“Princess,” a voice says, and she turns towards it.
It happens to both of them at nearly the same moment, but it’s said very differently all the same.
“We’re nearly to the North Pole, Princess Azula,” the captain says, and Azula hums and inspects her—perfect, obviously—nails. The captain is bundled up to his neck; she’s just wearing her usual armor. Any decent firebender doesn’t have to get cold, after all.
It’ll wear her out a bit by the end of the day, admittedly, but better that the North Pole know who they’re dealing with now. She isn’t interested in being underestimated again. It’s useful, being underestimated, but it also takes so much longer and she has things to do, the least of which is make this treaty. The Earth Kingdom is being difficult enough, and Zuko’s utterly failing to deal with Ba Sing Se, which means she’s going to have to step in and clean up his mess like always, and Mother will give her that look again and Father will give Zuko his own version of that look and things will progress as they always do.
They have a war to win here, and Azula isn’t interested in wasting time.
“The Fire Nation delegation is nearly here, Princess Yue,” the steward says, and Yue makes a quiet sound of acknowledgment and turns away from the window. She was just watching the water. She does that, sometimes.
“I’ll be right down,” she says, and the steward nods and leaves her there. She thinks about sneaking out the window, as if there were any possible way she could manage that in these heavy, pretty robes. She probably couldn’t even manage it at all; it’s a very high window on a very sheer wall, and she’s never been particularly strong or fit anyway.
They say Prince Zuko is her age. He’s not well thought-of in the Fire Nation and she’s heard her father’s warriors say disparaging things about his sub-par war tactics, but there have been no rumors of unnecessary cruelty or acts of terror. At least, not as far as she’s heard. Maybe people have been avoiding mentioning that kind of thing around her.
She’d understand, she supposes, because her father is going to offer her as a wife to seal this treaty. The one and only princess of their tribe, and so the only one who could be offered.
They’d wanted her to marry Hahn, before this. She’d prayed to the spirits that she wouldn’t have to, that they’d choose someone else.
She should’ve been a bit more specific in those prayers, apparently.
But she’d already resolved to do the best thing for their tribe, and if this is the best thing . . .
Yue sighs, and looks away from the window she can’t sneak out of.
This is the best thing, she tells herself, and almost believes it.
Azula leaves the ship, and leaves steaming footprints in her wake. She feels sharp and ready and ready to sharpen her teeth on this treaty. She’ll wring every last drop of concessions out of the Water Tribe, and her father will see how much better than Zuko she is and so will the court and so will everyone, and they’ll all finally stop pretending he could ever be the Fire Lord’s true heir.
“It’s so cold!” Ty Lee complains, wrapping herself tighter in her coat.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have worn your circus outfit under that, then,” Mai says dryly. Ty Lee huffs indignantly, and Azula smirks in amusement.
“Now, now, girls,” she drawls. “No fighting among ourselves. We have a good impression to make, don’t we?”
“Yes, Azula,” the other two say, Ty Lee’s voice sheepish and Mai’s just a sigh. They weren’t truly necessary to bring on this trip, in all honesty, but again: Azula is not interested in being underestimated, and she wants the Water Tribe to know who they’re dealing with.
There is a man in blue with a spear in hand waiting for them down the path, and she heads towards him as the obvious destination. Ty Lee and Mai flank her, and the captain follows behind. The man waits until they’re practically on top of him to speak.
“The chief will see you in the palace,” he says, speaking right over Azula’s head to the captain. Her eyes narrow; Ty Lee lets out a little hiss, and Mai taps her nails against her thigh. The captain chokes a bit, as a man with a survival instinct.
“Will he?” Azula says lightly. “How lovely.”
The man in blue gives her a strange look, clearly not having expected her to speak. Well, they do say the Water Tribe is backwards; she already knows they don’t even train their women to fight, which—hah! Imagine! That’s half the populace useless right there! Obviously not every citizen can join the army, but to reduce the pool of possible soldiers that drastically from the start . . . yes, that’s backwards, alright.
“You may take us to the palace,” Azula informs the man in blue, memorizing his face just in case a little chance for retribution pops up later. He glances at the captain quizzically, and the captain stares ahead impassively. At least someone in this conversation knows when to keep their mouth shut.
“Or we could stand around all day,” Mai deadpans. “That’s fun too.”
“Where’s your prince?” the man in blue asks the captain. Ty Lee giggles in disbelief, clapping a hand over her mouth. Mai looks bored. Azula . . . Azula arches an eyebrow, and the captain very quickly takes a step back.
“Beating his head against the walls of Ba Sing Se, last I heard,” Azula says lightly. The man in blue frowns suspiciously.
“They said the prince was coming,” he says.
“That would be the princess, actually,” Azula says pleasantly, locking her hands behind her back. Perhaps there was a translation error.
Perhaps the Water Tribe is just very, very stupid.
“Oh,” the man in blue says, his eyes widening in—alarm?
Good. Let him be alarmed; maybe then he’ll get them where they’re going in a timely fashion.
“Wait here,” he says, and Azula stares at him. He must be joking.
“Should we just head back to the Fire Nation until you can make time in your busy schedules?” she asks witheringly. The man in blue stares down at her for a moment, like he's not sure how to handle her. He's not the first person to have done that in her life.
No one knows how to handle Azula. She considers it a point of pride.
"Listen," she says magnanimously, because it's a little early in the treaty process to be throwing anyone in the ocean, "Why don't you stop worrying about things above your pay grade and just take us where we need to be, hm?"
“Wait here,” the man in blue repeats, and actually turns and leaves. Azula almost laughs in disbelief.
She’s only met one of these people, and it’s already amazing how backwards they are.
“Azula?” Ty Lee says nervously, hopping from one foot to the other. Azula stares daggers into the retreating man in blue’s back, then turns around to smirk at her.
“You heard the man,” she says lightly. “We’re waiting.”
And she’s getting an extra pound of flesh for every minute they make her do it, at the least.
Yue steps into the throne room and hears—arguing, it sounds like? There’s no sign of her father, but . . .
“Is something wrong?” she asks, and the guards and the steward all jerk guiltily beside the door. They all stand up straight and stiff-backed and bow to her.
“No, Princess Yue,” the steward lies. Yue represses a frown. It doesn’t do, for a princess to frown.
“I see,” she says, because it doesn’t do for a princess to question too much either. It’s not her place.
She steps into the throne room outright, and the guards share a nervous look.
“Has the Fire Nation delegation arrived?” she asks, since that’s a question that’s going to dictate the rest of her life and so she feels can be forgiven.
“Er . . .” The steward winces. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Yue looks around the throne room, keeping the question off her face. She sees no sign of anyone Fire Nation, though, and no sign of anyone intending to greet them. Where else would her father meet them, though?
“Yue,” she hears, and turns. It’s her father coming into the throne room, an odd look on his face. She can’t quite tell if he’s upset or not.
“Father,” she says, and doesn’t ask is everything alright? She’ll be told one way or the other soon enough.
“A moment,” he says, taking her elbow and guiding her out of the room. She follows. Perhaps he’ll tell her something, though that’s unlikely. More likely he’ll tell her something she needs to do. Maybe her robes aren’t pretty enough for a Fire Nation boy to like, or maybe she should’ve done her hair differently.
She doesn’t know what a Fire Nation boy would like, so . . .
“There’s a problem,” her father says.
“A problem?” she asks.
“A translation error, probably,” he says. “They didn’t send the prince.”
“They didn’t?” Yue stomps down on the foolish spark of hope, because obviously that’s not enough reason for her father not to offer her hand anyway. “Who did they send?”
“The princess,” her father says. Yue . . . blinks.
“Why?” she asks, mystified. The Fire Nation knows her father doesn’t have any sons, surely. She’s his only child.
“Who knows?” her father says. “The Fire Nation seems to delight in being difficult. I assume it's a delaying tactic, though spirits know why."
"Do you think?" Yue says.
"Possibly," her father says, and that's the most he's said to her about politics in months, aside from informing her that she'd be marrying the Fire prince.
She wonders if the Fire Nation does betrothal necklaces. Not that it matters, just . . . she wonders.
She doesn't know very much about the Fire Nation. That's all.
"I don't know what they're playing at, but we'll handle it. You don't need to worry," her father says. Yue draws herself up, trying to look like a good and worthy daughter.
"Yes, Father," she says, and he heads back into the throne room. She follows a few steps behind him, trying not to worry. It's very difficult. She'd wanted to meet Zuko before the wedding, if at all possible, and now it seems there won't be any chance for that. It's . . . upsetting, a bit.
More than a bit.
She can only hope he's better than Hahn, but that seems unlikely. Maybe that’s unfair to think when she knows nothing about him, but . . .
Well. He’s the Fire Lord’s son, after all. What does she think he’s going to be like?
Ty Lee is restless, Mai is bored out of her mind, and Azula is still counting pounds of flesh. If it wouldn’t be considered an act of war and also probably result in them getting horribly lost, she’d already have marched on the palace. She should’ve just followed the man in blue to begin with, frankly.
Another minute ticks by. Azula adds another pound of flesh to her mental count. It’s going to take a full person to satisfy her at this point, and she’s leaning strongly towards the one who left them standing here.
“Can’t we wait on the ship?” Ty Lee says nervously.
“Oh, no,” Azula says, wearing a pleasantly predatory smile. “They asked us to wait here, after all.”
“This is actually even worse than the ride over was,” Mai says dubiously.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be right back,” Azula says. The captain winces. They all keep standing around like idiots, because the Water Tribe are idiots, and Azula mentally adds another pound of flesh to the tally.
Eventually, more people in blue show up, and the one at the lead of the pack takes one look at them standing there and visibly blanches. Good, Azula thinks, smiling pleasantly at him.
They’re all men, she notes as they come closer. Normally she wouldn’t even pay attention to something like that, but apparently the Water Tribe does, so she is. She wonders what female waterbenders do. Construction, perhaps? That might make sense, if they were occupied maintaining the city’s defenses. She still doesn’t know why there’d be a gendered split there, though, and that doesn’t account for all the women who aren’t waterbenders.
“We’re very sorry for the delay, please, come inside,” the man in the lead says, still looking rather pale and obviously struggling not to ask what the hell they’re doing standing around out here. Azula keeps up the pleasant smile.
“Oh, we were asked to wait here,” she says. The man’s lips thin, and he very deliberately does not look back at the man behind him who told them to do said waiting. Azula keeps smiling. She's going to see that man demoted to a cadet.
Assuming the Water Tribe has cadets. Who knows? She knows the battle tactics to expect, obviously, but not all the little intricacities of their chain of command. They have a chief, and they don't have women. That's most of her knowledge.
In her defense, it'd never really been important before Zuko found out the Avatar was trying to get here, back before Father sent him to Ba Sing Se. The one not-useless thing he's done in his entirely useless life.
It drives her mad that anyone would expect to see him before her, no matter how stupid the Water Tribe is about women.
"Please, let us escort you to the palace," the man at the lead says. His clothes are slightly more ornamented than the other men's, but probably not enough to be anyone really important. Azula is willing to follow an unimportant man to get where she needs to be, though.
"How kind of you," she says, smiling with her teeth. The man gives her a wary look—good!—and gestures down the path. Azula strides ahead, and he has to hurry to catch up. Mai snorts, and Ty Lee muffles a giggle. The man gives all three of them a wide berth.
Father sits on the throne. Yue sits beside him, waiting. Father and his advisors are exchanging low, hurried words, and if she is very still and very silent, she can hear them clearly. And, perhaps, they’ll forget to hold their tongues.
“They mock us,” one of the advisors hisses, and a few others murmur agreement.
“The Fire Nation is different,” another advisor says. “And it may have actually been a translation error.”
“Enough of one to mix up a prince and a princess?!” the first one demands. “We are supposed to be drafting a treaty here, not suffering the Fire Lord’s pointless delaying tactics! Who knows what the man even thinks he’s doing?!”
“It’s true, it could’ve been an error,” her father says. The advisors glare at each other. “Better to assume the best, at least to start off on. We don’t want involved in this war.”
“The Southern Tribe—” an advisor starts, and several others hiss him silent. Yue . . . wonders, mostly.
A guard runs into the throne room, looking stressed.
“Chief Arnook—” he starts, and her father straightens in his seat, and his advisors scurry to the side. Another guard walks in a moment later, and on his heels comes four figures in various shades of red and black. They stand out starkly against the ice.
They stand out more starkly because three of them are girls her age.
Her father is stiff-backed in his seat, and despite his previous statement, clearly not assuming the best. Yue . . . Yue isn’t sure what to think.
“Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, and her entourage,” the guard announces, stepping to the side. One of the girls steps forward, smiling very sharply.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Chief Arnook,” she says. A few of the advisors mutter amongst themselves; Yue doesn’t turn to look at them. The girl is very pale, with very dark hair pinned up with a golden ornament on top of her head. She’s wearing armor with gold ornamentation of its own, but no coat. She must be cold, Yue thinks, but she shows no sign of it.
“Of course,” her father says coolly. “We are glad to receive you, Princess Azula.”
Princess Azula smiles wider. She’s very beautiful, Yue notes distractedly. One of the most beautiful girls she’s ever seen, in fact. She doesn’t look old enough to have had her adulthood rites, though, and . . . well, she’s a girl. Does she even have the authority to make this treaty herself? She can’t possibly.
“There seems to have been a misunderstanding,” her father says. “We expected the prince.”
“My dearest brother is occupied with the Earth King, at the moment,” Princess Azula says easily, putting her hands behind her back. “They’re . . . negotiating.”
At war, she doesn’t say, though of course everyone in the room hears it, and everyone in the room knows how easily they could be next.
Very easily, apparently, because the Fire Lord sent his daughter to this meeting, and not anyone with actual political power. Does he want war, Yue wonders, because if so this seems like a good start towards it.
“I see,” her father says. “So you would be his stand-in.”
Princess Azula’s smile is flawless, but Yue feels like the air in the throne room just got colder all the same. Her father doesn’t seem to notice.
“Oh, I suppose you could say that,” Princess Azula says. The black-haired girl behind her arches an eyebrow; the one with the braid winces. Yue glances around the room and realizes no one else is looking at them.
Actually, most of the room isn’t even looking at the princess; they’re all looking to her chaperone, who is looking increasingly stressed.
So the peace talks are proceeding terribly already, and they haven’t even started talking.
“We’ll show you to your rooms,” her father says.
“Lovely,” Princess Azula says with that same flawless smile.
The rooms are respectable enough, Azula supposes, for being made of snow and ice. That doesn’t mean she wants to be wasting time in them, though. Unfortunately, the Water Tribe seems determined to waste as much of her time as possible.
“They’re idiots,” she says flatly.
“I don’t think they like girls very much,” Ty Lee says with a wince.
“I think they’re going to leave us in here until we freeze,” Mai says dubiously.
“Yes, well, we won’t be staying that long,” Azula says. Thinking her father would send Zuko, really. To make a treaty alone? Zuko could barely be trusted to be competent with their stupid uncle peeking over his shoulder every five minutes!
She is not impressed with the Water Tribe.
“Oh?” Mai says, raising an eyebrow in her that sounds promising way, and Azula smirks.
“They certainly didn’t say anything about staying here,” she says, and waves dismissively at the captain. “Hold down the fort and send for the scribes. Maybe see if you can get some actual blankets in here, my bed is covered in fur.”
“Yes, Princess Azula,” the man says, looking stressed. Even the servants talked to him over them, so Azula can see why.
She heads out of the rooms without further preamble, and Mai and Ty Lee fall in behind her. She does the obvious thing first, which is to return to the throne room planning to get started. There’s no sign of the chief or his advisors, though, and she sighs in aggravation. Are they going to make her track them down? Really?
She is not impressed with the Water Tribe.
“Unbelievable,” she says.
“Did they seriously leave no one here?” Mai says. “In the middle of the day?”
“What about her?” Ty Lee says, and points out the window. Azula follows her line of sight and sees the Water Tribe princess in the courtyard below. She seems to be alone, but she’s the only person in a position of authority in convenient range.
“She’ll do,” she says, and turns on her heel to leave the throne room. If she leaves footprints in the ice, so be it. She heads down the stairs to the outside, and puts on a pleasant smile to greet the princess. She doesn’t want to be underestimated, yes, but there’s no point in antagonizing anyone yet either.
At least, not until they deserve it.
She wouldn’t be smiling this pleasantly at the chief, put it that way.
“Princess Yue,” she says as she comes down the steps of the palace, and Yue turns to look at her, looking surprised.
“Princess Azula,” she says.
“I don’t suppose you could tell us when the treaty’s drafting is going to start,” Azula says, because she likes to get to the point. Yue looks surprised to be asked.
“I don’t know,” she says. “They wouldn’t have told me.”
. . . Azula is so, so unimpressed by the Water Tribe.
She exhales steam, and pinches the bridge of her nose. Yue still looks confused, but in a very polite way.
“Hi!” Ty Lee chirps brightly at her, as the one who’s always been best at handling the social angle. “I’m Ty Lee, this is Mai.”
“A pleasure,” Mai deadpans.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Yue says, wiping away the confused look and replacing it with a placid smile. “Are you Princess Azula’s attendants?”
Mai snorts. Ty Lee laughs. Azula puts on a smile of her own.
“You could call them that,” she says smoothly.
“We’re just here to help out!” Ty Lee says cheerfully. “Are you going to attend the meeting?”
“Oh, no,” Yue says, glancing away. “I don’t think so, anyway. I’d just be in the way.”
Azula barely resists the urge to go breathe fire at someone. Is there a single woman in this place doing anything important? Just one? She’d settle for one, at this point!
“You are the princess, yes?” she says. Maybe she’s just terribly misinformed here.
“I am,” Yue says, giving her that politely-confused look again. Azula really could breathe fire. This is not going to help with the not being underestimated angle.
“Fascinating,” she says. “I don’t suppose you could point us towards the meeting room, at least?”
“Well . . . I suppose so, yes,” Yue says, not quite frowning. “But no one will be there yet.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll show up soon enough,” Azula drawls. Unless they want to leave foreign dignitaries waiting, anyway.
“It’s this way,” Yue says, and gestures ahead before starting to walk. Azula matches pace with her immediately, lest anyone get any ideas. Mai and Ty Lee bring up the rear. She leaves footprints again, no doubt, but she still doesn’t particularly care about that. Any decent waterbender can smooth those out in a heartbeat, she’s sure.
And if they don’t want her leaving footprints, well, perhaps they could stop acting like she’s an unfortunate error.
Azula has never been the mistake in her life, and isn’t about to start now.
“Where’s your chaperone?” Yue asks as they walk, and Azula barks out a laugh.
“You’re joking,” she says.
“No?” Yue gives her that same confused look.
“He’s not our chaperone, he’s the ship’s captain,” Azula says. “I haven’t had a chaperone since I was six, and that was my brother making sure I didn’t burn the turtleducks’ tails.”
“But . . . you’re unmarried, aren’t you?” Yue says. Azula longs to melt something. A wall, maybe. A politician. She’s not picky.
“Yes, and?” she says. “I don’t see you with a chaperone.”
“Well, no, not in the palace,” Yue says. “But in the city, of course, and if I go anywhere else . . .”
“You’re sixteen,” Azula says incredulously. That’s a grown woman even by Water Tribe standards; Yue must’ve already had her adulthood rites. Who the hell would give a grown woman a chaperone just because she wasn’t married yet?
“I won’t need one much longer,” Yue says, sounding not quite defensive. “When I marry your brother—”
Mai twitches. Azula laughs.
“Is that why they thought Zuko was coming?” she says delightedly. “So they could make a marriage treaty?”
“Of course,” Yue says, frowning at her. “What kind of treaty doesn’t do that?”
“Oh spirits,” Azula says, grinning widely. The Water Tribe is full of idiots. “You don’t want to marry Zuko, he’s useless. Also, he’s already engaged.”
“He is?” Yue blinks at her.
“Of course he is, he’s going to be the Fire Lord, he’s been engaged since he was twelve,” Azula says. A useless Fire Lord who she’s going to have to prop up, if not outright usurp, but Fire Lord all the same.
The things she does for this family, she swears.
“We didn’t know that,” Yue says, sounding uncertain.
“If anyone did, apparently they didn’t care,” Azula says. “You could always fight Mai for him, though, I’d like to see that. Ever been in an Agni Kai?”
“Isn’t that an honor duel?” Yue asks, looking alarmed.
“Yes,” Azula says. “Thus the fighting her for him part. A regular duel wouldn’t do for that.”
“I can’t fight,” Yue says. Azula raises her eyebrows at her.
“What, not at all?” she says.
“Not at all,” Yue confirms. Spirits, the Water Tribe is stupid. A princess who can’t fight? How could she lead anyone?
“I don’t know how they expect you to run this place,” Azula says.
“They . . . don’t?” Yue says, looking confused. “I’m just a princess.”
“The only one, last I checked,” Azula says.
“Yes,” Yue says.
“. . . so who’s supposed to run this place?”
“My husband,” Yue says, her expression turning distant for a moment. “I suppose they’ll have me marry Hahn, if your brother is spoken for.”
“Who the hell is Hahn?” Azula asks. She’s never heard of a “Hahn” in her life.
“He was going to be my betrothed, before,” Yue says, touching her collarbone. “I suppose he will be again, now.”
“That’s, um, a choice?” Ty Lee says, looking skeptical. “So . . . you like him, then?”
“No,” Yue says. “But he’s the best choice for the tribe.”
“Azula, I hate it here,” Mai says flatly. Azula knows the feeling.
“And what if you don’t marry?” she says. “Who would run the place then?”
“My father’s advisors, I suppose,” Yue said. “Until a suitable husband could be found, of course. Or my father would choose a suitable heir, if I married outside the tribe.”
“Of course,” Azula echoes. Ty Lee is grimacing. Mai looks like she wants to go back to bed. Azula, personally, wants to go back to the throne room and just overthrow the entire damned government. It can’t be that hard, since apparently only half the population actually does anything around here.
“I’m not sure how they’ll want to ratify the treaty, if your brother is already engaged,” Yue says.
“I imagine by signing it, like any civilized person,” Azula says.
“The Water Tribe has always made treaty with marriages,” Yue says.
“Of course it has,” Azula mutters. And of course she doesn’t have a sacrificial brother to offer up for the job. Zuko can just never be useful, can he.
“Are we in trouble?” Ty Lee whispers in her ear. Azula waves her off dismissively. She is a daughter of the sun; she’ll figure this out.
“This is the meeting room,” Yue says, stopping by a doorway. Azula steps into the room, absently checking for assassins as she does. None are forthcoming, which is a shame. She could use the excitement.
“So it is,” she says, inspecting the place. It’s nothing on her father’s war room, but it’ll do, she supposes. It’s big enough to fit a decent amount of people, though she only brought two scribes herself. She hadn’t seen the point in bloating the party. All they need is someone to make sure the Water Tribe doesn’t try to slip anything dodgy into the actual physical treaty, and her to make sure they know their proper place in this arrangement. Everything else is just details.
“I’ll tell Father you’re waiting,” Yue says, and Azula smiles pleasantly at her.
“That would be very helpful, thank you,” she says, already planning the best way to verbally eviscerate the man when he comes in the door.
Yue leaves Princess Azula and her attendants in the meeting room and goes to find her father and his advisors. It takes some searching, unfortunately, but she finds a servant who points her in the right direction soon enough.
“Excuse me,” she says, pausing in the doorway. Her father’s advisors are arguing, loudly, and no one seems to notice her. She debates being louder, but . . .
“They didn’t even send the prince!” one of the advisors says. “A child! A girl child!”
“Ozai cannot possibly expect us to make a treaty under these circumstances. He is toying with us,” another says. Yue’s father looks weary, and rubs his temples.
“Excuse me,” Yue says, a little louder, and her father lifts his head to see her.
“Yue?” he says. She puts on her politest smile.
“Princess Azula is waiting in the meeting room with her attendants,” she says.
“She what?” one of the advisors demands. Yue doesn’t repeat herself, since he’s obviously just incredulous.
“I’m sure they’ll be patient,” she says instead, and the entire room flies into a flurry of activity. Yue waits, because . . . well, she’s not sure why. They don’t need her for any of this, after all.
She feels like she should wait, though, so she does.
Her father and his advisors head out, and she follows behind. If she asked permission, she’s sure she’d be denied, but better to beg forgiveness, yes? And she’s . . . curious, she has to admit. She wants to see more of Princess Azula and her attendants.
She should tell her father about Prince Zuko already being engaged, she realizes belatedly, and tries to slip through the crowd of advisors to his side but can’t find the space to. She could ask them to move, but . . .
“Excuse me,” she tries, and not a one of them acknowledges her.
It makes her feel . . . well. Never mind. It’s not important.
“Excuse me,” she tries again, louder, and still none of them acknowledge her, and then they’re at the meeting room and it’s too late. She makes one last attempt to make it to her father’s side, but there’s just no space, and instead she just files in behind the last of the advisors and tries to find an out of the way spot to observe. There are a few more Fire Nation people in the room—the captain and two apparent scribes, one male and one female. Yue wonders how they found the place.
Princess Azula smiles charmingly, then performs a strange-looking bow that Yue can only assume is some form of Fire Nation manners.
“A pleasure to see you again, Princess Yue,” Azula says. “Thank you for retrieving your men.”
Yue . . . blinks, slowly. The advisors mutter. Her father steps forward, and the attention in the room shifts to him. He’s the chief; of course it does.
“Thank you for waiting,” he says neutrally. “We are eager to receive your father’s proposal.”
“Oh, it was no trouble,” Azula says, her smile serpentine and sweet. Yue feels . . . odd, in a way. Something about that smile makes her feel odd. “A minor correction, though, Chief Arnook. This is my proposal. My father is occupied with . . . other interests.”
She means the war, Yue thinks. The war they’re trying very hard to avoid right now.
“Your proposal?” one of the advisors demands, at which point Yue realizes that yes, Azula had said that, hadn’t she. She hadn’t even noticed, it’d slipped out of the other girl’s mouth so naturally.
“Yes,” Azula says with that serpentine smile. That, Yue thinks, is what a dragon would smile like.
If there were any dragons left, of course.
“Chief Arnook!” another advisor hisses, and they cluster around him. Yue stays in her little out of the way corner, and says nothing. What would she say?
“I’m sorry,” her father says. “You drafted this proposal? But you can’t have had your adulthood rites yet.”
“I am a princess of the blood,” Azula says easily, putting her hands behind her back. “The Fire Lord has granted me the authority to act in his name on this matter.”
“A child,” an advisor hisses. Azula’s smile never wavers.
“A princess,” she says firmly.
That, it seems, means something different in the Fire Nation.
“I see,” Yue’s father says, doing a respectable job of not looking either stressed or upset, unlike the majority of his advisors. Yue keeps her own face blank, wondering how they can let so much show in front of . . . well, not an enemy, precisely, but certainly not yet an ally. It seems unwise, to her.
But she wouldn’t know, of course.
“We will of course allow for delays, if you are having problems . . . ?” Azula trails off meaningfully. Several of the advisors scowl or glower.
“No. No delays,” Yue’s father says shortly, stepping to the head of the room. “Let us hear . . . your proposal.”
Azula presents her proposal. The chief and his advisors, unsurprisingly, are not thrilled with it. But you’ll never get what you want if you come in asking for less, so Azula isn’t concerned about that. Besides, a good compromise leaves everyone miserable.
Not that she intends to be compromising all that much.
Several advisors interrupt her several times during her presentation, and she merely stares at them until they stop speaking, visibly cowed. The chief, mercifully, does not interrupt, but listens largely in silence, aside from a few clarifying questions.
Yue watches from the corner of the room the whole time and never says a word, like a very pretty statue.
“I’m sure we can all agree we’d much rather get along,” Azula finishes pleasantly, laying her proposed treaty down on the table. There’ll be rebuttals, of course, and arguments too. She’s good at getting what she wants, though, and isn’t concerned about that. She’s sure she’ll be able to draft a treaty her father will be pleased with, and—
“You did not mention your brother,” the chief says. Azula . . . pauses.
“Should I have?” she asks lightly.
“A marriage is traditional, in these cases,” the chief says. Ah. Well, apparently these deaf old fools didn’t let Yue say much when she retrieved them.
“My brother, unfortunately, is already engaged,” Azula says, inclining her head. What a stupid thing for the Water Tribe to worry about, she thinks. Trade routes and wartime alliances are far more important than a marriage pact. “The arrangement’s been in place for some years.”
“So this is the value the Fire Nation places on this treaty?” one of the advisors snipes. Azula seriously considers firebending at him. The chief just looks at her in silence.
Spirits dammit, how is this the thing they’re tripped up on? She was prepared for everything else but defending Mai’s damn marriage!
“The Fire Nation does not break its promises,” Azula says.
“The Fire Nation will not make promises, it seems,” another advisor snaps. Azula very seriously considers firebending at him.
“We only have the one prince. Can’t marry him off to everyone, unfortunately,” she says smoothly. Though maybe she should just marry Zuko off. Father would understand, probably. Mai’s family is fairly influential at court these days, though, and her parents would not take it well. Admittedly, they’d be less influential if Mai weren’t engaged to Zuko, so . . .
“Who is his bride-to-be? Surely the girl understands basic politics,” the chief says, and then Azula’s just irritated. This is entirely unnecessary, and stupid to boot. Also, she really went to a lot of trouble arranging things so Mai would be the next Fire Lady. Spirits forbid someone with ideas take the position, after all.
Not that Yue seems to have many of those, or at least not many that she’ll speak of, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.
“She does, of course,” Azula says. Mai twitches just enough so that she hears the shuriken in her sleeve hit each other. She waves the other off. She really did go to a lot of trouble, for one thing, and she’s not interested in learning some stranger as well as she already knows Mai.
Spirits, you’d think the man wanted to ship his daughter off to the Fire Nation.
“Then I see no problem,” the chief says. “We will ratify the treaty with their marriage.”
Azula does not like the Water Tribe. She’s met men who don’t think very much of women before, but not many who’d talk over them quite so recklessly. Not in the Fire Nation, at least. Clearly the Water Tribe has some issues there.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” she says. “But I’m sure we’ll be able to come to some other arrangement.”
“Not unless your father has another son,” one of the advisors says icily, and Azula . . . pauses, and makes some very quick mental calculations. This treaty is important, unfortunately—their navy needs safe waters, for one thing, but more than that, the Avatar needs to be cut off from every possible avenue of retreat and every waterbender who might actually teach him anything dangerous.
“No, I’m afraid not,” she says, putting on her most pleasant smile again. “But fortunately for everyone, he has a daughter.”
“There is no prince in the Northern Water Tribe,” an advisor says.
“Hardly a concern,” Azula says, waving him off dismissively.
“You mean you would marry Yue,” the chief says, a strange look in his eye. Azula gives him that pleasant smile.
“Of course,” she says. “I am a princess of the blood, after all. I can do that sort of thing.”
There’s nothing saying she can’t, anyway, as far as she knows. Li and Lo might have to do some checking, admittedly, and possibly some very strategic destruction of inconvenient scrolls, but otherwise.
“Can you,” the chief says, sounding unconvinced. Azula spares a glance for Yue, who looks startled but not upset or angry. Good. She can work with that.
“Of course!” she says breezily, as if it’s all as simple as she’s making it sound, and the advisors mutter to each other. “It would be my honor.”
“I suppose if she could prove herself worthy, perhaps,” an advisor says skeptically. Azula must have misheard the man.
“You want me to prove myself worthy of the princess’s hand,” she says. “In order to arrange this marriage. This marriage which is part of a peace treaty.”
“Yes,” the advisor says, several of the others nodding agreeingly and murmuring amongst themselves.
Azula hates these people.
“Of course,” she says again, smiling with her teeth in it this time and already planning how best to ruin their lives for this nonsense. “What’s the traditional approach?”
“Oh, no, we can’t possibly do the traditional approach,” another advisor says. “Not with a girl.”
Azula really hates these people.
“Do tell,” she says through her teeth.
“Perhaps she could demonstrate her skill at weaving or sewing, or her embroidery,” the advisor suggests, and Azula listens in disbelieving horror as they proceed to list all sorts of useless domestic skills that no decent princess would’ve ever had the time to learn.
“What is the traditional approach, if I may ask?” she finally interrupts once they get to poetry, which, just—no. Not happening.
“Oh,” the advisor says. “A challenger for the princess’s hand would merely fight any other suitors to submission.”
There they were. Thank the spirits.
“Excellent, we’ll do that,” Azula says immediately. “I’d hate to go against tradition, after all. Does dawn work for you? That’s the traditional time for an Agni Kai, but of course we’ll understand if you prefer the evening.”
“Er—no, you can’t—” the advisor starts, and Azula barrels right over him just like he and all his fellows have been trying to do to her.
“Dawn it is!” she says. “We’ll see you all bright and early! Thank you so much for your hospitality, Chief Arnook.”
She turns on her heel and leaves the room, steps no doubt steaming, and Mai and Ty Lee and the others all immediately fall in behind her.
“Did that actually work?” Mai mutters as they quickly walk away down the hall.
“You’d better hope it did, because I damn well can’t weave and I doubt they’ll let their princess into an Agni Kai for Zuko’s hand,” Azula says, her eyes narrowing.
“Yeah, probably not,” Ty Lee says, pursing her lips with a little frown. “They don’t seem to let girls do anything here!”
“Well, that’s their problem, not ours,” Azula says. “In fact, that should work out quite nicely for us, because that means there’s only half as many competent people running around and all the other positions have been filled by idiots.”
“It wouldn’t be much of an Agni Kai anyway,” Mai says neutrally. Azula remembers her last glimpse of Yue and the surprise still on the other girl’s pretty face and thinks that no, it would definitely not have been. Mai would’ve had her on the ground in seconds and been done with her, and the Water Tribe would not have taken it well.
“It’s not as if I need a proper marriage,” she says. “I don’t need a partner or an heir, I just need to keep you and Zuko from raising spoiled brats.”
“Are you sure about this, though?” Mai asks warily. “You’ll be stuck with her for the rest of your life.”
“Mai,” Azula says, fixing her with an annoyed look. “Do you know how long it took me to convince my mother that Zuko wasn’t too young to be engaged and my father that he wouldn’t make a mess of it?”
“Yes,” Mai says dryly. “You’ve mentioned it a few dozen times.”
“I am not wasting all that work so Zuko can marry some strange Water Tribe girl,” Azula says. Yue wouldn’t have half the political power of the Fire Lady, marrying her, and Mai she already knows how to control and knows won’t do anything stupid when she’s not around. Who knows what Yue might do left to her own devices with Zuko? Azula didn’t need that problem in her life when she’d already gone to the effort to arrange things so nicely for herself.
Again, the things she does for this family. Really.
“But this means you’re going to marry some strange Water Tribe girl,” Ty Lee says. “Isn’t that a little . . . awkward?”
“Why would it be?” Azula says.
“Er . . . no reason!” Ty Lee says quickly, which means there definitely is a reason but she’s afraid of Azula’s reaction to said reason, and really, Azula does not care enough to figure it out. She’s done much harder things than marry some strange princess. Yue doesn’t seem to be all that assertive, much less particularly scheming, so she won’t be very useful outside of this treaty but Azula’s sure she can figure something out. Finding uses for people is one of her specialties. Worst case scenario, well, she’ll have a harmless little wife to keep entertained with . . . whatever it is Northern Water Tribe women actually do.
Weaving, apparently. Lots and lots of weaving.
It’s just before dawn, and Yue doesn’t know how to feel about it. Yue usually doesn’t spend too much time worrying about how she feels about things, because she knows it’s irrelevant, but in the case of her own marriage . . .
It’s still irrelevant, but she can’t help feeling things about it all the same.
She can hear Hahn boasting from the training grounds at the bottom of the steps, and a few other boys laughing. Her father and his advisors are at the top of the steps, and Yue is stranded in the middle, looking at the servant who’s holding the fur that the betrothal necklaces are resting upon. There are only a few, and there isn’t one from Princess Azula, of course, because that’s not the Fire Nation way, but there’s been an empty space left on the fur in deference to her claim anyway.
Azula and her attendants show up the exact moment the sun crests the hills, all of them wearing black and red and gold again. Azula’s not in armor today, and is instead wearing soft cloth pants and a sleeveless shirt and skinny armbands. She’d stand out among the boys even without that, but . . .
“No armor?” one of the advisors mutters. “Surely she knows they’ll hit her, yes? Even if she is a girl.”
“At least it’ll be over quickly,” another mutters back.
Azula looks like she should be freezing, Yue thinks, but she’s so clearly not even cold.
“Good morning, Chief Arnook,” Azula greets her father pleasantly with a little bow. “You look well.”
“Good morning, Princess Azula,” he says. “You look cold.”
She laughs like he’s made a little joke, straightening up. Her boots, Yue notices, are just barely sinking into the ice. Is she a firebender? Do firebenders not get cold? Surely they must. Even waterbenders get cold, and the ice is their birthright.
Azula doesn’t look it, though.
Things start. There are several boys here, each one having brought a necklace, but everyone knows Hahn is going to win. He’s the finest warrior of their generation, and he came from good blood and a powerful family. The chances of him losing are so slim as to not even matter.
They pair Azula against one of the weaker boys for the first round, Yue assumes so she won’t be hurt when she’s defeated. Injuring the Fire Nation princess when they’re supposed to be making a treaty isn’t very, well, treaty-like.
Although is there even going to be a treaty, after this? Yue really doesn’t know.
The boy faces off with Azula, clearly uncomfortable with the idea of fighting a girl. Azula smiles pleasantly at him, her hands behind her back. Yue doesn’t know either of them very well, but the boy is wearing full armor and looks very nervous and Azula is wearing no armor at all and does not look nervous in the least.
The referee calls the start, and the boy hesitates. Azula stays in place. Somehow, those seem like different things.
“Come on, slowpokes, we haven’t got all day!” another one of the boys shouts. Yue doesn’t even look to see which one, because something about Azula is just . . .
She’s not sure what, but somehow she feels like Azula is the only thing she should be looking at right now.
The boy pulls water out of the snow, looking anxious, and wraps ice around his fists. He charges at Azula, who continues to stay in place. Yue keeps watching her, waiting for . . . for something, although it’s nothing she can name.
The boy is only a few steps away. He’ll strike Azula, and—
Azula bends her knees and leaps into a perfect backflip, her boot hitting the boy’s jaw as she spins and her landing absolutely flawless. Yue is so busy staring at her that she barely notices the boy staggering back, the ice around his fists falling away.
Azula hasn’t even taken her hands out from behind her back, and she landed right in her own footprints.
Apparently not a firebender, then. Yue could’ve sworn, though . . .
The boy is on the ground. Everyone is staring, except for Azula’s attendants. Mai looks bored; Ty Lee is politely clapping.
“Next?” Azula says pleasantly to the other boys.
They keep staring.
“What’s wrong?” she says, tilting her head. “I thought we didn’t have all day?”
“Next,” the referee says in a strangled voice, and the next boy steps onto the training ground, this one with a war club in hand. Azula’s smile is perfect.
Yue feels . . . very strange, somehow.
The boy doesn’t last fifteen seconds. The next boy doesn’t last ten. The boy after that—
“Go, Azula!” Ty Lee cheers, jumping in place, and that seems to break something loose in the knot of advisors.
“What is the meaning of this?!” one of them thunders. Azula looks up from where her boot is pressing into the underside of the latest boy’s jaw as he lays on the ground beneath her. She still hasn’t moved from her original spot.
“It’s the traditional approach, isn’t it?” she says smoothly. “You did say.”
“This is impossible.”
“She’s a girl!”
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Azula says. “Anyone else left?”
Hahn is left. Yue watches him strut cockily onto the field, seemingly unconcerned by the fact he just watched every other contender get thrashed in rapid succession. That . . . seems like Hahn, yes.
“I’m not gonna go easy on you, girly,” he says, swinging his club, and Azula smiles.
“Oh? Then I suppose I won’t go easy on you, either,” she says.
The fight isn’t even a fight. No one could possibly call it that. One moment Hahn is standing there and the next he’s flying head over heels as Azula literally throws him out of bounds.
She dusts her hands off, still smiling. Her hair is perfect.
Yue feels . . . very strange.
“Now then,” Azula says. “Someone said something about a marriage . . . ?”