of his ship's officers… and with an admiral's collar devices on his uniform.
Zhao stood there with an arrogant smirk on his face, making sure Zuko and everyone else got a good look at his new rank insignia, while one of his lieutenants unrolled a scroll and announced, "Admiral Zhao now commands this entire region. All information regarding the Avatar must be reported directly to him."
In response, the first words out of Zuko's mouth were not to Zhao, but to Jee instead. "Lieutenant, go to my cabin and bring back my copy of the 'Manual of Military Justice and Discipline.' I need to refresh my memory on what sort of punishment should be meted out for someone impersonating an officer of higher rank," as he stared meaningfully right at Zhao's admiral insignia.
"Yes, sir!" Jee said with a snappy salute and a barely-concealed smirk, as Zhao's face flushed red.
"How dare you?!" Zhao snarled, his fists clenched. "I was appointed to this rank by the Fire Lord himself!"
"Prove it," Zuko shot right back, his eyes narrowed. "My father is not stupid or a fool—and only a fool would promote you to a higher rank after your utter failure with the blockade fleet! We know what really happened there, Zhao," he continued as his uncle stepped up right beside him, and as Zhao stepped back a pace while reddening even further. "The Avatar flew right over you, and you couldn't stop him! And then instead of sending messenger hawks calling for the Home Guard to intercept him, you decided to leave your post to chase after him without telling anybody, trying to get all the glory of capturing him for yourself. And what happened? The Avatar destroyed the Fire Temple, one of our nation's most sacred sites, and on your watch!"
"Wh-who told you all—that's not what happened!" Zhao almost screamed, even though his own officers were giving him looks that all but shouted 'busted!' He insisted, "The Avatar sneaked the long way around the blockade—and the Fire Sages turned traitor, wrecking their own temple to help him escape! And none of that matters now; I can prove my appointment to the rank of admiral! You!" as he spun and pointed to one of his staff. "Go fetch the black-ribboned scroll sitting on my desk!"
Five minutes later, Zuko and Iroh were both staring in dismay at the scroll Zhao had all but shoved in their faces; the message promoting Zhao to the rank of Admiral, effective immediately. They both knew the Fire Lord's personal seal… and what's more, they were both intimately familiar with his style of calligraphy; they could tell it had been written not by a secretary, but by Fire Lord Ozai himself. "What was he thinking?" Zuko murmured, but his uncle had no answer for him.
"Isn't it obvious? He was thinking that the task of capturing the Avatar should go to someone more competent, more resourceful, and just plain better than you," Zhao sneered, relishing their dismay.
"But… but capturing the Avatar is my mission! He declared it so himself; made it part of the terms of my banishment! And without the Avatar in chains, I can't…" Zuko voice trailed off, as his throat tightened; till he found himself physically incapable of finishing that sentence.
Zhao's gloating smile was the very essence of condescension. "Are you really just now realizing, what I told you nearly two months ago? The Fire Lord doesn't want you back!"
"That is enough, Zhao!" Iroh abruptly thundered, so fiercely that Zhao backed off a full three paces while his officers all but bolted for cover; the Dragon of the West was roaring.
Then Iroh seemed to deflate where he stood, and said tiredly, "If you are done gloating, then I believe your business here is concluded. As should be obvious by the fact that we are not steaming back to the Fire Nation this very minute, we do not have the Avatar aboard. The only certain information that we can offer you, is that the prince will certainly continue searching for him."
"And the prince's crew will certainly give him their best efforts in that search," Lieutenant Jee unexpectedly spoke up, having returned from Zuko's cabin with the requested manual tucked under his arm. Startled, Zuko couldn't help glancing sideways at him, but Jee looked straight ahead while standing perfectly at attention.
Zhao just snorted in response, "Some crew; composed of the dregs of the fleet! …And of babies still in diapers, if the rumors buzzing around Pohuai are true," as he stepped up again to give Zuko a look that was probably supposed to be disgusted, but was marred by the vicious glee glinting in his eyes. "Bringing your bastard spawn aboard ship, boy? Have you no shame at all?"
Up until that moment, Zuko had indeed been feeling horribly ashamed; ashamed that his father didn't even think he could fulfill the mission set for him, and ashamed at his showing weakness in front of Zhao. But at his hated enemy's words, all his shame was evaporated by a burst of righteous anger as he snarled, "Don't you ever call Teiji a bastard! I am adopting an orphaned child as my ward, and his mother was an honorable woman up to the moment of her death!"
Zhao's look turned from disgusted to incredulous. "You're… adopting? You? That's preposterous! A face like yours could only make a child scream and cry!"
Iroh was a man of many regrets. He now regretted the decades he'd spent waging war on the Earth Kingdom. He regretted not stopping Zuko from entering the war room nearly three years ago, and not finding some means of stopping that Agni Kai before it happened. He had accumulated many, many regrets over the years and decades of his life… But this was perhaps the first time he'd ever regretted showing mercy to someone. Namely Zhao; he had once vowed never to kill again, but he really should have killed Zhao the moment that dishonorable scum had tried to kill Zuko from behind.
The worst part was, one thing Zhao had said was what Iroh had been longing to say out loud to Zuko for years. Longed to say but dared not, for fear of Zuko rejecting him utterly; the boy just would not believe that his father did not love him and was not even capable of loving him. No, he always believed the fault was in him instead of in Ozai's corpse-white and shriveled heart!
Zhao was scum, but he was cunning scum; he had figured out where Zuko's sorest spots were and was prodding them hard. And curse it, now he'd provoked Zuko into having Teiji fetched from the nursery, just to prove to that never-should-have-been-made-admiral that the baby wouldn't start screaming at the mere sight of his scarred face! (And to prove that at least somebody loved and wanted him; that part went unsaid, but Iroh still heard it loud and clear.) Iroh wanted to tell Zuko to shut the hells up and keep Teiji safe below, but didn't dare do so and humiliate his nephew in front of both Zhao and the crew. But he had no idea what Zhao would do when he saw Teiji's mismatched eyes…
Anzu brought Teiji up on deck and handed him over to Zuko, looking warily at Zhao the whole time. Zuko made a point of talking to Teiji like he was a miniature adult, instead of the daddy-to-baby cooing that they'd all heard him do in unguarded moments, but he didn't change the way he held or looked at Teiji, which was tenderly and with obvious affection. And the toddler responded to his fatherly love with joyous babbling and baby hugs; Iroh thought they made an adorable family portrait.
Zuko hadn't said anything to Zhao about Teiji's mismatched eyes before he was brought on deck, and Anzu had handed the baby straight to his adoptive father without letting Zhao take a good look at him. But Zhao, after staring at the duo in incredulous silence for a few moments, almost visibly decided that he had to mock Zuko for something, just to make his bid for dominance again. He gave a derisive bark of laughter, and said, "Do you plan to capture the Avatar with cuteness? I—whah?" as he suddenly peered closer, staring right at Teiji's face while Iroh's heart stuttered a beat. Teiji had twisted around in his father's grip to see who was laughing, giving Zhao a look at his eyes…
Zuko instantly spun about to remove Teiji from within arm's reach of Zhao, but that just let Teiji peer curiously at the stranger from over Zuko's shoulder, giving the officer yet another look at his mismatched eyes. Zhao gave a slow, not-at-all-nice smile of realization as he said, "A witch-blood child! That's a rare prize indeed."
'Teiji is not a witch-child, and he is not a prize or trophy for anyone," Zuko growled as he handed his son back to Anzu and gestured urgently for him to be taken off deck. Anzu hurried back to the nursery, with Li Mein holding the nearest hatch open for him and Jee silently stepping sideways to block the departing pair from Zhao's view.
"Heh; growing up so sheltered in the palace, you probably don't know what it signifies when someone has one blue eye… Or maybe you do!" Zhao said with a speculative sidelong look at Iroh. Curse it, Zhao had probably heard the story of how Iroh had journeyed to the Spirit World to bring back his son, and thought that Iroh had been advising his nephew for the last few years on spirit-related matters—as if Zuko would even have listened to him until very recently!
Li Mein was just closing the hatch behind Anzu when Zhao declared, "So that's your secret weapon against the Avatar, eh? Going to train the brat to alert you whenever he sees spirit activity, or senses the presence of the Avatar in disguise? Bring him back up here!" he ordered, sidestepping Jee to view and point right at Li Mein. "I'll take that-"
And Zhao yelped and yanked his hand back before it could be caught in the blazing fire-shield, taller and broader than any man, that Zuko had just erected between Zhao and the closed hatch.
The fire-shield cloaked around Zuko's form as he stepped in front of it, giving him the appearance of the sort of fire-demon that Earth Kingdom people often accused them of being, as he got right in Zhao's face. "You're not taking him anywhere," he hissed. "Understand this, Zhao; the only reason you're alive to receive that undeserved promotion is because I let you live the last time we met. But if you so much as touch a hair on Teiji's head, if I think you're any threat to him at all, I will kill you. And throw your ashes overboard!"
Zhao had snatched his hand back in surprise, but he refused to give even one inch in the face of Zuko's rage. He jeered back, "Oh, very impressive. But we both know those are empty threats; you don't have the guts to back them up."
"Oh, really? Li Mein!" Iroh called out almost cheerfully. "Kindly tell the admiral the total number of men the prince has killed in just the past month."
Agni shine on him, the private caught on just as quickly as he'd hoped. "Fourteen that I know of, sir," Li Mein replied matter-of-factly. "There might be more, though; I didn't count all the bodies that last time." Which was the truth; Li Mein had been busy helping Taozu try to save poor Hūn's life, while everyone else had been clearing the river steamer's deck of all the pirates Zuko had slaughtered while saving Teiji.
Zhao stared wide-eyed at Li Mein, then at Zuko—who showed all his teeth in a positively savage grin while Iroh said calmly, "Times have changed, Zhao." Then he added, while apparently examining his fingernails, "And of course, Prince Zuko is not the only one who would react badly if little Teiji was removed from our tender care." He turned his hand over with fingers spread, and wickedly curved, nine-inch talons of fire sprang from each fingertip.
Still wide-eyed, Zhao backed slowly away.
But he recovered his bravado moments later, and sneered, "As if I'd want some snot-nosed, diaper-shitting brat aboard any vessel in my fleet! Keep your little house-monkey; I'll have captured the Avatar long before he's grown enough to be of any use to you!"
Zhao turned to go back to his ship, delivering his parting shot as he stepped onto the gangplank between the vessels: "In the meantime, if you were planning to go to Yu Dao next, your plans have changed. I've already decreed that no ships are allowed in or out of this area until after IIIEEEEE!" as he abruptly vanished from view.
Shocked, everyone rushed for the rails as they heard the –clang- of theboarding ramp, dangling by one end, hit the side of the other ship and the –splash- of a body hitting the water far below. Iroh leaned out over the railing and looked down just in time to see Zhao thrash and splutter his way to the surface.
"Oh no! I am so sorry, sirs; I forgot to put in the pins securing their ramp to our ship!" Tadao cried out, wringing his hands in distress—a little too theatrically, Iroh thought to himself while hiding a smile. His nephew's entire body was shaking with suppressed laughter, at the sight of Zhao flailing about in the water far below them.
"What?! No you didn't; I saw you put them in myself, before I declared it safe to cross over!" one of Zhao's lieutenants said in outrage.
The other lieutenant was even more accusing. "We've been aboard for nearly fifteen minutes now, with wave action affecting both our ships. I find it hard to believe that the boarding ramp stayed in place all this time without being secured, and came away just as Comm—that is, Admiral Zhao was crossing…"
"Coincidences do happen, gentlemen," Iroh pointed out, his tone mild. "There seemed to be many such coincidences in Zhao's official report on the events at Crescent Island…"
The message was clear: call our crewman on his lie, and we'll call your boss on his lies. The lieutenants traded glances and shut up. Tadao and Cheung used boathooks to grab the gangplank's dangling end and pull it back over to them, making a big show of securing it in place this time, while Zhao's ship tossed down a life preserver to haul him back aboard.
Unfortunately, Zhao was determined to have the last word. He refused to cross over to their ship this time, but the sopping-wet admiral shouted across the gap, "If that wasn't deliberate sabotage, then it was dereliction of duty! Either way, the captain of a real naval vessel would have that man up on charges—unless, of course, he didn't actually care about such things as duty and honor!"
Zuko went rigid, while Iroh cursed Zhao under his breath. Any time a crewman had to be harshly punished, no matter what the reason, it was horribly bad for morale. And charges of either sabotage or dereliction of duty merited very harsh punishment indeed! But if Zuko did nothing to Tadao, after those public accusations that he didn't care about duty and honor… Damn Zhao straight to the coldest depths of the ocean!
Zuko finally growled out, "The crewman will be charged and captain's mast will be held in two hours' time; you have my oath on that! Now, are you vengeful or sadistic enough to just wait there and watch until he is adequately punished?"
"Oh, I have far better things to do with my time," Zhao called out with a dismissive wave and a nasty grin. "Such as capture the Avatar!" Then he gestured for his officers to cross back over and the gangplank to be removed, while adding, "The Yuyan archers that I've just taken command over, should be quite useful in achieving my goal..."
Stone-faced, Lieutenant Jee ordered Li Mein and Cheung to escort Tadao to the holding cell, and the crewmen glumly complied. Then Jee handed Zuko the military manual that he'd still been holding, and asked, "Shall I alert the crew as to when Captain's Mast shall be held, sir?"
"Yes. In two hours, on the foredeck," Zuko said, still glaring at Zhao's flagship as it slowly pulled away. "And after alerting everyone, come see me and my uncle in my cabin."
Zuko strode off towards the hatch closest to their cabins, but instead of following him immediately, Iroh stayed on deck a little while longer. He frowned at Zhao's ship as it began changing course, probably turning south to return to Pohuai Stronghold. Iroh was certain that Zhao had made a point of tracking their ship down and coming aboard to show off his new ranking, solely to get his pride back after Iroh had embarrassed him yesterday with that Crescent Island crack. And while Zhao had now cornered Zuko into taking actions that would set at least part of the crew against him, there was also no doubt that overall, the new admiral had come out the worse for this encounter. What would Zhao do to get back at them now?
After searching the temple ruins they had chosen for a hiding spot yesterday, a safe place for Appa to rest and recover from the storm that had nearly drowned them all, Aang came back to where his friends were waiting and told Katara, "I couldn't find any ginger root for the tea, but I found a map." He spread out the scroll on the ground and pointed out its features to her, saying, "There's an herbalist institute on the top of that mountain. We could probably find a cure for Sokka there."
Katara shook her head in response. "Aang, he's in no condition to travel. Sokka just needs more rest. I'm sure he'll be better by tomorrow," she managed, just before her speech was interrupted by coughing.
Aang stared at her in open dismay. "Not you too!"
Katara tried to pass it off as "just a little cough" and claim she was fine, but she couldn't even get the whole sentence out before coughing again, even harder. Shielding himself from her coughs, Aang reminded her, "That's how Sokka started yesterday. Now look at him – he thinks he's an earthbender!" as he pointed at her clearly delirious brother, tucked into his sleeping bag while Momo eyed him in concern. "A few more hours and you'll be talking nonsense too."
He picked up his glider staff and snapped it open as he declared, "I'm going to find some medicine." But just as he prepared to take off from the edge of the ruins, a brilliant slash of lightning split the sky overhead, followed far too closely by ominous thunder. The sky wasn't as bad as it had been two days ago in that terrible storm, but… Aang swallowed hard and decided aloud, "Maybe it's safer if I go on foot."
He shut his glider and leaned it against a wall as he reminded Appa and Momo, "Keep en eye on 'em, guys." Appa gave a barely-audible rumble in response while Aang kicked up a tailwind to speed up his running to super-fast, and set off towards the northeast.
While Aang was running down the mountainside, he thought for a few moments that he heard a horn blowing somewhere nearby, but he paid it no mind as he focused on getting to the herbalist institute.
Two hours after parting ways with Zhao's ship, the Wani had nearly reached the first inlet that Zuko had pointed out in his plan to flush out the Avatar. But before they unshipped the river steamer to set the komodo-rhinos and riders ashore, the crew solemnly assembled on the foredeck for Captain's Mast.
Goro, the crew's master-at-arms, directed two crewman to set out the podium and two flagstaffs that were normally kept in storage; one pole bearing their national flag, and the other the banner for the Fire Nation Navy. The crew raggedly fell into two groups assembled on either side of the podium, quietly muttering about what they were about to witness as Goro chivvied and herded them into proper ranks. Many opinions were expressed in whispers and hisses, but the general consensus was that Tadao's impulsive move had been both pretty damn funny, and pretty damn stupid to pull in front of so many witnesses no matter how much Zhao had deserved a dunking. "Which do you think he's being charged with?" Gen murmured to Anzu. "Dereliction of duty, or sabotage?"
"It had better be dereliction," Anzu muttered back. "They're both serious charges, but sabotage is a helluva lot worse; that's a guaranteed court-martial offense. He'd go from here straight to Pohuai for trial, and after the court-martial he'd be sent to either the Boiling Rock or the chopping block."
Just then Lieutenant Jee brought the prisoner out on deck, now freshly shaven and wearing his dress uniform. Tadao looked both resentful that he was at mast for his offense, and already resigned to his fate. After everyone was in place, Jee called the crew to attention and Prince Zuko marched out to the podium, his expression stern as he laid his copy of Manual of Military Justice and Discipline and a few sheets of paper on the lacquered wood. The former general Iroh also came out on deck, but stood several paces behind and to the side of his nephew, making it clear that he would only be observing instead of participating in the proceedings.
The prince cleared his throat, clearly trying to cover up nervousness with a stern expression, and began the proceedings. "Private Tadao, you are suspected of committing the following violation of the codes detailed in the Manual of Military Justice and Discipline: Dereliction of Duty, the failure to obey a lawful order or regulation. Specifically, failure to obey regulations concerning ship-to-ship connection via gangplank; to properly secure the end of the gangplank touching our vessel before signaling that it is safe to cross."
With a completely straight face, Prince Zuko recounted for the assembly what had happened to the gangplank and to Zhao two hours earlier (as if they hadn't already heard all about it). Then he told Tadao, "You are advised that a captain's mast is not a trial and that a determination of misconduct on your part is not a conviction by a court. Further, you are advised that the formal rules of evidence used in trials by court-martial do not apply at Captain's Mast."
The prince continued on, following the procedures as outlined in the military justice manual step-for-step: advising the accused that he was not required to make a statement regarding the offense, and that any statement he made could be used as evidence against him; formally asking if he had been briefed on his rights as outlined in the manual and if he had any questions or concerns about said rights; calling upon the other deck hands who'd been present earlier as witnesses and questioning them. And with each step, everyone's mood sank even further, even though all the deck hands were thankfully able to say they hadn't noticed whether or not Tadao had secured the gangplank before the first crossing, being more concerned with their own tasks at the time.
In the two hours between the incident and the mast, some people had expressed hopes that Prince Zuko would treat the hearing as a joke and just dismiss the charges right after they were stated; everyone knew he hated Zhao (and with damn good reason), and some of them had seen him holding back laughter at the sight of the admiral in the drink. But the prince was following the manual, basically word for word, and that meant he was taking the matter seriously and making this a genuine Captain's Mast, despite how much Zhao had deserved what had happened to him. Curse it, did the Royal Pain really have to take all his duties so damn seriously?
Many of the more experienced crewmen began mentally reviewing the different punishments that could be awarded at captain's mast: a formal reprimand and permanent mark on the crewman's record, up to twenty lashes of the whip, confinement on rice and water for up to thirty days, reduction in rank, forfeiture of up to half their pay for two months… Poor Tadao! But hopefully he'd get only one of those punishments, instead of two or more of them together!
After getting all of the witnesses' statements, Prince Zuko asked Tadao, "Are there any other witnesses you would like to call or any other evidence you would like to present?"
"No, sir," Tadao said miserably.
"Very well then." The prince stood tall and said solemnly, "I impose the following punishment: confinement on rice and water for thirty minutes. You are advised that you have the right to appeal this punishment to the admiral in charge of this theater of operations—which is now Admiral Zhao—and that your appeal must be made within a reasonable time frame, normally five days. Following this hearing, Lieutenant Jee will advise you more fully of your right to appeal. Do you understand?" Tadao slumped where he stood and muttered that he understood, so Prince Zuko declared, "You are dismissed." Then he gestured for Jee to step forward and escort Tadao away again.
With the corner of his mouth twitching, Jee stepped forward to lead Tadao away, while the assembled crew glumly waited for the prince to leave so they could be dismissed as well. But then Teru unexpectedly piped up from within ranks, sounding bewildered: "Did he say thirty minutes?"
Not thirty days, but thirty minutes confinement on rice and water? Heads turned back and forth as startled crewmen looked at each other for confirmation that they'd heard it too, and then stared at Prince Zuko, who had been keeping his head down busily tidying up his papers and manual… until he lifted his head and smirked at them all.
At that point, Jee started chuckling while General Iroh burst into booming laughter that shook his entire portly frame. It took another moment or two for what had happened to really sink in, but as it did the crew started roaring with laughter and cheering the prince, while Tadao went so weak-kneed with relief that he staggered for a moment. Then the private began laughing and crying at the same time as he turned back to Prince Zuko, which made his words hard to understand, but everyone still figured out he was saying, "Thank you, sir! Thank you, sir!"
Jee tried to put on a serious expression, but he was still chuckling as he asked Tadao, "So I take it you won't be appealing his decision?"
Half an hour after he'd been put inside the holding cell, Tadao was let back out, grinning while still eating from the bowl of rice that a laughing Chu Si had personally brought to him during his confinement. "Better watch your step in the future, buddy," Li Mein said to him with a smirk. "I hear that Prince Zuko has already decided on the punishment for the next guy caught messing with Admiral Zhao: twenty lashes—with a yakisoba noodle!"
"Hope you enjoyed your rest and relaxation while the rest of us worked," Jee said, also smirking. "We've already put the river steamer in the water, and got the first two komodo-rhinos aboard it. Now get your arse up to the starboard foredeck ladder; the prince is waiting for you!"
Tadao hurried up on deck and over to the chain ladder, which had already been lowered over to the side; down below, Prince Zuko looked up at him expectantly, along with General Iroh, Tetsuko, Gen and Goro. Tadao scrambled down the ladder as fast as he dared, and Gen piloted the river steamer towards the shore while the prince beckoned everyone else to the map he'd spread out and explained his plan to them.
Tadao and Goro would have to ride their komodo-rhino nearly all night to get past the hills and into position to start flushing out the Avatar by dawn, but it wasn't the first all-nighter either of them had pulled while in service. Tadao glanced inside the carry-sack he'd been handed, and found some travel rations and a bundle of assorted fireworks; none of the expensive stuff that made the gorgeous sky-flowers everyone loved, but lots of smaller rockets that made shrieking whistles, booms and smaller bursts, stuff that his family had set off every Solstice when he was a kid.
"These fireworks will supplement your own firebending, but don't set them off all at once," Prince Zuko instructed him and Tetsuko. "Spread them out over half an hour, set off at random intervals, and generate plenty of your own fire in between each one. Use low-temperature fireballs that you can keep producing longer, and create a wide sector overhead with your bursts," as he waved his arms overhead to demonstrate for them. "Your team of two will need to make enough fire and noise to be mistaken for a full squadron of soldiers, fighting their way back to the coast!"
Since the prince was looking at Tetsuko just then, he missed seeing Tadao's grin of joy mixed with sheer irony. He was anything but a quiet guy by nature, and most of his childhood, adolescence and early military career had been filled with people either begging or ordering him to sit down and shut up, and behave with dignity and decorum. Now for the first time in his life, he was being ordered to make a big racket! This was totally worth losing a night's sleep for!
"Prince Zuko, perhaps a word or two about inadvertent fires?" General Iroh suggested mildly, with a concerned frown.
"I was just getting to that, uncle. Now, we don't want to actually set the forest on fire; that's why every bender on this expedition is level 4 or 5, capable of putting out fires as well as creating them. The storms we've been encountering lately have wetted down the vegetation, but there's still a risk of fire. So every fireball you make needs to be short-lived, out before it hits the ground, and you'll have to track the fireworks too and put their fires out if need be. It'll be a lot of concentrated bending, after a night of hard riding, but we're all counting on you to make it work; to flush out the Avatar by spooking him awake and into running, and work together to drive him down this mountain pass," as he pointed it out on the map. "The Wani will be waiting where the pass meets the shore at this harbor, with catapult armed and ready to take him out as soon as he's within range. Any questions?" he finished, just as the river steamer's reinforced bottom ground against the sandy beach of the inlet.
All the questions Tadao had thought of had been answered by the prince already. He was about to respond with a heartfelt oath that he'd do his very best for his prince and captain, but in the momentary silence between the prince's question and his response, they suddenly heard the faint but unmistakable blare of a signal-horn.
Prince Zuko and everyone else aboard the steamer automatically turned to look at General Iroh, the only one among them who had any real experience with horn signals. Iroh cocked his head towards the mountains, listening for a moment before musing aloud, "News from a division of artillery?—No, archers, I'm sure that's the sequence for archers. Returning to base, mission successful…" Tadao realized that it must be the Yuyan archers, the group that Zhao had been bragging about commandeering earlier; they were downright legendary for their skills with bows and arrows.
The horn signal message continued (Tadao had to admire the messenger's lung capacity), and then suddenly the retired general seemed to age in front of their eyes, with grief and despair settling over him like a heavy weight rounding his shoulders. He muttered, "And they have one prisoner with them."
One prisoner? One important enough to send the Yuyan after him? Oh, no…
Tadao whipped around to stare at Prince Zuko. The prince had gone white as a funeral sheet, and perfectly still.
When the signal horns stopped, the silence screamed.
Finally, Prince Zuko spoke. "Back to the ship."
The ride back to the Wani was quiet, with no more talk than absolutely necessary, and with no one saying anything to the prince because they just had no idea what to say to him. What could anyone possibly say to make the situation any better? After all the prince had done to find the Avatar and flush him out of hiding, after all he'd been through in the past few years, to lose his only chance to go home to a blowhard like Zhao who'd only been hunting for his own glory! Ashes and soot, this just wasn't fair…
The Avatar, captured. And not by Zuko, an event he'd been prepared to deal with, but by Zhao. Which meant that the poor little airbending boy would be back at the capital, chained in the deepest and most inaccessible dungeon, and probably undergoing the horrific "process" that Sozin and Azulon had devised long ago to ensure the Avatar would never threaten their empire, long before Iroh could find a way to break him out.
And poor Zuko, his last hope of returning home and earning his cursed father's favor crushed at last… Iroh had long since wanted him to give up the search, but not for this reason! Even if Iroh thought he could hop aboard a merchant vessel and return home to attempt a rescue, since he had never been banished, he would not leave his nephew now; not even for the Avatar's sake. Thanks to his damnable brother, Zuko equated 'failure' with 'unlovable', and leaving him now, after he'd failed so often while Zhao had succeeded, would only reinforce that horrible idea. No, Iroh would have to stay close to his nephew now more than ever, to give him and little Teiji all the support they would need.
Perhaps, after Zuko finally accepted the fact that his father would never take him back and stopped grieving, Iroh would be able to encourage him to actually turn against Ozai and the war, and help the Order of the White Lotus restore balance to the world even without the Avatar. That might be doable… but how would they actually end the war and restore the balance, without the aid of the only being that the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes would trust?
Iroh was drawn from his grim musings by the clang of metal against metal as the end of a descending chain ladder struck the railing; they'd returned to the ship, and it was time to climb back aboard before they used the winch to haul the river steamer back up the ramp inside the Wani. Zuko climbed the ladder in silence, with Iroh right behind him; he noted worriedly that the lad had still said almost nothing since they'd heard the horn message.
When they reached the deck of the Wani, they were greeted by a worried Lieutenant Jee, who wanted to know what had gone wrong with the mission; he'd noticed that they'd returned with everyone, instead of setting two komodo-rhinos and their riders ashore. Finally, Zuko spoke again: "There's been a change of plans. The men are to come back aboard, but don't bring the river steamer back in; I'll be taking it out solo. In fifteen minutes; I just have some things to do first."
"Prince Zuko, what do you have in mind?" Iroh asked worriedly, but his nephew ignored him while striding away. Iroh followed him to their cabins, but Zuko ignored the hurried invitation to tea, went inside his cabin and firmly shut the door in his uncle's face. He reemerged just a few minutes later, with a hastily-wrapped bundle in his arms, and once more ignored his uncle's queries to head down to the nursery.
Joben was on Teiji-minding watch at that hour of the afternoon; Zuko shooed the old man out of the nursery and firmly closed the door with him and Teiji inside. Without any shame whatsoever, Iroh pressed his ear up against the door and listened as hard as he could, while shushing Joben's half-formed question with an impatient wave of his hand. He could hear Teiji's happy high-pitched babbling, but Zuko's voice was low-pitched and quiet, too quiet for him to make out individual words. Except for one moment, a few words spoken in emphasis: '…Always love you, Teiji. Forever, and evermore.'
Footsteps drew near the door, and Iroh hurriedly straightened up just as Zuko opened it. While gesturing for Joben to return inside, Zuko gave him a raised eyebrow and slight frown, but asked no questions of him. Instead, his nephew said, "Uncle, I need you to put Teiji to bed in your cabin tonight. I won't be back until… until very late, long after his bedtime."
"Nephew, what are you going to do?!"
His bundle tucked in the crook of an elbow, Zuko started up the nearest ladder to the deck. "What I have to do, Uncle." His voice was as grim as death. "No more questions."
Zuko privately swore he could still feel the worried and anxious stares of his uncle and his crew resting on him, long after he was out of range of their eyes. But not out of range of their new telescope, which was probably trained on him right at that moment. Who was watching him, though? An image flickered across his mind of Jee and Uncle Iroh tussling and shoving at each other while arguing over who got to use the telescope, and he would have snickered at the thought, if he could actually find humor in anything at the moment.
He ran the river steamer up onto the shore, and led both komodo-rhinos off the ship and into the forest. He soon found a source of fresh water, a small stream that ran down to the shore, and paused there to hobble one komodo-rhino before mounting the other. There was plenty of vegetation around the stream; if he didn't come back and no one came ashore after him, the spare rhino wouldn't die of either hunger or thirst.
The rhino he chose to ride was his uncle's favorite instead of his, but Flower-Petal was nearly as sure-footed on rough terrain. And while she wasn't as fast as his Thunderstrike, she was fast enough to get him to Pouhai Stronghold well before nightfall. More than enough time for what he had in mind, since he couldn't put his desperate plan into effect until long after dusk had shrouded the citadel. And he'd have to stop and hobble this rhino too, to leave her behind after he changed into his black garb and mask…
After a daring infiltration of the supposedly impenetrable stronghold, an epic prisoner breakout, and a final desperate ploy for escape that was pulled right in front of Admiral Zhao and –almost- succeeded:
Zuko woke up to an aching head, wondering what had just happened. The last thing he could recall was walking backwards with the Avatar out of the stronghold, almost making it to the crossroads—and then a whistling sound had registered just an instant before his world had gone black.
His eyes fluttered open, and just as he figured out that he'd been hit by one of the Yuyan archers' arrows—was he dead? Was this the Spirit World?—no, his head hurt too much for him to be dead—he heard someone talking. "You know what the worst part about being born over one hundred years ago is?"
He blinked until the talking figure came into focus; the Avatar, perched on a tree branch several feet above him and staring out into the forest. Or perhaps into his memories, as the boy continued on, "I miss all the friends I used to hang out with. I used to always visit my friend Kuzon; we used to get in and out of so much trouble together." A smile flickered onto the airbender's face. "He was one of the best friends I ever had… And he was from the Fire Nation, just like you."
The Avatar stopped staring at the forest and looked down at Zuko, his eyes solemn and sad, almost forlorn. "Katara told me that you're taking care of an Earth Kingdom baby, so I know you're not really evil, so matter what Sokka says. If we knew each other a hundred years ago, do you think we could have been friends too?"
Zuko's mask was off, probably knocked off by the impact of that arrow. The Avatar knew who he was and the real reason why he'd done everything he did, but had still saved him from being captured by Zhao. He knew, and… and he was asking about them being friends?
For just a moment, Zuko wondered… and then he—
Colonel Shinu was coldly furious as he read the casualty reports from last night's fiasco. Two men dead after falling from great heights, and thirty-one more injured: nine with an assortment of broken bones, four with bad sprains, five with concussions ranging from mild to severe, six with sword-cuts, and five more with burns; not burned by the Avatar or that Blue Spirit character, but by their own people in the rampant confusion of battle.
And the most galling matter was, five men on the injured list hadn't been hurt in the initial escape and fighting, but in the forest later on, due to that damn Zhao's insistence on sending troops to chase an airbender into the deep woods in the middle of a moonless night! Everyone without a fireball or lantern in their hands had been operating blind out there. And with nerves already worn to shreds by the battle within the walls, some troops had made costly mistakes that their bodies, or their comrades in arms, would be paying for a painfully long while.
The colonel tried to look on the bright side of the fiasco. If there was an enlisted man within the walls who hadn't been at least bruised last night, Shinu hadn't met him yet, but the death toll was amazingly low for such a battle; it was as if both the Avatar and that Blue Spirit character had been trying hard to not kill anyone while escaping. The two letters he'd be writing to the deceased's next of kin were still two too many, but given all the destruction the Avatar had wreaked on the Fire Temple on Crescent Island, it could definitely have been worse.
And when Zhao had tried to put all the blame for the escape on Shinu's leadership, Shinu had been able to turn it right around on him, pointing out all the security lapses that had been caused by Zhao's arrogant insistence on making nearly all the troops stationed at Pohuai assemble in the courtyard just to hear his 'inspiring' speech. He'd taken a little vindictive glee in the way Zhao's face had turned almost purple with humiliated rage.
Zhao had been so furious, he'd stormed right out of the stronghold without taking the Yuyan archers with him. Probably because he didn't want the archers telling the crew of his ship just how badly their admiral had botched things, after they'd delivered the Avatar to him practically gift-wrapped! With luck, Shinu and the Yuyan would never have to deal with either Zhao or the Avatar again, which was just fine with everyone in the stronghold.
By noontime, with still no sign of Prince Zuko returning, tensions on board the Wani were running high with anxiety.
At first light of dawn, Jee had ordered the ship brought in as close to that rocky shore as they dared go, then sent out the lifeboats with twelve men aboard, to search the nearby woods for their prince. The searching crewmen had found one of the komodo-rhinos but not the other, and tracks that showed the other one had gone south-by-southeast… towards Pohuai Stronghold and the colony beyond.
What had Prince Zuko done?! Speculation ran rampant among the crew:
Had he ridden the rhino straight to the top of the mountain in that direction, to face one final sunrise at its peak before committing seppuku, like in the famous play 'Riding The White Dragon'?
Had he gone to challenge Admiral Zhao to another Agni Kai?
Had he decided to drown his sorrows in sake and women-for-hire back in Pohuai City, not caring whether he got arrested for violating his terms of banishment or not?
Jee had scoffed loudly at the first and third suggestions, suggesting that Gen had seen the Ember Island Players once too often and Kunio should get his mind out of the gutter, but for the second idea he could only give Anzu an uncertain and unhappy shrug in response.
General Iroh was worried too. He'd polled the entire crew to find out if anyone aboard knew anybody in Pohuai Stronghold, regardless of rank. When he got to the galley, Chu Si volunteered that he knew one of the cooks stationed there; they'd served together on a combined military base a dozen years ago, and occasionally kept in touch to trade gossip, recipes and such.
Iroh promptly yanked the cook into his quarters, and they emerged twenty minutes later with a scroll that was taken straight to their hawksman and slipped into a tube for transport. Chu Si's message to his fellow cook Komen gave cordial greetings, asked if anything interesting had happened at Pohuai lately, and stated that General Iroh had given him special permission to use a messenger hawk; the general had a sudden desire for Gomai Dumplings, but Chu Si hadn't made them in years and had forgotten the recipe. Did Komen happen to have the recipe handy?
Two hours later the hawk came flying back to the Wani with Komen's reply, stating first that they'd had a lot of excitement at Pohuai in the last few days. Komen was sure Chu Si already knew about his general's visit with Colonel Shinu, but shortly afterwards Admiral Zhao had shown up, commandeering the Yu Yan archers and setting them to capture the Avatar! And then only hours after the archers had captured him, the Avatar had escaped last night with the help of—either somebody, or something; Komen honestly wasn't sure if the based had been raided by a fantastically skilled swordsman wearing a Blue Spirit mask, or the actual Blue Spirit himself, summoned from the Spirit World by the Avatar to break him out. Anyway, to make Gomai dumplings, start with two cups of finely chopped komodo-rhino sausage and two spoonfuls of honey…
After reading the message over Chu Si's shoulder, General Iroh abruptly swore the cook to silence about the message's exact contents, cut the paper in two and sent Chu Si to the galley with the recipe—it had actually been a long time since he'd had Gomai Dumplings—while he tucked the other half up his sleeve. He told Jee and everyone else hovering anxiously nearby that the Avatar had indeed been captured but had immediately escaped, and that there had been no mention at all of Prince Zuko.
It took until past noon for Zuko to sneak back to where he'd left his uncle's favorite komodo-rhino, ride Flower Petal back to where he'd left the spare rhino, and lead them both back to the inlet where he'd left the steamer. By that time the severe ache in his head had subsided enough for him to notice all the other aches and pains he'd accumulated after last night's work, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down and just sleep until dinnertime—after checking to see how Teiji was doing; he hoped his son hadn't had any nightmares last night. He should have cautioned his uncle that Teiji had nightmares when he slept alone at night, but yesterday he'd been too preoccupied…
He set course back to the ship, and one of the lookouts spotted him when the river steamer was still several hundred yards away. That was to be expected; he wasn't trying to be stealthy at all, not on a river steamer in broad daylight. But what was unexpected was the crew's reaction to his approach: he was too far away and the steamer was making too much noise for him to hear them, but moments after the lookout pointed in his direction, what looked like nearly half the crew was lining the rails and waving to him!
He'd seen the same thing a few weeks ago, when he'd come back to the ship after rescuing Uncle Iroh from the earthbenders. But this time, Uncle Iroh was safely aboard… Were they actually waving and cheering just for him?!
He angled alongside the ship and slowed to a halt near the forward port-side anchor, and almost before he'd come alongside the chain ladder was dropped and Cheung was scrambling down it, grinning from ear to ear. "Welcome back, your highness! Good to see you're okay, if you don't mind my saying so, sir! Would you like me to take over getting the steamer and the komodo-rhinos back aboard, sir?" Stunned by the way Cheung was acting—this was the same man who'd drawn that horrible caricature of him with the koala-sheep?!- Zuko could only nod mutely in response, and take the ladder when it was handed over to him.
When he climbed up to the deck, his uncle was waiting there with Lieutenant Jee, who cut the snappiest salute he'd ever seen while saying, "Welcome back, your highness! There is news of the Avatar, sir; we've received a report stating that he has escaped from Pohuai Stronghold, right out from under Admiral Zhao's nose! With aid from an ally who has not yet been named, sir."
"That's good," Zuko said, very sincerely; he was beyond relieved that he'd gotten away without being identified by his own country's forces. "The Avatar won't linger in this area after escaping, so after the steamer is aboard, weigh anchor and set a course for north, following the coast."
"Yes, sir!" as Jee saluted him again before turning and heading for the bridge.
That left him alone with Uncle, who wasn't trying at all to hide the relief in his expression; Zuko felt a little guilty about making his uncle worry over him. But rather than apologize, which would have likely led his uncle to request an explanation that he couldn't give, he asked, "How was Teiji last night and this morning?"
"Extremely fussy, and loudly missing his father," his uncle very pointedly informed him. "But once he went to the nursery, he seemed to settle down with the routine."
Zuko was looking so tired—and so dazed, as if he'd just received some huge shock or surprise that he hadn't finished processing yet—that Iroh half expected him to announce that he was going to his cabin, his old familiar refuge, and wanted to be left alone until dinnertime. But instead he went straight to the nursery to see his son, apparently needing to see for himself that Teiji was okay now.
As soon as Teiji saw his adoptive father, he squealed and made a beeline straight for Zuko's legs, and grabbed on with all his toddler strength while shouting, "Dada dada dadadada!"
"Yes, Daddy's here," Zuko said with a tired chuckle as he bent down and stroked Teiji's baby-fine hair. "I'm sorry I left you alone all night, but…" Instead of finishing that sentence, he asked Botan on duty, "Has he had his nap yet?"
"Not yet, sir; that would normally be in another hour-and-a-half. But the general said he slept poorly last night, so if you took him to your cabin he might nap now," Botan shrewdly assessed.
Without further ado, Zuko picked up Teiji and took him back to his cabin. Iroh followed, ostensibly yawning widely and announcing that he would be napping as well, as Teiji's fussiness had interfered with his own sleep the night before. But as soon as he'd closed the cabin door behind himself, Iroh grabbed the little tin cup he kept on a shelf, pressed it against the wall between his and Zuko's cabin and listened with all his might. Iroh knew without asking that Zuko had no intention of telling anyone what he'd done last night, but he also knew that sometimes parents use their very young children as sounding boards, to get things off their chests without worrying about being judged for what they're saying.
Only a few months into their journey, Iroh had discovered quite by accident that one particular spot on the wall between their cabins was thinner than the rest, and voices on the other side could be heard if one listened carefully enough. With the cup acting as a conduit, Iroh overheard Zuko getting both Teiji and himself ready for naptime… and after the barely-discernible rustling indicated they were both in bed, he heard Zuko heave a great sigh before saying, "It almost worked, Teiji…"
"I was able to sneak all the way inside to where they'd imprisoned the Avatar, free him and get halfway out again before we were discovered. That ended up being the hardest fight of my life, but I managed to get the Avatar clear outside the gates of the stronghold. But then I got hit by something—probably a Yuyan arrow, I guess—and it knocked me out. The next thing I knew, I was waking up under a tree deep in the forest, and the Avatar was just sitting nearby and asking me if we could have been friends in another life."
Iroh thought his heart actually stuttered a beat when he heard that. The Avatar, asking to be friends with his nephew—while Zuko was still chasing him! Iroh didn't know if that meant the airbender was clairvoyant, receiving a vision of the future that Iroh still could only hope would come to pass, or just plain crazy.
Unaware of his uncle's eavesdropping, Zuko continued, "I… He saved me from being captured by Zhao. My mask was off, he knew who I was and what I was really there for, and he'd still saved me. I couldn't try to capture him right then; it wouldn't be honorable, after he'd… shown me such mercy. So I just shooed him off with a fireball, to go back to his friends; he'd said something while we were escaping about them needing frogs for some weird reason. So I'm sorry, but I didn't capture him last night after all. But I will, Teiji; I promise you that. I promise you that someday, I'll take you home to the palace, and show you my mother's garden. We'll make that bush a secret shrine to your mother as well as mine… and I'll show you how to make friends with the turtle-ducks. You'll (yawwwn) you'll really like turtle-ducks, Teiji; they're so small, and cute…"
Two days later, in the Fire Nation capital…
Four times each day, the Fire Lord's personal secretary took messages to the hawk-tower in the eastern wing of the palace, and picked up any black-ribboned scrolls that had arrived recently. Being wary of birds ever since he'd been attacked by one as a child, he took pains to avoid the messenger hawks themselves, but that never bothered the hawksmen; they accepted and left messages in baskets next to the door, a good distance away from the windows and perches.
Today he picked up another basket of scrolls on his third visit of the day, and once he was back in his office he sorted through the stack by the seals placed on each scroll. Scrolls from other members of the royal family were always left sealed, to be opened by the Fire Lord himself. But everything else was read by his secretary first, to determine how urgently they needed to be responded to or even if they were actually worth the Fire Lord's attention.
This latest batch had no royal seals, which was not surprising; Prince Zuko generally wrote only twice a month, and the Fire Lord's brother only sent the traditional Solstice messages. Two messages from province governors, three from colony governors, two from generals currently operating in the Earth Kingdom, and one from—the secretary double-checked the seal's wax impression, and snorted to himself; the new Admiral Zhao certainly hadn't wasted any time getting the three-tongued flame of admiral ranking added to his personal seal.
The secretary opened Zhao's scroll first, figuring it would be simply a personal letter of gratitude for his promotion in rank. Which it was, for the first half of the letter, but then… The secretary's eyes went wide as saucers as he read:
Unfortunately, I feel it ultimately necessary to the welfare of the nation and your royal legacy, to include in this letter of gratitude some very grim tidings. I have recently encountered the banished Prince Zuko, and discovered that he has been extremely irresponsible and causing a scandal in the colonies he visits. In his youthful foolishness, he bred a bastard child on an Earth Kingdom peasant woman, and after her death he took the baby aboard ship with him.
He has even shown this offspring off at colonies such as Pohuai, which is where I most recently encountered him. He claims to be merely adopting a foundling as his ward until the boy is old enough to survive on his own, but I saw with my own eyes how he treats the child, as one from his loins; there can be no doubt as to the babe's origins. There is also little doubt that if Prince Zuko ever returns to Fire Nation soil, he will attempt to overturn centuries of honorable tradition and make that half-breed bastard his heir to the royal throne. I felt it necessary to advise you of these recent events and intentions, so that you may deal with the situation as your Majesty sees fit, before the scandal touches our nation's sacred shores.
With utmost sincerity,
Admiral Zhao Gama
Ten minutes later, the letter was in the Fire Lord's office, and smoking with curling black edges where it was being gripped by royal hands. Fire Lord Ozai turned his outraged stare from the letter to his secretary as he demanded, "Why am I only hearing about this now?! Has the boy mentioned anything about a baby in those letters he keeps sending me?"
"I-I wouldn't know, sire," the secretary stammered out. "Scrolls from members of the royal family are always delivered to you still sealed!"
He could see it in the Fire Lord's eyes; for just one moment, Ozai was actually regretting all the times he'd had those sealed scrolls delivered to his audience chamber, so he could show his contempt for the prince by burning them unread. But the secretary was not allowed to savor the moment; the Fire Lord barked at him, "Get me the spymaster, now!"
'Now' took over half an hour, since the spymaster had been out of the palace at the moment and the secretary had to send runners to track him down and bring him back. By that time Ozai had left his office for his audience chamber, for a meeting with some noble petitioners. But as soon as the spymaster made a discreet appearance in the back of the audience chamber, the Fire Lord peremptorily denied the petitioners' request and ordered them out of the palace, and then beckoned the spymaster over. He demanded, "Tell me everything you know about Prince Zuko taking a baby aboard his ship!"
A master of spies has to be a supremely smooth operator, never getting flustered or showing surprise unless it's for calculated effect. But standing in his traditional post off to one side of the chamber, the secretary was sure he could see flickers of both terror and sheer embarrassment in the spymaster's eyes before the man said with a bow, "Your majesty, only today have I begun to hear any wild rumors about that subject, reportedly from gossip down at the docks; I was journeying down there to ascertain more details and confirm the rumor's origin when I was summoned back here."
"What about your spy aboard the ship?" Ozai demanded, brandishing the scroll from Zhao like a paper club. "I have here a message saying there are even witnesses in Pohuai who've seen the weakling with a brat in his arms; does your man dare to say nothing about such a disgrace?!"
"The latest shipment of mail from the Wani arrived at the fleet's mail center nine days ago and was disseminated to the crew's home islands, and the rumor of a baby aboard seems to have begun with the letter from at least one of the crewmen. But I received no coded letter from my agent Shoda in that shipment. I do not yet know whether that means my agent has been compromised."
Ozai's curses scorched the already smoky air in the chamber. Then he pointed to the secretary and ordered, "Send a hawk-message to that banished brat! Tell him that he's making a mockery of both the royal family and naval tradition by having a baby aboard! Unless he gets that bastard spawn off his ship within a day of receiving the message, he's no son of mine and can never return to Fire Nation soil, Avatar or not!"
Then he pointed to the spymaster. "And you will find out what orphanage or family he leaves that baby with, and ensure something fatal happens to it immediately! Make it look like an accident, or some childhood disease; nothing that can be traced back here!"
Both the secretary and the spymaster bowed to their sovereign, and hurried to do his bidding.
The baskets of scrolls for sending by messenger hawk were always left by the secretary just inside the door to the hawk-tower. And if a hawksman was distracted by, say, someone throwing a stone into one of the high windows just after a basket was dropped off, then it would take only the work of a moment to slip inside the door that had been prevented from latching, swap out the single scroll in the basket with another one bearing the same royal seal and destination, quickly remove the bit of wood that had kept the door from latching and leave again, all unnoticed.
Azula grinned to herself as she tucked the scroll inside her sleeve while strolling away, confident that her personal maid and stone-thrower had likewise escaped unnoticed. She'd had her sire's seal secretly forged for her use and had been practicing the secretary's style of calligraphy for over a year now, certain that both would come in handy someday. And today had definitely been 'someday'; the conversation she'd eavesdropped on in the Fire Lord's audience chamber had given her the perfect opportunity to accomplish one of her many goals in life.
So long as her dear, dumb brother Zu-Zu continued to chase the Avatar, there remained an ever-so-slight chance that he would actually capture the airbender child and return home, to reclaim his honor and his position as heir to the throne. That was a claim that Azula had no intention of giving up, after nearly three years of enjoying her increased position. So the scroll she'd sent would take care of that problem. And given that it was written in the secretary's hand, and sent when the Fire Lord had ordered the secretary to send a message, if anything went wrong the blame would fall solely on the secretary instead of her. Humming merrily, Azula headed off to receive a well-deserved royal hair combing.
To be continued…
Author's Note: the Pohuai lullaby has been adapted from the lullaby/love song "Evermore", sung by Alison Krauss on the "Dog Train" album by Sandra Boynton. The original version is beautiful in its own right, and can be heard at the following link (take out the six extra spaces): www. sandraboynton sboynton. com. data/ Components/Music/9% 3 I just adapted a few lines to fit the world of ATLA and this story.
This is one of those chapters in which what was supposed to be a simple little scene, mutated into a monster which then grabbed the bit in its teeth, and yanked the reins away from me to run for nearly 20 pages. Developing another plot point as it did, one that's actually going to solve a problem I'd been wondering how to handle when this story hits 3rd-season situations!
So after realizing that this chapter threatened to be over seventy-five pages long before I'd be finished with it (as it is, this is over 50 pages in MS Word!), instead of putting that scene/sequence of scenes on the chopping block, I left out other scenes that were essentially just restating what we saw on screen during "The Blue Spirit." Sorry to disappoint you readers who were expecting big fight scenes in this chapter, but here's a link to a pretty good Youtube fan video that includes the highlights of that Great Escape, to make it up to you: www. youtube watch?v=8uc9qz4FITw