Lesson 1: Pity
"Appealate jurisdiction will be taken up by the third national court in two weeks. Until then, the prisoner will continue to be confined at the capital's highest security institution of mental health."
So that was it. So that is how far Fire Lord Ozai's protégé have fallen out of political prominence. To have her fate decided by a lowly national court, bound and gagged, unable to voice any objection, a tool for extremist proponents of the old regime. No semblance of the princess's unrivaled glory remained in pyrite eyes.
All Azula had left was pride.
"Oh 'Zula, I'm so sorry! That nice old man was saying so many big words, I thought he would get you out for sure!"
"Ty Lee, that was the prosecutor."
Azula glared at the two Kyoshi warriors intruding on her thoughts.
Not getting the clue, Ty Lee shook her head animatedly, "but Suki, he said so many nice things! He even mentioned Azula masterminding the Ba Sing Se take over, right Azula?"
The addressed silently prayed to what ever being, that the daggers she stared was as lethal as the blunt trauma that was the pounding of her Ty Lee- induced headache.
Obviously not. Unhindered by daggers propelled by burning gold eyes, the acrobat produced a bundle from her uniform.
"Look! I snuck it in, it's not much, but I added extra chili sauce, just the way you like it!" Ty Lee placed the bowl of noodles, still hot from the most well-know stall in town, inside the cell with a bright smile on her face.
Finally noticing the air of resentment emanating from the cell, she gave Suki a nervous glance before opening her mouth to continue, "um...if you don't like it Azula, I could-"
The former princess picked up the bowl, icy gaze never wavering, turned the bowl over and allowed the contents to splatter to the floor before setting the bowl back upside down*.
Ty Lee's face fell. Suki straightened herself up from the door sill as if ready for confrontation. The prisoner retreated to the darkest corner of her cell.
"Peasants refer to me as Princess Azula-"
Suki made derisive noise from the doorway.
"- but as it is now, that would be a cruel mockery, wouldn't it?" The fallen princess continued as if never interrupted, a bitter smirk playing at her lips.
Ty Lee let two angry tears fall from her eyes before forcing an awkward laugh escape from her lips.
"You silly! You should have just said so, Princess!"
" Princess Azula-"
"I am so terribly sorry as to have affronted your royal highness, Princess Azula."
Azula turned around, staring as intently as the sedatives would allow at a piece of mold in the corner of her cell.
"Traitors have manners and smiles, and knives for your back. Rule one of palace politics. How did I ever miss that?" Almost perfect. Almost. If not for the hoarse vulnerability the pervaded each word.
Grey eyes softened into a look of mortification.
"Wait. I didn't mean that."
"Tell me, when do you ever mean what you say?"
"Azula. I am so sor-"
"Don't you dare."
Ty Lee open her mouth again, but no words came. She was vaguely aware of a hand on her shaking shoulder.
"Don't you dare pity me."
"Sorry," Ty Lee whispered to the floor.
Azula allowed herself a bitter chuckle at this victory.
"No. No, you have no right to be sitting there accepting apologies, former princess of the Fire Nation Azula," Suki's voice broke the strained silence.
Azula winced at being addressed by a title even more contemptible than none at all.
"You are a symbol. A relic from an era of hatred and bloodshed. The whole world condemns you." Suki paused, keeping her voice level and impassive. "More than anything, you are nothing. Everything you have ever known is wrong. You have nothing. Yet you still cling onto your sins. If that's not pitiable, I don't know what is; though it's not like you deserve pity from anyone, to begin with."
"Suki, stop." Ty Lee tugged at the older girl's arm, "Let's just go."
"All you have now, Princess Azula, is this poor girl's misguided pity."
Suki tapped the door to signal to the guard that they were leaving. Ty Lee looked back regretfully at the sacrificed noodles before leaving.
The mold was still a point of interest for the dour princess. She just wanted-
-to watch it burn.
The mothfly fluttered annoyingly close to her face. She straightened her calligraphy brush fighting the urge to roast the offending pest.
Turning back to her work, her peace was interrupted this time by soft laughter. She spotted her mother and brother loitering by the pond. She sighed, her father would certainly bring it up during dinner. Yet another peaceful meal ruined by idiot Zu-zu skipping lessons for a headache or stomach ache. The young princess couldn't wait.
Smirking to her self, she gathered her things. She took the long way back to her room, avoiding the pond. She hated those turtleducks.
She could have sworn the mothfly was following her. She studied the struggling gnat disinterestedly. A certain spiderfly was to make a meal of the pest that night. Serves it right.
"Well then. You only have yourself to blame for this," she said over her shoulder as she walked away, "the crimes you must have committed to have been reincarnated into such a weakling**."
She sighed. Typical. She watched the mothfly still squirming on the web three hours later. Survival spurs on even the most pathetic of creatures.
Out of childish curiosity more than anything, the young princess lighted the edge of the web, watching the flame make it's way towards the struggling prisoner. At the last moment, she allowed the flame to smolder and die, freeing it. The mothfly glided for a few feet before crashing to the floor, a sacrificed wing still attached the remnants of the smoking web. Fluttering lamely on the floor, it slowly stopped moving save an occasional twitch, defeated.
"How pathetic. Not even worthy of life." Prince Ozai emerged from the where he was observing his daughter. "Do you pity this creature, Azula? You will only condemn it to a worthless existence."
Keeping her composure at her father's sudden appearance, she looked up and met his gaze steadily. She understood immediately what her task was.
The mothfly didn't move as she burned it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her father smile, content with her wordless deference. She swelled with pride.
"Your cousin Lu Ten was killed in battle."
She hated the matching looks on her mother and brother's face. She hated their tears and sad eyes. They were weak. She looked away, something was unbearably heavy to her nine-year-old body when her she looked at their red-rimmed eyes.
Weakness threatened to be infectious.
"What's wrong with that child?" Her mother's voice came from behind her as she went to prepare for the audience with the Fire Lord.
She sighed. Her mother was a fool, nothing more than the wife of the Fire Lord's son with no pride or ambition of her own; pitiful. A woman ensnared by the web of lies and deceit that was the Court. She will be different than her mother. She must be. She deserved life.
"What did you say?"
She looked up at her mother disinterestedly, though she instinctively widened her eyes, feigning innocence, " I was merely stating the facts. Uncle is a fool for not giving Ba Sing Se it's due retribution for killing one of our royals."
She saw Zuko give her a hopeless look from beside her.
"Young lady! How could you say such a thing? Think about how your uncle is feeling right now!"
"Yes mother. Which is why I'm pointing out how irrationally he is acting. Surely he is returning to be coddled by kind, empathetic souls like you, shirking his duty as a general. If father was there he would be standing in triumph over the ashes of their city, instead of retreating with his tail between his legs with no glory or honor." Her mother's lips were just a line. "What's wrong with that man?" She ended, echoing her mother.
Their discussion should have ended there. They usually did. Not today.
"Your uncle is grieving. There is nothing wrong with that," her mother replied with in a deadly voice unbefitting her, " he is more honorable than your father. If you keep following in his footsteps, you'll become as cold and cruel as he is." She spat the last part bitterly, a tone of dark understanding in her voice. Her brother gasped, their mother had never questioned their father in front of them before.
She put on a smirk, not missing a beat, " There is nothing wrong with that? Of course there isn't. There never is anything wrong to you, mother. Let's win the war with kindness and incompetency, shall we?" She didn't know why she was raising her voice, it shouldn't have matter this much, "your brand of kindness is a sham! Young lady, this. Young lady, that. Nothing is wrong with anyone but me!" She raised her fists in the air in frustration.
Her mother visibly flinched, looking almost fearfully at her daughter, "because you were born to be just like your father. A monster." She whispered shrilly to the floor.
"Is that why you try to make my brother like you? A weakling. He really is quite the vanity project for you isn't he, mother? You idle your days away, because you have nothing going for you. He's different. He is a prince of the greatest nation in the world. And you're ruining any potential he ever had. Your so-called kindness is superficial. You pretend to care about being a mother. But I see. I see you look off into the distance like we don't even exist. The most cold and apathetic one is you. You have no passion for anything at all. You're. Pitiful." She turned away smirking. She wanted to laugh. Laugh at her mother's tears because finally, she's won. Finally, she's elicited a response from her mother. Finally, she's been acknowledged.
She walked away, not in retreat, but in victory. She heard Zuko yell something behind her.
"How could you call her that, mother?!" Her brother ran up behind her.
She turned around and narrowed her eyes at him.
"Azula, are you okay? Mom didn't mean it, she's just sad Lu Ten is...gone."
"I'm fine. I'm not the one poisoned by her own delusions." She crossed her arms.
"Then...why do you look like you're about to cry?"
Her anger flared. "I am not!" Her voice was painfully shrill. "Don't you dare feel sorry for me!"
Her brother set his jaw, and furrowed his brows. "Why do you always lie, Azula?! We all saw you crying when we found out Lu Ten died! You're sad he's gone too! Stop trying to be dad!"
"Well then, you should stop trying to be mom!" She wanted to burn his stupid eyebrows off.
The doors to the drawing room opened, and Prince Ozai entered briskly. "The Fire Lord will see us now." He scanned the scene before him, displeasure staining his face, "What happened?"
She did it. She knew from the moment she landed. Her father was smiling. She was proud, and as long as she had pride, she was worthy of life.
So she was proud. Even when her mother questioned her about the Fire Lord's order, voice hostile, hands painfully strong upon her small shoulders. Even as her mother's eyes screamed 'monster' at her as she spoke. Even when her mother disappeared with out saying goodbye.
She had woken up knowing her mother was gone. She visited the burnt spot in the grass where the mothfly had been.
Using Zuko's favorite knife, she carved a wooden marker, and stuck it in the grass. She smirked, a face she wore naturally now, the neat little characters becoming words in her mouth.
"You finally got away." She muttered in the darkness, watching the ghostly silhouette disappear back into the fringes of her consciousness.
She was 'asleep,' again, it seemed. There were scorch marks on the far wall. She didn't remember moving, she was still staring at the mold. Her lack of dinner seemed to invalidate her memory.
She laid down on her dirty cot, waiting for real sleep to wash upon her. It never came.
She rolled over, and glared at her protesting stomach.
"You're pathetic." She whispered to the traitorous organ.
"And you." She fisted her greasy locks, raising her voice.
"But especially you!" She yelled at where her mirror used to be, before it was deemed too dangerous an amenity. She didn't need it to know what she looked like at that moment.
She glared at the mold again, ignoring her reflection in the not-mirror smirking at her. Something unbearably heavy settled itself in her chest.
'Daddy's not here to be proud of you anymore.' Chimed the monster in the mirror.
She closed her eyes.
'So then, tell me,' she knew the demon was grinning now. 'What exactly do you have to be proud of?' She knew that sardonic croon. It was hers.
"I conquered Ba Sing Se."
'And now that fool with the bear sits upon its throne.'
"I killed the Avatar."
'Now he parades the streets you conquered as a hero.'
"I'm a prodigy. Only born to the world once every hundred years."
'A prodigy that cannot even make a spark without your keepers starving your strength away.'
'You know what that means.'
'Not even worthy of li-'
The fiend chuckled.
"I know..." she whispered, but the image was gone.
Father was not here to be proud of her anymore.
All she had now was Ty Lee's damned pity.
" But I still... want to live."
She crawled towards the greasy mess next to the upturned bowl. She didn't remember sinking to her knees. She began eating handfuls of cold noodles with a fervor unbecoming of a princess, but the intensity in her eyes were very much Princess Azula.
* In Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese, there is a slang phrase, literally "you eat a bowl of noodles, then turn it upside down," that is the same as telling someone they're a traitor.
** In Chinese mythology, the moth represents recently deceased relatives or ancestor guides. Most would avoid hurting moths. Also, in Buddhism reincarnation is based on the deeds or karma of the current life.