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Shimzu should run as fast as she can and take this artifact back to the University right away. It should go immediately into a climate controlled room where her colleagues can analyze every page, every turn of phrase, and every word of this extremely momentous historical document. She should call her colleagues en mass to this room right away to go over everything else with a fine tooth comb. 

But Dr. Shimzu, despite knowing all this, stays frozen on the spot. This is the kind of discovery that every starry eyed undergraduate student dreams of, and every jaded doctoral candidate knows will never happen to them. In a moment of panic, terrified to get her hopes up, Shimzu slowly and delicately opens the overflowing little book to a random page in the middle, just to check that this is, in fact, what it looks like. 

The journal isn’t actually bound together in one book – it’s a traveler’s journal, able to be refilled with smaller notebooks. The first notebook at least seems to be original to the cover, with an identical logo stamped on the slim insert. Farther into the book she sees different types of inserts and even some loose paper crammed into the binding. Shimzu holds it like she’d hold a globe of thin blown glass, or a baby bird, or a relic of Agni. She holds it like she held her first grandchild. 

The pages rustle, but they’ve held up remarkably well over the years. They’ll hold up a little longer still. 

 The handwriting appears to be the same, elegant and cramped. It’s clearly the penmanship of a well educated student, but the words make no sense. 

Yoshiki is still giving me trouble –  what is it that he wants after his revenge? What does he do afterwards? After Chuya dies, how does that affect him beyond just grief? That’s the real turning point, but I don’t know how things end. 

Anyway, Uncle needs me on dishwashing duty this afternoon at the Tea Shop. I’ll probably be able to work it out then, it’s not like I’ll have anything else to do while scrubbing the biggest pile of dishes in the world. 

Well, the first part doesn’t make any sense (yet), but the second part seems to confirm that this diary, excuse her, journal, is filled completely with the personal writings of a young Prince Zuko. It’s precisely what it looks like.

The thought doesn’t sit steady in her brain, but jitters around like it’s electrified, too much. Her heart is beating like she did run the journal up several flights of stairs and across the city all the way to the University where it belongs, but here she is, still alone in the silent antechamber. Just her and the book. 

Shimzu wrote her thesis on Fire Lord Zuko’s years of exile. Since then, she’s published many papers and even two books on the time period. She would’ve traded the hand that’s holding the journal for even a fraction of its contents. So even though she knows better, and even though she may have to justify it later, she pulls up a solid crate and sits down heavily, trying to still her trembling knees and calm the fireflies in her stomach.

She takes a minute to breathe and feel the weight of the stuffed book in her hands, savoring this moment. She knows that once she’s done reading, she’ll recall this moment of anticipation and almost wish to be back here again, able to discover the words anew. She feels like a child about to read the long awaited sequel to a favorite novel. 

Dr. Shimzu opens the book to the first page and begins to read.

She’s grateful that she brought her reading glasses along –  Fire Lord Zuko had tiny handwriting, either because of his age or the small size of the notebook, Shimzu isn’t sure. Bending close to the page, she sees to her delight that the date is precisely printed at the top. 

It’s dated over two years before Avatar Aang returned.

Today is my 14th birthday, and Uncle gave me this diary journal to record my observations about my search for the avatar. He said it could be helpful to organize my thoughts before sending reports back to father. I told him that that was ridiculous and my thoughts are always organized like a proper fire bender. That’s what meditation is for. This is ridiculous. I don’t know what Uncle was thinking. He probably wasn’t. There was a proverb but I didn’t understand it.  

We’re continuing on our way to search Eastern Air Temple and the surrounding areas again. We will stop in two days at the Shanfei port to restock and refuel. The wind is blowing south by southwest at eight knots and the skies are clear. If this weather holds we’ll make Shanfei in three days. My fire bending continues to progress. 

For awhile, the entries continue in this vein. Despite his derision, Fire Lord Zuko seems to have taken General Iroh’s advice and written reports. They’re clinical and to the point. They’re also a goldmine for tracking the Wani’s journey during its time under Fire Lord Zuko’s command. All of the Wani’s ship logs were lost in the explosion that sank it, and many of the details of that famous journey have been lost to history. 

It’s clear in a few places that pages have been torn out, and things are sometimes crossed out so thoroughly that it would take a miracle to ever see what was originally written. Agni knows that the University will try to pull one off. Forensics will probably get pulled in to help. For now, Shimzu only knows what’s on the page. 

More personal details start to occasionally surface in the Prince’s writing, and Shimzu clings to every last one. Ever so slowly, the stiff and formal tone of his writing begins to relax.

I hate Jasmine tea, it’s always so bitter no matter how hard I try to brew it right.

Uncle still has me on the basic katas for fire bending. A child could do these. Azula perfected these at the age of six. I have to work harder.

Pai Sho is dumb. It’s a waste of time. I should be practicing fire bending, not playing games.

Stopped to restock today and saw some turtleducks. There were six babies who probably hatched two weeks ago. The smallest one swam right up to me. I gave them all some rice, and they seemed to like it. 

Shimzu smiles. The account of a brood of turtleducklings long ago seems so out of place amidst the seriousness of the reports and the fatalism of many of the observations. It’s no secret that Fire Lord Zuko was an angry young man after his banishment, but here she can see the seeds of the kind leader he became. 

And yet, the person who wrote this was clearly, despite his protestations, a teenager. Barely more than a child. He sounds so young it breaks her heart.

The crew is laughing at me, I know it! No one takes me seriously.

No one understands how important this is! I have to capture the avatar and restore my honor! The crew doesn’t have near the amount of discipline they need for a mission this important. It’s already been a year, father is probably getting impatient. We have to make some progress soon. 

Even though Shimzu always knew that Fire Lord Zuko was a teenager during the war, this drives it home more than anything she’s ever read. “Nobody understands me” indeed. He sounds a little like her son did as a teenager, with an entire nation’s worth of issues added on. Raising children without the trauma was hard enough, and Shimzu feels a pang of sympathy for General Iroh. 

Her colleagues who have an interest in General Iroh (the First) will also be thrilled with what’s in the notebook. The secondhand account of him from Fire Lord Zuko’s perspective is fascinating. 

Uncle said that I should consider battle strategy from all perspectives.

Could this be the venerated general gently guiding his nephew away from the imperialistic views of the Fire Nation? 

ARGH! I asked Uncle why he made us take the long route climbing up to the Southern Air Temple, and all he said was: “there are many paths to the same summit, Prince Zuko”

Uncle made us stop again even though we restocked two days ago! The crew thinks it’s a vacation! This is a serious mission!

Perhaps a rendezvous with a White Lotus contact? Or something else? 

And of course there’s the ever present refrain of…

My honor requires that I get better at fire bending faster! Azula

I don’t have any honor!

Only capturing the avatar will restore my honor!

Over and over again, the young Fire Lord’s preoccupation with honor haunts the pages. He’s obsessed. Shimzu knows, of course, that Fire Lord Zuko is famous for being an honorable man, but here the concept and impulse is warped into a persistent and noxious self loathing that clings to every word. 

She’s about halfway through the first notebook insert when what she’ll later recognize as the first real sign shows up. 

Uncle said that to understand battle strategy, the perspective of soldiers on the ground are very important to consider. That’s what got me into this It seems pointless, but he says that a single soldier can sometimes tell you the way the wind blows in a war. Tactics are crucial for a Prince of the Fire Nation. I wrote to Father and told him that I was working on battle tactics and strategy, but didn’t get a response. I have to find some way to improve at this so I can show him when I go home.

Alright, first the big picture: The battle takes place between two armies at dawn in a mountain pass. Both armies have … 

Though Fire Lord Zuko starts out rigid and formal, as with his other writing it doesn’t take long for it to change into something… different. Something more. Less like a theoretical exercise and almost like …  a work of fiction. 

After painstakingly detailing every hour of a fictional bloody battle, Fire Lord Zuko writes about the same events from different points of view on either side of the conflict (including a komodo rhino). The soldiers are from the cavalry, infantry, and the brass, but all must deal with the consequences of war in one way or another. 

 A young fresh recruit is shot three minutes into the battle and dies on the front lines. An officer on one side sacrifices nearly all his men in a wild trap that wins him the battle. One of the infantrymen is horribly burned while running away, with very accurate burn descriptions. Yet another dies honorably facing his fate on his feet.

A little on the nose.

Despite the prejudice and anger that the little journal has held up to this point, the language in this section isn’t judgmental at all. Each soldier tells their story of the day to the reader in a way that is intimate and honest. They’re all different, but still united by the circumstances of the day. The komodo rhino dies not understanding or even knowing what the battle is. She only wants to make her handler happy, and maybe earn a sugar cube for a job well done. 

He was there on the battlefield for the love of his country, but he didn’t, couldn’t, think of any of that in the moment. He only thought of how freezing the mud was, and how sore his feet were, and how very afraid he was, his fear rising with the dawn. At the very end, he thought of his mother and her soft voice and he wished for her in that moment more than anything, more than even glory or honor. Dying was the easiest thing he did that day, and he did it alone, just like everyone else in the horde.

Shimzu shifts and pushes her reading glasses back up her nose, rubbing at her eyes (there’s an awful lot of dust in here). The descriptive language is surprisingly immersive and evocative, especially for a fourteen year old novice writer. It’s an excellent insight into Prince Zuko’s emotional state during his exile.

 There’s also something about the language in the story that makes Shimzu pause for a moment. It’s almost familiar. Like the younger sibling of a dear friend, the harmony to a song she’s known the melody of for years. It’s something on the periphery of her vision, just out of sight. Shimzu can’t quite put her finger on it, but it’s there. 

She shakes her head and puts the thought aside for now. Shimzu has spent a great deal of her life reading and studying works from this era, so of course some things are going to seem familiar. It’s inevitable after so long.

After all, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Fire Lord Zuko, champion of the post war renaissance, tried his hand at writing fiction once upon a time. The Fire Lord funneled funding into both education and the arts after he took the throne, allowing literature to thrive. Stories like flowers blooming in the spring after the long winter of war.

Reading a work of fiction by the man himself is almost bittersweet. 

In another life, the boy who wrote this might have had a future as an author.