We were all sitting at a long table, overlooking an empty space where usually someone would be. That someone would often be complaining about some government project, they might be defending themselves after being arrested for some petty crime, or they’d be an envoy from another country hoping to strengthen bonds with the revitalized Fire Nation. However, today was not that day. Instead, we were all sitting at the table, talking amongst ourselves, chatting about the activity for the week. I hated this setup. Talking to someone without looking at them was needlessly passive.
Not to mention, I could hardly see anyone out of my left eye’s periphery. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get the advisors and counsel to meet anywhere else. I also couldn’t convince them that it made more sense for me to sit at the far left end so I could at least try to look at everyone, but no, that broke tradition. Once again, a useless excuse for another tired way of doing things. I almost said as much when the meeting agenda for the following week was announced.
“Tomorrow morning, a delegate from the Earth Kingdom will be stopping by to discuss the possibilities of additional trade routes. There will then be a free period where you will accept any audiences from the people. There are none currently scheduled, but you will be expected to still attend.”
Even now, after years on the throne, I was still being treated as the fallen Prince Zuko. The poor Prince Zuko that couldn’t regain his honor. The sad, little prince who needed to be led around like a child lost, trying to find his mother in a market. Frustration was rumbling in the pit of my stomach, but I wanted to prove them wrong. I wasn’t that Zuko anymore. I wouldn’t blow up.
“Day 2, your uncle has requested an audience with you to discuss National Tea Appreciation Day preparations. He has a new concoction he has requested you try—”
“That’s fine. What about the following days?”
The announcer cleared his throat and made no effort to hide his offense at my interruption. The distant, but familiar rage liked to bubble up in these moments. While it was no longer welcome, I sometimes found solace in it. That emotion was a reminder of how far I had come.
“Well, then, moving right along. Day 3, a member of the Air Acolytes will be arriving to provide gifts from the Avatar. He, of course, sends his regards as always. They also have requested our assistance in restoring one of the four temples. I am not sure which, but I made them aware that we are constrained on manpower as of now, and you might not be able to—”
“When they arrive, we will send as many able-bodied men as we can back with them.”
Other members of the council began to murmur, some in dissent, others in mild approval. However, no one disagreed more than the head advisor who was reading the agenda. His silence spoke much louder volumes than his words ever could. The air around him vibrated with contempt for the rebellious former prince. I think that’s why he always sat to my immediate left. It was the best way to hide his looks of disapproval. Even so, I relished in imagining how he looked as I went against every suggestion he had.
“Alright. Well, an interesting choice, my lord. Day 4, you have another open counsel with the people. There is a complaint from a cabbage seller, but, otherwise, it is still mostly unscheduled. Then, day 5, you are expected to go over proposals for school curriculum changes, taxing changes, and military placements.” With that, the old man tapped his papers against the table, signaling the end of the agenda announcements. “Are there any questions or pressing matters?”
I ran through the list of meetings again and tried to mentally tally up how many times I had met with representatives for each nation during the full duration of the season. I had met with someone from the Earth Kingdom twenty times this season. The Air Acolytes always sent one or two people into the city at least once a week. It often gave Aang an excuse to visit, which he was more than happy to do, sometimes for no other reason than to just check in on me. However, as with every season, the Water Nation brought up the rear with only three visits the entire season.
It wasn’t unusual, but I still didn’t like it. Just as the Fire Nation had wiped out the Air Nomads, so did we begin the slow destruction of the Water Nation. Even after my father’s imprisonment, the Water Nation wasn’t the most open to mending relationships once everyone settled into newfound peace. They still didn’t allow any Fire Nation delegates to enter either the south or north poles.
I couldn’t blame them. The image of a Fire Nation ship docking on their shores still carried with it shivers of war and genocide. Even so, it was frustrating.
“Have we heard anything on another Water Nation delegate or envoy this season?”
The head adviser shuffled through his papers, humming, and hawing when it was clear he already knew the answer.
“Nothing so far. I highly doubt we will hear anything from them until the next. Would you like me to write and see if they are willing to accept representation from us?”
Even if we did write, I knew what the result would be. It would be resounding silence, and that silence would be a wholehearted decline. It wouldn’t be worth the time. Yet, something in me was still toiling. There had to be a way to fix this. Perhaps it wouldn’t be next week, next season, or even next year. Surely, though, there had to be a way to start the process. There couldn’t be complete peace without the Water Nation, and I wasn’t the only one on the panel that knew that.
Once again, murmurs were beginning to make their rounds. While they made it seem like they were trying to hide their thoughts, it was all just a careful ruse. This was how they shared information with me. It was how they gave me their opinions without coming outright and demanding I fall one way or another. Again, another passive tradition holding back progress. Still, I focused on their words.
‘War’ was a word that often got passed around when the Water Nation was brought up. While we were in peacetime, war had become familiar and safe to many Fire Nation people. It was something they quickly recognized. It was also something they had experience dealing with. If there was even a whisper of war, they pounced on it like ravenous crows. They excited over it, as it was at least something they could understand. Peacetime was unfamiliar territory.
This time was no exception. I could hear various suggestions of war being passed around:
“Perhaps the Water Nation needs some encouragement.”
“If they don’t want to forge peaceful relationships, perhaps they want something more violent.”
“Maybe they are planning revenge. Enough time has passed. I’ve heard rumors.”
And so they continued back and forth, all hoping I take the bait. While we weren’t looking at each other directly, somehow, the council’s words felt like pointed stares, all directed toward me. The pressure wasn’t something I could ignore. However, war was not on the table for me. Much to the disappointment of my advisers, I quickly shut down any indication that I was entertaining such an idea.
“I’m not interested in forcing the Fire Nation and Water Nation relationship, one way or the other. However, I am interested in showing good faith and mending what relationship we might have. The question is of how.”
It was then as if on cue, the door to the chamber creaked open. There, in the doorway, holding a plain clay teapot in a small red cloth, was a comforting, smiling face. All decorum I tried to maintain instantly fell away. I jumped up from my place at the council table.
Uncle Iroh flashed me a grin, characteristically young for his every-growing age.
“Nephew. I brought tea.”