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"O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out."
-William Butler Yeats, "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen"
"I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."
-W.B. Yeats, "Easter, 1916"
"The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Ladder of Saint Augustine
Seven Years Ago
Ursa paced the hardwood floor of the torch-lit Prince's bedchamber, the sound of her feet hitting the floor echoing in her ears as she felt a manic fear flood her as she struggled to comprehend what her husband had just said. She looked at Ozai. There was not a trace of emotion in his golden eyes, nor could it be told from looking at his handsome, well-built features that anything was wrong. The shadows cast from the torches distorted his normally handsome, countenance, long black hair, and golden eyes into something twisted and ugly that matched the confusion and terror that reigned in her breast. She couldn't believe it. Azulon had ordered Ozai to murder Zuko, so he would know what it was like to lose a son after he had apparently suggested to his father that he disinherit his brother Iroh. Iroh who had disappeared after the death of his own son at the walls of Ba Sing Se. In return, he'd consider him for the role should Iroh fail to reappear. That on its own disgusted her, but that seemed like a faraway concern to the incipient threat her child's life.
"Are you going to do this...vile thing?" She felt her hands tremble slightly, as she hoped and prayed that her husband, whom she'd fallen in love with, married, and born two beautiful children, would say no, and that she was just telling her so that they could come up with a plan to save their son.
The look in her husband's eyes hardened, and he stood up and walked over to her. "He told me," he began in a nonchalant voice that chilled her to the core. "That if I don't do this, he would disown me, banish me from the Fire Nation on pain of death. That can't be allowed. The life of one child, especially one as weak and incompetent as Zuko, is a small price to pay for the good of our nation."
For a long moment there was only silence in the royal bedchamber, a silence only broken by the crackling of flames from the torches. Finally, she said, shaking her head, "So you're going to murder your son just to stay within your father's good graces?"
"There must be a Firelord on the throne," Ozai said, with a calmness that filled her with such disgust as she'd never known. "Iroh has broken off the siege of Ba Sing Se and gone to ground completely. He no longer cares about the line of succession."
"No longer cares?" she said emphatically, her disgust giving way to anger and rage. "Ozai he's lost his son! Of course he wants to be alone for awhile. That's no reason to suggest that your own father disinherit him."
Ozai shook his head. "All that proved," he said, in a tone that suggested he was explaining to an adult something a child should be able to recognize, "was that he was too attached to his son. It made him weak, and the weak have to make way to the strong." He shook his head. "No matter, I'm going to bring the boy before Azulon in half an hour. Any goodbyes you wish to say to the boy, I suggest you say them now."
For a long moment, she stood there, seeing red as she stood on the cusp of viciously attacking this man, this monster, who would harm her beloved son, who would take away his life for any reason and without a trace of emotion. A man who didn't even have the sense to even act like it was a hard decision. She was about to lunge forward when an idea suddenly exploded into her brain. Stopping her hands from trembling with the urge to lunge forward and wrap themselves around his neck and attempt to choke the life of him, she said, "Ozai," she said, desperation pitching her voice up. "Let me talk to Azulon. Maybe I can convince him to give you the throne and spare Zuko's life."
"My father will only accept one thing and that's Zuko's corpse," Ozai said, in that same chill, cold voice. "And I'm going to give it to him."
"I can get it," Ursa said, thinking about what she'd need to get before the Firelord received his nightly wine, and ignoring the foul taste in her mouth, like she'd tasted cat shit, "even if I have to pry it from his dead hands."
Five minutes later, Ursa walked down the torch-lit corridors towards, the sounds of her feet echoing on the walls covered with dancing shadows. She felt cold sweat run down her skin, matting her black hair and red silk robes to her skin as she resisted the urge to walk slightly faster whenever she saw a guard in the red-lacquered armor, spiked helmets, and white Death's Head masks of the Fire Nation Army's Guard of Agni. She had to maintain the semblance that all was normal and well in the palace that night. She felt the weight of the small pouch and spoon in her pocket. It contained what she needed to carry out her task. Whenever she thought about it, she felt a shudder of revulsion work its way down her spine and that foul taste return to her mouth. Her mother hadn't taught her what she knew of herbs and roots for her to take a man's life in cold blood. Now, every footstep feeling like it was taking an eternity, here she was, hoping that she would run into whoever was assigned to wait upon Firelord Azulon for the evening. If that didn't happen, the short window of opportunity for her plan to work would slam shut, and take her son's life with it.
She was about to turn the corner ahead of her when she heard the sound of footsteps on the other side. She increased her speed to see, walking down the corridor with a silver tray carrying a brass cup that was no doubt filled with springwine, a girl of no more than twelve. She rushed forward to catch up with her.
"Maid," she said, fighting to keep any tinge of desperation out of her voice, and the girl whipped around so fast she nearly spilled the wine, a shocked and scared look in her eyes. "Give me the tray, dear."
"But, milady," she said, lowering her eyes. "This is for the Firelord."
"I'll take it to him," she said quickly, reaching out for the tray. "Give it to me, now."
She nodded slightly, and put the tray in her hands. "Yes, milady." And the girl skittered down the corridor.
She looked around her quickly. There was no one else in the corridor. She set the tray down on the floor, and hastily pulled the small brown pouch out of her pocket. Pulling back on the drawstring, she dumped the entire bag of small green powder into the violet hued wine, and taking the spoon out, she stirred it, watching it slowly disappear into the purple mix without so much as a sound. Nodding to herself when she was satisfied she put the spoon back into her pocket, picked up the tray, and continued on her journey. Within moments she had rounded the final corner and found herself face to face with the Firelord's bedchamber. The two massive double doors, brown oak with red inlay panels towered over her, and she realized the enormity of what she was going to do: to walk into her old, ailing Sovereign's bedchamber and poison him, an act of treason and outright cruelty for which she would surely be reviled for all time, but none of that mattered so long as her son was safe. The guards, recognizing her, pulled the doors open for her, and she walked inside.
The Firelord's bedchamber was lit not by torches but by a fireplace, which cast long dark shadows over the room that danced in front of her as though taunting her. She walked over to the Firelord's bed. The unmistakable sound of soft breathing in her bed caused her to stop in her tracks and stare at the sight in the bed.
Spirits, he's asleep! The old Firelord, his hair white, with long thin tapering whiskers on either side of his face, rested peacefully under his comforter, his eyes closed. As she stood there, she realized what she could do. Sensing an opportunity, she tiptoed towards the nightstand and set the tray down with a slight thunk..
She heard the sound of rustling from the bed, and she whipped around to view Azulon turning over to face her in his bed before his eyes opened. Golden irises stared at her and she jumped back as though burned.
"My Lord," she began.
"Ursa?" Azulon said hoarsely, sitting up as much as the limitations of his nearly century old frame would allow. "What are you doing here? I didn't expect you here until after-,"
"I came to ask, to beg you for a reprieve for Zuko," she said. "Please, why should my son have to answer for what his father did?"
"No, Ursa!" She said, shaking his head. "I will not one of my children think he can use the pain of his own brother against him. He has to be punished. He'll get my throne, but it will be soured by the fact that he had to beat his son to death with his own hands to get it. Then maybe he'll learn what it's like to feel the pain of a parent who's lost his child."
Ozai doesn't care about my children, she thought angrily, her hands balling into fists by her side. They're just means to an end to him. How can he learn the pain of losing a child if that child means nothing more to him then his sword? Sighing, and praying the spirits would forgive her for taking a life in cold blood, even the life of one who would sacrifice his grandson to teach his son humility, she pursed her lips and thrust the cup out to him. "Here's your wine, my Lord," she said, not hiding the trace of anger on her voice.
Azulon took the cup and drained it in two gulps. When he was done, he gave her a curious look and said, "Don't think standing there is going to save your son. It's regrettable but necessary and nothing will change my mind." Then his eyes widened and his nostrils flared, as if he felt a million tiny pinpricks in his stomach at once.
"Oh," he said suddenly, no trace of anger on his voice. "That's why you're standing here. Maybe Ozai isn't a shortsighted asshole as I thought he was, if he married a woman as cunning as you." He looked at her curiously. "You're doing this of your own volition? He didn't tell you to do this?"
Stunned numb with the enormity of what she was doing, and the fact that Azulon seemed to be accepting it, she could only nod in agreement.
He nodded and lay back softly on his pillows. "I made peace with the fact that after what I decreed that I wouldn't live to see the next sunrise, though I expected it would be Ozai to kill me, not you. Either way, I go out like a child of the Fire Nation should go out, at the hands of my enemy. It was well played, Lady Ursa, and I salute you. Well played." He closed his eyes and she watched as he went as white as a sheet. After five minutes, his breathing began to slow, and three minutes after that his he let out a death rattle like the hissing of a snake and Firelord Azulon was no more.
Seven Years Later
A blast of bright light exploded like a bomb going off against Ty Lee's eyelids and the young woman's eyes opened slowly to see a maid in red Imperial Palace robes pushing aside the curtain in her guest room. After a moment her mind managed to work the fact that she'd overslept through the hazy comforting fog of sleep and she stood up, her brain realizing that she had instinctively gone to the left side of the bed. "What time is it?" She asked, her normally bright and cheerful voice groggy with sleep as she looked out on the gray and cloudy sky.
The young woman gave her a surprised look. "About three hours until midday milady," she said, bowing, her voice low and deferential, then leaving and closing the door softly behind her.
She nodded sleepily, threw her comforter aside and walked over to the large, oval standing mirror in the corner, intent on getting dressed before her executive officer arrived. She stared at herself in the mirror as she grabbed a comb and started working the knots out of her shoulder-length brown hair. When her hair was as untangled as she could get it, she slid the green nightgown off her and grabbed the new service uniform, sliding the trousers on her waist and buckling the green double-breasted tunic with gold piping down with her black belt. When she was done fastening her tunic down, she ran her hand lovingly across the rank designations on her arm: three upsweapt gleaming golden arrowheads on either arm, stabbing upwards towards heaven, the marks of a captain in the Kyoshi Warriors. She was about to buckle on her sword when three booming knocks came at her from the door.
That would be her, she thought to herself. "Just a minute," she called out. She finished fastening her belt on, walked over, and opened the door to reveal a woman about a year older than her standing there, a smile on her face. The black haired, brown eyed woman with slightly darker skin than her was dressed in her uniform too, but with two arrowheads on her arms to indicate that she was a First Lieutenant in the Kyoshi Warriors. Her own sword, curved, deadly, and capable of taking someone's head off in one stroke, hung at the night black scabbard in her belt.
"Ah, Lieutenant," she said, beckoning her executive officer and friend inside, "Come in." She walked in and she closed the door with a sound like a thunderclap.
"How was your night?" Michiko asked in that rich tone of voice she had.
"Did you sleep well?" "Well enough, I guess," she said as she fastened her sword to her waist, her eyes being drawn back to her four-poster bed, and the clearly visible dark impression on its left side. The sight caused her to release a resigned sigh. "I woke up on the left side of the bed again."
Michiko smiled sympathetically. "Kozin is gone, Ty Lee. You watched him die yourself and I don't think he wanted you to spend the rest of your life alone on his account."
Ty Lee squinted as she felt the stabbing fires of the emotional pain still fresh after five months, hit her. She shook her head. "I don't want to speak of this now," she said, the tone on her voice brooking no discussion. "What's your report?"
"The final preparations for taking the men back to Kyoshi have been completed and ready for your review, sir," Michiko said, reaching into the folds of her robe, pulling out a parchment scroll and handing it to her. "The combat transport Victory's Crucible will be ready for us by midmorning tomorrow." As she opened it, Michiko continued on. "Barring unexpected bad weather, we should be in Kyoshi in ten days."
As she looked over the itinerary for the troop transport Victory's Crucible, the lead ship of her class of heavy troop transports of the Royal Navy, she couldn't help but smile in relief. "Ten days, you say?" My men have all been through enough, she thought. They deserve to go home.
"Yes, sir," Michiko said breaking out into a wide smile. "It will be great to see my home again, my family. It will be great for all of them." The smile gone from her face, she reached out and put her hand on Ty's shoulder. "And it will be great for you, I promise. If there's anywhere on this world that can help you in recovering from what you've been through, it's Kyoshi."
"I hope so," Ty Lee, the still-fresh wound of the death of the man she'd fallen in love with in the Rock stinging like the venomous bite of some poisonous insect, tempered with the small sense of satisfaction she'd gotten when she killed the person responsible herself.
"Anyway," Michiko said after a moment. "I have to distribute tomorrow's itinerary to the platoon commanders. Join me for breakfast?"
"Of course," she said, some of the pain receding at the thought. Then she looked down at her bare feet, "Just as soon as I find my shoes."
"Want some help?" Michiko asked.
"No," she said, "you have better things to do then find the shoes your commanding officer should know better than to misplace to begin with. I'll join you when I find them."
"As you wish, sir," she said, and Michiko bowed. Ty Lee returned the bow and Michiko opened the door and left.
She sighed, and cast her eyes around the room, scanning every inch of the room for her missing boots. After looking over the ornate red rug with the Black Flame symbol dominating the middle, she sighted the first boot hanging under the oak writing desk against the right corner wall. She hastily snapped it up, and was looking for the second when there was a second knock on the door.
"Come!" she shouted. The door opened to reveal Zuko standing there, the black-haired young man looked resplendent in the red and gold robes of the Firelord.
"My Lord," she blurted, social instinct instilled in her since she was old enough to stand overriding the fact that she'd known him since childhood and sending her into a deep bow, and making her feel exceedingly weird as she did so. She was used to short respectful bows between colleagues. "Please, come in."
"Please don't bow to me like that or call me My Lord," Zuko said hastily, walking inside and closing the door behind him. "I get enough of that from my advisors and people I run into at random all day in the palace, I don't need that from my friends."
"Yeah, okay," Ty Lee said, a smirk appearing on her face. "That whole exchange felt weird."
"If it felt weird doing it," Zuko said. "Imagine how it feels being on the receiving end of it."
She suppressed a shudder as she did imagine it. "What do you want, Zuko?"
"I have a favor to ask you," he responded. "It's strictly voluntary, and if you want to turn it down I wouldn't think any less of you."
"I'll always help you, you know that," Ty Lee said genuinely concerned, and curious as to what Zuko wanted.
He sighed, and, a look of utter helplessness in his golden eyes, asked. "Help me find my mother."
"Your mother?" Ty Lee asked. This was surprising. The search for her had ground to a halt almost as soon as it began five months ago. The deposed Firelord Ozai hadn't exactly been forthcoming with information before he somehow managed to commit suicide in his cell a couple of weeks after he was imprisoned. That, combined with the fact that she had apparently managed to disappear without leaving a trace in any government or private records anywhere had meant that any attempt to search for her was a shot in the dark.
"Yes, Ty Lee," Zuko said, sitting down on the foot of her bed. "My mother."
"Have you finally found a lead?" Ty Lee asked, sitting down in the chair across from the bed at the writing desk.
"That's the thing," Zuko said, putting his head in his hand. "There aren't any new leads." He looked up at her. "The only thing Ozai said was that she was in the Earth Kingdom, which gives us absolutely nothing to go on."
"Zuko," she said, sympathetically. "I'm sure you're aware that I'm leaving for Kyoshi tomorrow. I'm directly responsible for two hundred Kyoshi Warriors, my commanding officer isn't going to let me ditch that to wander the Earth Kingdom for spirits only knows how long."
"I cleared this with Suki before I came down here," Zuko said, "with the understanding that she would not order you to do this. She did authorize you, however to take a detail of twenty with you should you take this assignment to assist you in this"
Ty Lee sighed. She was unsurprised that Zuko had gone to Suki or that Suki had given him permission to give her this assignment. The two had become friends since Zuko and Sokka had sprung her from the Rock, something that she'd tried to prevent. The implication was clear, Suki wanted her to take the job out of their mutual friendship with Zuko, but she wouldn't order her to take it.
And military protocol demanded that she treat any request from her commanding officer with the force of a direct order. That didn't mean, however, she couldn't question Zuko as to why it had to be her though.
"I understand the need to see your mother again, but why me?" Ty Lee asked, sighing. "I know the Avatar is out looking for King Bosco but why not Katara or anyone else in the group?"
Zuko shook his head. "I can't ask the Avatar or anyone associated with the Avatar to do this for me. Aside from the fact that I owe them everything, my mother was educated in a system that was taught to hate and fear the Avatar as a threat to our civilization and our way of life for the past century. We'll have to assume she'll almost certainly react negatively to being found by the Avatar or anyone affiliated with him. That unfortunately leaves five people she'll implicitly trust: my father, Azula, Zuko, Mai, and you. I shouldn't have to tell you why the first two are out of the question."
"Well, yeah," Ty Lee began. "Aside from the evil, Ozai is dead and last I checked Azula couldn't so much as go to the bathroom without one or two people there to assist."
"And, the situation in the Fire Nation is too unstable for me to risk leaving for any length of time," Zuko said, "and as for Mai..." he trailed off.
"What about Mai?" Ty Lee asked, even though she knew the answer already. "With her skill set, she'd be perfect for this mission."
Zuko sighed. "When Mai covered our escape from the Rock," he said, his voice cracking slightly. "I was terrified I'd never see her again, and I'm not going to let that happen again."
"Spirits, you didn't even tell her what you were planning, did you?" She resisted the urge to smack him, he always was overprotective of people he considered his friends.
The look of silence Zuko gave her was proof enough. Ty Lee sighed, ignoring the pain and annoyance welling up in her. Aside from Zuko's trademark overprotective attitude, she was tired, physically, emotionally. The last five months of light combat duty in the Fire Nation capital were distracting enough, but her men had been through enough, and, she felt selfish for saying it, but she had had enough. Her previous life had ended the moment her fist had collided with Azula's back, but through those final weeks of pain and anguish, she'd been offered the one thing she'd always wanted: the chance to build her own place in this world, to leave all of her mistakes behind, to start anew.
But now was not the time for that, it seemed.
Ty Lee sighed. "I'll take the mission, Zuko."
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