-5 years later-
Summary: Azula realizes there must be some give to her take and journeys to the South Pole to support Katara. There's still so much she must learn about her lover and about herself, and she discovers that happiness doesn't mean there's no room to grow.
Chapter 11: Things worth leaving for
Rice was a commodity among all nations of the world. It was used as currency, food, weight measure, construction material, and animal feed. She'd read about seasons of planting, strains of rice, and techniques for farming in every climate. Yet until today Azula had never once considered what farmers went through to put it in the ground.
She reached the end of the muddy terrace and set her sack of seedlings down onto dry earth to strip off of her overtunic, which was heavy with sweat and covered in mud. A skinny child raced towards her with a bucket of water and a strip of linen cloth. She accepted the water and drank it down, ignoring the motes of silt that swirled through it. It was delicious. The child dunked the cloth into the bucket and wrapped it around her head. Immediately, Azula's headache began to recede. She drank more water and let him dump the rest of it over her head and shoulders.
With a grunt, she replaced her satchel over her shoulder and straightened to slog through the thick mud and water to the end of the terrace. She took two steps backwards from there and bent to plant several seedlings by hand in a row. Two more slogging steps, and another. And another.
It was hot that day and humid to boot. The sun was shining in full force this close to the equator, and there was little wind on this side of the mountain. When a gentle cool breeze did caress her face, Azula raised her head into it for a reprieve. She looked up and past the terrace that had been her life for the last few hours. Down the mountainside, the sun glittered off of the terraces that extended below her. It was a giant staircase of reflected gold. Who would think such a beautiful view would be the place of such hard work?
By the time she'd made it back to the edge of the terrace, the child was back with more water, and she needed it. He was panting from racing between terraces to give water to many of the farmers. She drank and handed him the bucket. "Drink." Her voice was a rough equivalent of what it used to be, but she could use it again.
He took a few gulps before giving it back to her. She took a few more mouthfuls to soothe her throat and bent her head to accept the rest dumped out onto her head and shoulders. Because she could say it now: "Thank you."
The boy smiled for the first time, showing a half-grown tooth. Azula turned back to her task.
It was mindless and grueling. Her back ached in every position, her thighs screamed at her, and her feet were disgusting from being submerged in mud this long. The sun beat hot on her back, and her eyes hurt from its bright reflection across the water. This was a much different exercise than the katas and sparring that had shaped and re-strengthened her body.
Never in her life had Azula considered how much she owed the farmers that tended to the Fire Nation's crops. She'd conceptualized why they'd pumped national funding into their agriculture programs to coax retired soldiers into the fields, but she hadn't truly understood it until now. They needed more farmers to keep up with the mouths that needed feeding in the wake of the boom of population in peacetime. Even as an emerging industrial nation, they couldn't afford to import more than necessary from the Earth Kingdom. This was utterly thankless work. It was also not a way of life that had historically been touted by her people. She would have to change that mentality; the first step was today.
By the time evening rolled around, Azula had hit a level of exhaustion she hadn't experienced since her first grueling days of rehabilitation. She'd only finished one terrace in the same amount of time that most of the farmers had managed two, but she was greeted with laughter, smiles, thanks, and enough bobbing incorrect bows for ten men.
Her guards—two men and one woman—looked as exhausted as she felt. Like her, they were caked in mud up to their knees and covered in sweat. She'd only come out to observe the rice planting operation this afternoon, but what was the use of observation when she could participate? She and her two firebender guards had probably only saved a day's work for one man, but it was still one day's work. Her Dai Li agent might have actually done some significant good by fashioning more terraces up the mountain face, and he was clearly exhausted by it.
One of the farmers cleared off the back end of his cart, which had transported precious rice seedlings up the mountain that morning. He bowed several times as he gestured to the empty cart. "Please, milady."
Azula nodded; she ignored that he had used the wrong title for her and that his bow was atrocious. She knew declining the hopeful request would hurt the man's feelings. If she was honest with herself, she was tired enough to be grateful. She sat down on the edge of the cart and jolted as the farmer and another man—possibly his son—lifted the front supports and began the walk down the mountainside.
Her guards followed her, their swords at their sides again. They dragged their feet and walked in a way that was not permitted in the Royal Guard Academy or by Captain Tao of her Dai Li. They probably all regretted that they volunteered and fought for the position they now held. If someone wanted to kill her enough to attack her then, the farmers would be more likely to save her.
Not that there was any danger of an attack. The public loved the royal family, and the nobles quietly respected their power after Azula so easily won her first—and most likely last—Agni Kai. Ozai had been the last violent act against the royal family, but Fung Tao had quietly ignored Azula's requests these last five years to lose her guards. Now they were just another certain part of life, like her servants.
Her transporters wouldn't hear of letting Azula walk one step. Once they reached the village where all of the farmers lived, they continued to pull the cart slowly along the path and through the open gates of the estate that was currently hosting her. Villagers bowed and waved as she rode by. She gave them tired nods to acknowledge their greetings. Kota waited for them at the gates of the estate, and credit to her calm demeanor, she only raised her eyebrows when she saw them sweaty and caked in mud.
"Thank you," Azula told the men as she pushed off of the cart. She would have said more, but her voice was hoarse from her exertion that day. One thing she'd learned about herself was she'd spent much of her life avoiding those words while still saying them. 'Your help has been noted' would have naturally passed her lips before the arrows had rendered her mute. Words were no longer cheap, and a 'thank you' was worth more than she'd ever realized…at least in this situation.
They bowed low with wide smiles. "You've blessed us, milady."
Once she would have made a sarcastic comment about blessing them with her sweat—she thought it anyway—but she was too tired. They were too honest with their words. This wasn't noble posturing; this was true gratitude. She nodded a soft bow instead.
"Planting rice, Princess?" Kota primly asked as the two men rattled away with their cart.
Azula nodded wearily. Instead of walking through the house and tracking mud, they rounded the house to the outdoor baths. Azula's guards followed, silent and tired. She motioned for her female guard to join her in the private bathing area. The men made use with the water piped from the creek that ran down the mountainside and probably gave an eyeful to the lord and lady of the household. No doubt it was a welcome eyeful.
Kota splashed cool water across Azula's shoulders. "You're sunburned, Princess."
It had been a long time since Azula's skin had been out in the sun this long. She was usually in council meetings and on tours like this to gain goodwill from the general public and drum up funding from nobles and their businesses. Her life had turned into what she'd always vaguely imagined it would be as a child: working in the background to support her brother, the Fire Lord. Of course, as a dreaming child 'working in the background' had meant she was leading military conquests. It had taken her a long time to realize it was better this way.
The tours, even this one, felt like vacation from the petty childishness of the noble bureaucrats. Even when frustrated from dealing with their trivialities back at Capital City, she was happy with the life she'd made for herself. There was some victory in the small things too, and her contentment would sneak up to her in times like this. She enjoyed the work she'd put into her country with her brother to make it better and protect their people.
Not that she didn't appreciate time off. Maybe she and Katara could slip away soon to Ember Island for a few weeks of relaxation.
Kota scrubbed Azula's hair and splashed her clean with more cool water that was balm for Azula's overheated body. Kota descended to work on Azula's mud-caked feet as Azula saw to the rest of her body. When Azula felt like she wasn't about to crawl out of her own skin in disgust, Kota asked, "Will you soak?"
Azula flicked her hand in decline; it was too hot.
Kota patted her dry and rubbed cooling balm into Azula's shoulders and back. It eased the hot pain of her burned skin and softened the ache in her muscles. Her sigh prompted Kota to ask, "Would you like a massage, Princess?"
Her guards were all dressed and ready by the time Azula took dinner with her hosts. The local Lord and Lady Mobin, who owned some of the farmland and much of the irrigation in the area, were bemused by the work she'd done that afternoon. They were good hosts; they didn't expect Azula to carry the conversation and chattered happily with each other. Lord Mobin did point out, "There was no need to actually plant rice yourself, Princess Azula."
They were good people. The villagers looked to them as benevolent neighbors. They made sure everyone in the village was fed and had a basic modicum of healthcare. It was a thing of marvel that such proud people accepted their help at all. The lord and lady also funded the school that educated all of the children in the area. It had existed even before Mai and Azula's literacy program began a few years before.
When the Mobins had learned of Azula's plans to implement a terrace system for rice production, they'd volunteered their land to be the first test. It took several years to fashion enough terraces up the mountain face that neighbored the traditional farming flats, but the first season using the terraces had been shockingly productive. Azula, of course, had wanted to see it for herself.
"I've always been curious about the process of planting rice." Azula raised her bowl of steamed vinegar rice in salute. "I'm no longer curious."
The Mobins laughed, and Azula took a sip of warm tea to clear her throat.
"We'll be sorry to see you leave on the morrow. It has been such an enjoyable, educational visit." Lady Mobin looked at Azula beneath her eyelashes.
Educational was the word. The lord and lady had made a few overtures that had surprised and flattered Azula. She imagined bringing Katara here to expose her to the elegant—though entirely distasteful—propositions. The lord and lady had let her know they would welcome Katara for a visit as well. Apparently they owned an enormous bed.
"This has been a surprisingly delightful visit." Katara was due to be back in Capital City at the end of the week. It had been months… Azula planned to be back and waiting. "Thank you for your hospitality. I will…" She had to pause to clear her throat. "I will be retiring for the evening."
"Of course, Princess."
The Mobins had given her an entire wing of their estate after she declined sharing their bed. Azula bypassed the study Kota had set up for her and dropped facedown onto the bed instead. She didn't suppress her groan.
Kota was ever present. "Massage?"
It would be difficult for Kota to attend to her on the bed. Her servant was becoming ungainly pregnant, which would make her sitting on the bed to lean over Azula's back uncomfortable. Azula's muscles protested as she got up to resettle on the settee by the balcony. Before Azula lay down on her belly, Kota handed her a small cup of pungent liquid.
Azula swallowed the opiate extract, relaxing at once when the pain in her throat eased and the constant need to cough retreated. She disrobed and slid forward onto the lounge. Kota's oiled hands rubbed over her back, her backside, her legs, and her arms, kneading gently and drawing Azula into a state of heavy relaxation. Finally, Kota rubbed her neck and ascended to her scalp in soft circles.
Azula awoke with a crick in her neck. She was stiff, despite the massage, but she felt better than she had earlier. Only a few hours must have passed; the moon was still visible through the open balcony. Kota was reading there with a flickering yellow flame. The rare sound of rustling leaves and cicadas nearly made Azula close her eyes again.
Instead, she stood up, pulled on her robe, and approached her servant. "A letter from your husband?"
Kota jumped, and Azula was gleeful that she'd managed to catch her bodyservant off-guard. Kota allowed the scroll in her hands to reroll. She began to get up, but Azula waved her off. "I'm going to meditate. I shouldn't need you again today."
"Good night, Princess."
Before she meditated, she stretched to ease the uncomfortable stiffness in her muscles. After she finished, she settled down in a quiet corner of the room in lotus position. She closed her eyes and began her breathing exercises. Some of the effect of the opiate had worn off, but her throat still felt relaxed. Her lungs were strong again, despite the scars that marked her right ribcage and her neck, and they expanded easily on her inhale.
Then, as her physician and Katara had both suggested, she exhaled in a low hum, vibrating her vocal cords and exercising them. It was a gentle irritation, but it had helped her rehabilitate after those first six months in which Azula could make no sound at all. She was too tired to sing tonight. Such a chore was easier with Iroh, his pipa, and his bawdy songs.
Everything had come back, little by little, despite her fears. After giving everything up, she'd been stunned by each return of her old strength. Every advancement was a massive victory: her first word, her first completed kata, her first song, her first sparring match win. A year after she'd taken the arrows through her, she'd been able to hold her newborn nephew in her arms and say his name aloud, a memory she still held close.
Sounds of Kota rustling around the room brought Azula back from her meditation some time later. She cracked a yawn that surprised her and padded over to the writing desk.
I planted a terrace worth of rice today. I'm entertaining the thought of the haughtiness on your face at the thought of me doing menial labor.
She paused and looked at her feather pen; all the noblewomen used them now to write in their phonetic script. Azula wrote in that script now because Katara preferred it to the stiff formality of the universal morpheme system. Katara had learned to read it—not just the words but Azula's moods as well—in those months that a pen and brush had served as Azula's voice. Now Azula studied the paper. What had she to hide?
I miss you. I love you. We need to figure out something better than this few-months-at-a-time system. We'll speak of it when I see you again. I'll be waiting at home.
Kota was beside her as she folded the letter flat. Her bodyservant bent fire to melt wax, and Azula pressed her personal seal into it. The blue wax hardened into the shape of dragon with its wings spread. Beside that dragon, Azula wrote the date.
"Shall I send it tonight, Princess?"
There was no point in that. "In the morning will do."
Azula's small ship sailed into Capital Bay late the next evening. She stood on the deck of the ship and watched the glittering lights of the bay city that ascended in switchbacks up Capital City's volcano barrier. As much as she enjoyed leaving it for a week or two at a time, she appreciated coming home.
Fung Tao, her Dai Li captain, was waiting on the dock with his usual partner. The two men bowed to her and settled in seamlessly with her three guards.
"I trust your trip went well, Princess," Tao said.
"It was quite educational." Azula glanced over her shoulder and seized Kota's wrist as they stepped on the short gangplank to the dock. Kota needed to have that baby soon to stop her awkward waddling and return to her usual efficiency.
A carriage awaited them. The two Dai Li agents helped Kota ascend into the carriage, and Azula stepped up after. She motioned for Fung Tao to ride with them. With her day of rest, she had no trouble with her words. "I trust my family hasn't destroyed the palace in my absence."
Tao smiled uncharacteristically. "No, Princess. Though there was an incident in which the young Prince Tozin set fire to Fire Lord Zuko's robes. The situation was…controlled."
"On purpose?" Tozin promised to be a mischievous boy, but that seemed quite uncharacteristic even in his worst pouts.
Fung Tao cleared his throat gravely. "The young Prince sneezed."
Azula didn't temper her laughter. Why did she always miss these things?
Beside the carriage, an annoying thumb-bell rang twice to signal someone wished to pass. Azula watched through the curtain as a bicycle-carriage ponderously rode by their ostrich horse-drawn carriage. She raised an eyebrow to see not one but two well-dressed women sitting in the basket pulled by it.
The bicycle driver rode along at a good clip despite his sizable burdens. His progressed slowed considerably when he screamed; apparently Azula's ostrich horse was attracted to the shiny bell on his bicycle handle. The two ladies—shockingly fat ladies who had somehow crammed into the basket behind the bicycle—giggled. "Go faster, Kazimo!"
Azula had some sympathy for the poor man. She stuck her head out of the carriage to speak to their driver. "Let them pass."
The women goggled at her. When they regained their senses, they gasped, "Princess!" Their words weren't in fear but delight.
It was to be expected. With no war, there was little reason for the royal family to present themselves as a faceless warrior; in fact, it was against their best interests. Zuko had the task of humanizing himself to the general public automatically completed; he had two children. Azula had to suffer these little interactions, but she could still take some pleasure out of it.
"Good evening," Azula told the women. "Consider losing a bit of weight; your servant may have a heart attack before he gets you to where you're going. Though it appears walking would do you both some good."
They both gasped in shock as they rode by, too stunned by her comment to make a reply. As the panting bicycler passed the ostrich horse, one of the women turned in her seat with a laugh to call out, "He's not a servant; he's my husband!"
Azula ducked back into the carriage as it began to move. She amused by the entire situation despite herself. Commoners could be very strange people.
"Princess," Fung Tao said with mild reproach.
She rolled her eyes at him. "The only way they were going to kill me was to sit on me and suffocate me, and they weren't even that large." She paused to consider that. "Apparently the new Earth Kingdom ambassador enjoys such pursuits. All the fattest prostitutes of Muma District will be rich by the end of his stay."
Kota hid her laughter in a little cough, and Fung Tao smirked.
By the time they reached the palace, it was far too late to drop in on her family. Her servants would inform their servants that she'd returned. No doubt they would call on her tomorrow for breakfast.
Though she'd entertained the marginal hope that Katara would be back, Azula wasn't surprised to find her bedroom empty, excepting the bearded cat that wound 'round her legs and trilled. She picked up Tonk and settled the cat under her arm as she approached her desk.
The thick scroll from the Southern Water Tribe on her desk surprised her. A low tremble of fear—then anger—worked through her.
Azula wrote small bits every day; it helped center her and marked the end of her workday. There was always a catalogue of things she'd seen that day that Katara might like, and Katara claimed to enjoy the stack of letters that arrived with each ship to the Southern Water Tribe. Katara, on the other hand, wrote tomes: pages and pages of news and thoughts and plans. They arrived rarely, once per month at most. And Katara never wrote a letter when she was due to arrive soon.
Azula dropped the cat and reached out to snap the binding of the letter with more vigor than it warranted. She unwrapped four long leaves of paper.
Azula, I'm sorry. I can't come.
Azula set down the letter, picked up the candlestick on her desk, and threw it across the room. It connected with a decorative vase, shattering it in a massive crash. Tonk hissed and raced out of the room. Azula felt little satisfaction at her childish display of temper, especially when Kota rushed into the room in alarm and two Dai Li agents appeared on her balcony.
"Leave it!" The scream hurt, but she'd managed it, a victory in itself.
Kota knew Azula's temper well; she bowed and left both the broken vase and Azula. The Dai Li guards slipped away into shadow. Azula rubbed her face furiously. She made herself sit down to meditate, and eventually her racing heart slowed and the tightness in her throat relaxed. Her anger was her defense. When it melted, she was afraid.
These last few years, Katara had been staying longer and longer in the South Pole; her last two visits to Azula, her consort, were four weeks when combined. Katara hadn't acted like she hadn't wanted to be with Azula; she'd acted like there was something in the South Pole she couldn't wait to get back to.
Another lover, she wondered vaguely at the end of the last visit. She'd wondered it even as Katara held her close on the docks of Capital Bay and kissed her as if she were memorizing the essence of Azula's mouth. She'd wondered it when Katara never asked Azula to come with her.
Was this letter the first step towards Katara breaking off their relationship?
She told herself she was being paranoid. Azula knew that Katara's decision hadn't been made lightly. As much as she wanted to be the first priority in Katara's life, it would never happen. It was stupid to wish for.
She sat down at the desk and smoothed out the pages that she'd unconsciously crumpled. Her fingers were trembling.
Azula, I'm sorry. I can't come. Everything has turned into a giant clusterfuck, and I'm at the end of my rope just trying to keep on top of things.
Startled by the vulgarity, Azula reread the first paragraph. She had never seen or heard Katara use that term. What had happened in the last few months? She continued reading with more trepidation than before.
Pakku's still sick, and I'm losing hope. Every day I try to heal him, and every day it makes no difference. Gran Gran is being strong, but I'm so sad for her. She already lost one husband. She's going to lose another because I can't heal Pakku. I'd trust him to Noakka, the resident Master Waterbender here, but there's the crux (as you would say) of this whole horrible situation.
Noakka was attacked by a polar bear dog when he went out hunting. He went alone, even though he knew it was dangerous and I told him not to. The bear has been lurking around the village for weeks but we still can't find and kill the damn thing. It's gotten into our fishing holes and completely destroyed an old seal-hunting camp we've had from when I was a little girl. We didn't find Noakka until he was already half-eaten. There was nothing we could do.
I'm so angry with him. He left me in a situation that we could hardly manage together. I shouldn't be so angry. He was my friend. Usually deaths like that here…not of old age or sickness (incidental deaths?) happen when someone slips into the ice and drowns. Usually they just disappear. That's bad, but… It wasn't pleasant to see my friend turned into a carcass. I'll be alright. I'm so busy I don't have time to think about it, but sometimes when I'm in my furs at night, I'll close my eyes and see him like that. It's not fair to remember a person like that.
Everyone was upset. We didn't know what to do for his ceremony with only half a body. Less than that, actually. A head, his spine, and a hand. Dolla (that's my second cousin's mother, so you'd call her my aunt, I guess) sewed a linen sack in the shape of a man and stuffed it with straw and rocks. She almost chose ice, but I pointed out we wanted him to sink, not float. At least we were able to laugh about that. We wanted to put his parts in their approximate place, but there was no way. It was disquieting. Anyway, he was delivered to the sea in a way that didn't give the children nightmares, though Dolla and I have had a few ourselves.
Goes to figure that Noakka would make everything difficult for us. I shouldn't say that. He was a good man. I hope he's at peace where he is. I hope he died before he became…that.
You know I'm not superstitious, but even I'm beginning to think there's something to the idea of evil spirits lurking in our tribe. We've lost Noakka, we're losing Pakku, and the village might starve when the ice closes for winter.
We haven't been able to land a whale yet, and we need 3 to survive the ice closing. I've told you before that we need as many waterbenders as possible to raise our chances of landing a whale, and the 3 others here are too inexperienced to help on a whale hunt. And Pakku…obviously he's not fit to help us.
There are 3 adults on watch every day, and there are usually just as many children looking out too. All those people, and we've seen 1 whale. One. I directed the boat to find it. We spent hours on that boat, feeling for the next breath (surfacing), but it slipped away before we could even raise a spear. I must have misread its movement. It was a bad time to lose a whale.
Azula paused at this paragraph. There were several lines of writing that had been struck through vigorously. She managed to make out the words: 'It was my fault'. A little further down: '…when I can't afford to screw up'. Katara was upset and very worried about this matter then. She continued reading.
In any other year, we would have at least 2 whales butchered and stored by now. It'll take more than 100 seals to match the meat and fat and bone from a whale. Even if we had enough seal meat, we need the whale for its nutrients. There's no way to survive without one.
On top of that, there are 3 women due to deliver soon, and 2 elders require almost daily health checks, apart from Pakku. I hope one of them doesn't go into labor or a heart crisis while I'm on the whaling kayak. I need 3 of me, and then maybe things can be handled. 4, if I want to get all the things we've been putting off done. Like building proper houses and a town hall and a school and expanding the ice wall and so on and so forth. As you say, 'et cetera ad nauseum'. (Did I spell that right? Where does that phrase even come from?)
We'll survive. We always do. But I can't leave the village now.
I've sent missives to the Northern Water Tribe for a Master Waterbender (I begged for 2) but it may take 2 months from me sending this letter (at the fastest) for someone to arrive. I'll have to train them when they do come. I won't be able to come back for months…3 at least, 6 at most.
Azula, I need you. I need you with me. It's not fair to ask, but please, will you come to me? I want to sleep next to you again. I want to talk to you. I need your support. I need you. I don't know if I can do this without you.
With all my love and regret,
Azula reread the last paragraph three times. Katara hadn't stayed by choice. She didn't want to leave Azula. This wasn't an excuse to avoid being with her. She didn't have another lover in the Southern Water Tribe, not if she was pleading for Azula to come be with her.
Kota hesitantly entered the room.
Her voice was hoarse but certain as she said, "Send a note to Captain Lee that I'll be going with his next shipment. His ship should be ready to leave at dawn in two days. They should expect an extended stay."
The next morning, Azula took breakfast with her parents. Iroh sipped his tea and regarded her over his cup. He was completely bald now—likely because Ursa had taken a razor to the ring around the back of his head that still grew hair—and he wore his facial hair in the newest style: a full but short beard. Ursa's hair was solid gray and she had deep laugh lines, but she carried those features with dignity. They'd grown to look like a couple in all these years.
"What's this I hear about you going to the South Pole?" Ursa's question was prim.
"The truth," Azula replied, motioning for a refill of her caffeinated tea. She'd been restless the night before and hadn't slept well. "I leave tomorrow."
Ursa cocked her head. While her face expressed mild reproach, her voice didn't. "Katara isn't coming?"
"She can't. So I'm going to her."
"Who are you taking with you?"
Azula sensed this conversation was going somewhere she didn't want it to, but she answered truthfully. "A healer: Ling's apprentice, foodstuffs, building supplies, and myself."
"You know, the South Pole is a very pretty place." Iroh directed his observation to Ursa. Ursa smiled and took his hand. She replied, "I've always wanted to go."
"This isn't a vacation." Their audacity irritated her. "They're low of food and supplies—"
"And of course we'll make a contribution to your gifts," Iroh said calmly. "More than enough to feed your mother and myself for a few weeks."
"I don't know why you even bothered pretending I had a choice about this." Azula punctuated her accusation with a firm bite of sliced apple. Their smiles were too indulgent to be anything but insulting. "We sail at first light tomorrow. If you're not on board, you'll have to find your own ship or swim."
A servant stepped forward. Azula didn't recognize him. He announced, "The Fire Lord."
They all stared at him in utter shock before Ursa and Iroh exchanged irritated looks. Zuko swept past the servant and waved him away with a dry rebuke. "I can announce myself to family, thanks."
The boy bobbed a low bow and retreated. At least he hadn't stopped to beg forgiveness. Azula doubted he would be called on to serve Zuko in that capacity anytime soon. He was about thirteen years late on the formality of announcing the Fire Lord to whatever room he walked into.
Azula adopted a snooty tone, "The Fire Lord! All bow to his great prestigious power and—" Zuko flicked her off. "—his refined vulgarity."
"Zuko!" Ursa scolded. He sighed as he sat down and managed a contrite expression. Kota stepped forward to pour Zuko a cup of tea. He glanced at her in surprise. "I didn't realize you were pregnant."
Kota was surprised to be addressed, but she recovered before she overfilled his teacup. "Yes, Fire Lord."
"Azula's not forcing you to go with her, is she?"
He'd been insufferable since Mai had had their second child. Zuko seemed to think he knew more about pregnancy than anyone else. While she didn't envy him sitting in a birthing room with Mai, Azula also didn't appreciate that he paired his knowledge with the assumption that she had none. Azula saved her servant the need to answer Zuko.
"What do you take me for, a midwife? I'll be happy to be well away from the horrors of a woman pushing a grapefruit sized baby head out of her body. Kota, I would also prefer you to go put your feet up and concentrate on not having that baby until I leave. One of my parent's servants will attend us."
Kota bowed but not before Azula saw her smirk.
Zuko sighed as he watched her leave. "Mai's not showing yet."
It was the first Azula had heard of it. A third child in five years. Their royal suite would be overrun by screaming children soon. "Congratulations." Oddly, she meant it. As boring as Zuko and Mai proved to be, they produced wonderfully rambunctious, clever children.
Ursa beamed at Zuko and reached out to squeeze his hand. "So many beautiful grandbabies for me." She shot Azula a pointed look. She'd been practically shoving fathering candidates down Azula's throat the last three years. They were all pretty, all stupid, all firebenders. All decidedly not going to put their penises or seed anywhere near Azula's body.
Zuko rescued Azula from Ursa's demands. "How long will you be gone?"
"I can't say. Until Katara's ready to come back with me. Do you have time today to discuss my trip?"
Zuko shook his head. "I have to smooze with a few Earth Kingdom families to drum up some financing for a project, and my council needs a babysitter for their audit—sounds like you're too busy to do that for me. Too bad, since you're the only person in the world who enjoys them."
"Threaten them with my presence if they give you trouble," she said gleefully. She made no mention of his 'project', otherwise known as the future Republic City. Azula let him believe he could keep that secret from her.
Zuko smirked. "Do you mind if we exchange written reports?"
"I'm always happy to have a bit of light reading on a trip." She sighed airily and looked down her nose at him. "It's an excellent remedy for sleeplessness."
His jaw dropped. "Wait, are you talking about my reports? Because you are the wordiest writer I have ever read. That is sleeping material."
"I'm so glad my children have grown up to be such mature adults," Ursa said to Iroh with a pout.
At that, Zuko blew a wet raspberry, and Azula replied in kind.
Ursa sighed wearily, and Iroh sputtered into his tea and began to cough. Zuko and Azula shared smirks. It was so much fun to make fun of their mother.
"On that lovely note…" Ursa leaned over the table to kiss Zuko. She poked his shoulder gently. "I have a few errands to run. Make time to meet me for dinner tonight. I don't want my last memory of you before this trip to be you making a rude face."
"What about you, Uncle?"
Iroh patted Zuko's shoulder with a smile. "Yes, of course, Zuko."
After they'd left, Zuko and Azula sat in comfortable silence in the quiet of the morning. "Stay as long as you need," Zuko finally said. It was generous of him; she'd had a long list of work lined up for the next month. Azula warned him, "That may be a long time."
He raised his eyebrow. "I don't know how you do it. I'd go crazy without Mai with me every day. Hell, I can't even sleep without her snoring next to me."
That was an interesting tidbit that Azula would enjoy entertaining for a long time to come. She could just imagine it: Mai asleep with her mouth open, producing gusty snores. Zuko shot her a glare. "For the sake of my marriage, don't repeat that."
"Mom would kill me if I made future grandbabies an impossibility."
"How are you?"
She could have answered flippantly or just brushed off the question, but Zuko had been serious. She was honest. "Stronger than I could hope. I planted rice on my trip."
Zuko snorted. "Why do you have to try everything you go to observe on those trips? You make me look bad."
"That isn't hard, Brother. And I get so bored," Azula said airily, ignoring his glare. "I've always wondered what it's like to be the common people, and I get to dabble at it when I travel around and call it work."
Zuko rolled his eyes. "You have a shorter attention span than my four-year-old. You'd better stop in to say 'hi' to the kids before you go." Zuko stood and stretched. "Well, I'm off to smooze."
He hesitated a moment. She could sense an awkward family moment when she saw one, so she stood up and stepped into his hug. Zuko pulled her tight by her shoulders. He spoke quietly. "Enjoy your trip. Tell her you love her."
She patted his shoulder and pushed him away. "I don't need romantic advice from my dumb-dumb big brother. But I had planned on it."
After he left, Azula settled in her study and read through her notes from her trip. She added a few tidbits and organized her observations and ideas. Zuko had accused her of being too detail-oriented. He'd just have to deal with it.
Tonkara made her presence known halfway through the report when she leapt on the desk and began to bat at Azula's writing brush. Azula sighed at her cat, gave her a scratch, and unceremoniously pushed her off of the desk. Her reprieve lasted all of five minutes. This time, Tonk swiped her tail under Azula's nose, and Azula gave her cat a little toss onto the nearby settee.
"Jump up again, and I'll throw you off the balcony," she threatened.
The cat jumped on her desk again. Azula didn't throw her off the balcony.
By the time she'd finished her report it was midafternoon. Kota slipped into the study with a welcome announcement. "Lady Laza is calling."
Azula folded her report and stood. "Are we on schedule for tomorrow?"
"Yes, Princess. Ling's apprentice has been quite helpful. He's impatient to leave."
Ling had been the head royal physician for years. His newest apprentice, Jun, had practically jumped on Azula's suggestion for a trip to the Southern Water Tribe the evening before. He was ambitious but mostly eager for adventure...and to get away from the very angry noblewoman he'd snubbed.
"We'll take lunch in the garden." She frowned at Kota. "Take a nap. And stop bowing."
"Yes, Princess." Kota hesitated mid-bow. Her face twitched in perplexity; Azula held back her laugh.
Azula made her way down to the gardens alone. A table had been set with food by the time she stepped outside. Laza, dressed in atrociously bright robes that were the new fashion for noblewomen, waited beside the table. She bowed and settled into her seat after Azula sat down.
"You came alone," Azula pointed out, a little surprised that Laza hadn't brought her wife.
"You didn't, Princess," Laza said, nodding to the bearded cat that had followed Azula down into the gardens. Tonk quickly found Azula's lap. "If I'd brought Kili, you'd both start talking about mongoose dragon eggs and breeding and ejaculate amount, and I'd be asleep in minutes."
Probably true. Laza's wife was the only person Azula knew who loved mongoose dragons more than she did.
"Rare for you to call on me." And a breach of etiquette. Invitations and calls were supposed to come from the superior household first. With the laxness of formality in the last few years, sometimes noble families overstepped. Azula didn't mind in this case.
"Someone may have mentioned to me that if I wanted to call on you, today would be my last chance for a while." Laza set her teacup down, her voice lowered in excitement. "Are you going to elope?"
Laza was always eager for rumors and innuendo, though usually they came to Azula, not from her. "I thought the whole point of eloping was to do it in secret." Before Laza could react, Azula continued. "I'm afraid it's more serious than that. The Southern Water Tribe has hit some lean times, and Katara must stay with them to help them prepare for winter. I'm taking myself and aid."
Laza didn't hide her disappointment. On one rare occasion involving a bit too much wine, Laza had forgotten herself and accused Azula of being unromantic. Azula could guess that was where her thoughts were now. Laza asked her, "Isn't it always winter so close to the pole?"
"The ice closes, cutting off their whaling access, and because of their orientation on the globe, night falls for weeks on end."
"Ice and endless night? Sounds horrible. Shall I mention it to my friends?"
Laza enjoyed an extensive ring of noblewomen contacts, which saved Azula having to keep track of them individually. They had formed a donation group and hosted fundraisers to send supplies or funds to areas that were in need around the world. It was still rather shocking to Azula that Laza had managed to group the flightiest bunch of women in the world and lead them to do something productive.
And that was only in her spare time.
"Nothing insulting." Azula recalled one particular fiasco that had set their relationship with the Northern Water Tribe back a few months. "But some donated funds and appropriate foodstuffs and supplies wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing coming from the ladies of the Fire Nation. Wait until I send for it before you send what you've collected."
"Are you healthy enough to travel to such a place?"
Azula hadn't even considered consulting with her physician. If Katara asked her as she had, then her consort thought she was strong enough. Azula certainly felt strong enough. She waved off Laza's concern paired with a warning look.
Across the garden came twin shrieks of delight. Laza winced and pretended she hadn't. Tonk took one horrified look towards the noise and leapt from Azula's lap to hide. Azula prepared herself for the two children running full-tilt towards her.
The boy, Tozin, had just celebrated his fourth birthday. He was as clumsy as Zuko had been at that age and tripped headlong on the stone pathway. Azula flinched in a completely uncontrollable reaction. Rina, the little girl, was almost three. She didn't wait for her brother and scrambled into Azula's lap. Her skinny little knees and elbows jabbed some very painful places.
"I am not a climbing tree," Azula said dryly.
Rina predictably ignored the rebuke and gave her a sticky kiss, provoking a shudder of disgust. Why were children so dirty? She wrapped Azula's neck in an enthusiastic hug. "Auntie!"
Azula put her arm around her niece to return her hug. She kept her eyes on Tozin, who'd clambered to his feet but was blinking back tears. He turned to Mai, who'd followed at a more sedate speed, for a hug. Mai patted his back and took his hand firmly as they walked the rest of the way to the patio.
"Let me see." Azula pointed to Tozin's knee.
Tozin sniffled and stepped closer, pulling up the edge of his trousers. Azula looked at his skinned knee clinically. "Where's the rest of it?"
"What?" he asked her, showing the gap where he'd knocked out his front tooth on the garden fountain.
"The big piece of skin you lost. Where is it?"
Tozin immediately stopped sniffling. His amber eyes went round, and he turned back to the garden path. Rina at that point was bored with Azula's lap and clambered off of her, racing after her brother. They both combed the garden path in concentrated search.
A servant had a chair and a place set for Mai in a few short moments. Laza stood and bowed; Azula didn't bother to get up. Laza said, "Fire Lady, I'm honored by your presence."
Mai rolled her eyes. "I hate it when people call me that. My name is Mai. Those robes are ugly."
"Don't worry, she's always this grumpy," Azula told Laza, who was always a little uncertain in the face of Mai's rudeness. "One flash of color and she scowls for a week."
"Screw you, Azula," Mai said genially. "You started the stupid fashion."
"It was to prove of point," Azula defended.
"It was because Zuko dared you. You two act like three-year-olds."
Azula fulfilled that statement by saying, "He started it."
Laza hid her smirk with her teacup. Across the garden, Rina shrieked in girlish delight. The pitch and volume of that scream drew a faint wince from all of them. Mai pointedly did not—nor would she ever—try to silence her children while they were playing.
"Were we this loud as children?"
"I wasn't. You and Ty Lee were," Mai said. "Zuko said you're thinking about changing careers to be a rice farmer."
Laza laughed. "Princess Azula, you seem bound and determined to try every trade and craft in this nation. What was it last month, a silk weaver?"
"I'm terrible at it all," she admitted smugly. She heaved an airy sigh and said, "Thank the dragon I was born the Royal Princess or I'd never have managed to make a living."
The children were back with a question for Azula. "Can we feed the turtle ducks?"
Azula knew better than to answer without parental input; Mai could be downright territorial when it came to her kids. She glanced at Mai, who nodded. Azula handed a small painted wooden bowl of rice to Rina. "This is a very valuable bowl," she told her niece dryly. "Priceless. So don't drop it."
Rina stared at the bowl in her hands.
"Let me carry it!" Tozin, ever the older brother, reached out for it.
"As I said, a very valuable bowl. When it's full of rice, it can only be carried by Fire Nation Princesses." Rina smiled triumphantly, and Tozin pouted but put his hands down. They both knew very early in life that they were Prince and Princess. "However, when it's empty, it may be carried by Fire Nation Princes."
Tozin and Rina looked at each other then looked at Azula as they sorted that out. She could practically see the gears turning in their heads as they worked through the logic of what she'd said. There could be two results: Tozin would make his little sister drop the bowl and start a temper tantrum, or they would work together. Azula waved them towards the turtle duck pond, and they chose the latter scenario. The children turned and actually walked to the pond, whispering with each other. They handled the bowl like it was made of fragile dragonglass.
"It's not nice to lie to children," Mai said.
"Clearly I was being facetious."
"That's the same thing as lying when you're talking to a two-year-old. They're probably going to yell at Zuko for picking up a rice bowl." Mai sipped her tea daintily. She looked like she found the thought entertaining.
"Congratulations," Azula said.
Laza's eyes went wide, but she didn't say anything.
Mai only sighed. "It's Zuko's fault. We agreed on two." But as she said it, she turned her eyes to her children, and Azula knew she wanted the one inside her now.
Tozin and Rina squatted by the turtle ducks, giggling when the little animals waddled between their feet to snatch up the wads of rice the children dropped the ground. They were gentle as they reached out to pat them—probably because they didn't have a tail to pull like poor Tonk did—and Rina gave a happy shriek when a turtle duck nibbled at her toes.
Azula was struck by an old memory from her own childhood involving Ozai. She'd finally reached a point in her life that thoughts of Ozai no longer immediately brought bitter anger. She kept her memories separated from the man himself, and that helped sooth much of the bitterness that had burdened her for years. This memory made her smile.
"Shall I regale you with the tale of Ozai and the turtle ducks?"
Mai rolled her eyes. Laza looked at her curiously. It was permission enough to speak.
"Ozai once found me with a turtle duck in my lap. He threw the turtle duck back in the pond and told me to find him a rock. When I did, he threw the rock at that turtle duck. I thought he'd killed it. But it popped up to the surface unharmed and happy. They are rather stupid animals, after all. Ozai told me there was a lesson in that:
"'Some things appear impenetrable, invincible. They cannot be broken or crushed from the outside, like the turtle duck. But there's a species of crab that lays eggs where turtle ducks eat. When the turtle duck eats the eggs, one will hatch inside it. The baby crab consumes it from the inside, where the turtle duck is soft and vulnerable. When the crab grows up, it has the shell for itself.'"
There was a beat of silence as they digested it. Then Mai turned to Azula, as incredulous as such a deadpan woman could ever be. "You're not seriously telling me we owe Ba Sing Se's fall to turtle ducks."
Azula leaned back and crossed her legs. She was pleased Mai had drawn the parallel. "Ozai had very good lessons...though it's clear he never actually understood them."
"Yeah," Mai agreed. "That giant drill seems even stupider now."
"May I use that story, Princess?"
Laza wrote and illustrated picture books for children in a campaign to give commoners the tools to teach their children to read. It was funded greatly—for tax credits—by the new printing press company headquartered in Capital City, allowing each book to be sold for a few copper pieces. Laza had had the clever idea of writing with the traditional kanji and printing the phonetic script beside each symbol so readers could use one or the other to read.
Azula smirked, imagining what Ozai's reaction would be if he could know he would star in a children's book. His imaginary screaming rage was deliciously satisfying. "If you can make that gruesome lesson appropriate for a storybook, I applaud you."
Tozin was at her side again, holding out the empty rice bowl carefully. Azula motioned for him to put it on the table. "I'm a Princess of the Fire Nation," she said seriously. "I can't carry it when it's empty."
His eyes rounded again. The children had trouble with the concept of an adult being Princess, but they took her words as truth. He set the bowl on the table. Then he clambered into her lap and gave her a kiss and a hug to match his sister's. She allowed herself to enjoy it. A moment later, he was off, running through the gardens with his little sister at his heels, shrieking in happiness at the sight of Tonk in the bushes.
She would remember their laughter as long as she could in the wake of the precious few happy memories she had from her own childhood. Her niece and nephew deserved protection and they deserved their childhood.
Protecting that was as important as winning a great battle, and the victory of it would be greater than the greatest military conquest.
She was walking on harsh sand and glass. Melted sand glowed red and sent up a cloud of hissing steam as the ocean's waves hit the shore. There were great dark furrows in the dunes farther up the beach—claw marks and a violent impression of a giant snake-like body. From behind her, Azula heard a long rumbling growl. She knew what it was without turning.
Azula jerked awake with a cry in the utter still of gray of pre-morning. She stared at Kota, who stood in the doorway of her bedroom watching her with wide eyes.
Tonk lay at the end of the bed, licking Azula's toes with relish. The cat purred with her eyes closed as her rough tongue rasped along Azula's skin.
"Princess?" Kota asked tentatively.
Something about her voice and the way she said it struck a memory.
Azula pulled away from the clawed grip her cat had on her foot and sat up, hovering in the oddness of the dream that had slipped so easily from her memory. It left her disoriented, grasping at the details for the day ahead. Katara wasn't in bed with her. Where had she heard Kota address her in just that way?
Tonk clambered into her lap, trilling in apparent happiness that Azula was awake. As she stroked the bearded cat's neck, she remembered she was going to the South Pole.
Azula focused on her servant. Kota's honest face was the same today as the day before, but Azula was still caught by déjà vu. Then the memory clicked. She finally placed this face in a much different situation. She was incredulous. When she spoke, her voice was hoarse from sleep. "The cherry pit."
Kota blanched and gasped, confirmation that Azula's memory had rung true.
Azula wasn't sure whether to laugh or not. She was so stunned she actually gaped. She was shocked in part by the truth and in part that she hadn't realized it before now. "That was you?"
Kota bowed and waited, silent. Was she frightened after all these years?
"And you volunteered to come back to serve me after the war?"
Kota's voice was quiet but firm. "Princess, when I came of age, I was appointed to serve in your household. I've been on your serving staff since you were a child. You had never acted that way before. I knew it wasn't you."
"You mean I never threatened to murder and then banished a servant for not being able to sense a cherry pit?" Azula asked sardonically. Her voice evened with each word she spoke.
Kota lifted her head and looked into Azula's eyes. "You were never cruel."
Azula was fairly certain any and all preteen princesses were cruel to their servants. No doubt it was not so cut and dry as that anyway. When Azula had returned to the palace after the end of the war, Kota had taken a gamble and that gamble had paid off. And here they both were. Azula was certainly glad for it. Kota was exceptional at her post.
"Technically, I never did un-banish you," she said with a smirk. Kota's shoulders relaxed. She waved her hand. "Well, you're un-banished. For Agni's sake, stop bowing. I'm not going to dismiss you for being the victim of my circumstance a dozen years ago. No wonder you never serve me cherries." Azula stretched her back and regarded Kota's rounded belly dubiously. "Take my words as concern over your pregnancy, not an excuse to dismiss you: perhaps a junior should serve me this morning."
Kota spoke firmly. "I would rather do it myself."
It was an uncharacteristic statement. Well, who was Azula to command her servant not to serve? She did warn, "If you go into labor, I expect you to walk yourself out of the bathing chamber and have that baby well out of my sight and hearing."
Kota couldn't quite suppress her smile. "I'm due in a month, Princess."
"A month too late," Azula muttered.
They continued their usual morning routine, albeit in more rush than usual. After Azula was bathed and dressed, her servants saw her off with formal bows and well wishes for her and well wishes for their Lady Katara. Kota waddled with Azula through the palace to the waiting carriage and loitered there in obvious want to see her off at the docks. Azula heaved an exasperated sigh and motioned for Kota to join her.
Captain Tao sat within the carriage. She hadn't made time to speak with him the day before, and now he had a predictable request that Azula immediately declined. She told him, "No guards. I doubt very highly that assassins will be hiding in ice and snow."
"It would be better—"
"No," she commanded. She respected that he didn't automatically take all her words as iron law, but sometimes Tao didn't know when she'd given an ultimatum. "Give my guards a paid vacation. I don't want to see them again until I sail back into this bay. If I do, you're all fired."
He wiped the frown off of his face and folded his hands in his sleeves. He understood her certain order clearly this time. "As you wish, Princess."
When they rolled up to the bay, she waited for Fung Tao to carefully lift Kota down from the carriage. She had a last minute piece of information she'd forgotten to address. Azula looked at her bodyservant with new appreciation as she said, "If you happen to have need of the royal physician while I'm gone, he knows he's to serve you. Don't hesitate. Now go to your husband and family, and don't come back until you're ready. I won't replace you."
Kota looked like she might cry. "Princess, it's my greatest pleasure to serve you."
Azula didn't scold her servant for the last bow she gave. It was a familiar gesture, and Azula knew she would be plunged into the unfamiliar in coming days.
AN: Another change of pace, writing-wise. I'm probably going to take a few more days to work on Book 3 as a whole. I'll upload a couple of light-hearted one-shots that take place between Books 2 and 3 in the meantime.