The last time Zuko had been in this room, Zuko’s grandfather had been sitting on the throne in front of him, during a final, formal farewell before leaving for the Southern Water Tribe. It seemed bizarre now to see his cousin sitting on the ornate throne, but Zuko constantly had to remind himself that it wasn’t the Firelord that he should be paying attention to.
Zhao was the only person standing as he outlined the plan he had already constructed for a full invasion into the Northern Water Tribe. In three weeks, four whole fleets would lead a coordinated approach to the Northern Tribe’s front gates, with a fully-prepared ground invasion force for the breach of the wall, and mobile tank divisions to cause further internal damage.
Many of the surrounding generals and admirals looked rather intrigued by the proposal, and Zuko knew that Zhao would probably receive a promotion for this. But Zuko’s own concern was also mirrored on some of the best tacticians in the room, including his uncle.
“Forgive me, Commander Zhao, however I find many issues with your approach, if you don’t mind clearing some things up for me?” Iroh interrupted, and Zhao grimaced before smiling respectfully.
“Of course, General Iroh.”
“The idea of invading the Northern Water Tribe is a risky one, especially given that they do not yet have the Avatar, which makes this entire discussion pre-emptive. The idea of doing so on their turf, during this time of year makes it worse, given that a grand majority of the attack would occur during sundown and nighttime, which is when the opposing waterbenders would be even stronger.”
“Ah, yes, thank you for pointing that out General Iroh. That leads to another segment of my plan. During my time as a ground soldier in the Earth Kingdom, I came across a library, which held information on the location of the Moon spirit, which is in a holy place within the Northern Water Tribe. Should we invade, I would lead a small group of men, infiltrate the main city, and kill the Moon Spirit, prior to sunset, giving us an advantage.”
The reveal was shocking, and many men in the room flinched, Iroh included. “Zhao, you cannot possibly...”
“General Iroh, I am aware you are a superstitious man, however, the Moon is a noose on our power, and I firmly believe that eliminating the Moon spirit is the best way to lay a successful siege on the Water Tribes. The spirits be dammed .”
“Zhao, killing the Moon Spirit will upset the natural order!” Iroh roared, leaping to his feet.
“Enough!” Lu Ten interrupted, and both soldiers quieted.
Lu Ten looked at the assembled royals and soldiers, including Zuko, and Ozai . “Zhao, I presume you have intelligence that the Avatar is indeed going to the Water Tribe? If he were to go anywhere else, this would be a moot conversation.”
Zhao looked to Zuko, who swallowed, but spoke up. “The Avatar is unrealized, and very young. He has yet to master any element other than air, and since there are no waterbenders left in the Southern Tribe, he has to go north. The latest hawk puts him currently going to the Southern Air Temple, but we do believe the Northern Tribe is his final destination.”
“How do we know there aren’t any waterbenders in the South Pole?” A commander spoke up, whose name Zuko didn’t remember.
“According to the members of the Southern Tribe, with whom I spent a fair amount of time, need I remind you, the last waterbender in the Southern Tribe was killed during a raid over five years ago.” Zuko based the cover story on the scenario that had occurred when his husband’s former wife had been killed.
“That matches with records of a raid from the Southern Raiders, after the escape from the waterbender prisons.” Another unnamed officer backed up Zuko’s story.
Lu Ten nodded, satisfied with the information. “Very well. The tribe will most likely take them in the moment the Avatar is recognized, therefore we can certainly account for a violation of the peace treaty. I approve of the mobilization of ships, a week from today to account for travel time, however, I do agree with General Iroh. We will attack during the daylight exclusively, but no harm will be directed towards the Moon Spirit.”
Zhao scowled, clearly unhappy. Lu Ten sat back, and nodded. “Refine the manuevers, run war game drills, and familiarize yourselves with the records of waterbender offensive tactics. Report back in two days with an update, but in the meantime, consider the plan approved. Dismissed.”
Everyone clambered to their feet, and bowed, and slowly the men filed out of the chamber. Zuko himself made to leave, but then Lu Ten called after him. “Ambassador Zuko, a word please?”
Ozai passed Zuko, side-eying him, but left the two cousins alone. Lu Ten rose from the throne, and stepped down to the main floor, indicating for Zuko to follow him.
The two walked through the palace, into the main gardens, and the Firelord sat at the edge of the pond, and gestured for Zuko to sit too.
Plopping gently on the grass next to his cousin, Zuko was slightly pleased to see a small family of turtleducks swimming across the water, and he smiled to himself. Lu Ten glanced at his cousin just in time to catch the smile, and felt slightly guilty for being about to ruin the moment.
“I think you should go back to the South Pole.” Lu Ten said, and Zuko blinked.
“Why? We’re expecting the invasion in three weeks. By the time I get there, it will be time for me to come back.”
“I think you should say goodbye to your husband and step-children. Permanently.”
Zuko swallowed. “So the invasion will mean the end of the peace treaty?”
“Yes,” Lu Ten sighed. “The invasion will be the end of peace between us and the Water Tribes. I have already signed the executive order to have your marriage annulled, and I think you should deliver notice to the South Pole.”
“What good will that do? They’ll see me as hostile the minute I give them that notice.” Zuko lamented, dread filling him.
Lu Ten nodded, and looked away. “It’s your choice. But I don’t want you joining the invasion to the North Pole.”
Zuko blinked once more in surprise. “Why?”
“Zuko, you have very little military experience, and those ships are going to be filled to the brim with soldiers that are not only more combat ready, but those who have no reason to respect you. As far as they’re concerned, you gave up your title for the people that they’re going to fight.”
Zuko scoffed. “I did as I was asked.”
“We both know that’s not true.” Lu Ten sniped, and the younger man scowled.
“ So what do you want me to do?” He asked.
“Nothing. As far as I can see, you’ve fulfilled your service, and can retire.” Lu Ten didn’t make eye contact with his cousin.
“Ret. ..Retire ?” Zuko spluttered. “You want me to do nothing? Lu Ten, I can...”
“I won’t hear it.” Lu Ten cut Zuko off. “Zuko, I am doing this for your own good. Take a break, relax, let me handle things from here.”
Zuko frowned. “Who’s behind this, my father?”
Lu Ten hissed. “I resent the accusation that I cannot make my own mind up, Zuko.”
“And I resent the implication that I am useless to you. Only a few weeks ago, you wanted me on your council, what changed?”
“The Avatar came back. Now more than ever I need people who can help me unite our territory, and justify this, and you won’t do that.”
All of the fight slipped out of Zuko. “You think my loyalties are divided?” Lu Ten wasn’t wrong of course, but Zuko wouldn’t tell him that.
“No. I think you’re confused. All I’m asking is that you spend some time deciding what you want out of your life, and relax for once. Zuko, you have control of your own destiny again, I’m trying to give you the freedom to have that.”
“By sending me away.” Zuko finished, and Lu Ten sighed once more.
Zuko stood. ‘I understand. Please, excuse me.” With that, Zuko tried to leave, but Lu Ten stopped him.
“Thank you, Firelord Lu Ten. But you’ve given me much to think about. I need some time to consider your proposal.” Zuko cut his cousin off, and marched away, leaving the Firelord alone.
Reaching his rooms, Zuko was slightly relieved not to see his father or sister waiting for him, and flopped down on the bed, emotions rushing through him. The rooms were fairly sparse, they had been for a while now, but it was if the emptiness of the environment that he was now in reminded him of how alone he felt now. Cursing the spirits in his mind, Zuko felt angry about the entire situation. For the last three years, he had done his best to rise and meet the expectations put on hi, and had even found a family in the process through Hakoda, Sokka, and Katara. He’d had them for three months. And now he was losing them, and the family he’d been born into in the first place. Crying out in frustration, Zuko buried his face in the red sheet covering the bed.
“A gold piece for your thoughts?”
Looking up, Zuko saw his uncle standing in the door to the room. He sat up, but shook his head, refusing to speak.
“I understand my son has tried to encourage you to take a vacation, my nephew.” Iroh prodded, sitting next to the teenager.
“Yeah.” Zuko said lamely, not sure what else to say.
“And I take it that you have no wish to go?” His uncle asked.
“I...argh, I don’t know!” Zuko cried, flopping back down on the mattress. “I don’t know what to do Uncle.”
“Well, that is not something I can help you with, Zuko. You must find your own path, your own destiny. What is it you want out of your life?”
“Peace.” Zuko mumbled, not really giving serious thought to the question.
“Which is why you tried to make the treaty work?” His uncle inferred.
“You know my son means well, Zuko.” Iroh says gently.
“I don’t know what he means, anymore. We had a fight on the ship prior to the coronation, and we never talked about it. That definitely influenced our conversation just now.” Zuko threaded his fingers through his shoulder-length hair, which was coming out of the abused topknot trapped under his head.
Sitting up, Zuko released his hair from the topknot, allowing the black locks to fall stiffly downwards.
“What was the fight about?” Iroh asked, sensing that he could be prying.
“My father, and my position within the Fire Nation.” Zuko shook his head, allowing the hair to separate and loosen.
“I see. So my son is concerned about my brother’s influence after all.” Iroh mused, and Zuko blinked.
“You think my father will attempt a hostile takeover of the throne using military influence?”
Iroh’s head snapped to Zuko, realizing how severe the topic had been between his son and nephew. “Lu Ten thinks that is a possibility?”
Zuko nodded. Iroh made a low sound of displeasure. “I knew my brother was unhappy with the regime, but I would not have considered him to go that far, surely.”
“I think it could be more like the regime you encountered in Ba Sing Se. A puppet king manipulated by a powerful shadow organization.”
Iroh was silent as he considered Zuko’s perspective. But before either of them could say anything more, both men could hear a loud commotion coming from the main section of the palace. Together they rushed to see what it was, and they found Lu Ten, Ozai , and Azula already there, presented by the Head Fire Sage.
“We have received a hawk from the sages on Crescent Moon Island, your majesty. The Avatar Temple, it is glowing, sire. The Avatar has returned.”
Zuko and Iroh glanced at each other, and Ozai spun towards the Firelord . “The Avatar will continue to pose a threat as long as he explores the globe unassisted. We should establish agents to track down the Avatar and capture him, prior to him reaching the Northern Water Tribe, or at the very least after, if he is not arrested during the siege.”
Lu Ten considered Ozai’s words. “What would you suggest?”
“A small, elite team, skilled and resourceful, sent to pursue the Avatar, and capture him. I would suggest my daughter, who is highly prepared for such a task.”
Azula nodded, and smiled. “I would be honored to undertake such a task, Firelord Lu Ten.” She bowed, just long enough to conceal the smirk gracing her face.
“In that case, you can join me.” Zuko interrupted, surprising everyone in the room, himself included. “I have decided to take some time to visit the Earth Kingdom, and planned to visit Mai’s family in the former city of Omashu . I would assume you would recruit her, given your history?”
Azula tilted her head, and squinted her eyes, but nodded, and Lu Ten also appeared to agree. That is when Iroh also stepped forward.
“If you do not mind the company, Prince Zuko, might I also accompany you to the Earth Kingdom. I find that I am not one for the cold anymore, and I should like to see the colonies once more.”
Zuko blinked, but nodded, and Iroh smiled. Ozai remained silent, glancing between his children and his brother, trying to determine the motives driving the sudden decision. Lu Ten took a deep breath, and then broke the silence.
“Very well. Princess Azula, I authorize you to pursue the Avatar with intent to capture, however you are not permitted to do so prior to the siege of the North Pole. We cannot justify the attack if the Avatar is never there, but you can track him and report back. Ambassador Zuko, and General Iroh, I wish you well in the Earth Kingdom.”
Zuko nodded, and Iroh bowed, and Azula shot Zuko a look as Lu Ten turned to leave. Ozai nodded towards his daughter before leaving, and Iroh also made his departure, muttering about some of the tea’s he had enjoyed while in the Earth Kingdom.
“Now what are you up to, brother dear?” Azula asked, suspicious.
Trying to act innocent, Zuko shrugged. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do not lie to me Zuko, you’re rather bad at it.” Azula remarked, dropping false pretenses .
Meeting her eyes, Zuko steeled himself. “I’m not, in fact, I’m doing something nice for you, considering I’m giving you a ride.”
“Of course, but I do not understand what you could possibly want in the Earth Kingdom. It’s positively filthy.” Azula commented.
“I think I’m just looking for a change in scenery. Between ice and ocean, I haven’t seen much land recently.” Zuko adopted a wistful tone, trying to sell his actions to his sister.
“Fine. If you’ll excuse me, I have a circus to visit.”
Zuko smirked, and called out to his sister as she walked away. “Ask Ty Lee if we should pad the ship for her acrobatics practice.”
Finally by himself, Zuko walked back to his rooms, a plan half-formed in his head. Rummaging around a chest in his rooms, he found what he was looking for, and the plan expanded a little more. Holding the play mask up, Zuko’s eyes drifted to the dual swords placed on his dresser, and he smiled to himself. It would look like he was accompanying his step-children after all.