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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 36 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 35 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 37 (The Spirit Within) 
Iroh was also relieved that Prince Zuko had gone. Sometimes, the boy overwhelmed him. Iroh had forgotten what it was to be young – what it was to have a million different thoughts and concerns and desires and emotions rolling around in one's head, and he suspected that Zuko had more than his fair share.
Zhushou came in and took a seat in front of Iroh's desk. This was, in itself, odd, since Zhushou rarely sat in Iroh's presence. He always stood, as if to sit in Iroh's presence was either rude or disrespectful.
Iroh took off his reading glasses and looked at his secretary with concern. "What is it, Zhushou?"
Zhushou looked away for a moment, then re-focused his eyes on Iroh. "Well, Sir, I have had – word from one of my contacts."
"My – contact is involved with – transportation; I suppose that is the best way to put it..." he trailed off.
Zhushou sighed heavily, as if the effort required to be tactful was too great. "He heard someone discussing Lao Chuai going to the Earth Kingdom."
Iroh thought a moment, then shrugged. "So? He has gone to the colonies in the Earth Kingdom, as far as we know."
"Yes, Sir. But it is the source of this piece of information that is – interesting."
Iroh's brows furrowed. "What is the source?"
Zhushou's lips thinned. "The royal stables."
"The royal stables?" Iroh was confused.
"Yes. My – contact says that he overheard a driver from the royal stables say that Lao Chuai was taken to the port – taken to a ship going to the Earth Kingdom colonies."
A chill came over Iroh. Ozai knew. Ozai knew that he, Iroh, was looking for their father's secretary. He knew, and he had made certain that Lao Chuai was beyond Iroh's reach. But why? Why was Ozai trying so urgently to keep Iroh away from the old man? What did Lao Chuai know about their father's death that Ozai was so anxious to keep secret? Could it be true – what Iroh had suspected – what he had hoped so desperately was not true? Had Ozai killed their father to gain the throne? Had he then killed his own wife, perhaps because she had known, or had been involved?
"Find out all you can about all the ships leaving in the past week – all of them, not just those headed for the colonies. Find out if any of them had any passengers – any elderly, male passengers. We must find Lao Chuai – before he disappears permanently."
Iroh had no time to dwell on the mystery, however, for it was time for the war meeting. He gave all the information that he might need for the meeting to Zhushou to take to the war room for him, and he made his way there. His mind was overwhelmed: the mystery surrounding his father's death; the idea that Ozai might be involved; his worries over Ozai's reaction to Zuko's engagement to Lan Chi; his worries that Ozai might discover Zuko's engagement to Lan Chi before Iroh was ready; Zuko's headstrong ways and unpredictable temper; Guniang's unwanted presence in his home; and, of course, there was the war meeting to concern himself with, as well...
He was not certain that he could handle all the problems at once.
He hoped that he did not have to try.
Zuko left Iroh's office, irritated. His uncle had chastised him for speaking up – for telling the truth. What should he do? What else could he do? He should lie and dance around the truth and be false and diplomatic? He should be diplomatic to men such as Zhao? He did not know Zhao, but he knew men like Zhao. Opportunistic sycophants who glommed onto men of real power, who hung onto more successful men as they surged ahead in life.
He stopped at the end of the hall, and fisted his hands. What are you doing, Zuko? Do you think you're wiser than Uncle? He's only trying to help you. Zuko sighed. What kind of a Fire Lord would be if he could not take the advice of his own mentor – a man he respected above all others – well, all others except his father, of course. He needed to learn from Uncle, and from his father; he needed to observe them, and he needed to listen to them.
He needed to learn how to govern, so that, one day, he would be able to govern his country properly and well. And he needed to start learning now.
Lan Chi's day had been odd. Very odd. She had been prevented from training with Jiao Ao by her new lady's maid, and now she was seated at her vanity table while Guniang worked to straighten Lan Chi's hair with flattening tongs. The tongs, which the maid had brought with her, consisted of two metal plates held together at one end by a rod. The tongs, once placed in a bucket of hot coals, could then be used to straighten curly hair.
Lan Chi, leery of putting red hot metal against her hair, protested at first, but Guniang had laughed, and promised that she would allow the tongs to cool slightly before using them. So, she had, and, over the course of several hours, straightened Lan Chi's unruly mop.
"I think that you will like your hair like this, Lady Lan Chi."
Lan looked at herself in the mirror skeptically. "I don't know if you'll be able to do it, Guniang. My hair is pretty – wild."
"You should not wear it in a braid all the time. You are destroying it."
"How am I destroying it?"
"Well, you've made it all –" she lifted one of the curls derisively, "kinky."
"Maybe it would be like that anyway."
"I doubt it. Perhaps, if you wear it down more often, it will straighten of its own accord."
"I can't fight with it down. I told you."
Guniang smiled gently. "You should not think of fighting so much. You should be thinking of boys."
Lan blushed, and Guniang smiled widely. "Oh. Perhaps you are thinking of boys. Is there one in particular who has caught your fancy?"
Lan looked down at her hands. "No. Not really."
"There must be one."
Lan shook her head.
"Don't move, my lady. I don't want to burn you."
"So, who is it?"
"Who is what?"
"The boy you like."
Lan looked at the maid's reflection in the mirror. There was no way she was going to mention Zuko. "There is no one. Really."
Guniang looked at her sagely, then nodded. "Well, I'm sure there will be – someday."
"Yes." Lan agreed. "Someday."
Guniang worked on in silence, and finally pronounced herself satisfied with her work.
"There. This is the way your hair should look."
Lan Chi looked at herself in the mirror – and was astounded. Her hair fell in a sleek, shining curtain around her. She turned her head slowly from side to side, enjoying the sinuous slide of her hair over her shoulders. "It's – it's beautiful," she said finally.
"Yes. And so are you." Guniang gave her a small smile. "Whoever that boy is – he'll be like putty in your hands."
Lan's responding smile was lopsided. She could imagine Zuko's eyes lighting up when he saw her. She could imagine his fingers running through her hair, and imagine him bringing a luxuriant lock to his lips. "Yes. I think he will."
Zuko was determined. He had thought on it, and he was determined. Determined to attend the war meeting that he knew was about to start in his father's throne room. Determined to show his uncle that he could be diplomatic – that he could make good choices. Determined to show his father that he was a worthy heir.
He made his way to the throne room. Men in uniform filed through the curtains that led to the antechamber, and, with himself drawn up proudly, he approached the entrance, where two royal guards stood. He tried to pass through, but one of the men barred his way.
His hands clenched at his side, he glared up at the man. "Let me in!"
"Prince Zuko, what's wrong?" He felt his uncle's hands on his shoulders, and the older man turned him around.
Zuko indicated the guard. "I want to go into the war chamber, but the guard won't let me pass!" Although he tried to sound authoritative, his voice chose that moment to break.
With a hand on his nephew's shoulder, Iroh drew him a short distance away from the guards. "You're not missing anything, trust me. These meetings are dreadfully boring."
Zuko looked down at the floor briefly. "If I'm going to rule this nation one day," he looked at his uncle, his expression earnest, and Iroh noticed a lock of Zuko's hair had slipped free and was hanging on his forehead, making him appear very young. "Don't you think I need to start learning as much as I can?"
Iroh looked thoughtful for a moment. There were many things implicit in Zuko's words. You told me to prepare, Uncle. You told me to learn the ways of the Fire Lord. You told me to prove myself worthy of Lan Chi. Let me start here. Let me prove to you that I am ready. Iroh, despite a voice inside that urged him to deny his nephew, ignored his instincts. "Very well. But you must promise not to speak." He looked over his shoulder at the men entering the throne room. "These old folks are a bit sensitive, you know."
Zuko bowed. "Thank you, Uncle!"
Iroh put his arm around Zuko, and they passed into the throne room unmolested.
A number of men were already present, gathered around a huge map spread on the floor before the throne. Zhushou had stacked Iroh's papers at the top of the map, closest to the throne, and Iroh led his nephew there. They settled down, and Zuko sent his uncle an uncertain, excited smile. Several men came over to greet Iroh, and he introduced Zuko to each of them, so Zuko was obliged to stand and bow several times.
"Do you know all of these men?"
Iroh, shuffling through his papers, shook his head. "Not all. Most, though."
"Oh." Zuko looked around in wonder. He was actually in a war meeting! "What is the purpose of this meeting, Uncle?"
"Strategy for the next phase of the war in the Earth Kingdom, mainly. We may discuss the deployment of some of the divisions now guarding the homeland, if there is time. And some other business."
Zuko slapped his own thighs gently, excitement causing a burst of hyperactivity. Iroh patted his arm gently, hoping to calm him. "Self-control, Prince Zuko."
He smiled at his uncle. "Sorry. I'm – a little nervous, I guess."
"Just listen, Zuko, and you will learn much. Remember, you were given two ears and only one mouth – it is because you must listen twice as much as you talk."
Feng, Ozai's secretary, entered and took his place on the dais next to the throne, and then, the flames before the throne came into life, and the Fire Lord entered. All in the room stood and bowed; he gave a nod, and settled himself on his throne.
One of the men, who Zuko took to be an admiral of the Navy, stood and gave a brief report on activities in the Mo Ce Sea. He was followed by an army general who gave a synopsis on a battle recently won near the town of Gaipan, a Fire Nation outpost. Earth Kingdom troops had been trying to take back the town for the past several months, and this victory was considered a success, since most of the Earth Kingdom troops had been either routed, killed, or imprisoned. A murmuring of approval from the officers followed this report, and the general gave a brief smile and nod before seating himself.
Zuko stole a glance at his uncle, who was busy scribbling on a sheet of parchment. Iroh felt his eyes upon him, and he smiled reassuringly at his nephew.
"Tell us, General Shu, of your army's progress in the northern Earth Kingdom." Fire Lord Ozai's voice came from the throne.
An older man, his gray hair swept up into a topknot, stood up. He bowed to the Fire Lord, picked up a croupier rake, and cleared his throat. "Thank you, your majesty."
With the rake, he indicated four markers on the map branded with the Earth Kingdom symbol, all clustered to the north of Ba Sing Se. "The Earth Kingdom defenses are concentrated here. A dangerous battalion of their strongest earthbenders and fiercest warriors, so I am recommending the forty-first division." He slid a marker topped by a Fire Nation symbol towards the Earth Kingdom markers.
The mention of the forty-first division set off alarms in Zuko's head. It was the one that he had learned about in the reports that he had read – the new division that consisted of seventy-five percent non-benders – a terrible, almost indefensible ratio.
Another man, seated across from Zuko, raised a hand. "But the forty-first is entirely new recruits. How do you expect them to defeat a powerful Earth Kingdom battalion?"
General Shu's voice was cold and a bit smug. "I don't. They'll be used as a distraction while we mount an attack from the rear." He gave an evil smile, and looked around at his colleagues in triumph. "What better to use as bait then fresh meat?"
Zuko's pulse jumped. No! He leapt to his feet. "You can't sacrifice an entire division like that! Those soldiers love and defend our nation! How can you betray them?" His expression was indignant and accusatory.
Every face turned to the prince, dumbfounded and silent. Zuko looked around in some shock, and turned slowly towards his father as the flames before the throne rose menacingly.
He saw the horror reflected in Iroh's face, and he realized his mistake. "F – Father." He took a step towards the throne. "I – I'm sorry. I – "
The flames shot up, and Zuko fell back a step. "Prince Zuko. Leave us."
"B – but, Father –"
Zuko bowed deeply to his father, and, with a meaningful look at his uncle, left the room, his shoulders high.
He passed through the curtain and into the hall with as much dignity as he could muster. Once outside, he put his head into his hands. What had he done? What had he done? Uncle had cautioned him to be silent, and what had he done? He had jumped up at the earliest opportunity and had spoken out against a general! A general! What had he been thinking?
What he had said was true, and he did not regret saying it – but, spirits! Did he have to say it during the war meeting? Did he have to chastise a general – in front of everyone, including his father? To have done that – what an incredibly disrespectful thing to do! What an absolutely idiotic thing to do!
He rubbed his forehead. What was Uncle going to say to him? What was his father going to say to him?
Sitting in the war room, Iroh could not concentrate. Zuko's outburst kept playing over and over in his mind, and, with each review, it became worse and worse. He could feel Ozai's ire manifested in the high, crackling flames at his own back, and he wondered at the consequences of his nephew's words.
The other men felt the disquiet in the room, as well, for they seemed restless and unsettled for the remainder of the meeting, and, when the Fire Lord finally dismissed them, they left with a briskness born of relief.
"General Shu. Please stay." The general bowed to his liege's request.
Iroh, too, remained.
"Iroh. You may go."
Iroh raised his chin. "I would prefer to stay, my lord."
"You will go. Now."
Iroh's lip rose fractionally, but he bowed, and left the room.
He found Zuko without, and the young prince ran over to him. "Uncle! What happened?"
Iroh looked at him with exasperation. "Zuko, Zuko. What were you thinking?"
He put a hand on his head. "I – I don't know. I – I just thought that – it is unconscionable for General Shu to sacrifice those men. I – I couldn't let that happen!"
"But was that the best way to express your displeasure? Or to accomplish your goal?"
"No. No! I didn't think. I meant no disrespect."
"Do you not recall the discussion we had only hours ago about humiliating people in public?"
"I know. I know! I'm sorry! What did Father say?"
"He said nothing. He is speaking with General Shu right now."
"What do you think they are discussing?"
"Repercussions, I assume."
Zuko looked off into the distance. "I'm in a lot of trouble, aren't I?"
Iroh sighed and shook his head. "I don't know, Zuko. I don't know."
Just then, a guard came out into the corridor. "Prince Zuko, the Fire Lord wishes to see you."
Zuko and Iroh exchanged looks, and Zuko, drawing himself up, nodded and followed the guard, with Iroh behind him.
The throne room was deserted but for General Shu, the Fire Lord, and Feng, forever in the shadows. The map on the floor was now gone. Zuko walked up the aisle on leaden feet, and prostrated himself before his father, his forehead on the floor. Iroh sank to his knees, as well, but his eyes remained on his brother. Ozai's eyes slid to his for a moment, then went back to his son.
"Prince Zuko. I am very displeased."
Zuko looked up at the Fire Lord. "Father, I am sorry."
"Silence!" The flames jumped. "You displayed shameful conduct. Conduct ill-befitting the crown prince of the Fire Nation. Conduct ill-befitting my son!"
After each sentence, General Shu's posture seemed to become more erect.
Zuko hung his head.
"How dare you challenge General Shu – in my war room? It was an act of complete and utter disrespect!"
Zuko remained silent, his jaw set.
Iroh looked between his brother and nephew, but remained quiet.
"Now you may speak, Prince Zuko! What have you to say for yourself?" Ozai slammed his fist onto the throne.
"My – my lord," Zuko began, and Iroh prayed that he had chosen his words carefully. "I – am sorry – truly sorry, that I disrupted the meeting. It was not my place to speak out. However, I do not – regret – or retract – my statement. You may think my behavior shameful, and perhaps it was – but I believe General Shu's behavior to be more shameful. He has displayed disrespect – disrespect towards men who are loyal and faithful Fire Nation citizens!"
"Prince Zuko!" Both Iroh and Ozai called the prince's name at the same time, and General Shu's face became slack with disbelief.
Ozai was red with rage, and, when he spoke, his voice shook. "Prince Zuko, you have given me no choice. Such an insult demands satisfaction."
Iroh's throat constricted with fear. "No." His voice was just a whisper.
Zuko drew in a deep breath, knowing now what the consequences were. "An agni kai." He looked at General Shu, and then at his father. "Yes, Sire. I accept your judgment. I am not afraid."
Iroh found his voice. "No! Ozai! No!" He pleaded with his brother.
"Silence!" The Fire Lord shouted at his only brother. "I see your hand in this, Iroh! I see how you have attempted to turn my son against me!"
"No, Father! He has not!"
"Do not defend him, Prince Zuko! I see his treachery! I have always seen it!"
Iroh was silent. He knew that his brother, in his fury, would accept nothing that he said – no protestations of innocence or avowals of good will.
Ozai stood. "Tomorrow night, Prince Zuko. At sunset. Be ready."
"Yes, my lord. I will be ready. And I will make you proud. I promise that I shall." He stood, and bowed deeply from the waist. "I humbly serve at the pleasure of the Fire Lord."
Zuko left the throne room, and Iroh was allowed to leave with him. Had Iroh thought that Ozai would be at all amenable to discussion about the proposed agni kai, he would have stayed, but, with his brother in such a state, he knew that anything that he said to the Fire Lord would only make it worse.
Iroh drew Zuko down the empty hallway with a firm hand on his elbow. "Come, Zuko. We must talk."
"Uncle, are you mad at me?" Zuko asked after they were out of hearing range of the throne room.
Iroh shook his head. "It would do no good to be angry with you, Zuko. I am certain that you will have learned your lesson after this – it is rather a difficult way to learn, but that cannot be helped now."
He steered Zuko to his room, and, when they were within, he sat his nephew down. "I am going to go to your father tomorrow morning, and try to talk him out of this. Have him impose a less harsh punishment – perhaps some penance or compensation to General Shu."
Zuko shook his head firmly. "No, Uncle. Do not. I meant what I said to Father; I am not afraid. I accept his decision; I deserve it. I was intemperate and spoke out of turn, and this is my punishment."
"Zuko, General Shu is a very experienced firebender at least fifty years your senior."
Zuko gave a smile that was surprisingly serene. "I am not worried. I just completed my genbuku, and I practice high-level firebending daily. I doubt that he can say the same."
Iroh saw the truth in that. "I suppose that is true."
"Besides, Uncle," Zuko sat up very straight. "I want to prove to you – and to Father – that I am true to my word. That I accept the consequence of my actions. That I am a man."
Iroh sighed. "Zuko, you don't have to fight an agni kai to prove that you are a man."
"But I will."
"And I cannot talk you out of it?"
He shook his head again. "It would be dishonorable for me to try to weasel out of it, or to have my uncle intercede on my behalf."
Iroh laid a heavy hand on Zuko's shoulder. "This is all my fault."
"How can you say that? You told me to keep quiet."
"I should not have allowed you into the meeting."
"The fault is mine entirely." Another smile, this one lopsided, came to his face. "And I guess that I should look at it as an opportunity to use the agni kai drape Lan embroidered for me." His eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped. "Oh, no! I forgot about Lan Chi! She is going to kill me! The one thing she wrote when she gave me the drape was "don't ever use it!" And I've had it less than a month!"
Iroh stroked his beard thoughtfully. "She will not be happy, that is certain."
"Uncle, she cannot know! Please, don't tell her! I don't want her to know – or to be there! She cannot!"
He shook his head wildly. "I – I can't. I can't think of her in the audience. I – I won't be able to think of anything but making a fool of myself in front of her."
"She will want to know – and to be there."
"I don't care. She can't know!"
"Zuko, how do you propose that I keep this from her?"
"I don't know, Uncle! Send her away somewhere! Anywhere!"
"What? Tonight? Where would I send her?" Iroh thought that Zuko was overreacting a bit.
"I don't know. Ember Island, maybe."
Iroh gave that some consideration. That was a possibility. It was far enough that word would never reach her before the agni kai, but close enough that the journey would not be arduous. He nodded. "All right. I'll go to her now, and send her to Ember Island tonight."
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