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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 40 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 39 (The Spirit Within) 
"You will find the Avatar, Prince Zuko, and bring him back to me in chains. Then, and only then, will I end your banishment. Then, and only then, will I restore your honor and restore you to the line of succession."
"But, my lord, he has been missing for a hundred years! Surely he is dead!"
"The Sages tell us that he is not. Find him and return him here. He will be my prize. He will be my prize, and we will win the war."
"But, Father –"
"Do not fail me yet again, Prince Zuko."
Zuko wanted to cry. Find the Avatar! His father might as well have asked him to lasso the sun. Find someone who is most probably dead. He clenched his fists. No! He cannot be dead! He must not be dead! If he is dead, then I have no chance to redeem myself! No chance to redeem my honor!
He stopped in the hallway in a daze. What should he do now? His father decreed that he must leave tomorrow, and there was so much to do to prepare. So much. He turned towards his bedroom.
In the throne room, an argument continued.
"Have you lost your mind, Ozai? Find the Avatar? It is a fool's errand, and you know it!" Iroh was irate.
"Well, then, Zuko is the perfect person for the job." Ozai's voice was amused.
"This will destroy him!"
"It will make a man of him. As it did me."
"That is what this is all about? Old grievances?"
"I spent four years of my life chasing the Avatar. It is fitting that Zuko continue the family tradition."
"I should have protested, Ozai! I should have! I am sorry! I should not have let Father send you away – like that! But do not condemn Zuko for my mistakes!"
"He needs to develop discipline and self-control . This will provide him ample opportunity to acquire those."
"So you think that banishing him and sending him away for spirit knows how long will teach him that? It will make him bitter and resentful!"
"He will become strong."
"Or it will kill him."
Ozai was silent, and Iroh knew, suddenly, that there was no way to change his brother's mind. He decided to change tactics. "Then let me go with him."
"What? Absolutely not! You will not corrupt my son further."
"He requires guidance, Ozai! You cannot send him off into the world alone – at thirteen!"
"No. He must find his own way."
An idea came to Iroh. "You will be rid of me, Ozai."
Ozai looked at him. Iroh could tell that he was thinking about everything that Iroh left unsaid: I will not be able to pursue our father's death. I will not be able to dog you.
"Yes. Perhaps that is a good idea."
A smile finally came to Iroh's face. All may not be lost.
"But there is one condition. A condition you will not disregard."
Iroh felt a hollowness in his stomach.
His brother continued. "You will go alone. That – girl will – not go with you."
The hollowness spread.
"She will not be allowed to accompany you. She will not be on the ship or near the ship. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
Iroh's face reddened. "Yes."
"If I hear that she has gone with you, I swear that I will hunt the three of you down and put you all in prison. And that may not mean much to you, old man, but think of your niece, and of Zuko."
"She will not accompany us. I give you my word."
Ozai gave a bark of laughter. "Your word. How amusing."
"You think that, by banishing Zuko you are ridding yourself of irritations, Brother, but, mark my words, this decision will lead to your downfall."
"Is that a threat?"
"No. A prediction, Ozai. Ask Lo and Li about predictions. They are very adept at making them."
Iroh left his brother in ill humor and went to his office. There was much to do. So much to do.
He found Zhushou at his desk, working diligently, as usual. Iroh came and sat on the edge of the man's desk, and Zhushou looked up in alarm. Iroh had never done anything so informal before.
"Zhushou, I must leave the country."
"What?" The secretary stood, spilling all his papers to the floor.
Iroh briefly explained all that had happened. "I need your help greatly, Zhushou. The Fire Lord has ordered us to leave tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" The secretary was aghast.
"Yes, and there are innumerable things that need doing before I go." He ticked them off on his fingers. "I need to have all my affairs wrapped up. All of my money secured. My servants need to be dealt with. I will need provisions for a very long trip. I will need communications of some sort set up so that I can get news. I need to transfer all of my duties as war minister to someone else – I suggest General Po." He stopped, and his mouth turned down. "I also need you to make arrangements for my niece to go live with her aunt in the colonies." He put a hand to his head. "Oh, Lan Chi. What am I going to tell her? This ruins – everything. Everything."
The other man nodded grimly. "I will do it, Sir. I will do it all – it is my privilege to serve you."
Iroh put a hand on Zhushou's arm in gratitude. "Thank you, son. I hope that you will continue to serve me. Would you be interested in being my eyes and ears in the capital while I am gone?"
The secretary grinned. "Oh, yes, Sir. It would not only be my privilege, it would be my honor."
Iroh found Zuko sitting on his bed, a picture of Ursa on his lap. He looked as if in shock. Iroh sat next to him and put an arm around his nephew's shoulder.
"Prince Zuko," he began.
He cut him off. "I've been banished. I've been banished from my home by my father. Banished." He repeated, and stared down at his mother's picture. "If my mother was still alive, she would have stopped him."
"Prince Zuko –"
"Don't call me that! I'm not a prince anymore! I'm an outcast!"
"No. You are still the crown prince, Zuko. The banishment does not strip you of your birthright."
"But Father said –"
"In order to remove you from the succession entirely, your father has to consult the Fire Sages, and they have to agree. They have not agreed, Zuko, and they are not likely to do so for many years."
"And if I am banished for many years? If I do not find the Avatar?" Iroh was silent, and Zuko jumped up, throwing the portrait aside. "You see! You do not answer me because you know it is a possibility! You know!"
"Zuko, please do not upset yourself."
"Upset myself? I have no need to upset myself! That has been done for me!" He walked over to the wide windows, and looked out. "So I am to be forced to search for the Avatar – someone who has successfully hidden himself for a hundred years." He turned to his uncle. "What am I to do, Uncle? How am I to find him?"
Iroh shrugged. "We just – look."
"We?" Zuko's face lightened.
"My brother is allowing me to accompany you."
He looked hopeful. "And Lan? She can come, as well?" It did not seem so bad to Zuko, suddenly, if Lan Chi was with him. They could be married, perhaps, and she could help him search for the Avatar. They could travel the world – together.
Iroh shook his head sadly. "No, Prince Zuko. I'm afraid not. That was – a condition that your father imposed."
Zuko looked like he had been stabbed through the heart. "Wh – what? Why?"
Despite his rancor at Ozai, he continued to lie for him – to spare Zuko's feelings. "He fears that she will distract you."
"Distract me? Spirits forbid I am distracted while I am days on a ship in the middle of nowhere!" He picked up a small vase and hurled it against the wall. "Spirits forbid that I might actually have a chance of happiness!" He turned again and stood at the window. He put his hands behind his back and was silent for a long moment, and then he drew a deep breath. "I will find his Avatar." He turned to face his uncle. "I will find the Avatar. I will find him, and I will bring him home, and my father will restore my honor, and I will marry Lan Chi, and I will be Fire Lord someday. That is what I shall do. And spirits help whomever stands in my way."
Iroh went next to his home to inform Jianyu of the circumstances. The butler was relieved to see him – Iroh had not been home since leaving for the agni kai the day before.
"I have some bad news." Iroh began.
Jianyu paled. "Is – is Prince Zuko more badly injured than we had heard?"
He shook his head. "No. No. But the Fire Lord has decreed that Prince Zuko must do penance by finding the Avatar."
"The Avatar? The Avatar has been dead for a hundred years."
"Not according to the Fire Sages."
"They are foolish old men!"
Iroh shrugged. "Be that as it may, that is Zuko's punishment. He is to be banished until such time as he brings the Avatar back to the Fire Nation."
"But – but he may never find the Avatar."
"That is true."
"That is very bad news, General. How will Prince Zuko survive – on his own?"
"The Fire Lord is giving him a ship and a crew, and enough money to last a few years. And me. He is giving him me."
"I am to accompany Prince Zuko on his journey."
Jianyu's jaw dropped. "Accompany him?"
"As his teacher and mentor. Prince Zuko is still thirteen, after all."
"And Lady Lan Chi? She is going with you, I hope?"
Iroh shook his head sadly. "No. The Fire Lord will not allow it."
Jianyu was quiet for a long moment. "She will be – devastated. Simply devastated."
Iroh drew a breath in through his nose. "Yes, she will be."
Jianyu drew himself up straighter. "We will care for her, General. And we will do a better job than we did last time. I will not allow her to be taken away and sent to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls again. I pledge that."
"I appreciate that, Jianyu, but I do not think the capital safe for her anymore. I am sending her to live with her aunt Ming Yi and Uncle Fai in the the southern colonies. He is an adjudicator there, I believe." He sighed. "That is where I should have sent her in the first place, when I left for Ba Sing Se." He gave Jianyu a small, reassuring smile. "She will be safe there, and thrive. I am certain of it."
"I will send Hua there with her to get her settled, but Lady Lan Chi will not return here before she leaves. Have all her things packed and ready to go by tomorrow morning to be sent on to Ember Island."
"Tomorrow?" Jianyu was appalled.
"Yes, Prince Zuko and I leave tomorrow. We sail with the tides, and I want Lady Lan to stay safe on Ember Island. I want her to have no excuse to return here."
"But, Prince Iroh, tomorrow is so – so soon!"
"It can't be helped, unfortunately. The Fire Lord's orders must be followed." At the man's crestfallen look, Iroh patted him on the shoulder. "Do not despair, Jianyu. This will not be like last time. I am leaving enough money to maintain this house and keep at least you and Hua on staff."
"Sir, I was not – concerned – do not think, I beg you, that I was worried about – myself." Jianyu was mortified.
Iroh chuckled. "I know. I just wanted to reassure you. I will not forsake you again."
Jianyu bowed. "Thank you, my lord."
Iroh sighed. "If you have everything under control, then, Jianyu, I have to go compose a letter – a letter that I dread writing."
Although it broke Iroh's heart, he knew, because of Ozai's demand that he and Zuko leave the next morning, that neither he nor Zuko would be able to see Lan Chi before they left.
Perhaps it is best this way, he reasoned with himself. No overemotional good-byes. It was definitely kinder this way – for all involved. He did not trust himself to not give into the inevitable pleas that would be sure to come from both Lan and Zuko. Pleas that Lan Chi be allowed to accompany them. Pleas that Iroh would have to, by necessity, deny.
It felt cowardly to leave this way – slinking out without even telling her the news to her face. She did not deserve such shoddy treatment. But it could not be helped, and a clean break was surely the best.
He smoothed out a piece of parchment, dipped his brush into the ink well, and began to write the hardest letter he had ever composed.
Lan Chi's day had been better than she had hoped. Aiguo had engaged a boat and a boatman to stay on the premises, and Hua and she had gone to the town across the bay by means of the boat, which had saved them a trek of nearly an hour each way.
They walked around the open market, and although Lan Chi got many looks and generated a lot of whispers because of her hair color, she ignored them all. She was on a mission – a mission to make the Summer Palace as homey as possible for Zuko. She chose new linens for herself, her Uncle, and for Zuko. The sheets for Zuko's bed were light blue, smooth and cool to the touch. Sheets that she was certain would feel good against naked skin. She let her imagination run for a moment, then pulled it back. She was still rather uncertain, for the most part, how the deed was accomplished, but she was more than willing to learn – as long as she was learning alongside Zuko. She was sure that there would be a large amount of kissing and touching involved, and that clothing would be shed, but, beyond that, the mechanics of it confused her.
She also purchased several small knick-knacks for Zuko's room that she thought he would like. A dragon carved out of jade, another carving, out of rich wood, of a local mountain. She passed up a miniature of Fire Lord Ozai. If she ever saw that man again, it would be too soon, and she suspected that, at this point, Zuko would rather avoid seeing him for a while, as well. Of course, neither she nor Zuko could avoid seeing him forever. He was, after all, the Fire Lord, and Zuko's father, and, one day, perhaps, the grandfather to any children that Zuko and she might have. She pictured, in her mind, a baby at her breast, and shook her head. Too far, Lan, too far. Maybe this baby at fourteen thing is a bad idea.
But not if it meant that she and Zuko would be allowed to be together. She would do whatever necessary – anything – to ensure that. Anything. She just hoped that it would not come to that.
She and Hua purchased a few new vases and fresh flowers to put in them, and, after several hours at the market, Lan declared herself ready to return home and unpack their purchases. As they handed their packages to the boatman, Lan Chi saw a hawk circling overhead. It appeared to be a Fire Nation messenger hawk, adorned with a black ribbon. A black ribbon meant urgent news. It only mildly interested Lan Chi. It was probably news of the war. Although she hoped it was good news of the war, she was certain that she would find out soon enough – Uncle Iroh would be sure to know. He was a veritable font of information.
She and Hua returned to the palace by dinnertime. They shared a small supper, and then Hua went back to work – she did not know when General Iroh and Prince Zuko would arrive, but she wanted to be certain that the house was ready.
Lan Chi took it upon herself to make Zuko's bed and arrange the new curios around the room. It was still rather – plain. Perhaps she could find some more things around the house to bring in here. Perhaps even some of Zuko's old things in the nursery. She walked to the nursery, on the far end of the house.
The door opened with a creak, and she went inside. This room had not been cleaned – it was not important right now, with no babies or small children in the royal family, so its beds remained covered with dust cloths, and thick dust covered most of the surfaces.
Lan found some old wooden Fire Nation soldiers. Definitely Zuko's. She thought that she remembered seeing him play with them at one time. She would take those. It was true that he was rather old to play with them; he had – outgrown them. But he still might like looking at them. She found a wooden ostrich horse and a wooden komodo rhino. Those would look nice next to his bed. She pulled out a drawer, and found a large disc of white clay. She took it out and examined it. It was a cast of a small hand, with the name Zuko written underneath. She smiled, and held her hand up to the cast. His hand had been so small. He must have been just a baby when it was made. She closed the drawer, but kept the cast. He would enjoy seeing this.
She left the nursery with her treasures, and returned to Zuko's room to arrange the new things. She moved them around several times, until she was satisfied. She put the cast next to his bed, and sat down on the mattress. She took the cast again, thoughtfully, and held it against her chest. It made her feel close to Zuko, somehow. She lay down on his bed and looked around, trying to see it through Zuko's eyes. Or Zuko's eye, as it stood right now. But not for long. The first moment that they were alone, she intended to drag him to the ocean and heal him. She wondered how he would react when he found out she was a waterbender. She had, of course, not intended to tell him until they were engaged, but things had changed. She hoped that he would understand why she had kept it a secret so long. She hoped that he would accept it – that he would still love her. She had not even considered what she would do if he rebuffed her. It didn't matter, though; even if he hated her forever, she would not regret healing him. She would never regret it, because he would be whole again.
With the early evening sun warming the room, and with thoughts of Zuko's kisses in her mind, Lan Chi curled onto her side on the bed that would be Zuko's, the pillow that would be Zuko's under her head, and fell asleep, a small smile curled on her face.
When she awoke, it was very late, probably, from the slant of the moon, near midnight. She sat up and stretched, and her stomach growled. Her supper had been relatively small – and about six hours earlier.
She slid off Zuko's bed and, still clutching the cast, made her way through the darkened house. In the upstairs salon, she stopped to look at the picture of Zuko and his family, and realized that she was still holding the cast. She put it down thoughtfully on the table beneath the portrait. She would get it later – if she continued to carry it around, she might accidentally drop it.
She continued to the kitchen, and was surprised to find Hua there, a cup of tea and a some parchment pages in front of her.
"Hua, what are you doing up?" She smiled at the older woman.
Hua literally jumped from her seat, spilling her tea off the edge of the table. "Oh, my lady! Wh – what are you doing up?"
Lan went to fetch a towel. "I fell asleep right after dinner. So," she shrugged, "now I'm up. What's that you're reading?"
"Wh – what? Oh," she snatched the pages from the table. "N – nothing. Nothing at all."
Lan gave her a suspicious look. "It can't be nothing. It must be something."
Hua looked at the papers, and then at Lan. "It's nothing – really. Nothing. Just – some lists of things that I – need to do."
Lan's brows drew down. "Then why are you hiding them?" She reached out to take them, but Hua evaded her. Lan's pulse started to race. "Hua, what is going on? You are starting to worry me."
Hua looked at her for a long moment, then burst into tears. "Oh, my lady! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Prince Iroh told me not to give it to you until tomorrow! I am so, so, so sorry!"
Lan's eyes widened. "Hua, give them to me."
"My lady, I can't!"
"Give me the papers, Hua. Right now!"
The housekeeper reluctantly pulled the papers from behind her back and handed them to Lan Chi. The girl snatched them from her hand, and, by the light of the kitchen torches, saw her name at the top of one.
My Dearest Lan Chi,
As I feared, Fire Lord Ozai has decided that Zuko merited additional punishment for refusing to fight the Agni Kai. He has decreed that Zuko be banished from the Fire Nation until such time as the prince has found the Avatar. As you know, the Avatar has been missing for many years, but Ozai believes that the Avatar is still alive, and that Zuko should redeem himself by ferreting out this threat to the Fire Nation.
Zuko is in need of guidance, and it is for this reason that I have decided to accompany him on his journey. We will be leaving the Fire Nation as soon as possible to begin Zuko's search.
I have arranged for you to go live with your father's sister Ming Yi in the southern Earth Kingdom colonies while I am gone. As you may recall, she lost her only daughter a few years ago in childbirth, and I believe that you can offer her some comfort. Please do not see this move as exile – rather it is another step in your journey in becoming a wonderful, caring woman.
I know that you would want to go with me, but the Fire Lord has forbidden it, and made that a condition of my accompanying Prince Zuko. I am sorry, because it is unfair to you, you who have done nothing to merit this treatment.
I will miss you more than you know. You have given me such joy since Lu Ten's death. I do not know what I would have done without you.
Your loving uncle,
"No!" Lan Chi screamed, and Hua shrank from her. "No!" She crumpled the letter in one hand. "They can't! They can't leave me!" She turned to the housekeeper. "Why did you not give this to me when it came?"
"Prince Iroh told me not to give it to you until tomorrow morning."
"When did it come?"
"It came right after dinner. It – it came to the island via black ribbon hawk."
She scanned the other letter. It was from Iroh, addressed to Hua. It had much of the same information, but with a few more details. Iroh and Zuko were scheduled to leave the next morning, with the tide. About six hours. She had about six hours to get back to the capital.
She looked at the housekeeper. "Hua, wake the boatman and tell him to ready the boat. I need to get back to the capital immediately!"
"My lady, I do not think that –"
"Hua!" She yelled, and grabbed the woman's arm in a tight grip, shaking her slightly. "Go now! I want the boat ready in ten minutes! Do you understand?"
Hua was white. She had never seen Lan Chi in such a state. She nodded quickly. "Y – yes, my lady."
"Go! Now!" She gave Hua a little shove, and, when the older woman moved to do Lan Chi's bidding, Lan ran out of the room and up the stairs to her own.
They were leaving! They were leaving without her! How could they? How could they do that to her?
She couldn't let them do that. She couldn't let them go without her! She must get to them before they left the capital. She had to. There was no choice. They couldn't go without her. They couldn't leave her behind. She wanted to go with them – she had to go with them. She belonged with Zuko! She loved him. They were to be married! She was going to heal him! They couldn't leave her behind. They just couldn't!
Once in her room, she grabbed a satchel and threw her family portraits in it, her identification papers, all of her knives, and some randomly chosen clothing. She grabbed her bow and arrows and headed back to the bottom floor. She ran to the kitchen, but Hua was not there, so she ran out to the dock.
The boatman was already there, preparing for departure. Hua stood next to it, wringing her hands.
Lan hopped into the boat. "Thank you, Hua." She grabbed her hands over the side and squeezed them. "I am going to miss you terribly."
"You may. But you won't right now. I'm coming with you. At least to the mainland." She clambered over the side, and Lan hugged her impulsively.
"Thank you, Hua! Thank you!" She turned to the boatman. "Well, you surely are having an eventful first day."
"Yes, my lady." He continued to cast off.
"I need to get to the capital as quickly as possible."
He did not seem to go any faster.
Hua, seeing this, pulled a small sack from her pocket. "There are two gold pieces in it for you if you hurry." She fished out the two pieces and waved them in front of the boatman.
His eyes lit up. "Yes, ma'am!" He picked up his pace, and they were soon away from the dock.
Lan gave Hua a smile. "Thank you."
Hua smiled at her and laid a hand on her cheek. "I understand why you are doing this, my lady. I do. I just hope that you are doing the right thing."
Lan nodded and smiled. "I am, Hua. I know that I am. Zuko and I belong together. And we both belong with Uncle. It is the right thing to do." She looked at the sea as it passed by slowly. "We are going too slow! Boatman! Can't we go faster?"
"My animal can't swim no faster."
Lan looked around her with compressed lips. At this rate, she would never make it home by the time the tides went out. She looked at the boatman, who was busy guiding the ship, and then she looked at Hua, who was also watching their path.
"Hua." She took her hands again. "We need to go faster."
"My lady, he says that we are going as fast as we can."
Lan took a deep breath. "Hua, I want you to keep the pilot in the front of the boat. Do you think that you can do that?"
"I suppose so. But why?"
Lan squeezed her hands tightly. "Hua, I need to do something. But the boatman can't see. And neither can you. Do you understand me?"
"No, my lady. I don't understand." Lan's face was stricken, and Hua nodded. "But I will do it."
Lan smiled sadly. "Thank you, Hua." She hugged her again.
She waited until Hua had moved to the front of the boat and had begun to engage the captain in conversation before she herself moved to the back of the craft. She positioned herself behind a pile of equipment and stood in a modified horse stance. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and began moving her hands and arms in long, flowing motions. She felt a boost in the boat's speed, and staggered to keep her balance. The vessel slowed, and she stabilized herself and started bending again. The speed increased again, but she was ready this time, and kept her feet.
She could see Hua and the boatman ahead of her; the housekeeper was doing an admirable job of distracting him. Every so often Hua would turn and cast a worried look towards the rear of the craft, and Lan wondered how much the older woman could see, or how much she had guessed. Lan, however, had no time to worry. There was still a lot of water to cover in a short amount of time.
Thanks to Lan Chi's waterbending, they shaved nearly an hour off their journey, and when the mainland loomed only a few hundred feet away, she left her spot and motioned Hua to the back of the boat.
The housekeeper looked at her with wisdom and sympathy. "Good work, my lady."
Lan Chi blushed. "Thank you, Hua. I could not have done it without you."
The housekeeper smiled kindly and took her hand. "All your secrets are safe with me, my lady. Always."
Lan embraced her, then pulled away. "When we get off the boat I'll hire a horse from the stables and ride the rest of the way on my own."
"Is that safe, Lady Lan Chi?"
"I have a bow and arrows, plus about a half a dozen knives and daggers. I'll be fine."
"Then let me take care of hiring the horse. You just grab the best one and go. I'll deal with the stables." She opened the sack and drew out several gold coins. "Your uncle sent me enough money for your journey to the colonies. Looks like I won't be needing it now. You take it. I'll keep a few coins for the horse." She pushed the purse on her. "You'll need to buy a new wardrobe. Clothing suitable for shipboard life." She smiled again.
Lan gave her a long, firm hug. "Thank you, Hua, for everything. I can never express how grateful I am to you. I love you. You've been like a mother to me."
She could hear a catch in the older woman's voice. "I love you, too, my lady."
The boat bumped up against the dock, and Lan jumped over the side and ran towards the stable situated next to the docks. She dashed along the stalls, giving each animal a quick glance. She saw a horse who looked lively, and after grabbing tack from the wall and putting it on the horse, she led it out of its stall and the barn.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?" A man came down from a hayloft.
"Don't you talk to my lady like that!" Lan heard Hua speak sharply to the man as she herself mounted the horse and was off.
As she pushed the animal into a full gallop, her thoughts turned to her plan. She would go home to the palace first. Iroh might still be there – and she might not be too late. If she caught him, she was certain that she could convince him to take her with them. She could leave immediately. There was nothing that she needed to take with her. Everything she needed she could buy at the first port they came to. As long as he allowed her to go with them. As long as she and Zuko were together, nothing else mattered. Nothing.
For Zuko, the rest of the day and night were marked by packing. If Zuko was honest, he really spent as much time sulking as he did packing. He still could not truly understand what had happened to him, or why. He had done as he thought he should have done – shown respect and devotion to both his father and the Fire Lord. He would have been an ungrateful child had he raised his hand to his father; he would have been a traitor had he raised his hand to his Fire Lord. And yet, showing respect and devotion had earned him a hideous injury and banishment. He just did not understand.
For Iroh, the rest of the day and night were marked by packing and planning. Arranging for Lan Chi's journey and penning a letter to her aunt. Arranging for Zhushou to continue to work in the palace. Arranging for his house and his staff to continue while he was gone. A thousand different details that required his attention, all in less than one day.
He decided to forgo sleep; he would have ample time to sleep on the ship. By an hour before daybreak, the appointed time for leaving for the port, he had finished the most pressing of his tasks, with Zhushou's help, and, after giving his secretary oral instructions how to handle everything that was still pending, he was ready to go.
Zuko was forced to dress himself that morning. Apparently, being banished meant losing one's servants, as well, and, although he could put on all the clothing easily, the armor was all but impossible. Still, after struggling for a quarter of an hour, he was able to secure his wrist guards, albeit crookedly, and had managed to get his body armor on without knocking his bandage off. It remained unsecured, however, with its strings dangling down under his arms.
His luggage had already gone on to the ship, and, as he prepared to leave, he stopped in the doorway and surveyed his nearly empty bedroom. He wondered if he would ever see it again. With a sigh, he stepped out, and closed the door behind him.
"Well, this looks like goodbye, Zu-zu." Azula, leaning against the wall outside his room, startled him, and he jumped. She laughed at his surprise. "Jittery this morning?"
Zuko frowned. "What do you want, Azula?" He walked past her, but she followed him.
"I just wanted to say goodbye to my only brother. After all, we may never see each other again."
He stopped and looked at her. "Well, every cloud has a silver lining."
"For you or for me? Because, for me, this cloud seems to be all silver."
His face reddened, and she smiled. She held her right hand out far beyond the vision of his one eye. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Drop dead, Azula!" He shoved her aside, and stalked down the hallway, hearing her laughter ringing in his ears.
Iroh arrived at the ship before Zuko. He was not impressed. It was an older ship, and a bit shabby, and, by contemporary standards, rather small, but, Iroh reasoned, as long as it was seaworthy, there was not much to quibble about. There was a frenzy of activity on and around the ship, from rhinos and ostrich horses being loaded to luggage being stowed to fuel and other provisions being hoisted aboard.
There was a motley crew of men doing the loading – some older, some overweight, some so thin that it looked like a strong wind might blow them over, but none who looked comfortable in their Fire Nation uniforms.
Iroh sighed and scanned the crowds at the port for a sight of Prince Zuko, but he did not see him. He looked at the eastern horizon – it was lightening, the tide was favorable, and they needed to be off as soon as the ship was loaded.
Finally, he saw Zuko, with a pair of Royal Guards on either side, clearing a path for him. He smiled at his nephew as he approached.
"Well, Zuko! I don't think I've ever seen you accompanied by the Royal Guard."
Zuko was stone faced. "They are to make sure I get on the ship and leave."
Iroh's smile died. "Oh."
Zuko looked around him, then behind his uncle. "Where's Lan? Isn't she here to say goodbye?"
Iroh's face drained of color. "N – no, Prince Zuko. She is still on Ember Island."
"Why isn't she here? I wanted to say goodbye, at least!" He sounded betrayed. "Didn't she want to come?"
"I – I am certain that she did, Zuko. But, I did not tell her that we were leaving. I left her a letter. I thought it – kinder not to tell her until after we were gone."
Zuko's face colored in anger. "You thought it kinder not to allow us to see each other one last time? Before I'm banished and she is sent away to exile in the Earth Kingdom?"
Iroh was dumbfounded. "Well, when you put it that way..."
Zuko pushed past him and up the gangplank onto the ship, his spine straight and stiff. The thought of seeing Lan Chi before he left was the only thing that had gotten him through the night, and now – now he would probably not see her for years, if ever again. He had wanted to hold her one last time. He had wanted to kiss her and tell her that all would be well. He had wanted to put his hand on her cheek, had wanted to run his fingers through her hair one last time. He impatiently swiped at a tear on his cheek as a tall, gray-haired man came up to him and bowed.
"Your highness, I am Lieutenant Jee. I am the ranking officer on board. It is an honor to meet you."
Zuko looked at him with disinterest. "Thank you, Lieutenant." Jee looked at him expectantly, and Zuko glared at him. "What?"
Jee's face twisted in displeasure. "I await orders, your highness."
Zuko blinked. "Oh. Well – go about your business. You know, of – leaving."
Jee bowed again. "Very good, Prince Zuko."
Lan Chi made the journey in a little less than the average of three hours. The sun was coming up as she came to the gates of the great city, and she could see that a queue of people seeking entrance had already formed in front of the gates. Using the horse as a battering ram, she forced her way to the front of the line amid shouts and complaints. Ignoring the indignant, she ripped her identification papers from her bag. They bore the royal seal, and would allow her quick admittance.
"I must get to the palace immediately!" She said to the guard who reluctantly took her papers. He appraised her critically, from her windblown hair to her foaming mount, and indicated that she should pass through.
With grateful thanks, she urged the horse through. Once on the other side of the gates, her attention was taken by avoiding pedestrians and carts. She made it up the winding road to the palace in less than a half hour, and took the horse around to their family entrance. She jumped from the animal and secured its reins to a hitching post before she took the steps to the door two at a time.
She ran through the quiet hallway, her boots echoing loudly on the stone floor. She came to her uncle's gate and burst through, and flung open her own front door. "Uncle Iroh! Uncle Iroh!" Silence met her. She ran to the kitchen, where Jianyu was talking to the cook. "Jianyu! Where is he? Where is my uncle?"
He looked surprised to see her. "He's gone, my lady. He left earlier."
No! "How long ago? Where did he go?"
"An hour before daybreak. He went to the port. He and Prince Zuko are leaving on a ship –"
She didn't wait to hear anything else. She whirled around and ran back out of the house, through the gate, and back down the hallway to her horse. The thirsty animal was drinking from a bucket, and she pulled his head up and hopped on, turning it towards the port. Heedless of the danger of galloping in close quarters, she pushed the animal through the crowded streets, ignoring the protests of passersby.
The time it took her to reach the secure gates of the port seemed interminable. She again presented her papers to a guard, and he waved her through. She stopped one of the many port officials who were milling about. "General Iroh's ship! Where is it?"
He shrugged, and, with a groan of impatience, she urged her mount on.
"Hey, you can't ride that animal in here like that!" A man called after her, but she ignored him, and raced towards a row of docked warships. When the area became too congested for her horse, she jumped off and tied it to a railing. She grabbed the uniform of a lieutenant. "Where is General Iroh's ship?"
He looked at her with disapproval. "At the end. But they've probably already gone."
She dropped his tunic and ran off in the direction he had indicated. Sure enough, at the end of the docks was a small, unimpressive warship, already departing its berth.
"No!" A man on the pier was swinging shut the tall gate that secured the docking area, and she yelled at him to keep it open. He ignored her, and it slammed shut, effectively cutting her off from the ship.
"No!" She yelled at him and reached through the bars of the fence to grab him, but he evaded her. "Open this gate! Open it! I need to get on that ship! I need to get on that ship!" She pointed at the departing ship.
"Sorry." He shook his head. "It's already gone." He walked away.
She stepped back and looked up at the fence. It was nearly ten feet tall, and the bars were all vertical. There were no footholds, and she slammed her hands against the posts. She thought to squeeze between the bars, but they were too close together.
In frustration and rage, she fisted her hands at her sides and screamed. Heads on the ship turned towards her, and some came to the rail. She thought that she saw a familiar gray head among them.
"Uncle Iroh! Uncle Iroh!" She waved frantically, but, even though she thought that Iroh heard her and recognized her, the ship continued to move away.
"Uncle Iroh!" She screamed, tears coming to her eyes. "Don't leave me behind! Please! Take me with you! Uncle Iroh! Please! Don't leave me!" The ship moved farther away. "I want to go with you! Please let me go with you! Uncle, don't go without me!"
She sank to her knees, her strength finally gone after her mad flight from Ember Island. Her hands still gripped the bars of the fence, and her eyes were locked on the receding figure. "Take me with you!" She decided to change tactics. "Zuko! Zuko! Please, Zuko! Don't leave me! Please don't leave me!" Her voice was starting to fail. "Don't go without me!" The seas in front of the dock started to churn, and the little ship bobbed in the waves.
Iroh's hand lifted in a silent, sad farewell.
"No! No! Zuko! Uncle! Please! Don't go without me! Please take me with you!" Tears clouded her vision now, and sobs began to choke her. She watched, in agony, as the ship continued to pull away.
"Zuko, don't leave me," she whispered hoarsely, and slipped down onto her hands. "Please don't leave me. I love you. I love you."
End of Part One
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