Fire Lady Azula sat on her throne, and watched the leaders of the three nations bow before her.
Azula, fugitive princess, stared into her empty soup bowl and tried to think of what to do next. She had no plans. Not that her mind had deserted her no, her brief imprisonment had done nothing but sharpen her wits but she had no goals. No overall objective. She had already achieved her life's ambition and lost it. She had considered taking back the throne, even planned it in detail: undermine Zuzu's credibility as Fire Lord, keep the Avatar distracted with minor crises on the continent, mobilise support from the disenfranchised military…but it had felt hollow. Her mind was still there, but the hunger was gone. Azula didn't want it any more, and she didn't know why.
"Azula, really," a warm voice said from beside her. Azula felt a hand touch her shoulder. "You know why you don't want to depose Zuko."
"And why is that?" Azula snapped. "Because I could leave him in place, and have the people offer me the throne in a few years?"
"No," Ursa said. "Because deep down, you know that he will rule with strength and wisdom."
"His only strength is his moral flexibility!" Azula growled. "In a few months, he'll get bored and betray the Fire Nation in a new and exciting way!"
"You all right, lady?" a voice said from in front of her. Azula glanced up, and saw the portly innkeeper frowning down at her.
"I'm fine," she said tightly.
"If you say so," he said doubtfully. "Your room's ready, if you've finished your soup." Azula handed him the empty bowl without speaking. Once, a team of servants would have served her ten or fifteen courses, and she would have slept on silk sheets. Now, she drank miso soup in a grubby colonial inn and rented a pallet on the floor. A tide of sullen rage washed over her, and she imagined showing this worthless little man who she really was, burning his inn down around him in a whirl of blue flame and leaving him alive to weep amidst the ashes…no. That would lead Zuko's minions right to her she didn't want to hurt him. She gave the man a small, empty smile, and watched him carefully as he walked away.
"Azula," said Ursa, sounding faintly disappointed – as always. "He sold you a hot meal and a bed for the night at half price."
"Only because he was stupid enough to fall for that little-lost-girl routine," Azula said. "Now go away. You're not real."
Azula slept the night on a filthy clean little sizable pallet. She did not dream she dreamt of soft arms around her and a kiss on the forehead.
She woke with the sun, and walked to the edge of the town where the caravan was assembling. She had overheard the peasants talking about how dangerous the roads were, and while she certainly didn't fear her safety, killing bandits would be almost as obvious as burning down an inn but even more satisfying. And it would be easier to hide as a member of a caravan, rather than a woman girl traveling alone. She stopped next to a man feeding a buffalo-yak.
"Where is the caravan leader?" Azula said. The man turned his head, and gave her a long look.
"Well, now, let me think," he said slowly. "She might be settling with the innkeeper for our rooms last night. Or perhaps she's checking all the wagons are tied down properly. No, she might—"
"I'll find her myself," Azula snapped, and turned to walk away.
"Or," the man said, "you could ask again politely." Azula stiffened, and felt a hand upon her shoulder.
"This is not the palace, Azula," Ursa said. "You will need to behave differently, or you will draw notice."
"Fine," Azula said, and turned back to the wagoneer. She put on her most innocent face. "Could you please tell me where the caravan leader is, if it isn't too much trouble?"
"Enough poison in that honey to kill a town," the man said drily. "But I suppose it's a start. The leader's over there," he pointed at a muscular woman talking to a couple of well-dressed men. "Taking on last-minute travellers."
"Thank you," Azula said sweetly. She gave the wagoneer her sweetest smile, and idly considered burning his face off it wasn't idle you want to do it as she walked away.
"I'm not bargaining," the caravan leader said to the two men as Azula approached. Up close, she saw that they were young, more boys than men. "Twenty copper to get to Omashu, meals included." The boy on the left opened his mouth, but the other one elbowed him in the ribs and gave the caravan leader a polite nod.
"Twenty coppers each, fair enough." He pulled a purse from inside his shirt, and counted out four silver. "What time are we leaving?"
"Half an hour," the caravan leader said, dropping the coins into her belt purse. "Due to some late deliveries. Most days, we break camp at dawn."
"We'll be ready," the boy said, and dragged his friend away. Azula stepped forward before the caravan leader could move.
"I wish to travel with this caravan," she said. Ursa cleared her throat, and Azula sighed. "Please."
"Twenty copper," the caravan leader said. Azula counted the money out of her purse, one coin at a time; when she was finished, the purse was nearly empty. Oh well. She had stolen the clothes and money, she could steal some more.
"Or you could work for it," Ursa murmured.
"Don't be ridiculous," Azula said. The caravan leader blinked, and Azula realised she'd spoken out loud. "Ah. I was…talking to myself."
"Right," the leader said, eyeing Azula warily. "We leave in half an hour. You can ride in any wagon that's got space."
Half an hour and they were on the road, an hour and the caravan was winding through a series of densely forested foothills. Azula kept her eyes moving over the terrain, alert for an ambush or some belated pursuit from the village. She steadfastly ignored the woman sitting beside her on the back of the wagon.
"Would all this," Ursa gestured out at the hills, "really have been improved by a wildfire? This wide, lovely land…turned to a cinder."
"It wasn't about beauty," Azula said scornfully. "It was about," hatred "conquest. Defeat them in their minds, break their morale so they could never recover."
"Is that what you wanted, Azula? To lead a nation soaked in blood, ruling over a world of ash?"
"It would have been better than this," Azula snarled.
"Hey, bright-eyes," a voice called. Azula turned, and saw the two well-dressed boys riding at the front of the wagon behind Azula's. "No need to talk to yourself," said the boy who had almost argued with the caravan leader. "I'd love to have a conversation."
"Juro," the other boy said, shaking his head.
"What? Nothing wrong with talking to a pretty girl!" Juro said. "Hey, bright-eyes. What's your name?"
Azula looked down and away. Zuzu would have soldiers combing the colonies for her, and it wouldn't do to leave a trail of rumours about a girl with golden eyes and Fire Nation complexion. Hopefully the louts would think her a spineless peasant girl too shy to talk to a boy, and give up the chase.
"Hey!" Azula looked up, and saw Juro jogging alongside the wagon. As she stared at him, he grabbed the side and hauled himself up. Azula shifted away from him. "Come on, lovely flower, take pity on a footsore traveller!"
"Please go away," Azula said, doing her best to sound timid. It was not an emotion she had much experience with.
"Oh, I don't bite, pretty lady," Juro said with a grin. "My name's Juro. Please, tell me yours."
"I want you to go away," Azula said, and this time she couldn't help herself and the words came out like a command, like steel like fire.
Juro blinked at her tone, then grinned again. "And I'd like your name. Maybe there's a way for both of us to get what we want." He placed his hand over his heart. "Give me your name, lovely flower, and I swear not to speak to you for the rest of the day."
Azula frowned. What a transparent ploy; she had absolutely no guarantee that the boy would keep his word. Did he think she was an idiot?
Ursa laughed softly from her perch on the side of the wagon. "It is meant to be transparent, Azula."
Well, she would have had to choose a new name anyway. "My name is…" She cast about for an Earth Kingdom name. "Lee…" No, that was a boy's name. "…in. Lin."
"Pleased to meet you, Lin," Juro said cheerfully. "So, why are you travelling to Omashu?"
"You said you would leave me alone," Azula said. Ursa laughed again; Azula threw her a poisonous glance.
"How could I leave such a captivating creature?" Juro said. Azula's shoulder twitched, as she stopped herself from burning the fool's face off.
"Leave," she said flatly, "or I'll throw you off this wagon."
Juro stared at her for a moment, then carefully rose to his feet and gave her a low bow. "As you command, my princess."
Azula sprang to her feet as Juro swung down from the wagon bed. She drew back an arm, ready for a killing strike, then stopped. Perhaps he hadn't told anyone else. Burning him in the middle of the caravan wouldn't keep her secret. She could kill him in the night, while the caravan slept…
"He was joking, Azula," Ursa said patiently. "Flirting. He doesn't know who you are."
"Flirting," Azula said under her breath as she sat down again. "As if I'd let some jumped-up merchant's son touch me!"
"Would you let anyone touch you, Azula?" Ursa said. "In any case, there's little difference between the touch of a merchant, and that of a prince."
"I suppose you'd know," Azula muttered.
"Yes, I would," Ursa said sharply, and turned her head away. Azula shifted her weight, as the wagon bounced over a rut, and felt a strange impulse to say…something. She didn't know what. Disconcerted, she stared out at the forest and tried to ignore Ursa's stiff posture.
There was a whoomph-hiss from behind Azula, and she whirled around to see flames licking across the road in front of the caravan. Fire. Firebending. She stod up and clambered over the goods in the wagon tray, to peer over the driver's shoulder. Two men were standing in the road, dressed in ragged green clothes but unmistakeably firebenders. Azula narrowed her eyes. Deserters. Zuzu might not be much of a Fire Lord, but that didn't excuse dereliction of duty. The Fire Nation would need its soldiers, once the Avatar's ridiculous peace treaty fell apart.
"Alright, now, let's not have any fuss," one of the benders drawled. "We're not worried about your goods. Just hand over your cash, and we'll be on our way."
"The war is over," the caravan leader said, standing up on the lead wagon. "And this is Earth Kingdom territory."
"Well, you see, we're not exactly soldiers any more," the bender said with a grin, and set a tree alight for emphasis. "We're bandits. So sit down and shut up, or I'll burn your face off."
The caravan leader stared at the two men for a moment, then tossed them her beltpurse and turned to face the caravan.
"Don't give them any trouble!" she shouted. "You can get more money, it's not worth your life."
"Clever lady," the first deserter said. He was still smiling. "Now, my friend is going to stay here, and you're going to walk with me, so there's no…unfortunate misunderstandings."
"What a disgusting man," Ursa said. Azula agreed, without quite knowing why. For a deserter, the bender seemed moderately intelligent – he had given a show of force, and immediately isolated and co-opted the caravan's authority figure. A sound strategy. Yet it seemed…it made Azula feel faintly ill this is contempt.
Azula watched the deserter and his hostage move along the line of wagons, collecting purses, and reached for her own. Six coppers. Not much, but she always hated giving up something that belonged to her people that belonged to her.
"Well, isn't this something," the deserter said, stretching out the words in his irritating drawl. Azula forced herself to look up slowly, and not snap at him to improve his diction. "A real Fire Nation flower, here in the muck."
Azula held out her purse. She didn't meet the man's eyes, but couldn't quite bring herself to feign fear. The deserter took the purse, and ran his hand up her arm to grab her by the elbow. Azula went still, muscles tense under a rising tide of anger fear that a deserter would dare to touch her. She twitched, as she suppressed her reflex to defend herself to kill.
"Azula, please be careful," Ursa said from the rear of the wagon. "This could end badly for all concerned, if you are not careful."
Azula ground her teeth for a moment. Ursa cared about people far too much cared about the wrong people.
"What are you doing so far from home?" the deserter said. He tugged on Azula's arm, making her lean out over the side of the caravan.
"We've given you our money," said the caravan leader, her eyes flicking from Azula to the deserter. "Take it and go."
"Well, maybe I want more than just money," said the deserter. "Get down from the wagon, lovely. I think you should travel with your own kind.
"Azula!" Ursa said frantically.
"Oh, hush," Azula snapped. The caravan leader raised her eyebrows in shock, and the deserter frowned.
"What was that?" he said slowly. It was probably meant to be intimidating. Azula tried to smooth away her annoyance. Moth-- Ursa was being very silly, distracting Azula in the middle of such a crucial situation. Azula put on a calm face, thinking furiously. The filthy little deserter obviously wanted to take her as a concubine nothing so romantic. The more that Azula thought about it…alone with two Fire Nation deserters and the coinpurses from an entire caravan. Yes. She could work with that thieve from the thieves.
"I'll come with you," she said, keeping her gaze down and trying to look meek. The caravan leader made an inarticulate noise, and Azula looked at the woman. "It's all right."
"You're a real find, girl," the deserter said with another odious smile. He moved his hands to her waist, and lifted her down from the wagon. Azula distracted herself from the feel of his hands by imagining what he would look like with his face burned away. The deserter finished his tour of the caravan with Azula trailing behind him. The caravan leader followed, shooting Azula worried glances and making odd gestures. Azula gave the woman a small smile. The deserter took the last few purses, producing a few licks of flame to get the merchant's son and his friend to give theirs up. The deserter walked back up to the lead wagon, where the other bender was tossing balls of fire into the road. He frowned as the first deserter dragged Azula along by the crook of her arm.
"What's with the girl?" he said sharply.
"She'd like to travel with us, rather than this grubby little caravan," the first deserter said. Azula felt a stab of anger, that he had stolen her thoughts shared her prejudices.
"Right," said the second deserter, looking faintly ill. Azula couldn't decide which of them was more pathetic, the disgusting immoral or the weak uncertain.
The first bender – he had said his named was Han – pushed Azula into a clearing. There were two bedrolls and a tent next to a burned-out campfire; it looked like the deserters had been there for some time. Azula frowned. If they had held up previous caravans, the caravan leader would have known. Perhaps they had only turned to banditry recently.
"Now, time to celebrate," Han said. Azula tugged at the cords that bound her hands behind her back, testing the give.
"I don't think so," she said flatly. Han had demonstrated basic intelligence, but also a lack of discipline a lack of morality. He would have to go.
"It did not have to come to this," Ursa said sadly, from where she sat at the base of a tree.
"No," Azula said, watching Han glare at her as his accomplice – Qing – stood off to the side and tried not to watch. "But it was not an opportunity to waste."
"That's what I thought," Han said, and began to walk towards Azula. His face seemed relaxed, but his hands were in fists and his muscles were tense. She had insulted his manhood, perhaps. He stepped in close to her, looming above her, and cupped her chin with one hand. Azula smiled up at him. She took a deep breath as he raised his free hand.
Before he could strike her, she exhaled a gout of blue flame up into his face. He staggered backwards, making a curious sound somewhere between a gurgle and a shriek.
"Han!" shouted Qing, shocked into immobility for a moment. Azula crouched down and hopped over her bindings, to bring her hands in front of her. Qing stepped to the side to clear his line of attack – at least he wasn't a complete idiot – and hurled a blast of fire at Azula with a shout. She whipped a foot around in a crescent, deflecting Qing's blast with a burst of blue flame. Before he could attack again, she struck him with a small blame of fire that tossed him backwards into a tree. He fell to the ground, groaning, and Azula lifted her hands to burn the ropes away.
She kicked Han away from her, walked over to Qing, and bent down.
"Why did you leave the army, soldier?"
"Wha?" he mumbled. Azula kicked him in the shoulder to roll him onto his back.
"Why did you leave the army?"
"Nothing for me back home," he mumbled. "Got no skills but soldiering."
"Yes," Azula mused. "A soldier should have honourable work."
"There is nothing so honourable as peace," Ursa said quietly.
"No one asked you!" Azula snarled, and turned back to Qing. "You seem a decent soldier. Not particularly bright or skilled, but I could have use for you."
"Blue flame," Qing said to himself, and his eyes went wide. "Princess!"
"Ah!" Azula raised a finger, and touched it to her lips. "Hush." She lit a small blue flame on the end of her finger. "Oh, that's pretty." She spread her hands, and did the same for each finger. "Candles at my fingertips." She bent down further, and stroked the air near Qing's face. "My name is Lin. And it would be useful, if I were travelling with – an uncle, perhaps."
Qing glanced past her, at Han, who was now moaning. "Pri—Mistress Lin. Han—"
"Was not useful," Azula said smoothly. "I will relieve him of his woes in a moment. But first – are you useful, soldier? Will you serve?"
"I – as you command, Mistress."
Azula inclined her head, then walked back to Han, listening for any sudden movements from Qing and ignoring Ursa's pained expression. She snatched the over-full coinpurse from Han's belt, and burnt his head away with a concentrated blast.
"What…where are we going, Mistress?" Qing said from behind her.
"My pursuit is to the west," Azula said absently. "And the caravan will spread rumours to the east. We go north."
"In search of weaker prey?" Ursa asked. "Banditry is not beneath you after all."
"No," Azula said. An idea blossomed, and she smirked at Ursa. "All these bandits, making life difficult for the ordinary, hardworking people," she said with mock concern. "It's terrible. What they need is a government that will look after them. That will defend them."
"Azula," Ursa said, but Azula cut her off.
"Oh, do be quiet, mother! This is perfect. I hadn't realised how little control Zuzu had over the army…the Kingdom is crying out for someone to protect them. Yes." She nodded decisively. "I think I'll go into local government."
"Mistress?" Qing said uncertainly.
"Yes, uncle Qing," Azula said, eyes locked with Ursa. "I am crazy." Ursa looked away at that; Azula smiled, and turned to face her first minion. And she had earned him on her own, not through her status as royalty. It was grating, and gratifying. "But don't let it bother you."
Her nation her family had rejected her. So she was just going to have to make a new one, and make it right.
"There's so much to do," Azula said, staring into the forest. At the corner of her vision, her mother bowed her head, too weary to weep.
Sorry about lack of updates. Here, enjoy this Avatar oneshot.