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Author Topic: Prince Iroh [T] [Complete]  (Read 47443 times)
Acastus
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« on: Apr 28, 2006 09:51 pm »

Prince Iroh

Summary: After narrowly escaping capture by Princess Azula in "The Avatar State", Iroh and Zuko travel the Earth Kingdom in disguise. On the road they save a scatologically obsessed merchant from a group of bandits and are invited to a feast as a reward. At dinner, a storyteller relates the tale of the rise and fall of Prince Iroh...

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom


For those who'd rather read it on FF.net, here's a link to it there: Prince Iroh.



Chapter I "The Orchard"

Iroh stood up and wiped his sweaty brow with a rag. It was nearly sunset as he looked out over the orchard. The other day laborers were picking their last peaches and organizing their baskets to be counted. It had been many a year since he had asked his body to engage in such physical activity, and he would pay for it tomorrow. For the moment, however, he simply stank of hard work and the green earth.

Footsteps from behind alerted him to the presence of his nephew, "Here, uncle, I've finished three more."

Iroh stepped lightly out of the way as the banished Prince dropped three full baskets of peaches, one stacked on top of the other, next to the others they had collected.

"Excellent! Let's count up and see what we have." Iroh quickly summed up the baskets in front of them. "These plus the ones we gave to the Overseer this morning should give us almost two gold pieces. That should be enough for us to move on to someplace where we can relax for a while."

"How do you figure that, my corpulent friend?" came a smooth voice from behind them. "By my calculation you're due a total of nine silver pieces."

Iroh and Zuko turned to locate the source of the hated voice. They had known the Overseer less than three days and even Iroh had come to hate him. His long, angular nose and piercing, hawk like eyes seemed to be on everyone at once. He never spoke except to demean, and never acted if not to cheat, abuse or humiliate. The day before he had beaten a laborer with a whip and thrown him off the estate for accidentally dropping a basket of peaches into the pond.

"What do you mean?" growled Zuko. "We handed in 41 baskets this morning and we have, uh... how many do we have here, uncle?"

"We have 36 more, and some of them are those tart yellow ones that are everyone's favorite!"

The Overseer's eyes locked with Zuko's and a cruel grin spread over his face, he motioned to one of the two large men behind him, "Jin, the book. Now." The muscular mute handed over a small leather book which the Overseer opened without examining, instead keeping his gaze on Zuko.

"My records say you only handed in 28, and receiving says here that 11 of those were bruised." He snapped the book shut for emphasis. "So sorry, gutter filth, but we're not paying for fruit we can't sell. That's means you –"

Zuko's knuckles connected with the Overseer's face before Iroh or the bodyguards could react. With a cry his other fist connected with the Overseer's neck. Iroh rushed forward, shouting, "No, nephew, stop! Stop!" Staggering backwards the cruel man collapsed to his knees as his bodyguards rushed forward to engage the banished Prince.

"Get them! Get them you fools! Don't kill them, I want them alive!" screamed the Overseer, still struggling to regain his breath.

The mute guard launched a clumsy fist at Zuko, but was easily blocked as the Prince grabbed his assailant by the wrist. A quick twist followed by a sickening snap was enough to drop the mute to his knees in silent agony, tears streaming down his face. Zuko then turned to his other opponent, only to see Iroh, in a move far more graceful than his form seemed to allow, flip the man over his shoulder and knock him out with a palm blow to the forehead. Iroh straightened up once again, his work done for the second time that day and turned to his nephew.

"This was not wise."

"I don't care – and I'm not done either." replied Zuko, fire still in his voice as he turned to where the Overseer had fallen.

A quick scan of the trees and the upward slope on which they grew revealed nothing. The Overseer had beaten a hasty retreat. Around the pair, a small group of onlookers was quickly gathering. Some gazed with wonder and fear at the fallen tormentors, others looked with amazement or anger at the Fire Nation exiles. One of the laborers, a middle aged man with several missing teeth, approached them.

"You two had better go before this crowd decides to turn ya in."

"Why would they do that?" asked Zuko incredulously, "We just punished the people who lie and cheat them everyday."

Scratching his sideburn the onlooker replied, "Every one of us has wanted to do what ya done here, but we'll all pay for it too. That bastard'll be back with more guards. So, I'd say you should forget about what you're owed and leave now before these people here decide to turn y'all in."

Iroh bowed in response, saying, "Thank you for your wisdom, friend." Then, grabbing Zuko by the arm, "Let's go – now."

The pair fled the orchard, leaving behind the incapacitated guards and the angry, fearful crowd of the powerless. Twilight was upon them by the time they reached the road at the edge of the estate. Iroh leaned against a tree upon gaining the road, breathing heavily with the exertion. Zuko appeared next and sat down heavily on the side of the road.

"I'm sorry, uncle. Attacking that fool wasn't worth endangering us – and those peasants weren't worth saving."

Regaining his breath, Iroh replied, "Those people live without hope, Prince Zuko. As low as you have fallen, you have always had hope. Do not be so eager to judge." The retired general then turned and walked past Zuko without looking at him, "We must keep going. The Overseer is a vengeful man and will pursue us."

Zuko, now walking beside him sneered, "Let him come. Alone on this road I will burn him alive and laugh."

"I see you haven't learned the value of temperance, nephew."

"And you are too soft, uncle!" Replied Zuko hotly, fixing his uncle with a hard glance from his maimed eye, "How can you bear this humiliation day after day with that ridiculous smile plastered on your face? We are royalty and yet we have become beggars and day laborers. I was to become Fire Lord, and now I am little better than the slaves we just left! It isn't fair."

Zuko's voice trailed away as he spoke, his anger turning to depression and self pity.

"Life isn't fair, Prince Zuko. I know this – better than you."

The two moved quickly along the road in silence. Twilight descended rapidly into night, and soon a waxing moon appeared over the horizon. Clear and bright, the pale orb cast its ghostly pallor across the uneven surface of the dirt road before them. Ahead they spied a bend in the road and heard the sound of rushing water beyond it. Behind them another bend in the road obscured the way they had come.

As they approached the water, another sound caused them to stop their jog mid step. Straining to identify the source, the ground began to vibrate slightly.

"Horses, uncle! From behind!"

"Hide – quickly."

Both disappeared into the brush beside the road a moment before a barouche carriage rounded the bend behind them. Pulled by four ostrich horses, the carriage itself was decorated richly with ornate, black lacquered wood and gold leaf. Dangling from its roof were two, intricately carved lanterns that glowed brightly from within. As Iroh and Zuko lay flat on the ground by the roadside they were unable to see the driver or the occupants, but it was clear that even the wheels were inlaid with gold as they rolled slowly by them.

The pair sprang from their hiding places as the carriage began to turn the corner out of sight. No sooner had this happened when a loud crash was heard, followed by coarse shouting and loud curses. Iroh and Zuko cast sidelong glances at each other, then hurried forward at a run.

Charging around the bend they were greeted by a picturesque view of the ornate barouche stopped on a bridge that arched over a small, noisy brook. Its passage was blocked by a chain pulled taught across the end of the bridge. Four malevolent looking figures surrounded the carriage. One of them mounted the box as Iroh and Zuko approached and dragged down the driver, who screamed in terror. Another walked up to the door of the carriage and began to shout at it.

"Come out, you! I see you in there!"

A booming voice from inside the barouche replied, "I don't give a damn what you want, you scum –"

The voice was cut off as the scoundrel punched out the frosted glass window that served as the top half of the carriage's door. The sounds of a struggle ensued as Iroh and Zuko reached the scene. A moment later the lead scoundrel backed out of the carriage, pulling out its single occupant with him. He was easily three hundred pounds and dressed in rich clothing, outrageously colored. An enormous jewel hung from a chain around his neck and several of his fingers were festooned with rings.

"I'll have you idiots horse whipped for this!" shouted the rotund man.

The bandit cocked back his arm to aim a blow at his defiant target, but it was never thrown. For the second time that day, Zuko's knuckles connected solidly against another man's face. The scoundrel's head snapped back at the impact and he lurched drunkenly against the side of the barouche. Another drew a short sword and lunged at Iroh, but the retired general took the sword with ease and casually stabbed his assailant in the hand. With that, the melee was over almost as soon as it had begun. Cursing loudly and screaming in pain, the shadowy men ran headlong into the forest beside the road.

Iroh walked over and helped the driver to his feet, who though clearly shaken, was unhurt. Zuko removed the chain blocking the path of the carriage, then returned to stand by his uncle.

Booming laughter was heard as the fat man addressed them, "Well met, friends!" The traveler walked over and bowed low to the exiles, "I am Trimazu, the merchant! Thank you both for helping me out against that fascist scum!" As he brushed off his robe he continued, "Ha! Fifty gold pieces says they were Fire Nation, too. They're all fascist!"

Iroh coughed, and, after stealing a sidelong glance at his fuming nephew, replied, "You are most welcome, sir."

After straightening his robe, Trimazu examined his newfound acquaintances with a practiced eye. Suddenly he leaned forward and sniffed.

"Whew! Yeh, you two stink like an outhouse! Day laborers right?" Before they could answer he continued, his voice animated and bursting with both arrogance and mischief, "Excellent! Excellent! As a further token of my generosity, how would your stomachs feel about partaking in the Planter's Moon feast I am throwing tonight?"

"No, thank you. I'm afraid our journey will not wait," came Zuko's icy reply. He turned to leave, but was stopped by Iroh's hand on his shoulder.

"Feast?" Grinning widely, Iroh, with a low bow of his own, continued smoothly, "We would be delighted to accept your generous offer, Lord."

"Lord? Well, you're welcome any time you like! Now get in. You're going to have the best night of your lives! My parties are always the best and the entertainment? Oh the entertainment! The feasts at my abode are the stuff of legend from Ogasawara to Guangzhu! Come friends! Get in!"

Sighing audibly, Zuko boarded the carriage, his uncle close behind. Trimazu boarded last, and with a final shouted instruction to the driver, the carriage barreled once again down the moonlit road.
« Last Edit: Aug 19, 2016 09:21 pm by Icy_Ashford » Logged
Karen
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« Reply #1 on: Apr 29, 2006 10:08 pm »

Smiley Sorry for not commenting on this sooner!. You have a great start to Chapter 1!. Very very well-written and in-character!. I am really looking foreward to the upcoming party and seeing Irohs reaction to this promised story about himself!.
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« Reply #2 on: May 02, 2006 09:23 am »

It's written like a book. ^.^ You've got a lot of talent. I really like it so far.
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Acastus
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« Reply #3 on: May 05, 2006 06:54 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom




Chapter II "The Merchant of Shanxi"

The carriage continued on its journey along the moonlit road. Inside, Iroh and Zuko sat opposite their host on seats made of crushed, red velvet. The road was unpaved and full of potholes, but the ride within the coach was smooth.

"And what are you two called?" inquired the merchant, settling his enormous bulk on the seat.

"Uh, my name is Li and this is my uncle –"

"Xian," cut in Iroh, shooting a self satisfied grin at his nephew.

"Good, good! Now, when we get to the house, please don't stand on ceremony for me! We have more in common than you know. Twenty years ago I was a day laborer like you! Yes, I know it is hard to believe, but it's true. So no matter how bad things are, don't despair! Someday, if you work smart and you're lucky, you could end up like me!"

"We can only hope, Lord!" replied Iroh, raising his voice in a vain attempt to cover the snort of disdain that erupted from his nephew. "May I ask," continued the retired general, "how many people will be at the feast?"

"A wondrous question – and I shall answer! My guest list is the most extensive in the four plains region." Trimazu leaned forward and eagerly began counting off the guests on his fingers, "We'll have two ex governors of Shanxi province, half a dozen local magistrates, every property owner worth the name for forty leagues and the Minister of the Interior all the way from Ba-Sing-Se! Haha! And do you know what they all have in common? I'll tell you! They owe me money! Huge, whopping loads of it! So don't worry about your clothes or your scar young man – I see you trying to hide your face over there."

Zuko looked up at this comment, an expression of dull hatred etched upon his face.

"Nothing to be bashful about!" the merchant continued confidently, ignoring the Prince's ill concealed anger, "When they see you are my guests these unctuous fools will line up to kiss your beggar's arse, I promise you! We'll get a good laugh at them, eh?"

"Uh, yes, Lord, I daresay we will," replied Iroh.

"Everyone there except us will be noblemen of one sort or another, but don't be intimidated by their fancy dress and flowery words! Hehe, I can buy and sell every one of them and they know it. So don't feel out of place or inferior to these people, that's what they expect – don't give them the satisfaction! Just enjoy yourselves!"

Without stopping to catch a breath, the merchant boomed expansively, "Oh, and don't hesitate to pass wind at dinner if you feel the need, my friends. Why, last year at some feast or another I almost did myself a harm trying to hold up a mighty blast! Better to suffer a little malodorous inconvenience than risk one's health, don't you agree?"

Iroh, horrified, and desperately trying to ignore the strangling noises escaping Zuko's lips, replied uncertainly, "Uh, yes! Sounds, uh... liberating!"

Delighted, the fat man pointed an agreeable finger at Iroh and replied, "Exactly! Just the right word – liberating! See how much we have in common?" Zuko flinched visibly as the merchant continued, "I say let the Fire Nation fascists blow themselves to bits trying to restrain wind during their interminable ceremonies!" Then, adding in a conspiratorial tone, "You know, I hear tell that the court of the Fire Lord spends six or seven hours every day in some kind of ceremony! Receptions, audiences and the like! Every day!"

"Oh, more I should think," commented Iroh automatically.

Without registering Iroh's remark, Trimazu continued his musing, "I bet that's why old Azulon died! Wind, I tell you!"

Then, as if emerging from a trance, the fat man began to quickly look through the windows on each side of the carriage.

"Anyway, what the hell is going on here? My mother could walk faster than this and she's been dead for fifteen years. Okay, hold on a minute..." at this the merchant got up and stuck his head and torso out of the broken window and began to shout at the driver. Trimazu's ample behind wiggled vigorously within inches of Zuko's face as the tirade against his servant gathered momentum.

Zuko, aghast, and trying desperately to avoid the acrobatics of the merchant's rear end, leaned over to Iroh and whispered urgently, "Uncle, you can't expect me to sit through a meal with this...this pig! He's loud, obnoxious, and obsessed with bodily functions!"

"Consider the alternative, Prince Zuko. Would you rather travel all night on foot and risk capture?"

"Yes! We have nothing to fear from –," Zuko's emphatic reply was rudely interrupted by the merchant's back end slamming into his face.

Trimazu finished extricating himself from the window frame and turned around, saying, "Your pardon, Li! I had to set my driver straight there." The carriage indeed sped up as Trimazu sat down, facing them once again, and continued, "He's a good man, but not too bright. Don't want to keep the guests waiting too long – fashionably late is just fine, but ya can't miss the whole damn thing. There's a limit to the patience even of these greedy pikers!"

Curiosity getting the better of him, Iroh enquired, "Lord, if you hate these nobles so much, why do you have them as guests?"

"Ah! Well spoken! Because it's good business. They despise me as much as I do them, but we profit mightily from each other. Of course," he leaned over and once more adopted his conspiratorial tone, "truthfully, I delight in every opportunity to stick it to the nobility! Haha! Pallid, devious worms, the lot of them! I love embarrassing those who put on airs and think themselves better than everyone else! Pshaw! I put on airs, to be sure, but I hold myself in no more regard than you or my driver!"

"Indeed, Lord, that seems just as far as I can tell," commented Iroh dryly.

Iroh grimaced as Trimazu slapped him on the knee and boomed, "You're a good man, Xian! You and your nephew will feast well tonight. Soon we shall arrive at the summer house where the feast is to be held!"

Unable to restrain himself, Zuko asked acidly, "And what about those nobles who lead Earth Kingdom armies against the Fire Nation? Are they worms too?"

"No," came the suddenly serious reply, "They are better men than I! Yet all I can do for them is perfect my industry as best I may. The entire output of my mines and blacksmiths is consumed by the army – may the spirits grant them victory over the red tide that threatens to drown us all! I hope for the best on that score, though I fear the hope of the world now rests solely with the Avatar."

The barouche sped on into the night. Turning off the main road, the coach entered an open gate guarded by a stone watchtower. They continued along a winding, though well maintained, path deep into the merchant's sprawling summer home estate. Despite the ridiculous speed at which the driver now propelled them, it was still the better part of an hour before they reached the brightly lit villa.

Trimazu's summer home was an enormous edifice whose main entrance was composed of bronze double doors almost two stories high. The doors were flanked by two enormous fire pots and two guards in green who bowed as the merchant's party passed quickly inside. The drive was packed full of carriages and litters of varying sizes parked in neat rows – it was obvious that many if not all the guests had arrived.

They were ushered into the front entrance hall by two servants who busied themselves helping the merchant out of his heavy outer robe. All three of them removed their shoes upon entering, upon which a servant set them carefully beside the main door. Zuko stood erect, his arms crossed, staring defiantly at Trimazu, who failed utterly to take notice.

Iroh looked down at his own soiled clothing and began, "May my nephew and I wash before joining the feast, Lord?"

"Oh, no my friends!" cried Trimazu as he finished donning a vest of black material shot with threads of gold, "There's no time for that! The feast will taste no worse for your stench, I guarantee! Besides, it pleases me to know that my noble guests will have a chance to enjoy the aromatics of those who engage in such hard labor on their behalf! Haha! Let's go!"

Iroh groaned, but followed the merchant deeper into the house. Zuko walked alongside in stony silence.

"Remember, Prince Zuko," Iroh whispered, "to contain yourself, whatever happens. This is not the time to dwell on one's pride."

"I can think of no greater humiliation, uncle," Zuko replied in a low, threatening voice, "than to be used as some kind of cheap prop for a mindless, baboon of an ex-slave to ridicule his betters. We can't possibly sink any lower than this."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that."
« Last Edit: Jan 06, 2008 09:57 am by Acastus » Logged
Acastus
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« Reply #4 on: May 13, 2006 08:00 am »

I'll have to rework the story outline for the later chapters on this story due to events in "Zuko Alone." The two chapters posted are fine as is.
« Last Edit: May 14, 2006 05:35 pm by Acastus » Logged
Kaption
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« Reply #5 on: May 13, 2006 02:08 pm »

Ah! Great, some insight (however fanon it may be) into Iroh's past is always great, and you've got quite a feel for Iroh, Acast. Can't wait to read more.
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Acastus
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« Reply #6 on: May 14, 2006 06:17 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom


Chapter III "The Storyteller"

They stopped and Trimazu threw open a sliding panel in front of them to reveal a long hall filled with perhaps a hundred men and women in colorful dress. A group of musicians played peaceful music on a variety of wind instruments somewhere out of sight. Three long, low tables were set up as three sides of a rectangle that ran up and down a large part of the hall. The guests were standing in small groups chatting idly with each other as the host's party entered.

"Welcome, friends and associates!" boomed the merchant. All eyes turned to him as he swept into the hall. The unseen musicians halted their playing as the master of the house and his companions approached the head of the table. Once in front of his seat, the merchant bowed low and continued his address.

"My apologies for arriving late, but I was accosted on my return from the auction by a group of bandits. I think somebody here thought they could get out of paying what they owe me!" he put his hands on his thunderous hips and queried, "Now who here is going to fess up to it, eh?"

Iroh was astonished to hear most of the guests begin to laugh at the merchant's outrageous accusation. In the Fire Nation such a comment would have undoubtedly caused a riot followed closely by the sudden appearance of a pile of flaming corpses. The retired general wondered in silence at the strange people who inhabited the Earth Kingdom.

"All right, dear guests, please sit down and stuff yourselves! Xian, Li – sit here on my right! You're my guests of honor. It's all right; you're only displacing my neighbor, Chen Ho." The merchant sat down heavily, crossing his legs and motioning with both hands for the servants on either side of the room to begin serving.

Now that the host had seated himself, the guests moved to follow suit. Iroh sat on Trimazu's right, his nephew in turn beside him.

"You've sunk to a new low, Trimazu, a feat even for you!" came an infuriated voice from behind them.

Laughing, Trimazu turned and replied, "Chen Ho! How wonderful to hear your voice! What an honor it is to have the patriarch of the noble Ho family attend my feast! Now, you should be honored to meet these people – judging from where we met I'd say they were working your peach orchard today. This is Xian and his nephew, Li, and they're from, uh," the merchant turned to Iroh to inquire, "Where are you from?"

"Oh, we are, uh, refugees from Omashu," supplied Iroh.

Chen Ho, a tall, gray haired man with a long, drooping moustache, looked briefly at the two exiles as if they were insects.

"This is an outrage." Chen remarked flatly.

"In every possible way," remarked Zuko, softly enough that only Iroh could hear.

"Oh, peace, my friend!" replied Trimazu, holding up his hands in defeat. "These men saved me from bandits on my way here tonight, and it is only just that I reward them with a seat of honor. So, go sit next to Li over there, or I'll rethink my decision to exchange your enormous debt to me for a share in your failing bakery business!"

Fuming, Chen Ho, hesitated. His cheeks flushed red at Trimazu's indiscreet revelation regarding his personal finances. The closest guests had finished seating themselves. Many, including, it would appear, Governor Tao and a few others nearby were starting to look over at the scene with interest. Chen turned without another word and took the seat next to the banished Prince.

The merchant leaned over to Iroh, poured him some tea, and remarked in a whisper of barely suppressed glee, "I never tire of abusing that snob! His family owned my father!"

The guests had now seated themselves. A small army of servants were busy placing huge plates of food on the tables. Iroh grinned as small bowls of steamed rice, large bowls of spiced noodles, exotic fruits and platters of roast duck and cured ham were placed near him. Each guest was poured a glass of wine in preparation for the toast that Trimazu gave in honor of the Earth Spirit. The harvest had been abundant last year and the mood in the room, withstanding even Trimazu's coarse humor, was generous.

Iroh served himself large helpings of everything in reach as the feast began in earnest. Servants brought along many small dishes of raw fish wrapped in rice, breads and vegetables. A sip of the tea confirmed that is was a delicious ginseng. After satisfying his immediate hunger, Iroh noticed his nephew sitting impassively at his side.

"You had best eat something. It maybe a long time before we eat like this again. Besides, the food is delicious! Eat, Prince Zuko, even you cannot fight on an empty stomach."

Zuko was in fact starving. He met his uncle's eyes briefly, then, with a slight shake of his head in resignation, began to eat.

Iroh had just finished another cup of tea, when the merchant turned to him and said, "Xian, this is Tao Lin, former governor of this province." Trimazu leaned back to allow Iroh a line of site to the man sitting on his left. Tao's face was angular and chiseled, and though clearly middle aged, his body was in good condition.

Tao smiled, bowed slightly in place, and began, "Greetings, Xian. Trimazu has just told me of you and your nephew's heroics tonight. It isn't often one hears of freedmen who have such skill in combat. You come from Omashu. Tell me, were you soldiers of King Bumi?"

Iroh's eyes widened at the question. He bought a few moments by slurping up the noodles left in his cup. Zuko leaned back and regarded his uncle calmly; a slight smile the only indication of his amusement at his uncle's discomfort. The retired general then replied, "No, Governor, my nephew and I sold wares from a shop cart in the market. We left as soon as we heard that the, uh, "fascists" were nearing the city."

Governor Tao looked disappointed, "A shame. I was hoping for news of the city's fall. Many rumors have spread that King Bumi surrendered Omashu without a fight – which I find hard to believe."

"Believe it," interjected the merchant, "And it isn't Omashu anymore, that b***h, Princess Azula, has renamed it "New Ozai City!""

Zuko looked over in surprise at Trimazu at this and blurted out, "Azula in Omashu! What was she doing there?"

Trimazu turned to Zuko and his eyes disappeared beneath his bangs, for this was the first time Zuko had spoken to the fat man since the bridge.

"Well, Li, glad you decided to join the conversation! I heard all this from one of my suppliers who used to have operations there, and I asked him the same question. He said he heard she was there to see a friend. I don't believe that for a second though."

Leaning toward them, he continued in his conspiratorial tone, "From what I hear that girl is a demon from hell sent to torment the whole world. I'd bet my weight in gold there's not a soul on earth that'd piss on her if she were on fire!"

Tao and Iroh laughed at this, and so, though very much against his will, did Zuko. It was a bitter laugh, but a laugh all the same, for of course, he would have given anything for what the merchant said to have been true. As it was, everyone he cared about save his uncle favored his sister over him.

"Anyway, sounds like you have a crush on her or something! I hear she's beautiful, if cruel. Still, I doubt she'd be interested in you. Tao has a good looking daughter your age, though!" Trimazu turned back to his other guest with wide, expectant eyes, "What do you say, Tao?"

"My daughter is not marrying a freedman, Trimazu," replied Tao, stiffly.

"Oh, bull! If I offered you two hundred thousand for her to marry Li here your only concern would be how to get the loot home without getting mugged! And no – don't ask me about it later, because I'm not really making an offer." Trimazu laughed and continued, "Anyway, my supplier also told me that Princess Azula basically threw out the Governor appointed by her father – after publicly humiliating him!" Trimazu slapped Tao roughly on the back, "Be thankful you aren't Governor of Omashu, my friend!" Tao grimaced at the physical contact, but refrained from the smart reply he might otherwise have delivered.

Zuko slipped back into his sullen silence after this exchange, but proceeded to eat his fill without further restraint. After he had finished eating, Zuko felt his eyelids grow heavy, as his body registered both the day's labor and the food he had just eaten. Just when Prince Zuko thought the feast would never end, however, the merchant stood up and addressed his guests once more.

"I have a special treat in store for us. As everyone knows, I spare no expense for my parties and tonight shall prove no exception. I have paid an obscene amount of money to have Gao Xingjian, the storyteller, here with us tonight."

Trimazu clapped his hands together and a wall panel opened to his left. Through the open door strode an old, thin man in a plain green robe. As the merchant resumed his seat next to Iroh, many of the guests looked upon the old man with wonder, impressed despite themselves. Gao walked around the end of the table closest to him and then came to stand in the center of three tables.

Bowing low, Gao greeted his host, "I thank you, Master Trimazu, for your generous introduction." The storyteller straightened up and turned to address the guests in an affected voice, saying, "Greetings, noble lords. Many of you already know of me as the most famous teller of tales in the eastern lands. I have entertained kings in Omashu, generals in Ba-Sing-Se, the noble rulers of the North Pole, and yes, even in the palace of the Fire Lord in my youth. I am honored to be your servant this evening. Please, lords, tell me your desires, your secret longings and I shall fulfill them. What tales can I tell to gladden your hearts, elevate your spirits and free your minds?"

Gao ended his short soliloquy with a hand raised to the ceiling in a dramatic gesture. He looked around him making quick eye contact with members of his audience. After a few moments of silence several audience members spoke up at once.

"How about how the return of the Avatar?" asked a middle aged man to Gao's left.

"Or the siege of Ba-Sing-Se?" said another.

Zuko's weariness vanished as he looked over at his uncle with wide eyes. Iroh sat expressionless. He met Zuko's eyes briefly then refocused on the storyteller.

"Bah!" interjected Trimazu, "how many times have you heard those! If you wanted to hear something like that you might as well have me get up there and tell it!" Many in the crowd looked aghast at the mere mention of such a possibility, but the merchant barreled ahead without notice, "Come, friends, challenge him! He's costing me a bloody fortune, don't waste it!"

Gao replied to the audience members who had spoken, saying, "Thank you, good sirs. Both are worthy subjects. As to the former, Rumor, the omnipresent spirit who walks wherever man treads, has spread the tale of the Avatar's return far and wide. Even I, however, who have traveled the world, cannot attest to the truth of these stories. As for the latter, the siege of Ba-Sing-Se and General Iroh's defeat within the very walls of our mighty capital is indeed a spectacular tale. It is also, however, a well worn story which I am sure everyone here has heard recounted many times before."

Governor Tao then spoke, "Ba-Sing-Se is a moth-eaten tale, I grant, but I would hear tell of a Fire Nation defeat tonight if I can manage it. I have not heard the story of the Battle of Lake Myojin and the end of Prince Xian in many years. Would that suit?"

Gao's white eyebrows disappeared under his brows and a smile lit his face, "Indeed, Lord – it is an excellent choice. The story of the ill fated cousin of Iroh and Ozai is a good one. The fall of Prince Xian, however, is but a piece of the larger tale that I shall tell, for I know many things about that episode which are not common knowledge."

"If you wish to hear of disaster and defeat within the very organs of the Western Power that threatens us even today, we must go back before that famed battle and hear also of many events after its conclusion. And yet I must warn you, Lord Governor, that what I give with one hand, I must take away with the other. To tell the tale I have in mind, we must not only be present at Lake Myojin, but at the lamented Battle of Mequon as well." Then, turning to Trimazu, "May I proceed, Lord?"

"Yes!" cried Trimazu and clapping his hands together in excitement, "I know where this is going, and it sounds too juicy to pass up. Let's hear about old Iroh's misfortunes then!"

Zuko's gasp was cut short before it became audible by Iroh's strong grip on his wrist from underneath the table.

"Then let us begin. Of the events I will relate, some are well known, others known to but a few. Tonight we follow the life of one man, a man whose life has touched each of ours in some way, whether we realize it or not."

"The Battle of Lake Myojin is part of the sad tale of General's Iroh early public life. Yes, long before he came to be called the "Dragon of the West," General Iroh, conqueror of Xinhua and victor of the Battle of Five Forks and a hundred other campaigns, was then Prince Iroh, eldest son of Fire Lord Azulon."

"All here know of Prince Iroh's infamous duel with his step brother, the hated Prince Tien Shin. How he spent seven long years in exile on the island of Planasia before his father released him to serve in the army once more. Most believe that the hatred between Iroh and Tien Shin, a hatred exaggerated by years of intense conflict, had simply erupted into violence upon their return from the Earth Kingdom. But this is not so! Tonight you shall learn the true cause of their infamous duel."

"Does this tale interest you, lords?"

The guests, clearly intrigued to learn something new about their legendary antagonist, murmured its assent, and the storyteller began anew.

"Thirty years ago, at a Harvest Moon feast much like this one we enjoy tonight, when Prince Xian of blessed memory, yet lived..."
« Last Edit: Jan 06, 2008 09:58 am by Acastus » Logged
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« Reply #7 on: May 26, 2006 11:23 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom


Chapter IV "A Family Affair"


Prince Iroh felt certain the feast had gone on forever. His mother, when alive, had tried diligently to persuade him that such feasts were somehow enjoyable. The truth was that the endless ceremonies of the palace bored the young Prince to tears. Though he loved his mother and mourned her passing, Iroh always regarded her efforts in this regard as a complete waste of time.

The Harvest Moon Feast had earned a special place of disfavor in Iroh's heart. While the exaggerated obeisances and sycophantic adulation of the arriving guests were no worse at this event than at any other Fire Nation high holiday, the Harvest Moon Feast did bear a unique distinction. In addition to its role as a celebration marking the end of the growing season, it was also the anniversary of the aging Fire Lord's great naval victory over the Earth Kingdom some twenty years prior.

Consequently, Iroh reflected bitterly, every Harvest Moon Feast since then had been ruined by his father's insistence on dragging some wine soaked yarn-spinner out of his tavern and forcing him to recount the tale. This year had proven no exception. The storyteller that had been imported all the way from Yantai was so boring that Iroh thought he was going to gnaw off his own limbs in frustration.

Struggling to stay awake, Iroh surveyed the scene around him. He and his family sat at three long, low tables set up on the dais. The tables formed three sides of a rectangle. The storyteller stood in the center. The floor beneath him was painted with an ornate map of the world.

His elder cousin, Xian, who sat to his right, somehow managed to enjoy it all and never ceased to encourage Iroh to approach such situations with equanimity. As the feast entered its eighth hour, however, Iroh rehearsed in his head exactly what he intended to tell Xian he could do with his equanimity.

Xian regarded his cousin over the lip of his tea cup and smiled at his sour expression.

"You will survive this, cousin, I promise," murmured Xian.

"Oh yes, I'll live, but I won't enjoy it," Iroh replied quietly, failing to suppress a smile.

Xian was five years older than Iroh and already had a successful military career. He had spent four years with General Shu, commander of the Army of the Song River. Together they had fought several campaigns in the southern Earth Kingdom and done much to reverse the Fire Nation's declining fortunes there. Ozai, Iroh's younger brother, had accompanied Xian late in his tour, but had chosen to remain with Shu in hopes of laying siege to Omashu in the coming year.

As coldly ambitious as his younger brother was proving to be, he was not Iroh's main source of imperial anxiety. His eyes slid past his cousin to rest on the ever more frequent object of his anger and disdain. Prince Tien Shin, less than a year his senior, sat at the table across from him. Tien Shin grinned smugly back. Iroh grimaced internally and wondered what his hated rival might have in store. Let him grin! Some day he would cut that vile sycophant's head off with his one of his own war fans. And if Iroh did not do it himself, he felt sure that one his friends, probably either Nikon or Gan, would.

Tien Shin hated Nikon in particular for allegedly stealing the attentions of his favorite courtesan. When Iroh had confronted Nikon over the latter his friend had casually replied, "Oh, there's nothing "alleged" about it."

Abandoning these thoughts, Iroh averted his eyes from his nemesis as the storyteller finally granted the audience mercy by ending his monologue.

Addressing Xian and Iroh, the storyteller began to wind down, "Sons of Fire! Remember well the Feast of the Harvest Moon. For nineteen years ago this day the hopes and dreams of Ch'in the Conqueror were vanquished forever by the son of Sozin."

"Now you must finish the grand enterprise that the Lord of the Comet began and which your glorious father advanced to the brink of fruition. Know this, Princes of the Empire, before your lives are spent, the Fire Nation's struggle to bring order and civilization to the world will be over! Whether the blood of our people will have been spent in vain will hang on your deeds. Bring glory and honor to the Fire Nation and your names will be remembered beside your forefathers!"

Turning to Fire Lord Azulon the storyteller bowed deeply and concluded, as if reciting a formula, "May your reign be long and glorious, Lord Azulon, and may the Spirit of the Sun grant you victory."

Iroh sighed inwardly with relief as the storyteller retreated from the dais where the Fire Lord and his family sat. All eyes turned to Azulon as he began to speak. He was a tall, thin man with grey hair that was now turning white. His face was hard and cruel, and his countenance spoke of an iron will weighed down by worldly cares. His second wife, Lady Ila, sat next to him.

"My reign has been long," he began slowly, "but for many years it has not been glorious." His eyes met briefly with those around the table before he continued.

"Stories are worth the retelling only for what they teach us. Remembrance of past victories serves only to show the miserable situation we now face."

Iroh and Xian looked quickly at each other as the aging Fire Lord rose from his seat. They began to rise along with everyone else as custom dictated, but the Fire Lord motioned them back down. Azulon walked slowly around his part of the table and stood where the storyteller had been. Looking at the nobility seated at the tables farther down the hall, many of them members of the War College, he continued in a voice mightier than his frail frame seemed to allow.

"This shame is no secret and it belongs to us all. In the last ten years we have lost most of the lands conquered by my father and me in my youth. Our enemies have organized against us. We must take action now – or we will lose this war." Azulon paused a moment to allow this to sink in before he continued, "We have lost our footholds on the western shores of the Inland Sea and Lake Myojin, and the Nasu Plain has fallen."

"Worst of all, it has been many years now since General Nifong and his cavalry swept down from the Granite Mountains." He spoke the Earth Kingdom leader's name with bitterness, but grudging respect.

"Since then this scourge of the Sun Spirit has destroyed four Fire Nation armies. Over three hundred thousand loyal Fire Nation soldiers dead or missing. The list of our defeats at his hands is long and sordid. You know them all! Names like Hefei, Sun Valley, and the Song. Among those lost at the infamous Battle of the Song was my brother, Prince Xian's father, who passed to the spirit world that day with the help of an assassin's blade! As if the enemy isn't enough for us to contend with, we suffer the evils of treachery within our own ranks as well."

At this several noblemen rose from their seats with cries of, "Lord, may you live forever!" Azulon silenced these with a wave of his hand and continued.

"One by one, our great strongholds have been sacked and destroyed. Of the five original colonies, only Mequon remains. How long will we sit idly by and allow our patrimony to be stolen by our inferiors?"

"The time has come for us to renew our commitment to victory with the blood of our enemies! In my father's time we replaced sailing vessels with ironclads and with this power I took absolute control of the seas! Now we must do the same on land. The construction and training of our new army is nearly complete and the armored war machines that it contains will finally give us the advantage we need to overcome the Earth Kingdom's numbers!"

Azulon paused and looked over at his brother's son, "Prince Xian!"

Xian rose instantly from his seat, walked behind the table and knelt before his uncle.

"Yes, Lord."

"I place you in command of the new army and all Fire Nation forces north of the Great Divide. Your orders are to avenge your noble father's death! Invade the Nasu plain and destroy General Nifong and his cavalry by the end of the coming summer. To aid you in this enterprise, Prince Tien Shin shall be your daimyo. My son, Prince Iroh, will join you as well. Do you accept this honor?"

"I do, Lord Azulon," Xian replied in a strong, clear voice.

"Then may the Sun Spirit grant you victory, General Xian. Destroy our enemies and your name shall live forever."

Xian remained kneeling, his head bowed as Azulon, followed closely by his wife, turned and left the Great Hall through the exit to his apartments in the rear. The nobility and civil servants stood up in silence as the Fire Lord made his way out.

When he was gone, the room erupted in chatter as the Fire Lord's decision was instantly praised, debated, and, albeit quietly, criticized in some quarters. Many remarked that Prince Xian was justly popular for his role in General Shu's past victories and that his record as interim governor had demonstrated his administrative abilities, while others countered that four years of experience was little compared to General Nifong's distinguished quarter century of triumphant re-conquest.

These thoughts of the chattering class mattered little to Prince Iroh, who stood up in anger and marched over to his cousin. Xian shifted his glance to see Tien Shin stand up and walk over to him as well.

"Congratulations, cousin! The Fire Lord has honored you with a difficult, but glorious task," Tien Shin said in greeting. He was taller than both Xian and Iroh, his face leaner. His hair was black and from his cheeks grew the traditional Fire Nation sideburns. His eyes were pools of dark, liquid brown, and though his words were gracious, his tone was too measured and calculating to be truly friendly.

Xian bowed and replied, "He has, Tien Shin, and I hope for your full support. I will need it to succeed."

"No, you won't!" interjected Iroh hotly. Pointing an accusatory finger at his step brother he continued, "This imposter is neither my brother nor your cousin, Xian! He is Lady Ila's son by her own first marriage," then turning to Tien Shin, "which you seem determined to forget, Tien Shin! You are not my father's son, you are a pretender to whom my father has given a title to please his wife!"

"Two titles, Iroh," Tien Shin purred, "I am now daimyo of the Army of the Great Divide, and your superior officer. I will see that you learn respect."

"How? Are you planning to arrest me for treason as well?" retorted the young Prince, "You're a disgrace, Tien Shin, a disgrace who curries favor with my father by playing to his basest fears."

Tien Shin's grin grew slightly wider, his tone softer and more malevolent, "The Fire Lord does not agree with you, Prince. He, at least, appreciates those who watch his back for him. Isn't it a shame that he has to rely on me and not his own sons for his protection?"

Iroh, stung badly by this insult, lunged toward his step-brother. Xian grabbed him by the shoulders to prevent him from reaching his target. Tien Shin's icy smile did not waver, nor did his gaze lift from Iroh as he bowed slightly to Xian. Then, with a single backward glance of contempt, Tien Shin turned and left the hall.

Still fuming, Iroh turned to his cousin, "Father cannot be serious, Xian! Why did he choose him to be daimyo! I will not take orders from that simpering idiot! Tien Shin is a filthy, scheming –," he cut himself off as Xian sighed and held up a hand in a mollifying gesture.

"Calm yourself cousin," he said, releasing Iroh's shoulder, "Nothing has happened that cannot be mended."

Iroh opened his mouth to reply, but his cousin had begun leading him down the steps of the dais and now they reached the main floor of the hall where the guests still congregated. Nothing more could be said as a large group of noblemen, bureaucrats and members of the War College pressed around them to offer their congratulations and well wishes for a swift victory. Iroh, now convinced that the torture of this Harvest Moon feast would never end, was unable to speak to his cousin again for the rest of the evening.
« Last Edit: Jul 24, 2015 08:12 pm by Acastus » Logged
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« Reply #8 on: Jun 16, 2006 08:42 am »

I like this story and been following it for a while now.  I haven't commented until now because I didn't want to interupt the flow of the story but have you quit??   Sad
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« Reply #9 on: Jun 16, 2006 12:12 pm »

Pardon the delay, Kanelle. I'm glad you're enjoying the story. I write because I enjoy writing and because I love Avatar, but it is wonderful to know that others find some pleasure in my work as well.

The answer is no, I have not quit. The draft of chapter V (and the outline for the rest of the story) is complete. I've had a lot of fun writing what I have so far and mapping out the rest. So, though it will undoubtedly take a considerable amount of time, I will complete this story just as I did "The Bridge."

The source of delay is that I'm getting beaten to death at work. So, for the past month, I haven't had much time to do what I want - which is write this story. Our firm's fiscal year ends June 30. I hope to have chapter V out before then. After, I hope things will relax enough that I can spend more time on this.

Thanks again for expressing some interest. It helps an otherwise crappy day Smiley.
« Last Edit: Jun 16, 2006 02:53 pm by Acastus » Logged
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« Reply #10 on: Jun 17, 2006 10:42 pm »

Enjoying this any fleshing out of the fire nation while still keeping them on the not so nice side is worth a grin.

Loved this on ff.net loving it here.  Though yeah I suppose there does end up being a need to flesh out the royal family's roster its too damned nuclear/modern for the crap even relatively small and straightforward western ones ended up being.
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« Reply #11 on: Jun 18, 2006 08:59 am »

Pardon the delay, Kanelle. I'm glad you're enjoying the story. I write because I enjoy writing and because I love Avatar, but it is wonderful to know that others find some pleasure in my work as well.

The answer is no, I have not quit. The draft of chapter V (and the outline for the rest of the story) is complete. I've had a lot of fun writing what I have so far and mapping out the rest. So, though it will undoubtedly take a considerable amount of time, I will complete this story just as I did "The Bridge."

The source of delay is that I'm getting beaten to death at work. So, for the past month, I haven't had much time to do what I want - which is write this story. Our firm's fiscal year ends June 30. I hope to have chapter V out before then. After, I hope things will relax enough that I can spend more time on this.

Thanks again for expressing some interest. It helps an otherwise crappy day Smiley.
I have a nitpick for chapter four.  If it does take place thirty years before the present, then Azulon's reign would have just begun.  He only ruled the Fire Nation for 23 years upon his death.  He died about six or seven years before the series started.
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« Reply #12 on: Jun 18, 2006 09:43 am »

^ Hehe, yeh you got me. Such are the wages of starting a fanfic while the series is still running. I wrote the first four chapters before "Zuko Alone" was broadcast, though I posted Chapter III and IV after it aired. I edited as best I could to account for the new information, but I'm afraid the story is going to be somewhat AU no matter what. If that's going to bother you, your best bet is to stop reading and move on to another fic.
« Last Edit: Jun 18, 2006 09:50 am by Acastus » Logged
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« Reply #13 on: Jun 18, 2006 11:21 am »

Well if you are going to make it AU somewhat that is fine by me.  If you intend to stick with canon, then I would have problems with leaving it as is.
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« Reply #14 on: Jun 18, 2006 07:28 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom
Based in part on a scene from part V of "I, Claudius", by Robert Graves, screenplay by Jack Pulman
All original content and characters © Acastus

Author's Note: Pardon the delayed update folks, it's been hell at work. This chapter and the next are a little slow, but we'll get to the main action soon after. Thanks for the patience!
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Chapter V "The Prince and The Pauper"


Nikon looked out over the terrace to the garden below. The sun had just risen over the mountains, but had promptly hidden itself behind a bank of clouds. Soon it would begin to rain. Sighing inwardly, he hoped Iroh would not keep him waiting long to begin their morning training. Given Iroh's mood recently, however, Nikon half hoped the rain would wash them out. Ever since the Harvest Moon feast his friend had grown sullen and prone to unpleasant, angry outbursts.

He turned around at the sound of footsteps expecting to see Iroh. Instead, he saw a short man with light brown eyes and wide forehead approaching. He wore an army uniform with no rank insignia, but Nikon instantly recognized him and bowed.

"Hail, Prince Xian!"

Xian smiled warmly and bowed slightly in return before replying.

"Are you Nikon Orlando?" he inquired.

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Good. I've been looking for you," continued the Prince. Nikon's eyebrows disappeared under his bangs in shock. Xian chuckled at this response and jabbed a finger at him, "Yes, you!"

Nikon turned his head slightly away from Xian at this statement. Despite the Prince's pleasant countenance and his own friendship with the Crown Prince, he knew enough to know that such sudden attention from the high and mighty often had disastrous consequences for more common folk like him. His eyes darted from side to side, but he could see no guards on the terrace. They were alone.

"Have I done something wrong, Your Highness?" he asked in a low, tense voice.

"Not at all, my friend. In fact, I've come to ask for your help."

"My help?" asked Iroh's friend incredulously, his voice kicking up an octave in surprise. This was getting truly bizarre.

Xian's smile grew wider. He looked around the empty terrace in a slightly exaggerated fashion, then fixed his gaze once more on Nikon.

"Well, there are only two of us here and we did establish that your name is Nikon."

Nikon blushed furiously at this humorous jab, then shook his head as if to clear it. He smiled and replied, "My apologies, Highness. I didn't expect an interview this morning, but I'm, uh, glad to meet you. Prince Iroh has spoken of you nonstop since word of your return reached us last month. How can I serve?"

Xian walked up to the guardrail of the terrace and looked out over the garden.

"As I'm sure you know, our glorious ruler has charged me with a great task. To do this I need more than new technology. I need officers who can help me lead this army to victory. I asked Iroh to suggest some names and he came up with yours." Xian turned and met Nikon's eyes as he concluded.

The remains of Nikon's blush drained away as the implication of Xian's statement burned through his brain. That son of a b***h! he thought, bitterly. I'll kill him!

Recovering fast, Nikon responded, "But your Highness, I have no combat experience and I'm just a commoner. I don't think I have much to offer you."

"You think so?" remarked Xian in surprise, "There are more important things than family background. I need people of ability and determination. Iroh tells me that you were rejected from the Fire Nation Military Academy because your father was a pauper. However, you didn't let that stop you. After teaching yourself the basics, you persuaded Master Chen himself to help complete your skills. Now you train recruits for the army on Showa Field, is that right?"

Bowing his head slightly, Nikon replied, "Yes, your Highness. That is how I came to meet your cousin. It was just a few months after you left with General Shu, I believe." Nikon's mind ran furiously as he tried to think of a way to decline the "honor" the Prince was trying to bestow upon him. But how he could tell one of the most illustrious figures in the land that he had taken up firebending to impress a prostitute he'd had a crush on long ago?

To his horror, Xian put his hand on Nikon's shoulder and continued in a fatherly tone, "He told me, in fact, that you are loyal to three things, to your friends, to the Fire Lord, and to the truth. Now that's a wonderful thing to say about a person. I'd be delighted if he said something like that about me!"

"Oh, Iroh worships you!" Iroh's friend gushed involuntarily.

"Does he really?" Xian remarked, genuinely pleased. He removed his hand from Nikon's shoulder and placed it back on the guardrail, "Well, well! He's a fine man, you know, and will be a great Fire Lord one day," then with a trace of mirth, " – even if he does have the temper of a pregnant rhinoceros."

Nikon's eyes bulged out at this comment. Although Iroh and he frequently traded friendly barbs in private, Nikon had never before heard anyone characterize the Crown Prince that way.

Xian laughed and waved his hand dismissively, "Oh, what? You think I didn't know? Haha! Iroh is a true son of the Fire Nation, but I have high hopes that he will mellow in his old age."

"Hehe, I'm not sure we'll have any luck with that, your Highness."

Smiling wryly, Xian replied, "You know him well, I see."

"He's my best friend."

"Good, I'm glad. He has need of loyal friends. I ask again, will you join us?"

Ashamed, but unwilling to betray Iroh's testimonial to his honesty, Nikon replied, "Prince, I don't know what else Iroh has told you, but I'm not a warrior. I took up firebending for the wrong reasons, and though I enjoy what I do, I don't really consider myself brave." Stealing himself for a dismissal or worse, he continued, "The truth is, every day we hear more bad news from the front and we see more urns unloaded at the Naval yard. I... I don't want to end up in one of them."

Nikon dropped his gaze to look down at his feet. His head felt heavy, as if gravity were working twice as hard to pull him to the ground. He had not expected the morning to go this way, and at this rate he'd be better off going back to his father's house and hiding in the basement. That is, if Prince Xian didn't have him executed for the cowardice he'd just confessed.

After a moment, Xian spoke. "Look at me."

Nikon complied, meeting the Prince's steady gaze. "You are brave. You just told the truth, however ugly, to someone who might have killed you if they didn't like the answer. There is no shame in wanting to live, Nikon, and there is no honor or sense in wanting to die for the Fire Lord. I need good men, men of substance, virtue and ability to even have a hope of turning this around. I can't do this alone. Iroh can't do this alone. The fact is our nation is losing this war, and we are pledging our lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the task of redeeming the blood of our fathers and brothers who have passed before us. Will you not help?"

Nikon opened his mouth to protest again, but the words died on his lips. After a moment he replied, "I will, your Highness."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

By late morning the clouds had blown away without even a drop of rain, leaving a gloriously sunny day. Iroh and Nikon each stood several feet from the other near the center of the Palace's smaller agni kai arena. Their breathing was labored and sweat rolled down their bare chests. They had been sparring for some time.

"You're a son of a b***h!" spat Nikon through gritted teeth as he split apart a blast of fire from Iroh, his hands steepled in front of him.

"Serves you right, my friend! It's about time you did something constructive instead of..." Iroh struggled to regain his breath, "...spending your nights whoring around the city!"

"Yeh, well, I notice I'm not alone on these nights you speak of, though I've never seen you get much whoring done!"

Iroh aimed a blast of fire at Nikon's lower body. His friend rolled gracefully out of the way and rose to his feet very near Iroh. Nikon turned and swept Iroh's feet out from under him with one of his own in a very liquid maneuver. As he fell, Nikon delivered a blow to Iroh's chest.

The Prince fell to the ground hard, but managed to dissipate some of the force of his collapse by falling flat. Nikon stepped forward. Dark and brooding he loomed over Iroh, his eyes burning with angry fire, his right arm extended in a firebending stance. Iroh shook his head to clear it and looked up. The sun behind Nikon allowed the Prince to see only his silhouette. A drop of salty sweat trickled down into Iroh's eye and began to sting him. Both breathed heavily for a moment in the silence.

Then Iroh laughed, a full belly laugh, though his stomach was taught and his chest muscular. He grabbed his friends outstretched fist with both hands and used it to pull himself to his feet. The fire in Nikon's eyes had died away, leaving only a hollow, downcast look.

"It was a dirty trick," The pauper's son accused sullenly.

"Yes, wasn't it? I knew you wouldn't have any trouble saying "no" to me – you've saved my life once already, but Xian, well, who can refuse my cousin anything? Besides, I could always have gotten an order from my father if I had to. But, would I really have had to do that?"

Nikon looked up at Iroh and then around them at the empty stands before replying.

"No. I've been ashamed for too long, I guess. This is the chance to do something about it. But, I'm not a hero, Iroh. Not like you and Xian. You deserve to be great. I'm just a poor man's son trying to stay alive."

Iroh's smile faded and was replaced with a frown. "If that's what you think, then that's all you'll ever be! Sentiments like that reek of self pity. Put those thoughts away, my friend. You have been called for a different destiny! Accept it. Soon enough I think you'll find that you can survive quite well without the delights of the capital."

A knowing smile spread over Nikon's face as he quoted his friend, saying, "Oh yes, I'll live, but I won't enjoy it. Besides," he continued as his smile became smug, "I know my presence will torture Tien Shin every day we're out there. At least that's something."

The pair retrieved their clothes from the ground nearby and exited the arena. The path up to the hill to the Palace was broken gravel down at this end, but turned quickly into a brick walkway further up. As they began their ascent, several figures came down to meet them. All three carried bows slung across their backs and were evidently headed to the archery range. One of these newcomers was Tien Shin.

Laughing Nikon remarked, "Oh, ho! Speak of the demon himself and he appears! How convenient. You going to let me kill him this time?"

"No," replied the Prince, "If anyone gets to do that, it's going to be me. Just keep quiet."

As the two groups prepared to pass each other, Tien Shin held up a hand to stop his party. Iroh and Nikon stopped as well.

"What do you want, Tien Shin?" asked Iroh bluntly.

"Your Highness," said Nikon with both a sneer and a slight bow in greeting.

Tien Shin's eyes passed briefly over the pauper's son before fixing on Iroh.

"Greetings, brother. Wasting your time again with the peasantry, I see? How sad to see the Crown Prince abase himself in such an unseemly manner. One never ceases to wonder what you see in someone of such low birth."

Unable to resist the opening Nikon replied, "Well, I'll ask Xi Shi after I lie with her tonight. She's told me many times –"

Nikon cut himself off in mid retort as the blade of a beautiful blue enamel war fan was suddenly pressed against his throat. Whatever else he was, Tien Shin was fast. At the first mention of the stolen courtesan, he had drawn his weapon, unfolded it and placed it in the perfect position to cut his jugular. After a moment of silence, Tien Shin smiled and began to speak in his most calculated tone.

"I beg your pardon, have I interrupted your train of thought?" he asked in a mock conversational tone, "Hmm? I guess you weren't saying anything important. That's not unusual."

Tien Shin turned with a look of intense hatred as Iroh grabbed his wrist and pushed his arm and the offending fan away from his friend. Nikon's body relaxed and he took a step back, exhaling the breath he'd been unconsciously retaining.

"Enough, Tien Shin! Your arrogance and audacity astound even me! How dare you take a weapon to a friend of the Crown Prince?"

In one step Iroh stood almost nose to nose with his step brother and, pointing an accusatory figure, bellowed, "Are you so eager for a fight dear "brother"? The agni kai arena stands ready for us. Make your challenge now, or stand aside!"

Tien Shin, several inches taller than Iroh, looked down into the Crown Prince's eyes with cool disdain. Iroh looked back, his cheeks flushed red, and his own eyes ablaze with indignation.

"We have a common enemy to fight, Prince Iroh," lectured Tien Shin, his trademark expression of smugness returning to his face, "I suggest we focus our efforts where they belong. That is the kind of common sense that every ruler needs."

Iroh and Nikon watched in silence as Tien Shin turned and led his party down the path past the agni kai arena.

"I hope you don't take this the wrong way," began Nikon, "but I hope that guy dies while we're over there."

"You're not alone."
« Last Edit: Jan 06, 2008 10:00 am by Acastus » Logged
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« Reply #15 on: Jul 03, 2006 04:55 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom

All original content and characters © Acastus


Chapter VI "The War College"


Shadows danced around the throne room of the Fire Lord. The members of the War College not on campaign sat cross legged around the enormous world map that covered much of the floor. Numerous colored tiles on the map recorded current and proposed future positions of various military units.

Prince Xian stood at the head of the map facing the Fire Lord's throne. Iroh stood on his right, Tien Shin on his left. Xian had spent the last hour explaining his plans in detail for the spring offensive now only a few months away. The grim figure of Fire Lord Azulon watched dully from his throne on the dais. He had spoken not a word since his terse greeting to Xian when the former had entered the chamber with his two feuding lieutenants.

“In summary, my Lords,” concluded Xian in his clear, confident voice, “we will land not at Yu Dao, as the enemy almost certainly expects, but more than six hundred leagues to the north, in the Gulf of Gela," Xian pointed at the rim of the sparsely populated coast, "There we will join the rest of the Army of the Great Divide, and invade the Nasu Plain from the northwest after crossing the Arno River. When we threaten the rich cities of the Nasu from this unexpected quarter there will be panic. Nifong will attack, he must, and when he does we will destroy him."

A few moments of silence passed before a middle aged man with a shock of grey hair spoke, "I admire your confidence, General Xian. You do realize that landing in the gulf will put the Dune Sea between your army and Mequon, the nearest major Fire Nation base?"

"Yes, Field Marshal Jeong Jeong," Xian replied, "As I said earlier, we have no intention of entering the Dune Sea and we're confident Nifong won't either. At least, he has never gone into the desert before. Since his forces will still be more mobile than ours, I believe cutting the maneuvering room will work to our general advantage. Also, at the Fire Lord's order, Chieng Shiung herself will be joining us to set up the supply staging area in the gulf. With her assistance, I will personally ensure that the logistics are well managed."

Jeong Jeong grunted his acceptance of the explanation, before continuing, "Your plan also relies heavily on the performance of the new armored vehicles. Can you report to us on the results of the training and field tests of these weapons so far?"

"Of course, the field tests have shown that the tank armor is strong enough to deflect almost any stone bombardment. They can take a direct hit from stones up to..."

Xian turned to Tien Shin who supplied without hesitation, "Up to almost a ton without any significant damage, Field Marshal. Further, in combat our tanks will be moving fast enough that they will be hard to hit by all except the most skilled earthbenders. Our men will be able to strike with virtual impunity. We have little to fear from Nifong with these new mobile forces."

Jeong Jeong turned his steady gaze to Tien Shin, took his measure and questioned, "You are in command of the mobile forces are you not?"

"I am," replied the Prince with some pride.

"And on what evidence do you base this conclusion?"

Slightly taken aback, Tien Shin answered, ‘The field tests..."

"...are not sufficient evidence to justify your asinine assumption that we have nothing to fear from the enemy," Jeong Jeong finished sternly. "Nifong has been handing arrogant Fire Nation commanders their heads for twenty years now and if you aren't careful, you'll end up just like them. What do your brigade leaders say, hmm? Do they agree with your optimistic assessment?"

Tien Shin's eyes narrowed dangerously as he replied, "The ones with sound judgment agree with me, yes."

"Commanders Ryu and Nikon do not agree," spoke a man with short white hair several places down from Jeong Jeong.

Tien Shin turned to face this new opponent and spoke, the trace of an edge to his voice, "As I said, Master Chen, the leaders with sound judgment agree with my assessment. Commander Nikon, at least," Tien Shin's taut features relaxed into a smile as he continued, "has been the subject of several disciplinary actions already. It is unclear whether he will even be permitted to join us on the campaign."

"Oh?" replied Chen softly, "I've known Nikon for all his adult life and trained him in firebending. When he applies his mind, he is neither impulsive nor rash in his judgment. A wise commander, Prince, understands the value of different viewpoints. Perhaps you should pay more attention to the opinions of those on whom your life may depend in battle."

Enraged, Tien Shin retorted, "I doubt my life will depend on the opinion of an insignificant slave like him, Master Chen, no matter who his friends are."

Iroh drew breath to respond, but Xian turned to his cousin with a raised hand and a plea in his eyes. Iroh exhaled without speaking, his eyes still fixed on Tien Shin. Xian turned back to his daimyo and replied firmly, "You go too far, Tien Shin. Commander Nikon's inability to hide his personal disdain for certain of his colleagues does not diminish the validity of his assessment in this matter. Personally, I see both great strengths and significant weaknesses with these machines."

As Xian finished Iroh was finally able to add with an accusatory finger pointed at his step brother, "Nikon is right Tien Shin, you are just too blind to see it!"

"To see what, Prince Iroh? What is the matter here?" The irritated question had come from the dais, and all eyes turned to its occupant.

Recognizing the dangerous tone in his father's voice, Iroh replied, "Father, it is clear that these machines are, in fact, the mighty weapons we hoped them to be. Tien Shin does not exaggerate the machine's ability to withstand earthbending attacks, but equally clear are its many drawbacks." Iroh paused a moment to collect his thoughts. Then, at a slow and measured pace he began to count off each reason, "They are huge, loud, and slower than our own cavalry, let alone General Nifong's. They consume a tremendous amount of fuel and apparently need hours of maintenance every day,' then turning back to his enemy, Iroh continued with rising heat, "It makes no sense to just keep congratulating ourselves on how smart we are for creating these things when what we should be focusing on is learning how best to use them!"

"Are we to understand, then, that you disagree with General Xian's plan, Iroh?" came Tien Shin's silky reply.

Iroh laughed at this obvious trap and replied, "Oh, very smooth, "brother"! Of course I support Xian's plan. It calls for drawing Nifong into attacking our armor, not vice versa. That will eliminate their speed advantage and as long as the ground is relatively dry and stone free, we should achieve the victory we seek."

"Caution," Xian broke in, "is advisable in this situation for many reasons. Iroh and Nikon are correct in their assessment of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this new technology. Chieng Shiung is making improvements to the machines every day, however, and for that reason I'm confident that we'll be able to overcome some of the defects in short order."

"On the other hand, the army will consist of one part inexperienced men, and the other part demoralized men who have been beaten now by General Nifong many times. We must work toward several small, quick victories while looking for an opportunity to force the enemy to attack us on favorable ground at a time of our choosing."

"Caution, General," disagreed the Fire Lord in an acid tone, "is what has brought us year after year of disgraceful news from the front. Your initial plan of attack is appropriate, but what is this I am hearing from you now? Inexperience and morale as excuses for inaction? Such pronouncements stink of defeatism. Find the enemy, destroy him and both your problems will be solved! Your father won his victories with bold strokes, Xian, and that is what I look for in his son."

Xian looked down, embarrassed at the admonishment from the Fire Lord, "Forgive me, Uncle. I will not disappoint you or the memory of my father by failing in the task you have given me. I will engage and defeat the enemy before the end of summer as you have instructed."

A middle aged man with a cruel face and black hair who sat across from Master Chen spoke next, "We cannot afford to dither, General Xian. Tien Shin is right for more reasons than he has articulated. Technology advantages, however real, are notoriously temporary. You must use the advantage these weapons afford us to achieve a quick, decisive victory over the enemy before they find a way to neutralize it."

Jeong Jeong, shaking his head in barely suppressed anger, replied, "Even if that is the case, General Cho, that is hardly justification for sending barely trained troops into high risk combat situations that –"

"Enough of this bickering!" thundered the Fire Lord from the dais. Jeong Jeong stilled himself instantly, his anger cooling. He looked down at the map on the floor, an impassive expression sliding down like a veil over his face.

"General Xian," Azulon continued, "are you prepared to execute this plan?"

"I am, Lord Azulon. Do I have your approval?"

"You have my support, General," the Fire Lord corrected severely, "I approve nothing until it is an undisputed success," Azulon then looked from side to side, panning his gaze across the chamber before continuing, "This council is ended. Leave, all of you! I wish to speak to Prince Iroh alone."

Iroh stood in silence, steeling himself for what he knew was coming, as the members of the War College rose and exited. Xian bowed low and withdrew, followed by Tien Shin who bowed low to the Fire Lord and slightly to Iroh before exiting.

As the echoes of the last footsteps died away, Fire Lord Azulon spoke, his voice like a razor, "Speak, Prince Iroh. You obviously have something to say."

Iroh hesitated, momentarily flummoxed, but frustration and anger welling up within supplied the question that had been burning him for months since the Harvest Moon Feast, "Father, why did you appoint Tien Shin daimyo instead of me? He has no more combat experience than I do!"

Azulon snorted and replied in a softer tone, "So there it is, finally. If you're so interested in the politics of my leadership decisions, you're asking the wrong question. But, I can see why you focus on this."

"I am not accountable to you, Prince Iroh, but I shall answer you nonetheless, because I expect you to work with Tien Shin and obey him as long as he is your superior officer. Is that clear?"

The Fire Lord's son glowered, but replied, "It is, Father."

"Tien Shin is daimyo because of the fear he will inspire in the officer corps. He is not the only successful state prosecutor, but he is by far the most feared. The Earth Kingdom and its allies are powerful enemies to be sure, Prince Iroh, but far more dangerous are those who plot assassination and insurrection within our own ranks. Remember the lessons of the Civil War which your grandfather Sozin and I fought!"

"I had not considered this, Father. But why do you trust him? His ambition is limitless!"

"I trust no one, Iroh. You are my eldest child and one day you will rule this nation and the world as Fire Lord. I pray you carve into your heart the bitter lessons I have learned before you take my place."

Anger welling up within him Iroh replied, "What lessons, Father? I see only that Tien Shin has acquired tremendous power by putting honest men to death for treasons that probably never happened! Most of those he has had condemned were never our enemies! And those that were may not have been if we'd done things differently!"

"And I tell you they were!" thundered the Fire Lord as he rose out of his seat. Father and son locked eyes for a few moments in silent conflict before Iroh looked down at the floor. Azulon sat down once again and allowed a few moments of silence to pass before continuing in a softer voice.

"You have not yet learned, my son, that you are and always will be surrounded by enemies, as I have been. In the government, the War College, even your own family."

A strange look spread over the Fire Lord's face as he concluded, "You are correct that Tien Shin's ambition is not to be taken lightly. However, this is your problem. My concern is that Nifong is eliminated by the end of next summer. This is your goal, as well as Tien Shin's and Xian's. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Father."

"Then you are dismissed, Prince Iroh, my son."
« Last Edit: Aug 28, 2015 06:23 pm by Acastus » Logged
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« Reply #16 on: Jul 09, 2006 08:21 am »

Things are shaping up quite nicely.
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« Reply #17 on: Jul 14, 2006 08:22 pm »

As Iroh is my favorite character, I love this story. Chapter one was a solid start, an excellent representation of Iroh and Zuko's struggle to survive.

In chapter two, I thought you captured Zuko's character to perfection. This sentence is so him "Zuko looked up at this comment, an expression of dull hatred etched upon his face."
I can actually see that expression in my head, that and the picture of Trimazu's butt in Zuko's face.

Wonderful start to an entertaining story. I look forward to reading more. On to chapter three...
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« Reply #18 on: Jul 14, 2006 11:34 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom

All original content and characters © Acastus


Chapter VII "The Road To War"


"Ohhh! You've got to dismiss me for a toilet break! Please! I swear I'm about to float away here!"

Trimazu's booming voice brought the audience back to the present with an almost audible crash. Gao, who a moment ago had delivered the Fire Lord's final command, dropped the arm he had just used in an imperious gesture of dismissal. The audience began to titter as their host jumped up from his seat, evidently in some distress, and began to jog as fast as his portly frame would allow toward the exit.

As Trimazu gained the doorway, he turned and announced without a trace of shame, "Potty break, my friends! Let's all refresh ourselves before we continue. I shall return presently."

With that the merchant of Shanxi disappeared through the door. The room filled instantly with the low buzz of dozens of conversations, most of which contained various expressions of shock at their host's latest faux pas. Several guests, including Chen Ho, rose from their seats and followed Trimazu, presumably to find the washroom. An attendant ran forward to Gao with a curule chair. The storyteller accepted the proffered seat with a smile as well as the glass of water the servant offered next.

Iroh's expression during the first part of the tale had remained carefully controlled. His gaze fixed on the floor, the retired general had successfully avoided eye contact with his nephew and everyone else. Beneath his stoic countenance, however, his spirit was in turmoil. How strange and disturbing it was to hear one's life recounted by another in such a public venue.

Worst of all, old wounds long since healed now bled again freely. Iroh thought the hurt of Xian's passing had long since faded, but he was wrong. He was surprised at the sharpness of the pain that stabbed his heart as the storyteller played his cousin. Either through skill or, perhaps, direct observation, Gao had even mastered many of Xian's mannerisms. Iroh clenched his fist tightly at the memories, fighting back tears for the umpteenth time that evening.

A surprisingly gentle touch on his right hand prompted him to open his eyes and look over at his nephew. A slight shock ran through the retired General as he suddenly realized that he had forgotten to release his grip on Zuko's arm. More surprising still was the knowledge that his nephew had allowed him to hold on for so long. The moment now passed, the banished Prince removed his uncle's hand.

"Uncle," Zuko, his eyes wide, began in a low voice, "is any of this true?"

"Much of it, yes," replied the retired general in a whisper.

Zuko felt suddenly ashamed at how little he really knew of his uncle's past. Though young, he remembered many of the events of the siege of Ba-Sing-Se and its aftermath. He even recalled the glorious triumph Iroh celebrated on his return from the Battle of Five Forks. Zuko had been thrilled when he was allowed to ride with his uncle in the parade. But those events now seemed distant, unreal, as if part of a play or even the story being told them tonight. The sudden realization of this disconnect with the one man who cared for him added to his feelings of shame and isolation.

"I'm sorry, uncle, this must be painful for you." Despite his curiosity to hear the rest of the tale, Zuko took pity on his guardian, "Why don't we just leave? We've had our fill."

Iroh considered this, but rejected it quietly, "No, not only would that be rude to a host that has treated us with genuine kindness, but it would also draw too much attention. It is better to endure, enjoy a good night's rest if we can, and leave in peace." Then, even though he did not himself believe it, "After all, it is only a story."

A few minutes of silence passed between them before Zuko finally yielded to his curiosity and asked, "Who was this Nikon, uncle? You've never spoken of him before."

Iroh drew breath to respond, but was preempted by the return of their host. He swept through the door like an emperor, in complete command of his surroundings.

"Pardon, dear guests, but I'm sure you'll be thrilled to know I feel at least ten pounds lighter!" Trimazu patted his enormous bulk for emphasis as he proceeded back to his seat. Chortles were heard round the room at this totally unnecessary announcement. Governor Tao shook his head slowly in an express of both disbelief and exasperation.

Chen Ho followed Trimazu through the door, remarking snidely, "Well, not to worry, there's still plenty of you left to go around."

Ignoring this barb the host sat down and replied, "So Chen Ho, did you enjoy using my new guest bathroom? I believe it's larger than your whole entrance hall! Why, the glazing alone cost eight hundred gold pieces," then leaning towards his neighbor he emphasized with glee, "eight hundred! Haha!"

Chen Ho snorted in disgust as he reclaimed his seat. With a snap of his fingers he signaled a nearby servant for a refill of his wine. Chen routinely found himself drinking heavily whenever he was required to attend one of Trimazu's "events." This inevitably resulted in a loud exchange of insults which some viewed as the highlight of the entertainment. Most, however, dreaded the altercations as just another impropriety they were forced to suffer. Strong drink had been flowing freely, so tonight would prove no exception.

Trimazu then continued, saying to no one in particular, "And how about that Nikon? He's my kind of fellow. I'm partial to rogues, of course, and if I remember the stories right he was quite the ladies man." Then with mock sincerity and an exaggerated sigh, "Ah, he reminds me of myself when I was young!"

"Oh please, Trimazu," Chen Ho shot back acidly, "Gao gave at least some indication that this Nikon was good looking, which certainly rules out any comparison with you. Everyone knows you remain unmarried because your morbid obesity would scare a canyon crawler into fits."

"Why Chen Ho," their host replied with delight, "I believe you're actually developing a wit! Perhaps your brain is finally beginning to work? Of course, it's entirely due to my influence, you mustn't take any credit."

"And, as a matter of fact, I was in love once, but it didn't work out. Different worlds, you see? Now that I'm rich, though, I get marriage proposals at least once a week. The latest was from Lau Bei Fong from down south. He wants me to marry his twelve year old daughter. Do you believe that?"

Once again adopting his conspiratorial tone Trimazu leaned over to address Iroh, "It's positively immoral! These snobs look down at farting in public, but will gladly sell their own daughter to a man they hardly even know, half a world away – just to stop me from ruining their iron and nickel business! It's scandalous! I have half a mind to take them up on the offer, just to rescue the poor little soul from such horrendous parents!" He nodded once quickly for emphasis before turning back to the storyteller who waited patiently.

"Gao!" he barked.

The old storyteller rose from his seat and the guests began to quiet as fast as if the lights had been dimmed in a playhouse. He bowed once to the audience then turned back to Trimazu and enquired, "Shall I continue, Master?"

The merchant lowered his wine glass after a long drink, burped, and replied, "By all means, my good man. Now that my bowels have been evacuated, I think we should continue. You had just finished telling us about Iroh's unhappy chat with old Azulon. What a miserable old man. Glad I wasn't there!"

"As it happens," the storyteller began as he turned back to his audience, "that's exactly how most members of the War College felt, and perhaps even Prince Xian..."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xian and Iroh looked out from under the awning of the command tent. The capital's naval base bustled with activity below them. Dozens of Fire Nation warships lined the docks and hundreds of yard workers busied themselves loading the ships with the supplies and instruments of war.

Yet to be loaded, but lined up in neat rows on the shore were the tanks that now made up the main body of the Fire Nation land forces. They were large, ugly metal contraptions whose unpainted steel reflected dully in the failing light of the early evening.

Iroh adjusted his heavy coat as a rare snowfall began to descend from the heavens. Spring was now less than a month away, but winter still held its icy grip over the Fire Nation. After observing the scene for a few moments, Xian broke the silence, "So, how did it go after the rest of us were dismissed?"

Iroh did not reply. His eyes remained fixed on the scene below.

"You're still angry about Tien Shin," stated Xian simply as he turned and sat down at a table loaded with tea and refreshments behind them.

Iroh turned to his cousin and suddenly shouted, "Of course I am, Xian! Why shouldn't I be? Why aren't you? He patronizes you as much he flaunts his contempt for me!" Beside himself, Iroh continued, "You know what he's doing, don't you?"

"Peace, cousin," implored Xian, offering Iroh a steaming cup, "Sit down and have some nice, calming tea."

"I don't want any calming tea!" Iroh spread his hands wide in a gesture of frustration, "Don't you understand? Step by step Tien Shin is removing everyone who's a threat to him and paving the way for his own ambitions – and Father is helping him do it!"

Xian regarded his cousin coolly. Slowly he put the cup back down on the table. "How much of this did you say to the Fire Lord?"

His anger ebbing, the Crown Prince sat down heavily and admitted, "Pretty much all of it."

"That may not have been wise."

"I don't care." Iroh replied glumly.

"Yes, you do." Xian contradicted confidently, "What else did he say?"

"Nothing much. Something about asking the wrong question if I was so interested in his decisions. It didn't mean very much to me."

Xian took his tea cup and leaned forward, cradling it in his hands for warmth. After a moment or two of silence he replied, "You've been upset that Tien Shin was made daimyo instead of you. Fair enough. He's a filthy blackguard who, I'm sure, the Fire Lord has promoted into this position to discourage insurrection."

Iroh's eyes went wide at his cousin's insight. "Uh, yes, that's exactly what he said." How could Xian know this?

"But, has the question never crossed your mind why he put me in command?"

The question was sudden and at first, quite preposterous to Iroh. He replied without thinking, "Well, of course you should be in command, cousin. There is no other suitable candidate for this honor!" replied Iroh in a shocked tone.

"Oh? What about Master Chen? Or Field Marshall Jeong Jeong? You know and respect them both. Their experience is far greater than mine."

"I had... forgotten them."

"Do you still not understand why Uncle has put me in command?"

"What do you mean?"

"Have you not heard the whispers, cousin? They say the Fire Lord fears another rebellion if he places the power of this new technology into the hands of anyone but a member of the royal family. Worse, they say if he took command himself – and lost – it would surely ignite the civil war that all fear." Xian took a sip of the tea he had offered Iroh and concluded, "They are right."

"So, what of it? Father is paranoid. We know this. That doesn't mean you are any less suitable to lead."

"True, but it doesn't make me any more suitable either. Uncle is taking a terrible risk, Iroh. He is trying to balance the need for strong leadership and experience against a powerful external enemy with the need for loyalty." Xian looked down and with simple dignity uttered the truth he had known since the night of the Harvest Moon Feast, "I am not the best choice to command this army, just as Tien Shin is not the best choice to be daimyo. My concern is for our men and our nation. This campaign could yield the victory we seek, Iroh, but it could also be our end. My dreams are so dark."

A few moments of silence passed as Iroh looked closely at his cousin. The anger that had animated him for most of the conversation evaporated instantly. Xian, whom Iroh had always known as a pillar of strength and wisdom, seemed somehow to shrink amidst the uncharacteristic expressions of doubt and foreboding on his face. He was clearly upset to have spoken so to the Crown Prince.

Trying to find words of comfort for a man he admired and loved Iroh began, "I would choose no one else, cousin." The Crown Prince smiled and continued, "So get used to use it. When I am Fire Lord, hopefully many, many years from now, I too will settle for no one other than you in times of trouble. Especially since I doubt I'll be able to tear Nikon away from whatever brothel he's currently frequenting."

Xian looked up and rewarded his cousin with a little laugh. Then in a serious tone, "You will make an excellent Fire Lord, Iroh. I hope I live to see it."

Iroh frowned at this, saying, "None of that, cousin! I forbid it. We will be victorious, we have no choice." Looking down himself, Iroh continued, "I won't give you up."

Then the Crown Prince raised his head and locked eyes with his cousin, an impish grin on his face "Tien Shin, on the other hand, I would gladly hand over to Nifong with a thousand gold pieces and the governorship of any province he wants!"

Xian laughed as Iroh poured himself some tea. "Ah, you'll join me for some tea after all, then?"

"Yes, on second thought, maybe some nice, calming tea would be good."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After finishing their tea the pair caught a carriage down to Showa Field. The infantry were assembling there for inspection that afternoon and Xian insisted that he conduct these exercises personally. Xian dozed much of the trip as Iroh looked out the window.

As the carriage mounted the hill overlooking the training grounds the sound of someone grabbing the exterior cleats was heard. Nikon's face then popped in through the window, startling both of the passengers.

"Welcome, General Xian, Prince Iroh," Nikon inclined his head in a slight bow to each of them as he hung onto the moving carriage, "You're going to be early. We should be ready in about twenty minutes. I just learned Chieng Shung won't be here for another hour or two, though."

Recovering from Nikon's sudden appearance Xian responded, "Greetings, Commander. Why won't Chieng be here on time?"

"I don't know. She didn't give a reason. We were supposed to have met her weeks ago when we first found out we were having so much trouble with the fuel filters, but she's blown us off every time. What's her problem?"

Xian coughed and replied, "Well, let's just say she's like her father."

Iroh raised an eyebrow at this, for he had never met Chieng either. Her father's surly behavior was just as legendary among the nobility, however, as was his inventive genius.

"Why? What is he like, General?" asked Nikon.

"He is an arrogant, nasty old man. But...," Xian continued with a slight, knowing smile, "you may like her. Or appreciate her at any rate."

"Oh?"

At that moment the carriage came to a sudden, lurching halt. Nikon was almost thrown, but managed to hold on. The tank commander jumped off the carriage's sideboard as Xian and Iroh got out to investigate the source of the delay.

Their carriage was driving through the training base at the edge of the main training grounds. A dozen state barouches were parked in front of the headquarter building. A party of men had just exited. They were escorting a figure in white towards the parked carriages. As they drew nearer the identity of those at the head of the procession became clear.

A company of military police were escorting Master Chen, his hands bound in chains. He was flanked by Tien Shin on one side and by Yotaku Macro, the infamously cruel Commander of the Fire Lord's Guard.

"What is this? Master Chen – what's happened? Why are you with these guards and that – that..." Nikon sputtered, pointing at Tien Shin as he searched for the words to express his shock.

"Master Chen is under arrest for treason," Tien Shin supplied.

The prisoner looked solemnly at his former student, then turned to Iroh and explained in his sonorous voice, "It seems I made some disparaging remarks at dinner a few months ago about your father. I don't recall them."

Shaking his head incredulously, Iroh addressed his step brother, "This is nonsense, Tien Shin! This time you've gone too far – you'll be laughed out of Court for this."

"I don't think so, Prince Iroh. Now stand aside. I am on state business and may not be interfered with – even by the Fire Lord's son!"

Thrusting Nikon out of the way, Tien Shin marched past Iroh and Xian with his prize. The prisoner was loaded into the closest carriage and spirited away before any of them could utter another word.
« Last Edit: Jun 13, 2015 11:16 pm by Acastus » Logged
wainwright-chan
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hrrrgh!


« Reply #19 on: Jul 15, 2006 04:52 pm »

ooooooooo! I'm loving this!
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« Reply #20 on: Jul 16, 2006 11:36 pm »

well done! -- jumped in at the last chapter, and made sure to go back and start at the start.

Iroh does seem so darn smart and canny, offering up some back story on how/why he was unsuccessful is a brilliant choice of topic
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« Reply #21 on: Aug 13, 2006 08:46 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom
All original content and characters © Acastus

Author's Note: Thanks for all the great reviews, folks! And thanks once again for your patience! Updating ASN, San Diego Comic Con and all sorts of things have been happening, but I'm glad I now have some time for this story. I hope you enjoy!




Chapter VIII "Painting The Town Red"

Iroh had stopped drinking long ago. So had Gan. Both looked across the rough iron table in concern at Nikon, the hoods of their black cloaks leaving their faces in shadows. The young commoner had not stopped drinking. It was now long past midnight and it had been more than an hour since Xian had given them the ominous news.

The General had met them at the seedy Ten Bells tavern where they now sat. Lying in the middle of the infamous Shinjuku section of the city, the Ten Bells and its neighboring establishments were notorious for both the routine acts of violence that played out within their walls and as houses of ill repute. Dark, dangerous and heavily overpopulated, Shinjuku was the lowest of the slums whose streets were ruled by gangs of vicious thugs. Nikon had never taken Iroh to such a place before and, looking around and breathing deep, Iroh was glad this was so.

The tavern was a single, cavernous room with high ceilings and no windows. The walls were lined with booths made of wood and tables of iron, all except the east wall which was occupied by the bar. The booth in which Iroh and his friends sat was directly opposite the bar. Two huge fire pits provided the main sources of warmth and light for the dirty establishment, though a few sorry looking brassieres burned along the wall above every other booth. The tavern was loud, packed with people, and smelled like a toilet. Everyone except the bartenders and prostitutes, however, were obviously drunk beyond caring.

Against Iroh's advice, Nikon had dragged them out for a night on the town in a vain attempt to drown their collective sorrow at Master Chen's arrest. Xian had volunteered to petition Azulon for Chen's release. However, it had not gone well...

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The door to the tavern banged open. Xian stood in the doorway, unrecognizable in his dark brown cloak to all but Iroh and his friends. Behind him the wind whipped a cold rain into the entryway. Their commanding officer shut the door, approached them and sat down heavily.

"He won't have it. The Fire Lord refused to dismiss the charges."

Iroh clenched a fist as the anger against his father and Tien Shin welled up within him.

"But why?" asked Nikon, grabbing the edges of the table, his whole body tensing in visible frustration.

"Tien Shin has him convinced Master Chen was plotting rebellion along with conspirators unknown."

Iroh squeezed his eyes shut at the pronouncement. It meant death.

"Based on what evidence?" asked Gan softly.

"Is any required, Gan?" retorted Nikon in anger.

"No names!" hissed Iroh, his eyes darting around the crowded tavern to see if anyone had overhead. Gan was the second son of General Shu and occupied an important post in the Ministry of War. Addressing him by his name – or certainly that of the Crown Prince or his cousin would instantly turn the situation into an uncontrollable circus. Admonished by his friend, Nikon looked down sullenly at the half empty glass of liquor in front of him. He finished the drink in one swift motion, hardly noticimg the burning liquid coarse down his throat.

Xian looked around quickly as well before addressing Iroh, "And that's another thing. This was a stupid idea. It's your business what you did with your friends before you were assigned to me. But if we're exposed here the scandal would destroy our reputations. Besides, these streets are crawling with thugs who delight in terrorizing the streets."

Almost on cue, the room came to a standstill as a fight broke out at the bar. A thin young woman with garish makeup and revealing dress had just broken a glass pitcher over the head of a huge, heavy set man wearing a hooded cloak. She screamed as the heavy set man grabbed her by the hair and slapped her to the ground. A man in leather armor tried to intervene, but the heavy set man picked him up and casually threw him over the bar.

The woman's antagonist then moved toward her once again. He was stopped by the tallest of his equally hooded comrades. The tall man whispered something in the heavy set man's ear as several large bouncers approached, their fists aflame. The hooded figures left the tavern, followed closely by the bouncers who accused them loudly of being gangland scum. It was the fourth such altercation, and probably the least violent, that Iroh and his friends had seen in the short time they'd been there.

As the fascination around the latest spectacle dissipated, Iroh began, "I should have spoken to Father, cousin. Maybe I could have done something."

"Be thankful you didn't. Not only would you have been no more successful, but you'd have set yourself up as an object of fear and suspicion in the eyes of the Fire Lord, as I have."

The Crown Prince refocused on his cousin with a sudden start. Gan, shaking his head slowly, swore under his breath. The heat and noise of the room suddenly receded in Iroh's perception as Xian's last three words echoed in his mind.

"What do you mean?" he asked softly.

The general turned his hooded head slightly from side to side once again. Leaning forward and dropping his voice even lower he replied, "It was as I feared. He knew, right from the start, that I was there to ask for Chen's release. He questioned my loyalty and hinted that I might even have been involved. I escaped death only by offering him my own sword to cut off my head. He declined, but after enough hesitation for me to know that I had rolled the dice – and lost."

The group fell silent as each weighed the import of this unhappy news. The raucous sounds and rank smells of the tavern, which had receded when Xian was speaking, now rushed in upon Iroh's senses. The Crown Prince surveyed the room as Xian reached over, stole his cup and drank a mouthful.

"Was that how it ended?" asked Gan suddenly, breaking the group's sullen reverie.

"Yes. He dismissed me with a warning to put my effort where it belonged."

"Do you suppose there was a conspiracy?"

Iroh snorted and replied, "Maybe, but Master Chen? He is a man of iron loyalty. Grandfather trusted him with his life. The whole idea is stupid."

Addressing Gan's original question Xian replied, "I can't get any answers. Several other arrests were made," then with a glance over at Nikon, who continued to look down at his drink in silence, "including several of Chen's current students."

"I don't understand," Iroh whispered in an intense voice, "Tien Shin can't just bury men of honor with a pretty tale."

"Why do you doubt the evidence of your eyes, cousin? Tien Shin has buried many men with his pretty tales, as you yourself have seen. Would you be all that surprised to hear after a few weeks that he killed himself after signing a confession? We've heard that before, and how many times?"

Nikon looked up at this and met Xian's eyes from underneath his hood.

"They're as good as dead, aren't they?" he asked in a husky whisper, his expression hollow.

Avoiding the question Xian replied, "We've one card left to play. If the weather breaks, I will move up the date for The Crossing. If he lives long enough Master Chen will still be prosecuted, but not by Tien Shin. I fear it may not alter the outcome, but it's all I can do. Now, I must leave this place, and I urge you three to do the same. Staying here in this squalor and depravity is surely proof of madness."

Without another word Xian finished Iroh's drink and left.


++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The next several hours had been spent rehashing the facts, debating various courses of action, and watching Nikon sorely test his legendary tolerance for alcohol. Iroh vacillated between anger at Tien Shin and his father and worry for Xian and his friend. Nikon for his part had sunk into an uncharacteristic brood. His face, normally graced with a smile, was now occupied by a vacant look and a drawn countenance. He barely participated in the conversation after Xian left. Gan, true to form, quietly and methodically tried to analyze the situation and produce alternatives. Though the effort was praiseworthy, no palatable option materialized.

Events were proceeding too fast for Iroh and he reproached himself bitterly for not taking some decisive action to resolve the situation. Even as he savaged himself he knew there was little he could do. Regardless of the facts, Master Chen was now officially a traitor. Iroh did not believe Azulon truly suspected Xian of rebellion, but he was clearly angry with his cousin. Nikon, as a former student of a public enemy; that was different. How long could Iroh protect him? He made a silent prayer that Xian delivered on his promise to advance the date for the invasion. At this moment, the front lines might be the safest place for both his friend and his cousin.

Soon another fight erupted that involved almost twenty people, broke half a dozen tables and set several patrons on fire. The proprietors proceeded to throw everyone out with loud cursing and threats. Iroh and Gan were both relieved as they had tried and failed several times in the last hour to get Nikon to leave.

As they exited the tavern, their hoods still covering their faces, a woman's scream was heard nearby as well as the sound of a fight. Behind the tavern what seemed a few streets over a plume of flame went up. Iroh and Nikon looked at each for a split second before Nikon ran in the direction of the scream. Iroh and Gan followed, both cursing loudly. The tavern regulars exiting the establishment ran away from the sound of the disturbance as fast as their various states of inebriation allowed. It was well known that the gangs not only killed for money and plunder, but also tortured for pleasure.

The Crown Prince fought down terror as he ran behind his friend. Consciously forcing himself to relax, he began to regulate his breathing in preparation for the fight he felt was coming. As his gait settled into a sustainable rhythm, the words of Master Chen echoed in his mind, "When he applies his mind, he is neither impulsive nor rash in his judgment." Sadly, Iroh was certain that his friend had applied very little of his mind in his decision to rush into whatever situation lay ahead of them. Though he had drunk heavily, Nikon's stride betrayed no undue influence, only his judgment did.

As they entered the area Nikon thought the sound and flame had come from, they realized the sound must have bounced strangely off the surrounding structures and that they had overshot. Nikon stopped for a moment, just long enough for his friends to catch up, then cut through an alley on their left back towards to the tavern. The sounds of the fight grew loud as they turned right into an adjacent alley.

As they ran down the narrow passageway Nikon was almost knocked over by two women, their clothing torn, running past them in the opposite direction. At the end of the alley they saw four hooded figures fighting with several other men. As the combatants launched blasts of fire at each other, the ground was briefly illuminated to reveal a slight, crumpled figure on the ground nearby. Another man getting up off the ground was obviously wounded. He struggled to his feet and ran up the alley a short distance to the nearest street and disappeared. The hooded figures, one of whom was obviously the heavy set man from earlier in the evening, were clearly dominating this fight.

Nikon stopped, requiring a moment to take in the scene. Iroh, his mind unencumbered, assumed the worst and engaged the nearest hooded assailant, the tallest, without hesitation. Iroh could feel his senses sharpen as he tuned out the noise and focused completely on his breathing, his body, and his opponent. The tall man was advancing quickly on a smaller man who, though brandishing a sword, was falling back in fear. The tall man raised his arms, bathed in fire, in preparation to strike.

The blast never came as Iroh, in a single fluid motion, grabbed the tall man's left arm at the wrist, twisted it around to his back and swept his feet out from under him. Surprised, the tall man fell on his back. Iroh brought his foot down to stamp on the tall man's stomach, but his opponent rolled out of the way. Summoning a ball of fire Iroh hit the tall man square in the chest as he got to his feet. Iroh's opponent slammed into the brick wall of the alley with a distinct clang.

Steel armor
, Iroh thought, not only a coward, but a rich one.

As Iroh advanced, he saw out of the corner of his eye one of the defenders receive a sword through his belly from the heavy set man. Nikon then rushed past him, kicked the sword out of the murderer's hand, and tackled him to the ground.

Sidestepping lightly Iroh launched a blow with his fist that erupted in a plume of fire. The blast and his fist were blocked by the tall man who responded with a blast of his own. The Crown Prince spun around and crouched low, allowing the blast to pass over him. Behind him a pile of refuse instantly caught fire and filled the alley with heat and dull, reddish orange light.

The respite lasted but a moment as his opponent launched several follow up blasts in quick succession. Iroh jumped backwards and aimed a gout of fire at a sewer manhole located on the ground between them. His blast popped the cover out of its hole, causing it to somersault through the air towards the tall man. It was not fast enough to hit Iroh's opponent, however, who simply stepped out of its way.

As Iroh and his opponent took momentary stock of each other in the hellish light of the burning trash, the tall man reached into his waistband behind his back and produced a pair of war fans. Iroh focused on them in horror. Though it was difficult to be certain even a few feet away, the fans were metal with a dark enamel coating. The tall man was knocked to the ground as the heavy set man collided with him, propelled backwards by a joint blast of fire from Nikon and Gan. The remaining defenders and Gan had forced the other assailants to the ground where they lay groaning.

Iroh's shock was compounded when the heavy set man and the tall man regained their feet. The heavy set man's hood had fallen. So had Nikon's. They all stared at each other. The heavy set man, even as shadows danced across his cruel face, was instantly recognizable.

"Macro!" choked one of the defenders. All but one of the men who had been with the women then fled, gasping in terror as if a very demon from hell had appeared before them. This was in fact the case. The heavy set man was indeed none other than Yotaku Macro.

Which meant...

The tall man suddenly put his war fans away and grabbed Macro's arm as the sound of tracked vehicles approaching was heard. Macro turned and led the tall man and their two barely recovered companions down the alley.

Still in shock, Iroh ran over to the crumpled body. Beside her was the small man with the sword, which now lay flat and useless beside the woman's body. The man sobbed uncontrollably. Gan knelt down next to her and grimaced. The alley was damp with the rain from earlier in the evening, but he recognized the sticky wetness of blood as it soaked his garments. He felt for a pulse.

"She's dead," he said dully, "Look's like her throat, and... some other things have been cut."

Looking up the small man spoke thickly to the heavens, "I...loved her! I loved her... and he just... he just...killed my poor Xia!"

The man slumped over the girl's body, her heavily painted face and filthy, torn clothing visible in the flickering light. She was obviously the same prostitute from earlier that evening, the man either her john or her pimp.

Gan stood up and asked in a subdued voice, "So, do we feel worse? Or better?"

Iroh thought about this for only a second before opening a door into a nearby building, "No time for that now, we've got to get the hell out of here."

The three men fled into the night.
« Last Edit: Jan 06, 2008 10:04 am by Acastus » Logged
Darmani
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Maigano
« Reply #22 on: Aug 14, 2006 12:21 pm »

YES at long last an update!  This is PERFECT!  My lord how did I live before this installment!

(now to actually read it)

EDIT:  Okay uhm this sorta happened with that fic about the Fire Nation amabassador and the Earth Kingdom guy with the skull mask but I can't read the post.  It just becomes repeated lines after I scroll down so far.  Even if I try to save the page to my harddrive.  What is up?
« Last Edit: Aug 14, 2006 11:55 pm by Darmani » Logged

Darmani promises not to use "CANON" if Zutarians don't use "DESTINY"
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« Reply #23 on: Aug 27, 2006 04:23 pm »

A story within a story is always a difficult thing to accomplish, but you do so with a wonderful artistry I envy. Well done, Acastus. I look forward to peering into Iroh's past. You've provided excellent substance to an already wonderful character.
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« Reply #24 on: Sep 06, 2006 09:48 pm »

Avatar: The Last Airbender Created By: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Avatar: The Last Airbender Owned By: Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom

All original content and characters © Acastus


Chapter IX "Goodbye To All That"

The weather broke less than two weeks later. Gone were the cold, rainy skies and tempestuous seas that made ocean travel so dangerous in winter. True to his word, Xian had instantly moved up the date of the invasion.

The pace of loading had increased dramatically and the activity around the harbor had reached a fevered crescendo before all suddenly became still. Earlier that day the Fire Lord had seen them off in a grand ceremony on the steps of the Palace. Accompanied by his second wife, Azulon had bid them farewell with a stony countenance.

Xian, clad in his ceremonial steel, had mounted the white marble staircase on the east side of the palace to kneel before his Uncle. Tien Shin had climbed with him. The staircase and the streets leading up to them were lined with thousands of people, many of whom were wishing fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters goodbye.

The Fire Lord had spoken a few words to his nephew that were unintelligible to any bystander. He had then handed Xian a scroll, the token of his office and the symbol of his authority from the Fire Lord. The crowd cheered as the young General had stood, his daimyo following suit. Lady Ila had then stepped forward and handed her son a letter which he had taken and inserted into a fold of his long red cloak.

Iroh had watched all of this from far below where he stood at the head of the procession. Even though it had happened only a few hours ago, it still seemed but a dream.

Putting aside thoughts of this uncomfortable farewell, Iroh and Nikon now sat on a pair of stools on the observation deck outside the bridge of the great battleship Sulaco. It was twilight and the fleet was to sail on the morning tide. Proud towers of iron and steel, the mighty ships of the Fire Nation lined the docks in deceptively quiet anticipation of the violence and death that lay ahead. Below decks, the crew and soldiers of the Army were finishing their evening meal.

Squinting, Iroh brought the book he was reading closer to his face, trying to read a few more pages before the gathering night made it impossible. A cool breeze threatened to flip the pages, but Iroh restrained them.

"You'll go blind reading in this light," a familiar voice sounded from behind the book.

Nikon stood and saluted sharply, a smile on his face, "That's what I tried to tell him, sir."

Iroh dropped his book to see his cousin, who motioned them to stand at ease.

"Enough of that, my friend, while we're alone at least. We've had enough pomp for today," then to his cousin with a wry grin, "Oh? Iroh with a book? A rare site indeed. What wondrous tome has the power to hold your attention, I wonder?"

"I nearly choked when he showed me," laughed Nikon.

Iroh held up the cover so that his cousin could read the title. "Lost Civilizations of the Ancient Earth Kingdom," read Xian, his eyebrows rising in surprise, "Wondrous indeed!"

"Yes. I tried to find something on recent Earth Kingdom history, but there was very little. We don't know much about our opponents, do we?"

"Not as much as we'd like, no. But then, have you learned anything of value from this?" he inquired with mock severity.

Iroh turned towards his cousin and replied, "I'm not sure how valuable, but certainly some things of interest. Whether or not I believe any of it is an entirely different matter. I know the monorails are real – you've seen them. But ships that fly through the air? Buildings so tall they touch the sky?"

"It seems fantastic, doesn't it?" Xian replied as he walked over to the railing. Two figures, a man and a woman, had just boarded the ship on the weather deck below. They were saluted by the watch guards and escorted over to the main hatch. Xian turned back to his friends as the newcomers entered the superstructure below and continued, "But, I have seen some strange things in the Earth Kingdom during my travels, and I have heard many tales."

"I don't believe any of it," Nikon stated flatly. "If they were so far ahead back then, why aren't they invading us instead of the other way around?"

Iroh considered this briefly. The question troubled him. Though fantastic, he knew there was little doubt among Fire Nation scholars that the glorious achievements of these ancient Earth Kingdom states were matters of historical fact rather than fantasy. But now, they were long since gone, the stuff of legend even by the time of Chin the Conqueror. If their technology and advanced civilizations could not protect them from ultimate dissolution, what would the future bring for the Fire Nation?

"I'm not sure," replied the Crown Prince, his brow furrowing in worry. "Perhaps, as this book suggests, it was plague, natural disasters, civil wars, or some combination. It even claims some of the greatest states of the ancient world were destroyed by mysterious weapons of frankly unbelievable power. Others it says were wiped out by giant monsters. I'm not sure I believe any of that, but these civilizations existed long ago, perhaps even before the first Avatar. The world must have been very different back then," remarked Iroh thoughtfully.

Shaking his head Nikon replied, "I still don't buy it. Look, nothing of value has been invented in the Earth Kingdom for heaven knows how long. Those people live the way their ancestors have for hundreds or even thousands of years. If what these books say is true, then in a few centuries the Fire Nation might end up back in the Dark Ages like the Earth Kingdom. I just don't believe it."

"You mean you don't want to believe it," corrected Iroh gently. "I don't want to either. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible. The real question is why did those civilizations collapse? And, more importantly, how can we prevent the same from happening to us?"

Iroh stood, dropped the book on his stool and stretched as Xian replied, "Well, how did you two suddenly become philosophers? Those are good questions, cousin, but the answers will have to wait."

Iroh and Nikon focused on their commanding officer as they heard the sounds of people entering the bridge behind them. A smile spread across Xian's face as he glanced behind him to confirm what his ears had detected.

Turning back to his friends he said, "Ah! And now I have surprise for you both."

"Oh?" questioned Iroh.

"Yes. Two, actually."

Several people mounted the ladder from below and entered the wheel room. Two, obviously guards, stayed behind while the other two exited onto the observation deck.

The taller of the two newcomers was Gan, dressed in the dark grey uniform of the Ministry of War. In his left hand he carried a tablet and stylus which he held out before him as if they were the source of some dread disease. As he caught sight of his friends, he shook his head in resignation. Xian's smile spread into a satisfied grin.

Iroh was delighted to see his friend so unexpectedly, but he couldn't help but focus on Gan's companion. Several inches shorter, she was probably a few years his and Nikon's senior. She had long black hair that she wore in a long ponytail and a pleasant figure which was utterly ruined by the expression of extreme displeasure that marred what otherwise would have been an attractive face.

Gan and the woman stopped in front of Iroh and Xian. Nikon instantly appeared on Xian's other side, placing himself in front of the unhappy woman. She ignored Nikon, keeping her sharp golden eyes fixed on Xian, as if her gaze might itself cause his instantaneous death.

"Gan! How wonderful to see you," Xian remarked with a mischievous grin.

"Your Highnesses," returned Gan with a stiff bow.

"But, Gan, why are you here?" asked Iroh incredulously.

Nikon tore his eyes away from the sour woman long enough to remark, "Yeh, it's not that we're unhappy to see you, but shouldn't you be doing some accounting or something back at the Ministry?"

"You're damn right I should," Gan shot back, looking with wide eyes at Xian. "But, I received this three hours ago."

Gan tore a black tube out of his uniform and handed it to Nikon. The seal was unmistakable. Fire Lord Azulon's missives were instantly recognizable in their ominous black cases.

Nikon began to open the tube, but Gan cut him off, "Oh, don't bother. It's really from Xian. I'm to be the Qu'ai Tau for the Army of the Great Divide and there isn't a thing I can do about it," turning to Xian to complete the thought, "is there?"

Xian placed his hand gently on Gan's shoulder and replied, "Not a thing, my friend."

"Qu'ai Tau? The finance officer? Isn't that a demotion, Gan?" remarked Nikon with a brazen laugh.

"Nonsense, Nikon, now don't bait him!" admonished Xian with a severe look at the young brigade leader.

Before Gan could himself reply to Nikon's remark, Iroh stepped forward and hugged his friend, who stiffened momentarily before hugging him back, "I'm so glad you're coming."

"I'm not, but, if I have to go get myself killed, at least I'll have decent company," then, with a nasty look at Nikon he added, "mostly decent, anyway."

"Speak for yourself, Gan," spoke the woman in an acid tone as she crossed her arms across her chest.

Gan disengaged from the Crown Prince and snorted, "Speak for you? Not if you paid me."

Iroh's eyes went wide. No one loved money as much as Gan. Normally such a comment would have excited laughter, but it was clear that this time he meant every word. The Crown Prince's eyes flicked back to the nameless woman before him.

After Nikon cleared his throat in an obvious signal, Xian supplied, "Oh, of course, Prince Iroh, son of Fire Lord Azulon and heir to the throne of the Fire Nation, this is Chieng Shiung, daughter of Liu Shiung."

"Your Highness," she intoned coldly.

So this is Chieng? No wonder she has a reputation, thought Iroh as she bowed ever so slightly before him.

"And this is Nikon Orlando, Commander of the 5th Armored Brigade," Xian motioned to Nikon, who bowed. "Nikon, this is Chieng Shiung, Commander, Strategic Rocket Forces."

"Formerly Commander of Strategic Rocket Forces," Chieng corrected, "Instead of developing the weaponry to end this war permanently I am being wasted on this, this babysitting expedition." She spat out the words as if she were expelling a poisonous liquid. "This is an outrage, General Xian."

"Not true," corrected Xian with a raised finger, "we will be using new technology in combat for the first time, technology developed by you. Adjustments will have to made – and fast. The success of this campaign –"

"I've heard it all before your Highness," she retorted sharply, cutting Xian off, "and frankly it's a crock of s**t," she jabbed a finger at her commanding officer for emphasis, "You're robbing me of three whole sections of my technicians for this joyride. You don't need me."

Nikon held his chin in his hand and with an appraising look at her remarked, "I can think of a lot of reasons why we need you."

Iroh winced at the comment and both Xian and Gan looked uncomfortable.

Chieng turned, acknowledging Nikon for the first time. Looking back at Xian, incredulous, she said, "You've got to be kidding me," then back to Nikon. "Get this through your head right now. I have absolutely no interest in you. I'm not a hooker, so I don't see why you, given your reputation should have any interest in me either. Oh yes, I've heard of you. Everyone's heard of you. If you've got an ounce of intelligence you'll just ride your goddamn tank and let them win your battles for you. Moron."

Iroh's mouth hung open at this crushing retort. He felt as if he were an inch tall, and Chieng's withering insult had not even been directed at him.

The Crown Prince's shock was compounded when Nikon merely laughed and replied, addressing Xian, "Well, your Highness, what a shame her manners don't match her looks."

"Clever," she commented with derision, then, turning to Iroh, "this guy isn't going to be with us the whole campaign is he, Your Highness? Please tell me he's been selected to lead the direct frontal assault on Ba-Sing-Se or something."

"No, Chieng, I'm afraid you and he will have to work closely together since he is one of our best tank commanders," replied Iroh.

"That is possibly the saddest thing I've ever heard. Anyway, I'd have thought you would want to have the glory role. Why aren't you riding one of my tanks, Prince Iroh?"

The question was sudden and represented a shift in Chieng's demeanor. Her tone made clear she was still sharp enough make you bleed if she decided to cut you, but the rancor was replaced by intense curiosity.

"General Xian placed me in charge of the infantry. Like you Chieng, I do as my orders instruct. I am pleased to hear you so confident in your creations, however. Much rides on their success."

"More than this fool's life, to be sure," she said without even glancing at her target. "And why, indeed, should I not be confident? With my tanks we will be able to destroy the enemy with ease, at least on open ground. No intelligence or training required."

"Oh, and what about the speed?" questioned Nikon, clearly savoring the opportunity to act as prosecutor. "We got over the fuel filter disaster and the sun gear thing, but even with the larger engines these machines are half the speed of our Mongoose Dragon cavalry."

At this she turned to Nikon and replied smoothly, "I've solved that. During The Crossing we will strip off the belly armor. That will reduce the weight of each by almost forty stone. The field tests proved that even at the slower speed all but the strongest earthbenders will not be able to target our tanks. It's a done deal."

"Ha! You sound like our beloved daimyo."

"He, at least, has a brain. Where is he, by the way?"

"He is in command of the Hiryu," replied Iroh, pointing at an identical ship several vessels over. "You're free to join him for the voyage, if you like," the Crown Prince supplied hopefully.

"No," she replied, "Since I have been forced into this ridiculous position, I insist on doing the job properly. General Xian and I have to reorganize the operation planning. I have more than a dozen tank trains that we will use for strategic re-supply of our armored columns. But this means we have to change our existing plans."

Iroh's shoulders slumped at this disappointing response.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence Gan picked up the book Iroh had deposited on the stool and examined it.

"So, you've actually been reading this. I never thought you'd open it. Did you get to the bit about the air ships and the underground dams yet?"

"Yes, we were just talking about it when you arrived. Thanks for lending it to me," replied Iroh.

Chieng leaned over to read the title, "Why are you wasting the Crown Prince's time with that trash, Gan? He'd be much better off reading Sun Tzu or The Strategikon of Morykos or something."

"I've read those many times," Iroh replied cautiously, trying to hide his reaction to Chieng's assumption that he'd never even been introduced to such basic texts, "and there is little further for me to gain there without direct experience. I asked Gan for work on recent Earth Kingdom history, really hoping to learn something about General Nifong. Unfortunately, there was no direct information about him. I am afraid our enemy remains mostly a mystery."

Chieng arched an eyebrow and commented, "Well, Your Highness, at least you do your homework. Good."

Chieng then turned and without even asking for leave exited the observation deck.

As soon as she was out of earshot Nikon began to chuckle hysterically, "Man, what a b***h!"

Iroh was forced to agree, "Yes, she is most unpleasant. Does she always behave this way, cousin?"

"I've never known her to be otherwise. She got it all from her father. He is exactly the same. We met him long ago, Iroh, but you're probably too young to remember. We'll have to deal with her as is, gentlemen. We will need her before this is over and we don't have time to teach her how to behave like a human being." Then, with a smile at Nikon, "But then, I could say the same about Nikon here."

"Oh, I never want to behave like a human being," Nikon replied with a grin.

"I don't think you're in any danger of that, my friend," inserted Iroh before Nikon could continue, "Besides, all those times she blew us off, and we were so mad. Now, we know what a blessing it was!"

"Yes, but now we have to put with her from now until... forever," replied Gan with a groan, "I can't believe I gave up spending my time relaxing in my stone garden or reading by the pond for this."

"Yeh, well say goodbye to all that, my friend," Nikon supplied in good humor, "Time to help us welcome the armies of the Earth Kingdom to the lower regions!"

Xian held up a hand and said, "All right, gentlemen. That's enough self congratulation for tonight. We should all be turning in. We sail on the morning tide."

He was right. The moon had now risen and the sounds of the evening meal from below had long since died off. Iroh, Gan and Nikon saluted their superior and went in search of their cabins. Xian, alone, stayed on deck and watched the stars in silence.
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