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Desperate Times

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Ozai shrugged off his outer robe and knelt at the outer edge of the royal Agni Kai arena.

His opponent, Fire Lord Azulon, mirrored him on the other side.

Ursa sat in her seat, pride of place as the only adult member of the royal family in the audience. She wore a small, concerned frown, watching the introduction of the fight, keeping a close eye on her husband. She worried; Ozai seemed a little… off. Enough to lose the fight? Ursa didn’t know.

Azulon, as the challenged, shot the first blast of fire. Ursa flinched back, half-covering her face with one bell sleeve. This whole thing could so easily go wrong… To her right, Zuko squirmed uncomfortably. He didn’t much like the idea of his father fighting an Agni Kai over stealing his uncle’s birthright; Ursa thought it was a combination of discomfort with the idea of his father fighting and possibly dying, and discomfort with the idea of his father successfully stealing what was rightfully General Iroh’s.

To her left, Azula held perfectly still, a small smirk curling at the corners of her mouth. Ursa had no doubt that she fully expected her father to win.

And then, five minutes into the Agni Kai, the unthinkable happened.

Ozai tried to dispel a wave of fire, and… failed.

Ursa shrieked, loud and hysterical, her eyes welling with tears. Vaguely, she was aware of Zuko starting to cry and of Azula gagging. The smell of cooking meat wafted closer, and Ursa felt like gagging, too.

Azulon raised his hand for the final blow.

It landed perfectly, practically incinerating Ozai’s gasping body.

The Agni Kai was over. Ozai had lost.

Ursa screamed again, wildly, her tears spilling over. She launched herself from her seat and ran, vaulting the low wall even in her dress, and collapsed at Ozai’s side. “No!” she wailed, grasping at Ozai’s shoulders, uncaring of the soot and ash smearing over her skin and clothes. “Ozai, no! C-come back!” And she broke down into hysterical sobbing, half-collapsed over the body of her husband of fourteen years.

She had to be removed by the Crimson Guard, fighting them all the way to get back to Ozai’s side.

~

Ursa sat on the edge of her bed, where the guards had left her to cry herself out, and gingerly wiped her face dry on her sleeve. Then she drew a deep breath and stood to change.

A woman slid into her room by the open window. She was dressed in a close-fitting shirt and trousers of warm browns, clearly designed to blend into the abundance of wood finishings in the palace. More importantly, she wore a cheap theater mask of Norikosen, the spirit of the three northernmost Fire Nation volcanoes. She waited, still and silent, for Ursa to make the first move.

Ursa unclasped her bodice without regard to her new audience. “So?” she asked. Her voice was still raspy from her earlier tears. “What happened with the Fire Lord? I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Of course not,” the masked woman said, in the voice of Ursa’s sister. She sounded amused. “You were otherwise occupied. He survived the Agni Kai, but I slipped some more suicide seeds into his victory tea. He should be dead within the hour, and if he isn’t, I’ll just add more to a later pot.”

Ursa’s mouth curled up into a smile, shedding her outer dress entirely and reaching for a new one, done in colors of mourning. In a time of war, mourning colors got a lot of use. “Wonderful news,” she said. “I doubt you were wrong about the dose, though. Tie me up in the back?”

The masked woman came up behind her and did as asked. “When’s Ozai’s funeral?”

“Tonight, as the sun sets. You know, tradition.”

“Mmm. Of course. Can you make it through?”

Ursa smiled, sharp like a knife and almost as deadly. “I did train for a lawful job as an actress, you know.”

“Of course, I’m sorry to doubt you. When is Azulon’s?”

“I expect that will be as the sun rises, since the new Fire Lord will be crowned at the same time. Probably within the week.”

“Not tomorrow?”

“Of course not, Mori. Prince Iroh is the heir, we need to allow him travel time.”

Mori gave a scoffing noise, tying the last lace with a flourish. “There you are, Bitsy. What do you want to do about Prince Iroh?”

Ursa turned her attention to her hair, undoing her topknot and combing it out. “I’d rather not have him killed,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m quite fond of him. I was thinking of forging a letter from him, requesting grief leave or perhaps just straight up relinquishing his claim to the throne since his line is dead.” She paused, and then added, “And don’t call me Bitsy! I’m taller than you, anyway.”

Mori grinned but nodded thoughtfully. “A nice, bloodless method of getting him out of the way,” she agreed. “Do you want me to travel a few days away to send it?”

“No,” Ursa murmured, tying her hair up in a common mourning style. “That might take too long. Just half a day in the direction of Ba Sing Se should be enough.”

“Of course. I need to go, I have some other people to spy on.”

Ursa turned to her with a warm smile. “Thank you for stopping by, Mori,” she said. “And thank you for all your help with this. It was… ambitious to kill them both at once.”

The masked woman laughed, one leg out the window again. “I have to hand it to you, Bitsy,” she said cheerfully, “you know how to dream big.”

And then she left.

~

Fire Lord Azulon was declared dead to the populace that evening.

Ursa did not attend the announcement, still holed up in her room from her outburst at the Agni Kai, but Mori dropped by again – still in her brown clothes and Norikosen mask – to tell her that the cause of death was determined to be a heart attack brought on by the strenuous activity of the Agni Kai. His body had already been embalmed and set aside reverently to await Prince Iroh’s arrival and the coronation of the new Fire Lord.

When Mori left, Ursa went back to the piles of letters on her desk – every piece of correspondence she had ever received from Prince Iroh; every paper she had with his handwriting, readily laid out for her perusal.

~

Prince Ozai the Ruthless was burned to ashes on his funeral pyre that night as the sun set, linking the end of a life with the end of the day.

Ursa approached the funeral procession impassively. As soon as she came into view of others, though, she started weeping, silently at first and then steadily getting louder, until she was stifling sobs into her handkerchief. Zuko wept, too, tucked against her side, and even Azula’s mouth trembled.

She abandoned her attempts at stifling sobs when the Fire Sages lit the pyre.

~

Early the next morning, a messenger hawk arrived. It bore the insignia of the 13th Division, currently stationed under General Iroh at Ba Sing Se. Its message was addressed to Fire Lord Azulon. As the oldest member of the royal family, it was delivered to Ursa.

She slid the scroll out of the harness and sent the hawk back to the mailroom. Then she untied the black silk ribbon and unrolled the letter. She read it through once, almost dropped it, read it through a second time, and started to laugh with a tinge of hysteria.

To my honored father, Fire Lord Azulon, retired General, the Conqueror, the Dragonslayer, greetings.

I am sure news has reached the royal palace already, that my beloved son and heir Prince-Sergeant Major Lu Ten is a casualty of the Siege of Ba Sing Se. He is but one of many deaths in the latest skirmish, and I have a dearth of mid-ranged officers as a result. I have determined that this campaign is too costly to Fire Nation resources and bodies to continue, and recommend honorable retreat.

Furthermore, I beg grief reprieve from my duties in my time of mourning. I recognize that I have many duties as the crown prince, leading and inspiring troops not the least of them. However, honorable Father, grief reprieve is due any officer who loses a close relative in battle. I intend to return to my royal and military duties in three to four months. If anything should necessitate my presence, I permit my brother Prince Ozai to stand in my stead.

May your flame ever grow higher,

Your son, Prince-General Iroh, the Dragon of the West.

Three or four months was far too long to hold off either a coronation or a funeral, let alone both. Ursa rolled the scroll up, tucked it in a pocket, and left to call a council.

Forgery wasn’t needed, after all.

~

The day after Prince-General Iroh’s message arrived, Fire Lord Azulon’s body was burned at dawn. Prince Zuko was crowned Fire Lord as his grandfather’s body burned. Ursa was officially appointed Regent Princess immediately after, since Zuko was all of seven years old.

After the ceremony, when the Fire Sages were filing out and it was just Ursa and her children, Zuko rushed to her with a quiet sob. He flung his arms around her waist, buried his face in her stomach, and started crying in earnest. Ursa closed her eyes and hugged him back, tight and secure, one hand cupping the back of his head. Azula glared at Zuko disdainfully, but she didn’t speak and her eyes looked suspiciously shiny. Ursa opened one arm to her invitingly, but Azula stared at it blankly for a moment before sniffing and turning on her heel to leave.

Ursa sighed and sank to her knees. Zuko shifted as she did, tucking his face into her neck. Ursa gently tugged out the Fire Lord hairpiece from Zuko’s new topknot so it wouldn’t poke her in the cheek and kissed his temple. She closed her eyes tightly against real tears she didn’t mean to summon, but one or two leaked out anyway. Her poor boy. Her poor kids.

This was the hardest part of the whole affair, watching her children suffer and mourn, and it scared Ursa a little. What kind of person was she, to have no qualms or regrets about egging her husband into getting killed by her father-in-law and then having her sister kill the father-in-law?

~

Within a week, Regent Princess Ursa had withdrawn troops from Ba Sing Se entirely – she trusted her brother-in-law’s judgment. Slowly, she started withdrawing troops from other places; the commanders and councilmen sneered at her, called her weak and soft, but no part of the Earth Kingdom was worth losing half of every Fire force sent in.

She slipped in Royal Edicts giving the colonies more freedom. Not much; they were still under her rule, after all. But she saw no harm in releasing the curfews, or allowing sale of their traditional spices.

She forbade the Navy from more than patrolling the sea a few hundred miles south of the Northern Water Tribe’s unofficial border. There was no need to antagonize an otherwise isolated foreign force, and Ursa knew how dangerous waterbenders could be.

The Southern tribe, though… Ursa allowed Yon Rha to continue hunting down Southern waterbenders. The South, unlike their self-isolated siblings, were far too active in the war for Ursa to ignore.

The Regent is weak, people whispered behind her back. She has no taste for war, and she will ruin all the progress her husband’s ancestors have made. This is why only birth members of the Royal family should rule. This is why women should not be promoted to the highest ranks. And it was true – well, half of it. Ursa didn’t have any taste for war, even if she was a trained, highly skilled assassin. She preferred striking at very specific, high-profile individuals who had done true wrong; indiscriminately slaughtering innocent people had never sat well with her. The war might be necessary to spread the Fire Nation’s greatness, but Ursa would do her best to shed as little blood as possible, to keep her military honorable. To keep as many of the men and women fighting for their nation alive as possible.

She stationed active Living Spirit clan members in the Earth Kingdom, monitoring refugees flooding into Omashu and Ba Sing Se. They had free rein to assassinate high-ranking Earth officials, high-ranking Earth soldiers, and dishonorable criminals of any nationality, but otherwise let the refugees reach safety. Ursa had no interest in capturing or killing innocents.

And then the whispers behind her back changed – perhaps three years into her rule as Regent Princess, her brother-in-law’s depression started lifting. And to Ursa’s surprise – he backed her.

He supported her in everything.

The General’s lost his mind, the whispers said. Perhaps it’s lucky we’re stuck with the Regent – she will have to step aside when her son reaches majority. We would never have been free of Fire Lord Iroh, but he is just as bad – weak – soft – useless as the Regent. And, so she thinks she’s safe, with the Prince backing her? And, someone must influence the boy, Fire Lord Zuko. Someone besides the Regent and the Prince. He must not be allowed to grow up as soft as them.

The ones who tried to kill her were killed themselves, often at her hand. Those who tried to corrupt her son were banished from the palace, if not Capital City altogether. Even Azula was sent away to a finishing school for much of the year, in the hopes that Zuko could build self-confidence and learn the skills of governing a country without her hanging over his shoulder.

As the years passed, though, Ursa found herself questioning the war and its necessity more and more. She never brought these doubts to Iroh, for fear that this was the final straw, the one line he would not cross.

When Zuko was fifteen, he suggested an arrangement of transferring powers slowly once he came of age, to support an easy transition from one leader to the next. And so on his sixteenth birthday, he gained only a few powers of state; Ursa retained the others, to give them over slowly in the course of a year.

And then the Avatar returned.

And then the Avatar entered Fire Nation territory, heading for Crescent Island and Avatar Roku’s temple.

Ursa and Zuko met him there; on the way, Ursa quietly told Zuko that she would help, but leave the final decision to him – this was the last power of state he had to take over. And when they left – based on her talk, her advice –

The war was over.

As they left Crescent Island again, the Avatar’s sky bison flying away in the distance, Ursa leaned forward and kissed Zuko’s forehead as she used to when he was little. He glanced at her askance; she just smiled and murmured:

“Long live Fire Lord Zuko, the Peacemaker.”