“No, my friend, besides you know I’m doing you a favor satisfying your curiosity!” he continued in his conspiratorial tone, “You really should be thanking me.”
“What does it matter at this point, Ho?” Tao offered, “We might as well indulge ourselves since he obviously won’t let us escape without shoving it in our face.”
Chen Ho groaned in reply.
Moments later two servants appeared pushing a tiny wheelbarrow filled with gold coins.
“Five thousand gold pieces!” Trimazu cackled in glee, jabbing a fat finger at the obscene pile of lucre.
Gao’s eyes, bulging noticeably, bowed low with an elegant flourish.
“You are truly generous, lord!”
“I am! I am! I gladly pay you five times the amount agreed for the best holiday entertainment I have ever had the pleasure to offer my most noble guests!”
The audience ogled the small mountain of wealth with undisguised desire, but everyone clapped once more as the storyteller was escorted out the way he had entered, his massive fee in tow.
“Now get the hell out of here, Gao!” Trimazu shouted at the thin man’s retreating form, “before one of my less than scrupulous “guests” robs you on the way out to pay off their enormous debts to me with my own money!”
Gao, taking him at his word, batted the servants out of the way and vacated the room immediately pushing his massive load.
Trimazu turned to address the assembly.
“Now, my friends, I daresay you have dined well and been spoiled with a rare and unusual tale! Go now in peace and friendship – and tell your neighbors how much fun you had!”
The master of the house roared in good natured laughter and was joined by his guests.
Conversations erupted around the room as the audience broke from their tables. Dawn would soon arrive and the guests, sleepy and full, made ready to depart, to spread word of the outrageous acts, generous table and fantastic entertainment of Trimazu’s pleasure palace to all those who poor unfortunates who had not been invited.
As the crowd streamed from the chamber, Chen Ho and Tao stood ready to thank their extravagant host.
“So, my friends, I am so glad you favored me with your attendance. I trust the evening was well spent?”
“Don’t be a fool, Trimazu,” Ho replied is his customarily acidic tone, “you know the truth as well as I. Everyone knows you delight in lending others money so you can abuse them in every possible manner, especially by requiring attendance at these disgusting “events”, but what you obviously don’t get is that the real reason we put up with you is so we have someone to look down upon. No further evidence of our superiority is needed than you.”
“A shame then, my lord Ho,” Trimazu replied without batting an eyelash, “that my power is such that you feel compelled to attend no matter your sentiment. I look forward to seeing you at my next celebration.”
Chen Ho snorted.
“The only way to end this war quickly is to threaten the Fire Lord with an invitation to one your parties, Trimazu.”
The fat man laughed.
“Oh, the trouble with you, Chen,” he replied in wry amusement and using his neighbor’s given name for the first time Iroh could recall, “is that you never get any fun out of life.”
“All right, I understand,” the thin noble acknowledged in impotent frustration, “but could you just stop being such an ass about all of it?”
“Haha! My friend, you ask too much of me. You have your pomp and circumstance – and I have your pomp and circumstance! Surely you don’t mind sharing? Mmmm?”
Chen Ho shook his head and waved an arm in a gesture of both farewell and defeat.
Trimazu turned to Tao Lin.
“Well! I hope you’ve had a better time than my dear Lord Ho has, Governor!”
“I suppose I have, Master Trimazu,” Tao agreed, “For myself I thank you for a most enjoyable evening.”
The austere governor turned to the two erstwhile day laborers.
“Well met, Xian… Li, I wish you success wherever the journey of life takes you.”
Iroh bowed, followed a fraction of a second later by Zuko.
“The honor is ours, Lord Governor,” Iroh replied, “to share a table with you this evening.”
The dining hall was almost empty. Trimazu turned to his two saviors.
“Well, Xian, we have had quite an evening!”
Iroh, exhausted beyond all endurance, could not help but agree.
“Yes, my lord, quite an evening.”
The portly merchant looked on Iroh with sympathy.
“You’re exhausted, my friend, aren’t you? Of course you are, you labored all day, fought a battle for me at dusk, and stayed up all night listening to tales of war in a far off land.”
Iroh’s eyelids drooped.
“Yes, lord… you have been most generous.”
“Sleep then now,” the obese merchant commanded quietly, “enjoy the rest you have earned.”
The merchant clapped his hands once more. A servant, silent and ubiquitous, appeared at his right hand.
“Take our honored guests to the west wing and see they are well treated.”
Iroh bowed to his host, his young charge stiffly following suit.
As they travelled the wide, well lit corridors of the villa, Iroh and his nephew fell behind the servant leading them. Soon they found themselves alone for the first time that evening.
“Is it true, uncle? Did my father…?” the banished prince asked in a bitter, quiet voice.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you believe he did?”
“Yes… but it doesn’t matter now.”
They walked in silence before Zuko finally continued.
“I have so many questions, uncle.”
“They will have to wait,” Iroh responded as they approached the door to their chamber.
The room was simple, but the beds were comfortable. In moments, they were asleep.
The afternoon sun streamed through the window.
Zuko opened his eyes to see his uncle already prepared to leave. He rubbed his eyes. He had slept heavily, but he found he was still tired.
“What time is it?”
“Time to leave,” his guardian responded.
The banished prince suddenly perked up.
“No,” the retired general responded, “but I think it would be best if we slipped away quietly.”
Clean clothes had been laid out for them both. Iroh had already changed and Zuko quickly followed suit.
Fixing their round, straw hats on their heads, they exited the bedchamber into a long, empty hallway. Less ornate than the reception hall or the vast audience chamber they had dined in the night before, it was nevertheless impressive in its size and length.
They headed the opposite way they had come and exited the hallway into a large, grass covered courtyard. A riding ring dominated the enclosure, but no people or ostrich horses were about. Two small, metal doors graced the far end. Iroh pointed at them and set off in their direction, his nephew in tow.
Iroh grabbed the handle on the first door and twisted. The locking mechanism clanked and the retired general opened the door, its rusty hinges screaming in protest.
He stepped through. Zuko stepped through behind him. Beyond lay a vast, unspoilt countryside populated with evergreens.
A crossbow appeared at the nape of Iroh’s neck.
They suddenly found themselves surrounded by a dozen men dressed in the dark green uniforms of the Earth Kingdom. All had crossbows aimed at them.
“Leaving so soon, Xian?” a familiar, booming voice questioned.
Iroh turned to see the Merchant of Shanxi standing before him. The finery he wore that morning was nowhere in sight. He wore a simple green tunic and black trousers. In his hand he carried a scroll with red stoppers.
“I would have thought you would at least have offered thanks before departing.”
“Forgive us, lord,” Iroh begged, “We did not wish to disturb your slumber.”
“Why are you doing this!?” Zuko injected hotly, “Why are you threatening us? We’ve done nothing to you!”
Trimazu eyed the banished prince.
“Correct, Li,” the fat man agreed, “You saved my life and I still owe you thanks for that, but there is this other matter to attend.”
He produced the scroll and opened it. It was a copy of the “wanted” poster that Azula had distributed after they had escaped her trap.
Iroh and his charge stiffened slightly at the revelation.
“How strange that I should have guests who so closely resemble the fugitive Prince Zuko and the mighty General Iroh himself visit my humble abode.”
The silence stretched. Zuko and Iroh scanned the armed men around them, silently and independently calculated their chances of survival. Both had assumed bending stances, though they and their opponents scarcely recognized it.
Iroh regarded their host. Gone was the silly and boisterous buffoon, miraculously replaced by the countenance of a shrewd and resolute personality of steel.
“What happens now, my lord?” Iroh finally inquired.
The merchant considered this and replied.
“What always happens, Xian, I make the best decision I can with the information I have.”
He signaled his men to lower their crossbows.
“For all my fortune I am a small man, Xian,” the fat man confided in a circumspect tone, “and though I can see the resemblance, I suppose I was mistaken…”
He rolled the scroll back up and placed it in his waistband. He approached Iroh and handed him a small purse.
“Here, take this small gift, and may the Earth Spirit guide you and your nephew to your destiny.”
Iroh looked into the hard, resolute eyes of the merchant and replied in a low voice.
“You would take such a risk, Master Trimazu?”
“Risk is a part of life, Xian, as you know even better than I.”
Trimazu scanned the landscape around them and continued in wistful tone.
“The tale of the Avatar’s return has spread far and wide. The battle at the North Pole… perhaps, the first of many.”
He met Iroh’s gaze once more.
“Wherever General Iroh and the banished prince may be…I feel they yet have a part to play in the shape of things to come.”
Iroh considered this.
“You are wise, my lord.”
“Wise or not, my decision is made.”
Iroh and Zuko left the Merchant of Shanxi as they had found him, on foot, traveling a dusty, nameless road, strangers in a strange land.
The infamous villa of the Merchant of Shanxi lay far behind them. The sun was close to the horizon before Zuko emerged from his melancholy to question his guardian about the fantastic events of the night before. For the first time he felt small and insignificant next to the man he had often treated so poorly.
“Was all that true, uncle? Did it really happen that way?”
Iroh was prepared for the questions and answered without hesitation.
“Yes, much of it anyway.”
“Grandfather really banished you?”
“Is that… is that why you came with me when father banished me?”
Iroh considered this.
“No, nephew, I came with you because I love you.”
Zuko stiffened at the simple admission.
“But it’s not fair! You were exiled without any way to regain your honor!”
“Life isn’t fair, Prince Zuko.”
“So you just… went to Planasia then?”
“Yes,” Iroh replied bitterly, “though I did not remain there long.”
“What happened then, uncle?”
“The worst possible outcome.”
“What do you mean?”
Iroh looked ahead, his expression distant, and replied.
“The war went on.”
A/N: Well, it is done then. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story. I didn’t know how I’d react when I penned the last words. I thought I’d cry or be very sad. As it happens, I’m not. I’ve lived with these characters and this story for ten years. They are as real to me as my family and friends. As long as I live, they will live, vibrant and colourful, for all time.
I’d like to thank my lovely wife for editing the first third of the story long ago. Without her I don’t know if this project would have gotten off the ground!
Comments from all readers are appreciated, but I’d like to thank LordStone and Fanwright especially for their many thoughtful reviews. I found this feedback of immeasurable help to calibrate later chapters.
Most importantly, I’d like to thank Colonel Brian. Over an 8 year hiatus in which this story was for all intents and purposes dead, he dared to hope that it would someday be completed. His belief in the power and importance of this tale revived in me my own belief that it was worth the effort.
You deserved to have this finished, Colonel, I hope you have enjoyed it.
In what ways has your story changed since you began writing it many years ago? Did certain themes that were prominent before end not being as important? Did new new themes rise up? Did the significance of certain characters changed in any interesting ways?
Good questions. The basic story outline did not change at all. The major story elements, including the twin battles, the desert crossing, the duel and its source, Ozai showing up at the end, all these were envisioned back in 2006. Themes also remained relatively constant, such as decision making under uncertainty, the effect of operating in a moral vacuum on otherwise decent people, all these stayed on focus. Young Iroh as always meant to be a parallel, but also a contrast, for Zuko in the present. The one theme that got added after the fact was the decline of the ancient world and its relation to the present.
While the main story stayed on target, I did elaborate over the years. I always intended to have the scene at the dam, for example, but I expanded it dramatically with its links to the ancient world. The rocket sleds were also added later, around 2008 as I was struggling with Lake Myojin.
change. The Governor of Mequon was always a character, but Rhiannon didn't take final shape until like 2009 or 2010. Originally the governor was going to be a friend of Tien Shin's and the sojourn at Mequon was going to be another major conflict between Iroh and Tien Shin. I couldn't get that plot path to work satisfactorily though and ultimately I decided that Rhiannon as I came to envision her would shed more light on Iroh and be a much more compelling character in her own right. Rhiannon's gift also solved the ugly problem of how to get the Army of the Song there in time to envelop the Army of the Granite Mountains.
Nikon was always going to die, same as Xian. Both of them are life lessons leading up to the final crushing blow of losing Lu Ten years later. I ended up developing Nikon a lot more effectively than I thought possible in the Mequon battle scenes and in his relationship with Rhiannon. I loved writing chapter 40 - it sprang unexpectedly between two previously written chapters. I wouldn't give it up for anything now.
Gan grew significantly in importance and his role as Captain of the Inferno did not develop until just a few years ago. I needed to show the devastation at the Field of Coins, however, and the solution to have him in command of tank train just clicked one day while I was in Bangkok drinking gin & tonic at the Oriental. So, Gan got "promoted" and allowed me to develop him.
Macro was going to have a larger part, but I couldn't find a compelling role for him at the end. I'm satisfied with how it turned out though and he could be a useful villain in a later story.
Liu Shiung was my favorite late addition. Originally he was supposed to be dead before the story began. You may have caught an edit back in chapter 9 where I shifted a past tense to a present tense many months ago. The guy is just so horrible - but again not in the typical way one might think.
I'm also kind of interested in knowing more about the relationship between Iroh and Tien Shin. How recent is their parent's marriage?
Never well defined. Maybe between 5 and 10 years? You're correct it was relatively late.
I can't believe this story is done. You've pulled off an amazing feat, by sticking with this story and seeing it through to the end. Prince Iroh has played such a big part in my enjoyment of the Avatar fandom, that it'll be hard to see it go. So I suppose once next Friday rolls around, I'll finally have your permission to die.
No, my friend, like Iroh, you do but turn another page