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|Enemies of the Fire Lord|
Previously on Energy Saga
The gang goes to a tea shop and examines the mysterious attacker's weapon. Then they bump into the Earth King and talk to him about his travels. With no reason to keep traveling together, Team Avatar goes their separate ways.
Chapter Four: Enemies of the Fire Lord
Fire Nation Royal Palace, 104 AG
Aang was riding on Appa. The sky was clear and the weather was breezy and peaceful. Within his line of sight, there had been nothing but ocean in all directions since he left the shores of the Southwestern Earth Kingdom earlier that day. He was on his way to visit Zuko in the Fire Nation Royal Palace. Aang traveled frequently and was sure to keep in touch with all his friends who had helped in his quest to defeat Fire Lord Ozai four years ago. But Aang was especially excited about this visit, for it would be the first time all of them were together at once since their celebration at the Jasmine Dragon. Zuko had invited them all. The whole of Team Avatar, as Sokka would call it – or Boomeraang, or the Aang Gang. Aang was sure his friends were anticipating it just as much as he was.
Although everyone kept in touch, everyone was also busy in some way. This was especially true with him. After all, he was a fully-realized Avatar now. His power came with responsibility and that meant he had duties to the world to attend to. He had to preserve the balance that the world had waited so long for him to restore. Just like the other Avatars before him, he had to resolve disputes, save lives and stand for justice. This meant helping the good and punishing the evil when the time came. Although he had yet to face any threat on par with Ozai, bestowing the eternal wisdom of the Avatar Spirit to the world, even in a time of peace, kept him substantially occupied.
What time was left over, Aang used to have fun with his friends – mostly Katara. The long-distance girlfriend of the Avatar was now back living at the South Pole with her family – Kanna, Hakoda, Sokka and now Pakku, who had come with other Northern Water Tribe waterbenders to help rebuild the Southern Water Tribe. Some returned to the North shortly after the War when they were less needed, but others chose to stay. Hakoda had been benevolent in his hospitality to Pakku especially, since he had married Sokka and Katara's grandmother. With Pakku, Katara continued to practice and study waterbending. Katara had improved greatly in the past couple years. She gave Pakku quite a run for his money the last time they sparred together, shocking even him.
For Zuko, things were always kept interesting. This was to be expected, with him being Fire Lord and all. He was living up the promises he made during his coronation speech. And like he had told Aang, he was having to keep "peace at home" as well as abroad. There had been a few attempts on his life in the months after he left the Jasmine Dragon. The first had been quite a shocker – it came when he was walking down the streets of the Fire Nation Capital, arm-in-arm with Mai. Measures were taken to heighten security around the palace at all times. Many in the Fire Nation still saw him as the banished prince, the Avatar's pet and a traitor. Zuko realized all too soon that being Fire Lord was going to be a lot tougher than he thought. At least he could always ask Uncle Iroh for advice.
Meanwhile, things were getting pretty serious between him and Mai. She had her own room in the palace where she lived full-time now. Zuko often found himself depending on her companionship when he felt he could not trust those around him. This was not always the case, of course. When his personal security forces alerted him that there was trouble around the capital, he had a habit of suggesting that Mai take a vacation by herself so she would be safe. He sent her lots of places – usually to Ember Island. He felt close to Mai and wanted to shield her from harm's way. This was greatly to her annoyance and Zuko was very bad at hiding the reasons behind this. Mai was quite a skilled fighter herself and she resented being patronized and overly-protected by her boyfriend. It was with unmistakable reluctance that she agreed to his short "vacations," "retreats" and "getaways" while he stayed in the palace where all the action was.
As for Sokka, he had returned to the South Pole after spending time at Kyoshi Island following the Hundred Year War. On the way back, he had taken a rather large detour to look for his old boomerang and meteor sword, but it was all in vain. In search of a new weapon, he returned to the house of his former master Piandao. Piandao was proud to hear the story of the role his student played in the final battle against Ozai's airship fleet. He was more than happy to assist Sokka in making his next sword. There was still a little bit of material from the space rock leftover, but not enough to make a full sword with. So, Sokka had to substitute partially. He constructed a hybrid sword which still had the meteor in it but had a much lighter tint to it than the original one. Upon his return to the South Pole, Sokka assisted his father in leading the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka had grown more confident with age, but still retained his personality and sense of humor.
Toph had reconciled with her parents back in Gaoling. Lao and Poppy Beifong were overjoyed at seeing their daughter again after she returned home. They also admitted their mistake of sheltering her from the world and were proud of her for helping prevent their kingdom from being burned to the ground. It had taken a little time for them to process it, but their view of their daughter had changed fundamentally. Her parents sent her to a prestigious finishing school a couple towns over from where they lived. Despite her rebellious nature, Toph had initially agreed due to finally having her parents' full acceptance. However, the policies were strict and there was little room for her to continue earthbending. When she told her parents how she felt, they were understanding. A compromise was met – Toph would go to a private school in Omashu where she would have more freedom to do her earthbending training. At Aang's suggestion, she began to earthbend with King Bumi and they had become quite the pair. After school she typically sparred with him in the arena he had tested Aang in long ago. After some separation anxiety, her parents moved up to Omashu to spend more time with her. They had a vacation house in Omashu, so the transition was fairly easy. At first, Toph thought this was a bit much, but she came to accept it. She wouldn't admit it, but she missed them just as much.
Aang had continued to take Appa and Momo with him wherever he went. At this moment, they had spotted the Fire Nation Royal Palace and had begun their descent. Atop the tall stairs leading up to it was a nice landing platform for him situated between the two columns right in front of the entrance. Aang steered Appa toward this location, as he did every time he was in the area. He could tell that he was expected at about this time long before he landed since a group of soldiers was on their way out to greet him just as he was starting to land. There were five of them – all in full uniform minus the head coverings and masks.
At the head was the commanding officer in charge of the other four. He bowed his head slightly as Appa touched his feet to the ground and Aang dismounted. "Welcome, Avatar. Fire Lord Zuko is expecting you."
"Thanks," said Aang. He slid down from Appa's back, glider in his left hand and came in front of the commander. He paused for a moment – this officer looked strangely familiar.
"Come," said his greeter. "The rest of the Fire Lord's guests have already arrived." And with that he turned and walked back into the grand palace entryway.
Aang followed closely behind him. The corridors of the palace were just as dully lit and gloomy as when he had first visited this place, but the atmosphere seemed much calmer and warmer now that he knew he had friends here. Aang remained a couple paces behind his escort, which was nothing but an unnecessary formality. Zuko was one of his best friends and of course he knew where the Fire Lord's chamber was. As they passed through the hallway where the portraits of the Fire Lords hung, Aang noticed the one of Zuko – a new addition since he was last here. He also recognized Ozai and Sozin fairly easily. Then he saw another one he was not so familiar with. With one hand this Fire Lord was holding a small flame with his bending ability and in the other he held what appeared to be a sun-like abject with the moon symbol in front. A solar eclipse, just like when he and his friends invaded the Fire Nation Capital years before when firebending was blocked out. Had there been such an event during his time too?
At last, they came to the right set of doors. The guards parted and the officer escort opened them before the Avatar. "The Avatar Aang, your highness." He bowed toward Zuko and then departed.
Aang's friends were gathered on the far side of the chamber. Zuko, who had been sitting on a pristine-looking small sofa with Mai beside him, got up quickly. "Hey, what took you so long?"
"Oh, you know, the usual," Aang joked.
Katara was still in her recognizable Water Tribe outfit but no longer sported the hair loopies. She rushed over to him and gave him a strong embrace and a quick peck on the lips.
Toph and Sokka both stayed back, looking smug. "Hey there Twinkle Toes. You haven't changed a bit," said Toph. Next to her was Suki.
"Suki, I thought you weren't coming?" Aang was pleasantly surprised.
"Plans change," she replied.
"Ty Lee has just been promoted to second-in-command of the Kyoshi Warriors," added Sokka. "She's handling things while Suki's here."
"Well, let's all catch up in the dining room, shall we?" said Zuko. "The palace chef has prepared us a nice surprise."
It was the first time together in a while, so there was no shortage of stories to tell each other. The food was delicious and time seemed to go by very fast. Sokka had narrowly escaped a polar leopard while looking for a new fishing spot, since an avalanche had driven him away from his usual one. Toph was asking when Aang would make it out to Omashu for a three-way sparing match with her and Bumi. They were just about to have dessert when Zuko spoke up again. "I have some more good news. Mai, it's very exciting with your old friend Ty Lee being promoted and all. I knew you would want to share the moment with her, so I've arranged for a luxurious airship ride to take you over to Kyoshi Island to see her. It leaves later tonight. The palace servants have already done your packing for you."
Mai narrowed her eyes and stared at him. "What's going on now?"
Zuko looked taken aback. "Nothing's going on. It's just a surprise I've arranged. Thought you would enjoy it."
"Don't play dumb with me, Zuko," said Mai. "There's some kind of danger looming around here and you're trying to protect me from it by sending me on a mini-trip. I can handle myself and I don't need you to be paranoid for me all the time!"
"Well, okay, I'll admit. I did plan a couple of trips to Ember Island in the past. But that was when there was a genuine threat in the area and I didn't want you caught up in it."
"This is the same as when your father sent us on that little beach trip back during the War."
Zuko grimaced. He had resented being excluded from the state affairs at the time. Like being at the kids table. He understood where Mai was coming from but he had to convince her that wasn't the case. "Actually, it was Ty Lee's idea. She wanted you there when she was promoted. She needs you now."
Mai's eyes narrowed even more. She did not argue any further, though. "Alright, well in that case, I'm not hungry for any dessert. I'd better start getting my makeup on." And with that she left the room and walked toward her chamber.
Everyone else paused for a second, tension in the air. They knew what this all meant just as much as Mai did. Aang broke the silence. "So, what was your purpose in inviting us here tonight, Zuko?"
Zuko looked up and answered. "Two days ago, my head of security told me that he received word of a plot to assassinate me and put my sister on the throne in my place."
Aang looked shocked. "Isn't she still in a mental treatment center?"
"She is, but that's beside the point. She's not behind this. I don't see how she can be, anyway. But she serves as a sort of rallying symbol for anyone who's opposed what I've done as Fire Lord. Anyhow, the most disturbing part about it is that supposedly someone connected inside the palace is involved. I've always thought I could trust the people that serve me here, but apparently that's not the case. So I need to ask help from people that I know I can trust."
Aang looked determined. "You can count on us, Zuko."
"Well said, Twinkle Toes," said Toph.
"You know me. I'm ready to kick some crazy firebender behind any day of the week," said Sokka.
"The first thing you need to do is change the palace guard. Switch around who's on duty tonight," said Aang.
"Why would I do that?"
"Whoever's plotting against you is probably relying on their inside contact. So they'll be putting their plan into action at a time when that person is around. If the shift schedule is changed, that throws their plan off. And keep the assignments as random as possible until the culprits have been rooted out."
Zuko pondered this suggestion. "Okay, and what next?"
Aang thought for a moment. "We'll have to pretend we don't know anything about this already. Talk to your head of security and see if he has any more news about this. The rest of us will just have to lay low and be ready to fight at a moment's notice."
Zuko agreed. He rose and left the room for a moment before returning immediately afterwards. "Dessert's nearly done."
The tone of the conversation was much more calm and serious than it had been before Mai left and Zuko explained about the assassination plot. Just as they were finishing, the same guard who had escorted Aang in earlier entered the room. "You called, Sir?"
"Yes. I have decided to give you and your men the rest of the night off. I will be having some of the new recruits on watch duty tonight."
The man clearly did not expect this and seemed a little offended, but he was trying not to show it. "I don't understand. My men and I are fully capable of..."
"Enough," Zuko cut him off. "That is an order. Dismissed!"
The man hesitated for a moment as if to say something, then bowed forward and left without a word. Aang and Zuko led the rest of the gang into the master bedroom, where they began plotting their positions. They did not know when the members of the attempted coup would try to strike, so they started mapping out possible scenarios and playing them out piece-by-piece. Toph, with her mastery of Seismic Sense, would be the best lookout for spotting approaching people. Aang was just toying with his glider when Zuko approached him.
"Well, the guard's changed now. I've ordered another spontaneous change of the guard in a few hours. Mai is on the airship bound for Kyoshi Island. My head of security has informed me that they have not heard any more news about the plot. Except that they intend to strike at the most vulnerable moment."
"Hmmm...okay," said Aang. "Everyone else is in ready to get in their positions soon. Sokka's just gone down to where Appa's staying. He'll be ready to fly up on him to just outside your window where we can arrange a quick getaway if necessary. You'll need to signal him with a simple firebending blast out the window."
Zuko nodded. "I'm guessing by the most vulnerable moment they must mean when I'm sleeping. It's tough to kill a Fire Lord in combat. The last time it was done was during a solar eclipse."
Aang remembered what he must be talking about. "I saw a solar eclipse sign on one of the portraits out in the hall on the way in."
"Yes. That would be my great-great-grandfather Khomin – the Fire Lord before the War. He was well-beloved by his subjects. But on the day of a solar eclipse, someone assassinated him while his firebending was blocked. They never found out why."
Aang reflected on this for a moment, then said, "Okay, well we'd better get ready now if we're going to catch these wrongdoers."
For the next few hours, they waited. Zuko went to bed early and pretended to be fully asleep and ordered the palace guards outside his chambers to take the rest of the night off. He wanted to lure the attackers at him so that he could confront them when the time came. Aang was lurking in a corner, meditating but still alert. Toph was hiding in the room next door with Suki and Katara. She would signal Aang and Zuko by earthbending a rock on their side of Zuko's room when people were approaching. For a while, things were calm and quiet. Aang was beginning to wonder if they had given up now that he and the rest of the gang were there.
At last, Aang noticed the rock move a little. Zuko sprang up in an instant and shot a quiet firebending flame out his window so that they would have Appa ready when the time came. Aang could just barely make out Suki and Katara's voices in the next room. Then with a loud crash the door was broken down. Standing in the doorway was the same officer that had escorted Aang in earlier that day. There seemed to be a lot of them, a whole battalion by the looks of it.
"Death to the traitor!" the officer shouted, pointing forward. At least twenty men ran around him and on either side and charged toward Zuko, who had gotten up and was shooting fire balls at them left and right.
Suddenly, a hole opened up in the wall and Toph, Katara and Suki rushed through. Then Toph closed it again with earthbending. Katara took out her bending water and stretched it out to slap back about six or seven of them at once. As Suki made some jabs at the familiar-looking leader of the operation, attempting to block his Chi, Zuko turned around to look outside for Sokka and Appa, who had not arrived yet. Aang had fought a horde of them with his mastery of the four elements. Then he turned to the door and saw twenty or thirty more men coming forward. Apparently they had only fought the first wave so far. Aang concentrated really hard, then he felt new life come into his chi like he had never felt before except for in the Avatar State. Some of Katara's bending water shot towards his hand along with some small rocks while a tiny ball of air and a tiny flare met them, all suspended above his hand at once. Aang had never used this style of attack before, but he knew what to do. He shot the pieces of each element forward at the soldiers with such speed that even he could not see them, knocking them all down in an instant wave.
At last Aang and his friends were standing while everyone around them had fallen, including their leader. Everyone took a deep breath. "When did you start doing that?" asked Toph. Aang did not answer.
"Where is Sokka?! He was supposed to be here," Katara said angrily.
"I sent the signal out the window just like we planned. Maybe he wasn't looking," replied Zuko.
Almost in answer to the question, Sokka appeared just outside the window on Appa. He seemed out of breath "Sorry about that, apparently they knew about Appa. Overheard something we said. They ambushed us – had to fight them off." He climbed through the window with his sword in hand. "I guess you guys seem to have pretty much finished up here though."
Just then, the commanding officer sprung up and readied himself to shoot a giant firebending blast at Zuko, who was turned the other way. Then a wave of stilettos shot toward his hand and pinned it down, wounding him at the same time. Mai had appeared at the door. "I made the airship take a detour. Figured you'd need me."
Zuko rushed to embrace Mai, then walked arm-in-arm with her down the hall to inform the palace security about the events of the evening. Soon, some reinforcements came in and removed the disloyal battalion of Fire Nation soldiers, taking the wounded to the infirmary, the slain away and the rest to the prison cells.
When Zuko returned, he said, "it's amazing that so many were able to participate in this operation right under all our noses. This level of security breach is almost unheard of. And that was some amazing moves you pulled there, Avatar."
Aang's face turned a little pink, though in a room decorated with so many shades of red, one would barely notice. "Yeah, I had never done that before. I think I used energybending. It helped me focus my chi and control the four elements with more precision than usual."
"Oh great, this energy stuff again. I thought we had heard the last of that," mumbled Sokka.
Zuko turned and approached the officer, who was the only one remaining in the room. After Mai had stopped him, Toph had trapped him in place with earthbending. Zuko stood in front looking down at him, with Aang and the others not far behind him. "Who are you?" he asked as the man turned his angry face away from him. "I said who are you? Answer your Fire Lord!"
The man turned his head to face Zuko and spat in his face "You're no Fire Lord of Mine. You're the Fire Nation's greatest disgrace! You're a traitor and an usurper. It's men like my father our country's citizen's should be cheering in the street for – not you!"
"Yes, my father. The Admiral Zhao."
"I knew you looked familiar," said Aang.
"Yep, he looks just like him," added Sokka.
"You and your uncle are responsible for his death at the North Pole," Zhao's son said to Zuko. "He was bringing the Fire Nation to new heights. He would have conquered the North, destroyed the moon spirit and annihilated waterbending. But a soft idealist ruined him and now sits on the throne he once served. Now the world worships you, the Avatar's puppet, and my father's legacy is in shambles."
"I know what losing a parent can feel like, but your crimes and your aggression cannot be forgiven. You are going to face justice. Guards – take him away," commanded Zuko. Toph let the earthbending entrapments long enough for him to be taken into custody and led away.
Another guard approached Zuko as they exited. "Your Majesty, here is an unidentified weapon we found among the assailants." He held out a short silver sword with an inscription of some kind on it.
The handle was black. As Zuko started to examine it, Aang noticed a symbol on the handle. "I recognize that sign," he said, pointing at it. "That's what was on the assassin's weapon four years ago."
Everyone except for Toph turned in response to this. "What do you know, it is," said Suki.
"The one who attacked you in the Avatar State," continued Katara. "But what is it doing here?"
Sokka and Zuko both shrugged. Apparently after all the action it was hard for them to get excited over seeing a design on the back of a sword. After the scene was cleared up, they all left the room. Zuko would be sleeping in Mai's chamber tonight and a new guard would be stationed, just in case something happened again that night. Aang, Katara, Suki and Toph were each allowed a private bedroom for the night. Before turning it, Aang walked outside to where Appa and Momo were, needing some fresh air.
Katara had followed him . "Well, I guess that's over with now. All in the day of the life of the Avatar, of course."
"Yeah," said Aang, barely listening.
"What is it?" asked Katara.
"Tonight felt like it was old times again. All of us together, fighting the Fire Nation. Fighting Zhao – or his son, anyway. It just seems like so long since things have been this way. I feel like I don't get the chance to be with you guys as much – you most of all."
Katara blushed. "I try to write as often as possible. But yeah, it is tough. Being at the South Pole and all. Why don't you let me accompany you on your Avatar missions at some point? You may be the Avatar, but you're still only human. I'm also sure having another master waterbender around will come in handy. Especially one who used to be your teacher."
Aang smiled. "I would like that." And with that, they walked back inside, arm-in-arm.
TO BE CONTINUED...
- The first Day of Black Sun is mentioned and expanded upon in this episode.
- Zhao Jr.'s first appearance.
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