Title: Ursa Major
Rated: K+ (PG)
Summary: Ursa didn't want to get married, and she didn't want to secure Ozai's place on the throne... but we all must make sacrifices for the people we love.
Spoilers: None, unless you haven't seen Zuko Alone in Book 2.
A/N: Greatly inspired by the myth of how Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the constellations, obviously) got up into the sky. I love ancient myths – they're so much fun!
Ursa was not one who spent her time in spinning soft fibers of wool, or in arranging her hair in different styles. She was a warrior, wearing her tunic pinned together with a brooch, her tresses carelessly caught back by a white ribbon, and carrying in her hand a light javelin or her bow. (1)
She was undoubtedly beautiful, and when it came time for Prince Ozai to choose a bride of noble blood, her family insisted that she go to the palace to try her luck. She resisted at the beginning, but she knew the honor that such a marriage would bring her family and went to the palace on the appointed day. She stood among a score of other young hopefuls, each with rich families, noble bloodlines or important relations.
Prince Ozai passed each one without a second glance, frowning coldly at each overdone face. He did not stop to ask questions, nor did he circle any of them like a hawk as his brother had done – he seemed eager to get the ordeal over with and quickly.
He stopped at Ursa and her heart froze in horror as his cold eyes bore deeply into her own. He nodded to a royal assistant and back to her before leaving.
"I'll take that one," he said as though picking out a piece of fruit for a less-than-important occasion.
Without further fuss, he left. The assistant stepped forward and bowed over Ursa's hand, unsmiling.
"This way to your quarters, ma'am," he said importantly. She followed him through a thick gray cloud of haziness as the assistant explained traditional royal weddings to her.
Ozai had very little to do with his wife; he insisted that she come to political meetings and balls, but she was allowed only to sit and look beautiful beside him. She was no longer permitted to hunt – he insisted that it was not honorable for a princess to "degrade herself to such lowly levels when she could be doing something useful for her country."
He always stressed the word 'useful' as if she was nothing more than a beast of burden keeping him from getting any work done. She offered more than once to assist him in any way she could – as is the honorable thing to do when you're married – but he scowled and insisted that he needed help from nobody.
She learned quickly to stay out of his way, and things went smoothly enough for the first few weeks. However, he finally decided that if he was going to be married to her, he might as well use her as much as he could.
He raped her, and though she resisted him as far as a woman could, (2) he had his way. He began to do so periodically and eventually, she bore him a son. He was ornery during her pregnancy, because he could not have his pleasure lest he injured his powerful young heir and took to verbally abusing her instead.
She was not fond of this, but preferred it to his former actions and neither said nor did anything to stop it.
When she gave birth to their child, he was small and weak. Both Prince Ozai and Fire Lord Azulon were furious and immediately decided that Ursa was to blame – she insisted that the child would grow up to be a perfectly capable fighter like his noble ancestry (she knew this compliment would add points in her favor) and that he would make a wonderful son.
Azulon said nothing and merely left in disgust, but Ozai stayed a few moments longer.
"Name the worthless brat," he spat. "And then we can get to work creating a more powerful heir."
He too left, and Ursa held her baby boy to her breast lovingly. She stroked his tiny cheek, but he remained silent. She kissed his forward and whispered soothing words in his ear.
He squirmed, but still made not a noise. Ursa thought long and hard for a name as she rocked him softly, and finally came to a decision.
"Zuko," she murmured. "Be the resurrected rule (3) of this nation; bring peace and balance to the world, and show your father that you're anything but worthless."
Finally, the youngling began to cry loudly and for the first time in a long while, Ursa felt at peace with the world. She rocked her child slowly and sung a soothing lullaby to ease him into pleasant dreams.
Prince Ozai began his attempts at a potent heir once again, and gave very little attention to his son. The infant seemed to be always sick with one illness or another, and Ursa spent every moment she could with him. Simply being in the same room as his son, which he had to do often, seemed to put Ozai in an altogether nasty mood. Though she tried to reason with him, Ursa made no headway and soon became pregnant again.
Strong, loud cries broke through the room when the child was born.
Smirking quite vilely, Prince Ozai looked upon his new daughter with powerful pride. The girl was visibly larger than his first child had been, and was obviously in better healthy. She would prove to be a perfect heir, this he knew immediately.
Looking upon his father, Ozai declared, "She shall be named after Fire Lord Azulon. Father, I present to you: Princess Azula."
When a royal assistant brought two-year-old Zuko in to see his new sister, he was overjoyed. He giggled and petted her head softly, occasionally muttering nonsense word. Most children are able to speak a few one- to two-syllable by the time they are one year old, but Zuko was still unable to say even the simplistic of words. Or perhaps, Ursa thought with a smile, he's simply being stubborn.
It was obvious from very early on that the relationship between her two lovely children was strained at best. Though she attempted to make peace between them, all of Ursa's work seemed in vain. Azula, though only three years old, seemed to despise everything about her older brother.
If he was playing with something, she insisted upon playing with it first – every time she was not able, she would simply break it. She had to eat everything he ate, only better.
She was absolutely spoiled by her father, who seemed to agree whole-heartedly (if he had a heart) with everything she did to spite her brother.
Ursa did her best to punish her daughter for her misbehavior, but nothing worked. For every discipline received, Ozai would give her something twice as good and double it. Zuko was still greatly looked down upon by his father and, though he tried hard to win respect and reverence, never succeeded in doing anything more than evoking Ozai's wrath.
She always managed to make him smile when he was down and did her best to keep him happy. She punished him when he misbehaved, of course, but for the most part the two of them lived rather happily together.
Azula, who became a very good actress indeed, interrupted their tranquility often with various attempts to emotionally maim her brother. She succeeded more often than not and reveled in making him uncomfortable or embarrassed. She was a prodigy in everything she tried to do – everything she did, she did better than Zuko.
This worried Ursa, but not because she thought Zuko might not be strong enough. Quite the contrary, she knew that – in some ways – he was far more powerful than Azula would ever be. No, she worried because she knew Fire Lord Azulon and Prince Ozai had the potent heir that they had wanted.
She worried about her daughter for the sake of the world as a whole.
Disaster after disaster seemed to hit the royal family.
Prince Lu Ten died in battle, the Siege of Ba Sing Se was lost, Prince Ozai was attempting to take Iroh's right to the throne, and now this. Oh, this.
Ursa held back tears as she sank onto the stone floor.
Because of Ozai's greed, her beloved son would die. Her Zuko was going to be murdered because of her husband's idiocy and cruelty. She could feel her heart breaking into a million tiny shards as she tried desperately to think of a plan. There had to be something she could do.
Her eyes grew wide and she ran out of her chambers.
She found her husband talking with Assistant War Minister Shao, and waited impatiently for them to finish. For several minutes that seemed endless they spoke about battle tactics and various offensive maneuvers.
"I must speak with you, Prince Ozai," she said when they had finished. Her voice, though as soft as always, had a deadly note to it that might have been the reason for Ozai's immediate response. He followed her to a quiet corridor and raised his eyebrow at her when she stopped.
"You need something of me, do you?" He asked her coldly.
"I know of your plan to kill my son, Ozai. It will not be done." Her eyes bore deep into his during the silence that followed. For many moments they simply stared at one another, each pair of eyes showing more contempt than the next. When Ozai finally spoke, it was with firm indifference.
"Your Fire Lord has insisted upon the deed being done, and therefore it shall be."
"Surely there's something you can do you change his mind? Are you or aren't you a powerful prince?"
This sparked his anger, as she knew it would, and he snarled, "Of course I am! Fire Lord Azulon has ordered me to destroy the brat, and I will be proving my unending honor and loyalty to my nation by following his orders. Unlike you," here he paused to give her a look of utmost fury; "I am faithful to my country and to my Fire Lord."
Forcing her tears down again, she took a moment to think about her options once more. She sighed softly and prayed to the spirits that her plan was going to work.
"I have a proposition to make."
The plan was simple, really: assure Ozai's place on the throne, kill Azulon, and leave. No one ever need know, Zuko never need be murdered, and everything would fall into place.
Or so she hoped.
Ursa paced the corridor anxiously, planning and plotting for several long hours. The longer she took to come up with a plan, the less time she had to actually execute it. She was beginning to get nervous as she felt her time draining away.
Finally, she decided upon plan. It wasn't much, but she would just have to make it work.
She rushed into Zuko's room and woke him. She said her brief goodbye, told him that she was doing what she was doing for him, and reminded him to never forget who he was; this was important – she would never forgive herself if he turned out like his father. As he lay his head back down, she took last long look back, pulled her hood up and continued on her mission with a heavy heart.
It's for Zuko, she reminded herself. If this plan succeeds – and this plan must succeed – he will live.
She came across Fire Lord Azulon's chamber and froze. Something was dreadfully wrong.
The guards weren't there.
Ursa crept up to the door and, taking a deep breath, she opened it cautiously. The room was decorated gloriously with red and black hangings, golden items of every sort, and various weapons. The bed was made of the very finest material, woven into intricate patterns.
But she was not interested in the fineries; what she saw sitting on the Fire Lord's chair made her heart stop dead.
It was the Fire Lord himself.
He smiled grimly at her and spoke coolly, "It is rather ironic that you should show up now; you've been living in this palace for over a decade, and the only time you decide to pay me a visit, it's when my guards are away."
He seemed to be sizing her up, but remained where he was. Ursa took a steadying breath before speaking.
"I need to speak with you about –" She paused; it felt like she was suffocating. "—about my husband."
"Ah," was all he said. His fierce gaze met hers and he looked away.
They were both silent for a while, each deep in their own thoughts. Knowing her time was limited, Ursa finally plucked up the courage to continue.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your thoughts, Milord, but I have an – ah – proposition to make." The right words were key; one slip-up would mean the loss of Zuko's life. I've got to keep my eyes on my goal, she told herself.
"A proposition that must be made whilst my guards are not here? This ought to be interesting. Please do continue."
She nodded slowly and slipped a dagger out of her pocket, making sure it was within Fire Lord Azulon's range of vision. He saw it – this was a crucial part of the plan – but said nothing.
"Milord," she began shakily, "I mean no offense to you at all, but you are getting on in age. Your power is weakened, and your time limited. You would be better off relaxing, not working with the never-ending turmoil that comes with war."
She paused for a moment, eyeing the old man warily. He seemed perfectly calm, almost as though he had been expecting it; he nodded for her to continue.
"Ozai – er, that is… Prince Ozai – would do well on the throne in your stead. He is powerful, brave, and he knows his battle tactics. I suggest – no, I insist – that you hand Prince Iroh's birthright to your youngest son."
At this point, Ursa made sure to twirl the dagger in her fingers so that it attracted his attention before adding, "There might be dire consequences if you do not heed my words."
His eyes on the blade in her hand, his brows knit together. He seemed to be thinking of an escape route. Praying as hard as she could to the spirits that he wouldn't find one, she looked on.
"Very well," he said finally. "I will hand over my eldest son's right to the throne to my youngest. I feel that my time on Earth is drawing to a close; would you like it in writing?"
Startled at his cooperation, she took a moment to gather her thoughts. This is too easy… he must know something I don't. I can't back out now, not when I'm so close, but I'll have to be extra careful.
She nodded to him, "Yes, in formal writing, please."
She oversaw him as he wrote the long-winded proclamation. Everything seemed to be in order – she could see nothing wrong with it. After scrutinizing for a long while, she pulled away from him and nodded again.
So far, so good… I just hope it stays this way.
She clutched her dagger tighter in her hand and felt regret creeping into her heart. She knew what she had to do to save her darling little boy, but she also knew that she was not a murderer – she wouldn't be able to say that anymore.
Suddenly, a knock came at the door, followed by a voice.
"Fire Lord Azulon, sire, are you in there?"
Ursa spun around to face the door, holding her breath and holding one hand over her racing heart.
She heard him before she saw him, forcing himself onto his feet with more agility and speed than most men his age have. The Fire Lord had a dagger in his own hand now, and took a stumbling hit at her; she dodged it, and swiped her own blade. It missed, and she couldn't help but feel a sense of relief.
"Sir, are you there?"
He grabbed another blade out of his robes and threw the first at her, missing her ear by mere centimeters. Just as she was about to aim a blow at him, he stopped and fell to the ground. The dagger dropped from his fingers, and he clutched his heart.
Gasping for breath, he tried to grab the parchment on which he declared his youngest son next in line, but Ursa got there first. She put it back on the table when he ceased to breath entirely.
Shaking, she tried to ignore the banging on the door and looked desperately for a way out. As the door was beaten down, she took a dive for the window; she fell out, but landed only a few feet below the opening on a slab of stone.
She held on to the stone for dear life as she heard shrieks and yells coming from inside the palace. She looked down and fought back a sob; it was going to be extremely difficult getting down, and she did not like heights.
Somehow, Ursa managed to get down from the ledge and through the palace grounds without being detected. By the time the sun was beginning to rise, she was long gone and sitting in a cave. She undid her hair and quickly added a layer of dirt to it, then applied dirt to the rest of her body.
After a few moments, she leaned back against the cave wall; she knew Zuko was safe. Ozai had sworn on his honor that if she succeeded – he had been fairly sure that she would not – he would spare Zuko's life. She smiled sadly.
She slept restlessly on the floor of the cave, dreaming of her darling son. She awoke often, thinking she could hear him screaming for her to help him.
Sighing, she laid back down after the twelfth time. Might as well get used to sleepless nights, she told herself grumpily. I'm going to have a lot of them until such a time when I get my son back.
Ursa closed her eyes, but opened them again after a moment's thought. She crawled out into the open air, out of the cave and gazed up at the starry sky.
"Thank you, spirits," she whispered. "For getting me and Zuko through this ordeal; we could never have gotten this far without your help."
She didn't know which spirit – or spirits – she was praying too, but she didn't think it really mattered. If the spirits think that they need to keep her alive for something, then she will gladly accept their assistance with a promise to help them when the time comes.
"Thank you," she murmured again. Then, as an afterthought, she added, "Please keep an eye on Zuko and reunite us someday."
Sleep overcame her and she dozed off quickly; and this time, she was not awoken by nightmares.
Hunting, her marriage, her childbirths, and her confrontation with Fire Lord Azulon… it all seemed like such a long time ago. Now, as she holds her son in her arms, she can't help but think that everything they each had to go through was worth it.
He is alive. Her Zuko, though scarred by that damnable man, is gloriously alive and she is there to share him with the world.
Looking up at the stars, she smiles widely. "Thank you."
The explanations for the numbered items above:
(1) This paragraph is taken almost directly from Metamorphoses II 412-415 about Callisto (a wood nymph) who is later turned into the constellation, Ursa Major. It should also be noted that Ozai's immediate infatuation with Ursa is parallel to the desire of Jupiter; also like Jupiter, Ozai rapes her and she gives him an unwanted son.
(2) The sentence fragment "she resisted him as far as a woman could" is taken from Metamorphoses II 434-437.
(3) In "Tales of Ba Sing Se" Zuko's name is written on his segment's title card as what can be translated as "resurrected rule".