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|The Prince's Secret|
April 28, 2013
The Dragon of the West sat on a comfortable pad placed on the floor of his private quarters of the palace with his red royal robes hanging down below his feet. An elaborate piece of armor lined his shoulder-blades, and a metal headpiece rested in his hair. Sadly, it was not the traditional crown prince's headpiece, as that one had vanished from the royal family's eyes many years prior. Indeed, the last to wear it had been his grandfather Sozin. Having already made a batch of tea, Iroh now merely awaited his expected guest.
A knocking sound rasping from the other side of his door signaled Han Shui's arrival. "Come in," General Iroh told his visitor jovially.
The man with graying hair and whiskers slid open the entryway and bowed to his host. "Greetings, Prince Iroh." Han Shui bore an unmistakable smirk on his face. After days of persistent reminders to Iroh about their scheduled private meeting, it appeared that the motive behind his eagerness was about to be revealed.
"Welcome," the middle-aged crown prince returned. "Please sit and have some tea." As he knelt down, Iroh lifted the kettle of steaming hot, leafy flavored beverage and poured Han Shui's tea before his own, as was customary. "It's jasmine, my favorite!"
"Thanks." Han Shui twisted his lips and curved one of his eyes as he took his first sip. "I taste a trace of ginseng in it..."
"Yes," Iroh confirmed. "This is my own personal blend, with some of the best flavors from elsewhere mixed in."
"I would've thought that taboo," stated Han Shui, narrowing his gaze.
Iroh shrugged this notion off as he finished pouring his own cup and put it up - still steaming - to his mouth. "All is fair in love and war," he said as he took his sip. "And tea," he added with a sly wink when he brought his cup back down again.
Han Shui echoed his shrug. "Well, I'll give it to you that it is an interesting combination of tastes. I never would've thought they went together before."
Of course, the crown prince knew very well that the chance-taking Dragon of Water was not here for tea. "So, how have you been of late, my good Han Shui?"
"I've been alright," he replied, putting down his cup and resting his elbows at his sides. "Been reminiscing on the good old days. I've been pondering coming out of retirement and going back to my old post in charge of the Southern Raiders."
"I see," Iroh acknowledged, a little more serious now, his smile fading. "That position is no longer open, as you well know. Yon Rha is leading them now."
"Well, he did good by finally annihilating the last of the southern waterbenders," Han Shui spoke, raising his voice and curling his right hand into a fist. "Which was something I worked decades towards. But, with all due respect to Yon Rha, I trained him. I still have seniority."
"I do understand where you might be coming from," Iroh responded meagerly, his consistent tone of voice in contrast to Han Shui's outburst. "But with the waterbenders gone, why the sudden urge to go back now?"
With a deep breath, Han Shui calmed himself down, and spoke more at Iroh's level. "Recently, I've come to believe that I'm not doing enough in retirement. I still have my skills and my able-body. And your plan to finally take Ba Sing Se re-awoke a patriotic bone in my body. The time is ripe to help my country more again."
"Well-spoken," Iroh admitted. "Very poetic. Now, the real reason please?"
"You're sharp," Han Shui observed, smirking. "Always have been. I can see there's no need to be coy with you. Very well, my finances have become...troubled. My family legacy is in danger and I need to start working again. This was always what I did best, so it seems an appropriate way to earn more money now."
"This has something to do with your gambling obsession, doesn't it?"
"Us old soldiers all have our hobbies, like you have your tea. We need them to occupy our minds. But yes, I have gotten into a recent slump that I need to dig my way out of."
"Your hobby has the potential to be more expensive," General Iroh told him sternly. "I would remind you that you received a generous pension when you left the Southern Raiders, but I suspect that you've been betting with your pension as well. Unfortunately, it would be unfair to usurp Yon Rha just because you have a little debt that you need to pay off. Also troubling is the way you've gone about it. A request like this should technically be made to the Fire Lord himself, but instead you came to me specifically, in this private setting. Presumably, you're offering to do something as well?"
"Close," said Han Shui, a wide, malicious grin spreading across his face. "I'm offering to not do something."
"Ah, so bribery is not the game of the day," General Iroh chuckled with intrigue. "It's ransom! Let's drop the veil of suspense and get everything on the table."
"Capital idea!" Han Shui agreed enthusiastically. "It began when I noticed how out-of-place you acted when amongst the others who had won the dragon title. You were always much more inclined to speak of the magnificence of dragons than the glory of dragon-hunters."
"They are the original source of our bending," Iroh enunciated. "Even for a tree that has grown to ten thousand feet, its leaves must eventually return to the roots when they fall from the branch. So, even for our nation of ten thousand years, we can never neglect our own roots, either."
"Yes, that's exactly the kind of talk I'm talking about," Han Shui indicated, pointing straight into Iroh's eyes. "I've had an arousing doubt about you for over a decade. Now, everything has come to light with the rumors of dragon sighting from the village of Nongkun."
"One hears of sightings all the time, but none have been anything more than rumor," Iroh said with a dismissive wave of his arm.
"This incident was different," asserted Han Shui, his amber eyes pulsating, as though on fire. "I did some checking up on it, and the description of the dragon they supposedly saw matched the very same description for the dragon you supposedly killed."
"Are you saying my dragon is still out there?" Iroh inquired, remaining calm and still clutching his tea cup.
"There's no mistake about it!" Han Shui exclaimed, arching his back and seemingly growing in size. "My suspicions have confirmed," he added, satisfied. "Everyone has always looked up to you. They worship not only the ground you walk on, but the bed you sleep on and even the tea you drink, as eccentric as it may be. Imagine if the truth about your past was uncovered now. You, a proven leader in battle, conqueror of the last dragon, soon-to-be conqueror of Ba Sing Se; you who will one day be Fire Lord, would suddenly be shamed, disgraced and disinherited." Han Shui shook both hands and swirled his cup in the air as he said this. "And that's an optimistic prediction. But, if you do as I've requested and ensure my reappointment to my old post, I'll keep your secret to myself."
Several long seconds passed between the end of Han Shui's brief speech and when Iroh spoke again. "I see now why you've been so keen on this meeting. It was all very thoroughly thought out. What a shame it is, but I will have to decline your proposal."
The triumphant smile spread across Han Shui's face withered away and vanished. "This is not a joke, Iroh! I'll expose you!"
"I'm not worried about that," the Dragon of the West snorted jovially.
"Think of Lu Ten, and what this might mean for him," Han Shui protested. "As your son, he could be cast out as well."
"I know very well what this would mean."
The face of Han Shui turned red with intensity and anger. "Then your secret will be secret no longer! I will tell the Dragon of Fire that all the times you have sat with the dragon-killers you have had no place among us!"
Iroh was still undaunted. "No place among us, you say? Don't you mean no place among them?"
The anger on Han Shui's face melted away and his skin turned pale. "Wh-what? I-I don't know what you're talking about!"
"My dear Han Shui," said Iroh, laughing heartily. "I thought we had agreed not to be coy. When I went searching for my dragon, I found not one, but two, still living. One, of course, was mine," Iroh continued. "The other was yours. For all these years, you've had a secret of your own, and this must've helped give you the idea to pull something on me. Don't try to deny it."
Breathing heavily and clutching his chest, it was a few moments before Han Shui regained himself. "The year before you made your journey, I finally got to go on my dragon hunt. I had desired it for years, and they were very scarce by then. I made my expedition into the mountains to where the dragon allegedly lurked and awakened it to my challenge. My years of training paid off as I gained the upper hand and struck a deadly blow. The beast faltered and I proclaimed my success to one of the captains of my legion. From that moment on, I was a living legend. As I hiked down the mountain, though, I heard an unmistakable roar from the other side of the peak. I told myself that it had to be a call of suffering in the dragon's last moments, but if you saw it a year later and I had not finished the job, it was an honest mistake."
"What about now?" Iroh questioned, raising his eyebrow slyly. "After you neglected to go correct your story and have been called the Dragon of Water for twenty-one years. Would my father, Fire Lord Azulon, still consider it an 'honest mistake?' Oh, Han Shui, not even the luck of the Dragon of Pure Luck can help you now."
"Don't compare me to him!" snapped Han Shui. "That is low..."
Iroh shook his head at this newer outburst. "That man would fare better than you or I if the Fire Lord and everyone else knew the whole truth, because regardless of the circumstances, there's no doubt that he actually did kill a dragon, something neither of us ever did."
The blazing anger on Han Shui's face devolved to a simpler scowl of contempt. "Suppose they found your dragon and they didn't find mine?" Han Shui uttered, his limbs stiffening.
"I don't think that's a possibility," Iroh responded. "If they find one, they'll find the other."
"What makes you so much better and so much nobler?" Han Shui asked with a tone of resentment. "You're just as much a liar as I am."
"I don't think you can ever truly say one person is 'better' than another," stated Iroh. "People are so complex, and one can only read others at the surface presented to them. There is a difference, though, in how we missed our objectives. I chose not to pursue it, but you failed to fulfill it."
"I doubt that distinction would make a difference to the Fire Lord."
"No," Iroh said admittedly. "But you're not going to tell him now, are you?"
Han Shui let his head hang in resignation. "No. That's it, then. I'm ruined."
General Iroh surveyed the man sitting before him: defeated, broken and pathetic. Although Han Shui was certainly not his favorite person, this was not a sight that the Dragon of the West enjoyed looking upon for long. "Cheer up, my good sir. You may not leave here with what you want, but you won't leave with nothing," Iroh told him, much more kindly than almost any other person who treat one who came to their residence for the express purpose of blackmailing them. "Maybe you won't lead the Southern Raiders again, but I have some positions open under my command for the planned attack on Ba Sing Se. Such an extensive campaign will require a handful of under-generals to coordinate."
Han Shui crossed his arms and persed his mouth bitterly. "That's really not what I had in mind...but I'll have to accept such a post."
"You won't be disappointed," Iroh reassured his now-comrade-in-arms. "The points of the invasion are coming together before we've even left Fire Nation soil!" With that, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation downed the remnants of his beverage in one gulp. "Well, that was some interesting conversation for our first cup of jasmine-ginseng tea, shall I pour us a second cup?"
- 西龙, pronounced "Xi Long", is Dragon of the West in Chinese.
For the collective works of the author, go here.