"Whatever you are, be a good one."
The trick to weaponry is to never be decided until the movement is complete. Mai knows this. It's how her blades seem to change course while still in the air, how her target never sees it coming, always looking to the wrong side for the attack while their fate is sealed with nothing but a soft rustle of air or cloth to herald their passing. It's no different now. Even while she extends her arm in the fluid killing stroke, she is still deciding. Even while the red silk gently parts with almost medical precision. Even while steel slides, cool and slick, neatly between ribs to its pulsing target, even now she is still calculating.
Azula's eyes go wide, but Mai is sure that this isn't from the shock of betrayal, but rather the surprise of the imminence of death, or perhaps simply the coldness of metal against skin. After all, Azula knows her, knew what she was even when she brought her back into her inner fold. Azula knew the rules of the game, just as she knew that she had asked an asp to share her quarters.
The situation had simply arisen, and Mai has simply acted as could be expected. They were losing. Or rather, Azula was losing, and that was all that mattered, really. She is, after all, the reason for the battle in the first place, on so many levels. The airbender and the waterbender and both firebenders and the earthbender had all closed in – Azula was being attacked by Nature itself. A more philosophical or snide soul might have noted a certain poetic justice that all the forces of nature were up in arms against the one most recently to blame for the imbalance between them. Mai simply saw the almost certain outcome and the opening in her princess's guard. She made a decision.
So she calculates and considers throughout the infinite seconds it takes for her expert muscles to complete the lithe movement, but once it's done, once the steel pulls back into the air with a whisper soft sucking, rasping sound, once it's over, she does not dwell. What's done is done. Azula's end isn't…regrettable, per se, but perhaps it could be….unfortunate. Mai has no patience for regret, for guilt, or for mourning, and she sees no reason to change her policy now.
Azula's hand goes to her chest automatically, scarlet blood blossoming between her fingers and getting lost in the folds of her robe, as she turns – still so inhumanly graceful – to face Mai. Mai doesn't think this is so much about facing her killer as it is about facing something familiar. Whether this is Mai or the setting sun, she can't be sure, but she reaches out and grasps Azula's arms all the same, slowing letting her sink to her knees. Azula would have tolerated no irony over her death, so it was lucky – if you could call it that – that Mai had stabbed her in the heart and not the back. (If Mai – and Azula for that matter - had been raised differently, she might see the irony in that as well).
Azula's eyes are lit up and given unexpected depth by the sun's final rays – like pools of crystalline water over gold velvet. They stare at and yet completely through Mai's eyes like pale topaz, like white wine. Mai's eyes have always interested Azula, mostly because they are inferior to her own and yet still wholly fascinating – a trend in Mai that may have been largely responsible for their friendship.
Mai doesn't give much thought to life after death, but she thinks about it now. For Azula. If the princess were to be reincarnated, the theory seemed to be that once she reached a humane body, she was to remain in it or pass into some sort of enlightened state. Neither seems appropriate for the woman she holds now, dying but still regal. She has also heard that if a person has committed heinous crimes as a human, they can be demoted in their reincarnation. But Mai doesn't think that will, theoretically, happen in Azula's case. After all, the whole point of incarnation is to live up to the full potential of that form. Azula is a princess. A leader. A killer. She is an exquisite living weapon. She has perfected that form, so there is no reason for her soul to be treated otherwise. Still, Mai is no deity, and if Azula has to go back a few steps on the ladder of incarnation, she hopes for Azula's sake that she may come back as something that she will easily excel at. A cougar, perhaps, or a leopard, or a wolf. Mai has no doubt that Azula would quickly rise through the ranks of predators to reclaim her place as ruler.
If there is a heaven, on the other hand, Mai thinks that in Azula's case it might be something of a rebirth. Ursa would be there, too, and maybe in that next life she can be the one the first Fire Princess loves best. This is not something Azula would wish for herself, so it is something Mai must imagine for her. She owes her that much, she thinks. She has just killed her, after all.
The sun streaming through the open space between the columns illuminates the fine hairs that have come loose from her pristine topknot, making them seem like threads of gold woven in with her hair (which looks more like a rich brown in this light than the supple black Mai is used to) and her eyelashes are soft and downy as they closed over those perfect eyes without the expected note of finality. Mai lowers her body slowly to rest on the now scorched marble before straightening.
The elements in human form stare back at her with obvious shock. The boy monk's face is a mixture of relief and grief and…not disappointment, but a there is a certain sense of anti-climax. He has probably been preparing for the battle with the fire princess for months, if not years – or centuries for that matter. He has probably contemplated his own death, she muses, since it was Azula, after all. And now here they are. At a standstill.
The water master, the blue girl, looks at them with a strange air of…consuming regret. There is the classically ideal idea of the senseless loss of life and waste of talent, but Mai has lived in court her whole life and she knows well that the high, high position she held in that court is not lost on present company. The fire prince – no, the Fire Lord now, she supposes – stands next to the Water Tribe girl. The implications of their current state are not lost on any of them.
Speaking of Zuko, he seems…blank. Numb, Mail supposes. He is looking not at Azula, but at the empty air where her body had been moments before. He is still processing this. He is desperately trying to master that compartmentalization he is so famous for. For lack of anything better to look at, his eyes – gold, always gold - slide to Ty Lee. She is crying. Softly, and gently, which is unusual for her, normally so prone to wails and streaming tears and heaving breathes. The acrobat's cheeks are slick, but her shoulders are still.
She isn't crying for Azula, Mai knows, not exactly. Rather she is mourning the remarkable and terrifying woman in the only way she can, in the only way they have been able to know her or hold any affection for her at all: in pieces. In fragments. She is crying for Azula when she slept, and for Azula when she first woke up, her feature still soft and almost blurred from sleep. She cries for Azula in Earth Kingdom clothes that don't suit her, whose coloring is just unflattering enough to make her appear a little more human. She cries for Azula who can't cook and who will honestly and truly behead anyone who claims differently (not that they would). She is crying for the "maybe" that those fragments make up. The possibilities. The "what if" of their whole lives, laid out before them on the floor, blood slowly inching closer and closer to Mai, who doesn't try to edge away or even tug at the hem of her robes.
Her eyes, lingering on Ty Lee, become aware of the second pair of blue eyes on the other side of the performer. The Water Tribe boy – young man, she guesses – appraises her with the cool calculation of a warrior, and Mai recognizes a kindred spirit of sorts. They each understand the position she has just put them in. The leaders of the ragtag heroes are far too pure, too moral, too good to kill Mai, not after she has just handed them the Fire Nation on a silver platter. But she is completely and totally dangerous, and they know it. A woman who can kill her own ruler and friend will kill an avatar or a bender of any element. He knows it. She knows it. She sees glaciers she has only read about in those eyes, but she also sees an endless labyrinth of possibilities for death and success in equal parts. Although success in and with what, she isn't sure of as yet. She honestly doesn't want to think about it just now. But she will. And soon. Because Mai is what she is – a flourisher hidden behind the guise of a survivor. And she is a damn good one.