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|The Bloody Line of Lizen: Part 1|
June 11, 2017
Princess Jaya held court with the Fire Nation officers who made up her general staff in the former throne room of King Aisin. Although they were a diverse crowd, they all shared one definite commonality. None of them had been sent to the front, and from what they heard, that would not change anytime soon. While some welcomed this with relief, others groaned at not being able to participate in actions which may one day be deemed historic.
Truthfully, however, the most disturbing development for most of them was that they had not heard much word on what was going on at the Outer Wall, or anything from outside of the city of Munn, actually. Now their only source for answers was Jaya herself, who was presently busying herself with herding her subordinates. "Come inside, everyone," she called through the doorway to the few remaining officers still lurking in the halls. "We have much to get done. First order of business-"
Some of these commanders had been staring at her these past few days, as though she looked out of place. At last one spoke up. "Where is your father?" interrupted a short officer with a receding hairline and a pointed goatee.
Jaya winced and clenched both her fists tight. "The Grand Sima went back to the capital, to take care of an urgent matter."
The impudent officer was not satisfied. "What matter? What could possibly cause him to need to travel all the way back to the homeland while we're cementing control of Munn in the north and laying siege to Ba Sing Se in the south?"
"Is it something to do with the royal family?" another, older commander inquired.
"If it was, it would be a family matter, and none of your concern," Jaya slowly spurted through gritted teeth, her temperature rising with every syllable. "You need not worry about what this is. All you need to know is that my father is taking care of it and I am running things here until he returns."
"I take my orders from the Grand Sima," said the man who dared interrupt Jaya yet again.
"And like I said, he left me in charge while he was away," Princess Jaya said, raising her voice. Now she made no effort to hide her loathing of her subordinate's repugnant attitude. "Before he left, Grand Sima Lizen began a classified project, of which many of you are aware. We must ensure that remains on schedule."
To Jaya's welcome. it was someone else spoke up this time. "We're running low on resources," said a quiet-sounding officer from the back.
"So find some more," Jaya said curtly. "That is an order," she added. Still irritated by the ridicule some on her staff, the Princess of the Fire Nation withdrew herself into her own thoughts at that moment. Truthfully, it was not this present meeting which was bothering her most, but trying to make sense of her father's actions. Her doubts about him had only grown recently. It was hard to tell if he was really propping her up or if he was working for another agenda supporting his own interests. Regardless, there was nothing Jaya could do from Munn to uncover what her dad was up to overseas.
The unsettling fact was that none of what he had done since they arrived in the Earth Kingdom appeared to have anything to do with her marrying Lu Ten and eventually assuming a regency of their nation. First her dad had asked her to steal Iroh's seal from his tent, only to return it later. Then, when word arrived about the Fire Lord's condition, he had concealed the message while Jaya disposed of the messenger. Most troubling of all, he refused to tell her any more when she had asked about the current state of the plan. If Jaya could not trust her father's motives, she would have a hard time trusting anyone's.
"Stop lounging about and get back to work!" The speaker brandished a whip, his sleeveless tunic soaked in sweat. "All of you lot. I will personally lash anyone who falters."
Each of those on harvesting duty found their backs baked to a red crisp under the hot sun. All of the former citizens of the Earth Kingdom city of Munn had become forced laborers day-in and day-out on all seven of the week. Their former hometown had been transformed to resemble a prison commune. If some of them did not believe that the Fire Nation could be worse for them than the Munn aristocracy had been, they could now see they were proven wrong.
"He's mean, Uncle Epong," a slender thirteen year-old whispered amidst the march.
"I know, Wyla," said Epong. "Just keep your chin up and things will be better soon." He was speaking as much to himself as he was to his niece.
"They're brutal these past few weeks, even to the children," Epong's brother noted, wiping the sweat off of his brow. "How much worse can things get?"
"I know, Prung," said Epong. "It's awful."
Just as they were at the edge of the fields, the yelling man addressed them directly. "You two!" he summoned Prung and Epong. "Both of you look strong – stronger than most of the lot here, anyway. Get back over here and help with the heavy lifting."
"Sir, my daughter is here," Prung pleaded. "Please let me stay with her."
"No," the yelling man with the whip said firmly. "If you do not obey me, I'll put all three of you in chains."
"I'm hungry, Uncle Epong," said Wyla. Her father had wasted no time at following the man's orders to leave her.
"Sorry, Wyla," Epong said, bending over to get another word in. "Just try to hold it in for now. They'll give you a meal later today. Come on, you're a strong girl."
Knowing that she would be fed later on gave Wyla some extra strength. Whether it would be enough for her to last the day until then was yet to be seen. Working in the fields of the farms surrounding Munn was not something that Wyla had experienced before the Fire Nation occupation and hence she did not feel herself to be cut out for it. Nevertheless, she told herself to go on. Her father was resigned and preoccupied at the moment, but Uncle Epong still clung onto hope. To hold hope so close with nothing to encourage it seemed almost superhuman, like an ability a powerful bender would have. Inhaling a deep breath with every succeeding step, Wyla told herself to go on, trying to make her voice in her own head sound more like Epong's, so that hopefully some of his spirit would remain with her.
"Listen up, lot!" the yelling man's voice invaded her space and disintegrated what was around Wyla once again. "Everyone finishes the line they are currently on before eating. Last one of you to finish has to do another round before they get their fill."
Suddenly, Uncle Epong's distant words were shattered, and Wyla entered an inescapable panic. She had been so aloof before that she only realized now how utterly exhausted she was. Even making one more step seemed an immense amount of effort, and all the others that she could see were far ahead of her on the lines they were attending to. Many of them were far stronger than her and most were grown adults. Demoralized, Wyla told herself she was the most likely to be last and not get ration with the rest.
It was several paces later that she caught sight of a frail, skinny man lying in the line next to her, likely passed out from dehydration or the sheer weight of the task at hand. Wyla could not tell if he had decided to take a nap while others weren't looking or if he had simply collapsed. Either way, she felt awful for the man, even as she was glad to have passed someone else. The Fire Nation troops began closing into the area where they were, and Wyla feared what they might do once they discovered him. Unfortunately, she lacked the energy to do anything else save for steadily working at the pace she had been keeping up, and told herself not to look back.
Now that she thought about it, today did seem they were waiting unusually late to feed the citizens. Wyla had never had a day like this in the past few months. But then again, the underlying rule was that matters got worse, not better, in Munn nowadays.
The sun was lowering in the sky and Wyla knew it was past normal lunch hour. Her line seemed to go on forever. She couldn't go on like this, and so she approached one of the guards. "Sir, can I please have some food now?" Even if it was something small, like an apple, that would be enough to hold her over for now.
"You heard the boss," the Fire Nation soldier said, neglecting to make eye contact. "No work, no food."
But she had been working. She had been working for hours. "Please..."
So Wyla had no choice but to dart back to her line and continue working into the boundless distance as the hours of the day stretched out into eons. Her stomach cramp began to signal to her in vain. Once the light started fading, some of the others who were working in the fields started marching back, ready to have a meal. There was one small group of four or five who were loud and boisterous, but the rest moved more slowly and solemnly. Still there was no sign of the man who Wyla had seen passed out hours earlier.
The front entryway of the Fire Lord's palace in Royal Caldera City was packed, and that was saying something considering it was one of the biggest rooms in all the capital. Soldiers, servants, Fire Sages and various minor officials lined the walls and the spaces in between. The Son of the Comet and Dragon of Fire himself was still in the infirm, and being vigorously attended to by royal physicians, but his second son was present. Prince Ozai stood at the head of the crowd with his wife Ursa by his side, along with their two children Zuko and Azula. With his brother and nephew overseas, Ozai had been overseeing the interim, and the Head Fire Sage stood at his right.
"If I might say so, you look quite regal today, Your Highness," the Fire Sage said while breaking and making eye contact back and forth, as though he could not assess which was better yet.
The compliment evaded Ozai's acknowledgement. "Where is my cousin?" he wondered aloud. "I was informed he would be here an hour ago." Meanwhile, behind his back, his daughter was snickering and her brother was complaining to their mother about something, but that also slipped by without Ozai noticing.
"I'm afraid I don't know, sir," the Fire Sage commented on the one thing his prince was paying attention to. "But one of the guards had the impression that he sent his message early to make sure that everyone would be assembled by the time that he arrived."
"Who does that non-bender think that he is, Puren?" said Ozai. "I'll remind him of his place here when he comes."
"I'm sure you will," said Puren the Fire Sage.
"This is going to be a big day," Ozai continued. "A dawn of a new era in our nation. While my brother continues his wild boar goose chase to take the Earth Kingdom capital, history will be made in his own home."
"Many in the nation have become troubled by the events of late," said Puren. "I'm sure with your bold new direction, they will soon forget what has transpired."
The second son of Azulon shook his head dismissively. "Not likely. Princess Ursa and the children went to pray to the spirits for the Fire Lord's swift recovery. May it happen soon."
Puren raised an eyebrow. "Sir?"
"Tell me," Ozai went on. "Do you have any more information on who the one who attacked the Fire Lord might be?"
"What, no. I..."
"Come to me immediately if you do. They must be brought to justice." By now, even Ozai could no longer ignore his perplexed companion's excessive fidgeting. "What is it? You look like you have something on your mind."
"No sir. I only...." Puren spoke slow and with the volume of a sparrow mouse.
"Spit it out," Prince Ozai demanded.
"Well, I thought that maybe you knew who the attacker was already."
"Of course not. Why would you get an impression like that?"
"Prince Lizen the Younger!" A relieved Puren was spared of having to give an even more uncomfortable answer when the Lord Chamberlain, who was well-versed to make his voice heard even amongst a chattering crowd of today's size, announced the new arrival. Ozai's first cousin strode into view ready for the occasion, with a fresh royal-quality tunic slid over himself and his hair and beard cropped and groomed appropriately.
"Dear cousins," Lizen greeted with his hands outstretched, ensuring he made eye contact with all four of his relatives. "I am sorry for what you've gone through here in the homeland. In a time like this, family is most important."
"You've been busy," Ozai remarked without reciprocating Lizen's change of pace. "Conquering Munn and waging war on Ba Sing Se is no easy matter."
"Why couldn't Uncle come?" Ozai's son asked from behind his father.
"Be quiet, Zuko," Ursa whispered to him.
"As you know, your uncle the Crown Prince is off on his adventure to take Ba Sing Se still," Zuko's father answered the question nonetheless. "That's why Lizen came instead of him. Iroh is too important and has too many of his own duties there to leave them now, even when his nation has a crisis. Of course, you would think, as Crown Prince, an event of this nature would take precedent for him."
"So great of you to come, Lizen," Ursa chimed in.
"Where's Cousin Jaya?" Ursa and Ozai's daughter wondered aloud. "Shouldn't she have come, too?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that she's not here, either, Azula," Princess Ursa replied. "She's ruling Munn while Lizen is away."
"Ah, so my elder brother had you taking care of the scraps he took over in his path while he went on to take the big prize," Ozai remarked with a trace of a laugh, slapping his right hand down on Lizen's left shoulder. "Well, any duty is worth doing, however large or small. Now that you're back in the homeland, we'll be sure to find you something new to do around here. It might not be as glamorous as presiding over the ancient city of Munn, but-"
"I am sorry, Cousin Ozai," Lizen cut in, jerking his shoulder free. "But I am afraid that you've misunderstood something."
At this point, Ozai was on the verge of dropping all remaining pleasantry. "Excuse me?"
"It is I who will be assigning tasks while I am here," Prince Lizen went on, making sure his every word could be heard clearly. "Not giving them. You see, I've already been given a job to do while I'm here."
"I beg your pardon," Ozai said, without any trace of amusement left in him. "What is this job you speak of?"
"Serving as acting regent until the Fire Lord recovers from his coma."
Tension filled the room, which was now so silent that a sparrow mouse's squeak would echo throughout the chamber if one were present. "How dare you!" Both of Ozai's eyes flared along with his entire face, his stare turning murderous. "Family or not, I'll have you whipped for this insubordination. Guards, seize-"
"I have the order right here," Lizen interrupted mid-sentence, yanking a scroll from his robe. "This document was authorized by the Dragon of the West. Read it, Fire Sage."
After snatching the outstretched paper, Puren mumbled under his breath what he saw on there. Once he had read the majority of it, he raised his voice so that his speech would be audible to others. "Recognizing my duty to assume the temporary regency as heir to the throne. However, with my current charge of conquering Ba Sing Se taking precedence above all else, I have decided that I must remain at my post, resolved to carry out this charge. As for the separate charge of guiding our nation from home, I lay that to Prince Lizen the Younger, son of Lizen the Elder who was a Son of the Comet."
"This has to be a forgery," Ozai roared dismissively. "You will pay dearly for this."
"I'm afraid not, Prince Ozai," Puren replied, puttering nervously while tapping his fingers together in succession. "This document bears the personal seal of the Dragon of the West."
When Ozai tore the scroll from the timid digits of the Fire Sage, his face turned from red to white in an instant. "Impossible. My brother would never do this. I am ahead of Lizen in the line of succession, even if a non-bender could be considered part of the succession at all."
"You would be next in the line of succession for certain," said Puren. "If the Crown Prince truly could not leave Ba Sing Se at this time, it would make far more sense for him to simply send a messenger hawk asking you to assume the regency."
"Instead he sent me," Lizen said, smirking. "He knew that I could be trusted."
"This is absurd," said Ozai. "Surely it can't be legal."
"I'm afraid that it is, sir," said Puren. "You see, the temporary regency would fall to Iroh by right of his title, and Iroh decreed that Lizen should take his stead. Although you are the most logical choice after the Crown Prince himself and his own son Prince Lu Ten by most precedents, there is nothing that states you would be the regent."
"I'm his brother," Ozai shot back at Lizen. "You're his cousin."
"We served in battle together," said Iroh's Grand Sima. "That can go a long way. Perhaps you missed that, hiding out back here while Iroh and I win glory out in the world."
The second son of the Fire Lord, so his eyes were but an inch and half from the Fire Lord's nephew. "I don't know what you did to arrange this, but I will get to the bottom of this. Your days are numbered, Lizen."
"Careful Ozai," Lizen whispered, undaunted. "You wouldn't want to overstep your bounds."
"Don't get ahead of yourself. Remember, you're only acting regent until the Fire Lord recovers. Which will likely be soon, perhaps even tomorrow."
"Perhaps. But until then there is work to be done. Can't allow the nation to fall behind in its affairs."
"Lizen, you've bit off more than you can chew this time. This is no game. In time, you'll pay for it, and with your life."
- This is 3,183 words, which is unusually long for DSV. Ordinarily it probably would've been broken up, but doing so any further would have been awkward, considering it's already part of a multi-part arc.
- The plan Jaya remembers that she and her father discussed was revealed in .
- Prung, Epong and Wyla first appeared in .
- Also referenced are the events of , , , , and .
For the collective works of the author, go here.