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Flight of the Golden Peony

Chapter Text

It had been almost laughably easy. All she had done was dump the tiny vial into the old man’s evening tea and by the time his steward came to check on the horrible old fire newt in the morning, it would be too late.

 

Funny that. Ozai had scoffed at the idea of the poison, dismissing it as a woman’s weapon, the last resort of the weak and the helpless, for those who didn’t have the moral fiber to slip a dagger through a man’s ribs, but Ursa had found a dark sort of poetry in it.

 

How ironic, that the most powerful man in the world be killed by the innocent blue and purple flowers that climbed up his walls and decorated his meals, by the hand of a woman he saw as no more different from them. Pretty, sweet-smelling, ever agreeable, ever reaching for the sun just out of her grasp. Which is why he never suspected she would kill him.

 

She can’t stay, not here, not anymore. She’s not nieve, or stupid despite what all noblemen and advisors seem to think. She is the daughter of Jinzuk and Rina of Koi Island, Great-Granddaughter to Avatar Roku and Ta Min of the Caldera, Descendant of the Sun Dragon Emperor, part of a noble lineage that stretches out far beyond the unification of the islands.

 

Intrigue is in her blood, strategy is fused into the marrow of her bones. And there is no way, under Agni’s sun, that she can escape justice for what she’s done and still remain Princess Ursa of the Fire Nation.

 

Her bag is already packed and a thick gray traveling cloak hangs on a peg by the door. It’s the work of a moment to change into a practical, well-worn dress, wipe off any remaining traces of makeup and remove and store her jewelry in several small, hidden silk bags about her person, wrapping them in koala-wool to keep them from clinking. She lingers on the golden-flame hairpiece of her rank to long for her liking. True, it’s near-solid gold, and it’s a sale would most certainly bring her enough coin to set herself up for several lifetimes, not to mention she feels an odd juvenile thrill at the idea that she could steal a dynasty treasure from under the new Fire Lord’s very nose. On the other hand, it’s large, heavy and conspicuous. Even if she were to find some fence willing to take the risk, all it would take was one drunken word in the ear of the wrong person and she could kiss her chance at a new life goodbye.

 

Besides, Ursa thinks, looking around at the pitch-black room, the crown of the Fire Princess is Azula’s birthright, and Ursa wants her stubborn little girl to have something to remember her by after she’s gone.

 

The wrenching, freezing cold pit in her stomach at the thought of her babies sweet faces is expected, but no less painful. All night, she has been at war with herself, torn between the insane, foolish notion of grabbing both of them from their beds and fleeing like a thief in the night, and the reasoned but heartbreaking reality of leaving them behind. 

 

They will be safe here, the Princess says; Here, they are the future of the Nation, the revered Prince, and Princess. No one dares raise a hand to them, or put them in fear. They will never know the aching gnaw of hunger, or the sharp biting, sting of cold. Sickness can never claim them, discomfort never harries them. Here, they own the world. Zuko will one day rise to rule the largest empire since the fall of Hua the Conqueror, and Azula will no doubt run his military, or the royal court, or whatever else she so pleases. Here, they are the sun.

 

But they need me, the Mother weeps; Children need their mother. How can I abandon them here, in this place full of vipers that speak words sweet as honey? How can I protect them from the darkness that stalks them both like a predator? How will I teach them from an ocean away, how to laugh and cry and rage and love? How can I hold them, when their memories of me turn to dust that blows away in the wind?

 

The two sides found a compromise yesterday evening, as she was boiling the seeds to extract their fatal liquor. Nither half is pleased by the arrangement, which is why, of course, it is a good one.

 

Ursa shoulders her bag and, breathing a sigh that feels more like a sob, unlocks the secret door and slips into the walls of the palace.

 


 

Azula’s room is first. Her little girl sleeps in her usual manner, blankets kicked off and tangled at her feet, strands of her hair falling into her face, expression scrunched and sour as if even her dreams displease her. Her limbs splay outward like those of a dead starfish and she is very subtlety drooling on her pillow. The sight usually brings a smile to Ursa’s face, and a pang of loneliness as she remembers how she and Ozai used to laugh at the odd poses they would find their slumbering daughter in, back before everything went wrong.

 

“Like a road kill squirrel-toad.” Ozai had laughed one morning at breakfast, somehow far away and long ago, yet close enough to touch.

 

“She was halfway off the side of the bed. I had to catch her before she hit the ground!”

 

Now though, as she crosses over the creaking wooden floor as slowly as she dares to kneel beside the bed, it’s all Ursa can do not to cry. Reaching out, she smooths one of the stray ebony strands behind her daughter's ear and cups the round, plump cheek, just starting to lose the warmth of baby fat. She does not fear to wake her, Azula has slept like the dead since she was born. Lu Ten once joked that a dragon could fly over the palace and Azula STILL wouldn’t wake until she was good and ready.

 

The thought of her nephew, buried in some paupers grave outside of Ba Sing Se, hurts almost as much as the knowledge that she must soon leave this quiet room, with it’s singed toys and decapitated dolls, and her daughter, sleeping like an awkward porcelain statue within it all. Has she always looked so small? So breakable?

 

Azula, the child born screaming and fat at the height of summer after an easy pregnancy, the princess who the sages had proclaimed born under a lucky sign, ideal in every way. Ursa never had fussed about Azula, never sat up sleepless as a fever seized her little body, never needed to hold her hand as she explored a new place or met a new person. Azula, who skipped crawling all together in favor of pulling herself upright and forward by grasping on to whatever was at hand, who showed signs of fire before she was even weaned, whose first word was Zuko and whose first sentence was a garbled but recognizable passage from one of Ozai’s many books of strategy.

 

How could her smart, tough little girl suddenly look so fragile?

 

Because I’m leaving; a mournful voice inside her heart whispered, and with a choked sob, Ursa bent and placed one final kiss on her daughters scrunched brow before fleeing the soft, silent room.

 

Azula never even stirred.

 





Zuko’s room is just how she remembers it this morning.

 

That is to say, a mess.

 

Her sweet boy has yet to internalize the simple message she and the maids have been trying to drill into his head for years. That being, if he occasionally picked up and organized his room, his beloved Dao blades would stop wandering off without his permission. As would his calligraphy brushes. And his toy soldiers. And his stuffed komodo-rhino he swears he’s too old for.

 

Her son sleeps fitfully, and Ursa creeps as close as she dares to his bed. Zuko has been a light sleeper since a bout of fever had nearly stolen his life when he had been no more then four-months-old.

 

“Well, he’ll be a good lookout in any case...” Ozai had commented one dark night when Zuko’s squalling had roused both him and Ursa from their bed.

 

“Can you imagine? No Bone-chewer or Dirt-licker could ever sneak up on him! One of them BREATHES too loud and he’ll be up burning their ranks to a crisp before they ever knew what hit them!”

 

It had been funny at the time, both of them half-mad with lack of sleep and thick, soaking relief that their son had finally beaten the malady that had seemed so certain to end his young life before he could even crawl. Now, though, it was another bittersweet memory of a time that could never come back.

 

“Mom?”

 

Ursa started, her heart suddenly pounding like a taiko drum. Had she woken him? But she had been so careful! How had she-!

 

“Mom? Azula? Lu Ten?”

 

Oh. Oh. He was talking in his sleep. It was fine. It was all fine. She could still sneak away.

 

“Where are you going? Why do I have to stay here? Mom… Lu Ten… please, it’s dark. Lala’s scared of the dark Lu Ten, my fire isn’t strong enough. Mom? Mom, where are you going?”

 

Sweat had broken out on her son's brow, and his restless movement had become frantic and thrashing, twisting the bedcovers in white-knuckled hands, as the horror of his nightmare unfolds itself behind his tightly pinched eyelids.

 

“Mom! Mom, please! Don’t leave us! Don’t go with Lu Ten! Lala… I can’t protect Lala by myself… Mom?!”

 

Something in her soul bends, splinters, and breaks.

 

She does the one thing she promised herself she would not do.

 

She reaches out to hold her son.

 




His mother's hand on his shoulder wakes him. Dawn is just beginning to poke its golden fingers over the eastern horizon. 

 

“Mom?”

 

“Zuko. Please, my love, listen to me.”

She pulls him up by his shoulders and embraces him. She’s dressed in a rough grey traveling cloak that scratches his cheek, and she’s not put on her usual lilac perfume, but her hair still smells the same, like sun-soaked grass and something warm and sweet that’s uniquely her own.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to protect you.”

 

He’s still mostly asleep, but he feels her start at… something. She unwraps her arms from around him and makes him look her in the eyes, face folded with worry and something else.

“Remember this Zuko; No matter how things seem to change, NEVER forget who you are.”

He doesn't stay a word, just stares at her. The light makes everything shadowy and blurred, like something from a dream, or a nightmare. He’s still not sure he’s even awake. Mother doesn't wait for an answer, just raises herself from his bedside and pulls cloaks hood up to cover her face. He blinks, once, twice before sleep overtakes him and he falls back onto his pillow. Perhaps his next dream will make more sense.

 

Chapter Text

The flight out of the inner city is a terrifying blur. She feels as if the whole world can read her shame, see her guilt as if it is spelled out in glowing calligraphy on the back of her cloak. She must STINK of nobility. She pulls the cloak tightly around herself and tries to hunch down, to fold herself away and out of notice, but the pale gray light of the new day is spreading throughout the city and it seems to be chasing her as surely as the royal guard will once the palace discovers her treason.

 

She buys the fastest mount she dares, a brown and black striped buffalo-boar for a truly exorbitant amount of money from a cranky old woman with thick brown hair and deep-set black eyes down at the livestock pens, trying all the while not to look too eager or stare out at the large number of departing fishing boats in the harbor, trying to remind herself that it’s too dangerous to charter a ship directly from the Caldera, and that the weeks she will have to spend with this smelly animal in the hot and buggy forests of her homeland will all be worth for the life of freedom she’ll earn on the other end.

 

If they don’t catch her, that is.

 

“How much would it take to persuade you that I was never here?”

 

The old woman looks her up and down with an appraising eye.

 

“One of those pretty baubles you’ve got hiding up your knickers.”

 

Her shock must show on her face, because the old woman cackles, showing a row of surprisingly white teeth.

 

“You think your the only noble girl that’s come through my pens looking for a fast way out of town? Please. Word of advice though. You want to get to wherever you're going, stop holding yourself up like the bloody Fire Lady whenever you talk to us “common folk.” And lose the fake accent. Sounds like a badger-frog with a stick shoved up its ass.”

 

Thoroughly humiliated and re-scared by the talk of Fire Ladies, Ursa tugs up her cloak and grabs the stamping animals reins from the woman's scarred, leathery hand.

 

As she rides out of the courtyard of pens, Ursa barely catches the old woman’s last words, so soft that Ursa’s not quite sure it was meant for her ears.

 

“I hope you make it missy, I really do. I’ve seen far too many executions in my time…”

 


  

She names the buffalo-boar Kenta, after the disagreeable captain of fathers old household guard. It’s a fitting name.

 

They’re both ill-tempered, bristly, heavily muscled and smell vaguely of rice vinegar.

 

But they are also dependable, solid and have impeccable instincts, like when Kenta the man deduced the route a would-be-assassin had taken to try and kill Father, or when Kenta the boar refused to swim across a muddy river, infuriating Ursa until she noticed some of the rain-soaked logs around it had golden EYES poking out at the top. She could swear her mount rolled his own at her stupidity.

 

The dry season has rendered the understory cool and dry, but she often has to jump down into a pile of crackling leaf matter to help her buffalo-boar fight her way through the massive tangle of vines and leaves that have sprouted since the rainy season ended two months ago, him with his massive, back-curving horns and sharp canine teeth, her with a light machete she stole from a coconut grove a few days back. She had felt so guilty about the theft she had circled back the next night to leave some payment for the farmer, much to the displeasure of Kenta and her own self-preservation instinct.

 

She’s kept off the roads, curving and doubling back on her own trail often, which, while effective at confusing any would-be pursuers make the days incredibly tiresome and long. She’s mostly given up on setting up a shelter at night, usually stumbling out of the saddle only long enough to stretch a rain tarp, make water and scarf down some dried meat and salted plums before collapsing against Kenta’s scratchy side to sleep.

 

When she dreams, which isn’t often, she sees her children.



Weeks pass in this manner. Her provisions run out at the beginning of the new month, and suddenly a good portion of her day is spent scoring the everything in the forest, from the canopy to leaf litter, for something to eat.

 

Some days she is lucky, like the morning she followed Kenta to an old, rotten stump and found it alive with bright orange lobster-crab mushrooms. She grilled them in a bed of bitter greens she found along the banks of a nearby stream and gathered more to dry on the flat rocks of her campsite before stringing them together with a piece of sturdy twine.

 

Other days, her stomach rumbles unhappily, and she looks on in envy as Kenta chews on the woody vines as if they are nothing more then bunches of rice noodles.

 

Slowly but surely the trees thin, the air cools and one day she finds herself driving Kenta’s great bulk over whispering grey-green grasses and bare, rocky outcroppings. She starts needing to wrap herself in extra layers to stay warm at night, snuggled down into the earthen hollow Kenta digs every night to shield his large girth from the worst of the prairie wind.

 

They find the road the same day they find the Two Brothers, the giant, cloud-capped volcanoes looming above the landscape like sentinels; which, according to legend, they are.

 

She stays on top of the hill Kenta climbed watching the brown ribbon of road and the puffs of dust kicked up behind trade caravans and farmers carts. It’s busy, of course, overland travel is easiest during the cool, dry months of autumn and winter when the roads are solid and the possibility of heatstroke passed. Isn’t that why she waited till two months after the end of the last summer rain to feed Azulon her deadly brew?

 

Kenta snuffles, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His warm breath has begun to form faint clouds in the air in the early dawn and late dusk, and his hairy hide has grown thicker and softer as he grows his winter coat. Ursa has been forced to cannibalize some of her clothes to line her boots and coat and has taken to hiding her hands in her long sleeves to shield them from the chill. This morning, when she woke, the grass outside her hollow was kissed with frost. She looks back down at the ribbon of road and turns Kenta back towards the savannah. A few more weeks.

 

She can wait a few more weeks.

 


 

In the end, it’s a week and a half before she’s forced onto the road and thus, back into civilization. She would have stayed away longer if she could have, but the closer they get to the Brothers, the steeper and more treacherous the terrain becomes, and, stubborn and solid as he is, Kenta is no puma-goat. After a particularly nerve-wracking accent up an incline that seems all loose dirt and slippery basalt, Ursa takes pity on her loyal buffalo-boar, and her rapidly fraying nerves and turns him back down toward the valley and, more damningly, the busy trade road below.

 

Despite everything, it’s a relief to get back on to flat, paved earth. Kenta’s gate picks up from a stolid plod to a jaunty walk, then a trot, then long paced canter and finally, an explosive gallop, accompanied by a clatter of cloven hooves and piggy squeals of joy. Ibex-camels spook, hippo-cows bellow, carters curse, and pedestrians jump into ditches to avoid the flying buffalo-boar. Ursa can’t bring herself to care. Hood whipped back from her head, wind stinging her eyes, cold chapping her cheeks and lips she throws her head to the sky and laughs.

 

She’s never been as free as she is right now.

 


 

Telur Naga is a bustling if rough town. Nestled at the foot of the larger volcano, Urkit, it is a mess of smelters and mining carts mixed in with jewelers, bladesmiths and other refiners of the mountain's bounty. It was also an important trade stop, a place for southern traders to swap bales of koala wool, casks of preserved fish and copper ore for lumber, silk, various plant fibers, rice, and vice versa.

 

All this Ursa learned from Jae-beom, a kind, excitable young man with thick brown hair that ran the Crimson Merganser, the inn she had acquired a room for on Telur Naga’s central plaza. Jae-Beom’s wife, a pretty petite woman by the name of Megumi, had been kind enough to draw her a blistering hot bath along with a creamy bar of hippo-tallow soap and even managed to find a worn but sturdy comb so that Ursa could at least make an attempt at brushing out the birds nest that was her hair. Kenta for his part seemed quite happy to sleep in a protected stable once again, and enjoy a steady diet of forage, rice mash, and sugar cane stalks. And the red banana’s Ursa found herself slipping him every night. She had grown quite fond of her grumpy buffalo-boar.

 

So, it seemed had Jae-Beom and Megumi’s sons’ Hiro and Beom-Seok, who had taken to clambering all over the bristly hide and hanging off the back-curving horns, much to Kenta’s exasperation. It made her heart ache to watch them, amber eyes sparkling with glee, crowding their mother around the stove, or pestering their father or the way Hiro always made sure to hold tight to Beom-Seok’s hand when their parents shooed out of the house to play with the other children and stop getting underfoot.

 

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Indra.” Megumi had said, after shooing away her inquisitive offspring from Ursa’s table for the third time that morning and blowing a strand of black hair out of her face.

 

“I keep telling them not to bother the guests but they never listen to me!”

 

“I don’t mind,” Ursa said, smiling out the door the two little boys had retreated to.

 

“I have some of my own just like them. Well… had.” she said, trying to ignore the sharp stab of pain as she thought of Zuko's golden eyes and Azula’s incessant questions.

 

Megumi’s face fell in the sympathy of all mothers, especially ones who had lost a child.

 

“I’m so sorry. Consumption?”

 

Ursa nodded sadly, pushing down the pang of guilt that rose up in her belly at the lie.

 

Megumi’s face crumpled. “Us too. Took my little Ying Yu. Named after the late Fire Princess you know,” Megumi said, sighing and beginning to clear the breakfast dishes.

 

“She had the fattest little cheeks. And the most beautiful grey eyes…”

 

Ursa did not know what to say. Megumi swiped at her wet eyes with a thumb.

 

“Ah, well. Sorry, I still get weepy when I think about it. It was almost three years ago now.”

 

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Ursa said, tongue finally ungluing itself from the roof of her mouth as she reached out to squeeze Megumi’s arm.

 

“You’ll never stop missing your babies.”

 

You know that even better than me.

 

“But remembering the good things… It-it helps.”

 

I have to believe that, or else I’ll never recover from leaving them behind.

 

Megumi smiles, a bit damply and shifts some dishes to squeeze Ursa’s hand back.

 

“Thank you, Mrs. Indra. That means a lot to me.”

 

Ursa just squeezes her hand before letting her go about her chores.

 

Later, when a grateful Jae-Boom invites her to dine with the family and little Beom-Seok gorges himself silly on moon cakes and falls asleep in Ursa’s lap in the middle of a question about Komodo Rhinos, Ursa can almost believe it really is going to be alright.

 


 

She’s been in Telur Naga for two weeks when the soldiers arrive. At first, it’s not obvious, someone has clearly told them to keep a low profile because at first glance, they seem to be a simple trading caravan but little things just don’t add up.

 

Like the fact that the carts are pulled by dragon moose instead of the usual elephant-antelope or donkeydillo and the “scruffy sellswords” guarding the never fully unveiled cargo clearly have military training and their dark cloaks and scuffed boots are of VERY good lambswool and leather rather than the usual mino and geta.

 

They make the hairs on the back of her neck stand up on end, and she’s not the only one.

 

“I hope they leave soon…” Megumi says the second day of the caravans visits coming in the door with Ursa’s dinner tray balanced expertly on her arm. She’s been bringing them up ever since Ursa pleaded illnesses in an attempt to avoid the mysterious caravan and despite Ursa knowing that Megumi almost certainly knows that she’s faking it, the other woman doesn’t pry, a fact that Ursa is extremely grateful for.

 

“They're scaring everyone. The market is practically a ghost town. Can’t blame them of course, they look like trade inspectors and Agni knows we’re not particularly vigilant about certain regulations. Still, it’s better then…”

 

She trails off and Ursa’s mind fills in the blank Megumi left unsaid. Recruitment officers. Otherwise known among the general populous as “Butchers” or “Bleeders.”

 

Legally, the minimum age required for military recruitment is eighteen, but that hasn’t stopped unscrupulous agents accepting children as young as thirteen into the ranks, or, in lower-class neighborhoods, impressing or kidnapping children as young as EIGHT to serve as messengers, army mechanics, and other, much darker things.

 

Ursa knows the war is necessary, understands the need for new blood and fresh soldiers out on the front, but… the idea of young children facing a wall of fully grown, ruthless Earthbenders or a bloodthirsty armada of Water tribesmen makes her stomach churn. As for the other things… well… Ursa supposes that evil is everywhere. That doesn’t mean she wants to accept it.

 

Suddenly her eyes widen and she sits up sharply almost spilling Megumi’s carefully-prepared tray.

 

“You’re boys, are they… I mean do they… do they understand what-”

 

“Hiro knows. Beom-Seok doesn’t and we intend to keep it that way for as long as we can, but it does mean he’s practically bouncing off the walls in frustration. He’s probably going to break in unannounced one of these days, so I’ll apologize in advance for that.”

 

Ursa feels her muscles unwind and forces herself to settle back into the pillows.

 

“It’s no trouble Megumi. Little children always chafe at staying still and better snooping around my room than trying to sneak out without permission.”

 

Megumi smiles a grateful if tired, smile.

 

“Thank you, Ms. Indra.”

 

“Just Indra, please. You’ve more than earned it.”

 

That gets her a brighter smile, and for a moment she sees her cousin Seina reflected back at her from ten years hence in Megumi’s dark brown eyes.”

 

“Alright then, Indra it is then. Get better soon, My boys miss you.”

 

I miss them too. Ursa wants to say.

 

Being with all of you is like being back on Ember Island with my family. She wants to say, but the words get lodged in her throat. All this kindness, all this warmth is built upon the fragile shoulders of Indra, the widow of Komodo Isle, a woman who doesn't exist and never will. Every smile she gives, every chore she helps with, every laugh that bubbles unbidden from her throat, is a lie, a necessary evil. Indra loves these people but Indra isn’t real. Ursa would love these people, but Ursa is dead.

 

“Sleep well.” the woman who used to be Ursa says.

 


 

The soldiers are looking for someone, or so Jae-Beom says the next morning over hot rice porridge. They don’t say so, directly anyway, but they have been asking a lot of questions about recent arrivals and scouring the local inns and taverns for someone. They even apparently searched the Governor's house, or so the cook's boy told him when he was out gathering ingredients for that night's dinner. The owner of the mysterious caravan has also a guest at the governor's house and that fact alone would be enough to make her hair stand on end.

 

“Who are they looking for Dad?” Hiro asked as his mother packed more rice into his bowl. Jae-Beom sighed, shaking his head.

 

“Rumor is its some nobleman's daughter who ran away from her wedding, but no one really knows for sure.”

 

“But why would she do that? Aren’t girls happy about getting married? Aunt May told me she wishes she could get married to Aunt Lu.” Beom-Seok asked looking up from his bowl, cheeks bulging outwards like a chipmunk-skunk.

 

“Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Megumi chided, reaching out to wipe away a grain of rice from her youngest sons face even as he protested.

 

“And not all girls want to get married. And even if they do they will want to marry someone they love, instead of someone their father has picked out for them.”

 

“But didn’t Ojichan pick out Daddy for you? Did you not love him?!” Beom-Seok asked, a note of panic entering his voice, but his father just laughed.

 

“Well it’s true I had your Oji’s approval, your Mama actually made the decision. She’s a very pretty woman, and I was hardly the only man who wanted her hand.”

 

“And, happily, it worked out, considering you were the only one I wanted to give it to.” Megumi smiled, reaching out to squeeze Jae-Beom’s hand.

 

Watching them, Ursa felt an odd, bone-deep pang, a longing she’d almost forgotten. Was this what she and Ozai used to be like, back before everything went wrong? She shook her head, trying to dislodge the thought. Best not to dwell on it. Besides, Beom-Seok had asked another question.

 

“So this Lady doesn’t love her new husband?”

 

Jae-Beom sighed again, face lined with pity.

 

“I’m fairly certain, yes.”

 

Beom-Seok frowned and he said, with all the stolid certainty of a young child, “Well then, she shouldn’t have to marry him. It’s stupid to marry somebody you don’t love.”

 

The adults all exchanged a look, and Ursa sighed and lifted a hand to smooth back the young boy's hair.

 

“The world would be a much better place if more people believed that, Beom-Seok.”

 


 

Tomorrow. She must leave tomorrow. Early in the morning, when most people aren’t awake yet. The undercover soldiers were a clear and urgent sign she had overstayed her welcome. The rumor that they were looking for a young runaway bride instead of a murderous Fire Lady had helped some, but soon enough someone would put together that the recently arrived and apparently widowed lady and the cadre of noblewoman seeking soldiers together and then all hope would be lost.

 

She had spent the week quietly acquiring supplies. An oil lamp there, a bedroll here, not to mention the small pile of dried meats, sturdy fruits and vegetables and sacks of rice she’s been squirreling away since she first got here.

 

She’s been careful. She didn’t buy the lamp and the bedroll at the same stall for example and she’s waylaid suspicion about the great quantity of food she’s been buying by offering to run errands for the inn and chipping in a bit of her own money to hide an extra flat of jerky or another bag of onions among the pile of food it takes to run an inn like the Crimson Merganser, even if the unwelcome caravan has begun to scare off some of the travelers.

 

Even so, fear pricks at her as she wanders the stalls of the market, hood up and pulled low over her face, expecting at any moment that a great meaty hand will clamp over her wrist and she will be face to face with the sneer of some Imperial guard, bent on dragging her back to the Caldera to face execution.

 

“G’ morning Ms. Indra! Running some more errands for Meguimi again?”

 

Ursa smiles, plastering on the facade of Indra the widow and stepping up to the stall smartly.

 

“Good morning Ho-jun. How’s your granddaughter doing?”

 

The old man grimaces a little before his face takes on the slightly far away softness of all doting grandparents.

 

“Teething. I swear she’s got the makings of an opera singer the way she howls. And round as a moon peach. Sweet as one too, when she’s not keeping us all awake for hours on end. What's your pleasure?”

 

Laughing a bit in recognition, the woman known as Indra scanned the piles of produce on the cart.

 

“I always used licorice root for my little ones. Has your daughter-in-law tried that yet?” she asked, perusing the stacks of squash and yams and other products of the harvest bounty.

 

“No, not yet. Her mother swore by peeled ginger root rubbed over the gums. Do they chew it?”

 

“Yes, it’s sweet and numbs their gums. Soaking a cloth in catnip and camomile tea and partially freezing it works too. Oh, are those sand pears?”

 

“Freshly picked this morning! One copper for three. And thank you for the advice, poor Anong has been driving herself half-crazy. My Soo-ah has been trying to tell her and our In-suk it will all be alright, but you know young parents. Agni knows Soo-ah and I were a wreck with our first as well.”

 

“I’ll take a silver's worth. And we all are. Tell your family a say hello!”

 

“Thank you very much, Ms. Indra. Have a lovely day!”

 

And so it goes. Ursa moves between the stalls, mask firmly in place, haggling and chatting with the vendors and people she knows. She hasn't done this kind of thing since she was a girl and despite the threat of discovery, it feels oddly liberating.

 

When was the last time I actually shopped for food myself? ; Ursa wonders, bags laden with groceries draped across her body like banners.

 

Before I became engaged, surely. Spirits that must have been what? Going on fourteen years now? Yes, it must have been. After that, it was all preparations to become the Fire Prince’s wife. I forgot how fun it is!

 

“Ms. Indra! Ms. Indra!”

 

Startled from her thoughts, Ursa looks up to see the bright young face of Beom-Seok running towards her with a wide grin. He nearly collides with her legs in his enthusiasm, barely skidding to a halt in front of her.

 

“Careful!” Ursa chides, reaching out a free arm to steady him before looking around the nearly empty twilight streets.

 

“Where’s your mother? You know she wouldn't like you running off on your own, especially this late.”

 

The little boy's face takes on a guilty countenance.

 

“Umm… She’s at home…”

 

Ursas eyes narrowed in suspicion. Beom-Seok looked an awful lot like Zuko when he’d been caught doing something he shouldn't, like ruining his dinner with moon cakes or shirking his literature lessons to practice his swordplay.

 

“Beom-Seok… Do your parents know you're out here right now?”

 

The little boy scuffs his foot in the dirt, not quite meeting her eyes.

 

“Maybe?”

 

“That’s not a yes,” Ursa says sternly, looking out once again at the sunset painted streets.

 

“Where’s your brother? Is Hiro with you?”

 

“No…” Beom-Seok says sulkily, before bursting out with;

 

“It’s not fair! Why is he allowed to go outside and I’m not?!”

 

“He’s running errands for your father,” Ursa replies, relieved that Hiro is presumably tucked away safe at home.

 

“But I’m old enough to do all that stuff! And haha-ue won’t even let me go play outside the courtyard anymore! It’s so boring !” the little boy whines, stomping his foot at the unfairness of it all like Azula does when she thinks no one is paying attention to her.

 

Ursa sighs. This will take some doing.

 

“I’m sorry you feel that way Beom-Seok. And your right, it is unfair that your brother gets to go outside and you don’t.”

 

Beom-Seok sniffs in frustration, but his posture softens somewhat. Ursa smiles slightly, before schooling herself back to a stern countenance.

 

But , sneaking out without telling anyone where you’re going is not the way to change it. Your parents are probably worried sick about you! If you want to be trusted to go outside and run errands on your own, you have to show yourself as trustworthy and trust them to have your best interests at heart. Your parents have their reasons for keeping you inside and you are not proving yourself any by running away without telling anyone.”

 

The little shoulders slump and Beom-Seok sniffles again.

 

“...Sorry Mrs. Indra…”

 

Ursa sighs, but drops her stern tone.

 

“It’s not me you should be apologizing to. Come on. Help me carry these sand pears and I promise I’ll help you apologize to your parents.”

 

Another sniffle.

 

“Really?”

 

“Really. Now can you be a good little soldier and help me carry these groceries?”

 

The smile comes back, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud bank.

 

“Sure!”

 

Smiling, Ursa hands him the mesh bag full of sand pears. He takes it reverentially, like a sage receiving a piece of great knowledge and Ursa has to fight back a wide smile.

 

His reverence only lasts a few streets before he's back to his usual bubbly self, chattering excitedly about the big maple tree he climbed and his friends owl-cat that just had kittens.

 

“They're so soft! All fuzzy! And Akira’s mom said I could have one once they’re all grown up if my mommy agrees! I think I like the black one best, but Dad says calico ones are good luck and Akira’s owl-cat has two calico kittens but they’re both girls and I don’t know if I want a girl cat because then she might have kittens, and I really like kittens but Akira says that when they’re born they’re really gross and sticky and stuff and I don’t know if I want that-”

 

“Slow down!” Ursa laughs, calling out to him as he runs ahead of her, turning over his shoulder constantly to continue to talk to her.

 

“You're going to run into-”

 

It happens suddenly. One moment, Beom-Seok is running ahead, regaling her with his opinions on calico kittens, the next moment he's knocked onto his backside, dropped sand pears rolling out of the bag having smacked directly into a pair of legs.

 

“Watch where you're going squirt!” And angry male voice growls, and Beom-Seok, still partially stunned by his fall, flinches before his eyes begin to well up with tears. Ursa dashes toward him and kneels on the ground next to the little boy.

 

“Are you okay? Does anything hurt?”

 

Beom-Seok's lower lip is trembling with the effort of holding back unshed tears, but he still manages a resolute, if quick, shake of the head.

 

“Is he okay?! Little punk should watch where he’s going! I didn’t run into anyone’s shins like a charging rhino!”

 

“I’m very sorry sir , but-” The reprimand dies in Ursa’s throat, just before the breath freezes in her lungs.

 

Standing over the both of them is one of the undercover soldiers. And he looks murderous .

 

“This your son?!” The soldier demands. He’s a heavyset man, with thick arms and a round face. Perhaps he would be pleasant to look at, were his features not twisted with rage and all his ire not directed at a young boy who was simply doing what young boys do before they’ve learned better.

 

“My nephew.” Despite her panic, the lie slips out easily, and she instinctively pushes Beom-Seok behind her even as she ducks her head away from the man's face. The child's little hands grip her skirt tight as he hides his face in the small of her back.

 

“Well, he should have more manners than this ! These are new boots!” the soldier spits, face contorted like a demon mask. Ursa suppresses a shudder of fear

 

“Oh come off it, Daichi. He’s a little boy, and your boots are fine. It was an accident.” Another voice sighs and from the corner of her eye, Ursa sees two more soldiers behind the fuming giant. The one who spoke is older and skinny as a rake. He has a bow and a quiver of arrows slung across his back and an expression of exasperated disdain. The other one, a younger man with thick black hair that can’t be much older than twenty or so, steps up to her, a look of concern on his face.

 

“Is your nephew alright Mam?”

 

“Yes. A bruise or two, but nothing time can’t fix.” Ursa says, keeping her voice soft and her face fixed firmly on the cobblestones below them.

 

The young man sighs in relief.

 

“Thank goodness.”

 

“Is he alright?! What about me?! Little brat could have taken out my kneecaps!” the giant roars, glaring at Ursa’s skirts as if he’d like to roast the little boy behind them to a crisp.

 

“Oh, what do you want Daichi? You mommy to kiss it better?” The older man scoffs expression morphing into a condescending smirk. Ursa could swear she hears one of Daichi’s veins burst.

 

“You're not helping Preecha.” The younger man groans, raising a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

 

“Look, Daichi, there’s no harm done and you’ve scared the poor kid half to death as it is. Can’t you just let it go?”

 

“Not until the brat apologizes!” Daichi growls.

 

The younger man sighs under his breath and gives Ursa and apologetic look, gesturing at Beom-Seok.

 

“May I?”

 

Ursa can only nod. What else can she say?

 

The man crouches down on the paving stones, peering at the scared little boy behind Ursa.

 

“Hello there. I’m Hyousuke. What's your name?”

 

Beom-Seok clenches Ursa’s skirts tighter. The silence stretches out before he whispers, near inaudible;

 

“Beom-Seok.” 

 

The man smiles gently.

 

“Hello, Beom-Seok. Your pretty fast aren’t you? You were really moving when you ran into Daichi huh?”

 

“...I guess…”

 

“I know! You really scared him, ya know?”

 

There is a noise of derision from Daichi and a sharp laugh that Preecha tries to disguise as a cough, but Beom-Seok doesn’t seem to hear either of them.

 

“Really?” he asks dubiously.

 

“Mhm. You know sometimes when people get scared, they get angry to play off the fact that they were scared?”

 

“Like Hiro did when I showed him my pet tarantula I found under a flower pot in the courtyard?”

 

Ursa’s lips pinch tight. She’s seen Birdy the tarantula in his glass terrarium, and the large, bright blue spider was frightening enough as it was. She can’t imagine an enthusiastic Beom-Seok shoving the animal in her face without prior warning. Hyousuke just seems amused though.

 

Something like that yes. You think you can apologize to Daichi for scaring him?”

 

“Yeah, okay!”

 

Compared to a few minutes ago, the little boy seems almost chipper . He steps out from behind Ursa’s skirts and looks up at the towering Daichi, face full of genuine concern and apology.

 

“Sorry I scared you Daichi-sama. I’ll be more careful next time.”

 

Ursa is almost afraid Daichi is going to literally explode from anger, but he’s interrupted by a pointed yawn before he can stop gaping like a landed fish.

 

“Well. We’ve just extorted an apology from a little boy and a helpless woman. Wonderful. I certainly feel like a man now.” Preecha says, sending Daichi a thinly veiled look of disgust.

 

Even Daichi has the decency to blush with shame at the statement.

 

“S’ long as he doesn't do it again.” He mumbles, and stomps off, presumably to do manly things until he feels better.

 

Preecha rolls his eyes, making to follow him before glancing over at his compatriot.

 

“Hyou, you coming or what?”

 

Hyousuke straightens, looking strangely bashful of all things.

 

“I, um… I was going to ask Ms… I’m so sorry, I don’t think I got your name.”

 

“Indra,” Ursa tells the cobblestones not quite believing her luck.

 

“Ms. Indra if she would mind an escort home. To apologize for the trouble we caused.”

 

Well, that luck was short-lived.

 

“That really won’t be necessary, we can-” Ursa tries but Preecha cuts her off with a chuckle

 

“To apologize for the trouble. Right… Well, I suppose even a sparrow hawk can dream of flying with a phoenix. Good luck.”

 

Then he’s gone and a slightly flushed Hyousuke has turned back to her.

 

“May I take some of your bags, Ms. Indra?”

 


 

“I really do apologize for Daichi. He’s gotten a bit full of himself since the promotion.” Hyousuke sighs, shifting the weight of the daikons from one hand to another.

 

Ursa’s mind whirls. HOW did she get herself into this, walking back to the Crimson Merganser with an Imperial soldier?! And he’s carrying her groceries ?!

 

“Promotion?” She asks, keeping her eyes fixed on Beom-Seok, walking slightly ahead of both of them, smacking a stick he found against the trees on the side of the road.

 

“I wasn't aware hired muscle got promotions.” 

 

Hyousuke stiffens a bit, and then sighs, long and low.

 

“They don’t, as a rule. Look, I’m a shi- Bad liar, and it’s not as if the whole town doesn't know anyway. So yes, Daichi’s recent promotion to Sargent has got him feeling a little bit too big for his britches as of late.”

 

“So it’s true then. Your out here looking for someone.” Ursa presses. This is a dangerous line of inquiry, but if he hasn’t recognized her yet this might be an ideal time to find out some vital information.

 

“A runaway bride?”

 

Hyousuke scoffs, face falling in exasperation.

 

“Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that whoever it is is important, important enough that our commander apparently got his orders from the very top . Must be pretty scandalous though, if they won't even tell us grunts who it is we’re looking for.”

 

“Really? My goodness, that does sound strange! But… if you don’t even know what they look like why are there so many of you?” Ursa asks, biting the inside of her cheek to curb her eagerness.

 

“Escort, apparently. The commander and the captains have all been making inquiries apparently, but nothing has come of it yet. What about you? Do you live here in Telur Naga?”

 

“Just passing through,” Ursa replies, thanking Agni above that her elevated station of the princess has kept the majority of the Nation from intimately knowing her face.

 

“I was widowed a few months ago, and I’m staying with my sister and brother-in-law for a few weeks till I can get passage back home to Komodo Isle.”

 

“I’m so sorry. If I’d known-”

 

“But you couldn't have,” Ursa says allowing herself a warm but weary smile at the young soldier.

 

“It’s alright. I’ve come to terms with it. Though I’m not particularly looking forward to moving back in with my parents after all this time!” She laughs lightly. She can’t believe she’s getting away with this.

 

“Ah, yes. I can’t imagine that’s what you had planned.” Hyousuke says laughing slightly.

 

He clears his throat and reaches up his free hand to rub at the back of his neck.

 

“So… You’re not… What I mean to say is you’re… You’re not going back home to… Ahem, uh, what I mean to say is… You’re not currently… you're not promised?”

 

Ursa laughs at his awkwardness.

 

“No, Hyousuke, I’m not engaged. My husband's brothers are all married and there’s hardly a line at my father's door for his old widowed daughter. I’m afraid it’s back to the family compound for me!”

 

“I find that hard to believe…” Hyousuke says quietly, but Ursa just shakes her head.

 

“No, it’s quite alright. As I said, I’ve come to terms with it. Ah, this is us.”

 

The Crimson Merganser rises out of its gates like a sanctuary and despite herself, Ursa feels her steps quicken. Best not to try and push her luck for much longer. Beom-Seok has already run ahead, disappearing within the carved wooden gates and most likely into the relieved arms of his mother.

 

Ursa stops in front of them and takes the shopping bags back from Hyousuke.

 

“Thank you very much. Sorry to take you so far out of your way.”

 

“Oh, it was no trouble, no trouble at all. Komodo Isle, you said?”

 

“Oh! Yes, why?” Why is he so interested?

 

“Ah, right, I thought so. Umm…”

 

Why does he look so odd? Was it something she said? Oh gods, what if she gave herself away!?

 

“Well, Ms. Indra, it was lovely to meet you. Umm…”

 

Oh, spirits what is he aiming at?! Why does he drag it out so long?! If he’s going to capture her why doesn't he just do it already?!

 

“-I was hoping I could come to visit you sometime. Not right away, obviously! You’ve only been umm, unattached for a short while and I’ve got to finish up this tour of duty but, maybe, afterward? Would you be amenable to that?”

 

What in the world is he- 

 

Oh.

 

Oh my.

 

It’s been a while since this has happened.

 

Fourteen years, give or take.

 

Being persued by the Fire Prince tends to put off any other hopeful suitors, strangely enough.

 

Ursa feels a bit like someone hit her over the head with a heavy object of some sort, but manages to stutter out a slightly dazed;

 

“Perhaps?”

 

This seems to have been a satisfactory answer anyway, judging by the wide smile Hyousuke gives her.

 

“Right, well, uhh. Yes. I’ll see you- well not soon exactly, but presently? Have a lovely evening!”

 

“You too?” Ursa manages to get out and the young man manages to beam even brighter before setting off back towards… wherever he was going.

 

Still dazed, and more than a bit confused, Ursa walks back into the wooden gates, and smack into Megumi, who is grinning like the owl-cat that got the cream.

 

“So… anything interesting happen at the market today?” The other woman trills, looking for all the world like Ursa’s cousin Asami when she found out Ozai had paid Ursa a visit way back when.

 

“Nothing of note,” Ursa says, desperately trying to shut this conversation down before it starts.

 

“Mmhm. Well Nothing is quite handsome wouldn’t you say?”

 

“Megumi!”

 

“I’m just saying! You’re a pretty woman and you deserve a second chance!”

 

“He’s far too young for me.” Ursa finally manages before pushing past the laughing woman and up the stairs to her room.

 

And I DON’T deserve a second chance. Not after I left them behind.

 




“Are you sure I can’t convince you to stay a bit longer? I’m sure I could find some caravan willing to take you along to Komodo.” Jae-beom says, tightening the saddles belly band one last time.

 

Kenta huffs, nosing Ursa’s mittened hands for the final slice of red banana within them. The morning air is cold and clear, and the clouds above the volcanoes look like wisps of dragon beard candy above the bright eye of the rising sun.

 

“Thank you, but no. I’d like to get home before the winter snow really starts to sets in and I’ve waited long enough as it is.” Ursa says, feeding the treat to her loyal companion. Kenta grunts in satisfaction.

 

“Well, I can’t say you won’t be missed.” Jae-beom sighs, forming his hand into a step that Ursa uses to boost herself up into the saddle.

 

“Write some time, if you can. Megumi will want to hear from you and the boys will want to hear about the Komodo Rhinos I’d wager.”

 

Ursa smiles, hiding her sorrow and gathering Kenta’s reins in her hands.

 

“I’m sure I could manage that Jae-beom. Thank you for everything.”

 

“Oh, it was no trouble at all Mrs. Indra. Take care now.”

 

The woman known as Indra smiles in gratitude and clicks to her mount, who starts up a bouncy trot, waving over her shoulder at the innkeeper.

 

She makes it until past the city gates before she blows away like sea mist before the morning sun and the woman who used to be Princess Ursa, and now used to be Indra of Komodo Isle, nudges her buffalo-boar into a gallop, pulling away from Telur Naga and leaving the women she pretended to be behind like so many dropped flower petals.

Chapter Text

She takes the road more often than not these days.

 

The South Sea Byway is not very populated this time of year, the frosty breath of wind and drifts of snow carried from the South Pole scaring all but the most resolute of Northern travelers back towards the temperate forests and warm jungles around the equator. The fields of rice and stands of fruit trees gave way a long time ago, first to wheat and barley, then to cabbages and roots and now all that stretches on either side of the road are vast fields of grazing and the mining camps scattered around the bases of mountains like spider-ants scuttling about their colony.

 

Koala-sheep and elephant-antelope watch her passing with vague interest, looking up from their grazing with big liquid eyes before returning to their forage, with a grunt or a flick of an ear. Settlements are getting fewer and farther in between, and despite the ever-increasing chill in the air, she’s forced to camp more often than not. Now when she wakes in the morning, the top of her tent is dusted with a soft coating of midnight snow.

 

For almost a week she rides without seeing another living soul, save the milling livestock and the wandering tracks of wildlife in the fresh powder. Sea eagles call from their cliffs, squirrel-foxes stalk penguin-quail on their nests and a fine sea mist rolls in over the still green landscape in a salt scented fog.

 

Early one morning Ursa wakes to a rustling in the evergreen forest she’s camped in for the night to see a herd of saber skunk-deer browsing on the fallen pine cones and tender tips of the branches. The fawns that tag along at their mother's sides are nearly full-grown, baby spots faded and coalesced into the bright white stripes they will carry into adulthood, the little bucks shoving each other around with tiny button horns.

 

Zuko would love this.

 

The thought comes to her unbidden, and the force of the grief behind it slams into her chest like a charging rhino. The half-choked sob that escapes her startles the animals and they flee, tails flagging, leaping over the fallen brush.

 

One of the does waits for a heartbeat longer than the others, her buck fawn fidgeting at her side, until another fawn, a little doe, bursts out of the foliage where she had presumably been hidden from sight and the entire little family kicks up their heels and vanishes together into the rustling pines.

 

Ursa stares after their retreating forms long after they have vanished from her sight.

 


 

She sees the famous Komodo Rhinos before she ever sees Komodo Isle.

 

She’s seen them before of course but never like this. The colossal beasts are always heavily armored in black and gold over their thick gray hides, on parade for the Fire Lord or being loaded into the bellies of battleships to go serve as heavy cavalry at the front.

 

She’s certainly never seen a calf, or a yearling or even a milking cow, but she is startled from her sleep on a bright winter morning to see a truly enormous baby rhino peering at her with interest through the slats in the fence.

 

After she suppressed the scream of terror that fought to escape her mouth, (staring point-blank up at an unexpected Komodo rhino tended to do that to a person, even if said rhino was, in fact, a giant infant sporting an impressively thick milk mustache.) and after her heart rate calmed down to the point where she could make out the individual beats, she offered the baby a shaky smile.

 

“Hello there.” She managed, holding out a hand for the calf to sniff.

 

“You startled me!”

 

The enormous baby makes a joyful honking noise, pushing its warm leathery nose into her palm and searching for treats with an oddly prehensile and pointed upper lip. Ursa giggles, despite herself.

 

A low noise, like a faraway fog horn, reaches her eardrums and the baby lifts it’s absurdly large round ears before turning on its heel and galloping back up the paddock. Ursa follows his path and there, on a rise, is a truly giant cow rhino, another calf tucked against her side, lifting a huge horned head to issue another call to her wayward offspring. The calf almost skids into her, half-tripping over its own oversized feet and clipping its sibling, who honks in indignation and lowers its oversized head in mock challenge, which the calf accepts eagerly, butting the others head and lashing its tail in faux threat.

 

The cow, apparently satisfied by just having both her babies within her eye line, lowers her head and resumes cropping the lush green forage underneath their feet, making quiet, contented grunting sounds as the calves clash clumsily about her. One by one, more calves and cows emerge out of the early morning mist, odd lumps in the landscape shifting and standing up either to graze or nurse in the light of the morning sun. A group of yearlings mill off to the sides, puffing their chests, stomping their feet, lashing their long, whiplike tails and clashing with each other until someone takes it too far, at which point the formerly macho young bull goes running, honking all the while, back to the safety of his mother. That does make Ursa laugh, remembering her grandmother's exasperation at her grandson's antics.

 

“Be they fish or fowl or man or beast, nothing is a proud or as fragile as a young buck caught between maturity and childhood!” Oba-Kaede had told her one morning as Ursa’s boy cousins wrestled in the courtyard, alternating between adolescent arrogance and warbling, voice-cracked complaints of cheating.

 

“And the average husband too!” Aunt Hebe snarked and sent the whole lot of them into waves of shrieking laughter.

 

Ursa sits, watching the herd graze until Kenta grows restless and starts digging up the roots of the tree shes tethered him to in search of tubers and grubs and Ursa takes him back on the road to prevent him from getting the bright idea to wallow in his newly created bath.

 

She continues to watch the mothers and their calves, twisting back in the saddle to steal just one more glimpse until the entire herd disappears beyond a bank of evergreens and slides out of view.

 


 

Komodo Isle is connected to the mainland by a series of stone bridges that criss-cross from rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop, each one wide enough for a platoon of Komodo riders to cross shoulder to shoulder, not surprising considering the Islands main export is armor and rhinos for the ever gaping maw of the Fire Nation military.

 

The island itself is almost swallowed under a metal shell of shipyards, dry docks, warehouses, factories, and livestock pens. Smokestacks belch dark plumes of ash and embers in eye-stinging clouds blown inland by the persistent sea winds, and somewhere underneath the squat steel towers scattered about the coastline to mark their places, great undersea turbines turn to power the growling machines and ever hastening production lines.

 

The streets are packed with dirty people, soot and smoke clinging to their sweat-soaked bodies and sunk deep in their clothes. Most of the lower classes on the Northside of the island work in the factories, as smiths, welders and manual labor. The occasional electrician or runner ducks in and out of the crowd, the electricians marked by their shaded goggles and thick rubber gloves, the runners by their youth and black and gold armbands that distinguish them by the military unit or factory they serve under.

 

Despite the muck and smoke, however, there is a general air of merriment and good humor. Komodo is a military town, with military purpose and military comforts, but also a great deal of high paying jobs and a large population of well-paid laborers and soldiers more than willing to spend their hard-won copper and silver on providing good food, good drink, and good company. Heavily muscled men and women laugh and shove each other like overgrown schoolchildren, and in the fading light of dusk, the street is lit brightly with the warm light of lanterns that hung from the eaves of the many inns and izakaya that populate every street, who’s many ceilings ring with the sounds of song, laughter, and a great many people talking while also consuming large quantities of alcohol.

 

Ursa chooses one at random, an old but homey wooden structure with a profusion of blue and white banners and a very old, very fat, lion dog lying on a threadbare cushion in the entryway and wagging his curled tail at every visitor that comes through the door.

 

“Hey, Toshi. Big crowd tonight?” a passing laborer asks the little animal, reaching down to ruffle the fawn-colored ears. Toshi wags his little tail harder and gives the man a soft little yap of pleasure. The man laughs and slips the little dog a piece of blood sausage, which Toshi takes carefully in a nearly toothless mouth.

 

The interior is hot and crowded, the patinated wooden floors were worn smooth and bronze fixtures kept bright by hundreds of years of people passing in and out of its doors. The tables are crowded with people and the walkways between the tatami mats crowded with discarded boots and geta. A huge mural of a leaping koi fish takes up the majority of one wall and a set of brightly painted doors right behind the bar proudly displays two others, one black, one white, circling each other in the middle of a snowy pond. A young woman, her thick, wavy black hair pulled up in a bun that was falling into her odd grey-green eyes, approached Ursa, wiping her hands on her apron.

 

“Hello. You’ll be needin’ a room I imagine?”

 

Her southern accent was thick and harsh, but there was a slight undertone of something deeper and more musical than Ursa couldn’t quite put her finger on.

 

“Yes, please. And a stable for my buffalo-boar as well.”

 

The woman nodded, leaning around Ursa and peering out the open window at the hitching post where she had tied Kenta.

 

“We can do that. Tatsuo!”

 

A boy, no older than twelve whose golden brown complexion and round greenish eyes were so similar to the young woman that they could only be related, looked up from where he had been loading dirty dishware onto a tray, presumably to be taken back to the kitchen, with an expression of annoyance.

 

“What?!”

 

“Take this lady’s buffalo-boar back to the stables!”

 

“Kinda busy!” The boy yells back, indicating the carefully balanced tray of crockery as emphatically as he could without the whole thing crashing to the floor.

 

The woman's face scrunched in annoyance. “I didn't mean right now stupid! Take the buffalo-boar to the stable AFTER !”

 

“Take it yourself!” The boy shouts back, and an incident of bloody fratricide is only avoided by a young man in the uniform of an electrician getting up from his table with a placating smile at them both.

 

“I’ll do it Tsubaki. Least I can do for claiming a prime spot every week!”

 

The young woman flushes a pretty shade of pink at the young man’s smile. The boys face wrinkles in disgust and he pulls an exaggerated gagging face. The so-named Tsubaki shoots her little brother a dirty look before turning back to the young man, eyes shyly averted and fiddling with the hem of her apron.

 

“Are- are you sure Taka? It’s very nice of you, obviously! But really, Tatsuo really should do it-”

 

“HEY!” the boy shouts, affronted, but the two teenagers pay him no mind whatsoever.

 

“It’s no trouble Tsubaki. I’m happy to do it.”

 

The flush darkens, and now there is a matching pink stain spreading on the so-named Taka’s face.

 

Ursa coughs.

 

Pointedly.

 

As cute as this is, she’s been in the saddle since 6 this morning and is really looking forward to sleeping in an actual bed, for once.

 

The two teens start, both blushing deeply and ripping their eyes away from each other's faces. Tsubaki recovers first.

 

“So, uh, just the one room then?”

 


 

Her room at the Dragon Koi Inn , as Ursa learned the establishment is called, is cramped but cozy.

 

The small futon is draped in a pile of lambswool blankets and thick winter furs. The carved soapstone oil lamp on the small writing table casts a cheerful, warm orange glow. The walls are whitewashed and a small ink painting of a dragon koi hangs on the wall beside the door. The small window above the writing desk looks out over the modest courtyard garden, complete with what else; but a large stone pond with a school of dragon koi swimming in it. Their metallic scales and long, flowing tails sparkle in the chilly morning light.

 

Apparently, all the koi in the pond are all descended from only four fish, two gifted from South Sea traders and two either stolen from or gifted to the inn by Đào Mai Ly, the infamous female warlord of the Thousand State period. The South Sea traders had donated the blue and white fish, Đào Mai Ly the black, red, and gold ones.

 

All this Ursa learns from Tamiko, The Dragon Koi’s proprietor, the current matriarch, and mother of an extensive brood that includes not only Tsubaki and Tatsuo but SIX more children, all sons, ranging from full-grown and employed as a mechanic on the front (Thinnakorn) to a little less than five years old. (Tae-Hee) Her family has run the Dragon Koi Inn since the before the unification of the islands and she was the sixth matriarch in a row to be the sole proprietor.

 

“Great-great-great grandma Sango was married five times. First one drowned at sea, the second one ran off and got himself killed suppressing the Plum Blossom Revolt, the third one was caught messing around with a nobleman's daughter and got beheaded for it, fourth one was trampled by a rampaging hippo-bull and the fifth one just dropped dead in the middle of the wedding feast. After that, Great-Granny Sango decided to cut her losses and skip the whole marriage thing. I figure all those funerals were cutting into her bottom line. No woman of ours has gotten married since then.”

 

“But… you have children!” Ursa had exclaimed, feeling confused and more than a little out of her depth.

 

Tamiko had fixed her with a look .

 

“Now Hanako. I know you're old enough to know you don’t need a marriage to make babies happen.”

 

She had flashed Ursa a saucy grin and then proceeded to laugh uproariously as Ursa blushed and tried to hide her burning face in her breakfast.

 

Tamiko is a GIANT of a woman, taller than most of the men Ursa has ever met, with golden-brown skin and round, turquoise eyes that she has apparently passed to all of her children. Her arms are as thick Ursa’s waist and her very generous… endowments are barely hidden by a man's happi coat belted loosely over a light blue kimono and a pair of embroidered hakama trousers.

 

She’s also a lovely conversationalist and absolute fount of wisdom and charm, once you got past the unconventional dress and the shock of her large, boisterous personality. Which probably explains all the children. And the large number of lovesick men and women who seem all too eager to challenge her to tests of strength or skill, or simply moon over her figure from afar.

 

Ursa’s seen her flatten three huge rhino drovers in an impromptu wrestling contest and reduce five other patrons into quivering puddles of desire with just a smile or gentle touch on the arm.

 

And it’s not even noon yet.

 

“How much you want to bet your gonna have another little brother soon Tsubaki?” Ursa hears one of the younger waitresses tease. Tsubaki just rolls her eyes.

 

“Please. That’s not even a bet, that's an inevitability. If you want to make it interesting, at least bet on who’s going to be the father!”

 

“Three copper on that Minsu guy from the mainland!” One of the other waitresses chimed in, slapping the announced capital on the bar with a flourish.

 

“Five on Renjaan!”

 

“Eight on Yugoro!”

 

Ursa watched with a mix of dismay and morbid interest as the pile of copper and silver grew in size and a slate was pulled out from somewhere to record the bets, names, and money involved in each. Even Tomiko’s own children get involved, Tsubaki and three of her brothers slapping down five silver each on a man named Kojiro, a willowly gentleman with ink smears on his fingers and a hefty book that he keeps jotting notes in. Some of the other betters moan about cheating on the siblings part, but an older gentleman who apparently runs the kitchen shuts down any protest.

 

“Besides, if ya feel so bad about ya bet, ya can always slap down some more coin and make a new one.” the chef reasons.

 

It’s surreal. It gets even more so when Tomiko marches up to the bar to order everyone back to work only to wait until the coast is clear and make a bet on herself.

 

“Now THAT is cheating Ms. Tomiko.” the old man says, leaning on the bartop and raising an eyebrow in mock disapproval.

 

“Oh, what do you care Aki? Your the spirits damned bookie, you make money no matter what happens.”

 

“Not if people find out I’m letting you cook the books.”

“Alright, alright, you stingy old rhino. Put me down for Lạc Phúc and Kojiro as well as Guanyu. Not like I’ve decided one way or another yet anyway.”

 

“Now that I can do. Usual bet?”

 

Tomiko just smiles, reaching into her cleavage, pulling out a small silk purse and tossing it on the bartop.”

 

“Usual bet.”

 

“Excellent. Have a good day Miko-chan.”

 

“That’s Miko- san to you, you old tigerdillo!” Tamiko yells over her shoulder, but she laughing as she does it.

 

Ursa just stares into her soup.

 

She’s definitely not in the Caldera anymore.