A/N: This story is one I've been planning for a while, but wanted to put off until I had a little bit more experience writing fiction. It's a slightly dark AU, set eight years after the Avatar's death. It will be quite a bit different in tone from Rise of the Uchiha, my first AU story in the Naruto universe. This story will focus more on political intrigue, romance, and betrayal than on action scenes, though there will be more than a few of those. The inspiration for this story comes from (besides Avatar itself) George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan, two of my favorite fantasy authors. If you haven't read The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, I recommend you take a break from and go check them out - you'll be glad you did.
Finally, this first chapter has been revised since I first posted it – the major changes are: 1) Zuko's servant Patrick is now named Roshi; 2) I substantially changed Zuko's conversation with General Brant, to better reflect Zuko's goal of destabilizing Azula's support base; and finally, 3) I altered Zuko's interview with High Priest Feng so that Zuko does not remove his mask, keeping his identity secret.
Anyway, sorry for the long introduction and I hope you all enjoy the story!
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar
He caressed her cheek gently, cradling her head in his lap. The skin under his fingers was pale and soft, and looked no less beautiful in death than in life. If Zuko focused on her face he could almost make himself believe she was only sleeping. What a cruel illusion.
Burns stretched from her neck all the way down to her legs. Most of her skin was charred, and her clothes had been burned away. Zuko's cloak covered her body, but she was far past any thoughts of modesty now. Here and there between burns were stab wounds, inflicted by the spears of Fire Nation soldiers after her water-bending grew too weak to keep them at bay.
Zuko's eyes rose for a moment, moving away from the sight of Katara's ravaged body to take in the carnage before him. A full century of soldiers lay dead or dying in the surrounding field under the hot noon sun. They had completed their mission, though; Katara was dead. The leader of the Resistance had finally fallen.
These men would go down in Fire Nation history. Their names would be inscribed in a shrine honoring their memory for all eternity, or at least as long as the Fire Nation survived. Zuko doubted that they cared. Katara had managed to kill over half of the hundred-man unit before succumbing to her burns, and those who died early were lucky. When there was no hope left, Katara had bent the very blood in the veins of the surviving soldiers. Forty-seven men had suddenly discovered that their lungs were filling with blood, and drowned slowly while they struggled for breath.
That was the scene that had greeted Zuko's eyes when he arrived hours later, expecting a routine exchange of information like the countless others he had coordinated with Katara over the years. But instead of a heavily disguised Katara he encountered dead men scattered around like so many pieces of trash, most with rapidly melting spikes of ice protruding from limbs and breastplates and eye sockets. The rattling gasps of men drowning in their own blood filled the clearing. And in the center of the field, surrounded on all sides by the dead, was the woman he loved.
The sight of her small body seared itself into Zuko's brain, just as surely as his father had once seared his flesh. Now he caressed Katara's cheek once again, silently telling her goodbye for the last time. He lifted her head from his lap and placed it carefully on the ground beside him. Then he stood and walked around the clearing, pausing beside the dying and ending their lives as swiftly as he knew how.
Reinforcements arrived soon, no doubt sent by the same officer who had dispatched the first century. They took over from Zuko, who was dragging dead soldiers to a spot at the edge of the field. He had cleared ground for the pyre, which would consume the bodies and send their spirits to the afterlife. Zuko approached the commanding officer, a burly man in brightly polished armor who snapped to attention before his prince.
"Please finish the burial detail, Captain. Proceed with the utmost respect – your fallen brothers managed to bring down the leader of the Resistance." After years of dreading this outcome, he was able to say the words without his voice shaking. The news spread through the ranks of the Fire Nation soldiers like wildfire, sparking murmurs that grew steadily louder.
"She's dead… The water-witch is dead… The prince killed her… My god, look at the bodies…"
"Yes sir! Honor to serve!" the captain's voice brought Zuko back from listening to the lowered voices.
Zuko returned the man's sharp salute, and stood off to the side as the two centuries began the arduous task of gathering the bodies for the pyre. By the time night fell the corpses were assembled on top of a makeshift pile of brush and tree branches. The captain waited respectfully for Zuko to light the pyre. As the highest-ranking Fire Nation officer present, it was his right to set the first flame.
He stood rigidly at attention while the bodies burned. The two hundred men around him did the same, thinking their prince was honoring the fallen Fire Nation heroes. They could not possibly know that he was staring fixedly at the dancing flames in order to keep from looking at the one corpse not on the pyre. As an enemy of the Fire Nation, Katara would not be allowed the cleansing release of cremation. And because she was an enemy leader her body would be brought back to the Fire Nation capital, and put on display before every village they passed on the way.
Zuko imagined that the flames from the pyre were raging in his chest as well, searing him from within. It was over. Nothing could ever be good or pure again. His heart felt like a piece of charcoal, hard and burnt and blackened. After years of war and pain, after all the moments of fierce joy and crushing despair, Zuko was hopelessly, completely alone.
The rising sun sent its rays through an open window of the palace and into a small, lightly-furnished room, waking Zuko from the dream that plagued him almost every night. It had been especially vivid this time, but that was unsurprising. A year ago today, the Resistance had been shattered. Today was a national holiday, dedicated to the memory of the men who had fought against the Fire Nation's single most dangerous enemy since the Avatar. One hundred dead men, and one still living. Zuko grimaced. Today the Fire Nation court would honor him for killing the woman he had loved. The gods, if they existed, had a cruel sense of irony.
There came a light rapping on the door, distracting Zuko from his somber musings.
"You may enter," he said quietly. The gleaming mahogany door swung open without a whisper, revealing a young man in the livery of a servant of the Fire Nation royal family. He carried a silver tray piled high with eggs, ham, fruit, and various delicacies from different parts of the world. Before the fall of the Avatar and the Night of Destiny, much of the food on this plate would have been impossible to find. But after the fall of Ba Sing Se and the subsequent consolidation, trade routes were bringing products from every corner of the colonized world back to the Fire Nation capital.
Zuko's manservant came forward, depositing the tray on the richly upholstered bed.
"Thank you, Roshi."
The young man bowed low, and turned smartly without a word to draw a bath in the adjoining room. The man was a singularly poor conversationalist, not that Zuko had ever tried to draw him out. Roshi was actually his sister's creature, a spy paid to keep an eye on Zuko and report his movements to the Princess. The young man was surprisingly subtle, but Zuko had noticed several times that some of his belongings weren't quite where he had left them. He hadn't been surprised to discover that Roshi was a spy; Azula was famously paranoid, and perhaps with good reason.
Zuko permitted himself a small smile, which was about as much mirth as he could find within himself these days. It was ironic that he had only become the target of his sister's suspicions after supposedly killing Katara. It made sense, in a way, because the popularity he had gained from that ill-fated triumph made him a much more dangerous opponent politically.
However, the scrutiny had begun at the exact time when he no longer had anything treasonous left to hide. The Resistance was gone, collapsing almost immediately when its leader and symbolic figurehead had died. And Zuko's intelligence reports, which he had managed to deliver to the agents working against the Fire Nation's brutal campaigns for seven long years, were long since burned. Not that Azula would have found any evidence of treachery if she had began watching him sooner; he had never been stupid enough to keep his reports in his chambers.
Zuko took his time with breakfast, slowly eating grapes one at a time and frequently putting his utensils down to wipe his mouth with the embroidered napkin. It would be foolish to dismiss his manservant, because Azula would simply find another way to spy on him. But he could make the young spy wait. Until Zuko decided to take his bath, Roshi was required to stand ready with a towel over his arm. If possible, Zuko would have liked to make him wait all day. But that would serve no purpose besides giving him a petty sense of satisfaction. Besides, today's festivities were at least partly in his honor and it wouldn't do to be late.
Zuko put his tray aside and threw off his red silk sheets. He entered the next room and slipped out of his richly-embroidered nightgown, which was covered in a pattern of dancing flames. Roshi took the robe and folded it efficiently, while Zuko lowered himself into the marble bathtub with a satisfied sigh.
And anyway, Zuko contemplated while scrubbing himself idly, why whip the dog when it's only following the commands of its owner? Better to kill the owner. Although, Zuko thought after a moment, it was really Azula who was most like a dog; a feral, rabid dog ready to snap at friend and foe alike.
It was fairly obvious to anyone with a sufficiently privileged position in court that Azula was not fully in her right mind. Her rages were legendary, and her paranoia was as dangerous to her political allies as her potential enemies. But she was the Princess and Fire Lord Ozai's heir, beloved of the Emperor now calling himself a god.
Possibly even more to the point, anyone stupid enough to cross Azula soon found out why she had made it so far with only a tenuous grip on her sanity. Her firebending was said to be second only to the Fire Lord himself, and she had proved again and again in Agni Kai and on the battlefield that insanity was no barrier to power.
Zuko often wondered how he would compare in a fight with Azula. Back when the Avatar was still alive, Azula had been by far the more powerful. But Zuko had learned a few tricks of his own since then. Of course, he had been far too valuable to the Resistance to risk his position in a duel with his sister.
His position in the Fire Nation was the result of a plan put in place back when the Avatar had been alive. Iroh had finally told Zuko everything about his own allegiance, and after Zuko's severe sickness in Ba Sing Se he decided to throw in with the Avatar. Zuko, Iroh and Aang had planned out the battle, in which Zuko joined Azula to fight the Avatar. Iroh stepped in after Zuko's "betrayal," but not before Aang allowed Zuko to land a crippling blow. Everything went exactly as planned; Katara healed Aang easily, and the Fire Lord welcomed Zuko back with open arms.
That marked the beginning of Zuko's time as a spy. The fact that he wasn't restored as heir was a good thing, in that it allowed him the freedom to pass information to the Avatar. When the Avatar challenged Fire Lord Ozai, Zuko had stayed behind just in case the worst happened. Which, as it turned out, it did. Aang fell, and in short order there were no major settlements free from Fire Nation rule.
After the Avatar was defeated by Ozai, Iroh had made one last, heroic effort to take down the Fire Lord's dynasty single-handed. Zuko and Katara would have joined him, but Iroh made them promise to continue the fight in the absence of the Avatar. Iroh tasked Zuko and Katara with coordinating the Resistance, and marched to the Azulon gates with his head held high, knowing he was going to his death.
Zuko still remembered that day, when his beloved Uncle Iroh had appeared at the very gates of the Capital and challenged the Fire Lord to an Agni Kai. But it was Azula who answered the challenge, and uncle had fought niece before the gates while the entire Fire Nation court watched from the ramparts as if it were a performance in the theater.
The sight of Iroh falling while Azula's blue lighting sparked erratically over his body marked the first time Zuko had ever really believed that their cause might fail. Even after Aang had been defeated, Zuko was sure that good could triumph over evil. But he lost that faith with the death of the man who had been his friend and teacher, and a better father than Ozai had ever been.
When the bathwater was tepid and the bubbles had disappeared Zuko surfaced, allowing Roshi to dry him with the towel and help him don the first layer of his ceremonial robes. The elaborate get-up took a while to put on, even with Roshi's aid.
"Thank you, Roshi. You may go." Another bow and the young man left the room, not having said a single word during the entire morning. That might be the one thing Zuko missed most from his long-dead childhood: conversation. During his years of exile he had been in constant communication with Iroh, talking about life and love and a hundred other things.
With the clarity of hindsight Zuko now saw just how much Iroh had been trying to prepare his young nephew, and instill values in him that he had never found in the Fire Nation. In fact, Iroh had probably been overjoyed to have a chance to work on Zuko, away from the poisonous atmosphere of the court and the power-hungry Fire Lord.
Conversation had also been part of what Zuko came to value most about his time with Katara. Over a period of seven years she had been almost the only person with whom Zuko was able to be completely honest. While passing information they also talked about the past, and their hopes for the future, and a hundred other things. Before long Zuko fell in love with her, valuing her kindness and courage and coming to rely on her more than he ever had on Uncle Iroh.
Of course it could never have worked out between them. Katara had loved Aang, and it was his memory that gave her the strength to keep fighting a losing battle. Zuko loved her in silence, and gave every ounce of his being to her cause. His only reward was scattered conversations and hurried words, all the more precious for their scarcity.
By now Zuko was used to keeping silent. In the Capital every conversation was a code, and you kept your secrets close. But every now and again he missed the carefree exchange between friends, with no hidden meanings and no motive other than happiness in each other's company…
Ah, it was foolish to miss what one couldn't have. And dangerous, as well. In the Fire Nation court words were weapons, and could get you killed faster than anything else.
Zuko looked at the clock mounted on his wall. It was one of the many recent developments from the Fire Nation workshops, and was only available to the wealthiest noblemen for their personal use. The two hands told him that it was time to leave for the ceremony; no matter how painful the memories he would have to face, he couldn't delay the moment any longer.
The sun was high and harsh, beating down on Zuko's neck without mercy. Sweat rolled off him in waves, but one benefit of the bulky ceremonial robes was that it did not show. He remained immobile, as did the nobles sitting with him at the table. Firebenders do not show weakness before the sun.
It was noon in the grand courtyard of the palace. The parade through the streets had been mercifully short, and Zuko had not been required to wave to the crowd for more than a few minutes. Zuko guessed that his honorable father had no wish to subject himself to the prolonged merriment of his subjects. Now the highest-ranking members of court were assembled at a long table covered with a white cloth. Lunch would be served, but not before they suffered through what, to Zuko's mind, was the worst part of this celebration.
A troupe of players were arrayed in the great courtyard. Most were lying on the ground, engaged in elaborate movements that were supposed to be death throes. A man and a woman were still standing, facing each other and performing an elaborate dance. The woman was dressed in a rough approximation of the garments of the southern Water Tribe, and her counterpart was wearing the full-length battle dress and insectoid helmet customary for firebenders. A musician was playing the lyre and chanting in the manner customary for Fire Nation poetry.
"And mighty Zuko bravely took the field
A hundred men, his power overtook
The dreaded witch fought on, she would not yield
And with their clash, the world's foundations shook."
Zuko's long years of iron self-control allowed him to keep his features immobile, but inside he was a seething mass of scorn and disgust. That his worst memory should be so memorialized, with playacting and horrible poetry, was almost more than he could bear. Worse, he would be required to make formal gestures of appreciation to the theater company for their tribute.
Many minutes later the reenactment ended with the woman pretending to be Katara falling gracefully to the ground. The table erupted into applause, though Zuko guessed that the enthusiasm had more to do with the cooks wheeling out trolleys piled high with roast meats and elaborate iced concoctions than the dubious merits of that particular performance.
The players bowed first to Fire Lord Ozai, who was sitting in a large chair, almost a movable throne, at the end of the long table. He nodded his head in gracious acceptance. Then they bowed to Zuko. He stood up, knowing what was expected.
"I am honored beyond words by your gift to me, and to all of the brave soldiers who fought for our nation." Zuko spoke loudly, projecting his voice to fill the courtyard and echo back from the high stone walls. "Please, allow me to share my gratitude."
The musician walked forward, lyre tucked under his arm, and sank to his knees before the assembled nobility. Zuko grasped his arm and pressed a small purse of money into his hand, and then wasted no time returning to his seat. The players filed out of the courtyard while the cooks advanced on the table with the banquet. Within moments the table was overflowing. Zuko took a sip of his iced wine and delighted in the refreshing chill after so long in the sun, but made no move toward the food. The pageantry wasn't quite finished yet.
At the head of the long table, the Fire Lord got to his feet. A hush descended over the court, and all eyes swiveled to focus on the self-styled God-King Ozai.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome! You are all here today to celebrate a great victory. When we defeated the Avatar eight years ago we thought we had won." Gods, thought Zuko in exasperation, aren't you tired of using the royal 'we' yet?
"But the misguided Resistance refused to see our glorious purpose, and remained a thorn in our side for seven years. The witch who led them was a bane to all firebenders, and there were some who did not even believe she was human."
That was almost true, in a way. To her soldiers, and the people suffering under Fire Nation brutality, Katara was more than human. She was the invincible waterbender, who kept fighting where the Avatar had failed. To the Fire Nation, she was a demon in human form, a wraith used by parents to scare their children into obedience. Only with Zuko and her brother Sokka was Katara able to drop the mask she wore, and be vulnerable for a few minutes.
Not that she was vulnerable very often. After Aang's death Katara became like one possessed. She wouldn't let anything get in the way of her fight against the Fire Nation.
It was funny, Zuko mused, how things tended to run full circle. Katara had been driven to her role by Aang's ghost, and now it would be Katara's ghost riding at his shoulder. He wondered if his memory would ever spur anyone forward. But then, that would require someone close enough to miss him when he was gone. Zuko had no one.
The Fire Lord continued his melodrama for a while, elaborating on Katara's victories and the spell she had cast on the countryside, and in the hearts of peasants and slaves.
"But a year ago, we found that she was human after all. And the man who defeated her is with us today. Our son, Prince Zuko." Ozai ended with a flourish not far different from the musician's at the end of his poem. A round of applause went down the table, and once again Zuko stood.
The sea of faces turned towards him. He saw Admiral Kai, the officer in charge of the Fire Nation's grand fleet. There was General Brant, Supreme Commander of the Fire Nation Armed Forces. High Priest Feng and his Lesser Council, and many other noblemen of the court. At the end of the table was the God-King Ozai, and seated at his right was Azula. All in all, a perfect audience for a performance of his own.
"Your Majesty, I am humbled by your gracious praise. It is not I who deserve this celebration, but the valiant soldiers who gave their lives and managed to weaken the water-witch so that I stood a chance." He saw the smiles approving of his humility, and had to stifle a hysterical urge to laugh.
"But the praise should not stop with me, or with those honored heroes. We should also honor my esteemed sister, Princess Azula." The smiles slipped then, and faces turned to see how Azula would react to this strange statement. She only smiled, though her eyes glinted dangerously.
"Though she was unable to take the field and hunt for the witch or her Resistance movement, she was still able to coordinate the search efforts from the Palace. It would be the height of folly to heap all the praise on one man, or even one hundred and one men, and ignore her efforts which spearheaded seven years of effort in service to our nation. To Princess Azula!" Zuko raised his glass to the sky, then drained it before anyone could follow suit.
A shocked silence followed after the gauntlet he had thrown down. To bring up the seven years of failure and assign her sole responsibility, during his own celebration no less, was tantamount to a declaration of war. Well, that was what Zuko was going to give her. He met his sister's eyes and held her gaze, enjoying the frustrated rage that she was barely managing to hold in check.
Some diplomatic person at the table realized the tension needed a quick outlet. "To Princess Azula and Prince Zuko! All hail God-King Ozai!" The court gladly pounced on this out and toasted the royal family.
Zuko sat down and tore into a haunch of pork with savage satisfaction. He wasn't done yet, not by a long shot. His family could celebrate now. But when those soldiers had killed Katara they had cut the strings keeping Zuko in the shadows. And the world would burn before he was done.
To the Esteemed General Brant,
Your presence is courteously requested this evening in the Flowing Blossom Garden.
Crown Prince Zuko
Zuko signed his name with a flourish and set his quill to rest next to the inkwell. The letter itself he folded carefully and sealed with a blob of wax. His personal seal came next, pressing into the hot wax and leaving an impression of a hand holding a flame. He rang the bell hanging down from a thick braided cord by his desk.
The door opened after a few minutes and Roshi entered, bowing low.
"Ah, hello Roshi. I need you to run an errand. Please deliver this letter to General Brant. It is of the utmost importance."
Roshi received the letter with another bow, and no discernable reaction other than a slight widening of his eyes.
"Right away, your highness." He turned on his heel and rushed off to deliver the message.
He really was very good, Zuko decided. You could almost believe he was nothing more than the unflappable servant. Zuko sighed in contentment. Everything was much easier when you knew who the spies were.
Zuko settled himself into a comfortable armchair and took a book down from the top shelf of his personal library. Avatar Roku's History of the Fire Nation. It was a banned book in most parts of the Fire Nation's empire. It contained a remarkably thorough exploration of the rise of Fire Nation power, though it stopped years before the Fire Nation began their aggressive expansion.
In his youth Zuko had never been one for reading. Books were for old men, or fuel for fire. It wasn't until Zuko found himself stranded in the Fire Nation that he realized what a solace books could be, and how useful to his cause. Now a book felt comfortable in his hands, and Zuko filled his free time with researching his country's past.
Mere hours later, three loud raps sounded on his door.
Azula certainly wastes no time.
"Come in," Zuko called.
The door swung open with enough force that it hit the wall with a crash. An irate Azula entered.
"Careful, sister dear," Zuko said in an affectionate tone he knew would drive Azula up the wall. "You might break the door."
"It's not the door that should be worried," Azula answered. "How dare you insult me in front of the court?"
Zuko only smiled.
"What do you mean? I only wanted to share the honor and glory with my sister, the Princess."
"Save the speeches for the saps who believe them, Zuko. We both know what you were doing this afternoon."
Zuko reminded himself he had to play this slowly. Mad Azula might be – stupid she definitely was not. Even before Zuko had been banished the Fire Lord had tutored her in the art of politics. Firebending wasn't her only skill, and if he wanted his little game to succeed he would have to remember that.
"I worried that your great… accomplishment… might go to your head," Azula said in a knowing tone. "I see I was right. But you should be careful, Zuko. Public acclaim is like a drug. Heady and intoxicating. But too much…" she paused deliberately and smirked at him. "Too much might get you killed."
Zuko only smiled at the threat. It was exhilarating not having to hold anything back. This was the first clash in a war that would end with only one of them left alive. The fact that the duel was conducted in words made it no less satisfying.
"I assure you, I have no desire to be in the public eye. Haven't I shown that since I returned to the Capital? I have been a loyal servant of the Fire Nation."
Azula snorted loudly.
"Oh yes, you've been meek as a mouse. When Father first welcomed you back, I thought you would try and regain your position as heir. You are the older child after all. But you never said a word about it. So very… humble. For a while, I even had the crazy idea that you might be working against us in secret."
She watched Zuko carefully for his reaction.
"Did you?" Zuko allowed some scorn to enter his voice.
"You spent most of your life with the traitor Iroh, after all. And you accepted such a reduced position in court without complaint; why, that's not the hotheaded big brother I knew! Not unless you had some kind of agenda."
"And what might that have been?" Zuko asked with amusement.
"It seemed suspicious to me that, despite all our efforts, the Resistance remained one step ahead. We would get close, only to have them disappear like ghosts. It was almost as if they had someone on the inside, letting them know when patrols were being sent out."
"And you thought it might be me? I hope your suspicions were eased when I crushed the Resistance."
"For a while," Azula conceded. "But how fortunate for you, that you were able to survive an attack that killed an entire century of our best soldiers. No one else to share the glory. And now the people love you. Brave Prince Zuko, who vanquished the water-witch."
Azula sneered with contempt, whether at Zuko's accomplishment or the impressionable public Zuko wasn't sure.
"Father always told me to ask one question: 'who benefits?' So I asked myself. Who benefits from a Resistance surviving long enough to be considered the single largest threat to the realm? No one except the person responsible for bringing it down. Now I think I understand why you were so careful and quiet during those seven years – you were just biding your time until the Resistance was big enough so that taking it down would make you a Fire Nation hero."
So that's what she thought he was doing. Zuko was a little impressed in spite of himself. She was almost right, at least as far as helping the Resistance went. Even if his original goal had been an end to tyranny instead of usurping her place as heir. Now his goals were nowhere near so lofty. Zuko wasn't out for justice, or advancement. He just wanted Azula to suffer, along with everyone else responsible for the deaths of all those he had cared for.
It was good that Azula was prepared, though. It wouldn't be as much fun to destroy her unless she saw it coming.
"That's quite the theory," Zuko said noncommittally, "or it would be if I was as cunning a snake as you. I don't know how you function, seeing plots around every corner. But then, even if everything is as you say, proving it would be difficult since the Resistance is ancient history now."
"I'm not going to prove anything. I just want you to know that I see what you're doing. And you'd best be careful."
"I always am. Good afternoon."
Azula made it to the door, but with an actor's timing turned around at the last moment.
"And Zuko, make sure you say hello to General Brant for me."
She gave one last smile, really just an excuse to bare her teeth, before leaving.
Zuko shook his head. If he wasn't determined not to underestimate his sister, he'd be in danger of dismissing her as a mindless thug. Not only did she tip her hand in revealing her knowledge of his plans, she also blatantly gave away the identity of her spy. It had only been a few hours since Zuko had sent the message, and it could only have been Roshi who told her. If Zuko had ever been so careless when arranging meetings with Katara, they would have been caught before the Resistance was a year old.
Maybe she meant to make him second-guess himself, by telling him that she was aware of his plans to meet with the General, but didn't care enough to try and stop him. It could be a show of confidence, a claim that she was so secure of the Army's support that she didn't feel the need to get in the way of Zuko's not-so-secret meetings. Even if that were true, it was nothing Zuko wasn't expecting.
You'll have to do better than that, Azula. I'm two steps ahead and you can't afford to fall behind.
The Flowing Blossom Garden was one of the most beautiful places in the palace compound. Over a hundred years ago, firebenders went there to practice the martial arts that hadn't yet been put to use in the battlefield. Priests and nobles relaxed and communed with nature while honing their talents. Now it was simply a courtyard where children came for picnics, or the occasional artist came to sketch the small pond, overshadowed by a giant tree on the left bank. Tonight it would once again see firebenders, though they were here for a very different purpose indeed.
Zuko reached the footbridge leading across the pond, where General Brant was already waiting for him. The stocky general waved a hand in greeting.
General Brant looked carved out of granite. Though nearing his fiftieth year he was still in excellent condition, and everything from his military crewcut to his brightly polished boots was immaculate. Decades of service in the Fire Nation military had left their mark in the lines on his face, just as the wind carves furrows into the stone of a high cliff. His eyes were cold, calculating. This was a hard man.
"I was surprised to receive your summons," the general began without preamble. "How may I serve your Highness?"
"Please, General," Zuko waved one hand in dismissal. "I didn't summon you, I invited you. I have affairs to discuss with you, affairs that I hope will prove mutually beneficial."
Brant looked at him askance.
"Is that so?"
"I believe so," Zuko replied. "Tell me, what is your professional opinion of the state of our empire?"
"We are at peace, for the first time in over a century," the General said, his face wearing a guarded expression. "It was your own triumph that secured that peace in the first place."
Zuko waved a hand in dismissal. "Please, do not waste my time with empty flattery, General. The Resistance was the most visible, but by no means the most dangerous, threat to our realm. In fact, I am worried that without the Resistance to keep us sharp, our nation will face a foe greater than any we have encountered before: complacency."
Without appearing to pay close attention, Zuko carefully watched the General's face as he listened to this speech. But Brant's face might as well have been a stone mask, so effectively did it repress any response. "Go on."
"I'm talking about maintaining discipline, in a country with no threats except those from within. Our Empire is built on a military tradition hundreds of years in the making, General. But now that we have no enemies in uniform, there are some who think that that tradition has come to an end. Now, instead of soldiers, we have bureaucrats and priests. Vultures flock to the new colonies in search of carcasses to strip for whatever they can get, and our government becomes a breeding ground for corruption and vice. I'm afraid that in our victory, our Empire will end by collapsing in on itself."
There was an appraising gleam in the General's eyes as he regarded Zuko. "I'll admit, I did not realize you were so concerned about the future of our nation, your Highness. Nevertheless, I am still confused about why you bring your concerns to me."
Zuko smiled, but it was more akin to a shark revealing his teeth than a display of sincere emotion. "Because you are an honorable man. Anyone who knows you knows this. You have turned down multiple offers of Governorship, which would have given you land and wealth well beyond your current reach. That tells me that you fight for our Nation not for status or advancement, but because you believe in what you do. Now, you might think I'm simply another spoiled aristocrat, one with no true experience in war, but I know as well as you do that it is a strong military which holds this empire together. Discipline and loyalty are the foundations on which our very way of life is founded. Without them, we are nothing."
"I agree wholeheartedly." The General's tone, however, was beginning to hold an undertone of exasperation. "And I thank you for the compliment. But I still have yet to understand why I'm here."
A blossom floated gently downward into Zuko's peripheral vision. He snatched it out of the air and examined it for a minute, before turning back to the general. "Then let us get straight to the point. I'm worried that my esteemed sister, the Princess Azula, is listening too much to councilors who do not have the greater good of the nation in mind."
General Brant looked unsurprised at the turn of the conversation, and watched Zuko with an expectant skepticism. "Your Highness, that is dangerously close to treason–"
Zuko cut him off smoothly. "I am not suggesting anything about our next ruler, simply expressing my fears about the council she receives. Have you not heard, for example, about the latest suggestion from high-ranking Temple Priests, that the army be reduced to a quarter of its size?"
"I have heard that," the General said, "since I was in the room where it was first proposed. I also heard the Princess dismiss the proposal out of hand."
"I know the Princess and the military have always had a good relationship," Zuko said delicately. In his head he added, not for long. "But my sister has always been susceptible to certain… pressures. She is apt to be persuaded that her fears require immediate, and decisive, correction."
That was the diplomatic way of saying that Azula was violently paranoid, and reacted to potential threats with force, force, and more force.
"General, I'm just trying to make you see the danger if the priests manage to focus Azula's fear towards the Army."
Brant's eyes narrowed. "As you are trying to focus my fear towards Azula?"
Zuko made no response, either to confirm or deny. Brant sighed heavily, and scratched his head with one hand. "Your Highness, let me stop you here. I am a simple man. I like my battles out in the open, while politics is all dueling against shadows in the dark. Play whatever games you want, but please leave me out of them."
Zuko could tell that there was no longer any need for hiding his true meaning behind elaborate phrases and misdirection. Such an approach was useless with General Brant, who saw straight through Zuko's smokescreen to the truth underneath. Zuko found himself gaining even more respect for the man, who refused to be bought and held to his duty. It was a pity that Zuko was going to have to destroy him.
"You're already a part of this game, no matter what you might believe," Zuko told him bluntly. "Azula will hear about our meeting, one way or another. Perhaps she knows already. And that knowledge will eat at her every day. She will never be able to see you without wondering whether you're working against her, and that seed of doubt will grow until she can't accept the threat any more. What do you think will happen to you then?"
Zuko could see the acceptance in the General's eyes, and the equally strong resolution. "You are certainly full of surprises, Prince Zuko. In eight years I had no idea you were hiding so much under your meek appearance. But I pledged my service to the Fire Nation, and I will not let threats deter me from my duty. If the Princess decides to remove me from my post, that is her right and I will accept it."
Zuko bowed his head, acknowledging the General's statement. "Then let us depart. But I hope you will change your mind. A ruler like Azula does not deserve the loyalty of men such as yourself."
General Brant's lips quirked upward in an ironic smile. "In the interest of avoiding royal executions, I will forget you said that. Until next we meet, Your Highness. It has certainly been an illuminating evening."
Brant gave Zuko a cool nod. Then he turned on his heel and walked to the far side of the courtyard, his stocky form growing indistinct in the fading dusk. Zuko waited until the general was completely out of sight before leaving the courtyard through a different gate. He walked through the wide corridors back to his chambers.
Torches were mounted in brackets at regular intervals along the hall, casting flickering shadows that danced on the walls. Suits of armor reflected the orange glow, standing rigidly at attention. Zuko imagined that they were watching him as he walked past.
Once in his chambers, Zuko rang the bell for Roshi. He could have taken off his robes himself, but it was his prerogative as a prince to have a servant handle the task for him. More importantly, he didn't want his sister thinking he had anything to hide.
In a few minutes Roshi arrived and helped Zuko disrobe, carrying out his duties with his usual quiet efficiency.
"Thank you, Roshi," Zuko said. Roshi bowed and left.
Zuko snuffed out the candles left burning in his room, and settled into his bed. Then he stared into the darkness, waiting. An hour went by, then two.
Finally, Zuko slipped out from underneath the covers, and walked to his wardrobe. His eyes were adjusted to the darkness by now, but he would have been able to find his way blind. His fingers found the catch on the bottom with the ease of long practice, and the false back opened without a sound. Zuko took the small bundle that was inside and replaced the wooden board in the back of the wardrobe.
The bundle was a tightly folded pair of pants, shirt, and a mask. All were completely black, and showed signs of hard use. Zuko was no stranger to midnight excursions, having found that it was easier to avoid notice if he moved at night. He had sacrificed many nights of sleep for the Resistance.
This was the first time he would wear the stealth suit since before Katara's death. It made him weirdly nostalgic.
Zuko pulled on the outfit, enjoying the freedom of movement that was so absent from his ceremonial clothing. He let himself out of his window, closing it silently after him. It was entirely dark outside, since the moon was covered by clouds. Zuko appeared to be no more than a patch of shadow, slightly darker than the wood he was currently clinging to like a leech.
He dropped, landing noiselessly on the next level down. Zuko made his way to the main gate out of the palace compound, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the few patrols easily. He was up and over the wall in a flash, noting with amusement the snoring coming from the guardhouse in front of the gate.
The streets of the Fire Nation capital were wide and well-maintained, since the area around the Palace was reserved mostly for rich merchants and retired army officials. Zuko kept to the rooftops, jumping from one to the next with ease.
Within minutes Zuko reached the Fire Temple, where only the most senior priests lived. Sneaking into the compound was easy, as there weren't even any guards posted. If the Resistance had still been in action, Zuko would have advised large-scale assassinations to cripple the Temple. As it was, Zuko had a job that was much more difficult than simply killing people.
The High Priest had lavish living quarters. After entering through the window Zuko ghosted through room after room, which held treasures from all around the world. These were the trophies of a man who loved his power, and needed to remind himself just how much he was worth.
Zuko stood over the High Priest's bed, listening to his even breathing. The priest looked much less impressive in his white nightgown.
He put a hand on the priest's shoulder, shaking him gently. The High Priest jolted upright, but Zuko was ready and held his other hand over the priest's mouth.
"Shh…" he whispered urgently. "Don't be alarmed, Your Excellency. I mean you no harm."
He cautiously took his hand away from the priest's face.
High Priest Feng was a wrinkled man of over sixty, and certainly didn't look like one of the most powerful people in the realm. Thanks to the Fire Lord's adapted religion featuring himself as a deity incarnate, the Temple had grown in both size and importance. The Fire Sages, once the highest spiritual authority in the land, had been brutally murdered when they opposed the Fire Lord's declarations. The current Fire Temple was what replaced the Fire Sages, and the High Priest was utterly and completely the Fire Lord's creature. However, he had a fair amount of influence over the Fire Lord, who considered Feng one of his most valuable advisors.
"What is the meaning of this?" Feng sputtered.
"My deepest apologies, Your Excellency. I couldn't take the chance that someone might find out that I've met with you. There are too many eyes and ears in the Palace."
Zuko could see Feng's tired mind trying to process what he was saying. Soon his irritation at being woken in the middle of the night was replaced by his curiosity.
"Who are you?"
Zuko sat down on the bed, opposite Feng.
"I can't tell you that. There are eyes and ears everywhere, and anonymity is my only safety. I am afraid," Zuko began, "that there may be a growing faction within the military that means harm to the Fire Nation."
"I'm talking about a potential conspiracy. As you can see from my presence here tonight," Zuko grinned at the priest, "I have ways of getting around the Capital unnoticed. And I've heard rumors that there is unrest growing. It may be linked with the end of the Resistance, since everyone believes that our troubles are at an end. Now would be the perfect time to strike. I don't know who is behind it, but I think some high-ranking Army officials might be involved."
"What do you suspect?" Feng asked, sounding a little panicky.
"Does it not seem strange to you that the military is fighting so hard to stay at full capacity?" Feng's eyes widened.
"Exactly," Zuko said with a nod. "We've conquered every nation in the known world, and ended the Resistance. Yet certain people in court fight tooth and nail to keep from giving up an ounce of military power. We have far more manpower than we need to administrate already occupied states. The citizens themselves keep order, out of fear of reprisals. Yet still officers complain about the military restrictions. Why would they do that if the military wasn't in some way involved?"
Feng was gulping like a fish.
"These are… these are very serious accusations," he said weakly.
"I know," Zuko agreed. "There's no way to know for sure who's behind this, but from what I've heard I don't doubt the existence of a conspiracy for a second. The problem is I don't know how far its reach might be. But after all, it only takes one man giving the orders, and an army can become a weapon far more dangerous to its wielder than anyone else.
"Your Excellency, you're the only one who has a chance of stopping this. The Fire Lord listens to you. If you point out to him the danger posed by the armies, and urge him to reduce the size of the army or put more safeguards in place, you can cut off the potential for revolt at the knees. Meanwhile, I can continue my search to uncover the full depth of the conspiracy. Once you know them all you can denounce them to the Fire Lord, but for now you have to proceed delicately."
Feng took a deep breath. Zuko was pleased at how things were going. He meant to overload the High Priest with information, keep things moving too fast for him to question, and hopefully he would go right along with his plans. After all, it wasn't like Feng hadn't already counseled the Fire Lord to reduce the size of the army. In fact, the restrictions on military presence in the colonies were largely thanks to Feng's advice. If Feng believed Zuko, he wouldn't do anything more than become a bit more… urgent, in his counsel.
Feng might remain suspicious of a masked man breaking into his room, but that suspicion wouldn't stop him from being even more antagonistic toward the military. In fact, for Zuko's purposes, the more suspicion, the better. It would all circle back to Azula, and the more she suspected the more she would fear. Eventually Azula's fears would consume her, and her supporters would stop fighting each other as they began to be targeted by her.
"I knew the Army was more trouble than it's worth," Feng said distractedly. "Keeping a rabid dog can only end with the owner getting bitten."
"Tell that to the Fire Lord. It is the best thing you can possibly do for him."
"What about uncovering the conspiracy?" he asked nervously. "Are you confident you can find proof?"
"I don't know, but I think I'm getting closer. But please - don't tell anyone about this; if the traitors realize you know about them they might strike immediately, and I don't have enough information about who is in on the plot."
Zuko could see Feng was hooked. His mouth moved wordlessly, no doubt already rehearsing what he would say to the Fire Lord. If only General Brant had been this easily manipulated. Finally the High Priest's mouth snapped shut, and his narrow face assumed a somewhat comical look of resolve.
"Talk to me when you find proof. Let's meet again in a week."
"Yes, your Excellency."
"And, um… whoever you are?" Feng coughed apologetically. "I can contrive to be alone in the Temple during the evening without raising suspicion. Perhaps next week you might be able to meet me there? I'm an old man, and if at all possible I'd like to sleep without fear of masked intruders."
If I can contrive it, you won't sleep without fear ever again, Zuko thought.
But all he said was, "Very good, Your Excellency. Until next time."
He was out the window before Feng could respond.
Zuko made his way carefully back to the Palace, his mind revolving with plots and countermeasures. The stage was set, and in the coming week he would see how everything played out. If Feng was sufficiently spooked, there would be a renewed pressure on military activity. General Brant would react in turn, and Azula would be caught in the middle of a squabble between her supporters. No matter which way she ended up moving, she would alienate at least one side. And that created potential support for Zuko.
Playing both sides was dangerous, but the only thing Zuko was wagering was his life. With nothing except revenge left to live for, it seemed to Zuko well worth the risk. If all went well, the most important institutions in the Fire Nation would be at each other's throats, and Azula would lose her entire support base, if not her life.
Katara would have been proud of him.
Rest now, my love. I'll take it from here.