The eldest Fire Sage had been droning on for over an hour, extolling the greatness of the Fire Nation while everyone in the Temple stood at attention. At the very front of the assembled congregation stood the great Fire Lord himself, his back ramrod straight in his robes of crimson as he listened intently to the low chanting of the priests in answer to each virtue that the oldest of their number enumerated. Standing on his right was his son and heir, the Crown Prince, who looked every inch as stiff and unbending as his father. On the Fire Lord's left, however, was a conspicuous empty space that, up until a year ago, had been filled by the presence of his wife, the Fire Lady. In fact, the very ceremony they were attending was being held in honor of her memory.
Six paces behind the Fire Lord and his son was the Crown Prince's wife. She was a slender, delicate-looking woman who barely reached up to the shoulders of the young man to her right. This young man was the Fire Lord's only grandchild, the second in line to the throne. To anyone with sharp eyes, it was clear that the formality of the occasion was beginning to make him feel stifled in his formal clothes. His restlessness eventually manifested itself by the little movements he started to make once the Fire Sages finished their current chant, then turned the pages of the tomes in their hands to begin a new series of prayers and invocations. First, he shuffled his feet to lean his weight on one leg, then he switched to the other. Afterwards, he gently rotated his neck as if to smooth out stiffened muscles. Next, he placed his hands behind his back and idly twiddled his thumbs. He then started fussing with his clothes, brushing off imaginary dirt on his shoulders, tugging at his sleeves, and lightly adjusting the sash around his waist. When the third series of chants began, his movements became even more pronounced and exaggerated until, finally, his mother dug her elbow into his side.
"Iroh, dear," said Princess Ilah in a sweet low tone that was in direct contrast to the sharpness of her elbow, "please do behave yourself. We are praying for your grandmother's departed spirit, after all." Her husband must have heard her murmuring because he glanced at her over his shoulder questioningly, but she only gave him a small nod and a reassuring smile. The Crown Prince then turned his attention back to the Fire Sages and Ilah let out a little exhalation of relief at her successful deflection of his suspicions.
The seventeen-year-old Prince merely smirked at his mother in reply, but he did make an attempt to appear appropriately solemn for the rest of the ceremony. However, as soon as it was over, he let out a loud sigh of relief. His father heard the sigh and immediately shot him a glare that clearly told him to be on his best behavior, or else. He gave his father an apologetic smile that was obvious in its insincerity, which only made Crown Prince Azulon scowl and roll his eyes in exasperation at his son. However, Iroh's smile was wiped clean off his face when Fire Lord Sozin himself turned to look at him.
"Prince Iroh," the Fire Lord addressed him in the gravelly tone that never failed to intimidate anyone who heard it, "if you find it such a chore to act like a proper member of the Royal Family, please do say so and we may perhaps find a resolution to the problem that would satisfy you, such as banishment perhaps."
The young Prince looked properly chastised. With downcast eyes, he bowed and said, "I apologize for my offense, Your Majesty." However, if anyone had looked into his amber-colored gaze at the moment, he or she would have seen that Iroh's expression was merely bored. This was certainly not the first time the Fire Lord had reprimanded him, and he knew it would not be the last. The old man may scare everyone, but not his only grandson. Iroh was made of sterner stuff. Besides, it was difficult to be afraid of someone who had once sneaked him sweets when he was feeling unwell as a young child.
"Please forgive the boy for his foolishness, Fire Lord," the Crown Prince seconded. "He will be disciplined for his disrespect of the ceremony."
The Fire Lord waved his words away. "I fear the boy is beyond being disciplined, Azulon." He sighed when he gazed at his only grandchild. "He is too strong-willed, and too pampered. He has been given every little thing he has ever asked for, raised as a Royal Prince in every way, so he has known nothing but privilege and luxury. Such an upbringing has not properly prepared him for the duties and responsibilities of someday being Fire Lord."
Iroh could no longer resist the temptation to speak. "I must protest your words, Your Majesty," he defended himself. "I have studied extensively under the guidance of our nation's finest generals and military scholars. My Firebending instructors have always regarded me as one of their most gifted pupils. I also know how to wield a sword and other weapons better than anyone of my age. I believe I have all the skills required to lead the Fire Nation to eventual victory in our glorious war of enlightenment."
For the first time that he could ever remember, someone regarded him with disappointment. For that individual to be the grandfather he had always striven to please struck Iroh like a blow. "Being a warrior does not necessarily make one a leader, Prince Iroh," the Fire Lord told him gravely. "Being a leader requires character and experience, two traits that you sadly lack."
"Then I will gain them somehow," he exclaimed stubbornly. "I have never failed in any task I have set to do yet, and I will not fail in this."
Sozin studied the belligerent young man before him in silence for several moments. He found himself suddenly, painfully, reminded of another young man he had known who had displayed the same stubborn spirit and desire to prove himself. But that was in another lifetime, before the war, before he had betrayed his dearest friend. "We will see, young Prince," he merely said in reply to Iroh's declaration. "We will see. Now let us retire to the Palace. There are other matters I wish to discuss."
The Fire Lord then swiftly marched out of the Temple, followed by the members of the Royal Family. As was the custom, the nobles of lesser rank departed after them, until the last person out the massive golden doors was the lowliest commoner. By that time, the Royals were comfortably seated in their individual palanquins being borne back to the Palace. Servants then ushered them into the private hall where the Fire Lord traditionally received members of his family and other intimates. A table with an elaborate tea set and an assortment of cakes and pastries had been set for them. Sozin took his seat first, followed by Azulon, then Iroh and his mother, Ilah. While the servants poured out tea and placed small plates before them, they remained silent and waited for the Fire Lord to take the first sip from his cup. As soon as he had done so, the rest of the family picked up their cups as well and chose the treats they preferred to consume. A few more minutes of silence passed as each of the Royals savored the refreshments, then Sozin finally spoke again.
"The war is progressing very well, I believe, and so I think that it may no longer be necessary for you to lead the next campaign against Ba Sing Se, Azulon," the Fire Lord said, much to the surprise of his family.
"I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?" the Crown Prince was clearly alarmed. What could have caused his father to come to such a decision? He had certainly never lacked in his skills as a general of the Fire Nation, so why would the Fire Lord be stripping him of this particular responsibility now?
"As Crown Prince," Sozin looked at his son, "I expect you, Azulon, to take a more vigorous role in the governance of our internal affairs. This will serve as an education of sorts for you to become accustomed to ever greater responsibilities once the crown passes on to you. So I shall be making you a minister and you will sit with me in my Council and represent my interests when I am otherwise occupied. You have proven yourself to be a great leader of men as a general, but it is time that you learn to rule as a Fire Lord."
Azulon inclined his head in a little bow. "As my Fire Lord commands," he murmured. This was a great honor as well as a sign of trust from the old man, and Azulon could not help but feel pride rush through him at his father's words. "I will do all I can to serve you well, my Lord."
Sozin merely nodded. He expected nothing less from his heir. Then he turned to his grandson. "And as for you, Prince Iroh," he said next, "I know that you are soon to be inducted into the army, but I wish to delay this assignment."
"You can't mean that!" Iroh instantly exclaimed in outrage. He had been looking forward to serving on his first campaign. Surely he had not so displeased his grandfather by his behavior during the ceremony that the old man would deny him his chance to earn glory in the battlefield? Surely there was something he could do to make the Fire Lord change his mind. "Please, do not do this, my Fire Lord," he begged. "I will do whatever you wish, only let me serve as one of our nation's brave soldiers. I swear, I will make the walls of Ba Sing Se fall by my own hands if you would only let me take part in the next campaign."
The Fire Lord merely stared at him dispassionately. "You are not ready to be a soldier, Prince Iroh. And you most certainly are not ready to take your father's place as a leader in my army. So, instead, I will send you on another mission, one that is perhaps more suited to the skills you currently possess."
"A mission?" Iroh wasn't the only one who looked worried about this idea. His parents both regarded Sozin with wary expressions. What was the Fire Lord planning for his only grandson?
"A mission," Sozin repeated the words with something like relish, "or I should probably say a quest, since that would be more fitting for what I expect you to accomplish." He really looked like he was enjoying himself as he watched them squirm.
There was a short silence before Iroh asked the question that now weighed heavily on his mind, "What sort of quest do you intend to send me on, Fire Lord?" His tone had cooled, along with his entire demeanor. He did not intend for his grandfather to see how upset he truly was by this turn of events. So he was not to join the next campaign against Ba Sing Se simply because his grandfather was being an unreasonable old man. So he was supposed to go off on some quest instead. Well, he would show the Fire Lord that he could handle any sort of mission given to him. "I am certain I will be able to achieve whatever you may expect from me," he declared confidently.
A small, cold smile appeared on Sozin's thin lips.
"I expect you, Prince Iroh, to kill a dragon."