It hadn't taken long to gather the troops back in preparation for the following morning. The news that they would be heading home soon was greeted with cheers and applause...right up until the moment Azula was mentioned. After that, everyone was quiet and thoughtful, and there was more than one muttering about the Princess being untrustworthy. One soldier even went so far as to speak up, "We'd be safer heading home if we got her and hers off the ship and sailed off without 'em."
The notion had so amused Zuko that he'd jokingly replied, "Possibly." Much to his surprise, he then had to spend the next hour talking quickly to discourage the crew from planning a way to pull it off. His efforts in this regard were not helped by Iroh and Cadence laughing themselves sick in the background.
When his argument about it being treason was countered with, "Not if you order it, sir. Then it's just sibling rivalry," he began to realize something that stunned him. He wasn't surprised to discover his troops were loyal to him over Azula. But suggesting they'd risk charges of treason from her to help him...that implied their loyalty was to him before his father, the Fire Lord. After that realization, he'd given a flat order to not steal Azula's ship unless he'd ordered it, then gone off to a corner to think.
Finally, Iroh restored order by insisting everyone needed to be well rested the following morning. As everyone bedded down for the night, Iroh watched Zuko worriedly. He hoped everything would work out.
The amassed group made their way carefully down the cliffs to the dock the following morning. Seeing the Royal Vessel waiting for them, Iroh began to relax. He recognized the man standing at the top of the ramp. General Cho was one of Ozai's top Generals, steadfastly loyal to the Fire Lord. If he was involved, there was unlikely to be any double crossing. As he relaxed, he noticed Zuko, Cadence, and the troops relaxing around him.
Azula smiled as they approached, and nodded as she stepped past General Cho. As Zuko stepped onto the ramp up to the ship, General Cho barked out, "Form up around the prisoners!"
Iroh knew he wasn't the only one to stiffen in shock...but Cadence was the first to act. Before any of Azula's troops could move to obey Cho's orders, she had called up a large wave that nearly capsized the ship and washed several of those troops off the pier. Zuko's troops had all taken Waterbending stances the moment the wave started to form, and maintained their balance and footing as it passed before rounding on the - now enemy - troops still standing. Iroh and Zuko, meanwhile, rushed up to confront Azula and Cho respectively. "Watch my back!" Zuko barked out to Lieutenants Jong and Zhin, who quickly moved to defend him.
General Cho was a master Firebender, as were all of Ozai's Generals. However, like with most Firebenders, it was driven by rage. Iroh, however, drew from the original source of Firebending, and knew exactly how to handle someone driven by rage. However, he also knew the fight would take time. He hoped Zuko could handle himself against Azula.
"What's the meaning of this?" Zuko was demanding as he faced down against Azula, using his double swords rather than Firebending. "You said you were here to bring us home for debriefing!"
"I lied," Azula countered easily as she evaded. "You know how good I am at that. Do you really think Father hasn't figured out what you're up to by now?"
"What are you talking about?" Zuko demanded, once more striking with his blades, trying to cut off her footwork.
"Zhao knew you planned to meet with the Avatar at the North Pole," she replied. "One of his agents overheard the plan being made before he invited your vessel to join the assault. And it wouldn't have been the first time you met up with the Avatar. Uncle Iroh's known to have connections in the other nations...and I've uncovered the evidence to prove he's joined with a terrorist group dedicated to aid the Avatar in overthrowing the Fire Lord!"
Iroh felt his anger stirring at hearing such slander...especially with how easily it could be passed for truth, even if that wasn't even close to what the Order of the White Lotus was about.
"And your ship fled the North before any sign of the Deep One was visible!" Azula continued. "There were also rumors of Cadence's bending abilities...and she could only have learned Waterbending at the level I just saw from one place...the Northern Water Tribe! She contacted the Moon and Ocean spirits, leading to them summoning up the Deep One to sic on the fleet...which you escaped because you were behind it!" Ducking under one sweep of the sword, she unleashed a blast of blue flames at Zuko...only to be shocked when he deflected it by spinning his other sword, traces of red flames surrounding the blade.
"Lies!" Zuko roared as he swung one blade upward, flames leaping from the sword tip in an arc to race at Azula.
She sidestepped it easily. "Perhaps," she replied. "But the truth doesn't matter, Zuzu. What matters is what Father believes!" With a confident smirk, she began to draw out lightning, determined to finish it.
As she started to fling the lightning, Iroh rushed forward. Catching hold of her hand, he unleashed the lightning from his other hand, striking the cliff side. "We are leaving!" he barked out.
"Form up around the Prince!" Lieutenant Jong shouted. The troops immediately responded to his command, and the group was away while their enemies were still recovering.
Azula moved to help General Cho to his feet, staring out at the retreating group...and smirked.
Ozai stared down at the message he had received from General Cho, not wanting to believe what he was reading. However, Cho was one of his most trusted Generals, and had no reason to lie to him. But the idea of what was written here left him filled with disbelief...and rage.
My Fire Lord,
We have just attempted to make contact with Prince Zuko, General Iroh, Cadence, and their troops. We hailed under flag of truce when we spotted them onshore...and they immediately attacked us without warning.
While I have no wish to bear bad news...it becomes apparent that Prince Zuko and General Iroh have allied themselves with the Avatar and are in active rebellion against the Fire Nation. They are traitors.
Your Humble Servant,
As he felt his rage build inside him, he crushed the report in his hand. With a shout of fury, the flames of the throne room erupted violently, nearly scorching the room to ash. When he was close to being coherent again, he made a mental note to redecorate in a fire proof motif.
Aboard the Royal Ship, Azula had ordered all the troops to seek medical attention. She had solicitously volunteered to see to General Cho's injuries personally. She was now in his quarters as he lay on his stomach, his uniform in one corner. "It's all working out perfectly," she purred softly, trailing her sharp nails up and down Cho's back.
"Y-y-yes, My Princess," Cho gasped out, his wizened features wreathed in pleasure.
"Father will see things my way, and you'll be suitably rewarded for your assistance," she promised. "I am ever so grateful..." She let her hot breath tickle his ear as her nails moved to the base of his spine.
"Princess...please..." he begged.
Smirking, she dug her nails into his back near the base of his spine. His back arched, his expression twisted. After a time, he fell limp, breathing heavily. Azula withdrew her hand and carefully stepped to the door. "Rest, General," she instructed calmly. "We have work to do."
As she headed for her own quarters, she smirked. Old fool, she thought to herself. He was almost too easy to manipulate. At least Zhao was interesting. I might have actually gone through with his proposal if we pulled it off. But that's no matter. My backup plan's now in motion. The order to hunt down Zuzu and the Avatar will come before long...and I know just the team to assemble to help me...