Zuko huffs a sigh as he watches a fourth figure climb through his chamber window. Assassins. How did they even get this far? There was no way someone hadn’t spotted them. It was late - or early - enough that any movement near the royal apartments was suspicious and those men had not been stealthy enough to remain unnoticed, even if they were able to scale the wall to his balcony - and was that a rope ?
This was a problem. He’d just wanted a break after another endless day of meetings and arguing with various ministers about how to manage an economy not based on warfare. Just a late night cup of jasmine tea brewed alone in a mostly-empty kitchen, without a trail of guards and attendants behind him as a constant reminder of his new role and responsibilities as Firelord. Now there are assassins in his room while he’s clinging to the wall outside it. Thankfully he’s hidden from the guards on the wall at the moment by the shadow of a tree, but there’s no cover for the remaining few meters and his fingers are starting to cramp.
He has two options that he can see. Or technically three:
- Follow the assassins through the window. Keep the element of surprise.
- Enter through the study that adjoins his bedroom. Attack.
- Climb back into the empty guest room and warn the guards outside his room from the hallway
The study is far enough away to lose the advantage of surprise. Using the hallways will also take too long and leave the assassins’ exit open (they brought a rope - he doesn’t know why he’s so caught up in that, but he is). So option one it is, even if it does reveal his late night wall-climbing habits to the guards who are definitely watching by now. He carefully maneuvers up the wall, fingers and toes finding the cracks in the stone and wedging in, until he’s just above the window. There are muffled sounds rising from the room, but none of the clash of conflict or fire. And there are signals from the guard post flashing in the corner of his eye, so someone knows he’s out there. Waiting isn’t an option. Zuko takes a deep breath and swings through the window, ready to rain the wrath of the Fire Lord on the intruders - and stops.
The four assassins are already cuffed, guardsmen scattered throughout his room relaxing from ready positions as they recognize their teenage sovereign. And Guard Captain Imai is staring at him, face blank.
“Oh…” He straightens guiltily. Maybe he could go back out the window and not come back for a few days.
“Your Majesty, it’s nice to see you’re alive.” Captain Imai’s tone manages to sound both relieved and like a threat.
“Ah, yes.” Zuko considers apologizing, but decides to wait until the assassins are out of the room. “Thank you for taking care of... this.” He gestures at the assassins before rubbing his neck. “Did you get everyone involved?”
Imai glares at him and then pinches the bridge of her nose, as if attempting to stop a stress headache. Zuko thinks it might be because of his un-Fire Lord-like behavior. Or maybe just due to lack of sleep - The sun is going to rise in less than four hours. He waits, knowing that she wouldn’t take this moment if they were in danger and assuming that pushing now will only make the consequences of his midnight excursion more painful. She sighs briefly, before straightening and addressing him. “Let’s discuss in my office. Ryu, Arai, with me. The rest of you, take these men down to the others and see what you can find out.” She pivots out of the room and Zuko follows with the two other guards falling behind.
The halls are quiet and dimly lit, with only a few more guards than normal. The disturbance that accompanied the assassination attempt appears to be over and news of the Fire Lord’s safety has begun to spread. Captain Imai keeps Fire Lord Zuko’s form in the corner of her eye and reminds herself with measured breaths that he is alive and safe. Her heart had stopped when she and her squad entered the Fire Lord’s bedchamber and found it empty, while the watchman’s light signals flashed through the window. At least “four incoming” clearly meant that there would be someone to fight, even if they had already kidnapped the Fire Nation’s young ruler. It hadn’t turned out to be much of a fight though. And then the final intruder had turned out to be the Fire Lord himself.
When they reach Imai’s office, she gestures for the two guardsmen to peel off and wait at the door. A quick glance around the room confirms that her space is empty and undisturbed, as expected. It’s always worth checking after someone breaks into the palace. Zuko smiles his thanks at the guards and follows her into the room. He looks too tired for this. Imai is too tired for this. All she wants to do is put the Fire Lord in a safe, windowless room, assign a permanent guard tailing him everywhere including his sleeping chambers, and then let everyone sleep for a week. That doesn’t seem achievable though so Imai closes the door to her office and goes to sit behind her desk. Her back is straight and her eyes follow her teenage ruler as he picks the most comfortable seat in front of the desk to collapse into. He may be Agni’s chosen leader of the Fire Nation, but he’s seventeen, it’s closer to sunrise than sunset, and he looks more like he’s in trouble for skipping his lessons than like someone who’d narrowly avoided an assassination attempt through previously undemonstrated stealth skills. Even so, after a moment he straightens and meets her eyes, clearly shifting into his authority and asks, “What happened?”
Imai folds her hands on her desk. “We don’t have all the information yet. At the midnight shift change Guardsman Ono was found unconscious near the north wall. We assume the assassins came over the wall, with the help of someone inside - possibly Ono’s shift partner. There were signs of at least two teams.” At this point, the door opens and the Secretary of Research enters, bowing to the Fire Lord before stepping to the side. Thank Agni. He’s more likely to know the details of what just happened than Imai. “As soon as I was informed” - that is, rudely awakened by a panicked new recruit - “I took a team to confirm your safety at which point we discovered and secured the team.”
Having exhausted her knowledge, Imai turns to the Secretary of Research. Despite years on the royal information team, reading and analyzing the scrolls sent by the Fire Nation’s sources for anything useful about internal or external threats, Ito is new to the role of Secretary. He was one of the first appointments by the new Fire Lord, since the previous man in the position had violently objected to the end of the war. Tall and thin with hair pulled back in a greying topknow, Ito looks more awake than either the Fire Lord or Imai. At a wave from Fire Lord Zuko, he sits and picks up the thread. “All six intruders and their contact have been secured and are awaiting questioning in the dungeons. My initial impression is that this was an attempt to kill you, your Majesty, and place the princess on the throne.” Ito pauses before adding apologetically, “We don’t know who sent them yet. None of our usual sources had indicated any potential threats.”
The Fire Lord nods in acceptance. “I can’t expect you to intercept every threat before it appears, Secretary. That’s what the guards are for.” She can see the moment he realizes what he’s walking into.
“Which would require that your guards know where you are, Your Majesty” Imai cuts in immediately. She has managed to keep her tone professional so far, but it sharpens as she continues. “Where were you?” Even though he’s sitting - wincing a little - in front of her, her mind still conjures visions of the young Fire Lord collapsed in a pool of blood in an abandoned corner of the palace, dead or dying at the hands of faceless assassins.
He doesn’t hunch and look away like any other guilty teenager, but Fire Lord Zuko hesitates before replying simply. “I went to the kitchens for a cup of tea.”
A cup of tea. Alone. With assassins in the palace. When half his generals were still resisting the beginnings of peace and any other step in his new reign.
“Why didn’t you take your guards?” Her voice is still sharp with tension and she can see his shoulders are starting to creep upwards. Secretary Ito’s expression remains mild somehow, which Imai finds aggravating.
“I wanted to be alone and I didn’t want to drag anyone else through the palace because I couldn’t sleep.” He shoots back, defensively.
“So you went out the window ?”
“Well it’s not like I could use the door!” And now he sounds like a frustrated teenager. “Anyway, it’s an easy climb. There are plenty of footholds and handholds in the stone that high up - it’s only the first twenty feet or so that the earthbenders smoothed. And I don’t even know why the assassins needed that rope. There are so many simpler ways into my rooms” Imai stares at the spluttering Fire Lord. She can feel Secretary Ito’s amused eyes on her, but she doesn’t know how to respond to this. It’s 2 am. She should be asleep, not dealing with teenage Fire Lords who apparently sneak out of their chambers and climb around the palace walls at night because it’s easy .
Her head aches and she closes her eyes in resignation as she asks, “How many times have you done this, Your Majesty?”
“Ah- Well… a few? Five?” She’d be willing to guess it was a lot more than that.
“Your Majesty, it’s our job to protect you. How are we supposed to do that when we don’t know where you are if we don’t know where you are?” She stares at him. Zuko glances at Secretary Ito before glaring back at her. His scar would make the expression more intense if she wasn’t used to it already. He tried to glare a lot.
“If you don’t know where I am, they won’t either. And I can take care of myself.”
Imai bites back a retort and sighs while Ito finally interjects. “Maybe this conversation should wait until we’ve all slept, but our top priority, Your Majesty, is to keep you safe. Even if that feels stifling, the nation can’t handle another power struggle right now.”
Zuko droops. “I know. Thank you both for your service.”
“Please, Your Majesty, keep at least two guards with you until we find out who is behind this latest attempt?” Imai would prefer four, but she knows that isn’t likely.
The Fire Lord nods wearily, before perking up slightly. “Does Toph count?”
“No, Your Majesty.” Imai barely refrains from rolling her eyes. “The Lady Toph is powerful, as are the rest of your friends, but she is your friend first. Her focus will be on you, not your surroundings. Two guards in addition to your friends. Ryu and Arai are outside and can accompany you tonight.”
“Fine,” Zuko assents before turning back to the night’s events. “Were there any other casualties? And how is Guardsman Ono?” His anger has drained away into exhaustion.
“The guardsman will be fine, Your Majesty, and no one else was injured.” Ito confirms. “I’ll have a written summary of what we know ready for you in the morning and we can meet then to discuss further if needed.”
Zuko nods tiredly and stands. “Thank you, both. If that’s all, I think I’ll go to bed now. Good night, Captain Imai, Secretary Ito.” He bows slightly to each of them and leaves quietly. Imai watches narrow-eyed. Every sign of stealth from him right now feels suspicious.
After the door shuts behind the Fire Lord she turns to the Secretary of Information. “What do you know about these midnight excursions? How long has he been doing this?”
Secretary Ito relaxes back into the chair and chuckles. “Since he was crowned? I don’t know exactly. He wasn’t very mobile for the first month, because of the lightning wound. That boy has been slipping through the palace like a ghost since before Fire Lord Azulon died. He knows the palace better than any of us, for all that he was gone for three years.”
Imai drops her head in her hands. “What am I supposed to do with him then?”
“You can try to convince him to at least tell the guards when he’s leaving but otherwise just trust that he’ll be careful when he sneaks out. He can take care of himself mostly,” the secretary says mildly. “Fire Lord Zuko has an eye for infiltration. The letters he sent during his banishment were full of suggested security improvements for outposts he visited or weak spots he’d noticed at the latest Earth Kingdom port.” He stops for a moment and eyes Imai as he slyly adds “I’m also pretty sure he broke into Pouhai stronghold at one point.”
“He did what ?” She really needs to go to sleep.
“You went sneaking through the palace without me?” Toph exclaims the next morning, sending a spike of earth to poke Zuko’s arm since he’s lying next to the turtleduck pond, too far away to punch.
“Why is everyone so mad about that?” Zuko yelps as he shoots up, rubbing his arm. “I just wanted some tea. It only turned into this big mess because some assassins decided to climb in through my window just before I did.” He drops back down like the drama queen he is and grumbles, “I wish I’d gotten back first.” Time alone was so much easier to get when no one knew he was doing it. Ty Lee and another of the Kyoshi warriors are standing at the edges of the courtyard, per his late night agreement with Captain Imai, though he knows she always has multiple additional guards stationed just out of his sight.
“Yeah, but maybe I wanted tea too,” Toph shoots back. “And I’d love to beat up some assassins.” She leans against the tree, feet firmly planted in front of her.
“Of course you would,” Zuko huffs. “I promised no more solo adventures for a few nights so you’ll have to wait for your tea excursion. And I can’t guarantee any assassins.”
“Fine,” Toph agrees, “but we’d better go at least once while I’m here.” Zuko hums in agreement and lets his mind drift a little. As much as he appreciated having an unwatched (or less watched) exit from his room, the fact that others were trying to use his balcony as an entrance was concerning. The assassins had used a rope with a metal hook to catch the railing so they could climb up past the smooth surface of ground level to his chambers. Maybe if they could smooth that down…
“Toph, how’s your detail earthbending?” he asks thoughtfully. Toph is great at big, dramatic moves, but he doesn’t need a huge hole in the palace.
“Sparky, I’m the best earthbender in the world. Everything I do is awesome.”
“Want to help me make my balcony less accessible?”
“Uh yeah, duh. Let’s do it.”
It takes a few tries and some rather large falling chunks of rock, but he’s much happier with his new balcony.