The birth chamber was not a happy place, which seemed wrong to the Seer. The baby looked healthy, as far as she could judge. The Fire Lord stood looking out the window, his back turned firmly to the room. His lady wife lay in her bed, alternating between fearful glances at her lord and longing glances at her child. The baby lay in a basket at the foot of the bed. He looked unhappy, cold, and vulnerable. His cries filled the air.
"You will," Fire Lord Azulon said without turning to look at her, "take the auguries for the child."
"Yes, My Lord," she answered. She bowed respectfully to him, even though she knew he could not see it.
The Senior Augur had accompanied her, but it was her task and hers alone. Her first reading since finishing her apprenticeship, and it was a royal birth. She fought down her nervousness. For the child's sake, she needed to perform her duty with dispatch and efficiency.
The midwife had set aside the umbilical cord and the afterbirth. They lay in a bowl next to the ceremonial brazier. With a gesture she summoned fire to life in the brazier, added the jetsam of the birth to the fire, and watched the patterns that emerged in the smoke and flame.
"He will live a long life, and when he passes it will be in the company of his loving family." She cringed at the banality of the first vision. It sounded like something a market stall charlatan would make up to keep the rubes happy. The Fire Lord gave no sign of hearing.
She swallowed and gazed deeper into the flames. "He will turn aside from a great task in the name of justice." The Fire Lord gave a grunt that didn't sound particularly pleased. She had to admit to herself that the second vision did sound pretty ambiguous.
The fuel was almost consumed. There would be only one further vision. She concentrated and looked deep in the flames. Her eyes widened in shock, then she quickly schooled her face into what she hoped was a semblance of calm. Only the slightest intake of breath at her shoulder indicated that the Senior Augur had seen the same thing, that she was neither mistaken nor crazy.
An exile, he will fight on behalf of the Avatar to help end the tyranny of the Fire Nation.
You didn't lie about visions. That was the rule. She glanced at the baby. If she spoke plain, she might be forgiven. She might even be rewarded for revealing the danger to the Fire Lord. Visions were chancy things, no more than the direction the future was heading at that moment. A vision of long life could prove false in so many ways, particularly for one so small and defenseless.
You didn't lie about visions, but you could choose how to speak the truth. "On the day he assumes the mantel of Fire Lord, the whole world will be under the banner of the Fire Nation," she declared. It was done. The two things would never happen, so the lies cancelled to make a kind of truth. The Senior Augur could gainsay her, and then it would not only be the child that was killed. But she would die knowing his fate was not her doing.
The silence was broken, not by the Senior Augur, but by Fire Lord Azulon. "It is good," he said, turning from the window. He gestured to the midwife, and she hurriedly carried the baby to his waiting Mother's arms. She raised him to her breast, stilling his cries as he was at last allowed to feed.
The Fire Lord walked to the bedside. He did not touch either his wife or son. He stood straight with his hands clasped behind his back. There was little warmth in his face, but at least there was satisfaction. "Do you hear, Iroh my son? You are destined for great things." He gave a gesture of dismissal. The Seer and the Senior Augur bowed their way out of the chamber.
In the hallway, the Senior Augur spoke at last. "That was well done," she said. They did not ever speak further on either the vision or her deception.
Iroh knelt before his son's grave. The walls of Ba Sing Se rose in the distance. "Do you understand what I am about to do? Had you lived, I hope I could convince you of the rightness of my actions." He sighed. "Had you lived, I may have stubbornly kept to my old course. The hard truth is that I cannot do this for you, because I was too slow, and now you are beyond caring. But I do it for your sake, whether you would approve or not. Forgive me."
He rose and strode back into camp. His face was schooled into its customary stillness, and his pace as measured and firm as ever. The men bustling around him made way.
His officers were already waiting for him in the staff tent. They stood to attention. He made his way to the camp stool at the head of the table and sat, gesturing for the others to join him. A dozen men looked at him expectantly.
"Gentlemen. We cannot take Ba Sing Se." A murmur of shock and consternation rose in the room. He silenced it with a raised hand. "We do not have the resources or the means to breach the inner wall. To continue in the attempt would only spend more lives of the Fire Nation army without gain. We shall break our siege and return to the occupied colonies. I will take full responsibility with the Fire Lord. I commend your efforts in this campaign."
Silence reigned in the tent. His officers stared at him with expressions of shock, confusion, and in some cases betrayal. He did not allow his impassive gaze to waver. "You will see to the tasks of the withdrawal. You are dismissed." Thus ended the shortest staff meeting of his career.
After the officers had filed out, he allowed himself to sag for a moment. He rubbed a hand over his face and puffed out a breath. Then he stilled his face again, rose, and paced from the tent.
Some of the officers were still gathered outside the tent, speaking in low voices. One with his back to the tent did not notice his approach and kept speaking long enough for him to hear. "…lost his nerve, ever since his son's death. I tell you…." He broke off seeing the worried glances of his fellows. He turned round. His face went pale at the sight of his general.
"Colonel, do you have something you wish to say to my face?" Iroh said quietly.
"No, my General." The man almost spoke in a whisper.
"Then you may carry on," Iroh said levelly, not breaking his gaze. The officers scattered.
As Iroh continued through the camp, his adjutant fell in pace behind him. "I would have you, at least, speak freely to me, Captain."
There was a pause before the young man spoke. "If you will give it to me, I would like an explanation. Whatever the others say, I do not believe you are a coward."
Iroh allowed himself the brief luxury of a sigh. "Then you are mistaken, Captain. Although cowardice is not the reason why I broke the siege. It is the reason why I did not break it long ago."
He stopped and looked at the young man, who gazed back in astonishment. "What is the purpose of this war, Captain?"
"To spread the glory of the Fire Nation and bring the benefits of our culture to the world."
Iroh nodded. He had said those same words often enough. "And you have seen the occupied Earth Kingdom colonies. Do the citizens find us glorious? Have they benefitted from our culture?" The look in the Captain's eyes was answer enough.
Iroh turned at started walking again. "I have buried my own son. No father should face that fate. Had he died for something of worth, I could take consolation. But I can no longer fool myself that he did. I spent his and countless other lives needlessly. I will not spend one more. Not one more father will bury a son because of my command."
They walked in silence for a moment. At last his Adjutant spoke. "I thank you for the explanation, sir. However, I must respectfully disagree with you. You have not said one thing that convinces me that you are a coward."
Iroh stopped in his tracks. He let out a shuddering breath and felt the water rise in his eyes. Then he was master of himself again. He nodded. "Thank you, Captain."
Iroh woke in the room over his tea shop. A momentary confusion came over him; the room wasn't dark, but it was not the light of dawn. Had he left the lamp lit? He couldn't recall. The fog of sleep left him and he remembered. He had fallen ill a week ago. The attendants from his shop had been kind enough to take it in turns looking after him. Sometimes one would even stay with him through the night, although he urged them to not worry and rest in their own beds instead.
He sensed rather than heard the person seated at his bedside. He turned and saw a young man drowsing in a chair. Iroh gasped. The man did wear the green robe of an attendant in his shop, but it had been several years since he had worked there. He wore a beard now, and his hair was much better barbered. It had grown long enough to wear in a top knot, which was held in a simple tie rather than the headpiece of the Fire Lord.
"Zuko?" Iroh said in wonder. The young man started awake and turned to him, a warm smile spreading across his face.
"Hello, Uncle," he said quietly. "How are you?"
Iroh lay back. "Thirsty," he said at last. "And surprised to see you here."
Zuko rose. "I think I can do something about both of those." He walked to the table where there was a tea service waiting for him. He busied himself with reheating the water as he spoke. "We got word by messenger hawk and left right away. I tried to send word ahead, but it appears that we beat it here."
"Mai and Izumi came with me." He paused. "And Azula."
"Azula," Iroh repeated, amazed. "Spirits."
"I think being an aunt has been good for her. She will probably call you Fat Man and pretend she doesn't care, but it was very important to her to come along." Iroh's laugh turned into a cough. Zuko frowned in concern as he brought the tea over. "They're resting right now, but if you think I should fetch them…"
Iroh waved the question away as he accepted the tea cup. "Let them rest. There will be time. I would not go without the chance to see them." He took a sip of the tea. "Your tea making has improved. I commend your choice of blend for the hour."
"Well, I wouldn't want to disgrace the uniform." Zuko's laugh was shaky, and Iroh could see the water glistening in his eyes.
"Do not be sad for me, Nephew. It happens to all of us eventually. The body is just a vessel, and my spirit is ready for what comes next."
Zuko sat again at his side. "But even if we are fated to meet again, we can be sad at the parting."
Iroh felt the tears prick at his own eyes. "Well said." He thought of a grave in a field beyond the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. "It does my heart good for you to be here. I feel quite selfish. I have taken you from your duties."
Zuko shook his head. "No you haven't. This is one of my duties. The others I can delegate. This one, I would not even if I could, because it is also my honor. You have always been more of a father to me than…. Well, anyway, this is a time when a father should have a son by his side." Zuko's face flushed and he began to stammer. "I mean, under the circumstances, I thought someone should stand in…"
Iroh reached out a hand to grasp Zuko's. "You do not need to apologize for the sentiment. I could not be more pleased, were you my son in blood as you are in my heart."