The Fire Nation was alive with the sounds of revelry.
The greatest war hero of their generation, the mighty Admiral Tanya, had returned home from her daring siege of the north, and in every town and city across the homeland the people drank, danced and sang in celebration of her victory. Endless streams of fireworks lit up the night sky, colourful parades marched through the streets, and children laughed and giggled as wily merchants dyed their hair golden blonde. Wine and laughter flowed like water, and not one of Tanya's soldiers had to buy their own drinks.
High up in the royal palace the merriment had taken on a far more refined, though still every bit as debauched, air. Noble lords and ladies quaffed fine wine and gorged on entrées, whole exotic dancers glided around in bright, tight clothing. The buzz of conversation hummed in the air, for gossip was the heart and soul of the palace intrigue, and it was no surprise to any who cared to eavesdrop whose name was on everyone's lips.
"... private investments in navy expeditions have been skyrocketing ever since Admiral Tanya-…"
"... but of course Tanya has always been a close friend of mine. I knew since I first laid eyes on her at her first tournament that-…"
"... son intends to seek her hand in marriage. I would never normally approve of a match with some peasant of course, but since it's Admiral Tanya we're talking about-..."
It seemed like the whole nation was united in adoration for their golden child. Yet there was one person in the royal palace who did not feel like celebrating. You would never tell it from looking at her, for she had long ago mastered the art of concealing her true emotions, but praise for the returning conqueror was the last thing on her mind.
Princess Azula was absolutely livid!
She had always hated Tanya. She'd hated her from the moment the straw-haired little upstart had begun stealing her thunder back at the tournament that was meant to be her debut. By tying with Azula in the finals on that day, Tanya had created a dangerous impression in the minds of everyone who'd been watching: that the two of them were equals. That a princess of the Fire Nation, who held the blood of countless Firelords and had been personally trained by the most elite teachers in the country, was an equal to some orphan charity case picked up by the Fire Sages
Father had been furious. He'd never said it, or outwards showed any signs, but Azula knew he was furious. If the people got it into their heads that just any old urchin picked off the streets could match the heir to the throne, then eventually they'd start asking why the royal family deserved to be in charge in the first place. Fear was what kept people in their proper place, and Tanya's actions could serve to undermine that fear.
That was why father had gone out of his way to bind Tanya into her friendship group. Some people said that it was wise to keep your friends closer but your enemies closer, but they were wrong. Father had shown her that your friends were your enemies, and would stab you in the back the moment they sensed weakness. By forcing Azula to take Tanya in as her 'friend', he was both punishing her for her failure and setting her the task through which she might redeem herself. Either Azula was to establish herself as the dominant one in their 'friendship', gain Tanya as her own personal pawn and let everyone see that she was Tanya's superior, or she was to defeat and humiliate her so publicly, so embarrassingly, that none would ever dare think that the two of them were equals again. And every time he'd invited Tanya to join them for dinner at the palace, dropped by to watch them sparring, or shared pieces of philosophy with her that he'd only told Azula before, he was subtly reminding Azula what would happen if she failed. Like her brother, she too could be cast aside if a more suitable heir presented itself.
So Azula had tried. By the spirits, how she had tried! On the surface she smiled and offered the meaningless platitude that friends did, but underneath she plotted and schemed, threw herself into her studies and training, and took every possible opportunity that presented itself to prove that she was better than Tanya. She had to admit, having a proper rival had led her to discover a well of determination within herself greater than even she'd known she had. It let her keep standing just a little longer, fighting just a little harder, and persevering in the face of obstacles the old her might have given up on.
But it was never enough.
Every test she aced, Tanya aced too. Every fight she won would be followed by a loss the next time. Every challenge she overcame with cunning and guile, Tanya matched with strategy and brutality. Like two snakes wrestling to eat the other they spun over and over in circles, outwardly keeping up the pretence of being friends, yet always looking for that fatal opening that would let them sink in their fangs. Neither of them could pull ahead of the other, and it galled Azula to admit that it ran her ragged just trying to keep up.
Yet the one thing Azula had always clung onto, the one thing that reminded her that she really was superior no matter how many times the results suggested that she and Tanya were equal, was her birthright. She was a princess, next in line to be Firelord, and possessed all the benefits that title entailed. Her words had an authority that none could match, and her heritage gave her respect and power over all the Fire Nation. People would bow and scrape at her passing. That was something that Tanya, being common-born, could never match.
Until she'd gone and made herself into a bloody war hero!
"Ladies and gentlemen!" The master of ceremonies announced, gesturing with one hand to the door behind him. "It is my great pleasure to announce the guest of honour. Please give a warm welcome home to the woman of the hour: the one and only Admiral Tanya!"
The crowd burst into applause as the door swung open with dramatic slowness, revealing the golden-haired girl in all her glory. Tanya's armour had been polished to the point that you could see reflections in it; the deep black and fiery crimson of the metal matched by a cape as red as wine, that flapped like a flag as she strode confidently forwards. Azula seethed as she saw the naked awe and reverence in the eyes of the nobles around her. Who in the Fire Nation would refuse a request made of them by their greatest war hero? Who would not grovel for her attention, or tremble at her fury? Tanya had found a way to get respect and authority close to that commanded by a princess, and had earned it through her own merit rather than have it handed to her. They had become more equal than ever now, and Azula loathed her for it.
"I've been too reactive, too content to wait for opportunities. I need to start earning my own achievements."
Golden eyes met her own, and Tanya politely excused herself from the mob of people swarming in to make connections with her and pushed her way over to Azula. As she approached, Azula's eyes darted over the pleasant smile that had come across Tanya's expression. As usual she couldn't find a hint of falsehood to it, and if she didn't know better she might have thought that Tanya was being genuinely friendly. Tanya always had been just as good at disguising her real feelings behind the veneer of friendship as she was.
"Azula! It's good to see you again after so long." Tanya greeted, offering only a small bow. So the little upstart thought she could get away with such informality now that she was a hero, did she? Well, Azula had a few tricks prepared to take the wind out of her sails.
"Tanya. I always knew you'd come home safe and sound." Azula lied easily. "And just look at you. Only a few short years and you're already an admiral. That's got to be setting some kind of record."
Tanya laughed with false modesty. "What can I say? I got lucky I suppose. What about you? How have things been at the palace?"
Was that a subtle dig at her for staying safe at home? Oh, it was on! "Nothing much, just more training , studying and the usual politicking." Her lips curled into the smallest of smug sneers. "Although I did master the lightning generation technique. My instructors say I don't have a hair out of place."
Lightning generation was a technique that Tanya found herself unusually abysmal at. For whatever reason she seemed simply incapable of separating her positive and negative chi, and her attempts to do so in the past had usually blown up in her face. It wasn't every day that Tanya discovered something she wasn't good at, so naturally Azula took every opportunity to rub her own natural talent for it in her face.
Tanya however did a perfect job of faking being impressed. "That's quite the achievement." She replied. "I was on the receiving end of a lightning bolt once. It did a real number on my arm. If it hit me in the chest I'd probably be dead."
"More's the pity it didn't then." Azula thought snidely.
"But that was done by a man so old he probably remembered the air nomads. I don't think anyone's master that technique before reaching adulthood." Tanya continued. "You really are incredible, Azula."
Incredible she says, at a party thrown in her honour for literally turning the moon off. What a condescending viper. "Oh please, we all know that if anyone's incredible around here, it's you." Azula replied with false sincerity. A devious smirk flashed across her lips. "Although you should be careful. I've heard some nasty rumours floating around about you."
"Rumours?" Tanya asked.
"Yes. They arrived on shore when you did. Some of the soldiers who were present when you tried to capture the Avatar have been saying some pretty nasty things about you." Azula whispered conspiratorially. "Apparently you admitted that The Avatar wasn't the one who actually murdered Admiral Zhao. They say that the one who confessed to being the true culprit was none other than yourself."
There! That fraction of a second when the shoulder tensed, the fleeting flash of panic in her eyes, was all the tell Azula needed to confirm the truth. So it really was true then? Straight-laced Tanya had murdered her own superior in order to usurp his position. Father would be impressed. Yet it had been sloppy of her not to dispose of the soldiers who knew the truth, and now Azula had the perfect blackmail material to hold over her head. If she didn't want her hard-won title of hero to turn into a mark of shame, Tanya would have no choice but to become her obedient little pet. Thank Agni she'd thought to embed a spy on Tanya's ship back when she'd first set sail.
"Few people have heard it right now, but nothing spreads faster than a nasty little rumour." Azula continued sarcastically. "I'd hate for an odious lie to stain your golden reputation. Would you like my help suppressing it? I know the right people to talk to in order to make this all go away." The unspoken threat behind her words of course being, that with a word, she could have those same people inflame the rumours to the point that they reached every ear in the nation.
"... Azula-..." Tanya looked lost for words, and the princess of the Fire Nation bit back the urge to laugh in her face. They were at a party after all. Even so, it felt indescribably good to finally see her arch rival squirm!
"You're the best!"
In the blink of an eye Tanya was beaming at her like some bright-eyed goofball. What on earth was she playing at? "Seriously, you're the best friend anyone could ever ask for." Tanya continued joyfully, all traces of nervousness gone. "It's heartening to know that you've always got my back. But don't worry, I can handle this on my own."
Before Azula could get a word in, Tanya had turned around and strode over to the nearby stage, plucking a glass of wine from the tray of a passing waiter as she did and a spoon from a nearby table. She stepped up on stage, tapping the cutlery against the glass to make a ringing sound that caught everyone's attention. All conversation fell silent as the audience waited with baited breath to hear what their hero had to say.
"My noble countrymen. I am grateful beyond words that you have all come here to honour me tonight." Tanya began, her commanding voice ringing as clear as a bell across the palace. "Yet in truth I only stand victorious here before you tonight because I stood upon the shoulders of a giant. There is a man who should have been standing beside me. A man who deserves to be honoured more than I do. A man who sacrificed his life so that I might finish the work he started." Tanya raised her glass into the air, and the audience mimicked her action. "By tradition, the one who leads the conquest of a city may invoke the right to rename it, signalling its rebirth as a part of our great nation. Well I invoke that right now. Henceforth, I declare that Agna Qel'a shall be renamed in memory of the man who worked so hard, without thought for recognition, to bring the Northern Water Tribes into the light of the future. So please, ladies and gentlemen, join me in a toast to the future prosperity of the Fire Nation's newest colony: the city of Zhao!"
The audience cheered and joined her in a toast, whispering to each other about what a loyal and selfless young woman she was, and never noticing how the glass Azula held had begun to crack ever so slightly under her grip. That conniving little bitch! Nobody would believe that Tanya could be Zhao's real murderer after word of that speech got out. The right to rename captured cities was afforded to generals as a way of recognising their achievements, and to date had only been used to rename somewhere after the general themself in a vain attempt to immortalise their own name, or after whatever wealthy lord the general was hoping to impress. It had never been used to honour the memory of a fallen soldier before, and you could bet that the ignorant masses would lap it up when they heard. When stories were told of Tanya's victory, Zhao would now forever be cast as the wise and kindly mentor who led her to greatness. And that same wave of goodwill would strangle the rumours of the truth in their crib.
And so once again, Azula had failed to pull ahead.
As the applause ended, a loud cough drew everyone's attention, and all eyes turned to the master of ceremonies once again. "Ladies and gentlemen, please follow me to the throne room." The man requested, and all at once a current of excitement ran through the crowd. It was incredibly rare for The Firelord to invite so many people into his throne room at once, and for most it would be their first time standing in the room where perhaps the most political power in the entire world resided. Azula slipped into the crowd as they bustled and shoved their way as politely as possible through the doors to where her father waited.
The throne room was as imposing a sight as ever. The veil of flames that separated The Firelord from the petty concerns of mere mortals cast long, dark shadows. Li and Lo, the two ancient advisors to the throne, sat silently before the veil. Whether out of reverence of The Firelord's power or because the heat from the flames was uncomfortable, nobody made to stand nearly as close to the veil as they did, and so Azula snagged herself a place at the front. On the other side of the room she noticed that Tanya had done the same.
Once the room was quiet the doors closed, and a small band of drummers around the edges of the room started to play; their slow, rhythmic pounding helping to build a sense of tension. Soon the doors swung open again, and a young woman walked in followed by four elite palace guards. She wore a low-cut red dress that was all Fire Nation style and colours, with golden bracelets and accessories that shone in the firelight. The black choker around her neck looked suspiciously like a collar, and perched within her snow white hair was a silver headdress reminiscent of the one worn by the Firelord, but smaller and with a snowflake symbol atop.
Princess Yue may have looked beautiful, but everything about her outfit just screamed that she was property of the Fire Nation now. A slave in all but name. The crowd parted as she passed, allowing her a direct route to the front. As she reached the front of the crowd she hesitated, until one of the guards gave her a warning nudge, and she knelt down into a low, submissive bow.
"Firelord Ozai." She began, the dead, toneless quality of her voice betraying that she was reciting a script. "In the name of The Northern Water Tribes I, Princess Yue, do hereby surrender to the enlightened rule of The Fire Nation, and accept all responsibility for the lives lost in our conflict. I recognise now that it was my ancestors' stubbornness and refusal to accept a peaceful union with The Fire Nation that led to so much unnecessary loss of life. With the spirits as my witness, I solemnly swear to guide my people to redeem this mistake by working hand-in-hand with our new Fire Nation governors, and denounce all cowards who fled the battle of Agna Qel'a-…"
"Zhao." Li interjected.
"What?" Yue looked up, confused by the unexpected interruption.
"Agna Qel'a has been renamed Zhao." Lo stated.
That news produced the most notable crack in the princess' valiant attempt at keeping a cool composure. A flash of anguish, of raw shame, before she ducked her head back into a low bow to hide it. When she spoke again, her tone had the quietest undertone of a wobble to it.
"… and denounce the cowards who fled the battle of… of Zhao… as rebels and traitors, fit to be executed for their treasonous deeds.
The noble lords and ladies hollered their approval like braying farm animals, sneering and jeering at the torment of the captured princess. When there was no more humiliation to be had from her the guards stood up, nudged her to do the same, and escorted her from the room.
"Let Princess Yue's proclamation be known all across the land!" Li announced.
"One this day The Northern Water Tribe has officially declared its surrender." Lo continued. "Let it be known that the war between the Fire Nation and Northern Tribes is officially…"
"Over!" The twins declared in perfect unison.
Again the nobles broke into furious applause, those nearest to Tanya clapping her on the back and smiling at her as if she'd won the entire war single-handed. With the show over, those at the back turned to leave, but everyone froze and listened intently when out of nowhere Firelord Ozai suddenly spoke.
"Azula. Tanya. Stay."
Whispered theories as to what the Firelord wanted to talk about buzzed around the room as Li and Lo shooed the gossipy nobles out, shutting the doors behind them so that the throne room fell deathly silent. On an unspoken cue both princess and admiral walked forwards until they stood in the same spot Yue had, and knelt down into deep bows.
The silence lingered between them. Etiquette dictated that, excluding the offering of greetings, The Firelord spoke first in all conversations that took place in this room. It was a sign of respect and obedience, and sometimes father liked to test people who sought an audience with him by waiting silently for minutes on end to see if they cracked under the pressure. But neither Azula nor Tanya were so weak-willed, and both kept their heads down and their mouths shut until, at last, Ozai deigned to speak again.
"Your victories are impressive, Admiral Tanya." Father's voice was as deep and rich as ever, his pace slow and certain; that of a man who knew he did not need to shout or speak quickly to demand attention. "The people praise your name. Tanya the Conqueror they call you. Tanya the Sun Fairy. Tanya the Moon Slayer."
A proud grin crossed Tanya's lips. "Thank you, your majesty. I-…"
"Yet you have failed me."
Those five words, delivered so emotionlessly, seemed to suck the heat out of the room in an instant. Tanya paled, her face falling, and Azula smirked wickedly at the look of unmistakable dread that crossed her features. It looked like the golden girl wasn't in everybody's good books after all.
"You had the rebel northmen in your grasp, yet to let them get away." Ozai continued. "You had the ocean and moon spirits in your grasp, but you let them get away. You had The Avatar in your grasp, but you let him get away." A quiet scoff, so soft it could easily be mistaken for a crackle of the flames. "It seems that you gained butterfingers somewhere at sea. The Tanya I remember would have never been so sloppy. Your mistakes have created problems where there should have been none, and will take a great deal of effort to rectify."
"I apologise deeply, your majesty." Tanya replied, bowing her head as low as she could. "I can offer no excuses."
The Firelord was silent for a while, letting Tanya squirm under the weight of his judgement. Then he spoke again. "Do you know why it was that you failed?"
Tanya hesitated, rightfully wary that one wrong answer here might cost her dearly. "I-… I got too hasty. So focused one one problem that I neglected to keep an eye on the other, and-…"
Ozai was angry. He did not shout, but his tone held that unmistakable bite of cold anger to it, and the flames before his flared up in response. With each word he spoke Tanya wilted further into herself. "You failed because you put your trust in Zuko. He is weak. He has always been weak. I marked his shame onto his face long ago so that all might see it and know that he is not to be trusted. But you thought you knew better. You thought you knew better than I, his father, what sort of a man he is. Did you think you could walk back in here with him by your side as proof that I was wrong?"
Tanya was deathly pale now, perhaps realising that her life was on the line. "I am so, so sorry my lord." She stuttered. "I-… I didn't think…"
"No, you didn't" Ozai cut her off. He was again silent for a handful of tense seconds, letting Tanya squirm beneath the weight of his disapproval, before letting out a heavy sigh. "But you do not make a habit of failure. And you did succeed in conquering The North Pole, so I am inclined to overlook your failure this once. So long as it is only this once. Am I clear?"
"Perfectly, my lord." Tanya replied quickly, clearly relieved to be out from under his scrutiny.
"Good. Then it is time to turn our attention to other matters." Ozai rang a bell, and immediately the doors swung open as Li and Lo returned, carrying a box between them. They set the box down in front of Tanya, then hobbled over to sit in front of the fire veil once again. "Open it." Ozai commanded.
Tanya did, and her eyes widened at what lay within. Inside was a model ship, though this one unlike any Azula had ever seen before. It had a huge, red bulb at the top that would surely push the rest of it down in water, and a flat base that was awful for steering.
"A hot air balloon!" Tanya whispered reverently.
"You grasp its purpose with a glance?" Li asked incredulously.
"You truly are a prodigy in the arts of flight." Lo finished.
"This technology was recovered from a battle at the Northern Air Temple. A last, unexpected gift from a treacherous inventor." Ozai continued. "As you have grasped, when filled with hot air, this ship will sail through the sky, allowing us to traverse terrain that once would have taken days in mere minutes. As we speak, our factories have begun working overtime in order to produce a fleet of these within the next few months."
Tanya looked up curiously. "So quickly? Why the hurry?"
"Because soon Sozin's Comet will arrive, and the power of every firebender will be magnified tenfold. At that time this fleet will sail above a large chunk of the Earth Kingdom where the resistance against us is strongest, and rain fire down upon their heads, razing the land to ash." Though his face was hidden, Azula could sense her father smiling at the thought. "It will break the back of the Earth Kingdom's war effort, and serve as a warning to any who would think of rebellion in the future. This sky fleet will become the key force for dealing with insurrections in the aftermath of the war, and so fear of its destructive power will be necessary to keep the populace in line until our culture has been fully spread and embraced across the world."
"Scorched earth tactics." Tanya mused contemplatively. "Extreme, but it would be better for everyone to bring this war to a quick end at a moment of strength, no matter the short term loss."
"I am glad you agree." Ozai replied. "Because this sky fleet is so important to both our immediate and future plans, I have decided it will require its own independent armed force directly under my command. The head of this force would be my right hand for the foreseeable future; above even the war council, and second only to myself in authority. This head would need to be someone young enough to dedicate their life to the role; clever enough to devise entirely new battle strategies using aerial manoeuvres; and ruthless enough to use the fleet's power without hesitation wherever needed. Their loyalty would have to be without question, and they would need to be so famous for their competence that none would dare complain about their appointment to such a lofty position."
Azula grit her teeth so hard her jaw started to hurt. No prizes for guessing who that position of power would be bestowed upon. Who else but the famed flying fairy of the Fire Nation met all those criteria so obviously? Tanya seemed to reach that conclusion too, for her face split into a happy grin. "My lord, you honour me. I-…"
"No, I do not. Not yet."
Tanya's smile dropped again in an unspoken question, and the Fire Lord continued. "I said I would not punish your failure, but neither shall I reward it. Your mistake cost the war effort dearly. It is true that you are the best candidate for the position, but until you have made reparations for your failure, you are not worthy of being my right hand."
Ah, so that's where he was going with this! In Azula's brain everything suddenly clicked into place. Father had a mission in mind, something he felt that Tanya was needed for, and was setting up a carrot and stick to control her with. It was no great secret that Tanya desired a high status and rank within the military, so offering her the highest position it was possible to achieve would be an excellent motivator. The underlying threat of losing all that she had obtained so far if she failed would work just as well.
Tanya bowed her head in subservience. "What must I do to make amends, my lord?"
Ozai allowed silence to hang between them again for a few seconds. Yet when he spoke, this time it was not to Tanya. "Azula."
"Yes, father." Azula replied promptly.
"Iroh is a traitor, and your brother Zuko is a failure. I have a task for you."
A sly smile spread across Azula's face as she anticipated his next words. My, this was turning out to be quite a wonderful night after all.
"They cannot be allowed to disgrace the family name any longer. The more they run free, the more dishonour they bring to our bloodline. As heir, it falls to you to rid our family of their shame." Ozai declared sternly. "And it is time that you began to take a more active role in the affairs of court. I charge you with the task of bringing your uncle and brother back home in chains, where they face my judgement for their betrayal of our nation."
Azula dipped her head, masking the pleased curl of her lips. "It will be done, father."
Tanya straightened at having the attention put back on her again.
"It was your mistake in trusting Zuko that allowed this shame to happen in the first place. To fix your mistake, I charge you with serving Azula in her task. You shall follow her orders as if they were my own."
Serve? Tanya was being formally ordered to be her servant! Azula could barely contain herself from cackling with glee. This was the perfect chance to prove her superiority once and for all! Not only would she bring Zuzu and Iroh back to rot in prison, but she could also find a way to finally bring Tanya under her thumb! Then her victory would be truly complete, and nobody would question her rightful place as the next Firelord!
"It will be done, my lord." Tanya replied, shooting a quick glance over to Azula. She was as good as ever at hiding her emotions, but Azula was sure that she must be just burning up inside with envy right now.
"See that it is." Ozai replied. "I want all loose threads taken care of by the time the comet arrives. Nothing must be allowed to prevent the Fire Nation's final victory."
Azula and Tanya rose in unison, taking the clear dismissal for what it was, and followed Li and Lo out of the throne room. The moment the doors slammed shut behind them, Tanya looked over to her. "Hey, Azula-…"
But Azula was already striding away without a word to her room. She did not care for whatever mind games or verbal sparring Tanya wanted to play right now. Already she was drawing up a list of the things she'd need to pack, and hatching the beginnings of a hundred schemes to catch her pathetic brother.
It was her moment to shine now, and Azula couldn't wait to get started!
Tanya watched with a pitying stare as Azula beat a hasty retreat to her room. Poor, proud Azula, rushing away to her room so that nobody would see her cry.
She must be distraught right now. Crushed between the weight of duty to her nation and her love for her brother. How awful must it feel to imagine condemning your own sibling to imprisonment? Tanya's first instinct was to be outraged at Firelord Ozai for placing such an unreasonable demand upon her, but after a few moments of consideration she came to see the logic in his decision. Zuko had betrayed the Fire Nation, and public opinion of him and Iroh was at an all time low. Any soldier Ozai entrusted this task to might ensure that Zuko had an 'accident' on his way home, perhaps even a fatal one. The only one he could completely trust to ensure that his son was safely brought back home was his daughter, even if he would then be forced to lock him in a gilded cage for his crimes.
Was that why he had specifically assigned her to be Azula's subordinate? No doubt he realised that Tanya hated Zuko for betraying her at the North Pole, so putting her in charge was out of the question, but Azula would clearly need some emotional support that only a friend could provide. If only Ty Lee was here: she'd always been the most supportive one in their friend group. Nonetheless Tanya would try her best. Azula was the sort of friend that everyone should have: smart, loyal, and always pushing her to do her best. They hadn't seen each other in months, but the first thing Azula had done was warn her about those dangerous rumours spreading about the truth of Zhao's death. It was heartening to know that the princess was always looking out for her, and so the least she could do was look out for her in return.
Her thoughts trailed to The Firelord as she looked back over her shoulder at the doors to the throne room. Ozai was just as proud and stoic as his daughter, but he must be torn up inside too. First he'd been forced to injure and banish his son for his cowardice, and now was being forced to capture and jail said son again after he'd betrayed his own nation. How ashamed he must be, both of Zuko and of himself, for the things he was doing to his own flesh and blood. Yet he bottled it all up inside without a flinch in order to uphold the laws and justice of his nation. In the history of her old worlds it had been rare to find a king who'd put the laws of their nation before their own personal gain. What a truly selfless man Ozai was.
"Zuko, do you have any idea how much pain you're putting your family through?" She growled quietly, feeling that burning resentment for her old friend grow ever hotter. She would not physically harm Zuko, not when it would upset Azula so much, but somehow she was going to make him pay for all this. "What would your mother think of you if she were still here? She'd be ashamed of the man you're becoming."
Speaking of family, there was somewhere she probably ought to visit while she was ashore, and soon if she might be setting again in a few days. Returning to her guest room in the palace, Tanya shrugged off her armour and pulled on a long, hooded black cloak, then stole away into the night.
She needn't have been worried about hiding her usually distinctive hair, because half the city seemed to have painted their hair in tribute to hers tonight. It was all sorts of flattering, and slightly embarrassing. While it was natural to celebrate military heroes in a time of war, she'd have been lying if she said she hadn't expected some level of resentment for her rather disrespectful use of the bodies of fallen soldiers. It seemed the ministry of propaganda had been hard at work suppressing the details of that particular aspect of her plan.
After nearly an hour of walking, Tanya found herself upon the steps of a huge, traditional Fire Nation temple. She had never really considered anywhere in this world a home, but this place had been something like a permanent office space to her before she'd gone to the Royal Academy and later the navy. It would be very inconsiderate of her not to pay back the expenses the fire temple had spent on raising her now that she could.
She hammered sharply on the door, and waited until she faintly heard the sound of footsteps approaching on the other side. The door opened, revealing a short, portly yet jolly looking woman in a nun's habit on the other side. The moment the nun caught a glimpse of a lock of blonde hair hanging down from beneath her hood, she let out an explosive, irritated sigh. "Oh feh' Agni's sake, not another one! Listen luv' if you lot think you can waltz up here claimin' to be the poor lass' long lost mother, I swear to the spirits I'll take ma' slipper and leave a mark on the back of yer' 'ead so red it'll make the moon jealous, you-…"
Tanya flipped her hood back, a small smile crossing her lips as the nun's eyes widened with recognition.
"Good evening, Sister Vula."
Vula was one of the servants at the fire temple. She was not a firebender, but arguably she and the other sisters did more work maintaining the temple and its day-to-day activities than the sages actually did. Spirits forbid that the wizened sages took time away from meditation to sweep their own floors after all. It was Vula and the sisters who'd actually looked after her and the other children as they were growing up, excluding the firebending training of course.
"Lil' Tanya!" Before Tanya could say another word, Vula had swept her up into a strong, hearty hug. "Look at ye'! You've grown into such a fine young lassie! It's been so long!"
It had been a rather long time, hadn't it? Since she'd left to board at the Royal Academy for Girls in fact. Tanya had never felt a particular emotional attachment to this place, but seeing Sister Vula like this made her feel a stab of guilt for not having so much as written a letter. "Yes, well… umm… it's been a busy few years."
Vula laughed it off. "Oh, don't you fret petal. It's always the same with you young 'uns, running off without a trace for the first few years the moment you get your freedom. We're used to it, and we don't blame you. Life's an adventure, and those from this temple have to take every opportunity they can get ta' make somethin' of themselves. But they always find their way back again eventually, once they've found their place in the world." She looked at her knowingly. "And I daresay you've found yours. You're the darling of the nation, rubbin' shoulders with generals and princesses. You've inspired many a 'wee laddie and lass around 'ere."
"I'm glad to hear that. That's part of the reason I'm here actually," Tanya removed a box from beneath the folds of her robes that jingled heavily with the sound of metal coins. "It pays very well to be an admiral, and I'd like to think this contribution will go towards helping the next set of children from this temple find their place in the world."
Vula sniffed tearfully and pulled her into another hug. "Oh Tanya, 'yer always were a sweet little thing." She took the box and tucked it into her habit. "I'll tuck this away somewhere the sages won't find it, save these pretty pennies for food and clothing. Speaking of food, why not come in for a hot bowl of soup."
"Thank you, but I should pass. I'm expected at the palace, and if I'm gone for too long-…"
"Oh pish those nobles and their la-de-da parties. They don't get to hog you all to themselves on your big celebration night." Vula replied. "Besides, those little wafers on fancy trays they call food ain't 'nough for a growing young girl, especially one who works so hard! Come on in and get some real food down 'yer neck."
Before Tanya could get a word in, she was all but dragged inside. Vula led her through the empty corridors until they reached a small servant's kitchen, and plopped her down on a stool while she hurried over to a large iron pot on the stove."
"'Fraid that most everyone else is out celebrating tonight. Just 'lil old me and the sages too old for partying about." Vula explained. "But everyone's gonna want a bellyfull 'o soup when they get back, so I'll be keepin' this pot bubbling away all night long."
She poured two generous ladles of thick soup into a wooden bowl and set it in front of Tanya. Ah, what an unexpectedly nostalgic smell. Bread and soup had been for dinner most days of the week when she was younger, and though it was made with the cheapest ingredients available, the sisters had discovered some mysterious trick to make it taste not too bad. Tanya hadn't realised that she missed the taste until she brought a spoonful up to her lip.
"So what was with the reaction at the door? Have you been getting many blonde-haired visitors lately?" She asked between mouthfuls.
Vula sighed heavily. "Aye petal. Since news got back about your victory up north everyone's been talking about you, and it wasn't long until word got around that you grew up here. We've had two or three harlots rockin' up a day, claiming 'ta be 'yer long lost mother. I guess they think it's an easy way 'ta get rich." She snorted derisively. "Course, they all make the mistake 'a painting their hair gold. Can't say I remember much 'bout the girl that dropped 'ya off, but her hair was black as everyone else's. I'd have remembered gold."
Tanya raised an eyebrow curiously. "You saw my mother?"
"Only for a few seconds. She knocked on the door and fled down the steps, so I only saw the back of her from a distance. She was a young thing; too young 'ta handle the responsibilities of parenthood alone. It's a story we've seen over and over again these past 'undred years: one parent goes to war, falls in battle, and the other finds they just can't manage on their own."
Tanya had never paid much thought to who her birth parents in this world would have been. She'd had a mother and father in her first world, and had been mature enough to never need one in both worlds she'd been reincarnated into. Still, now that the subject had been brought up and she'd made her own life for herself, she couldn't deny feeling just a touch curious. "I suppose I must have inherited my hair from my father then." She mused, then smiled sardonically. "I suppose that rules out all the rumours of Zhao being my father."
Vula chuckled good-naturedly. "Aye petal, word around town these days is that you're the child of Agni himself: born with his sunlight in your hair. The priests have been more than happy to help that little rumour spread." She hummed thoughtfully. "Although I guess that would explain the blanket."
"Blanket?" Tanya asked.
"The one 'yer were wrapped in when we found 'ya at the doorstep. Odd looking thing it were. Hold on a 'mo, I'm sure we stored it away somewhere in the cupboards."
Vula disappeared out the door for a moment, and reappeared clutching a pale yellow blanket. As she handed it over to her, Tanya immediately registered the familiar texture of ramie: a textile almost exclusively produced in the Fire Nation. Yet the style was far from what she had seen in the Fire Nation before. If she had to draw equivalents, the art style in the Fire Nation was similar to that of feudal japan in her original world. This however looked more like something she'd seen in museum exhibits on Aztecs: a pattern of bold lines that formed geometric shapes just as much with the empty space between them as with the ink itself. The blanket displayed two dragons in zigzagging serpentine shapes; one in red ink, the other in blue, spiralling like a yin and yang.
"I've never seen anything like it." She murmured, honestly quite astounded by what she was seeing. Since the war began, the Fire Nation had been very strict on pruning anything they considered to not be a part of their "proper culture" from the homeland. As far as she knew, from the capital city to the smallest islands, everywhere produced the same style of art. Either this was made pre-war and had been remarkably well cared for, or had been made somewhere that had been able to keep its culture hidden from the rest of the nation. "I wonder where it's from?"
"'Fraid I've no clue either, petal." Vula replied. "But if you'd like, you're welcome to keep it. Maybe it'll help you track down where your parents were from."
Tanya considered it for a second, then shook her head and handed the blanket back. "Thank you, but no. I've never needed parents, so knowing who abandoned me isn't going to change much anyway. I think I'd rather focus on the future than the past."
Vula nodded. "Suppose that's the pragmatic thing to do. Alright then petal, I understand." She whisked away Tanya's now empty soup bowl, bringing the jolly smile back to her face. "Now then, why don't you share some stories with me about all the adventures you've had."
Aang was running as fast as the wind could carry him, but the maze of ice he was trapped in seemed to stretch on eternally into the distance.
Crimson moonlight bathed the icy labyrinth, dying the walls and floor so red they looked like they were coated in blood. No, when he looked closer, Aang realised that they actually were bleeding. Frozen within the ice, he could just about make out the faces of warriors from the northern tribes, their expressions trapped forever in a rictus of pain. Their bodies were still and unmoving, but their eyes turned to follow him as he ran past, silently judging him for their failure to save them.
And inhuman laugh, like the roar of a gigantic beast, echoed out across the maze behind him, and Aang whimpered in terror as he looked back over his shoulder. A towering giant of fire, its skin roiling like molten lava and its hair a wild web of beams of sunlight, stomped after him: incinerating the prisoners trapped within the maze's walls as it passed. Aang raced around a corner, only to stop in his tracks as he came face to face with a dead end.
"Aang! Wake up!"
Aang looked to the side, only to find Katara trapped in the walls of the maze next to him. He was pounding on the walls with his fist, trying to break through, but the ice would not budge.
"Aang! Help us!"
More pounding sounded out from behind him, and he turned around to see Yue and Sokka frozen in the walls on the other side. The temperature began to rapidly grow hotter as the fire giant loomed closer, their footsteps echoing louder and louder from back around the corner.
"Don't leave us to die Aang!"
"Save us, Avatar!"
Bullets of sweat broke out across Aang's skin as the heat grew unbearably hot. A fierce hiss of steam caught his ears as a huge, fiery hand came around the corner and gripped the wall.
"It was your duty to protect them!"
"Don't fail us again!"
A great, grinning face peered around the corner, molten lips peeled back into an amused snarl. Now that he was close enough to make out the feminine shape of its face, Aang recognised the giant.
"FOUND YOU, AVATAR!" The fire giant bellowed in Tanya's voice. Aang backed away, but with the walls of ice surrounding him there was nowhere to run! He was trapped, powerless, helpless before the giant as it reached out a hand towards him.
"Wake up Aang! Wake up!"
Aang's eyes shot open as he bolted up with a gasp, heaving in greedy, gulping gasps of the cool night's air. Katara was at his side, the cloth in her hand drenched with his sweat, and Sokka a few feet away with a waterskin at the ready.
"It's okay Aang, you're safe. Breathe." She said gently, carefully laying a hand on his back and soothingly massaging the space between his shoulders. Her touch helped to calm him, and as Aang continued to breathe deeply he felt his nerve slowly begin to relax. After about a minute his heart stopped pounding in his ears, and Aang exhaled deeply and took a deep swig from Sokka's offered waterskin.
"Thanks guys." He whispered meekly, shifting from his sitting position into the cross-legged pose he usually used for meditation. Sokka and Katara shuffled their sleeping bags over, sitting on either side of him. They didn't say a word, nor did they look at him with any sort of judgement or pity. They simply let him take his time.
It had been ten days since they'd left the survivors of the battle in a friendly village and travelled on to the Earth Kingdom in search of a new master for Aang. Yet although time and a change of scenery had helped a little, it was still rare for a night to go by without at least one of them waking up screaming in the night. Nightmares had plagued the party ever since the siege of the north.
Sokka's nightmares always featured Yue. They would be together in some sort of tense situation; chased by a mass of dark smoke, a wave of inky water, or some other elemental force of evil, and Yue would turn to him for help. Yet Sokka would always betray her: tripping her if they were running, pushing her if they were climbing, or even literally stabbing her in the back on one occasion. Then he would run, turning his back on her screams of betrayal as the darkness swallowed her up.
Katara's nightmares featured Master Pakku, their mother, Yagoda, and other people that she looked up to as symbols of wisdom and teaching. She would be fighting by their sides against hordes of enemies, trusted with protecting their backs, when all of a sudden her control over the water would suddenly just snap. No matter how much she fought and flailed her bending would not work, just like it had when the moon had turned red, and she would watch in horror as the enemies bypassed her and surrounded her mentors from behind. Sometimes they would just capture them, other times they would attack them, but always her mentors would look at her with blame and disappointment before they were taken away.
Aang's nightmares were of prisons, cages and traps: all filled with either the warriors of the northern tribes or the airbenders he'd grown up with. There was a huge monster of some kind that prowled about devouring them, and no matter what Aang did he could never defeat it. The monster, which often bore a disturbing likeness to a certain golden haired firebender, would shrug off his efforts as it devoured the people he wanted to protect. Then it would set his eyes on him, and no matter how hard he ran it would always catch him eventually.
It was Katara who'd finally pulled them together after a week of sleepless nights and declared that something needed to be done. Yagoda the healer had taught her a little about the northern tribe's techniques for healing the mind, and so she had decided that, when one of them had a nightmare, the others would sit and listen to them without interrupting with their own thoughts or opinions. It had been a little awkward at first, but after that initial hurdle they'd all begun to find it quite nice to get things off their chest.
It had been impossible to miss how often Tanya played a prominent role in all of their nightmares. It was her laughter that echoed out at Sokka from the darkness, her face Aang's monsters wore, and it hadn't taken much soul searching to figure out why. Zuko, Zhao and all the other servants of the Fire Nation they'd met so far had been a threat, and sometimes quite terrifying, but never something that they couldn't overcome with strength, courage and ingenuity. Tanya had been the same at first, back when she was just the little girl with the strangely coloured hair trailing along at Zhao's side. But not anymore. During the siege of the north Tanya had proven that she was capable of breaking an entire nation, and was willing to murder not just her enemies, but even her own allies, to get what she wanted. All their courage and effort hadn't been enough to even delay her; the only reason they'd managed to escape was because Zuko had surprisingly chosen the good of the world over his own obsession. Who knew if they'd get so lucky next time? For the first time since their journey began they'd encountered someone who was just too powerful for them to overcome, and knowing that person had sworn to hunt them to the ends of the earth made them paranoid that she could leap out from the darkness at any moment.
"How do we stop her?" Aang whispered miserably, huddling a little more into himself as the memory of those cold, golden eyes flashed through his memory. He felt so naive to have once believed that maybe she could have been a friend.
Katara hummed gently, continuing to rub soothing circles on his back. "Together. Maybe she is too much for us right now, but that won't be the case for long. Look at how quickly we mastered waterbending. Once you've mastered all four elements we'll face her again, and we won't be alone."
"Besides, nobody is invincible." Sokka chimed in, nudging him gently with his shoulder. "Even the big bad Tanya has her weaknesses. We just have to figure out what they are."
Weaknesses? Someone Aang struggled to reconcile the girl who'd made the moon itself bleed with any sort of weakness. "Roku warned me about her, back at the fire temple. He said she was something from outside the natural cycle of reincarnation: the agent of an invasive spirit from another world. What if she really is a demon like people say she is?"
Sokka snorted derisively. "Sounds pretty accurate to me."
Katara shot him an unimpressed look, but didn't speak up to deny it.
"But demon or not, Katara's right that you won't face her alone." Sokka continued, pulling him into a one-armed hug. "We'll be right beside you all the way."
Together. That was a comforting thought. Katara leaned into the hug as well, and the three of them enjoyed a brief moment of companionable silence as the last of Aang's tension untangled itself. No matter if the future held Zuko, Tanya or the Firelord himself in store for them, they'd face the enemy together.
"… report that Agna Qel'a has fallen, and with it the Northern Water Tribe's connection to the wider world. Although some resistance remains, it is not expected that…"
Long Feng, the Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and leader of the Dai Li, folded the letter up and dropped it on his desk, his face an impassive mask. The loss of yet another ally in this war was a problem, but also an opportunity in disguise. With the Water Tribes now truly out of the picture, only the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation remained. If the Fire Nation exhausted itself against the Earth Kingdom's defences, then the Earth Kingdom could at that point counter-attack and regain all the territory they'd lost, then go on to take over the Fire Nation in the process. There was no obligation for them to return the other territories captured by the Fire Nation to their original owners at that point. The Earth Kingdom could become the one and only kingdom in the world, and all under the excuse of protecting themselves against the Fire Nation's aggression.
Yet this Admiral Tanya could prove to be a huge thorn in that plan. If she could conquer the greatest city in the north on the night of a full moon, perhaps she might also be capable of breaking through the walls of Ba Sing Se? General Iroh had managed it once after all, and by all accounts this girl was just as clever a strategist as him, although far, far more ruthless.
A countermeasure against her was needed.
Long Feng stood and left his office, striding down the dark corridors of the hidden base beneath Lake Laogai. He passed row after row of heavy metals doors, many of which had flickers of lights and the muffled sounds of chanting spilling out from the cracks at the bottom, until he reached a door bigger than any other. Above the door hung a simple wooden sign with one word painted on it in bold red letters.
Years ago the military had stumbled across a miracle: a young earthbender girl with so much raw power that she had literally split a mountain in half before she'd even had a lick of training. To see her in action was like witnessing a natural disaster, a feat of strength only The Avatar could match. With discipline and guidance she could have been the Earth Kingdom's new superweapon. Yet, to everyone's great dismay, the girl hadn't shown so much as the slightest interest in learning how to control her powers, only how to unleash them against the Fire Nation. She was a walking wrecking ball of hate and fury; a mad berserker who just wanted to wildly throw her powers around and destroy whoever stood in her way. Long Feng had been patient for a year, given her time to realise the importance of proper discipline, but when the girl had still proven unwilling to even try to control herself he'd been forced to take extreme action. The girl was a double-edged sword after all: a walking disaster that could easily break open a hole in the walls with one of her temper tantrums. If she would not control herself, then for the good of the nation someone else would have to do it for her.
And so one day one of his agents had slipped a sleeping drug into her drink, stolen her away to Lake Laogai, and Long Feng had covered up her disappearance with a story about her being sent away on a top secret mission. Ever since then she had been confined to treatment within this room. Progress on her treatment had been unusually slow due to her stubborn nature, but recent reports had claimed to have made a breakthrough recently. Long Feng pushed open the heavy doors and stepped inside.
The room was pitch black, devoid of any illumination, save for a dimly lit lantern that slowly spun around a metal track, revealing the room to be coated entirely with metal. Within the metal track sat three Dai Li agents dressed identically, and just outside, chained to a heavy iron chair, was a teenage girl with messy brown hair, her face pale, gaunt and covered with sweat.
"I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se." The brainwashers intoned in unison.
"I'm-… I'm Joo Dee. W- welcome to Ba Sing Se…" The girl repeated.
"We're so lucky to have our walls to create order."
"We're so lucky to have our walls to create o-… to create order."
"There is no war in Ba Sing Se."
"There is no war in-… no war in-… no-…" The girl stumbled over her words, blinking rapidly as a flash of fury danced across her expression. "War-… WAR! TANYA! I HAVE TO KILL HER! I SWEAR I'LL KILL HER! I-…"
"I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se." The brainwashers repeated.
"NO!" The girl roared. "I'M MARY! I'M-…"
"I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se."
"I'M-…" The girl's voice broke into a sobbing gasp, and she shook her head.
"I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se. I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se. I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se." The brainwashers chanted over and over again, the lantern spinning ever onwards around them.
"I-…" The girl went still, her head dipping down like a puppet with its strings cut so that her messy hair covered her face. For a moment she was deathly still, but as the lantern rocked past her face she slowly tilted her head up again, revealing an eerily wide smile fixed across her lips. She stared back at her captors with glassy, vacant eyes, and when she spoke her voice had an emotionless, robotic tone to it.
"I'm Joo Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se."
The characters are in position, the stage is set, and the next act is ready to begin. In our next chapter we will be beginning Book 2: Earth. As many people guessed, Tanya will be part of Azula's team, and so most of the action will be following their storyline. I'm not going to spoil which ones, but some of the decisions Tanya made during Book 1 are going to have some consequences.
Apologies for the terrible attempt at writing an accent. Reading it back to myself, it sounded like an unholy mix between Yorkshire and Scottish. Don't worry, I'm not planning to write any characters with thick accents again any time soon.
See you all next chapter for the start of a whole new arc.