Before she'd turned two, Tanya could hold fire in the palm of her hand.
Unlike her first death, when she'd argued with that insufferable Being X, Tanya could not recall the details of her second death quite so easily. She'd been on a high-risk mission, and remembered flashes of the scowl on that hate-filled zealot Mary's face as she fired round after round at her; each shot laying waste to the city beneath as they rampaged through the sky. Had Mary dealt her a killing blow? Or had she collapsed with exhaustion and plummeted to her death after the battle? Tanya wasn't sure, but without the benefit of seeing time frozen around her, her memories of her final moments were hazy.
Although perhaps final wasn't quite the right word, because after awakening from what felt like a very long slumber once again, Tanya found herself reincarnated for a third time.
The world was different, though in what was doubtlessly a poor attempt at irony, Tanya's life story was strikingly similar to her previous incarnation. She had been born into a world at war: the daughter of a common soldier who she assumed had perished in the conflict, and whose mother had quickly decided she was not ready to handle the responsibilities of parenting alone. Thus mere days after her birth she had been left in the care of a religious orphanage.
Once she had gained a fine enough control of her motor functions to explore, Tanya set about gathering information about her latest world. Her first guess that she had been born into a section of imperial Japan that really loved the colour red had proven close, but not entirely accurate. This world was divided into four nations, and her new homeland called itself the Fire Nation. It was a militaristic empire ruled by a figure known as the Fire Lord, and though the technology in this world was sadly far behind the previous worlds she'd inhabited, the Fire Nation was at least the most technologically advanced of the four; boasting metal ships, tanks and the beginnings of other marvels of military engineering. The Fire Nation had instigated the current war nearly a hundred years ago, and if the propaganda available at her orphanage was to be believed it was set to win in the next decade or so.
Speaking of her orphanage, Tanya's new home was the Cerulean Orphanage; an extension wing of the High Temple in Capital City. The organisation who ran it were a strange group that called themselves the Fire Sages. Tanya had at first believed it was an on-the-nose reference to the name of her nation, but had soon been proven wrong after witnessing a fascinating sight.
She'd only been a few months old when she'd first seen it. Although the Fire Sages were responsible in theory for running the orphanage, in practice their involvement was in organisation only. The ones who did the majority of the work were the nuns. There was one sage though, a relatively young and mousey looking man named Hazar, who would occasionally drop by to entertain the children with stories about legendary heroes who commanded flames and fought dragons. Tanya had been listening half-heartedly to one such story when, out of nowhere, Hazar had decided to emphasise his story about how mighty the dragon's roar was by tilting his own head back and mimicking it. When a genuine jet of sparkling red flames had shot out of his mouth she had fallen off her chair in surprise.
Soon it became clear that the four nations were named for more than just their preferred colour schemes. Some people in the fire nations possessed the power to telepathically manipulate fire through the act of moving their bodies in controlled movements reminiscent of ancient martial arts. Once Tanya had mastered speaking with her new mouth, a few quick questions revealed that members of the other nations could manipulate their named elements in much the same way.
Once she'd discovered this a new question had popped up in Tanya's mind. Was she a firebender? It was no great secret that all firebenders were conscripted into military service as soon as they were able, and it was definitely Being X's style to grant her a curse disguised as a blessing. Just like he'd given her great magical power in her previous life knowing that it would force her to fight at the frontlines, had he given her the power to firebend in this life, knowing it would force her into the war once again?
Though logically she knew the best option would be to never uncover whatever talents Being X may or may not have given her, resisting the urge to try it proved a surprisingly tough challenge. Something in her chest, something hot and powerful not dissimilar to the feeling of mana, ached whenever she was near a naked flame, bringing with it a longing to reach out and touch it. She did well resisting the urge for as long as she did, but a few weeks before her second birthday the temptation proved too much. She'd been alone in the library, reading a book of the history of the world in the candlelight, and had let her guard down. Her breathing had slowed, unknowingly rising and falling with the faintest flickering of the candle, and before she knew it the beauty of the tiny little flame had transfixed her. She reached out, plucking it from the candle wick as easily as picking a grape from a vine, and levitated it above her finger as she gazed deep into it, not even questioning how the flame did not fade away without fuel.
A sharp gasp snapped her back to reality, and Tanya snuffed the flame in the palm of her hand as her eyes shot upwards. One of the fire sages was watching her with wide eyes, his expression caught between surprise and awe. Whatever hopes she'd had of dismissing it as a trick of the light were quickly shattered as the sage scooped her up into his arms and took her to see the head sage. While firebenders were not uncommon, most children did not discover their gift until the age of five or later. Those few who discovered it earlier were hailed as prodigies, but even among them it was unheard of for anyone to discover their gifts at the age of one.
And so it was that, much to her great annoyance, Tanya was singled out as a genius among geniuses, and began private lessons with the fire sages in the art of firebending at the tender age of two. Whether she liked it or not the path to becoming a master firebender had been thrust upon her. A path that would doubtlessly lead into the battlefields once again.
Before she'd turned six, Tanya had earned herself a reputation.
That year news had been abound that this year's Crouching Dragon Tournament was the one to watch. The Crouching Dragon was an annual event where the firebending children of nobility and other influential figures battled it out in mock duels to demonstrate their strength. While it seemed barbaric to Tanya to make children blast jets of fire at each other for entertainment, she at least understood the unspoken reason behind it. In this country skill at firebending was valued higher than anything else. Higher nobility boasted of bloodlines that had never failed to produce firebending children, and the achievements of firebending masters were celebrated far more than that of doctors, engineers, or non-bender soldiers. There was a direct, strong correlation between one's skill as a firebender and the respect afforded to them, so of course the political elite would be chomping at the bit to show off their progeny as a future firebending master at the earliest opportunity.
Azula, the granddaughter of Firelord Azulon, and a prodigy who'd awakened to her firebending at the age of four, had been relentlessly training under the finest tutors the imperial court had to offer for the past year, and this tournament would be the first public demonstration of her exceptional skill. At age five she was now able to compete in the tournament's youngest age bracket, alongside many children who'd only just discovered their abilities, and public opinion was that she was expected to dominate it. Rumour had it that she was daring, focused, and utterly ruthless when she had a goal in mind. It was clear that Prince Ozai intended for this tournament to be her debut into high society: a demonstration of the natural talent members of the royal family were blessed with.
So Tanya was slightly concerned that she was being entered as well, and into the same age bracket no less.
As representative of the fire sages, High Sage Ignis was granted a seat amongst the high nobility at the tournament and other such political events, and as such reserved the right to enter a contestant of their own. The fire sages rarely entered the wards in their care into these sorts of events due to their notoriously lacklustre performances, though it seemed they had higher expectations for Tanya. The High Sage had plundered the High Temple's already strained budget to hire a luxurious palanquin equal to the kind the nobility used, which he and Tanya now sat in as they were transported to the tournament grounds. Judging by the ever-growing noise of the crowd outside they must have only been a few minutes away.
"Remember your breathing Tanya." Ignis advised in his usual monotone manner. "Breath is the core of firebending. Many allow the pressure of the crowd to break their nerves and shallow their breathing, weakening their flames. Whatever happens you must keep your breath deep and steady."
"Yes, High Sage." Tanya dutifully replied, bowing her head slightly in acknowledgement and respect. Though she held little love for religions in general, she held a deep appreciation for a clear and efficient chain of command. "I will represent the fire sages to the best of my ability."
"You will represent us by winning Tanya. I expect nothing less than absolute victory."
A slight frown tugged at the corners of Tanya's mouth. "Sir, given the political importance of Azula's entry into this contest, might it not be wise to allow her the ultimate victory? Prince Ozai is an influential man, and has made no secret of his intention to use this tournament as a way to formally introduce his daughter to the public. Assuming that I could beat her, would doing so really be wise? It could turn the royal family's ire against us for years to come."
Ignis snorted disdainfully. "Bah! What of it? Ozai has no respect for the importance of the sages! At every turn he scorns and mocks us. Perhaps knocking his precious progeny down a peg or two will remind him to show respect to Agni every once in a while."
Warning sirens started blaring in Tanya's mind. Not good! Not good at all! This sounded eerily like a personal vendetta: exactly the kind of spite-fuelled drama that was a nightmare for any human resources manager. The fire sages wanted to embarrass Prince Ozai and his family for nothing more than petty vengeance, and as their tool for doing so the royal family's retaliation would surely be directed at her too! Relationships with influential individuals could make or break a person's career, and the Fire Lord's family were the most influential people in the world! Souring any chance of a positive relationship with them was a fine way to guarantee an eternity stuck as a common footsoldier on the front lines.
"We need you to win Tanya." Ignis continued, unaware of her inner turmoil. "People have begun to forget the old ways the longer this war drags on. They forget to show the spirits the respect they are due, and us the respect we are due as their spokespersons. Today you will prove that even a peasant child like yourself can defeat those of noble lineage through the spiritual guidance and teaching of the fire sages, and the people will see proof of our importance once again. For it is right and proper that the sages should guide the people in their…"
Tanya zoned out as Ignis launched into another ramble about the importance of spiritual guidance, and her mind quickly kicked into overdrive to work out a solution to the problem she'd found herself forced into. Had this been what the fire sages had intended for her when they began her training almost four years ago? To become a poster child for their bid to become relevant to society again? How irritating! This was the political equivalent of being between a rock and a hard place: unable to act without making an enemy of a powerful institution that could drastically change the direction of her career.
Was it possible to win the tournament without making an enemy of the royal family? Unlikely. What information she had gathered about Prince Ozai painted him as a militaristic man with high expectations for his subordinates and a very results-driven mindset. All admirable traits in Tanya's opinion, but ones that sadly worked against her in this instance. He would not be content with Azula trying her hardest and failing: not when much of his daughter's future success could hinge on this first impression to the public. He wanted a clear victory for his daughter. Nothing less.
Was it possible to lose without being cast out of the temple by the fire sages? Also unlikely. A hundred years of war had left more orphans than the nation could handle, and it was not in the interests of the war effort to publicise information about the struggles these orphans faced. Ignis could kick her out with just a word and nobody would make a fuss. Without their backing Tanya's already limited opportunities for the future would be greatly diminished.
That left but one option. Tanya would have to force a tie between herself and Azula. Not a solution anyone would be happy with, but the sort of concession that could be grudgingly accepted by all parties under the right circumstances. The sages could boast about how, through their enlightened training, Tanya had been able to match a prodigy of royal blood trained by the best tutors money could buy, and Prince Ozai could still introduce his daughter as having come first place in her age bracket. Oh it would still be a sour disappointment to all involved, but wasn't that always the case when people allowed petty grudges to dictate their actions?
There was just one problem. Winning was something Tanya could do. Faking a loss was harder, but achievable. But faking a draw? And in such a way that nobody in the audience spotted her deception? That would take some serious precision.
What she needed was a strategy. The only way this would work was if she left as little to chance as possible, and that meant she had to use all the time available before her age bracket began to figure out how Azula fought.
It did not take long after the start of the tournament for an opportunity to gather information to present itself. Zuko, Azula's elder brother, was competing in the seven-to-eight year old age bracket, which had been scheduled to take place near the beginning. Though Zuko was two years older than Azula he'd discovered his bending abilities at the age of six, and as such had been training for roughly the same amount of time as his sister. This presented a perfect opportunity for Tanya to get an estimation of how Azula would fight. After all, if the siblings had been training for the same length of time under the same tutors then it stood to reason that their styles must share many similarities. From her seat at High Sage Ignis' side Tanya watched the older children battle it out one by one in the ring below, her eyes firmly fixed on the royal boy whenever he made an appearance.
Zuko was… distinctly average, if she was honest. It was clear he'd put a great deal of effort into his training, but he'd simply not trained long enough yet for that effort to start paying off. If he kept that mindset up until his teenage years he'd probably blossom into a formidable fighter, but his entire age block was dominated by those who were bigger, more talented or more vicious. As a result Zuko pushed his way up to about the middle range of the rankings before being knocked out by a bulky boy who hadn't been afraid to dish out a few unsporting hits when the opportunity presented itself.
Tanya had at least been able to learn a few things by analysing his style. Zuko used highly aggressive movements and focused on pressuring opponents with a strong offensive, as most firebending styles liked to do, but was more focused on speed and precision than raw power like the standard military styles were. His basic movesets involved some rather complex acrobatics for a beginner that Zuko unsurprisingly struggled with, and the wider, sweeping jets of flame that soldiers used in groups to engage multiple enemies at once were replaced with focused, narrow blasts designed to cripple a foe while conserving energy. It was the style of a duelist: one who was expected to fight battles alone rather than side-by-side with a comrade, and one that Tanya could not help but think didn't quite suit the young royal. Her gut instincts told her that he'd be much more effective with a style suited to teamwork.
Still she'd got the information she'd wanted. It was probable that Azula had been trained in a similar style, and now that she knew some of its common movesets Tanya could plan moves of her own to counterbalance them. Next she needed information on Azula's mindset, and there was only one place around here that she was going to get that.
"High Sage, my match will be starting soon. With your permission I'd like to go and meditate somewhere peaceful in preparation."
Ignis gave a distracted grunt of approval, eyes never leaving the fights below, and so Tanya hopped off her seat and strode through the spectators' stands, heading in the direction of the contestant's lounge. Wherever she walked people's eyes followed her, and a trail of whispers lingered in her wake. Tanya's body in this world was nearly identical to the one she'd had in her second life: small and delicate looking even for her age, with golden blonde hair that framed her face in messy curls. Black hair seemed to dominate the gene pool in this nation, so her unusual hair colour never failed to draw attention. Many would have doubted she was of fire nation lineage at all were it not for her eyes. Unlike the blue they'd normally been in her second life, Tanya's eyes in this world were the same yellow-gold they'd used to turn when she was invoking magical formulas. This eye colour was a rare but distinguished trait unique to the fire nation, possessed only by a handful of families other than the royal family themselves.
The contestant's lounge was only a short walk away: a simple room of lockers and benches, not unlike the changing rooms at swimming pools. It led directly out into the arena, and was wide and spacious enough for the competing children and their family members to prepare themselves in relative privacy. With the seven-to-eight fights well underway, the only people in the lounge right now were those who'd been eliminated and had yet to leave, including…
"Father is going to be angry with me, isn't he?"
Prince Zuko was the very picture of a miserable child. Hunched forward, shoulders slumped, and with his hands over his face to cover eyes that were no doubt speckled with tears. By his side a woman with beautiful straight black hair and a golden headdress denoting her as a princess rubbed his back soothingly. Princess Ursa. Tanya opened a locker close enough to overhear their conversation without arousing suspicion and set about pretending to get ready.
"Oh sweetheart," Ursa replied in a consoling tone, "that's not true."
"Azula wouldn't have lost."
"And you are not Azula. You're both special in your own ways."
"Well I don't want to be special in my way! I want to be a great firebender too!" Zuko's voice pitched up in the beginnings of a tantrum. "Azula isn't afraid! Azula doesn't hesitate! It comes so easily to her! Why am I the only one who struggles?"
"Oh Zuko." Ursa wrapped her arms around her son and pulled him into a gentle hug. "Everyone struggles sometimes. We all feel like there's something that's impossible for us. But I promise you that it's just an illusion. With time and dedication you're sure to become a master one day, and you'll be all the greater for having struggled to get there. But do you know what's even more important?" She kissed Zuko lightly on the head. "That you keep your kind heart. That, more than anything, will lead you to a happy life my son."
"But father didn't come here to see a kind heart."
That one sentence froze the conversation so awkwardly that even Tanya couldn't help but wince. That was more information that she'd bargained for. It seemed that all was not as well as it appeared within the royal family. Still courtroom drama aside, Tanya could at least infer useful intel from the conversation. By the sound of it Azula was quickly developing the right mindset for an efficient warrior: fearless, decisive, and merciless when necessary. No doubt a result of Prince Ozai's high expectations. It was a shame Zuko didn't seem to thrive in such an environment like his sister did.
After a drawn out silence Ursa stood and held her hand out to Zuko. "Come. Let's go back to our seats before Azula's match starts."
Zuko shook his head glumly. "You go. I want to stay here for a while."
Ursa frowned, but soon accepted it with a soft sigh. "Very well. But come up soon okay."
With graceful steps befitting of royalty Ursa departed, leaving Zuko alone to his sulking. Tanya took a moment to consider her next move. On the one hand she'd obtained the information she needed, and admitting to eavesdropping would not do her reputation any favours. Yet on the other hand she had an opportunity here to introduce herself to a member of the royal family. A few words of encouragement here could snag her a connection with a future important figure in high society. And as it so happened she'd heard quite a few inspirational sounding quotes during her first life.
Oh why not? It wasn't like a few words could do any harm.
Zuko felt ashamed.
He could have won that fight. He knew he could have. There had been a moment when his opponent had overreached himself, revealing an opening in his guard that would have allowed Zuko to shoot a blast of fire straight into his chest. The opportunity had been right there in front of him.
But he hesitated.
It was always that way. Zuko messed up enough as it was during training, but when sparring against an actual opponent he was somehow even worse. He'd been taught again and again to hit every opening your opponent gave you with all your might. Yet the moment he'd spotted his chance, all he could think about was how painful it would be for his opponent to be burned on the chest, and his fist had frozen.
Azula wouldn't have hesitated. Father wouldn't have hesitated.
"Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
Zuko jumped at the sound of a voice nearby, and his head quickly shot around to find the source of it. A few steps away stood a girl smaller and younger than him, with hair like spun gold and yellow eyes as sharp and narrow as a raven-hawk's. Whether it was her piercing gaze or the aura of danger cloaking her that caused an uneasy chill ran up his spine Zuko did not know, but she immediately put his nerves on edge.
"You have to fight a battle more than once to win it." The strange girl warned like a doomsayer of old. "All that matters is that you are the one who wins the war in the end. And no war can be won without blood, sweat and sacrifice."
And then she smiled.
Zuko had seen many different kinds of smiles before. He liked to think that the way someone smiled said a lot about who they were. His mother's smile was soft and warm, like the comforting rays of the sun on a summer afternoon. His uncle's smile was wide and hearty, full of adventure and life. His sister's smile was subtle and sly, like a satisfied jackal-cat when it caught a bird.
But this smile was unlike any he'd ever seen before, and it sent a bolt of cold terror down his spine. It was wide like uncles, but strangely lopsided and full of sharp teeth. It was a smile that screamed recklessness. Bloodlust. Madness.
The smile of a demon.
With a short bow the terrifying girl strode away, leaving Zuko paralysed by his fear. He was not the most sociable of children, but Zuko was certain that a smile like that was entirely wrong on a girl as small and young as her. Was she even a girl at all? Or perhaps one of those evil spirits uncle warned him about? Whatever the case, Zuko was sure that he wanted nothing to do with that girl ever again.
Tanya strode toward the arena with her head held high, a triumphant smile on her face. That conversation with Zuko had gone as well as she could have hoped. With a father like Prince Ozai she'd suspected that using a military analogy would get through to him effectively, but she hadn't expected it to have been so effective as to leave him speechless. No doubt his spirits had been lifted, and in the future he might remember the kind words she'd offered him.
Yet now was the time to put thoughts of future politicking to the side, and start focusing on combat. The competition in the five-to-six age bracket wasn't as intense as in the older years, but Tanya had to be careful to limit herself to match Azula's abilities during each of her fights to make her final deception seem more plausible. It required strength and discipline in equal measure.
Here was hoping a new body and a few years of peace hadn't dulled her battlefield instincts.
Something was very unusual about this year's tournament.
Prince Iroh would admit that there seemed to be increasingly less he and his brother Ozai saw eye-to-eye on these days, but one thing they could always find common ground on was their deep appreciation for, and skill at, firebending.
Which was why, as they watched the five-to-six age bracket unfold and Ozai shot him curious glances, Iroh knew he wasn't imagining things.
Azula cut through her competition like a hot knife through butter. In each round she demonstrated her overwhelming talent in a different way. During her first round she went for speed, shattering her opponent's defence and taking them down in just under eight seconds. In her second round she showed off her knowledge of advanced bending moves usually practised by children three or four years older than her, and in her third conjured flames almost as big as she was. His niece was out not just to win, but to prove that she was superior to her competitors in every way imaginable.
Yet she was not the only outstanding entry.
The girl with the golden hair had not seemed like much at first. She was the shortest of the competitors, and held herself with the posture of a military child rather than a noble one. Yet in her first round the golden girl had shattered everyone's expectations by taking down her opponent quickly and efficiently.
In just under eight seconds to be precise. Just like Azula.
Once could have been a coincidence, but as the tournament progressed Iroh's doubt continued to grow. When Azula used advanced techniques in her fight, the golden girl used techniques of the same level of skill. When Azula conjured her biggest flames, the golden girl conjured flames of a similar size.
Was she copying Azula? No, copying wasn't the right word. The golden girl fought with a variation of the traditional firebending style used by the fire sages, though had clearly honed away some of the more frivolous movements in favour of efficiency. Rather than copy Azula's moves, the golden girl used her own moves at exactly the same level as Azula was using. As if she was trying to prove that everything Azula could do, she could do too.
But why? What was the point? As far as he knew Azula had never met this girl before. Was she trying to upstage his niece and steal the publicity from her? Perhaps, but it was incredibly suspicious that their skills would be matched so perfectly evenly. More likely the girl was deliberately holding back her skills and was using Azula as a benchmark. But why? Why fight in the tournament and not aim to win?
Iroh glanced over to his brother, who's eyes remained fixed on the golden girl's current fight with the same intensity as he'd watched Azula's. Ozai did not allow his feelings to show openly on his face in public, but Iroh had known him long enough to recognize a few telltale signs of what he was thinking, and that slight narrowing of the eyes did not suggest anything good.
The next free moment he had, Iroh was going to have to make some enquiries as to who this young girl was. He'd be returning to his campaign through the Earth Kingdom in a few days, but something in his gut told him that today would not be the last time he saw this odd little girl. He just hoped their next meeting wouldn't cause him such concern.
Azula was the best fighter in the world.
Okay, maybe not the best in the entire world. Not yet. But she was certainly the best fighter out of everyone her age. She was born to be a master, everybody knew it, and when she grew up she'd be the most powerful bender to have ever lived. Just as father had taught her, she was above all common people. Nobody was her equal.
Especially not her.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, we come to our final round!" The announcer called, accompanied by polite applause from the audience. "To my left is a rising star, a born prodigy, through whom the blood of generations of powerful firelords flows strong. I give you… Azula!"
Enthusiastic applause broke out across the audience, and Azula allowed herself to preen slightly in their adulation. The strong did not concern themselves with the opinions of the weak, father had taught her that, but there was no harm in accepting praise when it was well deserved.
"And to my right is the underdog nobody saw coming, who's danced through all her competition thus far like a pixie. I give you… Tanya!"
To Azula's ears, the applause the blonde girl received was just as loud as her own, and a spike of rage jolted through her veins. Today was supposed to be her big day: the day she proved to everyone that she was the rising star of the future. She had made a point in each and every round to demonstrate how superior she was in any and every way possible. Yet this peasant girl, Tanya, seemed to have made it her mission to cast that superiority into doubt. Whatever record Azula set, Tanya was somehow able to perfectly match, as if making a statement that the two of them were equal.
Tanya was not her equal! She couldn't be! Nobody could equal her talent and pedigree, especially not some street urchin the fire sages picked up! How the peasant had managed to cheat her way to the finals Azula did not know, but it stopped here! Father had instructed her not to fight too roughly, like they did during their private training sessions, but surely when he gave that instruction he hadn't been expecting this little upstart to act so impudently. Yes, this round she would demonstrate her superior brutality, and crush this peasant so thoroughly that nobody would dare presume themselves to be her equal again.
The referee headed out of the ring, leaving the two of them with a few seconds to exchange words before the fight. Tanya bowed at the waist, demonstrating a surprisingly accurate knowledge of courtroom etiquette for a commoner.
"May the best woman win, Lady Azula."
The nerve of her! To imply that it was debatable who the best of the two of them was!
"Don't worry. I will." Azula shot back, settling into her fighting position. Tanya smiled back briefly and settled into a position of her own.
"Ready?" The referee called. "Set? Begin!"
No sooner had the words left his lips than Azula had pounced into action, firing a sharp bolt of fire directly at Tanya's knee. Cripple her first, steal away her movements, and then hound away at her with power and agility. Just as father had taught her.
Yet just as she moved, so too did Tanya. Blonde hair whipped around in a messy hurricane as she pivoted, drawing her knee out of harm's way while similarly building up momentum. From the pivot she spun into a leaping roundhouse kick, sending a slash of fire back in retaliation that Azula had to roll to the side to avoid.
Rushing into closer quarters, Azula leapt up and brought a straight punch down towards Tanya's head. Again though Tanya was prepared for it, and raised both arms into a cross guard to block the blow, dispersing the weight of the punch across both arms.
As Azula's feet returned to solid ground Tanya struck, twisting one foot out like a snake to wrap around hers, and with a solid push sent her tripping backwards. The sudden feeling of losing balance didn't stop Azula for more than a moment however, and with practised ease she embraced the change in momentum, falling into a backflip.
There was just the briefest second however, at the apex of her backflip, when Azula's eyes had been unable to follow Tanya. As she regained her footing from the flip Azula looked up, only to find that Tanya had not afforded her any chance to recover. She barely caught the first fist Tanya threw her way in time, and was forced onto the defensive as Tanya launched into a flurry of quick, probing strikes designed to ferret out weaknesses in her guard. Still recovering from her unplanned acrobatics, Azula was forced to slowly but surely give away ground as Tanya's barrage pushed her backwards.
Rage boiled in Azula's stomach. This was not right! Why was she the one being forced to defend against this dirty peasant! Tanya was smaller than her, younger than her, lesser than her! She was an insect that ought to be squashed under heel!
Channel the anger! Make it your strength!
Father's teaching flashed through her mind, and with a fierce roar Azula stomped her foot against the ground, putting her anger into an explosive blast of flames. To her own shock however the flames that emerged were not her regular red colour. They were sharper, hotter, and a rich blue.
Tanya seemed just as surprised if the way her eyes widened was any indication, and skipped backwards to put some distance between them while she assessed this new threat. But Azula was quick enough not to let this opportunity slip by. She lunged forward, harnessing her anger again, and with both hands unleashed a straight blast of blue flames. Tanya quickly spun her arms to form a flaming barrier, but when the blue flames collided against it Azula was satisfied to see Tanya step backwards, a look of concern growing on her face. Yes! She has overpowering her!
Most would have surrendered their reason when gripped in the throes of rage, but royalty was above such things. Azula's anger only sharpened her already impressive mind, and rather than maintain her powerful but ultimately stamina-draining attack she switched tactics. As she cut off her stream of fire Azula's arms separated, two fingers on each hand pointing out like knives, and from each hand a thinner stream of blue flames, about as thick as a ribbon, unfurled. She whipped her arms around in serpentine movements, causing the fire whips to soar outward towards Tanya and strike at her from a multitude of angles, like a nest of snakes hissing and biting at an intruder. Tanya seemed to realise the futility of blocking such an attack, and was forced to begin ducking and weaving through the frenzy of strikes.
Dimly Azula could hear the approving roar of the crowd in the background, yet for the first time she found that she didn't care. The vengeful satisfaction of knowing that the tables had turned and that she was now the one forcing Tanya on the defensive was sweeter than freshly picked grapes. This was right! This was how it was meant to be! She had control of the fight now, and the street urchin was dancing to her commands; as was rightfully so!
Azula redoubled her vigour, and the speed of the fire whips increased. One struck a glancing blow against Tanya's cheek, leaving a scorch mark. It was only then, with her attention drawn to Tanya's face, that Azula finally noticed the expression the blonde was wearing. She'd been expecting a look of discomfort, perhaps even fear. Instead what she found was a maniac smile that stretched unnaturally across the little girl's face like a snarling hyena-wolf, highlighting wide eyes that seemed to shine with malevolent glee in the light of the blue flames.
Tanya flipped backwards to vault over an incoming strike, and Azula smirked as she noticed the odd angle Tanya was falling at. At last the peasant had made a mistake! From that angle she'd never be able to land on her feet, and once she hit the floor Azula would pummel her with a barrage of her strongest attacks. Her whips circled around Tanya's falling form, ready to strike.
But then, in a blast of flames, Tanya was moving in mid air.
Technically speaking the technique for using firebending for flight was a basic one. All you had to do was unleash your inner fire in a quick, intense burst over a short distance rather than let it roll further away from you, and the thrust generated would propel your own body in the opposite direction of the flames. A number of basic katas used the technique to enhance the momentum of a strong punch or kick, or in brief bursts to change the direction of acrobatic movements mid air. But to actually use the technique to achieve sustained flight was a different game altogether. Humans were not born to fly, and required many years of practice and experience in order to gain an instinctive grasp of how much thrust and fire was needed to not just defy gravity, but control their flight smoothly.
Yet if humans weren't born to fly, whichever spirit watched over Tanya's birth hadn't gotten the memo. With graceful arcs and spins Tanya flitted through the air with the ease of someone who'd been flying for a lifetime, dodging the tendrils of blue fire with so much less effort now that she had a whole new dimension of movement to play with. An awed silence fell over the crowd, and for a moment Azula forgot her rage and found that she shared their sentiment. With her small physique, golden hair and the nimble ease with which she flew, Tanya did for a moment seem like some otherworldly spirit; like a pixie from a children's fairy tale.
Tanya saw her opportunity, and dove forward through a gap in the whips to engage Azula in close quarters once again. As she rocket down from above she cartwheeled, turning the flames at her feet from short jet bursts into an arrowhead shape, and drop-kicked Azula from above. Tanya was far from heavy, but the full force of gravity behind her shattered through Azula's guard and knocked her a considerable distance backwards.
While stumbling to regain her footing, Azula became aware of just how heavily she was breathing, and how damp her forehead had become with sweat. Was she… losing? No, no that couldn't be possible! Could it? For the first time in her lift Azula felt an uncomfortable dread trickle down her spine as it dawned on her that she was probably going to be defeated. This dirty little peasant girl, who flew like a pixie and grinned like a demon, was going to beat her before the eyes of the entire nation!
Tanya had not pressed her attack when Azula was thrown back, instead opting to reform her own stance and catch her breath as well. She was breathing heavily and sweating as well, betraying the fact that for all her skill she too only had the stamina of a child, yet unlike Azula she didn't look like she'd lost her confidence. In fact if her feral smile was anything to go by she'd only become more excited.
Neither of them had the stamina to draw this fight out for much longer, so whoever scored the next good hit would be the winner. Azula forced her breathing to steady, quashing down her feelings of unease and focusing on that same rage she'd felt before. As much as she despised Tanya, she was forced to concede that she'd have to give up on her original goal of winning brutally if she wanted to win at all. If they were so closely matched in strength, skill and agility, then the only thing Azula had left to rely on was cunning.
With a flick of her wrist Azula launched a quick, sharp bolt of blue flames directly at Tanya's face: a move not designed to do damage, but to draw her attention. Unfortunately it seemed that Tanya had the same idea, firing a similarly sized bolt of red flames at Azula. The two fireballs collided in the air between them, exploding like a firework of blue and red that obscured both of their visions.
Azula darted forwards. Tanya wouldn't let this chance slip by either, and would be readying an attack of her own on the other side of the flames. As the sparks began to clear, Azula dropped down and slid on her knees, just in time to avoid the spinning wheel of fire that twirled out at her and passed narrowly above her head. As Tanya finally came into view again Azula couldn't help but grin at the look of surprise on her face, and whipped her legs out into a sliding kick that knocked Tanya's feet out from under her.
Tanya went down, leaving both girls on the floor, and Azula wasted no time seizing her advantage. Like a coiling snake her legs wrapped around Tanya from behind, and with her arms she caught Tanya's neck in a choke hold. Tanya struggled and bucked, but Azula stubbornly refused to relinquish her grasp.
Fire erupted from Tanya's feet again, propelling them across the floor of the arena like a rocket. The blonde girl thrashed around wildly, trying to break the hold, but with a desperate strength she hadn't known she possessed Azula held on. Just a little longer! Just a few more seconds and she would win! Then father wouldn't be disappointed in her!
The impact whacked into her back like a sledgehammer with such force that Azula's hold crumpled apart. Tanya's jets had never been intended to help her break free of Azula's grip! They'd been to slam them both into the walls around the edge of the arena! Azula struggled to get back to her feet, but the breath had been completely knocked out of her! She'd never felt this exhausted before!
Tanya was still on the ground too, arms unsteadily raised to protect her throat. She rolled onto her stomach, bracing herself to stand once more, and a fresh spike of panic shot through Azula's chest. She tried to shoot a ball of fire, but with her breathing disrupted she couldn't summon so much as a flicker. All she could do was watch in horror as Tanya brought one foot forward and began pushing herself up to stand.
Only for her knees to buckle.
As Tanya's face planted itself into the dirt once more, the referee took that as his cue to run up and stand between them. "Both contestants are unable to stand! The match is over!" He declared. Quickly he examined them both, then turned back to the audience. "The result is a tie!"
The audience broke out into a cacophony of applause, many even standing and whistling their approval. And who could blame them: that had probably been the most intense fight between five year olds in fire nation history. Yet despite the cheers all Azula cared about was the cold lump of dread settling in her stomach.
She hadn't won. And now she had to answer to father.
It wasn't often that Tanya allowed herself to act like the little girl she had the body of, but right now she was just so pleased with herself that she couldn't help but indulge in the desire to skip.
It must have been a strange sight for anyone she passed by: a five year old covered in bruises and scorch marks skipping merrily down the halls with a smile on her face. Perhaps that was why everyone hurried to get out of her way when they saw her? Whatever. Tanya couldn't bring herself to care right now. It had been a long time since she'd felt the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult mission.
Azula had been tougher than her brief reconnaissance had suggested. She'd cleverly kept that blue fire trick hidden up her sleeve throughout her previous matches, and had the stubbornness of a wild cat when boxed into a corner. If Tanya hadn't had two extra years of practice on her she might have lost. Fortunately her last wall-colliding gambit had paid off, and a perfectly feigned wobble of the knee at just the right moment had concluded the match with a perfect draw.
High Sage Ignis wasn't happy that she hadn't won, but had been mollified by her demonstration of her mastery of the flight technique. He'd be able to crow on about the benefits of spirituality for years to come and, more importantly, Tanya hadn't painted a large target for the royal family on her back. In fact she might go so far as to say that she and Azula had connected during their little bout. Maybe she was imagining things, but felt like there was a spirit of friendly competition between them.
"An excellent display, little lady. You have quite the talent."
Tanya looked to the side, where a young man with impressive sideburns and a face that made her think of a monkey was slowly clapping his hands. He wore the armour of the fire nation navy, and to have gained access to an event like this Tanya knew he must have achieved at least an officer rank.
The man walked forward and offered a hand, which Tanya shook without hesitation; noting his weathered and fiercely tanned skin. She'd shaken hands like this before during her second life when meeting soldiers fresh out serving in desert campaigns. Now why would a member of the navy have been serving in the desert? Perhaps he'd been in the army, and the experience had given him such an appreciation for water that he'd transferred straight after?
"Junior Lieutenant Zhao." The man introduced himself with a charming smile. "Or wait, I suppose it's just Lieutenant Zhao now. Sorry, I'm still getting used to the idea of holding a serious rank."
A rising star in the military? How interesting. Zhao didn't speak like a man of noble birth, and to have achieved the rank of lieutenant at his age suggested that he must have made quite the meritorious achievement.
"Tanya." She replied courteously, offering a respectful nod. "And thank you. I've been studying hard in the hopes of becoming a master." She may not have wanted to be discovered as a firebender at first, but once the secret was out and her future conscription all but guaranteed it was only logical to become as skilled as she could. Mastery of firebending could very well mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.
Zhao's smile grew. "So I see. You studied under the fire sages, correct? It's rare to see a traditional style like theirs these days, but you certainly made good use of it."
Unlike the royal style, which was better suited to duelling, or the military style, which emphasised simple movements that could be used in conjunction alongside other soldiers, the fire sages style was more ceremonial. Its forms were designed for more precise shaping and control of flames rather than speed or power: better for putting on a show rather than inflicting damage. After nearly a hundred years of war the style had fallen out of use among the public, but with some experimentation Tanya had found a way to cut some of the more superfluous moves, and adapt others into move useful techniques for a warzone. Her variations of the traditional flight technique was just one such example.
Modesty was the better part of valour though, and nobody liked to hear a braggart. Tanya smiled gratefully. "Thank you sir. I had good teachers."
"Regardless, you must be a quick study." Zhao continued. "Tell me, have you given much thought to which branch of the military you intend to join when you're older?"
"I don't know. Is there a branch filled with cushy office jobs far behind enemy lines?"
Zhao laughed heartily, doubtlessly having assumed she was joking. "Ha! Not a fan of marching are you? Well, why not consider joining the navy? It's a damn sight easier living on a ship than it is walking across the Earth Kingdom on foot."
That… was actually a very good idea! Of the other nations the Air Nomads had already been wiped out, and the Southern Water Tribes pillaged to the point that they no longer presented a serious threat bar a couple of primitive raiding ships. The main competitors left in this war were the Earth Kingdom, whose presence at sea was nearly non-existent, and the Northern Water Tribe, who remained staunchly secure in their fortress at the north pole and only acted to directly defend themselves. The Fire Nation ruled the sea these days, and the navy's main job was to escort supply ships and raid port towns. It wasn't risk free by any stretch of the imagination, but it would definitely be safer than the meat grinder that was the front lines!
In an ideal world Tanya would have avoided military service altogether, or at the very least taken a posting in a logistics-based job that kept her as far away from the people who could throw boulders with their minds as possible. Sadly firebenders were just too useful of an asset to not be used as much as possible. In order to get a safe posting, Tanya's only option was to climb to a rank high enough that she'd have to remain away from the front lines in order to issue strategic commands. If her knowledge of the navy's hierarchy was correct she'd need to obtain the rank of admiral in order to be able to duck out of any form of direct combat, and the handful of admirals in the Firelord's war council were all older men with many years of experience under their belts. Just below an admiral however came the ranks of captains: commanders who could stay safely within the decks of their huge metal ships and deploy their crew to do the most dangerous work for them. That was probably as close to an administrative job as Tanya could reasonably hope to get in the next decade or so before the war was finally won.
"Suppose that I was interested," Tanya began, "how would I go about securing my place? I wasn't aware that conscripts were offered a choice of where to serve."
Zhao's grin grew wider. "It's just a matter of knowing the right people. Perhaps we should stay in touch? It's important that talent gets the recognition it deserves, don't you think? I'd be happy to have a position under my command reserved for you when you're old enough for service."
What a nice fellow. Tanya found she didn't need to force the smile that came across her face as she nodded respectfully. "That would be most kind. Thank you lieutenant."
Zhao chuckled. "Think nothing of it. I always keep an eye out for the firebending masters of the future."
Ozai wasn't usually disappointed by his daughter.
Azula kneeled a few feet away from where he sat, nervously waiting for him to say something. After her performance today she deserved to stew in his displeasure for a while. That she had awakened the rare blue flames had been a stroke of good fortune, enough to salvage her reputation after that disaster of a fight, but it did not absolve her of her failure.
Azula took to the lessons he gave her like a natural, whether they be on combat, politics or morality. There had been a few mistakes in the past, usually after her mother had filled her head with some sentimental nonsense, but it never took long to correct her mistakes. He could usually count on Azula to act in a way befitting of his heir. Yet today Ozai found himself disappointed. No, that wasn't a strong enough word. It was more accurate to say that he was infuriated. He had never imagined that Azula might lose to anyone of her own age, but now he saw that he'd been too lax in her training. Oh the rabble might think that she and that commoner child had been equally matched, but Ozai was not fooled. The blonde girl had planned for the match to end in a tie right from the beginning, and Azula had allowed herself to be led by the nose.
Speaking of the blonde girl, Tanya, Ozai was torn on how to deal with her. That she represented the fire sages irked him. People forgot, but the original firelord had been a member of the fire sages, and had ruled with them as his equals. Time had separated the firelord into a more political entity, but the fire sages still held the exclusive right to coronate the new firelord, or to refuse to do so if they disapproved of them. The idea that those old fossils of a bygone era should have any power over the firelord, however fleeting, was an insult. The weak should never dictate the will of the strong. Once he became Firelord and brought an end to this war he would establish a new regime where the authority of he and his chosen heirs was beyond any doubt.
Yet as much as he despised the fire sages, he did not see this Tanya as one of them. The girl had shown more than just firebending talent during her fights, but also cunning, ferocity and ambition. All traits he prized. That monstrous grin the girl wore as she fought was exactly the kind of expression he'd been trying to instil into his own daughter. He could not leave such an asset in the hands of the sages, but eliminating her would be such a waste.
Azula shifted uncomfortably, drawing his attention back to her. That should be long enough. With slow, deliberate words Ozai spoke.
"You failed me."
Azula's face blanched, her fists tightening so hard that her knuckles turned white. Good. At least she understood the consequences of failure.
"I-… it was her fault!" Azula stuttered. "She must have cheated somehow! She is not my equal."
"Words are empty Azula. Results are everything."
Azula held her tongue, but her expression betrayed her indignation. Interesting. It seemed his daughter had taken the commoner girl's challenge personally. Could that be the reason why Azula had unlocked her blue flames in the middle of a fight of all times? Had her desire to defeat Tanya provided the motivation she needed to surpass her previous limits?
And just like that a plan formed in Ozai's mind. A solution that would kill all his birds with one stone.
"I shall be sending a letter to the High Temple." He declared. "An invitation for Tanya to attend the Royal Fire Academy for Girls under a scholarship from the royal family. It would be a waste to allow talent to untapped after all. Though I fear a peasant child may not feel comfortable among the children of nobility. I expect you to help her feel welcome. Take her amongst your friends."
Azula's eyes widened in horror. "But father-…"
"Am I clear, Azula?"
Azula bit her lip, visibly shaking with emotion, and for a moment Ozai suspected she might speak out in defiance. Yet the moment passed, and Azula's shoulders slumped as she accepted her punishment.
"Good. You may go."
Azula stood, bowed and hurriedly left, no doubt to find something to burn. Out of all the lessons he'd taught her, one she'd taken especially well to was his philosophy on friendship. Genuine friendship was a parasite for the strong: a leech that bound you to the weak and compelled you to waste your time and effort on solving their pitiful problems. Yet through the guise of friendship one could forge an effective leash to keep useful pawns under your thrall. Azula had done well in selecting her "friends" so far: choosing two girls of similar age with noble lineages and useful connections, who both possessed useful skills that Azula could learn for herself or deploy for her own purposes. However her decision to not befriend a child with the ability to firebend was telling. She did not suffer anybody who might be able to rival her.
Ozai had learnt many important life lessons indirectly from Iroh. His struggles to prove that he was just as good, if not better, than his oh-so-sanctimonious brother had taught him much about the drive hatred could grant you when used properly. Having a mortal enemy inspired you to put your utmost effort into destroying them. Yet the one who should have been that rival for Azula, Zuko, was a soft-hearted weakling who'd give up and run to his mother rather than provide any sort of challenge. In a way Azula's success had been her failing; she had never learnt how to deal with competition, for there was nobody who could compete with her.
Enrolling Tanya at a royal academy would separate her from the fire sages for most of the time before she could be conscripted into military service, and would drive a wedge in the sage's plans to use her as their poster child. Forcing Azula to accept the peasant into her social circle would also teach his daughter how to cope with a genuine rival, while simultaneously giving his daughter time to work her hooks into this girl and make her a puppet. With her natural talent and a fine education Tanya was certain to become a powerful weapon for the Fire Nation: one that would dance to his daughter's tune, and by extension his too.
Yes, destiny seemed to have greatness in store for young Tanya. Greatness that, through his designs, would be harvested in service to the Fire Nation.