"You must be the princess."
Azula did not turn. She sat, staring at the wall, perfectly still except for her hands skittering over one another. Thumb over wrist, forefinger over knuckle, palm over the back of hand. It was a soothing rhythm, and when she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could pretend one of the hands wasn't hers. She didn't know whose hand she wanted it to be; she never got that far in the process.
The sound of someone sitting down intruded further. Much rustling fabric; the woman (the voice was low, graveled, but definitely a woman's) must be wearing one of the multi-layered old-style dresses Paupau had worn until the day she was gone (the same day as their mother).
There was a term for those, something her tongue tripped over because it was one of those words that retained its roots in the dialect the heavenly blood had been trying to erase from its voice since long before she was born. Azula was annoyed at herself that she couldn't remember it. Paupau would be disappointed; she'd always been trying to talk Azula into wearing them more often. Azula had hated the difficulty of getting into them, all the work to get out again so she could train, how easily they were soiled if she ran through the gardens or snuck into the kitchens.
Venerated Mother of the Fire Princess, Azula was told to call her grandmother. When she tried, Paupau clicked her tongue behind her teeth and took Azula's small hand in her own, held securely in the tiger's mouth of her thumb and forefinger. She said that her old ears felt tired hearing so many words from such a young mouth, and wasn't Paupau simpler?
I am no simpleton, Azula asserted, for she certainly was not, and Paupau laughed and told her of course this was not the case.
It is how my own mother taught me, Paupau continued, and her look became sterner.
Azula might have been a child and inclined to devious manipulation, but she knew far better than to do anything that could be seen as insult to her great-grandmother. She felt a tingle behind her shoulders and wondered if her great-grandmother was there, witnessing their exchange. There was a crawling sensation of fear up her spine at the thought, of her ancestors being so close they could touch her, but there was also a bracing coolness in the possibility, to know there could be someone watching, judging, evaluating her at every moment. Azula straightened, feeling her bones strengthen under the challenge.
Paupau, she said, bowing.
Much better, Paupau said, releasing Azula's hand, a silent signal that she was excused.
Azula slowly drifted back to the present, drawn by some faint sensory tug. She resisted, wanting to stay back there, back to that time when her grandmother had shaped Azula's will so effortlessly and it was only weeks later that she figured it out, and weeks still after that before she went into Paupau's room with her scroll of The Silence of Subterfuge and they discussed it over tea, a text that would bind them together through years.
But there was a distinctive physicality buzzing at her awareness like a fly-beetle, impossible to ignore. Her consciousness returned first to her hands, trickling outwards to the rest of her body with the passing seconds.
There was a time, she knew, when she would have reacted to this situation immediately, when she would have snapped off this insolent woman's hand and slapped her with it. She felt foggy, apathetic. She hardly tasted the so-called medicinal herbs in her soups, anymore, or perhaps it was that she was becoming accustomed to the taste, learning to like it a little. It was incrementally preferable to being tied up and force-fed.
"Why bother?" she asked, referring to the fact that the woman had begun to run a comb through Azula's hair. The steady flow of Azula's hands and their serpentine circulations began to slow.
"A way to pass the time," the voice said, layering on the boredom too thickly, drawling the peasant vowels. Azula may have been half-asleep but she was not dull. This subterfuge lacked every one of the five great precepts: subtlety, intricacy, credibility, sensitivity, and authority.
Her hair resisted every effort, thick and tangled from neglect. It had always been hard to manage at the best of times — the concoctions they'd used in her baths were unspeakable and tedious — and it had taken her best-trained staff at least an hour to prepare it properly. Now, she would squeeze harshly with her fingers until it stopped dripping and occasionally held it over candles, singing the ends. The smell of burning hair was repellent.
"You will fail," Azula said, and an unexpected stir of satisfaction swirled at the words. It had been too long since she'd spoken this way to someone. Her hands came to rest on her wrists, the movements stalling, and she clasped them loosely.
"You have already failed," the voice said, and the shock of it hit Azula with the suddenness of Katara's ice engulfing her.
She was on her feet before she knew her movements; the comb clattered loudly on the stone floor. Her heart was racing and the woman slowly came clear in her vision. She was tiny, thin-limbed, her head of hair still completely black which gave her an incongruously young appearance against the old-style dress. Her face had few lines, but they were deep. There was no stoop in her stance.
"Ah," the woman said, her eyes dancing. "Something still burns."
All these months that Zuko had kept her here — for her own good, of course, and he would consider releasing her once he felt confident that she would be safe, he was only worried for her safety, after all — and there had been no harsh words, no cruel looks, not the slightest inkling of the words she knew must be floating around the province. He was careful that way, chatty guards disappearing before the day was up. And this, this insignificant woman, this nothing, thought she could come in here and speak to Azula. As if she were good enough to be ground to dust underneath Azula's heel.
"Pick up the comb," Azula ordered, striding forward to stand in front of the mirror. "And you'll need to do something about the ends."
"I'll get the scissors," the woman said, walking towards the door.
Azula did not watch her go. One didn't do that with servants. Idly, she wondered whether she ought to stab the woman or not, as a reward for the foolishness of leaving a weapon so near Azula's reach. The guards would flood in at the first scream, she knew, but the woman would breathe her last long before they could wave around their little toy swords.
The most interesting part, though, was that Zuko would give this woman such free reign.
A way to pass the time, Azula thought, and contemplated her reflection. She was sallow, grimy, gaunt. Unrecognizable. Why not?
"Is he enjoying your reports?" Azula said, as the woman ran the washcloth over her shoulders.
"I will show you how to braid your hair today," the woman said, ignoring her. Her hands were rough and gnarled, her knuckles catching on the back of Azula's neck, pulling at the small hairs. "It is long past time you learned."
"I have no use of such skills," Azula said, rubbing her hands underneath the water, enjoying the slick feeling of bath oils on her skin. She felt slippery as a fish. "Do tell Zuko for me."
"We will begin with the very simplest, what my daughters learned when they were four." The woman's voice was dry, and Azula heard the insult, knew it was left deliberately, and damned herself for the way her fingers clenched. She was appallingly weak. "That ought to be basic enough even for you."
The water began to roil, giving off steam. The woman's hands dipped into it deliberately, no fear at the heat, wetting the rag; she squeezed it over Azula's head.
Azula closed her eyes, the fragrances and oils in the water stinging them. Then the woman's hands settled onto Azula's shoulders; the woman's skin was burning. Water sizzled where they were in contact.
Azula felt nausea rising in her belly, and there was no soft drift this time, no gradual shift: she felt the past surge forward aggressively, the quick tug of her mother's fingers in her hair, the way her eyes were focused outside the room even before she had finished, her absentminded words when Azula had protested.
She will finish it for you, her mother said, gesturing at the nearest servant girl. I am needed elsewhere.
Ama — Azula tried to walk after her, but she was hardly three and could not keep pace with an adult. Her mother's dress brushed the floor, swishing out of view. It's already coming apart, Azula finished, the three strands of the braid unwinding as she made her way back to the mirror. The servant girl ushered her back to the mirror. The girl had to re-braid the entire thing.
The branding heat on Azula's shoulders brought her back, less harshly; she opened her eyes, fighting to breathe. The woman's hands were unmoving and as the minutes passed, the heat began to leach out of them.
"Come," the woman said, sliding her hands down to Azula's upper arms and pulling Azula out of the tub. "Your bath is done."
Azula stood, the room billowing with steam; the tub beneath her feet was dry.
"I am very tired," Azula said, more drained than she'd ever felt, more than after the vials of liquid the guards poured down her throat, more than after she'd visited her father and felt the utter deadness beneath his skin. He'd been nothing more than a shadow of greatness. The word shattered skittered through her consciousness but couldn't find residence. "Leave me," she ordered, turning away from the mirror.
In the periphery of her vision, she saw the woman staring at Azula in her reflection. Azula did not meet her gaze, because if there was pity in the woman's eyes it would ruin everything, everything, and she would never admit it to the meddling Zuko or the specter of her mother that still sometimes appeared, but she needed this sickness in her belly, this minuscule creature that didn't seem to understand the word fear. Anything was better than the interminable blankness.
"I will return," the woman said, leaving without a bow or any other acknowledgment, her manners completely at odds with her coarse speech.
"I'm sure that you will," Azula sneered.
She started for her bed but stopped mid-step. She pivoted, snatching up the comb in front of the mirror, and took it with her. She sat on the blankets, held it up and looked at it.
Her hair dripped down her back, onto the fine fabrics she would have banished one of her servant girls for ruining. She picked up a fat strand, squinting dubiously at it, and shoved the comb into it haphazardly, awkwardly. These motions were not familiar to her.
"Heavenly lord," she said, when instead of moving through her hair it only became further lodged in. She expected rage, was prepared for the stench of burning hair and wood, but the rage didn't come. She felt foolish, ignorant, incapable, but there was a faint tinge of amusement, as well, and she delicately took the instrument between her forefinger and thumb, easing it out of her hair.
"Useless," she said, tossing it onto the surface of the nearest chest and laying down, spreading her wet hair out beneath her like a wing.
There was a heaviness at the back of her neck, as if someone were placing a hand just at the intersection of shoulders and spine. "Are you watching?" Azula rasped out, and she felt frail and young and frightened, and fell asleep not long after.
Azula wandered the halls, her gaze soft and unfocused in the low lights. The lanterns burned with meager sputters, shadows winking in and out of existence with the smallest stir of air that touched the flames. Distantly she felt the bitter cold of the stone on the soles of her feet; her father would be angry to see her like this, walking around like a dirty peasant, clothes ill-fitting and hair disheveled around her face. He was locked in a cell of his own shame, though, and she didn't see that his opinion carried any value at present.
He was brilliant the first time he brought her through these halls, all of his finery threaded with phoenix gold, the purest ore. She walked beside him proudly, her hair pulled back so tightly that her head was pounding, but she'd demanded it of her servant, tighter, tighter, and there was not a strand out of place. At four, she understood the importance of propriety.
She'd been here before, of course, with Paupau and her mother. Once a week, and once every day during the ninth month. Paupau taught Azula the way to speak to ancestors, as if they were standing right before her, to ask after their health and send them well-wishes. Her mother was always silent, staring at the tablets as if she were looking at something beyond them.
This was the first time her father was bringing her, her and her alone; father had told Zuko that he couldn't afford to miss bending practice and it was true. His flames were pitiable attempts at power. Just yesterday, Azula had ruined his favorite ma kwa unprovoked and he hadn't even struck back. She found him baffling and fascinating, like the soft, squiggly white larvae of the fly-beetles she sometimes found at the base of pine trees. They were disgustingly tender and she didn't understand how they became the thickly carapaced adult fly-beetles.
Jang yan, her father said respectfully to the monk when they arrived at the threshold, inclining his head a bit. The jang yan bowed low, the two prongs at the top of his hat almost brushing the ground.
Shameful, Paupau had said the last time they'd come to the temple, tapping her teeth disapprovingly while looking back at the jang yan who had greeted them. These are puppets, not people of spiritual devotion. And Azula remembered an illustration Paupau had shown her of a temple in ancient times, and how the jang yan had shared some resemblance to the Air Tribes they had conquered, how their necks were strung with wooden beads and their heads were bald and they wore red robes that bore no insignia.
Your great-grandfather Sozin was an insecure man, Paupau had said by way of explanation, casually blaspheming. He wanted the jang yan to look more like him. He could not have them devoted to any other.
She watched the jang yan before her, noted his tremulous avoidance of looking directly at her father or herself. She relished his deference. His attire was unmistakably fire nation, not the way she'd seen in the illustration where the origin was obvious but unstated, but in a way that looked like ownership and declaration.
It is time, her father said, lifting six sticks of incense out of the holder and handing her three. She followed a pace behind him, four of her steps to his every one. They stopped at her paternal great-grandfather's tablet, and she ascended the stools that had been positioned before all the brass bowls for herself and Zuko. Even on the stool her father towered above her, his profile like a carved statue.
Grandfather, he said, lighting the sticks with a brief flare of light, sliding them into the gathered ashes and bowing. He spoke with the same respect that he addressed her grandfather, the only time she heard anything resembling humility in his tone. This is my daughter, Azula.
Azula bowed. Her palms sweaty, she lit the incense with a thought and extinguished the flames just as quickly, leaving behind only smoke. She slid the three sticks in carefully, aligning them just so near her father's. Greetings, Venerated Fire Lord, she said, for the title of Fire Lord was one that death did not take.
Although they spoke to his spirit with human titles, they had offered three sticks each, the number of a mortal appealing to a god, praying for a bounty.
We beg of heaven that we are granted the favor of carrying on your honorable deeds, her father said, bowing again, and Azula felt a smoldering anticipation underneath her skin. She didn't quite understand what he was asking his grandfather — it was as if she were hearing a conversation through a closed door and could nearly but not quite make out the words — but she committed the information to memory, knowing it would come clear in time. There was no such thing as idle prayer to the great Fire Lord Sozin.
She looked up at her father, felt that he had brought her here for a reason, that the pride with which he said her name meant something.
She thought that she would do anything to be the firstborn son he should have had.
It was the smell of incense that brought her back, that unnamable fragrance that threaded through all her visits to this place. She heard the soft sounds of the jang yan breathing behind her, crumpled on the floor where she'd left him. Easy enough to disable such weak protection, even half-asleep. For a moment there was a flare of anger — the temple of their ancestors should be protected, safeguarded — but it faded as she walked forward, the names of her lineage taking shape before her.
There were ancestors so ancient she only knew their names as connected to the end of a long line of relations, only knew their lives as a series of recited deeds she'd memorized with the scholar of history who'd instructed her. The heavenly bloodline is history, he'd said, and traced it back as far as written characters went, as far as the beginning of things. You have a filial duty to uphold it. Without your ancestors you would have no body, no prosperity, no life. You would be nothing.
The stone was warming beneath her feet, and moving forward, she entered the sphere of names that had faces, the generations that began to include the women, although the tablets of her grandmothers were set behind the tablets of her grandfathers, almost an afterthought. Azula's mouth twisted sourly at the idea of her tablet being set behind some simpering prince's.
She knew that there was no tablet for Paupau (but she did not know if Paupau needed a tablet, if she was in this world or the next), and certainly not one for her maternal great-grandfather. Everything was carefully laid out, skillfully covered so the holes were invisible. She prowled the temple, restless, her eyes not content to skim over what wasn't there this time. She came to a stop in front of her maternal great-grandmother's tablet, halting mid-step. After a few moments, her mind slowly following her body and stilling, she shifted so she was standing properly.
"Baak," she said, the term Paupau had taught her to use rasping in her throat. The stones pulsated, warm heartbeats under her feet. She brought her hands up to hold the incense in front of her face, bowing her head and lighting the stick. "I beg forgiveness that it has been so long since we have spoken."
She looked at Baak's name, 水火, the characters for water and fire. It was an unusual name, she knew, even without Paupau telling her; it was inauspicious to include such powerful influences in a child's name, disrespectful to the elements to claim their power. But Baak had been born under the element of earth, in a year of air, and the star-readers had been very clear that her name was necessary for balance, for the harmonizing of all the volatile forces such signs could bring.
Azula felt a sense of satisfaction, bowing to a woman who had no man's tablet in front of hers, whose very name harnessed the forces of nature. There was strength in those two words, juxtaposed opposites that needed a firm hand to keep them in check.
"Baak," she said, sliding the base of the incense into the ashes she and her grandmother had left. "I beg of heaven that I am granted the favor of carrying on your honorable deeds." Her prayer was not idle.
She stayed until the incense had burned down, until she had told Baak everything, every one of her failures and her triumphs, until she was speaking words she hardly understood and the entire room was bathed in warmth, the lanterns in every corner burning brighter.
"I will return," Azula promised, dropping to her knees and touching her head to the floor.
She made her way back to her room, slipping through the guards' contingent easily. The jang yan had never seen her face, though she was sure Zuko would suspect. She liked to grant him such concessions, the little excuses that would eventually pile up to her execution or exile. There was such resistance in him, such a misguided belief that he could pull her into the world he'd constructed. His crown made him no less vulnerable then he'd always been; now she plucked the strings of his sympathy and yearning for familial connection. She had no illusions that this would end well but she enjoyed perpetuating his.
She shed her ill-fitting clothes and slipped into bed. She closed her eyes and felt the heaviness at the back of her neck, and it comforted her.
Azula was screaming; she knew this in some detached part of her awareness. She saw herself screaming at the mirror even as she did not see herself, even as she could see nothing but faces from the past and could hear nothing but words circling, circling round, so loud they drowned out all else. You will be the Fire Lord, they've left you behind, they'll always leave you behind, you're a monster, a prodigy, she's a prodigy, who knows the power that will burn in her when she is grown...
Odd, that the guards didn't enter. This was usually about the time they came with their metal restraints and one the doctors who would flinch when Azula looked directly at him.
But there were no guards, no doctors; only the old woman, standing off to the side and watching her body, neither flinching nor moving forward to restrain.
The woman turned her head and looked past the body, her eyes roaming for a moment before they focused, and Azula stirred when she understood that the woman was seeing her, adrift and dispersed, floating, a witness but not a full participant. Impossible, Azula thought.
"Come back," the woman ordered, and made a quick curling motion with her hands, and with intense suddenness Azula was reconnected with her senses. Her head was pounding, her gut roiling, her face and front stinging with shallow scratches. Her hands were calcified into dragon claws and straightened only with the greatest reluctance. Electricity flickered in her chest.
Azula searched, found air, dragged her voice back. "Leave," she growled, unsteadily backing away from the woman.
"I said I would return," the woman said, all calm aplomb. She looked at Azula without any visible assessment on her face; her features seemed rough-hewn in the light, skin stretched over jutting cheekbones and thick eyebrows over dark eyes that revealed little. Her nose was wide, lips wider, and Azula felt it incongruous that such a face would project softness. She gestured at the seat beside her, holding out an arm imperiously. "Come."
A tightness cut loose in Azula's spine and her muscles became watery, slippery, difficult to control. She stumbled forward into the chair, the same deep tiredness that always seemed to be lurking just behind her overtaking her once more.
The woman placed two hands on her shoulders, steadying her in the chair. Then her hands began to smooth over Azula's hair, a comb following gently in their wake, easing through knots with patience.
"Tell me what happens," the woman said, and the instant Azula's jaw tightened the woman moved her hand to the base of Azula's neck, pressing there firmly. A thread of heat emanated from the center of the woman's palm, trickling gently down Azula's spine.
"Oh, that?" Azula said, and her voice was all breeze and laughter. This, she still had at her disposal. "The guards forgot to bring me dessert."
The woman's hand shifted abruptly at the base of Azula's neck, with such force and precision that it felt as if all her vertebrae had just been cracked. Azula's back bowed outwards, her chest opening and her head falling back against the woman's grip.
"What..." Azula jerked away from the woman, almost falling out of the chair. She shuffled away as quickly as she could, hampered by neoteric sensations in her limbs and muscles. All throughout her body there was movement — in her blood, trembling in her nerves, perceptions that had not been there before.
"Leave," Azula ordered, again, pointing at the door. Her arm shook, but she refused to lower it.
"Come," the woman said, more softly this time. She gestured at the chair. "We will speak of it tomorrow."
"We will never speak of it," Azula said, feeling her lips curl up into a snarl. None of the hundreds of doctors Zuko had brought through had lasted more than a day, and none of them had gotten a word out of her that she hadn't granted them. She had no intention granting this woman any more indulgences.
The woman inclined her head. "Very well."
Azula watched her, seeking out the signs of deception or the signs of placation and finding neither. "As I thought," she said, because it needed to be clear that every exchange between them happened at Azula's discretion, that this woman served Azula's whims and not the other way around.
Azula sat back in the chair and the woman resumed her work. She combed slowly, shaping Azula's hair into a complicated series of small braids that she wound together into a spiral pattern along the back of Azula's head. She helped Azula dress, altering clothes with quick fingers while Azula stood in front of the mirror. Everything had to be taken in, cut to harsher angles.
When the sun set, the woman brought them a meal that they shared; Azula found it quaint, to be eating beside someone so lowly. She'd expected the woman to eat with her fingers and lick her bowl, but her manners were as impeccable as Paupau's. A hair finer, actually; there was a gracefulness in the way she held her chopsticks that impressed Azula, despite herself.
This woman constantly set Azula off-kilter, in small, insignificant ways. One moment she was bathing Azula like a servant, the next she was serving her the choicest bits of meat like an elder family member. Strangest of all was that they did not address each other by titles or names, making their interactions a stretch of shifting sands. Titles were the ground upon which royalty was built and Azula had to keep reminding herself of her place in their absence.
Night fell and the woman undid all her hard work of the day, unwinding Azula's hair and helping her undress and prepare for bed. She bathed Azula's hands in jasmine water and brushed her hair with thick bristles until it shone.
"You may leave," Azula said, flicking a dismissive wrist. She preferred to extinguish the lanterns only when she was alone.
"I will return," the woman said. Azula had expected it, grudgingly accepted this one solid thing amongst the reigning uncertainty.
The woman moved off towards the darkness at the door, but she turned before she reached it.
"I do all of this for you gladly," she said, and was gone.
Azula did not turn to see that she had gone; one did not do that with servants. She extinguished the lights and lay down in bed, her nerves pulsating long after she had closed her eyes.
"Azula," Zuko said, his face betraying his surprise. The guards flanking him were made of sterner stuff and didn't even glance her way. "You're looking well."
The woman had come and gone this morning, no insolent questions or demands, and Azula understood why, now. Zuko had wanted her presentable, palatable for his visit.
"You have your obedient subject to thank for that," Azula said, enjoying the smooth modulation of her tone. Amazing how even as things changed, some stayed so beautifully the same.
"Subject?" Zuko said, his brow furrowing. "What do you mean?"
"We can discuss her later," Azula said, because breaking through his flimsy attempts at deception was child's play at best and she had other games in mind. "What I really want to know is, how are you, Zuzu? Have you been taking proper care of yourself? Being Fire Lord is a tiring job, after all."
"Azula," he said, infusing her name with his favorite long-suffering tone. He turned his face away. Adorable.
"Oh, come, brother." Azula said, leaning forward in her chair. "We both know why you make these weekly visits. All that guilt eating away inside of you, and no one to dig into it. But that's what sisters are for, isn't it?"
"It's not like that," he said, and there was the tendon tensing in his neck that she knew so well. "You're my sister. I care about you."
"And I you, brother," she said, smiling her favorite weapon of a smile. "Which is why I'll always be here to remind you how proud mother would be of you, hiding me away just like father did to her. It's almost poetic, don't you think?"
Zuko rose from the table, pounding his fists down on it. Flames licked out from his hands. "I'm not —"
"Oh," she interrupted, standing to meet him. "But aren't you?" The lightning danced at her fingertips as it hadn't in months, and the temptation to show him that his crown was no protection against her was overwhelming, but she held it in check. There would be time yet.
She watched him back down, shrink inside his glorious red robes. "You think I haven't heard, brother?" she said, looking down at him. "A beautiful little island, where I'll be safe and well-cared for. It's what every little girl dreams of, but of course you knew that. How long until my paradise is ready?"
"I want you to stay," he said, and there was the flavor of defeat she loved so well. "I do."
"You just haven't quite figured out where to fit your sociopathic little sister in your brave new world, have you?"
"You may leave," she said, turning away from him. He was pathetic, so easily cowed. That he wasn't lying was irrelevant. She was done trying to save him from his own weakness.
He left, silently, without anymore heartfelt pleas. She'd memorized his very limited repertoire by now, anyway; there was no need to play the same scene over and over again.
She held her fingers in the air and traced circles of lightning, the pathways coming to life again like an ice floe melting into a river.
Azula was ashamed that she became complacent; for days, she woke in the morning and practiced forms, spent her afternoons reading the violent history of their nation, focusing in particular on the many bloody transitions of throne, and the evenings she practiced the night-time forms, the slower movements that brought the energy to ground and did not excite the flames to rising. She found the days tolerable and the constant edge of worry went out of her; even the woman was behaving in a manner more fit for someone of her status.
And it was something so small — an illustration of a man that resembled her father when he was younger, when she was so much younger, and a wash of memories rolled over her, how much she had adored him, respected him, molded herself after him in every way. He was the certainty that her world revolved around, and the nausea rose, he is powerless, he is powerless, he is powerless, the floodgates opening to everything else, all tumbling over each other, she didn't say goodbye to me, he shamed me at Agni Kai, I was going to be Fire Lord, I was going to have it all, and it was too much, too much. She thrashed, tearing at her hair, her face, things splintering under her fingers, but she couldn't get away, not the way she'd always been able to, and it was unbearable, she couldn't breathe, she couldn't breathe —
"Please," she said, or tried to say, or prayed, "please, no more, no more." She fell to the floor, curling in on herself. No more.
And then, there was a hand at the base of her neck, a fiery beacon, and a rough voice cutting through the noise. "Come back."
"I don't want to," Azula said, and did not open her eyes, because she knew the things she would see, the things she would hear. She knew what was waiting for her, and it was even worse than what was here.
"Come back," the voice said again, softer, and Azula didn't know why she would trust the voice, didn't know why she would listen. It was not in her nature.
But she latched onto the sound of the voice, wound her hands around it and hauled herself back, hand over painstaking hand. Breathing irregularly, she opened her eyes, and the woman was above her, looking down, holding Azula's face in her worker's hands.
"I am sorry," the woman said, tears in her eyes. It was the most expressive Azula had ever seen her, as if the mask she'd always worn was dissolving from her face like rice paper brushed with water.
She wanted to know why the woman was sorry, what she had done to Azula, who she was, why she looked at Azula like she was precious and unbreakable all at once.
"Please," was all that came out, and wracking cries that were infinitely worse than what had come before because this time she was here, undeniably here, and every part of her body was on fire with the wrongness of it, the grief, the feeling that once entered this would never end.
"Stay here," the woman said, and held her and held her and held her. "Stay here."
Azula burned, fever searing her brow, the tips of her fingers, her internal organs and her eyes. Everything she saw, heard, smelled, breathed was fire. Everywhere, every moment, all of it pouring out from inside her, wave after wave, endless heat that didn't devour her but left her wrung out, dry, empty.
"Stay here," the woman said, her hands on Azula's brow, around Azula's wrists, on Azula's stomach when the illness rose. Her hands felt like red-hot stones holding Azula down, holding her in place.
"What did you do to me?" Azula rasped, reaching out and encircling the woman's wrist with her dragon's claw. She felt so dry, so hollow, like a gourd in the desert.
"I retrieved you," the woman said, letting Azula's nails score her.
"How?" Azula said, darkness creeping in at the periphery.
"I looked," the woman said, but before Azula could ask any more her eyes closed.
Azula woke. Water was being poured in her mouth and she drank, wishing she could gulp but her throat was too raw, so raw that the cool touch of the water was painful. She kept her eyes closed and tried not to wince against it, because she could feel the sweet relief as it moved through her body, could feel how her muscles and flesh soaked it up as soil did after many days dry. Her awareness of her body — always finely tuned, as any accomplished bender — was sensitive as the highest, tightest strings of the peipa. The slightest brush of air felt as firm as a hand.
"That is enough," the woman said, and the flow ceased. The woman's hand around Azula's jaw was removed.
Azula opened her eyes. The light of the morning was grotesquely bright. "How long?" she croaked, groaning as she tried to sit up.
The woman pushed her down with hardly more than a finger. "It is the fourth morning," she said. She looked down at the Azula, with something like relief and sorrow. "You burned for three days."
Three days, Azula thought. Three sticks of incense. One for heaven, one for earth, one for the human world in between.
Azula's mind was confused, filled with three days and three nights of impressions that were filtering back blurrily, piecemeal. Her body, but not her body, separated; flows of energy that left behind sun-bright impressions; the faces of her family, the people she'd thought her friends, people she'd never met that shared her features; and all through it, the woman, speaking slowly and steadily, her hands on Azula matching the heat, directing it, her face always there when Azula opened her eyes.
These next words cost Azula something. She had little enough left, meager scraps of dignity and pride where there had once been abundance. She was surprised to find she paid the price from her depleted stores freely. "Thank you," she said.
"Rest," the woman said. She laid a hand on Azula's brow, and the fire was gentle this time, mere brushes of sunlight instead of roaring infernos.
White jasmine, Azula smelled. Her grandmother's — her mother's — favorite brew. The woman steeped the dried leaves and blossoms quickly, pouring the water between shallow bowls in smooth motions; with each pass it slowly accumulated more color and a stronger fragrance. The bowls were the most fragile ceramic, likely to crack if the boiling water touched them for too long. It was a dance, a balance between the full blossoming of the flavor and the limitations of the instruments.
Your Ama broke many bowls when she was first learning, Paupau had said, and Azula had found it hard to believe. She had seen her mother pour tea — her form was elegant, the epitome for which to strive.
Paupau had held up both of the bowls, cupped in her palms. One bowl is the spirit. The other bowl represents the physical body, the frailty of the mortal vessel.
Azula had balked at this imagery. Her body was strong, capable. I am not frai—
The water, Paupau had gone on, setting the bowls down and picking up the clay teapot, represents the universal energy, the hai. The porous surface of the teapot had been carved with entwining dragons and the outer edges had mere hints of filamented channels etched into clay, incredibly minute pathways that only the most skilled benders could move their fire through to heat the water inside.
Paupau had set down the teapot and, using two fingers, directed her fire in almost impossibly thin threads all along the labyrinthine carvings. Along the dragons' backs, the fire had formed pointed ridges in the shapes of their scales. A perfectly controlled display, the height of understated aesthetic power. Azula had felt nearly sick with awe, envy, and determination that someday she would reach that level of refinement.
The ritual, Paupau had said, is the discipline of bending. She had poured the water between the bowls with quick but unhurried movements, not a gesture wasted. You must not pour more water than the bowls can contain. You must wait until the energy is soothed, until it will not destroy your body or your spirit.
Paupau had slid the steaming bowl over to Azula; the water had still been swirling, the leaves and blossoms still circling the bottom. What about the tea? Azula had asked, picking her bowl up with two hands.
Ah, the tea, Paupau had said, holding one finger in the air. The most important part. She had reached down into the ceramic jung that held the jasmine tea, holding up a pinch between her fingertips. The tea represents the cultivation of humility. Without it, power is blunt and raw, unrefined and flavorless. It is water that scalds, rather than a brew that enlivens.
Azula had frowned into her tea, the word humility tasting sour in her mouth.
Drink up, Paupau had said genially. Before it gets cold.
Azula looked at the tea before her now, felt the way she was able to move in and out of the past, how the memory that had surfaced had been hers to peruse or ignore as she wished. Before, it had been as if she were existing in all times simultaneously, as if everything she had seen was crowding and clamoring in the same limited space, all things trying to occupy the same moment. She hadn't realized how exhausting it was until this moment, when the raucous upheaval was gone. It left behind a feeling of clear-headedness she cherished.
Azula picked up her bowl both hands. The ceramic was so thin she could nearly feel the remaining swirls of the water through it. Impossible, she thought. Then again, she amended wryly, she had thought that before and been proven wrong.
"You are a jang yan," Azula said, slowly, testing her voice, testing her own certainty. The fragments of the past few weeks were still shuffling and re-sorting themselves in her mind.
The woman paused at her task, the rounded lid of the jung in one hand and a ceramic spoon in the other. She raised her eyes to meet Azula's. Her look was one of acknowledgment, a spontaneous pleasure lighting her face as if she'd expected this, but not so soon. "Of a sort," she said.
Azula took this in. "Why?"
"Such a question," the woman said, softly amused. "Why do you bend?"
"There is no choice," Azula said. "Where there is fire, that fire will find form."
"So it is with me," the woman said. Finishing with the leaves and blossoms, she closed the jung and set aside the pot for a longer brew, one that would steep in a different fashion.
"Anyway," Azula said, shaking her head. She still felt disoriented, easily confused, and she tried to regulate her annoyance before speaking again. "That is not what I meant."
"I go where I am needed," the woman said, rising to a standing position and bringing over a tray of food that the guards had left at the door.
"I do not need anyone," Azula said, but it sounded trite even to her own ears as soon as it was out. The woman set a bowl of steaming rice in front of her and began to lay out the dishes one by one: blanched green vegetables, water-boiled dumplings, a whole fish cooked with ginger sauce and scallions, and deep-fried daufu in brown sauce.
"Though," Azula said, shamelessly stuffing the vegetables and rice into her mouth, her chopsticks flying, "I find it an exercise of imagination to picture life without a royal cook."
The woman laughed, far harder and longer than the mildly flippant words should have warranted. Azula watched the woman as she chewed, baffled. It was hard to make too much of it, though, because her fever-ravaged body was still ravenous and it had far more important concerns at hand, such as whether it would be possible for her to eat that entire fish by herself or if she would have to break it up between two sittings. She discarded the possibility of saving any for the woman; when she had a three-day fever she could eat all the fish.
She smiled when the flavors of ginger and scallion burst on her tongue. It would be one sitting, definitely.
"What are you doing?" Azula demanded, leaning over the woman's shoulder. They were in the gardens, the first time since she had, since she'd — since Zuko had —
The first time since. It was a mild day, the sky half-obscured by clouds and the sunlight more suggestive than forceful. The pond was full of turtle-ducks, gliding around in that mindless way of theirs, their greedy little beaks gawking at the woman like beggars.
The woman did not open her eyes. She was seated, one hand at the level of her forehead, the other at her chest. "The celestial pagoda."
Azula studied the form. "I've never seen it before," she said, affronted. She knew all the most common forms, even from the other disciplines; she'd studied them rigorously, knowing well that understanding the enemy's methods were as important as mastering her own.
"It is very simple," the woman said. Somehow, without moving significantly, her posture invited Azula to sit next to her.
"Of course it is," Azula said. All forms were simple for her. She had attained the highest possible proficiency with all of her tutors, outclassing even the eldest before long. She had no rival in the Fire Nation except her own father.
Which meant, she realized, that she had no living rival. The thought unsettled her in a way she didn't like.
"Calm the mind," the woman said, as if she'd read Azula's thoughts. "But do not strain, do not exert force. Simply release them."
Azula focused on the woman's voice and fell into a breathing pattern, bringing her hands to lightly rest on her crossed knees.
"Breathe naturally," the woman said. Azula nearly rolled her eyes — for someone who was supposedly meditating, the woman was certainly expending a lot of energy paying attention to all the things Azula was supposedly doing wrong — and she had to consciously relax her jaw. Naturally? she thought. What sort of discipline is it if it's natural? But she did her best to listen, moving her conscious thoughts away from her breathing.
Her thoughts pushed, tried to writhe out of the grasp of her concentration. She clamped down harder.
"Let the thoughts drift," the woman said.
Azula sighed. Her eyes were not yet closed — she had grim visions of this exercise stretching on the whole afternoon — so she looked at the clouds for guidance. Clouds, she thought, marveling at the absurdity of it. I am seeking guidance from clouds.
But drift they did, their movement slow, gentle, undirected.
"Observe the thoughts," the woman said. "And then let them pass."
Azula breathed out, turning her awareness inwards.
Those turtle-ducks are pests. She was nearly drawn in, compelled to assemble a mental list of all the reasons the useless creatures ought to be eradicated. But instead she breathed. She let it pass.
My cheung fu will be damp from the grass. She let it pass.
I could hallucinate. This one was heavy, crackling with inertial energy. They happened without warning — one moment she was seeing things as they were, the next things began breaking down. Worse, it had happened the last time she'd tried to meditate on her own.
The breath she was holding stuttered out. It took willpower to relax the muscles that had tensed.
She let it pass.
Her thoughts began to slow, naturally — naturally, ha, she thought, the amusement dissipating almost as soon as it was summoned — until they felt as distant as the clouds. Visible, but not surrounding her.
"Close your eyes," the woman said, her voice also slow, distant.
Azula let her eyelids drop; with it, the boundaries of her skin began to dissolve.
"Now align the fingers, two pointing upwards, two down."
Azula did so, her hands mirroring one another.
"The fingers pointing up connect to heaven; the fingers pointing down connect to the earth." The woman's voice became progressively slower, more rhythmic, almost silent. "Raise the hands so that one thumb is touching between the brows, the other touching the center of the chest, the heart."
"The connection to the human realm," Azula said, the knowledge springing forth unbidden. She aligned her thumbs with the daan tin points as instructed.
"Let the hai move through the upper, middle and lower daan tin points, opening them."
The energy moving through her was foreign and familiar all at once, completely different from the bending energy, but she felt it, not as an invasion, but as a natural extension. The hai moved along her fingertips, out her thumb, through her body, down to the earth. She felt as if she were respiring through her skin, through her meridians.
"Feel yourself sitting in the celestial pagoda."
Azula, what was Azula, began to feel at once minuscule in scope and expansively large. The pagoda shielded her, contained her, but she was also outside of it, in the air, in the water, in the earth beneath her.
Time slowed to a crawl, circles of hai moving in and out of her body, her awareness expanded wide as the wind.
"Let the hai enter and open the middle daan tin point," the voice came, rippling across the waves.
Azula brought some specks of her consciousness to the middle daan tin point and breathed into it, letting the hai flow even deeper, fill even more fully.
Her body, without any prompting from her, cringed; her chest was clenching, spasming.
"Slowly," the woman said.
Azula kept breathing, feeling the energies from above and below support her. There was no small amount of pain as she remained in the space, physical pain and another type of pain, the type that made her mind feel raw and exposed. Tears sprung out of her, nonspecific in their source — they were not grief or joy, but felt like a physical overflowing of energy that needed an outlet.
Every muscle in her body wanted to recoil, to push away, but she held onto the instructions — she would not crumble, not this time. She went no deeper but stayed with what was there.
She breathed until her hands shook, until the pain had lessened, until the feeling of unraveling eased and she began to return to herself. Hours or minutes, she did not know. Days could have passed in the suspension of minute passage.
"Slowly bring the awareness to the soles of your feet," the woman said.
Azula did so. With every passing breath, she became smaller, more manageable. Her skin began to feel impermeable again.
"Open your eyes."
Lowering her hands, Azula did.
She blinked at the turtle-ducks, still there gawking as they did, looking unmoved by all that had passed in front of them. It was surreal, to see how untouched everything was. The clouds still meandered, the grass was still damp.
The shadows were different, lengthened by over an hour. Once she'd opened her eyes, it felt as if only minutes had passed.
"Place the hands above the navel, right underneath left." The woman demonstrated, waiting until Azula matched her before going on. "Circle nine times with the sun, nine times against the sun."
After they had completed the circles, she stood, Azula following suit.
"Now," the woman said, bowing her head and bending at the waist. "We bow our heads with humility and give thanks."
Azula bowed her head, automatically imitating the woman's motions. She searched inside herself, trying to identify something that felt like gratitude, not because she saw any purpose to it but because she did practices correctly or not at all.
Thank you, she thought to the earth, remembering how it had supported her. Thank you, she thought towards the sky, for the same reason.
She looked deep, straining, and finally produced a kernel of what felt like humility. Thank you for not destroying me, she thought to the universe. There. That ought to do it.
"We are complete," the woman said, straightening. She nodded at Azula. "You have done well."
"Mere child's play," Azula said, but the jab was half-hearted. Her daan tin points were still vibrating in the background. A brief smile flashed across the woman's face — smug, Azula noted with more than a little annoyance — and she made her way back inside.
Azula dried her face and followed, walking at a pace designed to overtake and eventually lead the woman back to the compound. Azula didn't want her to get any foolhardy notions that whatever had just transpired reversed their natural and proper roles in the scheme of things.
"You," Azula said, surprised at the gall Mai had to show up at her door. She should have known when Zuko had muttered something vague about the doctors saying she was "well" enough for visitors.
"Oh, come on, Azula," Mai said, walking past her and sitting down without an invitation.
Azula walked around Mai, arms crossed over her chest. She noticed the stitching on Mai's clothes — the work of Gikka, the royal seamstress — and the understated but very expensive jewelry she was wearing. The scent of the peonies from the royal gardens was unmistakable, as was the glow to her skin. Everything about her whispered prosperity.
"I see that life at my brother's side is treating you well," she said, silkily, almost a purr, the blade just underneath. "Looks like you chose wisely when you betrayed me."
"Are we going to trade insults all day or eat?" Mai said, and that was one thing that hadn't changed, the fact that Mai always sounded like she was on the verge of falling asleep, except that falling asleep would take too much exertion on her part. "Because breakfast was hours ago and I'm in the mood for some tarts."
"As I recall, you're always in the mood for some tarts," Azula said, automatically, the phrase surfacing from hundreds of such conversations they'd had.
Mai looked at her, one sharp eyebrow quirked; her tone was wry. "You remembered. I'm touched."
And, yes, there it was, the images in her mind: Mai, twelve, staring forlornly down at the daan taat an ill-balanced oaf had knocked out of her hands, broken directly down the middle like two halves of a yellow moon; Mai, a few years ago, dragging Azula all around some dreary capital in the middle of nowhere searching for some "authentic" local pastries that they couldn't get in the Fire Nation; Mai, sitting in Azula's room, making small sounds of pleasure while sampling the cook's latest attempts to outdo himself.
"I remember that we were once friends," she said, because no rush of sentimentality was going to make her forget what was really important.
"I don't do guilt," Mai said, flinty and cold, staring hard at Azula. "So you don't have to bother with the theatrics."
"And I don't forgive traitors," Azula said.
But instead of the righteous anger she'd expected, she felt tired. It wasn't that she missed Mai, or that she believed her — there was no reason for gross exaggeration — but she was also tired of hearing the sound of her own voice. One didn't realize how precious somewhat passable dialogue was until one was forced to spend days with the woman who thought a single syllable was adequate for an afternoon's conversation.
She sighed. "You were my friend first," she said, deviating from the script. Twenty possible outcomes to this conversation, all ending with her throwing Mai out in the midst of lightning and blood. She'd had many nights to plan the entire thing out.
"I'm still your friend," Mai said. She pulled a small pink paper box out of one of her sleeves. The paper was low-quality — thick and rough, obviously not the quality one would sell to royalty — which meant Mai must have gotten it from one of those low-brow places she was so inclined to hunt down. "I have the dessert to prove it."
And a part of Azula wanted to take the box, wanted to let go of the tiredness. Her fist clenched and she almost reached out, almost took the thinly-veiled peace offering. She hoped Mai never tried to pursue a diplomatic career; she remembered Mai had fallen asleep face-down on her copy of The Silence of Subterfuge. Her ruse was flimsy as a paper lantern.
But the sting of humiliation persisted, and Azula had her pride. "You chose him over me." Azula scoffed, as if this were the most preposterous thing she could imagine, which, actually, it was. "Now you have to live with your choice."
"Look," Mai said, a thread of irritation starting to fray. "It wasn't about choosing, okay?"
Azula was surprised at the quiet display, which was Mai's equivalent of emotional vehemence. "Impossible," she said, because it was always about choosing. You were a winner or you were a loser — there was no in-between. "How could it not be about choosing?"
Mai set the box down on the table between them and looked at Azula. "Because if he were trying to kill you, I would have done the exact same thing." Something bordering on concern colored her next words. "You know that, right?"
Azula felt herself blink: once, twice. She contained her reaction to only that.
"It's the only reason you're not dead where you sit," she said, raising a brow at Mai as a reminder that that could still occur at any time.
"Hm," Mai said, leaning back in her seat, the monotone slipping back on comfortably, "and here I thought you kept me around for my singing voice."
"Souring rice wine into vinegar is a rare skill," Azula rejoined, and there was a part of her screaming, don't trust her, don't trust her, but it was so easy to fall back into the familiar patterns, the effortless back-and-forth.
She didn't take the pink paper box — and this, too, was familiar, because Mai did not push the matter, knew better than to do that — but she raised a hand and snapped for the guards, ordering them to bring lunch.
She took satisfaction in the way they jumped at her words; her voice sounded like her own again, authoritative and absolute in its expectations.
It was a long time after Mai left that Azula flipped the box open, casually. Inside were four daan taat, perfectly formed, the yellow of their filling bright against the drab interior of the box.
"Hm," she said. "Typical."
She paused as she was about to throw them out; she shifted mid-stride and instead went to the door, shoving them at the guard. He tried to say something to her — babbling thanks, most likely, which were insufferable at the best of times — but she raised an eyebrow until he withered.
They would appreciate this sort of pedestrian fare, she rationalized. May as well not let it go to waste.
"You will not begin without me," the woman said, her voice coming from behind Azula.
Azula scowled, unused to being surprised by someone's approach. How the woman kept those multi-layered skirts silent was something she planned to figure out.
"I wasn't,'' Azula lied easily, although she'd come out here four hours early for precisely that reason. Yesterday's practice had been an embarrassment — her body was not entitled to such behaviors. All the other forms she'd mastered had taught her control and focus, and she would conquer this practice, too, using those same principles.
By the day's end she'd planned to exceed the woman, whose teaching methods were obviously those of one who had not achieved a real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, she hadn't been able to find any texts on this practice, so she'd have to contend with what the woman had to offer for the moment.
"Nor will you practice without my guidance," the woman continued, kneeling down next to Azula. Azula watched the woman's reflection in the pond water, glaring at it. The woman's eyes were already closed.
"I will not," Azula agreed, internally fuming because she knew she wouldn't. Azula was discipline incarnate, and when it came to learning, she did not do things halfway. Once instructed, she would follow that instruction completely through. Sometimes she hated that about herself, that once shown a path she could not step away from it.
"Clear the mind," the woman said.
Azula imitated the woman's posture, adjusting from her lotus posture into a kneeling position, laying her hands on her thighs. She closed her eyes and easily fell into a regulated breathing pattern. This was where she excelled, and she knew it, suppressing a small smile at the rush of competence she felt at doing something right.
It used to be that she'd lived floating on this sensation. Her hands clenched into fists with this knowledge, as if she could grasp it physically in her hands. She hated being without it.
"Calm the mind," the woman said.
Azula resisted the words for a moment, fists clenching tighter. But her inherent need to master this compelled her to relax her hands; she exhaled slowly through her nostrils, letting the thoughts pass.
She struggled today more than she had yesterday, which was the reverse of what she'd planned. She should be better by now, this ought to be easier.
"Accept the mind," the woman said.
Azula nearly barked out a laugh — accept? This, more than anything, reinforced her certainty that this woman knew no true power.
"Accept the mind," the woman repeated, more firmly, as if she could sense Azula's derision.
Azula gritted her teeth, her breaths hissing in and out of her. Accept, accept, accept. It was an ugly word, a pretty euphemism for helplessness, a prelude to defeat. Opening the door to it was the beginning of the end: once you made allowances, your power would erode until you crumbled where you stood, ground to ash.
There was something about the word that shoved the reality of the moment into Azula's consciousness, unbidden, and her current place in the world unfolded in her mind's eye like a scroll, a widening perspective that felt almost detached, impartial.
She had been stripped of influence, locked away in a back room as was fit for a shame of her magnitude, drugged into a stupor. Her body was still emaciated from illness and her hair was short, close to her ears like a small boy's. She was still years from the ceremonies that would mark her as a woman. She had no pride left to the name that once rung like a doomsday harbinger throughout the lands.
She, who had once been a Fire Princess, who had been a hairsbreadth from Fire Lord, was kneeling in front of a pond with an old woman whose will seemed to outclass hers at every turn — with subtlety, intricacy, credibility, sensitivity, and authority, Azula realized with no small amount of shock — and before her was the simplest of exercises, the merest exertion of will.
She would not let this, of all things, best her.
She breathed out.
And without need of instruction, she knew to raise her hands to the upper daan tin and middle daan tin, thumbs lightly touching her body, two fingers pointed to the heavens, two to the earth. She could feel that the woman had done the same; didn't need to look to confirm it. There was an alignment of energy that flowed simultaneously in through the top of her head and the bottom of her feet, and also out of both, impossible to understand in physical terms, a purely yam experience, composed entirely of the subtle energies.
"Let the hai move through the three daan tin points," the woman said.
It was effortless to do so, to feel the hai breathe through her: in the center of her forehead, through her chest, down to her belly, and out again to circle. Azula slowly fell into a rhythm that dissolved her awareness of her skin, her body, and her awareness expanded into a dispersed flux.
She floated, any thoughts so far-off that she couldn't hear them.
"Let the hai begin to fill and replenish the lower daan tin," the woman said, the sound slowly filtering into Azula's understanding.
She made an effort and her awareness came back to the circle of energy, and she re-focused it so that it was all flowing to one point, the lower daan tin. There was no difficulty in finding the point, the center of gravity, the deepest source of power. Her teachers had marveled at how easily she'd controlled this point, how easily she'd accessed vast wells of bending powers. To her, it had always been as second nature as breathing. Moving down into it was like walking her favorite path in the garden.
What was unexpected, though, was how hollow it was, how depleted. She was forced to slow the flow of energy until it was nearly a crawl because she was immediately overwhelmed, as if she'd been empty for so long that she could only take the tiniest increments.
This had been the fount of her fire, the core of her strength, and it was dry as cracked clay.
The energy moving in was pure pain, the agony of dyun cheung, the slicing of intestines. This was execution through measured lacerations, and every point of contact was like heat on frozen fingers, freeing the immobilized flesh with merciless stabs of awakening. The tears came again, disassociated from anything in particular except the need for her body to purge the overflow of sensation.
Memories of herself the past few months swam by her, how even half-mad she hadn't had the energy to reclaim what was rightfully hers, and she'd been crackling with nothing but confused energy. Since that day she'd fallen to her knees, it had felt as if a part of her was missing, that drive, to fight, to grind Zuko into the dust, to make those who had betrayed her repay. She'd sat down to a meal with Mai instead of running her through.
She'd been searching for that drive, felt lost and directionless without it, the weight of her defeat humiliating stones in her belly. She couldn't imagine what was wrong with her that she felt nothing but apathy when she forced herself to imagine and re-imagine killing Zuko.
I am so tired, she thought, and she hated herself even as she thought it, hated even more that it was true.
At that, the pain slowly began to abate, growing fainter. Her internal organs spasmed sporadically, ghost tremors, and the trickle of hai continued more gently, like the ice had thawed and now the heat was soothing instead of burning. She saw her lower daan tin begin to fill again, pulsating with an unfamiliar force, something she'd never tried to bend with before.
Lightning crackled at her fingertips and she breathed in, and in, and in.
Ty Lee was also painfully predictable. As soon as she'd entered Azula had flicked her wrist and said you may grovel. The need to do so had been plainly written all over the girl's face. Ty Lee had, weeping and begging until Azula relented, twirling Azula around in a very unwelcome hug once she did. Azula hated that about Ty Lee; she found the sight of a woman crying nauseating, and suspected Ty Lee knew as much, though how she'd figured it out was beyond Azula.
There was a sneakiness about her that Azula appreciated, and hoped to hone. Under the proper tutelage Azula suspected she would flourish into a real force to be reckoned with.
Azula knew she was too soft-hearted, always taking stray birds under her wing. She just couldn't seem to help herself.
Today was the day, Azula had decided. No more of this weeping nonsense, no "moments of celestial clarity" or any of the latest terms Azula suspected the woman made up on the spot because she hadn't the faintest notion what she was talking about. No, today, Azula was going to wield some of this new power, rather than sitting idly by and letting it take her apart bit by bit.
This resolution instilled a calmness in her that made it easy to slip right into the practice, and as they knelt by the pond there was hardly a ripple in her inner landscape. The circle of hai felt almost reflexive, this time directing the energy into the lower daan tin, through the middle and then out through the upper.
Azula relaxed into the posture like a sigh, feeling a deeply potent relief that seeped through all her muscles.
"Now," the woman said, and at the sound of her voice Azula became vigilant, ready to resist anything that would lead her in wrong direction. "Let the hai enter and open the upper daan tin point."
Azula measured her breaths, and directed only the smallest amounts of hai towards the point between her eyes. She was not cautious by nature and part of her longed to simply take the energy and channel it into her hands, create a fire that would burn so hot that it would obliterate the pond in front of them and leave only a smoking crater, but she knew that without proper mastery she was just as likely to burn herself up.
The flow of energy into her upper daan tin was surprisingly pleasant and warm. There was no pain as she began to open the point up, only a trickling down the back of her head, drips of energy tingling down her spine.
She breathed into it, a hum of satisfaction purring under her skin. This was the way it was meant to be. Soon, she'd bend the energies to her will and it wouldn't be long before —
"Ama has taken my scroll," Azula pouted, when Paupau asked if she'd read the passage they were meant to discuss today.
"Has she?" Paupau said, plucking a dried date from the bowl. She took a delicate bite out of it, so precise that it left behind no mark on the fruit's skin.
"She said to tell you not to teach me about such matters." Azula felt herself heating up, knew that before long fire would be coming out of her nostrils like a dragon. The servants whispered that she was vicious as the dragon that had created the world, its roar so loud it had split the lands and created the oceans. She'd preened when she heard them.
"Did she?" Paupau said, picking a date out of the bowl and holding it out for Azula. Azula took it without bothering with the formality of thanks; Paupau had forbidden her from such niceties a long time ago. She also knew better than to argue that she didn't want it; that did not factor into this exchange.
"Yeeeees," Azula said, dragging the word out. She didn't know why, but Paupau seemed a little slow, today. She couldn't stop eyeing the scroll underneath Paupau's hand covetously.
"Then I suppose I cannot teach you," Paupau said, and Azula's face fell. She hadn't — this was Paupau. She wasn't supposed to give in this easily.
Azula wanted to speak, to argue, to convince Paupau to keep teaching her the text, but respect for her elder held her tongue.
"Instead," Paupau said, sliding the scroll over to Azula with a watchful eye, "I shall discuss your learnings with you."
Azula looked at the scroll. She unrolled it, and as she had thought, it was The Silence of Subterfuge. Even as she chewed her date she began to devour the text hungrily. It began with the first principle of subterfuge: subtlety.
"What was her cause?" Paupau said, now picking up a candied walnut and taking a small bite of it without even the slightest crunch.
Azula paused at her reading, looking up. She frowned. "She said I spend too much time looking for the weakness in others."
"You do not think this is true?" Paupau asked, handing Azula a candied walnut.
"I like the text," she said, because she'd already used many of its lessons. The other week, when all the high officials from the major provinces had met, she'd been able to slip her way into their talks without the slightest suspicion from any of them. She'd offered them candies and tea and pandered to their notions that she was small, harmless, and oh so eager to please.
She looked at the candied walnut in her hand before taking a bite out of it, looking sidelong Paupau.
"She is wrong," Paupau said, picking up a spiraled curl of candied orange peel. "What you have, Azula, is a skill. It is a gift from the heavens and it would be unwise to ignore it. Not everyone is blessed with this skill. Look at Zuko — he spends all his time looking for weakness in himself."
Azula nodded; she'd seen it, too. His bending was proof of that.
"It is the principle of yam-yeung," Paupau went on, handing Azula an orange spiral. "For the light, there must be darkness. For the fire, there must be water. There are some like Zuko, and there are some like you. Both skills must be cultivated."
"Ama doesn't like it," Azula said, and by it she meant herself.
"Your Ama doesn't understand," Paupau said, and laid one of her larger hands over Azula's smaller one. "She thinks that you will be your father. But you are what you are, and who you will be is out of our hands."
Paupau stood, grabbing the clay teapot and starting the flame. "And it is my belief," she said, smiling and opening the jung, releasing the sweet fragrance of jasmine. "That one is never too young to study the art of subterfuge."
Azula was five and, of course, agreed.
— the vision left Azula gasping, her forehead and eyes throbbing like they'd just been peeled open, the underlayers exposed to the air. She reeled with the suddenness of it, the clarity; it had been as if she were hovering in the room, watching herself talk to Paupau.
On some instinct, she turned towards the woman. Her eyes were still closed but she saw the woman through another means of vision, saw everything around them traced out in yam energy — pale, translucent, and such an array of vivid colors.
The woman, though, was pure blinding light, difficult to look at directly.
When Azula looked at the woman, she saw volcanoes erupting, smoke and fire arcing high into the sky; mountains bursting out of the earth, jagged and raw; oceans roiling, waves opening up like enormous devouring mouths; monsoons roaring, gales keening with destructive force. Yet she also saw a breeze rippling through the grass like caressing fingers; a lake as round and reflective as the autumn moon; a seedling growing out of dark, rich soil; a candle's flame, lightening the dark. Azula felt the yam-yeung balance of it, that both sides of the visions were equally powerful, equally necessary.
The woman turned to look at Azula, and the yam energies swirled between them, red, green, blue, and brown. Azula felt at once strained and relaxed maintaining the connection, as if it were stretching her to her edges and yet those edges were ones she had known before, like a half-remembered song she'd heard as a child.
The energies began to ebb, the unaccustomed brightness fading out of the environment around them, the woman's blaze toning down to a glow, and then to normalcy.
Azula blinked rapidly, surprised to find her eyes had opened. The woman was unperturbed, watching Azula softly. There was something about the woman's eyes — it almost seemed that what was behind them was becoming smaller. Not shrinking, precisely, but re-forming itself to suit the form she was in.
It was awhile before Azula found her voice.
"Who are you?" she said.
"You," the woman said, smiling like she'd known this question was coming for a long time, "may call me Sifu."
Then she stood and, with a slight inclination of her head towards Azula, walked back towards the compound. By the time Azula had the presence of mind to follow, the woman was already gone.
"Baak," she said, bowing her head low. The smoke from the incense wafted in serpentine curls, dissolving slowly into the dim air of the temple.
The jang yan who watched over the ancestor tablets was breathing quietly and regularly over in the entryway where he was slumped against the wall, halfway out of his stool. This time she'd merely slipped a sleeping herb in his tea, nothing that Zuko could directly trace to her. She knew he'd allow her to visit this place if she asked, but asking was not within the realms of her reality, just like he wouldn't come to her unless he had real proof. This was how things were between them. Just for fun, the next time she might even come in without knocking the jang yan unconscious at all — just shift a few inconsequential items here and there, knowing Zuko would fidget the next time he paid his respects because he wouldn't be able to know for sure if it was her work or not. Azula quite enjoyed being the persistent splinters of unresolved questions itching under his skin.
She did not, however, enjoy having her own.
She told Baak about everything thing that had passed since she'd last visited. When she spoke to her maternal great-grandmother, it was as if they were conversing as they'd never done in life — she'd died before Azula was born. Azula didn't know her as anything else but a formless presence. The last portrait of her had been done when she was young, before her marriage (it wouldn't do to show her husband, after all), when she was only a handful of years older than Azula. It was apparent from the quality of the art itself and her attire that she was peasant class, but beyond that Azula did not know much. Azula found the peasant class a despicable necessity, but could not begin to conceive of treating an ancestor that way, so in general she tried not to think about it.
Today, she couldn't stop. Even as she spoke about herself, she found herself wanting to ask questions as if Baak would answer. She wanted to know the strangest mundane details, like whether Baak had played war strategy games as a child the way Azula had, or whether or not she liked to eat the crust of the juk, whether she'd gotten along with her sisters and brothers.
She sighed. She'd related all sorts of facts to Baak — Mai had visited her the last two days, and both times she'd ordered the guards the bring them obscene amounts of luxurious foods and proceeded to eat most of it herself; yesterday Ty Lee had blathered on for hours about her latest romantic fling until Azula stopped her with a threatening gesture — but little of true substance. She didn't talk about the fact that the woman hadn't shown up for days, and Azula wasn't sure if she felt relieved or angry or annoyed or all three. She didn't talk about the fact that the date of her departure was coming near, that it wouldn't be long before she was chained to a ship that would take her somewhere safe and comfortable with facilities to accommodate her needs.
There were things that she felt no ability to speak about, things that were still taking shape inside of her. There was a constantly unfolding newness to her inner landscape that left her feeling off-balance and unsure of herself, both of which she loathed and yet were not as horrible as they ought to have been. The discomfort felt productive, like when she was young and she'd grown a handspan in a week. Every part of her had ached but the end result of being able to tower over her peers had been worth every strained muscle.
"I'm confused, Baak," she said, sighing. The confusion and admission of it was a novelty, though perhaps if Paupau were still here Azula would be having this conversation with her. Paupau had always had a talent for drawing the unexpected out of Azula, for seeing Azula more clearly than any other.
"Confusion is a beginning," came the voice, and when Azula turned around the rough-hewn features she'd been anticipating greeted her.
She had a thousand insults she wanted to shoot at this woman like arrows, a thousand weapons with which to disembowel her and wipe that half-smile off her face. But there was also curiosity and it won out.
"And the end?" Azula said, raising an eyebrow to indicate her skepticism of this whole affair, of which there was a bounty.
"Mastery of a new form of bending," the woman said.
Azula, a few months ago, would have laughed in this woman's face at her offer and immediately dismissed her. She could hear echoes of herself: you? You think that you have something to offer me? That you know some form of bending that I haven't already learned? Don't be ridiculous.
Now, she remembered all the times that this woman did not burn when she ought have; when she touched Azula and unleashed something Azula had no name for; when she appeared at precisely the moment she was needed. Azula remembered months without fire, how the return of her bending was not coincidentally timed with this woman's entry into her life.
So, instead, Azula said: "Who else have you taught?"
"Firebenders," the woman said. And then there was a softening, a lightness to her next words. "Your Paupau among them. She was a strong woman."
Azula did not question this, the information slotting home like the natural unfolding of a fan. Little details that had been off retroactively slotted into place and what began small expanded outwards, revealing more. Paupau had been a fancrafter, hours in her workshop on the most intricate details. Smell that, she had said, holding the sandalwood up to Azula's nose, running Azula's fingers over the precise carvings, showing her the different weights and hefts and how they affected the functionality.
Azula also knew that fans could be weapons. "And my mother?" she said.
The woman hesitated, searching Azula's eyes. Azula smirked, giving her no sign of vulnerability, no excuse to ease her conscience for the lie she was about to tell.
"Yes," the woman said, heavily, as if she'd been trying to hold onto the word, to knowledge. "I did."
Azula's lips tightened. "And was she a strong woman?"
"Yes," the woman said. "She was."
Azula looked at her. She was small, inconspicuous, unremarkable. She did not instill fear, and though she was an elder, she did not carry that air of assured invulnerability that Azula had seen in her father, her grandfather. She was the opposite of everything Azula had ever wanted to be.
Azula bowed her head. "Sifu," she said, because everything she'd wanted to be had gotten her here. You have already failed, Sifu had told her, and Azula finally saw a bitter truth in it.
"Azula," Sifu said, the first time she'd ever addressed Azula by her name.
The incense burned out and they left, the jang yan just beginning to stir to wakefulness as they turned the corner of the hallway.
"Sifu," Azula said, bowing in greeting. They were standing by the pond at their customary spot, and Azula was jittering internally, overstrung from a nearly sleepless night. She'd never been able to get a full night's rest before commencing lessons; she would run scenario after scenario through her mind, trying to prepare herself for every eventuality a teacher might throw at her.
There was also a greedy sort of pleasure in attaining new information, the raw power of it. All knowledge was unformed clay until Azula laid her hands on it, shaped it into what she desired.
"We begin," Sifu said, kneeling down in front of the pond. She adopted the same meditation posture they'd been using since the first day.
This woman, Azula thought, wanting to simultaneously laugh hysterically and wring the woman's neck. She plopped down beside her, taking up the form and trying not to grind her teeth.
"Kill me," Azula said as soon as Mai entered the room.
"Sounds messy," Mai replied, hauling up the large bags she'd brought with her and setting them on the table. Hands free, she gestured at herself. "And I just got this dress last week." It was a deep green, embroidered with subtle patterns of dragons, the thread giving off a faint sheen in the light.
"Come, now," Azula said, chidingly, feeling like a teacher chastising a naughty student. "You know of at least twenty different poisons you could slip into our meal."
"None of which I have up my sleeve, Azula," Mai said, giving Azula a look that implied just because you do that sort of thing doesn't mean it's standard behavior. She opened the boxes, exposing the steaming food inside. "I'm not a walking pharmacopoeia."
"I see I taught you nothing," Azula sighed, picking up a bun and tearing it in half. The hung dao paste released a wonderful fragrance into the air.
"Basically," Mai said, almost cheerfully. "I pride myself on being unteachable. Besides," she added, picking up her chopsticks and sitting back, beginning to fill her bowl up, "I know you could kill yourself far more efficiently than I could."
"True," Azula agreed. She nibbled at the edge of the bao, eating around the center, which she always saved for last.
"It can't be that bad," Mai said. She started preparing a bowl for Azula.
"Then you take my place," Azula said. "See how you enjoy meditating with a swarm of turtle-ducks warbling all around you."
"Sounds delightful," Mai said, dryly. She slid the bowl over to Azula, a little bit of everything, and all of it carefully separated out just the way Azula liked.
They ate for awhile, demolishing most of the fare Mai had brought. Despite her better judgment, some of the street food was starting to grow on her. She especially liked the steamed rice noodles topped with more sauces than she could identify and sesame seeds; it was something they never had at the palace.
"And your lessons?" Azula said, knowing well enough that a woman in Mai's position would never be done with lessons.
Mai looked up slowly from her food, her chopsticks coming to a rest over the bowl, the tips settling into the white, curved hollow of a piece of baak choi like the vegetable had been designed for just that purpose. "Say that again," she said, not quite a question but a bit disbelieving.
"Your lessons," Azula said, wondering what was going on. "How are they proceeding?"
"They're… good," Mai said, almost hesitantly, as if she expected that the question would be retracted at any moment. "I've started with a new calligraphy master. Her work's amazing."
"Mmmm," Azula said, nodding; it made sense that Mai was finally pursuing this talent. She'd seen Mai's work grow over the years, how it had evolved from a clumsy child's thick strokes to dragons and serpents dancing under the brush. She had the potential to be a master herself, one day.
"I'm learning a lot," Mai said, sounding a little more sure of herself. "She doesn't usually take students my age, so it was very good fortune that she even considered my request."
"I'm glad for you," Azula said, picking up the last pork and vegetable dumpling.
Mai went quiet, staring at Azula.
"What?" Azula said, feeling uncomfortable with whatever look was on Mai's face.
"Nothing," Mai said, blinking like she was snapping herself out of thought. "I… just. You've changed."
Azula set her chopsticks down, looking back at Mai. She let the silence stretch on, until Mai began to look like she wished she hadn't said anything, until it seemed like she wouldn't reply at all.
"I had no choice," Azula finally said. She stood, suddenly, going over to the chest across the room to begin preparing tea, busying her hands. She felt Mai watching her, but did not turn around, not until she had a hot pot of water steaming in one hand and the brewing bowls in the other.
She had exaggerated somewhat with Mai, but not by much. Weeks went by and their "lessons" consisted of nothing more than practicing the celestial pagoda day after day, and it almost began to feel like a form of punishment because instead of becoming easier or more fluid, the practice became exponentially more difficult. Every day, she ran into the walls of pain; every day, she would open her eyes to find her face and the collar of her shirt soaked. Even worse, the grief was becoming more specific with each passing day: images would flash across her eyes, recollections of incidents she had lived through.
To say that Azula hated it would have been a vast understatement.
But there was a sensation of settling into it, as well; the hai began to feel like a physical extension of her body, like she was learning to circulate it every time she breathed, not just in the practice. The things that she began to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell during the practice were… strange, and did not always stay limited to the practice. Once, watching Ty Lee place the soles of her feet on the crown of her head, she saw Ty Lee as a circle of pure yam energy, like a ring of light.
"When will this end," Azula said, not so much a question as a verbal manifestation of frustration. She swiped fiercely at her cheeks, drying them from the practice they'd just finished. This was not her idea of learning to master new energies. She felt weak, stupid, pathetic; she didn't know what was wrong with her that every time she tried to do a meditation so simple a child could do it she went into these fits.
"When you have dissolved all the blockages in your energy channels," Sifu said, watching Azula speculatively. Azula tried not to yell, tried not to storm off; both had resulted in longer meditations the next day. And it wasn't that Azula questioned the wisdom of this — she understood that the flow of energy was the foundation upon which all bending was built. Without clear pathways the most skilled practitioner was useless.
"Sifu, let me break them," Azula said, fisting her right hand. "I am strong enough."
Sifu shook her head. "Force only feeds blockages. They were created within you — you must take them back into yourself."
An inarticulate noise of frustration was the only response Azula could generate that wasn't curses or a physical lashing out. She shoved herself to a standing position, pacing. The grass bent and tore under the force of her steps. The persistence of her sheer incompetence was becoming unbearable; she felt ill under the weight of her own disgust.
She had a sudden feeling of clarity that this must be what Zuko had felt like when he'd practiced beside her.
One of Sifu's hands on her shoulder pulled Azula out of her thoughts.
"Come with me," Sifu said. She led Azula back towards the compound — no further into the gardens, Azula noticed, and was sure that Sifu knew that going too far in either direction they would run into a wall of guards. They stopped at a crossroads of auspiciously winding paths; there were flowers at the four corners and a stream running along the north side, its curves matched to the walkway.
Sifu sat on the western side, cross-legged. Azula sat across from her. The sun was directly overhead, the shadows thin and sparse on the ground.
"Tell me the nature of fire," Sifu said.
"Fire is force," Azula recited, the words she and every student in the Fire Nation had spoken a thousand times. "Fire is power. Fire destroys, fire burns, fire lights, fire transmutes. Fire is breath."
"Tell me the nature of breath," Sifu said.
Azula had no prescribed words for this. The next question in the sequence was supposed to be about the nature of power. "Breath is life," Azula tried.
Sifu nodded. "What else?"
"Breath is…" Azula considered their meditations. "Breath is energy. Breath is hai."
"Yes." Sifu's eyes glittered. "Now tell me the nature of fire."
Azula felt her mind pushing, as if through a thick, invisible barrier; all her life, this definition of fire had shaped her thoughts, her relationship with fire. There had never been room for anything else.
"Fire," Azula said, finding the words like they formed themselves in her mouth, "is a manifestation of hai."
Sifu's eyes crinkled at the edges. "Good," she said.
Something inside of Azula that had been wound up slowly unwound. The intensity of relief she felt at such scant praise was almost shameful, but she could not deny its presence.
"Now," Sifu said, lifting her hand and unfolding it towards one of the peonies at her side. The flower was pink, a fully opened blossom. "There are two sides of firebending. There is the side you have learned, the yeung side, the visible manifestation of hai in the form of physical fire." The flower suddenly burst into flames. It was burned with precision, left mostly intact but badly damaged.
Sifu curled her hand back in, bringing it to rest on her knee. Then she lifted the other, unfolding it towards the peony on her other side. "The other side of firebending is the yam, the manipulation of hai itself."
A palpable energy began to build in the air centering around Sifu's hand; Azula saw threads of energy move out of the soil and into the plant, up the stem, through the leaves.
A closed bud began to unfurl, growing until it was an open flower, until it was fully matured.
"Hai is the source; hai is life. Fire can take life, destroy it, break it down to its simplest elements." Then Sifu again lifted the hand she had laid down, so that her hands were spread in the air and the energy churned all around her. "And fire can also help to spark life back where it has been drained." The flower that she had burned to ash glared a blinding red, and then white; when Azula's vision cleared, she saw that the flower was alive again, just as vibrant as if flames had never touched it.
"Rest tonight," Sifu said, rising to a standing position. "We will speak again in the morning."
Azula stood. The display she'd witnessed was beyond any application of firebending she'd ever seen, and the last shreds of the illusion of their equality were stripped away from her eyes. "Sifu," she said, and bowed.
"This must have been Zuko's idea," Azula said, vastly amused.
"Actually, it was mine," Katara said, standing in the doorway with an aggressive friendliness on her face, like she could shove camaraderie down Azula's throat. Azula wouldn't put it past her to try.
"Do tell," Azula said, draping herself onto a long chair, propping her cheek up on a fist. She plucked a dried date out of the bowl in front of her, nibbling on it like she had all the time in the world to listen to the latest gossip.
"Look," Katara said, taking a few more steps in and spreading her arms like she was apologizing. "We're never going to like each other, so there's no point in pretending."
"I'm glad we've established that," Azula agreed. She gestured for Katara to sit, tilting her head at the nearest chair, a stiff-backed affair that looked like it would suit Katara's mood and general personality. Katara took it, sitting with her hands resting on her knees. Her dress was the bluest thing in the room.
"But now that it's all over, I thought maybe we could try to understand the other side a little better." Katara's face went through a series of ticks like it was trying to find the right arrangement to settle on. It opted for uncomfortable. "I mean, the truth is, I really hate you and don't think you can be trusted, but I'm trying to set an example for the group."
Azula raised an eyebrow. "You've finally seen the hypocrisy of your little campaign of love and goodwill?"
"How did you —" Katara glared. Azula was behind on the gossip, but she'd gleaned enough to learn about the efforts of the "team" to travel through the Nations and work to re-build relations with the Fire Nation. Such efforts were, she surmised, not going well. It was no wonder. Those who were smaller and weaker would always resent those who were larger and more powerful; it was the nature of things. "And, no, I don't think there's anything hypocritical about trying to restore trust. It's just going to take some time, that's all."
"One relationship at a time?" Azula said, smiling prettily. "How very touching."
Katara made an inarticulate noise and stood up, her arms tensed at her sides. "You," she finally got out from her clenched teeth. "I should have known better than to try to talk to you."
"Yes," Azula said, yawning. She covered her mouth delicately with her hand. "You should have."
Katara stormed out, slamming the door behind her. Azula smiled at the sound.
"I thought only waterbenders could heal," Azula said, contemplating the peony she'd seen injured and resurrected yesterday. They had returned to the same spot, the sun high overhead again.
Sifu pulled a scroll out of her sleeve, unrolling it on the ground between them. It had five illustrations, one of each of the elements and one in the middle that Azula did not recognize. Sifu pointed at the symbol for water, three sinuous blue lines that evoked a river's movement. "Water is the element that keeps our bodies supple, that allows our blood to flow. Water soothes. It is one of the most vital forces for life. But it is far from the only one."
She moved her finger to the symbol for earth, the silhouette of a smooth mountain range, the summits rounded and surrounded by clouds. "Earth is best for the healing of bones and teeth, for the replenishment of things only found in soil. Earth nourishes. Earthbending healers can heal many illnesses that stem from imbalances of these trace elements."
She moved her finger to the symbol for air, spirals upon spirals of white that called to mind the northern winds. "Air permeates the body. It flows in our blood and reaches every part of us. Air eases. Airbending healers work primarily with circulation and movement."
She moved her finger to the symbol for fire, sharp-tipped flames outlined in bright red. "Fire is the heat of the body. Without fire, we grow cold and stiff. Fire enlivens. With fire, we can restore drained vitality and incite new growth."
She moved her finger to the center of the scroll, towards the symbol in the middle. It was a circle, with all the colors represented — red for fire, green for earth, white for air, blue for water — and they were all intertwined in a pattern so intricate it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended. Sifu's fingers moved along the curling lines slowly as she spoke. "In ancient times, we knew that true healing required all four elements. Only when all four are in harmony will the body and spirit be in balance."
"That sounds like Avatar talk," Azula said, internally recoiling away from the lesson.
Sifu looked up sharply. Whatever she saw in Azula's face softened her expression, though, and she laughed. "I knew an Avatar well, once. He learned much from me."
Had it been anyone else, Azula would have scoffed. As it was, she sat back on her heels and said no more.
"I think I'm in love," Ty Lee sighed, with feeling. She was lying on the floor, one of her legs pulled up flat against her. She idly raised and lowered it as she spoke.
"You said that last week about Tung," Azula reminded her.
"Oh, him," Ty Lee said, fluttering a few fingers like she could shoo away the thought of him. "He had horrible table manners. Pui is much better."
"I'm sure he is," Azula said, rolling her eyes. She'd heard it all, by now, and knew that Ty Lee changed loves as often as most people changed clothes.
She set down the scroll she'd been reading and watched Ty Lee continue to move. Ty Lee stood, launching into one of the sequences she used in her performances. There was something about her movements that caught Azula's eye — it wasn't that there was anything different about them, but there was something different about the way Azula was seeing them.
As she unfocused her eyes, she began to see threads of energy in Ty Lee's body. Energy entered through all the acupuncture points, tiny trickles, and every now and then Ty Lee pressed on one and opened it further. When she rubbed her thumb along the bubbling springs point at the base of her foot it was so smooth that it looked like a part of her routine, but Azula could see the effect it had, how it brightened up all the threads. Within moments, Ty Lee was glowing, energy moving through her in bright streams.
"You like my new routine?" Ty Lee said, coming to a rest. Azula's perceptions began to fade and the room came back into focus, the visible threads of energy retreating to the periphery of her field of vision.
Ty was smiling and didn't seem self-conscious that Azula was watching her; Ty Lee had always been that way, never afraid to be the center of attention.
"Why do you do it?" Azula said, the question springing out of nowhere in her mind. "Why this particular practice?"
"Why?" Ty Lee repeated, looking thoughtful. She walked over and sat next to Azula, assuming a full lotus position. "I just feel so good when I do it, I guess. I've never wanted to do anything else."
"Were there times that you hated it and wanted to kill your Sifu?" Azula said. It had been two hours of uncontrollable sobbing, this morning, and she'd felt the way the guards had been looking at her. She tasted bile in the back of her throat when she thought about it.
"Um." Ty Lee looked concerned for Azula. "No."
"Oh," Azula said, looking away.
"But even when it was really hard, it was harder not to do it." Ty Lee said, and Azula turned back. Ty Lee scrunched up her arms and torso, making an expression that implied the sensation of things crawling under one's skin. "I felt all locked up and tired when I tried to stop." Then she loosened, reaching her arms behind her back, no doubt linking them. She smiled brightly. "This was the only thing that helped, so I kept doing it."
"I see." Azula said.
"You're not going to kill your Sifu, are you?" Ty Lee said, trying to sound lighthearted and failing.
"Not today," Azula said, sighing.
"Look at the plant," Sifu said. "Tell me what you see."
Azula looked. The premature blossom Sifu had opened the other day was beginning to wilt and wither; the leaves, overall, were healthy and green; the stem was strong and growing in an unbent line up toward the sun. "A pretty peony," Azula said, drolly, because she was guessing that Sifu didn't want to know the scientific classification of the plant.
"Look," Sifu said, in a tone that left no room for guesses or jests. "See."
Azula sighed, adjusting her posture and breathing out. She hadn't meditated with her eyes open for a long time and it took her a few moments to remember how.
After a time of natural breathing, the cycle of hai started to flow towards her upper daan tin, pulsating lightly. Her head began to buzz with quiet electricity and her eyes unfocused, the plant at once blurring and coming into starker definition. It was a skeleton of light — roots, stems, petals, leaves, all of it shining.
"See the weaknesses," Sifu said.
Azula looked more closely, examining the small dim areas that had escaped her at first glance. She narrowed in on one leaf. It was veined with light, the network radiating outwards from its tip. She followed the major threads, down, down, down —
"I see," she said.
"Replenish the hai," Sifu said. "Slowly, a small trickle."
Azula's forehead creased as she tried to grapple the energy. She wanted to direct it, the way she would with a sword or a dagger or a thread of fire, but it felt that the more she tried to grab onto it with her concentration the more it resisted. She eased back.
She sent a light thought in, a nudge to the hai. Into those roots, she directed, looking at the section of roots where the gardener's water hadn't quite reached, where the drying out of the leaves' tips had begun. The energy flowed into them, dousing the roots like it was being poured on.
Thinner, she thought, and the energy thinned into threads, connecting with the ends of the roots. The roots, hungry and receptive, drew the energy in easily, moving it up along the stems and finally out towards the leaves.
"Good," Sifu said. "Now the flower."
The flower was much dimmer, especially around the edges. Azula smiled; she could already feel the difference in the leaves, and there was a definite headiness flooding through her. She sent a quick burst of energy into the flower, filling it to its brim.
The flower crumpled like paper, falling off the plant.
"No," Azula said, her vision fading. The roots of the plant became hidden under soil once more, and the sight of an utterly dried-out flower greeted her.
"You need practice," Sifu said, unperturbed by her failure. Azula wished, not for the first time, that she'd criticize or yell or do something other than seem so entirely complacent about it all.
Azula stared at her handiwork, suddenly imagining the result if she'd been attempting this method of replenishment on a human body. "This has as much potential for destruction as yeung firebending," Azula said.
Sifu picked up the dried blossom, crushing it between her fingertips. The petals crunched as she pulverized them, small flakes drifting down onto the ground. "It does," she said.
"The things my father would have done with this," Azula said, feeling an overwhelming longing to go back and right the things that had gone wrong. If only he'd had this power, if only they'd had this power, nothing could have stopped them. No one could have stood in their way.
"You will have the same choices." Sifu said.
"You know that I will kill with this," Azula said, because it was not a matter of if, but when. No amount of pondside meditations would change this about her, and Azula understood Sifu well enough to know that she saw that in Azula. "And yet you teach me."
"Killing is as necessary as healing," Sifu said.
"The Air Nomads would say otherwise," Azula countered.
"I am no Air Nomad," Sifu said. "And even they cannot deny the principle of yam-yeung. Where there is life, there must be death. None of us can change this."
"You don't fear what I will do?" Azula said, because it was impossible to believe. That was her definition of self — she was fear itself, the bar by which all others measured themselves. That had escaped her for a time, but instead of softening her ferocity she'd found that these practices had brought her deeper into her original convictions. What she found in herself didn't align with her image of what a healer did.
"Your skills must be cultivated," Sifu said. When she looked at Azula, there was a knowing and a tenderness that made Azula feel completely exposed, all the more because Sifu did not flinch away from what she saw. When Sifu looked at her, Azula felt she was not fearful at all, that she was only what she needed to be. "What you will do is out of my hands."
"Today, you learn a new practice," Sifu said, leading Azula to the pond once more. Instead of taking up their customary spot, though, they took up position far away from the shore, in a relatively flat spot with little vegetation.
Strangely, she'd thought she'd wanted this weeks ago, but after everything she'd experienced with only the first practice she'd started to wonder whether it would be even worse with the more advanced practices. There had been days where it was only her sheer will that she would not quit that had kept her moving through. Instead of feeling the excitement she usually would, she felt subdued; she knew that the worst could be yet ahead, but she felt capable of meeting it. It was not the internal sense of strength to which she was accustomed, but rather a knowledge that she would live through the inevitable weakness and come out the other side.
"Like this," Sifu said, and took up a stance with her feet shoulder width apart. She stretched her arms out at her sides and moved them in one and a half circles until they came to rest, hovering in the air out at her sides. Her index fingers were lower than the rest of the hand.
She resumed a normal stance and turned towards Azula. "It will not be easy," she said.
"I'm ready," Azula said.
"I will guide you," Sifu said, and went to stand behind Azula.
She talked Azula through the opening of the practice, through attaining the correct position. "See yourself as a bronze bell," Sifu said, and Azula had the sensation that Sifu was hovering a hand in the air just behind the base of Azula's neck.
Azula pictured it, gently, the way Sifu always instructed — not to force, but bring the attention with a light touch. The energy began to move through her like she was a bell being struck; it vibrated through her body, all over her skin, through her muscles.
Time passed interminably. Azula began to lose physical awareness of her body; she knew it was there, and felt its boundaries, but the awareness was not acute and knowledge felt unimportant. She felt a vast emptiness inside of herself.
As the emptiness expanded, there was a coupled reaction of energy building. It was energy building at specific points in her body, along specific pathways, hai flowing in but not able to flow out, and a small kernel of anxiety began to form in her consciousness. She kept her body rigid, still, trying to prevent herself from losing the stance. She began to tremble.
"Allow the movements to happen naturally," Sifu said.
Azula relaxed her grip, just a bit, trying once again to find the detached awareness she'd had before. She exhaled, long and slow, and her limbs began to shudder of their own accord, without any direction from her whatsoever.
As her awareness became more and more dispersed the movements increased, from shudders to tremors. Her balance began to shift until she was completely off-center, and she felt Sifu's hands grip her and lower her to the ground. Her limbs bounced off the soil, jaw clacking, bones shaking so hard they felt as if they were ripping out of their sockets.
Azula was intensely present with every sensation — she felt every inch of her skin, the spasms all throughout her body, every contortion of her joints and tendons. Simultaneously, she keenly felt the hai moving within her, flowing through all the major pathways of her body, in and out of her acupuncture points. She wasn't even physically breathing; air itself was coming in through the base of her feet and the top of her skull.
The hai moved through her middle daan tin point and there was Paupau, holding Azula's hand as they walked through a hallway. Azula was taller than Paupau, and Paupau looked up at her with a mixture of sadness and affection. Everything he ever did, he did to make me stronger, Azula explained to her, feeling like it was important that she understand.
I know, Paupau said, patting her hand. It was what he could give.
The hai moved through her upper daan tin point and there was her mother, aged, threads of gray running through her hair. She was as elegant as Azula remembered, sitting in a chair in front of a window, her face framed in the island's sunset. We both understand the necessity of killing, Azula said, because forgiveness was neither asked nor given; this was a matter of mutual respect and understanding.
I know, her mother said, looking away. I always saw too much of myself in you.
The hai moved through her lower daan tin point and there was no one but her Sifu, looking down at her through a young peasant woman's eyes, only a handful of years older than Azula herself. The light shone right through her. I prayed that you were watching, Azula said, because she finally understood.
I know, Baak said, smiling. I heard you.
Two months later.
"I'll miss you," Zuko said, looking down at Mai with a lovesickness that made Azula's stomach turn.
"Don't die or anything stupid like that while I'm gone," Mai said, like a warning that if he did there would be dire consequences to pay.
"I wish I had someone to miss me," Ty Lee said, leaning over the railing at the rock and staring wistfully at the sea.
"Who are all those guys?" Sokka said, gesturing at the horde the guards were holding back with some difficulty. One man, in particular, couldn't seem to stop wailing Ty Lee's name while ripping open his shirt.
"Them?" Ty Lee said, flicking over a glance. She shrugged. "I don't recognize any of them."
"Move," Azula said, forcefully shoving Ty Lee and Mai towards the ship. "Any more of this and I'll reconsider the generosity of my offer."
"What, telling us the ship you're boarding instead of making us hunt you down like a fugitive?" Katara said, sharply. She looked like she wanted to stick out her tongue. "You're right, that's the nicest thing anyone's done for me all year."
"I expect you to remember that come my birthday," Azula said, enjoying the way Katara's hackles instantly rose. Almost too easy. Not that there was any point in explaining the true immensity of her kindness to the likes of Katara; Azula could have killed half the palace guards and anyone else who had dared stand in her way if she'd really wanted to go off on her own.
Allowing them to "escort" her (that is, prevent her from escaping to another land and staging a regime-changing coup, yes, yes, she'd heard it all before) had been an allowance on her part, one she would soon regret if she had to listen to any more of these soft-hearted partings.
"All right, all right, you don't have to tell me twice," Sokka said, raising his hands and walking in the prescribed direction when Azula raised an eyebrow at him with the promise of bodily force to follow. "I was promised two months of as much fishing as I could want, and I'm going to collect on every minute."
"See you on board," Ty Lee said, launching herself into an aerial flip that landed her in the middle of the deck amongst a pack of sailors who immediately began to oooh and aaah over her.
"Be nice to him," Mai said with a last glance at Azula before she walked after the others at a stately pace.
"Always," Azula simpered, shooting a saccharine smile in Mai's direction. Mai obliged her with a parting glare.
And then it was just her and Zuko. He gestured and the guards ushered away the crowd that had gathered, directing them back towards the market place. For a few moments, the only sounds at the dock were the slap of water against the wooden hull and the shrieks of the pelican-gulls.
"I wish I could go with you," Zuko said.
"I don't," Azula said. None of this meant that she trusted any of them, or they her, and it would be ridiculous to pretend otherwise. Zuko knew her well enough to understand that she needed to do this, and she knew him well enough that to understand that for the chance of finding mother, he'd risk letting her out from under guard. "But I'll send Paupau and Ama your greetings when I find them."
He looked like he wanted to say more on the subject — time and again, he tried to tell her that there was a chance Paupau was already dead, or that even if she wasn't, there was no guarantee she was with their mother. The information he'd gotten from father hadn't hinted at such.
Azula knew better. "When I find them," she repeated.
He sighed, raising his hands palms-out in concession. "Whatever you say, Azula."
"One last thing," she said. She took a step forward, raising two pointed fingers to his face. He cringed back, automatically half-raising an arm to block.
"Don't be stupid," she said, gesturing away the arm impeding her progress. "If I wanted to kill you, you'd already be dead."
He considered that for a moment. "True enough," he said, lowering the arm, though he still looked more than a little suspicious.
She laid her two fingers above his burned eye, barely touching the skin. His eyes widened, a mixture of anger and fear entering them, and she understood his discomfort -- it was a strangely intimate gesture. But before he could say anything, she closed her own eyes and narrowed her consciousness to where their skin met.
She saw many small points where the energy was blocked in the scar tissue. There was a depth to this wound that went beyond its physical features, and she only skimmed those; she directed her attentions on the small channels, gradually widening them, bringing small measures of life back to areas that were too tight and drawn.
Finished, she drew back and opened her eyes. What she'd done was noticeable -- a gentling of the tissue, a reduction of it size -- but not shockingly so. "I can't heal it," she said, "but the skin won't be as tight and the aches should ease."
"I —" Zuko raised his hand, touching his face gingerly, shock coloring his features.
"When we return, have Katara replenish the skin with water," Azula said. "It will aide what I have done, strengthen the efficacy of both of our approaches."
"I —" Zuko dropped his hand, looking at her with wonder. "Thank you, Azula. I never —"
"Don't ruin it, Zuko," she said, waving a hand to fend off his attempts at last-minute re-evaluation of her character. He appeared dangerously on the verge of giving her a hug. The vision had come to her in her meditation this morning and she was an obedient student following instruction, nothing more. Their story might not end in death today, but there was always time for that. It wouldn't do for him to forget.
"Thanks, Azula," he repeated.
"Goodbye, brother," she said.
"Goodbye," Zuko said. "Safe travels."
She turned, walking towards the ship. There was a comforting weight at the base of her neck that kept her on course.