He's even more useless than her brother. Not even a 'bender, either; the idiot man had babbled something about shamanistic abilities and then asked what her opinion on some stupid scroll was.
Kuei is a king that doesn't rule; a scholar that doesn't publish; a grown man that's never grown up. He has all the self-preservation instinct of a turnip, not even worrying after the Avatar's woman exposed her for the Fire Nation's princess, instead of the Kyoshi Warrior she'd pretended to be.
"You're Fire Nation?" Large, green eyes blinked at her from behind those oversized, glass lenses. "What are your thoughts on Avatar Elian's treatment of the Sun Warriors of Palawan?"
He doesn't even know there is a war on, and has been going on for a full century.
Azula stops the Avatar's attempt at a rescue, and defends her actions by pointing out that, with the king captive, Ba Sing Se's populace would be easier to keep at heel. Kuei is a valuable hostage, and unlike most captives the Fire Nation takes, is utterly harmless.
She ignores the part where no one actually questions her.
Ba Sing Se is renamed New Ozai.
"But why?" Kuei asks her. "I always thought Ba Sing Se was a nice name." His eyes are confused, looking at her as if she holds all the secrets of the universe. He's in his twenties; she's just turned fourteen. How has he not died yet?
"Because this city belongs to the Fire Nation now," she tells him. "New Ozai is a much more appropriate name."
For some reason, the expression on his face- kicked lion-dog puppies have the same one, and she knows that for a fact- makes a hint of shame curl through her stomach.
Zuko returns to the Fire Nation, because he's oh, so desperate for Father's approval, love. Azula could tell him that hearth has long since chilled; Ozai cares for nothing and no one. Ozai will hold nothing but contempt for Zuko, who is soft hearted, and never has learnt to see people as tools. As for Azula, she is too much like her father for Ozai to trust her.
Mai goes with Zuko, and that doesn't hurt at all. Ty Lee goes with Mai, and maybe that hurts a little.
Azula stays to govern the new territory. She would be lonely, except there's all the political posturing, and pulling Kuei- the Earth King- out of the library to put him on display. See, she proves, he's not dead after all.
Kuei's even starting to pay attention to the court, to the petitions, to... everything, really. He's not entirely bad at it, either. Sometimes, what he says even has merit.
"No, no, Princess Azula," he says one afternoon. "I'm sorry, but we must keep to our own festivals and traditions. We can celebrate the Fire Nation festivals as well, but our spirits will be displeased if we don't celebrate their contributions anymore, and no one wants a repeat of Ko Ling's Earthshake."
"A fertility spirit. Ah, of the land, not of the people, although the, erm, celebration... The festival was skipped one year. There was an earthshake the very next day. No one ever got a clear number of the dead, but it was well over five thousand. This was before the walls, of course. Ba Sing Se- New Ozai- was much smaller."
Well, alright then.
Spring moves into summer. Bosco the bear (what sort of creature is it? It must be a shaman thing) stops running away, or trying to hide, or both, when she enters the room. She even feeds it- him- an orange-pear. Kuei praises her, as though she's just conquered Ba Sing Se all over again.
(The way no one actually praised her; her triumph was expected, and anything less would have been commented on. Success has never gotten mention before.)
Even in summer, New Ozai is cooler than she is used to. She spends several long hours with the palace seamstresses, arranging for new clothing. It is difficult for these people of the Earth Kingdom to understand a woman's need to move. It's astonishing how long they've managed to last in this war, with their insistence on restricting a woman's movement, bending, and will.
Azula, at least, doesn't have that problem. She is Fire Nation. She's had freedom all her life.
Her freedom has nothing to do with the war, with the fact that the Fire Nation is a series of islands; that they were running out of soldiers before the military began accepting women fifty years in; that she is a princess known for her cruelty.
Here, there is no need to hold a handful of fire to get what she wants. The seamstresses twitter and protest and delay only because what she wants is so utilitarian, when she could have what she wants and be beautiful too.
She finally stops arguing, because what does it matter if her clothing is embroidered, if the fabrics are cut just a little differently- not enough to restrict her movement, but enough to emphasise the fact that she is female- or if the colors are not only red and black.
Apparently, she looks very nice in green.
Kuei tells her so, when she wears the first of her new outfits to dinner. The base cloth is green silk, but there is so much embroidery- golden phoenixes in flight- that it's hard to see. Kuei automatically stands when she enters, but then he just stares, and she's three seconds from twitching and blasting him with fire when he breathes out, blinks, and bows.
"Princess. You look..." He shakes his head, struck speechless.
Azula refuses to blush, but perhaps the seamstresses had a point. There is no harm, after all, in taking pride in her appearance.
The city has a brief flare of violence, Earth Kingdom citizens protesting the Fire Nation soldiers patrolling the streets. The riot is put down with minimal damage. Azula gave orders, back at the beginning, for the soldiers to treat everyone equally, unless of course under attack. Those people who only wanted to get away from the fighting were left alone. Some children were caught in the crowd, and were rescued. Not, as the rabble-rousers claim, kidnapped.
Azula prepares to make a speech to the populous, remind them that they're under Fire Nation law now and such actions will not be tolerated.
Kuei stops her.
"I think this would be better from me," he says, as gentle as only he can be. "You're too angry right now. I am too, but I think... Well. It's time I took responsibility, yes?"
Azula stares at him. It's not his responsibility, anymore. It never really was. He was king only in name.
But the man staring at her, the fingers of one hand on her wrist, he is not a child in a grown man's body. He is a man, sad and angry and grieving for two children who, if they didn't die, will never fully recover, and another three that have lost their parents.
Azula nods, and steps back. "I'm going with you. But you'll do the talking."
Kuei smiles, and thanks her.
They travel to the second ring, the large yard that normally serves as a market place. Today, all the booths have been taken away. Today, there is only a tall podium set up at one end. Today, as many people as can fit are packed into the yard. Mostly they're men. Azula scans the crowd, and frowns. There are soldiers, but with this many people, a riot will do more than cause a little damage, hurt only a few people. There is danger here; if the men riot, the solders might have to kill.
If the soldiers have to kill, in order to defend themselves and Kuei, the populace will never settle. Azula, of course, can take care of herself, but she realizes now that even she can be overwhelmed by numbers. Especially if she ends up so crowded she cannot move.
It's a relief to step up onto the podium, beside and just a little behind Kuei. The natives will see it as putting herself in a submissive position, but the Fire Nation's soldiers will see the truth. She has positioned herself the better to protect him. The crowd is to the front, but there may be archers up on the roof. Beside and just a little behind gives her a better view of the area.
Kuei stands, with the patience of the earth itself, and waits for the people to stop muttering. He's been seen, quite often, but mostly at a distance. Only the ministers have actually seen him close up, and generally he's reading a scroll then, looking up only now and again to give his input, if it's something he knows about.
He's been making comments more often, lately. Azula's obscurely proud.
At the moment, though, he is being viewed by the common people. He's the first Earth King in three generations to actually come down to the second ring, and the last time had been during a celebration. Earth King Yi Zheng Jing had finally gotten a son, after three wives and fifty years of trying.
Earth King Kuei is going to stave off a riot. Hopefully.
Azula reminds herself to breathe. Fire comes from the breath; even the most novice beginner knows that.
She's reminded, suddenly, of one of her earliest lessons.
"Air feeds fire, princess, and earth supports it." Her teacher looks sad. "Perhaps one day, we will trade with the Earth Kingdom again..."
Her teacher had vanished not long after, and a new one spouting her father's rhetoric replaced him. Azula resolves to think about it, later.
Kuei clears his throat, and the crowd- muttering fitfully- silences. Someone coughs, and is quickly hushed.
"Three days ago, there was a riot." Kuei looks over the crowd, slowly, eyes seeming to tick from one face to the next. "Several businesses were damaged, as were several homes, and there was looting. The instigation of this riot is, I am informed, a young, Earth Kingdom man taking offence to a Fire Nation soldier, off duty, flirting with a shop keeper."
There is silence. Azula imagines she can hear the people thinking.
"I do not know why my citizen took such offence thirty-two people were injured, twenty-five thousand yen was caused in damage, and five children were orphaned or badly injured." Kuei is glaring now, though he still stands calmly, not tense or accusing. His voice is reasonable. "Perhaps my citizen fancied the lady for himself. Perhaps he felt, as I'm sure many of you do, that the people of the Fire Nation cannot and should not mix with us, Earth Kingdom."
Kuei frowns, now, and his voice hardens. "You would be wrong."
He pauses to let the murmur flow through the crowd. Azula scans it, face to face, looking for the person who will instigate the violence. And there will be violence, she knows it, Kuei is talking about things no one wants to hear.
"Five hundred years ago," Kuei says, his voice deceptive, seemingly soft though the people at the furthest edge of the yard can no doubt hear him, "the Fire Nation sent one of their princesses here, to marry Earth King Bai Chu Kuang. As a result, for the next century we enjoyed very lucrative trade deals. Three centuries ago, Prince Hou Kwan, Fire Nation, married Princess Lin Sung, Earth Kingdom. This is, of course, not mentioning all the marriages between common people, mind you..."
He paused again. This time, the murmur was louder. People were reeling, and not just metaphorically.
Azula was stunned. If anyone attacked Kuei, at this instant, she would not have been able to stop it.
We have never mixed with them. It is impossible. Fire is the superior element, and our bloodline has always remained pure! We are the children of fire, and we do not, we have never, lowered ourselves to mix with those lesser than us!
Her father's belief.
She is struck breathless by the realization, but quickly shakes it off. That, too, can wait until later.
Kuei raises his voice, to be heard over the susurration of the crowd. "Like it or not, we are sharing our city with citizens of the Fire Nation. Instead of acting like uncivilized barbarians, and proving right every lie told about us, we should be acting like the civilized peoples we are. There will be no more riots."
Earth King Kuei has spoken, his word is law.
His shoulders tense, just a little, and his disapproval hangs heavy over everyone. "I understand that there are claims that Fire Nation solders injured and kidnapped several of our children. What happened, was that during the riot several children were knocked down and trampled. Two of them have been severely injured and are being cared for at the palace, by the royal healers. Three other children were orphaned when their parents were crushed to death. By Earth Kingdom citizens."
Azula watches the shame flow through the crowd, though not everyone is touched. Her soldiers can see the same thing she can, so she knows those people, who don't care about injured and orphaned children, will be watched in the future.
"The soldiers acted to protect one of their own, and then to defend themselves, property, and lives. It was not the soldiers that tore down shop stalls, it was citizens. It was not soldiers knocking people to the ground, it was citizens. It was the soldiers who rescued women and children from being knocked down and trampled.
"Their conduct has done their country credit. Yours, however, has not."
Azula mentally pats her back, for having younger members of the Home Guard shipped over. They have riot training; a battlefield soldier could have made things so much worse.
Kuei doesn't quite send the crowd off by saying 'now think about what you've done', but the disappointment is there. It is a quiet populace that trails away.
They return to the palace, and Kuei insists on visiting the children. The two maimed children are sleeping off doses of pain killing potions, but the three orphans are delighted to greet their visitors. Their little expressions are pinched and desperate. Azula realizes that these children are doing anything, everything, to try and avoid thinking about their parents, about their loss.
She remembers doing the same when her mother left, focusing on her bending and on Father's approval, so as not to think about Mother going to say goodbye to Zuko, and not her...
Mother had always thought her a monster. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise.
Kuei chats with the children, tells them stories he's read, assures them that they will be cared for. Apparently several of his servants have already put forward requests to adopt them. The two little maimed ones, well, something will be done for them, too.
One little girl approaches Azula, leans against her leg. "Hi," she mumbles, clearly worn out. Azula is no judge of ages, but the child is apparently between three and five years of age.
"Hello," she murmurs. One hand somehow ends up brushing against the child's hair.
She is? "Thank you. You are too."
The girl grins, then toddles away to curl up on her pallet, fall asleep.
The child was not afraid of her. That is... new. Azula is not used to children thinking of her as anything but frightening.
Dinner that night is quiet. Azula is lost in her own thoughts, and she has no idea what Kuei is thinking. Even Bosco is content to sit at his place, and not try to sample the food on other people's plates.
That night, Azula stands on her balcony and studies the moon. It died, once, according to Zuko. A Water Tribe Barbarian- a Water Tribe princess- died to bring it back.
Would she have been able to do the same for the sun?
She doesn't like thinking about this. About Kuei's speech and desperate children, about Father's lies and old lessons.
She doesn't like thinking how her mother, her own mother, thought she was a monster. Most of the time, Azula tells herself it doesn't matter, and believes it. Sometimes, though, she can't help but wonder... Would she have been different, if Mother had cared? If Mother had spent even half as much time with Azula as she had with Zuko?
Would Mother have visited, that last night, to say goodbye?
The moon's image blurs, but she is not crying.
Azula turns in, and curls up in bed, and allows herself to grieve, just a little...
In the morning, she tries to put herself in a better mood. The Earth Kingdom has a somewhat odd schedule; every five days, there are no petitions, no official business- except in emergencies. Instead, it is a time to relax, indulge in a hobby or two.
Azula uses the time to practice her bending, but something feels off. Her flames waver, her punches have little strength behind them, and her kicks lack a proper snap.
She stops, half an hour early, and turns. Stops, surprised, because Kuei is there, and it is clear he has been watching her.
"You're always so graceful," he says, and offers her his arm.
Azula brushes at her hair, strands of which are coming down out of her top knot. "Thank you. I practice." She's sweaty, and not exactly in a mood for company, but she rests her hand at his elbow anyways. "Was there something you wanted?"
"I'd like to show you something, if you don't mind."
"It's your palace."
"Is it?" he asks lightly, before walking towards the gardens. "I've... Well, I designed it, the gardeners implemented my design. It's been my little project for the last few months that you've been here."
"Months?" She's been here that long? She thinks back, and realizes that yes; it's the middle of summer. She hasn't gotten any letters from the Fire Nation, but this doesn't surprise her. "You designed... what?"
"I worked off scrolls, and from talking to several of your soldiers here in the palace." Kuei glances at her, then away. "I hope you like it."
She'd like to know what 'it' is, but then they step around a garden wall, under an arch, and...
It's her mother's garden, complete to the turtle-ducks. For a second Azula reels, dizzy and sick to her stomach for no reason she can understand.
Only for a second. It only takes that long to notice the differences; a golden maple in place of a cherry-apple tree, different colored flowers, a slightly different shape to the pond. There are turtle-ducks, though, two of them, and they look different to what she was used to seeing in the Fire Nation. A little bit bigger, the male's colors are a little flashier, and unlike the ones in her mother's garden, these ducks do not swim away as fast as they can.
"You... designed this?" she asks, stepping away to study a wooden bench. There is no bench in the garden at home, but Azula likes the thought of sitting on something other than grass and dirt.
"Yes. I thought you might get homesick, now and again. I cannot imagine being so far away from what you're used to."
Azula rests her hand on the maple's trunk, and bows her head. She waits for the homesickness to hit, but it doesn't.
She doesn't miss her home. Not the country's heat, not the ever present smell of smoke and salt in the air, not the monochrome colors of red, black and gold. She doesn't miss training with the elite of the palace guards, or sitting in on war planning with her father. She doesn't miss the weekly meetings with Ozai, either, where he told her all the ways she could be better, if she only worked a little harder at improving herself.
She likes it here, she realizes, where even in the palace there are the scent of flowers and baking and a hint of wood smoke, and the slight edge of scent that speaks of many people living in a crowded city. She likes the slight chill to the air in the morning, that leaves her feeling fresh without needing a quick wash first. She likes the clothing here, where the clothing comes in so many colors- green, gold, hints of blue, pink, purple, touches of orange and yellow, silver and copper, browns and tans- that her eyes are dazzled by it all. She likes meeting with the Earth King's advisors and ministers, and listening to the daily petitions of common people looking for justice.
She likes that here, no one thinks she's not trying hard enough.
She likes that Kuei worried she might feel homesick, back when she was a stranger who had taken his throne, and designed a garden like the one back home. Back in the Fire Nation's palace.
Azula swallows against the lump in her throat, and turns to face him.
"Thank you," she says. "It was very kind of you."
His smile is blinding. "I'm glad you like it. Would you like to meet the turtle-ducks? I saved them from becoming our dinner!"
Oh, that's why they're so large.
"My parents died when I was a child. Four or five, I think. I don't really remember them. Long Feng took care of me after that."
"He's fine. Still in prison, waiting on a proper trial."
"I cannot imagine how I missed all of what he was doing. Freedom of speech is part of what Ba Sing Se- sorry, New Ozai- was founded on. The Earth Kings before me all knew that grumbling is part of rule."
"Mostly, Long Feng suppressed talk of the war."
"Foolish. Ignoring it won't make it go away."
"Do you suppose I could see him? I... I have questions."
"You want to know why he raised you to be..."
"You don't have to say it. I know. Useless. Yes, I want to know why."
"I can tell you what I think."
"... He had power. Some people, they're content with what power they have, and don't go looking for more. Others, well, what they have isn't enough. So they start looking for ways... And then your parents died."
"And then they were assassinated. I suppose I can't help but wonder, now, if..."
"I loved him. I thought he was my oldest, truest friend. Only he was using me."
"Kuei... You've learnt from this."
"I've learnt that my people, my advisors, cannot be trusted. If you weren't here, Azula, I don't know how I could have managed these last few months. Thank you for helping me."
"... Do you still want to see Long Feng?"
"Yes. I need to look him in the eye and see what he says. Would you come with me?"
"I'll make time."
The letters come only a day apart. Zuko's is grubby, ink smeared across the paper and obviously written in haste. There is only a single line. "Father intends to burn the Earth Kingdom when the comet comes."
She doesn't know if it's a threat, a warning, a... plea, for her to do something. She has never understood her own brother.
The other letter is definitely a warning. Azula recognizes the handwriting; Father's first secretary, who writes all of his correspondence. It is formal; the very few letters she has gotten from Father have never been otherwise. In it, Father tells her that Zuko has once again turned traitor, declared his intention to aid the Avatar, and demands that her forces be alert to his presence should he make the mistake of coming to New Ozai. Should she catch him, she is to ship him back to the Fire Nation at all speed- preferably with his head pickled in a barrel.
The arrest warrant places emphasis on the 'dead' in 'dead or alive'.
Azula retreats to her- her garden- to think. She needs, so desperately, to think.
Sozin's Comet is coming at the end of the summer. When it passes across the sky, firebending will be ten, one hundred times stronger than it has ever been before. The Comet's appearance started the war, and now it will end it.
One hundred years ago, firebenders used the Comet's power to burn the airbenders out of the world.
The papers fall from her hands, and Azula has to sit down on one of the benches. There would have been children. Babies. Those temples hadn't been only for adults, but for all airbenders, including those too young to sit up.
They would have been like little Ming, who was adopted by one of Azula's maids and is currently learning the duties of a page. Ming just lost her first tooth, and she wanted to show Azula first, so proud of herself. A single bit of praise from Azula is enough to have Ming walking on clouds for the rest of the day.
Azula finds it all too easy to see Ming, with gray eyes and yellow robes, running up to greet a soldier... and being cut down.
They had burned children. Children who wouldn't have understood what was going on.
Would even the adults have understood?
Suddenly, Azula sees people, when she imagines that attack. They would have been simple- like the servants here in the palace, the servants who are respectful but not frightened, because Azula has never been cruel to them. Distant, of course, because there is such a great gulf of rank between them, but that is only to be expected. She thinks some of the servants are even proud of her, of what she is doing.
And what is she doing?
Ruling. Fairly. She hasn't replaced any advisors, though Kuei is talking about doing just that- there are two who are clearly trying to act for their own good, and never mind who they have to step on to get what they want- and she hasn't had anyone executed. Not even members of the Dai Li, who are instead working under the leadership of one of her captains, who has earned respect from the citizens.
She has imprisoned some people, and ruled against some others when they've petitioned the throne.
But she has been fair.
She can remember reports, can see in her mind's eye, what other people would have done in her position. The people of Ba Sing Se- yes, Ba Sing Se, not New Ozai- would have been ground down, treated as less than human, because that would be the only way to conquer them.
And they are human. She knows this now. Each and every last person here is human, just like she is.
Her father wants to burn them all out of existence.
Azula stands up, and very deliberately picks up the letter from Father, the arrest warrant.
Then she burns them.
Zuko can do whatever he wants. Azula will be too busy to deal with him, doing things only she can do.
Because she is the crown princess of the Fire Nation, the Prime Minister of Ba Sing Se, and because this has become a war of politics.
And she is very good at politics.
She has sent her letters off, so very carefully worded, and now has no idea what to do. It is, once again, a day of rest.
Finally, she goes down to the practice courts and runs through her forms. Then again. A third time. A fourth, and her efforts are worse than before. Her fire is wavering, weak. Red and yellow flicker through the blue.
She, is weak.
Azula falls to her knees, unable to think beyond her realization. She is weak. Why? She holds out one hand, and cannot even call fire to burn on her palm.
That which burns brightest, burns fastest.
Has she burnt herself out?
How can she rule her soldiers if she cannot firebend properly?
"I thought you would be here."
Kuei. Somehow, he always knows where to find her.
"It's all gone," she murmurs.
"Princess? Let's go to your garden."
Azula laughs, but her laugh is caught in her throat and she almost chokes on it. To her garden? Yes, because she's not able to firebend anymore. Might as well be put out of the way.
Kuei sat her down beside the pond, then settled down next to her. "You're having a crisis of conscience."
He fiddled with his spectacles. "What I mean to say is... Azula, are you angry when you bend?"
"Yes." Wasn't everyone?
"You know I read a lot. A... rather more than merely a lot." Kuei reached over and took her hand. Azula let him. "Including historical records about previous Avatars, so on and so forth... According to the records, you don't have to be angry. I could bring you the scrolls, if you like."
"Why not?" Azula looked down at the pond. One of the turtle-ducks was looking at her. Maybe squinting.
"I'll be back soon," Kuei promised.
A crisis of conscience? She didn't have a conscience. It would have displeased Father.
Except Father wanted to kill everyone in the Earth Kingdom. And probably wouldn't have blinked twice if everyone in the Fire Nation died as well, so long as he survived.
Father had approved of using new recruits as sacrificial bait. It made tactical sense, didn't it? Except no, it didn't, those were her people-
And Zuko had seen it first. Azula sighed. Apparently her older brother wasn't as stupid as she'd thought. Idealistic, yes, but not an utter moron.
Certainly he was more human than she was.
Mother had been right. Azula really was a monster.
"But I don't want that anymore," she whispered.
Her father was wrong. Ozai was wrong. Her Fire Lord was wrong.
What was she supposed to do now?
She could hardly do what Zuko had done. For one thing, dramatic speeches weren't her greatest skill; she'd always had Mai write them, when she'd needed to give them. Stupid, but there it was. For another, Ozai was in the Fire Nation and she was in Ba Sing Se, Earth Kingdom. And finally, if she rejected Ozai, what next? Run to join the Avatar? She'd tried to kill him- kill, not capture- and she'd hardly be welcomed. Besides, they had Zuko.
Everyone wanted to be around Zuko. No one wanted to be around her.
She didn't care. Honestly.
"Here we go!" Kuei dropped an armload of scrolls before her. "These are copies, actually. The ones without copies have to stay in the library, the sun will bleach the ink... Azula? Are you... Do you need a hug?"
Her cheeks were wet but she wasn't crying. And she didn't care that Kuei was the first person who'd ever asked if she was okay, while at the same time hoping that she actually was.
She turned and curled into his side. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and started telling her everything she hadn't actually wanted to know about Ba Sing Se's trading policies.
It took several minutes before she could pull herself together. Kuei didn't mention her minor breakdown when she pulled away, simply handed her a handkerchief and a scroll.
Azula settled in to read.
He kept her company.
If Azula could have pointed to any one moment in time that marked a turning point for her, for the city, for the entire Earth Kingdom, that would have been it.
She read the scrolls Kuei brought her, not just the ones on firebending but the histories, the old trade agreements, the romances written about loves across nations. She read the letters that returned, responses from the Fire Nation ministers she'd notified about Father's plan for the comet.
At least half the cities were being evacuated. The other half would be, hopefully, out of Ozai's immediate reach, and would foster those people who had been displaced. Food would be an issue, but Azula found answers, with Kuei's help.
She was busy, reading and writing and seeing to it that innocent civilians didn't get immolated in a few weeks time. Kuei took over the administration of Ba Sing Se. He gave her soldiers orders, and those orders were followed without question. Azula was pleased; then she turned her attention back to other matters.
A week after Kuei started giving her scrolls, she tried firebending again.
Her flames were blue, and bright, and for the first time ever, warm.
It was time. Azula stood in the throne room, listening to the chaos outside the palace. The Dai Li had rooted out the society called the White Lotus, and the plans for when the Comet passed by. She had told her agents to leave the society alone. What could they do? Oh, she knew that they planned to 'liberate' Ba Sing Se and the entire Earth Kingdom, but to be honest, there wasn't a person in power across the entire country that wasn't loyal to either Azula or Kuei.
And Azula... Well, Kuei helped her. He cared about her.
It was as simple as that.
She had told Kuei what she planned, and the Earth King had nodded. "We're children of the earth," he'd agreed. "I don't think anyone will mind too much, being underground, so long as it's only temporary."
"I don't intend it to last beyond the day."
He'd patted her hand. "Take care of yourself."
Azula smiled, a feral grin that felt so good. Oh, she would. She couldn't give Father a grand speech... so she'd give him actions instead.
A pity it couldn't be in person, but you had to work with what you were given.
She could feel the Comet's power in her veins. If she hadn't been so- heh- grounded, what would have happened? She lusted for something, anything that would let her release some of this energy. It burned from the inside. She wanted to fight, to burn the Earth Palace to the ground.
Instead, she shifted her weight very slightly, forward and back, and waited.
At the other end of the room, the grand entrance was flung open. Azula's upper lip curled. Idiot. Overly dramatic idiot. Those doors were meant for decoration- yes, even from the throne she could see the hinges would need repair before the doors could be closed.
"You could have used the actual entrance." Azula nodded towards the smaller doors. There were two, one on either side of the grand entrance. "But perhaps that wasn't suitably... symbolic for you."
"Azula." Iroh, uncle, general, Dragon of the West, whatever you wanted to call him, looked quite good for a man who had only recently escaped from prison. "Step aside."
Azula clicked her tongue. "Not going to call me niece? Honestly, Uncle, you could try pulling on my heartstrings, you know. Why, I know exactly the right notes you could try." She pressed a hand to her chest, tried to pretend her heart wasn't racing. "You could say, 'Azula, I'm sorry for being so distant and treating you like an utter stranger, we're simply so similar I was quite afraid you'd follow in my footsteps'. Not that you need to worry about that, Uncle... After all, I took Ba Sing Se. You failed. In so many ways."
Alright, mentioning Lu Ten was a low blow. There was no need to try and sear her head off.
Azula hissed. The fire curtain various Fire Lords had insisted on having around their thrones apparently served a greater purpose than simply looking intimidating. It also served as a kind of shield. The effort of maintaining it against her uncle's attacks was, granted, difficult- but she was still alive, so there was that.
"Didn't like having that pointed out, did you?" she asked, once there was a lull.
"You are nothing like me," Iroh said.
"No?" Azula stepped forward, and dismissed the fire curtain. "You don't like the fact that both of us are firebending prodigies? You don't like the fact that we can both read a battlefield like others read a child's scroll? You don't like the fact that we're both known for our ruthlessness?" She paused, and smiled. "Sorry. You were known for that. Now you're known for your over indulgences in tea and food."
Iroh hesitated. Azula took the chance to look him over- yes; he must have exercised in prison. Good for him, all that excess weight couldn't have been good for his heart.
"From the first time I heard of your exploits," she said, the words bitter on her tongue, "I wanted to be exactly like you. I wanted to be the great general, spreading the rule of the Fire Nation across the world. Not exactly proper ambition for a young girl, I admit, so I suppose Mother wrote to you all about how I needed to be encouraged to have proper goals. At least, I assume so, I can't imagine why else you'd give Zuko a knife and me a doll, when I kept asking for copies of your old battle plans so I could study them."
Iroh choked, his eyes very wide. Then he gathered himself and shook his head. "That doesn't matter. What have you done to the Earth King?"
"Kuei? I asked him to take himself someplace safe, help keep the civilians from panicking. Didn't you realize the streets were suspiciously quiet?" Azula folded her arms. "Silly uncle. What did you think the reason was, that I'd gone on a killing spree these past few months?"
"The possibility had crossed my mind, yes."
"Why? Because it's something you might have done, at my age?"
His silence was... quite telling, actually.
Azula spat on the ground in front of his feet. "I'm not like you. That's never been more obvious than this moment. I've ruled this city. With Kuei. Once you get past the absolute lack of real world experience, he's not actually a bad ruler. I haven't had anyone killed. I haven't had to frighten anyone the entire time I've been here. I am wearing, in case you haven't noticed, green."
"What are your plans, Azula?"
She drew herself up to her full height. Thanks to the dais, she was able to look Iroh in the eye. "The Earth King is no 'bender. I am. Unless you plan on fighting me for his throne, get out."
"For- his throne, you said?"
Azula bared her teeth in another savage grin, and snapped her fingers.
Behind her, the Fire Nation's banner, black with soot and red with blood (okay, so Kuei had also given her some poetry) caught fire.
An appropriate end, she thought.
Iroh's face was priceless.
"I wish Princess Azula to be the Fire Nation's ambassador in Ba Sing Se," Kuei said.
The Avatar's face was priceless. "But- but why? Didn't she-"
"Azula has been a very good friend to me."
The young airbender blinked at him, then looked out the window where Azula was talking- okay, yelling- at Zuko. His firebending master seemed to be taking the tongue lashing quite well, mostly nodding in agreement to what was being said. "Well, I guess?"
"Granted, I'll understand if she doesn't want to be," and the Earth King looked positively heartbroken at the thought, "but I want it as part of this treaty's terms that she is my first choice for the position."
"You get to tell her," Aang decided. He didn't know anything about Azula, and only a little more about girls in general, but he had a feeling violence might end up being involved.
"Of course I can't be the ambassador," Azula said over dinner. Everyone- everyone being Kuei, Zuko (who would be, she thought, much more tolerable with an ocean between them), the Avatar and his little collection of peasants, and Iroh- stared at her. Azula sipped at her tea, and smiled. "I'm going to be too busy being your betrothed."
"Oh," Kuei said. He blinked. "Oh. Really?"
"Mm. Granted, I imagine we'll have to wait at least a year before we can even start planning the wedding, there's a great deal we need to do first."
Zuko leaned forward and spoke quietly across the table. "Should I threaten him?"
"He's been much better to me than most members of our family. Threaten him and die."
Zuko looked satisfied.
Kuei had brought up the possibility of a wet nurse, but Azula hadn't wanted one. That was why she was awake at five in the morning, she reminded herself, nursing a voracious stomach on- well, technically on legs, but at only three weeks Rin couldn't yet focus her eyes on the person talking to her, never mind walking around.
"It's alright," Azula murmured, her voice hoarse with exhaustion. "Mommy loves you anyways. Fiendish brat."
Rin paused in her suckling to make an odd gurgling sound. "That had better not mean you're going to spit up again." Azula was grateful to have 'nursing robes', though with the rate the little princess was going, they'd end up irreparably stained. Considering at least half those robes had to be worn in public, that could be a problem. Considering Azula always had towels available to block the spit up, and they still got stained anyways... Well, the kid had good aim.
There was just something so visceral about nursing her own child. Sometimes Azula imagined she could feel strength leaving her, through the milk Rin sucked down, to strengthen her daughter. It was a good feeling. Almost as good as walking through the palace and having no one flinch away from her in fear. Almost as good as settling into bed, Kuei's arm flung across her stomach to hold her close, listening to him mumble in his sleep and hearing her name mentioned. Frequently.
Technically, it was a political marriage. Technical could go hang itself; she loved her husband, and her husband loved her back.
She would never be the Fire Lord. Azula was much happier as the Earth Queen.
"And then there's you," she murmured to Rin, who was suckling again. "My little princess." She shifted her hold on the baby just enough to trace a finger over one chubby cheek. "I hope you're an earthbender."
It would make things so much easier if Rin was. Granted, the Earth Shamans wanted the throne to go to a son, not a daughter, but if they had to... But only if Rin wanted the position.
That was many years in the future, of course. "Let's get you old enough you don't spit up if you're picked up too quickly," Azula murmured. Rin let go of the nipple she'd been sucking on so enthusiastically to yawn, then coo up at her mother.
Azula adjusted her robes, and stood up. Rin wouldn't be ready to sleep for at least half an hour; her daughter had a touchy stomach and needed to stay awake long enough to digest. Otherwise it would be screaming and puking for hours.
The nursery looked out over Azula's garden. She smiled; she'd made a few changes, and now it looked nothing like her mother's. The two turtle-ducks Kuei had saved from dinner remained, but they shared their pond with fish and cricket-frogs, and one grumpy pole-cat made it his home. He was utterly wild, and had nearly opened Azula's hand to the bone with his claws one time, but she couldn't stand to drive him out.
Maybe he'd tame down. After all, she had.
Azula hummed under her breath, and rocked Rin back and forth. She turned only when there was a quiet knock at the nursery door.
"Yes?" she asked, eyes already narrowing. They had guards, of course, and so far no one had attempted to assassinate her, or Kuei, or Rin, but she was always ready for that possibility. She shifted her daughter, and lifted one flaming hand in defence.
"Your majesty, my apologies, but you said family could see you at any time?"
Family? Why in Agni's name would Zuko be visiting, and at this hour? "It can't wait? Oh, never mind, send them in."
She kept the fire in her hand, though, just in case.
She heard footsteps; the guards, and someone else. Either Zuko was wearing slippers and walking very lightly, unlikely considering he stomped like a komodo-rhino, or...
Was it one of Zuko's peasant friends? Why?
Then the door opened.
The woman was older, streaks of gray in her hair, lines bracketing her mouth and at the corners of her eyes. Her skin was roughened, her clothes, though Fire Nation, were practically common. But Azula recognized her still, in part because this was a face she would see in her mirror in twenty or thirty years.
"Mother?" she whispered. Was she going mad?
Rin stirred, and mewled. No, she couldn't be mad, not with Rin, not- but- "Why are you here?"
"Azula." Ursa attempted a smile. "I heard about what you've done. I- I had to come see you, to apologize... Oh, Azula, I'm so proud of you."
It was exactly what she'd needed to hear. "Come in, Mother, and meet your granddaughter. I named her Rin."