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."
Sozin took a small sip from his teacup and waited for several seconds while his words sank in. When he gazed directly into the faces of his audience again, he saw that his proclamation had had the desired effect: his son, Azulon, was valiantly struggling to remain impassive while his daughter by marriage, Ilah, looked like she was biting back either angry words or desperate entreaties. His grandson, Iroh, was pale, but the boy's golden eyes blazed with a fury that belied the stiff set of his features.
"I have observed you very closely over the years, my boy," he said to the young Prince, his gaze sharp and cunning. "You show so much promise as a soldier, as a strategist. But I have yet to see the makings of a Fire Lord within you. There is a quality you lack, which is the essence of being a ruler, a leader among men. The only force that seems to drive you is your own ambition to raise yourself above others, but you are missing the drive to achieve something greater, something beyond your own desires. Tell me now, truthfully, once you become the Fire Lord, what legacy do you wish to leave for the generations to come after you?"
Iroh was silent for a long moment before he replied to his grandfather's question. "I," his words were hesitant and slow in coming, "I will ensure that the light of progress the Fire Nation possesses will be shared with the other races of the world."
"Bah!" Sozin scoffed, putting down his teacup on its saucer with a violent rattle. "That is my legacy! What do you wish to share with our people and the other nations? What will men of the future say when they speak your name? What will you do to change the world?"
Iroh could not find ready answers to these questions, though he certainly tried his best to think of some. Finally, he was left with no choice but to keep his mouth firmly shut and glare resentfully at the old man. He knew that he could not expect any assistance from his father or his mother in this regard. Their own silence, their failure to defend him while the Fire Lord railed at him made him think the unbearable thought that perhaps they agreed with his grandfather's assessment of his character. His own father had certainly expressed his exasperation over Iroh's lack of clear goals apart from being a skilled fighter and Firebender enough times. Even his mother had tried, in her own gently scolding way, to inspire him to think beyond being a warrior.
"When I was a younger man," the Fire Lord broke the smoldering silence that had fallen over the hall, "we hunted dragons. To be able to defeat such creatures was proof that the hunters were great Firebenders. But, more important than that, such an achievement was proof that a man possessed not only skill and strength, but determination and the power of will to overcome any obstacle. Hunting a dragon, and killing one, showed a man's true mettle." He fixed Iroh with a grim stare, which the Prince returned in equal measure. "So that is why I am sending you on this quest. Return home after you have bloodied your hands with the death of a creature greater than yourself and you will have proven to me you are worthy of inheriting my legacy. And, who knows? Maybe in your journey, you'll find inspiration for how you will shape the world in your turn."
The young Prince still remained silent. However, Ilah could no longer hold back her tongue. "But what if he doesn't find a dragon, my Lord?" she asked. "The beasts have been hunted nearly to extinction years ago. Surely you will not continue to deny his right and his duty to serve in your army if he doesn't find any dragon to slay."
"If there are no more dragons to kill, then by all means he can serve in the bloody army," Sozin scowled. "But he has a year to search for the infernal creatures until I allow him to take his post as a soldier."
"But does it really have to be dragons, Father?" Azulon found his voice at last. "He is your only grandchild and my heir. If something were to happen to him—"
"Then you better start making another heir," Sozin cut him off brusquely. "Now what other pathetic objections and excuses are you two thinking of making on behalf of your son so that I can reject them all at once? I will not be swayed by any argument. I have long since made up my mind regarding this matter. I admit that I had hoped it would actually never come to this. I had hoped your son would do something that would show me he is even halfway ready for the future responsibilities that await him. But he has not done so, and so I must do this."
Ilah looked like she intended to protest further, but Iroh's voice rang out before she could make a sound. "I will go on this quest, my Lord." He pronounced each word distinctly, his posture one of hurt pride and defiance. "I will slay all the dragons I can find for you, to prove to you that I can be a greater man than any other. You have my word on that."
Sozin smiled, pleased. "Very good. You have a year's time to complete this quest and, as befitting your rank, you will receive a ship and a company of men to aid you in your mission. But, of course, I do not need to tell you that the actual deed of killing a dragon must be done by you and you alone."
Iroh nodded. "Of course, my Lord." He was still obviously keeping his temper in check and he struggled to keep his tone neutral.
"Excellent," the Fire Lord nodded. "We understand each other then." He now looked at the Crown Prince. "Azulon, I leave the matter of arranging his departure in your hands. I expect him to be ready to leave by the month's end." Then, without another word to his family, Sozin abruptly stood up and walked out of the hall.
As soon as the doors had closed behind his back, Ilah immediately rushed to her son's side. "Oh, Iroh!" She tried to put her arms around him, but the young Prince refused to be comforted. He squirmed out of her embrace. "I'm quite all right, Mother," he said shortly.
Ilah then turned to her husband. "Are you really going to allow this to happen?" she demanded. "He's still a boy. He can't go off to kill dragons. Talk to your father. Make him see reason."
Azulon gazed at her distraught face with a frown. "When have I ever been able to influence my father once he has set himself on a course of action? He means for this to happen, and so it will. Iroh has no choice but to go through with the quest as commanded by the Fire Lord." However, he could not withstand the heat in his wife's eyes for too long, so he looked away eventually. The Crown Prince now reached out a hand towards his son. "Iroh," he began, "I am—I know this is unpleasant news for you. But take it as a challenge and an opportunity to show the Fire Lord how capable you truly are."
The Prince nodded slowly. "Yes, Father." For the first time in a long while, there was no bluster in his attitude. He looked very young and overwhelmed. It was a strange look for Iroh who was usually so confident and more than a little mischievous. Eventually, though, he sat up straighter. "I shall help you with the arrangements for my journey, Father," he said. "If I am to hunt dragons, then I shall make certain I am well equipped for the task."
Azulon nodded. "You will be," he assured Iroh. "We will place the fastest ship in the navy at your disposal, and we will hire the most experienced hunters to assist you in your quest. You will succeed at this, of that I will make sure." A look was exchanged between father and son, unspoken worry and affection evident in their gazes.
Princess Ilah still had a fearful expression on her face as she stared at her only child, but she stifled the desire to make another protest. She knew that she could not sway any of the men in her family now that they had resolved on seeing this particular ordeal through. So she turned her mind to practical matters, as Azulon and Iroh were intent on doing, and she immediately remembered one detail that seemed to have escaped their attention amidst all the heightened emotions that pervaded their meeting with the Fire Lord.
"Oh, dear," she gave a little sigh of distress, "what about Iroh's engagement ceremony?"
Her husband groaned at this reminder. "Hells!" he cursed. "Yes, the engagement. That will most definitely have to be postponed."
"That's perfectly all right with me," Iroh quickly said. He wasn't looking as moody anymore now that he realized he wouldn't have to go through with the engagement he had been secretly dreading for weeks.
"But all the plans and the arrangements have been made for the occasion," Ilah pointed out. "It will take place seven days from now. To postpone it would be an incredible inconvenience, not to mention an insult to Lord Hanashi's family. Oh!" she exclaimed in sudden irritation. "I'm sure the Fire Lord has not forgotten about that for one moment. He purposely waited until it would be too late to postpone it before telling us he means to send Iroh on a quest. He means to drive us mad with aggravation."
"I'm sure he meant no such thing," Azulon said diplomatically, but he was scowling as he thought of how rotten his father's timing was, perhaps deliberately so. Now he would have to appease Lord Hanashi who fully expected to wed his daughter to Iroh before the start of the new military campaign in the spring. Since that was unlikely to happen now, because Iroh would most certainly still be chasing after dragons at that time, he would need to smooth things over and explain to the Lord that the wedding would be delayed for several months. And should Iroh perish during his quest—the thought was unbearable. Azulon cleared his throat. "The engagement ceremony will proceed as planned," he proclaimed, ignoring his son's dismayed expression, "but the wedding would have to wait until Iroh returns home from his hunt. We would all just have to make the best of things."
"Great," Iroh said wearily, "so I'm supposed to kill a dragon and get married, too. I don't know which task is actually more frightening."
Azulon gave him a stern glare. "The union with Lord Hanashi's family is an important one," he reminded his son, "so don't go thinking you can die during your quest just to escape from the marriage."
"Well, I have to say that the thought had never occurred to me until you mentioned it," Iroh teased, his eyes twinkling and his good humor restored for the moment. But he sobered almost immediately. "It looks like I'm going to have a very exciting year ahead of me." He sighed. "Why did it have to be killing a dragon, though? I think I would have better luck finding the lost Avatar."
"It'll all be fine, I'm certain," Ilah tried to sound reassuring. "You will succeed in your quest and you will be home sooner than you expect." She smiled at her son and, because she could no longer resist the urge, she ruffled his hair affectionately, messing up the dark strands and making him scowl at her in annoyance.
"Yes," Azulon agreed gruffly. "It will be fine. You will make us proud."
But even as his parents tried to sound confident about his success, Iroh could not help but recognize the fear in their eyes.
Crown Prince Azulon never told his wife or his son exactly what transpired during his conversation with Lord Hanashi the next day regarding the necessary delay in Iroh's wedding plans. All they knew for certain was that it had been quite a lengthy dialogue behind closed doors, Lord Hanashi had left with an outraged look and only half of his mustache, and Azulon had come out of the library declaring that he was bored with how the room looked and that it should be extensively renovated at once. He had also announced that the Lord was perfectly agreeable to the thought of putting off his daughter's wedding to Iroh until the young Prince would return from his trip. Then he forbade them from going into the library until the renovation was done, which was a very suspicious edict but one that his family decided to obey anyway with knowing smirks as they eyed the fire-eaten holes in his robes.
So, a few days later, the engagement ceremony took place as originally planned without any mishap and the Royal Family threw a feast on that same night to celebrate the event.
Iroh was not, however, in a very celebratory mood.
He skulked by his father's side throughout most of the evening, glaring at everyone who dared to congratulate him on his engagement or who attempted to wish him luck on his forthcoming trip to hunt a dragon. For, of course, that particular announcement had been made as soon as the engagement ceremony had ended. His mood was so foul that he even glared at a now clean-shaven Lord Hanashi when the elder gentleman tried to speak with him, prompting the man to abruptly shut up and bow before the two Fire Nation Princes while keeping a wary eye on Azulon before hurrying away to the other end of the ballroom. However, no matter how rude or indifferent he acted towards his well-wishers, Iroh reserved his fiercest glares for none other than his bride-to-be, Lady Jia.
Most of the guests took note of this, of course, and they could only wonder why the Prince had nothing but dark, grim scowls for the young lady. There was certainly not a single detail about her appearance that could be faulted by anyone. On this night, Lady Jia was attired in a robe of gold silk embroidered with crimsom threads while her dark hair was carefully coiffed in an elaborate style. Everyone who looked at her face with its porcelain loveliness and amber eyes was wholeheartedly convinced that she would make an excellent Fire Lady in the future. After all, she came from an old noble family and she possessed impeccable breeding and beauty. She was also very well-mannered and proper, with numerous accomplishments in the arts that a lady of her station was expected to excel in such as music, literature, and flower arrangement. So it was truly baffling that Prince Iroh didn't look too pleased that he was to marry one of the most eligible and most desirable young ladies in the Fire Nation.
"You should attempt to look less – angry, Iroh," Azulon murmured dryly as he surveyed his son's expression. His own face was quite bland, for he knew quite well the reason for the Prince's animosity towards his intended bride. "People might think you do not wish to get married," he added with a twisted little smile that he barely managed to suppress.
Iroh frowned at his father. "This amuses you greatly, doesn't it?" he accused. "That I am meant to marry that, that — her." Iroh couldn't bear to say her name.
Azulon now looked like he was trying not to laugh. "Oh, come now," he said. "She's a perfectly lovely young woman. It's about time you moved past your previous encounters and take joy in the thought of your forthcoming union with Lady Jia."
"Ha!" Iroh scoffed. "Never!"
"Have you even talked to her since your early school days? You might find her greatly changed from the little girl you once knew," his father told him. "I have only ever heard impressive tales of her many accomplishments. And, consider this, if your mother and I had thought for one moment that you and Lady Jia would not suit, then we would never have agreed to this engagement. We do only want what's best for our son."
Iroh was silenced by this. His father's argument was sound. He knew his parents would never deliberately arrange an unhappy marriage for him with someone they believed to be the wrong choice, no matter what political advantage may be gained by such a connection. So perhaps he should reconsider his old prejudice against Lady Jia and try to know her as she was now. He sighed and the scowl left his face. "What do you wish me to do, Father?" he asked after a short silence.
Azulon gave him a small smile of approval. "Why don't you ask your fiancee to dance?"
He couldn't help another sigh from escaping past his lips. "Very well." He bowed to the Crown Prince before leaving his side and making his way to where Lady Jia stood chatting with several friends. When they saw him coming, the other girls all giggled and his bride-to-be immediately cast her eyes down, her cheeks turning a faint rose. Iroh was momentarily taken aback. Could it really be? Was she — shy? Was Lady Jia actually acting like a proper young maiden of refinement and breeding? She had to be planning something evil.
Iroh kept his eyes on her as he bowed and held out his hand. "May I beg you to dance with me, my Lady?" He braced himself for whatever mischief she was about to unleash upon him.
"It would be my honor, Prince Iroh," she responded prettily and placed her hand on his.
He was really very suspicious now. His nerves were stretched to the breaking point as he desperately tried to figure out what she could be up to. Surely she was merely waiting for the perfect moment to strike. But she didn't do anything that could be remotely considered as threatening and he continued to lead her to the ballroom floor where other couples gave them a wide, respectful berth. The music then changed to a romantic tune, one that Iroh recognized as his mother's favorite, called Dreams of Love on Ember Island and, slowly, the two of them began to dance.
Several minutes of silence passed as they went through the motions of the dance, Iroh fully focused on each move Lady Jia made while she still kept her gaze downcast. Nothing seemed to be happening, though. She wasn't trying to pull his hair, punch his nose, or set him on fire. It was very disconcerting. Finally, he could not stand the silence and the suspense any longer. "Why aren't you trying to pick a fight with me?" he asked her quite bluntly.
Startled by the question, she finally looked up and met his eyes. "Excuse me?"
"Why aren't you trying to pick a fight with me?" he repeated. "You were always horrid to me when we were children, so why aren't you being horrid now?"
She just stared at him in astonishment for a long minute, and Iroh began to think that perhaps he had truly misjudged her, she had changed, she was not the quarrelsome little hoyden he once knew, she —
"Ow!" His eyes sparked with a sudden fire. "Did you just step on my foot?" Mindful of being watched by others, he was careful to keep his voice low.
"Well, you deserved it, Prince Brat," she retorted, also in whispered tones. "Spirits, I knew I could not keep this up!" Her pretty face scrunched up in a fierce scowl. "I don't care what my father says, but there is not a chance in the world that I am going to marry you."
Iroh's temper was now ignited. "Well, it's not like I want to marry you either, you know!" he snapped at her. "Why would I ever wish to marry the greatest enemy of my childhood?"
She rolled her eyes at him. "You are so melodramatic," she scoffed. "Those childhood rivalries are long past. My concern is my future, one that I do not intend to spend tied down to a fool of a man while I bear his idiot children. I don't care even if he is a Prince of —"
"Hush," Iroh hissed at her. He had noticed that people were now paying close attention to their whispered argument, and his father was frowning at him from the other end of the room. "Come this way!" Without waiting for her agreement, he walked swiftly out of the ballroom, pulling her by the hand. People threw curious and knowing looks at them as they cut through the crowd, but Iroh only ignored them. Jia didn't make a protest and she willingly followed him through the Palace's many corridors and hallways until Iroh stepped through a door and into his mother's private garden. He let go of her hand then and turned to face her in the soft light of the lanterns that hung from the flowering trees.
"So, let me be sure we understand each other," he said thoughtfully. "You don't want to marry me. I don't want to marry you. Therefore, what are we going to do about it?"
She crossed her arms and looked sulky. "Actually, I originally planned to run away," she admitted. "Then I learned you were going on a dragon hunt. So I thought that maybe I should just wait for you to get killed."
"Hey!" He frowned at her. "Killing me is not an option, all right?"
"That's too bad. It was the best idea I had," she said airily.
"Well, then, think of another one," he demanded.
She tried. He could see her swirl of thoughts reflected in her eyes. Iroh wasn't really interested in her reasons for not wanting to marry him, but since they shared the same sentiment on the matter, then he was prepared to tolerate Jia and even work with her. He was fairly confident that between the two of them, they could come up with a plan that would free them both from an engagement they never asked for. Once their forthcoming marriage was no longer looming over his head, then he could fully focus on gaining his grandfather's confidence and preparing himself for his future as Fire Lord.
Suddenly, Jia laughed, startling him from his own rumination.
"What is it? What's so funny?" he wanted to know.
Her eyes were fairly dancing with glee as she looked at him with a mischievous smile. "I have it, the perfect solution to both our problems."
"Tell me," he insisted at once.
She smirked. "You're not going to like it," she promised him, and there was just the tiniest gleam of malicious pleasure in her eyes. That was more like the Jia he remembered from childhood. Iroh braced himself for what he was certain would be an outrageous proposition.
About an hour later, all eyes in the ballroom discreetly followed Prince Iroh and Lady Jia once they reappeared from wherever they had gone off to earlier. The guests noted how protectively the Prince clasped the young lady's hand as well as how demurely Lady Jia smiled at him. It was a marked improvement from their previous behavior around each other. This change was met with a lot of nudges and speculative glances at the couple as they made their way to Fire Lord Sozin and Crown Prince Azulon. Several words were exchanged, and then Lord Hanashi was called for. A few minutes later, the entire Royal Family, along with Lord Hanashi and his daughter, left the ballroom together. The guests that remained in the ballroom could only wonder what was happening.
By the next morning, everyone in the kingdom knew.
Prince Iroh and Lady Jia had expressed their wish to spend more time together and to get to know each other better prior to their wedding. So it was announced that Lady Jia would join the Prince in his quest to slay a dragon.
The citizenry loved it. It was such a romantic tale of blossoming young love, and that was certainly the story that the Palace perpetuated. However, whenever Lord Hanashi's acquaintances commented on it in his presence, he merely nodded at them grumpily without saying a word. And then he adjusted his wig.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
A crowd of well-wishers waved and cheered on the dock as the ship slowly headed towards the open sea, the flag of the Fire Nation waving proudly on its mast in the brisk wind. Iroh could no longer make out individual faces, but he knew that his father and mother were still watching the vessel that was taking him away on his quest. If he squinted, he could just see the glitter of the golden headpieces his parents wore. He fixed his gaze on that sight until the ship had moved too far out into the water and the coastline had disappeared in the distance.
Jia, who had been standing quietly and primly beside him all this time, finally let out a little cough. "So, how long do you intend to stand there looking like a lost little boy?" she asked, but her tone had none of its usual tartness. Her eyes, too, were uncommonly kind when Iroh faced her at last.
"I've never been apart from them like this before," he confessed in a low, embarrassed voice. He wasn't even sure why he was telling her about it, but he just needed to say what he was presently thinking out loud. "What if—," he took a deep breath, "what if I never see them again?" Though the thought had occurred to him numerous times while he was preparing to depart on this voyage, it had never possessed the terror it did now.
She shrugged, trying to look nonchalant but failing to do so. Awkwardly, Jia tried to give him a comforting pat on the shoulder. Iroh was startled by this gesture of friendliness and fell back a few steps to look at her quizzically. She coughed, embarrassed now as well, then she scowled. "Oh, for the love of the Spirits, I was just trying to be nice!" she exclaimed, a faint blush staining her cheeks. "And the Captain is looking at us!" She shot him a look full of sly warning.
Iroh instinctively turned and, yes, the Captain was indeed looking at them. The old soldier was standing a good distance away from Iroh and Jia, clearly waiting for the two of them to finish their moment and acknowledge his presence. As far as everyone outside of the Royal Family and Lord Hanashi knew, the Prince and his fiancee were in love, so the two young people had agreed to keep up the pretense onboard the ship. Iroh only hoped it wouldn't be too taxing and that they would reach their destination of Yu Dao soon, for he knew Jia had other plans once they arrived at the colony. But that was a matter that would be confronted in the future. For now, he had to deal with the Captain. "Yes, Captain?" he said, beckoning the man to step forward.
"Your Highness." Captain Jeong-gyun gave him a short bow. "I and my men welcome you with pride onboard the Baozhai, the finest and the fastest ship in the entire Fire Nation navy. We are honored to join you on your quest."
Iroh nodded and smiled. "Thank you, Captain. I am very pleased to be here with the Fire Nation's most skilled sailors and hunters. And please allow me to compliment the Baozhai for being the most impressive ship I have ever seen." He didn't need to see her face, but he just knew Jia was doubtlessly rolling her eyes at his show of charm. Well, it certainly was not his fault if he had been raised to be polite.
"Thank you for those kind words, my Prince." The Captain then turned to Jia and bowed again. Iroh noted with a bit of annoyance that Jeong-gyun dipped lower when bowing to her than the man did when bowing to him. "Lady Jia," the Captain said, "in all my days serving the Fire Nation, I have never been entrusted with the safety of a more precious cargo. Welcome to the Baozhai and, please, do tell me what I can do to make your voyage more comfortable."
She smiled at the man demurely. "I am quite content with my present accommodations, but I thank you for your kind offer, Captain," Jia murmured. This time, it was Iroh who rolled his eyes. She certainly knew how to portray a shy young maiden very convincingly.
There was a sudden commotion on deck, some sailors cursed then mumbled apologies when they thought Lady Jia may have heard them, and the Captain's first mate, a hulk of a man by the name of Sud, appeared and dropped something that resembled a wriggling bundle of laundry before them. Captain Jeong-gyun was instantly outraged. "What do you think you are doing? This lack of discipline is appalling!"
Sud's face and voice were completely emotionless when he said, "We have a stowaway, Captain."
"A stowaway?" The Captain had turned very red now, mortified at what the Prince may think of this scandalous breach of security. "Who dared to stow away on my ship?" Angrily, he pulled at the sack that Sud had used to capture the intruder, and he gasped when a small face with a wild mass of hair was revealed. A sheepish grin that was missing one tooth in the center greeted him.
"Jeong Jeong!" the Captain gaped at his son, too stunned at the moment to think of anything to say.
Meanwhile, the young boy proceeded to stand up, took note of Iroh and Jia, and immediately dropped to his knees before them. "Please, please, Your Highness and my Lady," the boy said." Please let me go on this quest with you. I would so love to see a dragon. I will do anything you wish, just please let me see a dragon. Please!"
Captain Jeong-gyun now looked like he wanted to throw himself overboard in embarrassment, but Iroh was merely amused by the young boy's daring. "Stand up, little fellow," he told the boy and surveyed his thin frame carefully. "How old are you?"
"I'm twelve," Jeong Jeong replied, rubbing his nose thoughtfully for a second, then he stiffened and let out a loud sneeze. Iroh quickly jumped back to avoid being caught by the sudden flames while Jia, who could no longer contain herself, laughed at how comical he appeared. Jeong Jeong was immediately apologetic. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Your Highness. I didn't mean to do that. My nose was just really itchy."
The Captain quickly resolved to salvage the situation before his son could do anything more to offend the Prince. "Sud, take my son to my cabin," he ordered and then prepared himseld to beg for Iroh's forgiveness. But the Prince did not look like he had been offended at all. Instead, he was laughing.
"Please, Captain," he gestured for Sud to refrain from touching Jeong Jeong, "do not punish the boy. I understand that he's only being very enthusiastic." Iroh looked down at young Jeong Jeong with a smile. "I would love it if I could show you a dragon's head once we finish our quest. You have my promise on that."
"Oh," the boy's face fell, "but I meant I wanted to see a live dragon. I want to see one fly high above the clouds!"
"Ah, well…" Iroh wasn't quite sure how he should respond to that but, thankfully, Jia stepped in and spared him from having to shatter the boy's illusions about the true purpose of their journey.
"I'm sure Prince Iroh will certainly try his best to help you meet a live dragon," she told the boy with a smile, who immediately turned bright red. Iroh scowled. How on earth did she manage to do that? She just had to smile at people and they crumbled at her feet.
The Captain had composed himself somewhat by this time and he laid a firm hand on Jeong Jeong's shoulders and pulled him backwards. "Again, I apologize for my son's impertinence, Prince Iroh, Lady Jia. I promise he will stay out of your way during the voyage. And, as soon as we arrive in Yu Dao, I will place him on the first ship back to the Fire Nation."
"B–but Dad!" Jeong Jeong tried to protest. However, his father would have none of it. Before he could speak another word, the Captain nodded at Sud, who understood the look and immediately carried a squalling Jeong Jeong below deck.
Iroh frowned. "I meant what I said earlier, Captain." The tone he used would have been instantly recognizable to any Palace servant. It was the same one the Prince always adopted whenever he was displeased and he was about to order someone to be disciplined. "I do not wish for you to punish the boy. Yes, he should not have stowed away, but he meant no harm to anyone."
Captain Jeong-gyun flushed, but he bowed his head. "Yes, of course. As you wish, my Prince."
"Good," Iroh nodded curtly. "Now will there be anything else, Captain?"
"No, Prince Iroh," the older man replied somewhat stiffly. "But I do hope that you and Lady Jia would be able to join me for dinner later."
"We would be very happy to," Jia responded before Iroh could say anything. "And I would especially be pleased if Jeong Jeong could join us. I hope you won't leave him confined to your cabin throughout our entire voyage, Captain. A growing boy needs fresh air. And, as he is a firebender, perhaps he could even join me as I practice my forms."
"Of course, my Lady. As you wish." Bowing one last time, Captain Jeong-gyun went off to attend to his other duties onboard the ship.
As soon as the Captain was gone, Jia turned to Iroh. "You didn't have to scowl so fiercely at the man."
He just shrugged off her scolding tone. "I didn't like the thought that he might punish his son because he thought the boy had embarrassed him in our presence. Children should not be accountable for actions that they do with the best intentions."
Her mouth curved into a tiny little smirk at the sanctimonious note in his voice. "All right. As you say. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going into my cabin to rest for a while. Let me know when it's time for dinner."
"I'm not your servant," he reminded her haughtily.
"You're not indeed," she agreed. "But you're supposed to be my extremely devoted fiancé who's so madly and desperately in love with me that you couldn't bear the idea of us spending a year apart. Don't forget that we have to keep up appearances, my Prince."
With a wink and a laugh, Jia left Iroh alone.
Finally got to finish this after a crazy few weeks. Doesn't really do anything much except to insert a young Jeong Jeong into the story because it's my headcanon that he and Iroh were good friends. But I promise that things will start to pick up from this point now that most of the initial set-up is out of the way.