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What A Mom Does

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“Where is Zuko?”

Ursa looked up from her letter to blink at her husband, slow and surprised. “He should be in the classroom with Master Tetsuko, at this time.”

Ozai’s lips compressed. “He is not. I have checked already.”

“Then I have no earthly idea. Why do you want to know? You usually have no interest in the children in the mornings.”

“It is none of your concern.”

Ursa frowned sharply. The scroll rolled itself back up as she dropped it to her desk. “My children are always my concern, husband.” The words were clipped and precise, old lessons on proper diction coming to the fore in her anger.

Ozai must have recognized her speech pattern for the warning sign it was, because his lips thinned further and he all but snarled, “My esteemed father has set me a task concerning him.”

“Zuko is nine years old, prepubescent, and far too young for participating in such things as your father would demand!” Ursa snapped, voice crisp and tightly controlled, as precise as the spit of flame from a charbroiling street merchant.

“I never told you the details of the task!”

“I know your father well enough to guess.”

Ozai sniffed, his face creased with tense, angry lines. “Do you, now. What can you do to stop me?”

Ursa remained silent, biting her tongue on the words that wanted to escape. Have you forgotten why we were betrothed? Have you forgotten my clan, my family’s reputation? That the moon dares not light our steps, that the very sun cannot always see us? I am Living Spirit, what makes you think you can get away with anything I don’t support?

Because Iroh may be the crown prince, but you are still royalty. Right.

“I demand,” Ursa finally said, her voice as quiet as cinders and still as precise as a scorch from blue flame, “to know what you intend with my firstborn child.” Her fire leapt in her eyes, sparks collected in the hot center of her fist. Ozai’s eyes followed both, and for the first time since their wedding fourteen years ago, he looked wary of her. Good.

“My father has said,” he declared, voice strong and carrying as though to counteract the fact that he had nearly retreated a step, “that as I have spoken so against my brother, I should know the loss of a son. I am to kill Zuko.”

Ursa’s heart stopped for one terrifying second.

No. This could not be happening. This could not be Azulon’s plan – there had been only three children to carry on the direct line, now with Lu Ten’s death there were two, surely Azulon would not want to lose yet another grandchild! Surely.

Madness runs in the royal family, Ursa, she could remember her mother telling her the night before her wedding, be careful in that palace. Like a Living Spirit was ever not careful. Ursa had thought the madness controlled, or at least manageable. Perhaps she was wrong.

Perhaps she could still salvage this.

“In what time frame?” she asked. It was hard to force the words past her throat, and her voice sounded slightly strangled. She drew a deep breath and released it again, trying to focus on her pounding heart, trying to bring herself back under control.

Ozai’s mouth twisted into a smug smile. He was pleased to have surprised her so, pleased that her perfect composure had slipped. They’d see who was smug at the end of all this. “Until sunrise tomorrow.”

Ursa’s eyes flew to the sundial perched on her windowsill without her permission. Already it was nearly noon. “I see. Thank you for informing me of this, husband.” In a single, flowing movement, she stood, formed the Eternal Flame, and bowed deeply to Ozai. “If you will excuse me, I have meetings to conduct.”

Without waiting for a response, Ursa swept out of the room in a flurry of silk robes and glossy hair.

~

A scant ten minutes later, Ursa found herself performing much the same bow, this time in greeting. Acrobatics had been involved to get to the Fire Lord’s private office so quickly, but neither the exercise nor the extra skill required in her Princess finery were enough to soothe the roaring forest fire of her terror and rage.

“Daughter,” Azulon said, setting his bowl of noodles to one side, chopsticks set primly across the rim. He often took lunch in his office, hunched over paperwork and reports. “To what do I owe this… unexpected visit?”

Ursa drew a deep, steadying breath, centering herself for the political game she was about to play. “Honored Father,” she began, “if I may impose on your time to answer a question…”

~

Ursa stepped lightly out the door, closed it with a soft snick, and promptly stormed down the hallway. Soon she was fumbling at the latch to a window, dimly noticing for the first time that her hands were shaking and sparks were flying from her finger tips. She exhaled heavily and more sparks scattered from her mouth, leaving small dark scorches on the woven tapestry hung on the wall. Some servant would have to replace it now.

The latch finally slid open and Ursa scrambled out the open window, up the drainpipe, and onto the tile roof, where she darted down the centerline until she was out of earshot of that window. Then she let out a furious shriek and slammed her flaming fist into the tile beneath her. One of them cracked with the force of her blow, three more were scorched beyond repair, and Ursa brought her fist back to hit again.

I don’t need for the boy to die, Daughter, the Fire Lord had said. Merely… incapacitated. If he survives my son’s plans, I will not pursue his death.

If! If! Ursa knew that Azulon had long overlooked Ozai, but this went beyond common sense. Ozai was a well-trained royal firebender with a lust for power, and Zuko was a nine year old boy. She knew that of the royal family, only two did not criticize Zuko for his clumsiness and poor firebending – herself, and her brother-in-law – which left her even more perplexed at how Azulon could think Zuko had any chance at all of surviving whatever Ozai planned.

No matter the platitudes that a lifelong politician spouted, Azulon did not expect Zuko to live.

No. No Fire Lord of hers would order a child’s death, let alone the death of his own grandson. Fire Lord Azulon was no longer her Fire Lord.

Ursa punched the battered tile a third time, then set off for her office again. She had to find Ozai, strike a deal with him, find a fitting punishment for her father-in-law, and spare Zuko’s life.

After all, a mom would always bite back if her children were in danger.

~

A plan was starting to form in Ursa’s mind as she shimmied open the window to her office. Still clinging to the drain pipe, she carefully set her sundial on her desk, and then swung through the window to land on the balls of her feet. She latched the window again and replaced the sundial. It read quarter past one.

In the middle drawer of her desk were old letters from her parents. The letter she had been reading earlier, when Ozai had interrupted, still lay on her desktop, so she swept it into the drawer. Then she brought the whole pile of scrolls forward so she could access the false back of the drawer, and removed the key hidden inside. The drawer snapped shut with ringing finality, as it always did.

Ursa only removed the key when she was going to kill someone.

This key didn’t match the lock on her collection of trade tools, of course. No, this key matched the lock on the small jewelry box in her bedroom, which housed another key. That one matched a lock on a safe tucked into a corner of the Royal Treasury, which contained a key to the lock  of a box hidden in a hollowed-out stair near the children’s classroom, which contained yet another key that unlocked her collection, hidden in an otherwise unused tack room in the stables.

She wasn’t as paranoid as her sister, or her father. They both had a series of six keys to get into their collections. And no one had yet to find the box housing her collection in the first place, so really, Ursa was coming out ahead.

She tucked this first key up her sleeve, nestled into the hidden pocket she had sewn on when the gown had first come from the tailor. Then she left her office once again, by the door, and speed-walked in the direction of her bedroom.

If she ran into Ozai on the way, so much the better.

With fourteen years of practice behind her, following her key path while staying out of sight of prying eyes was almost laughably simple.  Ursa maintained an air of having Somewhere Important To Be on her path – because of course, she did, this was always a matter of life or death – and few people tried to get her attention as she passed through the halls. The ones who did, she sent away again in a matter of seconds, usually on fools’ errands. Ursa felt no remorse for those people’s lost time. She had her son’s life to save.

Ursa found her husband as she was heading for the education wing.

He was standing at the top of the outdoor steps, talking with one of the admirals. Ursa slowed down a little, keeping her hands tucked demurely in her sleeves where she could feel her keys in their pockets with her left hand and her blowgun with its three darts with her right. A few brief snippets of their conversation reached her ears, and Ursa tried to gauge if she would have enough time to get her last key and come back before Ozai finished and left.

She decided she did, and sped up again.

The education wing was empty; at this time of day, the children would be outside in the firebending arenas or the weapons field. Ursa kept her ears pricked for servants’ footsteps as she knelt below the hollow stair and dug her fingernails under the rim. The wooden tread lifted easily on silent, well-oiled hinges, and Ursa snatched the key out only to tuck it into her final pocket. She lowered the tread back down carefully, then stood to her full height and brushed out her skirts.

On her way back to where she had left Ozai, Ursa passed a wide expanse of window that faced the firebending practice arena. Zuko and Azula were on opposite sides; Master Ti Zan was demonstrating a complicated kata to Azula, who watched with interest, while Zuko was practicing an old form by himself.

Ursa stopped and watched her children for a few moments, even as her heart beat a steady thrum of hurry, hurry, hurry in her veins. Azula started performing her new kata while Zuko was halfway through his; Ursa noticed that Zuko tripped and made mistakes four times while Azula finished hers perfectly on what was likely the first try. Her heart clenched tight as Zuko stood up from his latest stumble and brushed the dust off his clothes, setting his jaw and squaring his shoulders as he started over.

Her brave boy. He never did know how to give up. Zuko was like Ozai, that way.

Ursa set her mouth and turned away from the window with a vicious swirl of silk. Zuko’s inability to give up came from her, too.

Ozai was still talking to Admiral Nazune, to Ursa’s relief. She caught sight of him as she came to the wide-open entrance, crossed it at the same pace, and then stopped just on the other side. If there were a pillar here, or anything that could serve as handholds, Ursa would climb up to the ceiling to stay out of sight. But there weren’t, so she stood near the wall and took out a small scroll from her pocket. The characters were an old missive from her cousin stationed in the Earth Kingdom, the last Ursa had heard from her before she went under ashes, and Ursa held it dear to her heart – but she kept it on her person to serve as an alibi in times like this.

The men’s voices just barely floated to her in this position; she couldn’t make out any words but she could hear the cadence of their speech, and it sounded like Ozai was wrapping up. Ursa smiled to herself as her eyes flicked over the familiar characters on autopilot.

The voices stopped, finally, and Ursa heard Admiral Nazune’s footsteps as he went down the steps. Ozai stayed firmly in place. Ursa counted to thirty and back to zero before she rolled up her scroll with a brisk snap and stepped outside.

Ozai stood in the sun, staring at the small piece of harbor visible from this vantage. Ursa came up beside him, positioning herself to his left and barely a half step behind, and waited for him to acknowledge her. When he turned his head in her direction, she bowed low with the Eternal Flame against her chest, and straightened again.

“I have a proposition for you, husband.”

He raised an eyebrow at her, no doubt remembering her rage from earlier in the day. Pitching his voice low, he asked, “You think you have anything to offer me that will be worth disobeying my Fire Lord?”

“I can offer you the throne.”

Ozai’s gaze sharpened. Ursa had his full attention, as she knew she would. “Go on.”

“First promise me that, if I fulfill my side, you will not harm either of my children.”

“I give you my word.”

Ursa held Ozai’s gaze, searching for dishonesty. “Promise me that you will not invent a new reason to harm either of them.”

“I give you my word I will only punish them for true offenses. Now get on with it, Ursa.”

“I can kill the Fire Lord for you.”

Ozai turned to her fully, both eyebrows raised. “That’s treason.”

“I know.”

“You will be banished. I can’t have a traitorous murderer in my court.”

“I know.”

“You will be unwelcome on any Fire Nation territory, homeland or colony. You will be restricted to unconquered Earth Kingdom, who will not look kindly on you as a firebender.”

“I know.”

“Your children will stay here, or the agreement is null and void and I will hunt you all down to kill you.”

“I expected as much. I only ask you keep your promises, and let me say goodbye to them before I leave.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Five minutes.”

“Each?”

“Total.”

Ursa’s eyes widened. “That’s not enough time!”

“You will make it be enough time.”

“I will not! Five minutes each!”

“Don’t test me, Ursa, or I will make it five minutes from when you tell me the deed is done!” Sparks flew from Ozai’s mouth as he snarled, and Ursa tamped down the instinctive urge to step back. Ozai had not had emotionally-driven firebending episodes in years. As much as she hated it – as much as everything in her twisted and snapped and blazed, she knew she could not press.

She drew her chin up and held Ozai’s gaze, sharp and flinty. “Fine. Five minutes total. The deed will occur after your father retires for the night. I will send word when it is done.”

Ursa bowed to her husband for the final time, smooth elegance that belied her fury, and strode back inside.

~

Ursa sidled into her bedchamber from the secret exit she had made when she first moved in, shoving the wooden floorboards out of the way from the room underneath and crawling out from under her bed. Her dowry chest stood at the foot of the bed, locked with a Living Spirit firelock. One had to produce a small, tightly controlled flame of the proper temperature to trigger the mechanism; Living Spirit clan members who could not firebend were supplied with machines that could do the job for them. Ursa had no need for such a gadget; while her long-range firebending was weak and poorly-controlled, she had always excelled at small, less flashy displays.

She knelt by her dowry chest and lit a centimeter-long flame from her thumb to unlock it, remembering Zuko’s performance in the firebending arena half an hour ago. He wasn’t good at firebending, for all the effort he put into learning the forms, but Ursa knew he was better than she had been at that age. Still. Compared to his sister? Compared to his father, or his uncle the General, or his cousin? He was poor at the long-range displays, and Ursa could only hope that he would take after her in firebending, prove successful at small, precise flames.

The dowry chest was nearly empty when Ursa shoved the lid up. To one side was a satchel filled with nonperishable foods and a full waterskin, perched on top of a pair of sturdy leather shoes. Inside each shoe was a small pouch of coins; one held gold while the other held copper. To the other side were three sets of clothing: a set of middle-class quality cottons, drab brown so she could blend into either the Fire Nation or the Earth Kingdom; a set of higher-class red clothes in a slightly outdated style, to slip into the capital on her own; and a warm, three-piece set of men’s clothes in dark gray with a cheap theater La mask folded into the shirt, for sneaking around after dark. A large, heavy brown cloak was neatly folded and stacked on top of all three.

Ursa removed all but the red outfit. Moving quickly, she undressed from her day-to-day Princess outerwear, pulled on the gray trousers and undershirt, and replaced her dress and accessories. The cloak and shoes were set to one side in a neat pile, to be hidden until they were needed, while the coin purses were tucked into her pockets and the brown clothes were shoved into the satchel. Ursa had to put most of her body weight into squeezing the two parts of the satchel together to close it again, and it bulged unattractively at the seam, but it would do until she had to ditch her Fire Princess finery at the end of the night.

Finally, Ursa held the La mask in both hands. It held nothing but sentimental value, with hundreds just like it sold every week in the Fire homeland alone. This was the mask her father had given her when she became a woman in the eyes of the clan, when she proved herself an adequate spy. There had been a feast in her honor, with food she had stolen herself (even if she had left money equal to its worth in its place), and then her father had taken her back to the marketplace and paid half a copper for a wooden mask off the theater cart. It was the cheapest mask the vendor had, which was part of the symbolism: a Living Spirit spy or assassin didn’t need expensive equipment to get the job done.

Ursa had been fourteen when she’d received the La mask. That had been nineteen years ago. Most active Living Spirits lost their first masks after a decade or so, or else kept it safe and used a different one. That Ursa’s first mask had lasted nearly twice as long, even with her reduced missions due to her Fire Princess obligations, was a miracle.

She rubbed her thumb over the left eyebrow, where there was a gouge in the wood that she had repainted the year before Zuko was born. The mission she’d been on still stood out clearly in Ursa’s mind, as did every mission that marked her mask or her gray “uniform.” Then Ursa brought the mask to her mouth, kissed the bridge of the nosepiece, and gently lay it back inside her dowry chest on top of the red clothes.

Ursa gave the lid a gentle nudge and let it slam down of its own accord. Then she gathered the satchel, cloak, and shoes, and slid back under the bed.

The scraping of the floorboards being replaced echoed in her mind as much as the chest lid.

~

Her mind spinning with half-formed ideas to kill the Fire Lord (not my Fire Lord, not anymore), Ursa stowed the cloak and shoes near the children’s bedchambers and the satchel by her planned escape exit, the third floor kitchen. Then, and only then, did she make her way to the stables, where she kept her trade tools. Her assassination equipment.

Her poisons.

The lock to the abandoned tack room where she stored her supplies was a dual lock: it required both a key and a flame. And the key, of course, took four separate steps to access. Ursa had admittedly splurged on the lock, but she didn’t want anyone stumbling on her collection of poisons by accident.

She took one step into the room and shut the reinforced door firmly behind her. The dual lock engaged with a soft click; Ursa could open it again from the inside with only the key, but from the outside one had to have both the flame and a replication key to enter. There was no other way out of the room, though, and Ursa’s skin crawled with the sensation of being trapped, watched, cornered.

The tack room was small, not quite three meters by four meters. Three walls were lined with shelves stacked with small jars, the fourth with a workbench stacked with mortars and bins of sachets. There were two freestanding shelves running half of the length of the interior, leaving Ursa barely enough room to stand at her workbench or peruse any shelf in the room.

Most of the poisons were plants harvested from various Fire islands, but one wall was dedicated to animal and marine secretions, kept bottled and wrapped in oilcloth. Half of another held poisons imported from Living Spirit contacts living mostly under ashes in the Earth Kingdom. One bottom shelf was half full of large, dark glass bottles filled with various ethers. The seams between bottle and cap were covered with stretchy material made from the central islands’ latex trees to help keep the vapors in.

Ursa’s eyes flicked over her collection, dull green leaves and dark berries and milky white venoms, hoping the sight of so many options would help her restless mind settle on one. Or at least three. She could manage to choose between three options. Instead her mind just got more frenetic, so she sighed, rubbed the corners of her eyes, and started sorting through her collection methodically.

The freestanding units could be dismissed out of hand; they acted too slowly. So could the bottom two shelves of secretions, because they produced very obvious symptoms – they were too easy to recognize, and the royal physicians would be crying assassination before Ursa could so much as get on an Earth-bound ship. That left her with two walls of shelves, and three shelves of the third wall.

She picked up a jar of hemlock, considered it for two seconds, and replaced it. Too obvious. The next jar held snowberries from Mount Reniku, far to the north; this was fast-acting enough and subtle enough to consider, so Ursa set it on her bench. And so she went down the row, replacing most of the jars she picked up and thoughtfully setting some others on a corner of the bench for later.

Most of the poisons she put on her workbench were herbs, which would work best if brewed into a tea. Luckily, Azulon was in the habit of having a pot before bed. Ursa didn’t have the same flair for brewing that her brother-in-law did, but she could make a serviceable pot. Her biggest problem, which her mind picked at while she analyzed each poison in turn, was a reason to brew for the Fire Lord.

There really was none. Perhaps, if she had cultivated an obvious love for tea like General Iroh had, she could have passed it off as enthusiasm for a new blend. Perhaps make a similar blend with no poison to share with her husband and children, to help craft an alibi. But while she liked tea, Ursa had never gone out of her way for it. So that wouldn’t work.

Ursa set a jar of mikibiki mushrooms on her workbench, her mind starting to settle into logical patterns capable of making a proper plan. Perhaps she could give the dose of poison to the servant who normally brewed Azulon’s bedtime tea? No, no, that would possibly implicate another person, who could blab on her, or worse, be executed for treason if Ursa didn’t do her job properly and the physicians recognized Azulon’s death as a successful assassination.

Ursa refused to drag another person into this thin-shelled sulfurous situation.

Right, so slipping something into his tea was out of the question. That eliminated most of the herbs Ursa had just pulled down from the shelves. Acutely aware of the seconds ticking away – soon she would have to leave to attend supper, skipping it would look so suspicious – Ursa frowned down at the collection of jars on her workbench and started sorting through them again. Most of them she shoved off to the left, unsuitable for her purpose, while a few she tucked to the right. Those were mostly secretions and venoms, things she could just drip into Azulon’s sleeping mouth by the drop. But there were a handful of herbs strong enough to kill from just a single sip of tea, which could be dripped in with much the same technique.

And then there was Ursa’s pride and joy, some of the most expensive poisons in this room – her ethers.

Honestly, they should have been Ursa’s first thought – she tried to save them for high-profile jobs, but what could be more high-profile than assassinating the Fire Lord? What could be more urgent, more deserving of using such a quality poison, than saving her son? (Or her daughter; Ursa would kill the Fire Lord to save Azula, too.)

Ursa knelt on the stone floor in front of the ether shelf. There were three full bottles, dark brown with the latex coating, with a paper label covering most of the glass. The rest of the shelf was taken up with rows of smaller brown bottles in decreasing size. When Ursa used some ether, she would decant the rest into a bottle the next size down, so that the bottle was always full. It decreased the amount of ether in contact with air during storage, which increased the ether’s shelf life. Ursa plucked one bottle off the shelf, and rolled it in her hands thoughtfully. This one held sulfuric ether, which induced unconsciousness within a minute if a soaked cloth was held over the mouth and nose. It was actually quite common – the army and navy both used it for anesthetic – the most expensive part of obtaining it was actually in bribes to ensure the purchase couldn’t be traced back to Ursa, who had supposedly denounced her clan’s ways at her marriage.

Importantly for Ursa’s purposes, most of the symptoms of inhaling the stuff were impossible to see after death:  irregular breathing, paleness, muscle relaxation, and excessive salivation. But it could also induce vomiting, and the scent was very distinctive, and tended to linger.

Ursa set the sulfuric ether down by her knee and reached for the next one.

This was wood ether; it killed faster than sulfuric ether with the same method, but it produced a far stronger feeling of suffocation. If Ursa snuck into Azulon’s bedchamber after he had fallen asleep and put the cloth over his face, the suffocation would wake him up before the ether took effect and knocked him out again. And Ursa was under no illusions – if Azulon woke up, she would fail to kill him. Ursa put the bottle back on the shelf.

The third bottle contained dioxane, which also had such unfortunate symptoms as vomiting. It could also cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and fluid buildup in the lungs. Those symptoms would be easy to pass off as illness, especially if Ursa instructed Ozai to say he had noticed some abnormalities in Azulon’s behavior. It killed approximately as fast as sulfuric ether.

Ursa reached down and picked up the bottle of sulfuric ether again. Cradling one bottle in each hand, she considered whether she wanted to cause the fluid buildup and organ damage – by using the dioxane – or find another way of dealing with vomit without organ damage – which she would have to if she used the sulfuric ether. It would be a simple matter to get some clean sheets for Azulon’s bed before she came to kill him, but Ursa wasn’t confident in her bedmaking skills to make it look like the bed had not been tampered with. Bringing in a servant to do it for her had the same problem as giving a servant an herbal poison to put in the tea – it brought in an unwitting accomplice, and Ursa really wasn’t equipped to handle that.

Maybe if she had a week or two, enough time to possibly find a servant who would be all too willing to help in Fire Lord Azulon’s untimely death.

But she didn’t – she needed Azulon dead by sunrise, and she was running out of time.

Dioxane it was, then.

Ursa put the sulfuric acid back on the shelf and grabbed two empty bottles – one the smallest size she had, the other two sizes smaller than the current dioxane bottle. She took all three to the workbench, filled the smallest bottle with dioxane, and capped it tightly. Then she poured the rest into the larger spare bottle, which filled nearly to the shoulder, and capped that one tightly. Ursa replaced the cap on the old bottle and then, from one of the drawers set under the bench, she took out a solid chunk of latex and a small metal bowl. She took both and stepped just outside the tack room, closing the door behind herself firmly. Only then did she hold the latex in her fist and apply heat through her firebending to melt it.

That was the one major drawback to ethers of any kind. They were all highly flammable and pretty dangerous around firebenders.

Ursa set the bowl of liquidized latex on the floor so she could activate the lock, creating the precise flame with one hand and turning the key with the other. She shoved her foot between the door and the door frame and picked up her bowl again. Cupping it tightly in one hand, Ursa concentrated on applying heat without flame or spark to the underside, helping to keep the latex melted. And then, holding her breath and quietly praying she didn’t spark on accident, she stepped back into the room.

With a small wooden scraper, Ursa smeared the latex around the seam of all three caps. As soon as she was done, she tamped down her firebending and put the bowl on the workbench. The smallest bottle was tucked into her pocket, next to one of the money pouches, while the other two went back on the shelf. Ursa shoved the sealed empty bottle to the back of the shelf, behind the clean ones. Hopefully whoever found this place would be wary enough of a sealed empty bottle to handle it gently.

Hopefully whoever found this place would be educated enough to be able to read the labels, and recognize the danger of who-knows-how-old ethers.

Ursa picked up three small jars of herbs, the ones that could be medicine or poison depending on the dose. They’d be helpful in the next few days, trying to burn out a new life for herself in the Earth Kingdom. After a second’s thought, she set down two jars, one of bitter almond and one of datura. They would both be easy enough to find in the Earth Kingdom. The third jar, filled with rosy periwinkle, she slid into her pocket.

Absently, she wondered what the servants would think of her bulging pockets today.

Ursa didn’t bother puting away the bowl of latex, or the myriad jars left on the workbench. She fully intended to take the key to the dual lock with her – a single key wouldn’t take much space – so the only way anyone would get in to her dangerous collection would be if someone knocked a wall down. At that point, it wouldn’t matter if she had left her workbench a mess. It was doubtful if anyone but Ozai and perhaps Iroh would connect a room full of poisons to Ursa.

Ursa started to turn the door knob, then stopped and swept her eyes over the room. She really would miss her trade tools.

~

Supper was a tense affair, and Ursa found herself stretching her self-control to its limit to witness her son obliviously sitting in the same room as the two men who were plotting his death. She excused herself as soon as she could politely manage.

With Azulon currently occupied with supper, and knowing that the Fire Lord had at least one meeting directly after, Ursa took her chance to scope out Azulon’s bedchamber before he retired to it.

The first place she headed for was a conference room near where the wing of royal bedchambers began. From there she hiked up her skirts and hopped up onto the long table. The wooden planks of the ceiling were slightly loose, and she pried open a gap just large enough for her to wriggle through. Behind the planks of the conference room, there were joists to support the floor above and perhaps a foot and a half of space in between the boards of the ceiling and the boards of the floor. It was a very tight fit, but Ursa was able to floor-crawl backwards enough to pull the planks mostly back into place.

Ursa lit a small flame for light and floor-crawled forward again. Her skirt caught on the gap still visible in the planks beneath her, and she had to reach back to tug it loose again. The cobwebs tickled her nose and there was a quiet skittering to one side – probably a cricket-mouse or a shrew-weevil. This part of the palace was near enough to the outdoors that Ursa wasn’t surprised at the presence of either one. She counted the number of diagonal joists that she snaked over, and when she reached twenty-three she came to a stop and pressed down at the crack between one plank and the next.

The gap appeared, and Ursa widened it until she could jump down in a plume of dust that made her sneeze.

She landed in the bedchamber of the Fire Lord’s unmarried consort. It was currently empty, locked from the outside, and liberally coated in dust, as the last consort had fled the palace on Fire Lady Ilah’s death – Ursa rather suspected the woman had seen quite enough of the expectations of the Fire Lady and wanted nothing to do with it. The bedchamber did, however, have a handy connecting passage to the Fire Lord’s bedchamber, to make it all the easier for him to sneak in for a little… stress relief.

The entrance was in a false back of the second wardrobe. When Ursa opened it, she was unsurprised to find the wardrobe empty of any clothes or linens. Her fingers slotted neatly into the notches of the false back, and she pried it off more easily than she had the ceiling planks. She brought the back out of the wardrobe and left it leaning against the wall. No one would come into this room to see things left out of place; the dust was proof enough of that.

The passage between the Fire Lord’s chambers and the consort’s was barely high enough for a tall man to walk unimpeded, and not wide enough to walk two abreast. The wood finishing was of lesser quality than that in the less clandestine spaces, and some of the varnish was starting to peel. The wall sconces were empty, and the only source of light was the small flame cradled in Ursa’s hand. This passage had been largely abandoned in the four years since Fire Lady Ilah’s death, and the neglect showed.

At the end of the passage, which Ursa knew from previous excursions led out into a similar wardrobe, Ursa clenched her hand into a fist to extinguish her flame and pressed her ear to the door. She steadied her breathing, bringing it in through the mouth and out through the nose as quietly as possible, slowly decreasing the depth of her breaths to make them quieter. There was no noise on the other side, so she dusted her clothes off, lifted the false back away from the wardrobe, and slid out of the passageway. Once again, she pressed her ear to the wardrobe door to listen, and heard nothing.

She held her breath, and slid her finger under the latch of the wardrobe to ease the door open.

Even though Ursa had been in this room before, the sheer size of it still stole her breath for a brief moment. It was easily twice the size of the room she used to share with Ozai, before their marriage cooled to embers and she permanently moved into her own bedroom; even there, Ozai’s bedchamber was larger than her entire childhood home.

The bed was set dead center against the opposite wall, pride of place in this cavernous room, large enough to comfortably sleep a family of five and possibly the grandmother, too. It was draped with tight netting, like all Fire Nation beds, to keep out mosquito-wasps.

The netting would be no problem. The tiny carillon bells sewn onto the netting, however, would be Ursa’s biggest adversary.

She ghosted closer to the bed, staying light on her feet to avoid alerting the guards stationed in the common hallway. The bells were sewn on in an irregular pattern, to prevent assassins from easily avoiding them.  Theoretically, any assassin who tried to murder the Fire Lord in his bed would trigger the bells, which would wake the Fire Lord and allow him to fight back instead of dying dishonorably in his sleep.

Ursa slid her hand in the gap between sheets of netting and the bells tinkled pleasantly. The easiest way to disable them without removing them entirely was to muffle them with clay. She didn’t dare work on any of them before Azulon retired for the night, since his eyesight was still sharp and he might well have a guard search his room. So she would have to work quickly and silently, shove clay into all the bells with minimal movement of the netting, before she could open the netting to put the dioxane-soaked cloth over Azulon’s face.

Experimentally, Ursa pinched the netting just above one bell and pressed a finger of her other hand into the cavity, against the clapper. The netting barely moved and the surrounding bells didn’t sound. Ursa smiled, sharp as a hearth poker.

Yes, that would work.

She slipped back through the secret passageway, replacing the false wardrobe backs as she went, and then back through the ceiling again, shoving the planks back in place and dusting herself down in the conference room.

Now, three things: obtain clay, talk to Ozai about the cover story, and wait.

~

The clay was easy to get. Ursa had cultivated a persona of whimsy, much like her brother-in-law the General, and so it wasn’t terribly out of character to suddenly want to try her hand at clay sculpture. A simple order to a passing servant, and she had a pound of sturdy red clay wrapped in oilcloth. She left it in her office and pointedly did not look at her sundial.

Tracking down Ozai was a little harder. Luckily she had plenty of time to waste.

Eventually, Ursa found him, all but loitering near the throne room. But of course the son of the Fire Lord had no need to loiter, not even the overlooked spare heir, so naturally that was not what Ozai was doing at all. She came up to him, silk skirts swirling around her ankles, and left ten minutes later having informed him of what to say to ensure Azulon’s death looked like a disease rather than an assassination.

Then she retreated to her office again, and this time she did look at the sundial. There was still two hours until the time Azulon generally retired for the night, and she would give another three to ensure he fell asleep before she came to kill him. Five hours was plenty of time to set the rest of her affairs in order.

The first thing Ursa did was sort through every drawer in her desk and pull out every piece of paper that could possibly be incriminating. The letters from her parents were put on top; she was supposed to have broken nearly all contact with her birth clan and it would be far too easy to realize that any letter from a Living Spirit to another Living Spirit contained coded information somehow. It was all put in a pile in her warming brazier. She pulled out the first key in her treasure hunting sequence and placed it in the middle of the paper pile. The latest wood-shaving codebreaker from her aunt’s production line went in the brazier, too, along with the brush whose diameter matched the shaving’s coil exactly. Ursa poured out her tiny bottle of invisible ink onto a handkerchief and curled the handkerchief around the key; the bottle she threw in her trash bin, as though she had just run out. Then she set the whole pile on fire, and let it all burn to ash.

She may be banished as soon as Azulon died, but she would not leave behind anything that would let Ozai declare her an enemy of the state, to be hunted to the death.

Ursa returned to her desk and pulled out a clean sheet of paper, a brush, and an inkstone, and began to write letters. One would be sent to her parents, giving a brief explanation and a promise to send more details when she could; one to her clan elders, giving the same brief explanation and an offer to begin an operation in the Earth Kingdom herself, if necessary. The third and fourth she rolled up and tied with ribbons, setting them aside to charge one of the more trustworthy servants to deliver them to her children on the first Midsummer’s Day after Zuko turned sixteen.

Then Ursa pulled out her copies of various edicts Azulon had written over the last fourteen years, in his own hand. She studied them carefully, picking out the details in his characters, the way he flicked the end of a northeast-southwest line, how he made pedestals at the bottom of his vertical strokes but not the top, the type of paper and ink that he used.

She set up a new inkstone of his preferred variety, pulled towards herself a scroll of his preferred paper, and forged an edict naming Ozai as his successor.

And then Ursa turned her brush to last-minute orders, making as much use of her last hours of Princessdom as she could. One to the head of staff, pre-emptively firing certain servants with full benefits whom she already knew Ozai would eliminate as soon as possible. One to the Councilor of Education, ensuring he had full control over her children’s tutors, as per her right as a mother; by Fire Nation law, the mother had full rights over her children’s education, and while Ursa didn’t doubt Ozai would order anyone but the best for Azula, she rather suspected the opposite for Zuko. One to the fine network of spies her mother’s childhood best friend ran in Caldera City, ensuring that they were apprised of the situation and would keep an eye on her children. A second, separate order to the spy network, asking them to provide a distraction tonight on the north side of the city, away from the harbor. One to the captain of the Caldera City Home Guard, informing her of “little whispers” Ursa had overheard about a planned riot on the north side of the city – the Living Spirits were far more than good enough to provide the distraction and still evade heightened patrols in the area, and Ursa’s own Living Spirit heritage gave her words more weight to the Home Guard. Several orders to her personal servants, detailing what was to be done with the personal belongings she would have to leave behind, and what to tell her children, and what to tell her brother-in-law the General.

Finally, an order to the captain of an unnamed ship, allowing Ursa passage onboard until docking in a colony port, just in case.

With a tired sigh, Ursa washed and dried her brush. She took the molten-and-cooled gold nugget that used to be her key out of the brazier, threw her window wide open, and leaned her forearms on the sill, sticking her head out to draw in a deep breath and then tilting it back to look at the stars.

She took a moment to orient herself, picking out the familiar constellations, and then did a couple of quick calculations: if the lowest star of the Minor Dragon was about two fingers’ widths above the horizon in the east and the Iguanaleopard hadn’t started to rise yet, then it was roughly three and a half hours after sunset.

Her time was up.

~

Ursa left the second wardrobe back open, although she had nudged the first one shut behind her. A guard shuffled their feet just outside the bedroom door; Azulon, the only other person in the room, snored in his enormous bed. Ursa ghosted towards him on spiderfly-light feet, the lump of clay sitting heavy in her pocket.

She pinched a tiny bit of clay off of the larger mass, balled it up between her fingers, and then grasped the netting tight with her free hand. The ball of clay stuck into the carillon bell neatly, pressing the clapper to one side. Ursa released the netting and then held it again just above the next bell. And so she went.

Ursa estimated that it took her about half an hour to push clay into all the bells, but it was a half hour well-spent: Azulon snored on and the guards just outside were none the wiser. Finally, though, she was done, and she removed her vial of dioxane wrapped in her handkerchief. The rubber seal peeled off almost soundlessly; the noise was drowned out by Azulon.

Ursa wondered how long the late Fire Lady Ilah had put up with that snore before she had relocated her own sleeping place.

The dioxane dribbled out of the vial and onto the handkerchief easily, and soon the room was full of the sickly-sweet, fruity smell of ether. Ursa started taking shallow breaths to avoid breathing in too much of her own poison. Then she parted the silenced netting and carefully, slowly draped the handkerchief over Azulon’s nose and mouth.

She gingerly settled her hand over it, making sure he breathed in as much vapor as possible.

After several seconds, his eyelids fluttered. Ursa held her breath, knowing Azulon’s first impulse would be to firebend, and knowing that just such an action would be disastrous for both of them. But Azulon settled quickly again, his breath taking on that quality which told Ursa that he was fully unconscious.

Ursa sighed quietly, removing her hand now that the most dangerous part was past, and started plucking the clay out of the bells furthest from her point of entry. They were a sure sign of assassination, after all.

Soon enough, Azulon’s breath started wheezing with fluid buildup and he started twitching, and retched surprisingly quietly; Ursa suspected that he was far enough gone by now that his muscles were weakening. Vomit dribbled out from under her handkerchief from the left corner of his mouth. She left him there, letting him choke on his own vomit and fluids, and let the scene describe itself: poor Fire Lord Azulon, so weak in the night that he couldn’t clear his own mouth of his puke.

By the time Ursa was half done removing the clay from the carillon bells, Azulon was still.

She slid one hand through the netting that was still silenced and retrieved her handkerchief, soaked in both dioxane and vomit. It would be burned later, when she wasn’t in air saturated with dioxane vapor. Ursa abandoned the netting to leave the handkerchief on the windowsill and ease the window open, helping to vent the vapor outside where it would diffuse safely, and then returned.

Ursa left her forged edict on the bedside table. She grabbed the handkerchief on her way out, latched the wardrobe false back into place, and retraced her steps to the consort’s bedroom. She firmly latched that false back, too, and then propped the window open just long enough to hold the handkerchief out of it and let it burn to ashes.

She made her way to her children’s rooms, stopping only long enough to put on her long brown cloak.

~

She left again after only five minutes, as promised.

~

Princess Ursa, wife of Prince Ozai, mother of Prince Zuko and Princess Azula, left her son’s bedroom and died.

Ursa the La Spirit, although she was maskless and publicly without clan, left the Fire Palace by way of the third floor kitchen. She dropped noiselessly into the garden below and left the grounds by the shadows without looking back.

Ursa the La Spirit dropped a misshapen lump of clay into the ocean from the pier, and then slunk over the edge of a merchant ship heading for the Yokoni Province. She made herself comfortable in the hold, her satchel of possessions serving as her pillow and her cloak as her blanket.

Ursa the La Spirit would make a life and a name for herself in the Earth Kingdom, quickly seeing the lies fed to the Fire Nation citizens as children and organizing a resistance group, and all the while she knew two things:

Princess Ursa, wife of first Prince Ozai and later of Fire Lord Ozai, died in the same moment Ursa the La Spirit murdered Fire Lord Azulon.

Princess Ursa, mother of Prince Zuko and Princess Azula, would never see the light of day again.

Chapter Text

Azula stood outside the tackroom that had been abandoned and boarded up for as long as she could remember, watching her mother carefully take a pry bar to the wood to make a new entrance.

Her mother. Her mother wasn’t dead, her mother came back, her mother still loved her –

“So tell me,” Azula drawled, pushing the inconvenient emotions back, “if this was your workroom, why do we have to break in like common thieves?”

“I used to have a key,” Mother answered, heaving back on the pry bar. Azula was reluctantly impressed at her strength. “But I melted it before I left. I wanted to prevent other people from stumbling in here and getting themselves in trouble.”

Azula wanted to scoff – that was Mother for you, so tenderhearted, preventing trespassers in her workroom to spare the trespassers’ fate. But she knew the implied meaning behind Mother’s statement, that before I left really meant before I killed your grandfather.

Mother wasn’t quite as tenderhearted as Azula had always believed, Azula was rapidly learning.

Mother gave one last heave and the old wood splintered with a crack, finally leaving a hole big enough for her and Azula to step through. “There,” Mother said with satisfaction, clearing away some of the wood shards and passing them back to Azula, who promptly dumped them in a pile. “That should do it.”

Azula said nothing, watching Mother step through the hole. Then she came forward and stuck her head through, taking in the room before she stepped through herself. There were three walls of shelves and two rows of freestanding shelves, all of them packed with jars and canisters and bottles, coated in dust. To one side of the hole was a long workbench, just as dusty as the shelves, with several dusty jars that Azula assumed corresponded with the empty slots on the shelves. There was a bowl with a wooden dipper, at least three mortars and pestles that Azula could see, and several bins filled with… stuff.

Azula stepped through the hole and sneezed from the dust.

Mother had already produced a rag from somewhere, one of her many pockets, and dampened it with her water skin, and was wiping down jars from the workbench. She checked the label on each one before setting it into one of two piles.

“What… are all of these?” Azula asked, still staring at the sheer volume of jars. That all held different things. Mother had called this room her storeroom of “trade tools,” but Azula couldn’t remember any duties Mother had had that required herbs.

“The tools of my trade, dear,” Mother hummed. “My collection of poisons.”

Oh.

Azula blinked and cut her eyes towards Mother. “Obviously,” she drawled. Then, “Are they all different?”

“Oh, of course. For the most part. I did have two or three jars of white snakeroot, since I went through it so quickly.”

A shiver of shock ran up Azula’s spine. She didn’t know very much about poison, but even she had heard of white snakeroot – so potent a poison that people died from drinking milk that came from animals who had ingested the stuff. And Mother used it frequently?

“Oh, suicide tree seeds,” Mother added, holding up another jar. “I had a lot of this stuff, too. Very easy to slip into food, because the flavor is so mild that spices cover it up nicely. If you eat enough of it, your heartbeat gets so irregular that you die. And it’s very easy to pass off as a simple heart-disease death.” She passed the jar to Azula, who held it gingerly with both hands, wide-eyed. “I’ll have to dig a deep hole in one of the gardens to bury most of these…”

“Uh. What do I do with this?” Azula asked. Her voice came dangerously close to squeaking.

“Oh, just empty it into one of the sacks we brought,” Mother said vaguely. She was already inspecting another label.

Azula took a deep breath and held open one of the large, empty flour sacks that Mother had rescued from the kitchen.

“What’s in that one?” she asked, when she thought her voice was under control again.

“This is manchineel, the little apple of death,” Mother said. Azula’s eye twitched – who came up with these names? “Ingesting the fruit can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures before it finally kills you.” She handed the jar to Azula, gesturing at the sack Azula had emptied the suicide seeds into. Azula took the jar, handling it like it could explode, and squinted at Mother. Waiting for her to continue. And continue she did: “The interesting thing about manchineel is how antisocial it is; it’s so irritating that just brushing against the leaves can trigger sap leakage, which causes severe reactions. Or standing under the tree when it rains, that can lead to rashes from the runoff.”

Azula stared down at the innocent-looking plant matter in the jar. “Right,” she muttered.

They kept working through the room slowly, filling up old flour sacks as they went. Three were reserved for poisons that would be buried, while one was full of stuff that was too old and/or too weak to be dangerous in such small amounts, which Mother would give to the gardeners to compost. Azula rather thought that was courting danger. The workbench slowly filled up with jars from the shelves again; Azula didn’t dare ask what would be done with those.

And all the while, Mother would tell Azula about the various poisons.

“This is full of yew needles, one of the fastest plant-based poisons in the world. It kills by suppressing the pulse, usually causing convulsions and paralysis in the process.” Azula grimaced as she emptied the needles into the current to-be-buried sack.

“Spurge laurel; this was a gift from my older brother for my birthday. Not very useful, honestly, it leaves the victim in a coma for a while before death… Makes it obvious that it was a murder.”

“Chokecherry bark, from the central parts of the Earth Kingdom. I got this from my cousin before she went under ashes during the War. Unlike most poisons, this one targets the lungs first. The victim chokes to death.” Azula gingerly touched her throat with one hand before she accepted the jar.

Oh, and then they reached the shelf of animal-based poisons! Azula hadn’t thought it possible, but those were worse than the collection of plant-based poisons. Mostly because these tended to be more concentrated and therefore they killed faster – for example –

“This is venom from a box jellyfish, off the northern Kuloto Island coast. It’s very expensive because it’s so dangerous to collect; an accidental sting is always fatal unless it’s treated immediately. Vinegar works, but nothing actually does anything for the pain,” Mother said. Azula screwed her eyes up, wondering why her mother would buy a poison if it was so very dangerous to the workers who harvested it.

“Oh, dear… these used to be live marbled cone snails, so I could harvest the venom as late as possible. One drop has enough toxin to kill up to twenty people, you know, and there’s variation in how long it takes to start taking effect – sometimes it starts immediately, sometimes it’s delayed by days. No one’s ever found an antidote.” Mother sighed. “Well, just throw them in the burying sack, I suppose.”

“Here’s some puffer poison! You can come by this stuff very cheaply if you know the right people; it’s a byproduct of the puffer fish industry. One of the worst effects is muscle paralysis, which of course suffocates the victim. You can’t breathe if your diaphragm is paralyzed. Most people die in less than a day, sometimes as soon as four hours.”

“Oh, I forgot I had batrachotoxin! Did you know there are still people in the most humid parts of the Fire Nation who traditionally use this to hunt? It comes from little tree frogs, the people catch them and put them near fires to make them sweat, and use that on their darts and arrows. It causes heart failure.” And Mother blithely handed the jar off to Azula.

“Mother,” Azula finally said, somewhat desperately, clutching the frog sweat to her chest, “why do you have so many poisons?”

Mother blinked at her, looking surprised. “Oh. As I’ve said, they’re trade tools.” Suddenly she smiled, wry and fond and a little exasperated. “I am an assassin, dear.”

“Yes, but…” Azula’s eyes darted around the room, the cleared shelves and the ones they hadn’t reached yet. “What about knives? Or firebending! And half of these kill the same way, anyway!”

Mother dusted off yet another jar, smiling. “They may kill the same way, but in different timeframes. Or they may differ in how easy they are to hide. Or in price. Or in who’s susceptible – I’ve done many jobs where multiple people were poisoned but only a select few had the extra weaknesses that pushed them over the edge to death. And knives and firebending are so obvious, Azula. Sometimes you don’t want the survivors to know the death was an assassination.”

Azula swallowed, feeling sick to her stomach. “Like… like Grandfather?”

Mother cut her eyes sideways to look at Azula. “Yes. Like your grandfather.” She shrugged. “It would have put your father in a tricky spot, if it was known that Fire Lord Azulon had been assassinated just after he decided to pass over your uncle as his heir.”

Azula stared at Mother, one hand on her stomach and one hand clenching shut the sack of poisons to be buried, and wondered how she had ever thought this woman was tenderhearted.

At least Azula had never murdered a person with malicious aforethought.