The Blue Rose
I do not own Avatar: the Last Airbender
I do not own "The Black Rose" by Thomas B. Costain
He hated it when it rained.
But then again, he supposed the world didn't really revolve around what he wanted. If it did, he probably wouldn't be in this position, wouldn't be standing beneath this single lamp on the side of this muddy road in the middle of a storm-ridden night and waiting for a woman who didn't love him. Maybe he wouldn't have taken Azula's word that she was coming on this miserable night; maybe he would've scoffed and lit his hand to flame and burned the letter right then and there. Maybe he would be back in the barroom, drinking his fill with the other outcasts and waiting for a barfight with some earthbender soldier. Hell, that's what all the others were doing. Well, Jet would be looking for the barfight. SmellerBee would be arguing with Longshot again, who would respond with that silence in his eyes; were you hitting on that waitress? I know you were! Am I not good enough for you anymore? I grew my hair out for you, I stopped knife-fighting, I learned how to cook, for Christ's sake - don't look at me like that, Longshot!
He pulled his dark, discolored cloak up around his shoulders and peered off down the road, waiting in growing earnest for the grunt of a rhino, or the click of an ostrich-horse, or the whirling, annoying thunder of some mechanical escort – anything to signal that she was here, that she was coming, that Azula's letter hadn't been some cruel lie. Annoyed at the growing chill in his drenched bones he lit a small flame within his palm and huddled around it, shivering, still staring out into the dark.
He was a firebender. A firebender. What did that mean? It meant he was second-rate, second-class, a mediocre citizen of the Union who would never be permitted in a court or noble hall. It meant he had to spend his days hearing lectures from Hindu philosophers, taking notes from dusty old history books, attending the Academy run by all those old idiots who could barely read over the table.
His uncle had paid for it all. An education, he told him. Go to school, learn history, politics, economics, swordplay – it will give you a better start on life. I know you want to learn firebending – yes, I'll teach you – but don't do it in public, you know how those nobles can get. Concentrate on your studies, Zuko, and one day you may receive the Agni with pride…
The Agni. His inheritance. The so-called kingdom of wealth his father owned, the secret lands and deeds and great chests of gold. The fabulous wonders the Fire Lord had possessed – that legendary character, that great-great-great whatever of Zuko's, the man they stamped out in all the Earth Kingdom history books and argued never existed.
His uncle had told him about the Fire Lord. How once, long ago, there was no Union beneath the Chosen King. There had been nations, he said. Temples on the tops of mountains, where airbender monks spoke with the spirits and rode the clouds like eagles; impenetrable walls of stone and curling, beautiful monuments raised up by armies of earthbenders; caverns of ice, where waterbenders sang with such unearthly voices that the sky cried from its sweetness; and firebenders, brave and strong, dancing in the shadows of smoking volcanoes and spinning great pillars of flame.
At one time, the Fire Nation ruled the world, you know. It was terrible for the other nations; the armies were ruthless, and the Fire Lord too strong. The Avatar stopped them. Gave his life for it, even. Wanted peace, they told me. But the Earth Kingdom – the Earth Kingdom…vengeance, Zuko, is a terrible thing, a terrible, terrible thing…
Maybe that's why the earthbender spat at Zuko's feet when he walked by into the bar, seeing him huddled around his own flame. Zuko ignored him, but realizing how very obvious his parentage was he doused the flame between his fingers and, instead, blew hot breathe against his palms.
He didn't care about the Agni. Azula could have it – could have all the trinkets and coins and stupid treasures that his father had horded. His father hadn't spoken to him in five years; five long years, after he had defied his lunatic idea to fuel an army against the Chosen King. Zuko knew that Ozai had gone mad; all he spoke of was old stories of the Fire Nation, old legends, glory days and great battles and triumph. But the coldness he was treated with now still hurt, and though his uncle tried to persuade his father to give up the vow of silence he would not. Refuse to speak to his own bastard son of Agni.
Something clicked gently down the road and Zuko froze beneath the lamp light. Had Azula told the truth? Was she really coming? His musings over the Agni fell away and looked out into the darkness, blindly hopeful.
She was riding an ostrich-horse; a fair, dark-feathered creature with rather temperamental eyes. Her escort consisted of several earthbenders, mounted on like steeds, and a pair or rhino-riders. A carriage was coming behind her that, no doubt, carried her wordless, conceited parents within its gold-trimmed sides and was so dry inside that the red velvet would not have a spot on it. Zuko swallowed and watch her come, half-shadowed by her cloak, her dark hair hanging down across her breast.
One of the earthbenders suddenly raised his hand and the whole procession came to a halt. He pulled a great, soaked paper from his parcels and looked over it, trying to shield it from the rain but failing miserably. For a few moments he studied it, looked around without success, and then finally folded it back up into his pocket. Zuko's heart went racing as the man spotted him and sloshed over to him through the mud, obviously irritated.
"You there! How do we get to the Niraj estate from here?"
Zuko's chest tightened. It was her. She was the heiress of the Niraj, she was the daughter of the Lordship, she was the one who's head was turning towards him and looking at him with that bueatiful, yet inexplicably indifferent glance.
"Zuko? Zuko of Agni?" the usual tone of sarcasm entered her voice and her calm, careless eyes rose a little beneath a mocking smile. "Go inside and ask the barman, soldier. I want to speak to this man."
Quickly and obediently, the earthbender removed himself from their presence and disappeared into the bar. Zuko waited in unbearable suspense as her pale, soft features became visible beneath the lamp light; black eyes, white skin, black hair – it was an alluring contrast obstructed only by the delicate curve of her full, pink lips, a sight that made Zuko's mouth go dry. Unable to think of anything to say, he watched her ghostly beauty as she approached, never dismounting from the ostrich-horse, her gaze soft but unreadable.
"You're soaked," she said suddenly. "You should be at the Academy, shouldn't you?"
"I received news you were riding through tonight," said Zuko quickly, before he could stop himself. "I…I wanted to see if you were well."
"So you waited in the rain for me?" there was a selfishly pleased tone in her voice that, had it been from anyone other than her, would have sent Zuko raging. But all she had to do was flip a few stray locks of dark, endless hair from her face to make him forgive her. "How flattering. You're loyalty is as unchanging as you are, Sahadev Zuko."
It was a coupled insult and compliment; this was the confusing skill she had that made Zuko despise her and want her all in one moment. Sahadev was great praise; but the note on his loyalty was a degrading reminder that he had spent the last four years hopelessly obsessed over her and rotting away at that damned Academy. He was unable to respond and stood, quite idiotically still, for a few moments, continuing to get drenched. She was smiling down at him in her hypnotizing, superior way, and made it his head dizzy.
"How is your father?" asked Zuko suddenly, hoping to steer the conversation away from himself. Her miniscule smile fell and she turned away.
"As unpleasant and irritable as ever. He refuses to leave his carriage until we reach Niraj."
"He is ill?"
"Ill with his own pettiness, perhaps. He does not wish to be at the mercy of your kind; he says he cannot trust the citizens. He has come to think he is the king himself, you know."
If she had been the type to laugh, he knew she would have at this moment. He said nothing; the joke inspired no mirth in him, since it was overshadowed by the two words she had, once again, so slyly slipped into her sentence: your kind. The reminder that he was unsuited to love her, the heiress of Niraj. He was Zuko, who's father would not speak to him, who's mother was out of her mind, who's parentage was questioned at every turn. He was the dirt beneath her feet.
"You should go back inside, Zuko. You look half-frozen."
At this point the earthbender had come back out with a few scribbled lines over his map and a ready stride. He signaled to her that he knew the way back and she nodded in a gracious fashion that gave Zuko a small glimpse of her pale, beautiful neck beneath her cloak. Trying to stand up straight and look more noble than he felt, he bowed to her, his boots all coated in mud.
"Have a safe journey. I hope to see you again soon, Mai of Niraj."
"Perhaps. But I do hope that scar looks less appalling the next time. Farewell, my Sahadev Zuko."
Then the procession pulled out, clopped by, and vanished into the night, leaving Zuko beneath the porch light in a dazed wonder of hating and loving the woman who had just ridden by.