Book 1: Citizen
Prince Zuko couldn’t sleep. His sister’s words were still echoing in his head.
“I’m only telling you for your own good. Maybe you’ll find a nice Earth Kingdom couple to adopt you.”
Zuko squeezed his eyes shut. No, no no no no no. It couldn’t be true. Father could be dismissive, neglectful, and downright cruel at times, but he only used biting words. He wouldn’t kill his own son.
Azula always lies.
His sister was jealous, mean, and sadistic. She enjoyed teasing Zuko and making his life difficult. Surely that was all this was: an exaggerated lie to mess with her favorite victim.
But… This wasn’t the same as her usual brand of teasing. This had to do with life and death, not dips in the pond, angry turtle-ducks or burnt shrubbery. It was much heavier. A far cry from usual sibling rivalry.
Zuko couldn’t escape these thoughts and go to sleep, so he immediately noticed the person that entered his room quietly.
“Mother? What are you doing here?” Zuko asked, rubbing his eyes.
The prince couldn’t see his mother’s face, but he could hear her shortness of breath. “You’re awake,” she noted. “Good, that’s…. good. It’ll make things easier.”
Ursa opened one of Zuko’s drawers and pulled out the sack he uses to pack for their annual Ember Island vacation. “Zuko, I need you to be as quiet as possible and do what I say without question. We’re going on a trip – you, me, and Azula – and I need you to get dressed in your play clothes. Pack only what is most important. I’ll go get your sister ready; meet me in her room.”
Zuko nodded and got up to do what she asked. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but since it was Mother asking it of him, it must be for a good reason.
Ursa left the room while Zuko changed. His “play clothes” were his most casual style of dress, consisting of only a simple red shirt and black pants. Wearing it, Zuko wouldn’t look any different from any other eleven-year-old boy in the fire nation. Since his mother had said they were going on a trip, he decided to pack a few changes of clothes. He also stuffed his pair of Dao swords in the bag. He’d started training with them a few years previously, and wanted to continue training so his lack of natural talent wouldn’t put him behind his sister. His mother had told him to pack what was important, so he added his pearl dagger to the pack after moment of hesitation.
Satisfied with his packing, Zuko tiptoed to his sister’s room, where his mother had just finished packing another bag while coaxing a sleepy Azula to change clothes. In typical Azula fashion, she made sure to complain.
“Why can’t we wait to leave until morning, Mother? And why isn’t dad coming with us?” The nine-year-old girl raised some of the same questions Zuko had wondered earlier, but didn’t ask.
“Your Father is going to be busy with stuff for the Fire Lord,” Ursa answered her daughter’s second question. She seemed to be ignoring the first.
Azula grumbled but didn’t ask again. Ursa led her two children down the dark halls of the Fire Nation Palace towards a courtyard in the back, where there was a lesser-known exit. It’s unlikely that anyone would notice the three royals leaving that way, unless they were looking.
When they were about halfway through the courtyard, a voice cut through the darkness and startled the trio.
“You can’t run from this, Ursa.”
Azula wrenched her hand out of her mother’s and ran in the direction of the speaker. “Dad!”
Ursa clenched Zuko’s hands tighter, and he noticed that her skin was ice cold. “I won’t let my children suffer for your ambitions, Ozai.”
Azula caught up to Ozai, but he didn’t even acknowledge her. “It is the Fire Lord’s order, I can not refuse.”
Ursa grit her teeth. “Azulon told you to do this as a punishment, but I know that you see it as no different than pruning the family tree!”
Ozai stepped forward and narrowed his eyes. “I had intended to be merciful, to make it as painless as possible, but your interference has forced my hand. Zuko, quit hiding behind your mother’s skirt and face me!”
Zuko attempted to come forward at his father’s request, but his mother held him back.
“Stay behind me, Zuko. Please, just do this for me.”
“But – Why, what –“ Zuko fumbled over his words, unsure what he wanted to know.
Ozai turned his steady gaze to Ursa. “I have no qualms about hurting you if that is what it takes.”
Ursa steeled her gaze. “Better me than my child.”
Ozai let out his breath in a large huff. “So be it.” Then, before anyone could react, he punched the air and released a massive fireball in the direction of his wife.
“Run, kids!” Ursa shouted.
Zuko didn’t listen to his mother. All he could think of was it’s coming right at her, mom’s not a bender, and I should be able to block it.
He didn’t consider the fact that he wasn’t in a good stance. He didn’t consider the fact that he was just an eleven year old boy. He didn’t consider the fact that he was still a relative novice at bending, and his father was considered a master. He just acted.
Zuko pushed in front of his mother and raised an arm to block the attack.
Just before it happened, Zuko caught sight of his sister’s face: an odd mix of admiration and dawning horror.
Pain, pain, pain
Suddenly, Zuko couldn’t register anything except the burning, throbbing pain centered around his left eye. There were screams all around, both his own and his mother’s, but he couldn’t hear them. He couldn’t smell the burning flesh or the courtyard flowers. He couldn’t see anything but red and black.
There was one thing that cut through the pain. A small whisper from his mother.
“I’m so sorry my daughter, but Zuko needs me right now.”