Captain Hoth of the royal guard sat stiffly in the saddle of his komodo rhino, watching as the Empire class cruiser slowly came in to dock. He was among dozens of his men, all also mounted, and yet he still dreaded what was about to occur. He waited as the ship's crew lowered the anchor, performing the routine of settling the vessal in for a long rest. Finally the boarding plank was lowered, which meant a confrontion with the dragon of the west was immenint.
The sounds of heavy boots on metal plating resounded as soldiers fell into formation, two rows lining either side of the deck while leaving a clear path to the boarding ramp. Wordless silence weighed heavily as they waited, tense, eyes focused on the bulkhead door that lead inside. There, for the past two weeks, General Iroh remained in solitude. He rarely emerged from his lavishly appointed quarters, leaving the crew to question what happened to call the fearsome leader home. Thoughts were broken, attention snapped, as the heavy steel door creaked open and General Iroh stepped into the open air. Its crispness did little to change his brooding spirit, the man who once laughed and shared stories with his subordinates now like unbroken stone.
Iroh stood on the threshold, a line between dim red lighting and the bright sun that did little to comfort him. Adorned with general's battle armor, he was prepared for the long journey by foot to the royal palace. His eyes drifted upward, following the fading road as it lead up a volcano's steep side, to a grand protected gate high above the city. His father waited there, but for what purpose Iroh couldn't guess. He did not want to guess.
The soldiers watched, wondering what gave the general pause, tensing again when he passed them to leave the ship. An air of masked despair passed with him, giving them further doubt, but none dared to utter a word. Iroh stopped at the head of the ramp, looking to the ships captain, and bowing his head slightly. "Thank you for your generosity, Captain Yu. You will receive new orders in a few days."
Yu nodded stiffly, glancing over to the palace guards that waited on the dock, obviously waiting for the general to depart the boat. "Thank you, General."
Iroh departed the ship, struggling not to stumble at the first step onto the dock, never imagining he would do this without Lu Ten by his side. The loss felt crushing, even now, as if he would collapse underneath it. Pride would not let him falter, though, and soon he approached the palace guards. "I was not expecting an escort."
Hoth was quiet for a moment, not looking forward to what would happen. His respect for the prince urged him to warn Iroh, but the firelord had given strict orders. "We've come to escort you back to the palace, General Iroh. The Firelord wants to speak with you as soon as possible."
Iroh briefly nodded in understanding. Azulon would want to hear how his grandson was killed, no doubt placing blame on the general's shoulders. 'I couldn't help him. I couldn't protect him.' Iroh suppressed the memory from surfacing as he followed the palace guards.
The palace, intimidating to those who never gazed upon it before, was a welcoming sight and soothed Iroh's feelings of loss and longing for home. Corridors were lined with tapestries that hung when he was a little boy, playing games of hide and seek or war with Ozai. Laughter filled the hall, then, at odds with the silence that now existed. Stiffly, Iroh did not pause to seek comfort from images and memories and he strode toward the throne room.
The doors were opened for the general, and the sight of a flame bordered throne greeted him. Once Iroh was fully inside, and the doors closed for privacy, the flames died a little to reveal the firelords face. Ozai stared coldly at Iroh, who hadn't yet noticed who now sat on the throne, a condensending smile plastered to his lips. "Greetings, brother."
Iroh rested on his knees with a bowed head, as custom demanded when addressing the Firelord, appearing as a respected and unfaltering general commanding the fire nation's mighty army. His finely crafted emotional mask nearly shattered when Ozai's voice filled the room, Iroh' gaze snapping to the throne, refusing to believe what he heard. The sickeningly calm smile unsettled Iroh and he rose, voice cracking, "Where is father? How dare you sit in his place!"
"How dare you!" Ozai growled, knowing that Iroh wouldn't be so quick to beat down to his place. "Address your firelord with respect! Or I will see to it that you spend the rest of your days in the boiling rock!"
"Who declared you firelord? That is not your birthright, not while I live!" Iroh no longer bowed, fire pulsing in his veins. He always suspected Ozai capable of treachery, but to this extreme? "Tell me what you did to father!"
"Your birthright ended when you cowardly retreated from Ba Sing Se. Father turned from you, and named me his heir!" Ozai stood, and with a single hand gesture the guards moved from the side walls, to stand in front of him.
General Iroh did not dare advance on Ozai, to do so would be an attempt on the firelord's life and punishable by death without trial. Ozai's reminder of his crushing defeat only served to further anger him and he glared at the younger brother with narrowed eyes. "Let him tell me this himself."
Ozai gave a self satisfied smirk. "Father is no longer with us. But I can send for the sages, who will verify the changes to his last wishes."
"Dead?" The news struck like a killing blow, nearly dropping Iroh to his knee again, clutching his chest like a steel claw. He heard nothing of this while journeying from Ba Sing Se's wall, even while at sea on a ship that carried thousands of soldiers and officers. Did Ozai intentionally keep this from him? 'To see my sorrow... he wishes to break me.' Lu Ten was dead, Azulon was dead, and now his birthright was taken. Iroh lost everything, and yet, he refused to give Ozai the satisfaction of watching him suffer. Bolstering himself, with an unfliching calm demeanor that masked what he felt inside, Iroh bowed at the waist. "I celebrate the crowning of a new firelord, but I will not serve you. I resign as general."
Ozai scowled, not liking that last act of defiance. "Bite your tongue. I will forgive your outburst, as I imagine you are weary from your travels, but don't think I'll be so lenient after today. Dismissed."
Without a final bow of respect Iroh turned his back to Ozai, the guards, and what was meant to be his throne. He left the war room, wary of a dishonorable strike from behind, vowing to never be tread on by Ozai. 'You may be Firelord but you are not a leader. I would never follow you.'
A few of the soldiers that escorted him from the dock now followed him once again, apparently under orders not to leave him with his own devices. Tension filled the corridors, remaining even as a youth came running up to the general. The ten year old son of the new firelord stopped in front of Iroh, peering up at the man with fear and concern in his eyes. "....Uncle?"
Iroh's barely contained anger for Ozai did not spill over to his son, an innocent who he knew was often neglected by his father. Azula was the apple of Ozai's eye, not Zuko, even though he was firstborn. 'Traditions are being eliminated by greed. This is a sad day for the fire nation. "Zuko. You should not be here right now."
Zuko stepped forward, gripping his armor coated sleeve. Hope shimmered in his tearing eyes, nearly overcoming the faint trace of despair. "Do...do you know where she is?"
Iroh had to take a moment to decipher who Zuko was talking about, and why the boy would ask someone he knew only now came home. Was he looking for Azula? Surely asking Ursa would....He froze as realization washed over him. Ever since Ursa married into the family, she had been a good friend to him. She would have been the one to greet him on the dock...'Oh, Ozai... how could you? She was your wife. Whatever you did to her, you will suffer a hundred-fold in the afterlife.' He wrapped his heavy arms around Zuko, voice soft, a drastic change from a few minutes earlier. "I am sorry, my nephew..."
The hope faded, and the boy's lip trembled. But he refused to break down, instead wiggling from his uncles grip, and racing down the hallway. Silence followed, until one of the escorts dared break it. "...He's been asking for weeks."
Iroh watched Zuko race from him, steeling his heart against the pain he felt not only for his own son but for Zuko, too. Was this really Ozai's doing? Would he cast aside the unbreakable bonds of family just to seek power? "You will tell me everything that has happened since the days before Azulon died. Leave no detail unspoken."
The escort bristled, glancing to his companions, who shared his nervousness. "Um...must we?"
Iroh sneered, hands clenching into fists. "Do you fear Ozai over me?"
The guards went quiet, debating on the question. "That's not a simple answer..."
"There is time to spare."
The guards collectively sighed, drawing closer to deliver the information. They spoke of what little they knew, starting with Ozai's requested audience with Azulon after news of Ba Sing Se arrived. The audience ended with Ozai being thrown out of the war room, and Azulon angrily retiring to his suite. It was the next morning when anyone learned that the firelord had passed away, and princess Ursa had vanished.
The news came with a heavy price. Iroh couldn't believe Ozai engineered this in his own, always showing deep reverence for Azulon and his reign. Did something happen while he was away to turn the man into a power-hungry murderer? 'No, he could not kill father. Ozai is clever but he would never let his hands be sullied with blood.' "Leave me."
"Ah...We can't. The firelord's orders..."
"I will not be held prisoner in my own home!" Iroh snapped, flames erupting from his fists, scorching the floor.
The guards decided to risk Ozai's punishments for failing thier duty, giving Iroh a respectful bow before hastily departing.
Iroh waited until he was alone in the corridor before letting out a weary sigh. Had he known what happened in the capital, he would have stayed in Ba Sing Se and risked capture from the Earth King's armies. 'Bitter, bitter medicine. Lu Ten, if only you were here...' Iroh, no longer a general, retired to his chambers to grieve for his son, his sister in law, his father, and his nation.