Switch: Stone Heart
Cover art by theadaze.
Click the picture for the full version and for the rest of her wonderful illustrations.
And she was pretty sure all she was seeing was the hulking shape of his bear.
She drew back, certain that no one could find anything in her face except slight boredom. Her father—
had not been
—was not, as a rule, a patient man, but one time she had got him to promise to tell her how King Kuei had acquired such an unusual animal. Now his seat, which had lain vacant during the previous evening, was occupied by a man she knew only in the way she knew most of the other diners: the name of a tile on a vast and complicated game of pai sho.
She’d never cared for pai sho.
The gnawing in her stomach deepened. She pushed it away, ate another paper-thin sliver of fish. The cooks had done their best, of course, but the saffron sauce couldn’t completely disguise the faint mercury taste underneath. She wondered if they were eating the University’s research koi, or perhaps the trash-fattened fish who managed to survive in the Silver River. Soon they would probably be eating roasted elephant-rats and boiled leather.
Laughter rose in her throat, green and spiky like the glowing crystals in the ceiling, and she turned it into a cough before it could spill out. A glittering shoal of eyes turned towards her, then quickly lost interest. She looked at her mother’s polished face from under her eyelashes and had to resist the temptation to roll her eyes at her brother. Instead, she made a small chunk of stone ripple under her toes and jab Zuko’s foot. He jerked a little in surprise, then went back to his dinner as if nothing had happened, but Zula knew he had received the message. She didn’t need a lot of excuses to poke him with her earthbending—he practically invited it—but this particular poke meant “we need to talk”.
‘I am indisposed,’ she whispered in her court voice, the one groomed to sound like the clicking of beads. ‘Please convey my sincerest apologies to the Earth King.’
It wasn’t even a complete lie, she thought as she made her way out of the hall, shadowed by an attendant. For a second everything struck her with a slap of nausea: the age-puffed skin under the eyes of the man who’d taken her father’s seat, the clink of chopsticks, her mother’s stillness, the smell of saffron, the greenish light from the crystals that she’d always found cooly beautiful but now only made her think of—
She composed herself and dismissed the attendant. She was thirteen, not a baby, and she was the Lady Zula, not some mewling idiot. You are marble. You are the mountain. She repeated it to herself like a mantra, the words from the forbidden book her father had given her. It will be our little secret, he’d said, not for the first time nor the last. She’d devoured all the the words and pictures about tactics and strategy and war as if they were the poetry and art and etiquette her mother insisted were vital for a proper young lady. Zula had never understood the logic; how could arranging coloured pebbles be any more beautiful than the picture of the Siege of Omashu in the Second Empire? She had spent hours memorising each line, each bloody spill of rust-brown ink, each weak spot of crumbling rock. Despite the age staining the pages, the banners were still bright as flowers, and the inkstone fragments had hummed under her fingertips.
You are the rock face. You are the wall that will stand a thousand lifetimes.
There were eyes everywhere in Ba Sing Se, but she was sure no one had seen her slip back into the apartments. Inside, she bended away a small chunk of floor in her bedroom, and huddled in the pool of light from a lantern, the book cradled in her hands. Her heart beat a steady tattoo against her ribcage. She ordered it quiet. You are the wall.
She was reading about General Gong reaching the westernmost shore when her mother and brother returned. She tucked the book out of sight, rose, and carried the lantern into the parlour. When she was little they had owned several glowing crystals. Now they were allowed a small measure of burning oil every week, and their candles, which had always been fine scorpion-beeswax, were now tallow, its greasy scent hanging in the air like a ghost.
There is no war in Ba Sing Se, and we are winning.
‘Are you all right?’ Ursa said as she undid her elaborate buns. Ink-dark hair spilled over her shoulders.
‘I’m fine,’ Zula said, with a sideways glance at her brother. Zuko glanced back. ‘I would like to go to bed n—’
A knock on the front door froze her in place. Mother stepped forward and slid the door open a crack. It had been a long time since they’d had lights in the sliver of rock garden, but the sun had set not long before, and Zula could make out half a painted smile. She was sure the night air smelled faintly of ashes.
Mother stiffened. ‘How may I be of assistance?’
The door opened completely to reveal a woman in the green dress of the Grand Secretariat. The smile, Zula noticed, did not reach her eyes, and when a breeze tugged at her hair and brushed it against her face, she made no motion to push it away.
‘Hello,’ the woman said in a voice as colourless and smooth as glass. ‘My name is Joo Dee. I hope I have not come at a bad time.’
‘Not at all,’ mother said, a fraction too bright. ‘May I offer you a refreshment?’
‘Oh, I couldn’t impose.’ Joo Dee’s smile never wavered. Her eyes remained blank. ‘Forgive me for taking your time. I just have a message from the Grand Secretariat.’
Zula’s flesh curdled. Something tugged at her, and she nearly—
—jerked away before she looked down and saw her brother’s hand clutching hers, behind cover of their mother’s back. She looked at Zuko’s face, his lips pressed together into a thin line, and yanked her hand away. Unlike him, she did not require coddling.
‘Lord Zai has had to absent himself to assist in a private matter. He will return once that is concluded. Of course, once he is back, the Earth King will be happy to reward you for your trouble. Perhaps a personal invitation may be warranted. Good night, and I hope you will continue in good health.’ She did not wait for a reply before bowing and walking away.
Ursa shut the door and paced for a few moments before sinking onto a chair with a rustle of fabric. ‘Well,’ she said, then lifted her face, her lips stretched into another painted smile. When she tucked her hair behind her shoulder, her fingers smeared her face-powder. ‘At least your father will be back soon. I am sure.’
‘Sure. Soon,’ Zuko repeated at her side.
Zula snorted. Her brother’s head snapped towards her.
‘You don’t have to lie to us, you know,’ she said, and started examining her fingertips. The skin on her palm was too smooth. Marble. Mountain. Rock face.
‘What are you talking about?’ Zuko said.
Zula looked up. Her mother shot her a warning glance. Like always, she ignored it. ‘Come on, we all know what it means.’ She took a step forward. ‘Do you really think father is doing something for the King? He’s not coming back.’
‘Zula—’ mother began, but they both ignored her. Zuko took another step.
‘So you’re saying the Grand Secretariat sent someone to just lie to us? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’ His arms were crossed over his chest, his jaw squared, but she could hear a hairline crack in his voice. Weak.
‘Don’t you get it?’ she said with an eye-roll. ‘They don’t want us to know what happened to him so we won’t be able to tell anyone else. One way or another.’
‘But apparently you know what happened.’
Out of the corner of her eye Zula saw her mother stand up. She ignored her, her attention focused on her brother. His bronze skin was rage-blanched, feverish under the lantern’s glow. ‘Because only one thing makes sense, dum-dum.’ Inside her sleeves, her hands balled into fists. ‘He was fighting in the Outer Wall and he must have been killed.’
’Stop lying,’ Zuko spat. ‘What would he be doing in the Outer Wall?’
‘Oh, please,’ she said in a voice diamond-hard, diamond-cold. ‘Even you must have figured out by now that we’re at war.’
‘I know there’s some trouble, but—’ His face hardened again. ‘But father isn’t dead. Take it back.’
‘Or if not, he’s as good as.’ The words were razors in her mouth, but she pushed them out, feeling an odd kind of pleasure as each struck his face, like—
passing on poison
—the sour-sweet pain of an old bruise.
Then his face hardened, and for a moment he wasn’t the brother who was allowed to learn some real earthbending but was never very good at it, the brother who was better at all the useless things he knew were trifles and she knew were her fate, the brother who’d never been inside that secret circle that had begun the day father had seen her crack a boulder in two when she was four.
For a moment she was almost—
‘Take. It. Back.’ The chunk of stone that jutted from the floor nearly struck her. She blocked it and sent it flying back in a cloud of dust.
Zula bit down a yelp as something grabbed her arm and yanked her up. The stone sank back into the floor, an inch away from its intended target. She looked up into her mother’s face. Ursa had grabbed both her children, and she looked like she’d find them no harder to pick up and carry than a pair of fans, or two sheets of rice paper. ‘Enough,’ she snapped again, then released Zuko. He nearly stumbled back.
‘What is wrong with you?’ Ursa’s face was so close to hers, Zula could smell her make-up, the faint sheen of sweat. ‘Why would you say such a thing?’ Mother’s fingers dug into her shoulders, almost hard enough to hurt. ‘Why can’t you be—’
‘Normal? Nice?’ Zula snapped, and shook off her grip. Ursa stepped back, rubbed her hands together. Her face softened, and Zula disliked her all the more for it. Father always told her—had always told her—that if you had the luck of hardness, then you should be hard. Better the honest blow than pretending to yourself you had never meant it. If you couldn’t be strong, you could at least not aspire to weakness. ‘I would like to go to bed now,’ Zula said, and turned her back on mother, brother, the pool of light from the spluttering lantern.
The nausea was back, a hot tight grip on her stomach, a ripple of wet sand in her lungs. Instead of doubling in two, she walked into her bedroom, her back ramrod-straight, her head held high.
‘Yes,’ she grumbled, and pulled the quilt over her head. It was only autumn, but the night air was rimmed with cold. Behind her, she heard a rustle, then a creak as the screen dividing the bedroom in half was pushed aside. Bare feet padded on the floor. Her bed curtains stirred.
‘Do you really think father is dead?’
Zula pushed the bedclothes back and rolled onto her side. In the milky light pouring in through the gaps in the shutters, her brother’s emerald eyes were two black buttons, his face a blueish moon above her bed. He didn’t look angry anymore. Just worried.
‘Yes,’ she said, and sat up. Zuko flopped onto the bed. She had to resist the urge to give him a shove with her foot.
‘How can you know?’
She made a small noise of derision. ‘What, so you can go whine to mother?’
‘No.’ A word like a slab of basalt. ‘I just…’ He raised his hands, let them drop. ‘I have to know.’
‘Oh.’ Their eyes met. A memory rose to her, unbidden and unwanted, flushing her face hot: the times when she’d been sure—
—nobody was watching and she would burrow under her bedclothes like a vole-hog, until there was nothing beyond the pain of her nails digging into her palms, the dark behind her tight-closed eyes, the tremors racing through her flesh. Once Zuko had come to wake her up and had seen her like that; she’d spent the next week capturing spider-flies to hide in his sheets.
‘Come on,’ she said, and kicked both memory and bedclothes away. ‘Get dressed.’
He didn’t get up. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Why?’ she drawled. ‘Are you afraid?’
Even in the dark, she could tell he bristled at that. It pleased her a little. ‘I’m not afraid.’
Moments later she was bending a passageway into the sleeping city. They scuttled into the streets, the palace complex a thorny shadow behind them. She made them cling to corners, alleyways, courtyards clotted with night. Once she had to yank Zuko to a hiding place behind a fountain as a patrol walked by. She waited as their footsteps clattered past, sure that—
—Zuko’s breath on her back was as loud as a boarcupine’s grunts. Water—it smelled brackish—dribbled down the rim and onto her braid. Then the footsteps faded away, and she knew she needn’t have worried. The patrolmen had been on the lookout for anyone who might have got in; it would probably never occur to them that someone might be getting out. ‘Come on,’ she whispered, and they were on their way again.
It took them a while to wind their way across the night-draped city, even though they weren’t going any further than halfway across the Inner Ring. Zuko didn’t say a word as they made their way past the University’s sleeping gardens, where only a few insects chirped and half the tree branches had been cut off. He didn’t say a word even as she led them under the stone arches of a monorail track and the wide avenues began to narrow. She had expected him to start whining and pestering her with questions as soon as they sidled into the maze of unfamiliar buildings, the stone blue-tinged and the streets dark under the cloud-ridden sky. After all, they were under strict orders—all the more serious because unspoken—to never venture beyond the palace, beyond the trips to places like the city gardens (which had fewer and fewer animals) or the opera (which had fewer and fewer singers and props). Not that she cared about such orders, of course, but she was sure her older brother did. Instead, he was silent all the while, following her as stealthily as if he’d been doing it his whole life. Something itched between her shoulder-blades; she ignored it.
‘Here we are,’ she said. They’d stopped by a small tower, like a finger of stone pointing at the sky. It was an observatory, the kind where you’d climb up, then feed a few bronze coins into a spyglass so you could see the city. This one’s windows were dark, the door shut by a chain where a wooden sign hung. A scrap of music floated from the other side of the street. An open door spilled light, then closed.
That was unusual. Not a lot of music in the city these days, and the lit streetlights grew fewer and fewer.
‘It says closed for repairs,’ Zuko said, and stepped forward to touch the wooden sign hanging from the chain.
She rolled her eyes. ‘Do you see any repairs?’
He seemed to consider the question for a moment, as if she’d posed a serious inquiry. ‘No, but—’
‘Then come on,’ she said, and ducked under the chain. The stone enveloping the latch shifted under her palm with a groan and a smear of dust. Zuko was at her side in an instant, pushing the door open. Her muscles knotted with irritation. She made sure she was the first one through the opening.
The only light inside came from the high window slits, milky streaks of moonlight that barely touched the gloom. She’d been here a few times before, but the air still smelled stale, and the spiral steps were furry with dust.
‘Come on,’ she said, and began the climb. A spiderfly web brushed her face. She stopped and looked over her shoulder at her brother, who stood frowning at the foot of the stairs. Good, was her first thought, but she pushed it away. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.’
‘Well, if you’re scared…’ she drawled, and punctuated it with a dismissive flutter of her hand.
‘I’m not scared,’ he said, and clambered up the steps behind her.
‘Fine. Keep it down.’ She hurried up, the sickly-sweet smell of the dust prickling her nose. The observatory stairs had a metal railing, but it was brittle with rust. She guided herself by the ridges of stone wall against her fingers. At the end of the spiral staircase there was a gap where two of the steps had crumbled. She bended a bridge across the gap easily, feeling her brother’s gaze on her back like a—
The domed room under the roof was full of windows, the starlight enough to see the places where the stone was stained with rain, mottled with mould and the dry husks of ant-moths. She stepped up to the spyglass bolted to the middle of the floor, and wiped the thick lens with her sleeve. ‘Take a look.’
He didn’t move.
‘It’s not going to bite you, Zuzu,’ she said, and let out an exaggerated sigh of annoyance. Zuko stepped forward and grabbed the other end of the spyglass so hard it nearly struck her as it swivelled. She edged out of the way, and felt like she’d won nonetheless.
‘Point it to the other end of the city.’
She didn’t need to look through the dirt-speckled glass to know exactly what he was seeing. She’d been here and looked at it herself enough times for it to be carved in her—always excellent, of course—memory.
The first time had been with father. After her first look she’d stepped back and bumped against father’s robe, the muscled body underneath. She’d pulled away quickly, the faint trace of camphor basil still in her nostrils. Father did not like to be touched, though at least she wasn’t some sticky, grubby little child.
She startled, smoothed it over. He’d just said exactly the same words she had when she’d first looked. She had done it in daylight, of course, the first time; even so, the image wouldn’t be very different, except for the hard shine of sun on stone. There would be the city, so vast even the observatory’s height and the lens’s magnification were barely enough to see its fullness. She’d always heard it would take three days, all told, to walk from one end of Ba Sing Se to the other, but it wasn’t until she’d seen it through the spyglass that she’d really believed it. The biggest, oldest, most magnificent city in the world. An ocean of tile and slate and rock. Mazes of sandstone. Carved marble like frozen foam. Jewelled emerald domes rising from islands of greenery. Monorail tracks criss-crossing the landscape like seams. The river wound through it, silvery and flat. At the water’s widest, a town would fit inside it. Here and there, thinner veins spooled away from it.
But he wasn’t talking about that.
‘Fire Nation,’ she said. She almost spat out the name.
The spyglass groaned a little as her brother moved it around to get a better view. It took a while to take it all in, she admitted: the swollen shadow, the steel glint of war machines and siege engines, the banners like blood droplets in the distance. No, she corrected herself, he wouldn’t be able to see those properly at night. Only the winking fire.
Zuko released the spyglass, sat back on the balls of his feet. He didn’t look scared, she noticed. He didn’t even look surprised. ‘How can the Fire Nation be here?’
She twirled the tip of her braid around her finger. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ she said, as if the subject were no more important than a game of cards. ‘We’re being besieged. And they’ve broken through the Outer Wall.’
He looked at her, his eyes two dark slicks in the starlight. He wasn’t going to tell her she was lying to annoy him, or complain about crazy girls. People were stupid enough to deny the obvious, but reality was no more bendable than metal or wood.
When she’d first seen it she’d been surprised, just for a moment. She had assumed a siege would clamour with blades and thrown boulders and the thuds of battering rams. It shouldn’t be like that, so still, happening while people ate dinner or tuned sounding stones or walked dully to the market.
Then—quickly—she’d realised it was like rot. A sickness. A foam of black decay and scarlet disease, slowly eating away at the rind and flesh of an apple-melon.
‘But we drove them back,’ Zuko said. ‘That man, what was his name, he broke through the Outer Wall, but he—’
‘General Iroh,’ Zula said, but her brother had already swallowed the rest of the sentence and now glanced at the opening on the floor, his face shuttered.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, words oily with poison, and shrugged a tremor away as she sat under the wide windows, relishing the stone’s cold touch on her neck. The night air spilling in smelled clean. ‘No one is listening.’
That hung between them for a moment, like the webs and dust.
People listened, she knew, sometimes. Sometimes other people would go—
perhaps a personal invitation may be warranted
away and be different when they came back. Only they weren’t supposed to be different. Not really. Not in the world that—
—encircled father’s study when he locked the door and had her bend until her skin was slippery with sweat.
There is no war in Ba Sing Se, and it was over a while ago.
Zuko said nothing, and edged back until he was sitting by her side, his hands on his knees. She didn’t move.
‘We kicked him out. He went away. Regrouped. Came back. Their army is much bigger this time, father sa—’ She fell silent. Heat flared in her face, cold in the spot under her ribcage.
‘Are they trying to break through the Middle Wall?’ Zuko said, and she wondered if he was ignoring what she’d said or if he’d just deliberately misheard it, which he did a lot. A page from the book flashed in her mind, the characters vivid enough to touch. The drawing of the square, for strength, which interested her, and the circle, for eternity and the great wheel of being, which did not. Let the rocks on the ground be your army.
‘Probably. Unless they think they don’t have to, of course,’ she said. ‘Maybe they think they can poison the river and burn the fields until we surrender.’ Her tone was breezy. She’d never really thought about where her food came from. It always appeared in front of her at every meal, even if the vegetables and fruits were increasingly stringy, the meat tough, the rice and dough sticky.
‘That’s stupid.’ He turned towards her. ‘Do they really think we’re just going to let them take over the city? Just… sit back and let them march up and down the streets?’
‘You said “they think”.’ Her tone was as sharp as she could make it, which was very, but for once it wasn’t directed at him. She let go of the loose cuff thread she’d been worrying and turned to her brother. ‘I heard their general has a son, tucked away in their kingdom. Maybe his father is planning on marrying him to one of the Earth King’s—’ She faltered for half a second as she tried to find the right word. ‘—relatives. After they win.’
Zuko made a low noise in his throat. ‘Don’t those people know anything?’
‘No. Do you know why their general is called the Dragon of the West?’
‘Yes. It’s so that they remember which way to go when they want to get back.’
He laughed at that, to her surprise—her brother wasn’t the laughing type. Mostly he wore an expression like he was permanently remembering that time he’d found a dead elephant-mouse inside his slipper.
She was smiling, she realised, and hurriedly told herself it must be at the memory. That had been such a good prank.
‘Hey, Zula,’ Zuko said, a ghost of a chuckle still on his lips, ‘do you know what’s a pai sho treasure hand in the Fire Nation? Nine unrelated tiles and a flame. I mean a fireball. I mean a thrown—’
‘Yes, I got it, thank you. You really are terrible at this.’
He turned his face away. ‘I don’t suppose you’d know what that’s like,’ he said, and her tongue cooled. Not at anything that matters bubbled on its surface. But instead of lobbing the words, heavy and sharp, like she used to, like she’d always do, she found herself saying nothing. Her knees drew up, and she fastened her hands around them.
The rock stands on its own, her father was saying. Voice like polished obsidian, eyes like twin chips of hard jade. He was right—
until he let himself get killed
—because he was always right.
So it was stupid, this sudden little tug in her side, a cobweb-thin thread hanging on the floor between her and Zuko. She was suddenly very aware of his breathing, the solidity of his presence. Her stomach clenched. It had to be the fish, making her queasy.
‘Maybe he’s been captured.’
She looked at her brother. He didn’t look at her, just kept staring straight ahead, past the spyglass, into the dark and the starlit windows. Now that the clouds had parted, a full moon shone in the sky like a bone button. ‘Or maybe he’s just injured,’ he added, his voice dust-soft.
This time he did look at her. ‘You can’t know that.’
‘He wouldn’t surrender.’
‘Maybe it wasn’t his idea,’ he said, brow furrowing, and sat up away from the wall. ‘Maybe he was trapped or unconscious…’
‘No,’ Zula snapped. A tomb lid. ‘He’d never let himself be captured unless it were part of a plan. And if it were part of a plan, we would have seen some sign of it by now. Or, actually, I would have seen a sign of it by now.’
She felt him turn to her, but she didn’t meet his eyes. ‘You’re not making any sense,’ Zuko said. ‘And why do you want so bad for father to be dead, anyway?’
All of a sudden, her skin felt too tight, her sinews taut like puppet strings. She got to her feet, moved towards the other side of the room. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand,’ she said, voice sweet with contempt. ‘After all, father was the best. And when you’re the best you either win or—’ She stopped, turned around just enough to be able to glance at Zuko over her shoulder. ‘Or you lose only when other people betray you. When they can’t even be honest enemies. The kind of cowards who throw stones and hide their hands. Doesn’t that sound like the ash-heads?’
This time, her brother didn’t argue. He just threw his hands in the air. His shoulders shrugged in defeat. ‘Fine. Suit yourself. Father is dead.’
The air cooled again into chalky silence. Zula stepped up to the spyglass and ran a finger over the rim of its shuttered eye, feeling the phantom buzz of the dirt impurities in the metal. Another memory drifted up, unbidden, unwanted: the last time she and father had been here, at the tail end of summer. They had come in daylight, and so heat had splashed on the window sills, hazed the jade-green domes. She disliked the heat—spring, green and foggy, would be her favourite season if she ever concerned herself with such nonsense as having a favourite season—but father had seemed, as ever, unaffected, his skin and clothes not bearing a trace of sweat or discomfort. She had tried to do likewise as he’d quizzed her on the great sieges of history, the strategies and mistakes of their commanders, how it all applied to a great city whose name he did not have to say. When he had been satisfied, a corner of his mouth had pulled up and he’d said ‘well done, my dear’; the sting of heat in her eyes and the dull ache in her knees from standing for so long vanished.
She lobbed the thought away. What did it matter now? Now that father—
couldn’t have been that good not if he got
—was gone, one way or another, the memory and all like it were useless. All she should concern herself with were the things he’d had time to teach her. The knot in her stomach tightened, queasiness—the fish, she was sure—riding into her throat. She turned to her brother. ‘What do you care anyway?’ she said. ‘Father didn’t teach you. He didn’t even like you.’
Even in the half-dark, a few yards away from him, she could tell he was rolling his eyes. When his answer came, however, his tone was quiet. ‘He likes me. He taught me.’
She froze, and barbed—
—anger darted through her chest. Zuko already had a master, a real sifu to teach him real earthbending. He’d complain about his lessons as if receiving them were as natural as breathing, as much his due as the clothes he wore and the bed he slept in, and when Zula pointed out that maybe he wouldn’t have to complain so much if he were actually good at it, mother would shush her and go back to telling Zuko he already had mastered the most important part of earthbending, facing a task head on even when it seemed unsurmountable…
Her lessons, her secret lessons, were not a birthright. She had worked for them with every scrap of skill and talent, until those had become the only thing that mattered. Not her birth order, or her sex, or her position. Not if she was nice, or pliable, or likeable. Father had seen that rare, glittering gift in her. Unquestionable. Undeniable.
He had taught her because she deserved it. He shouldn’t have taught her brother too.
‘No,’ she said. Her fingers picked at an invisible speck of dust on her sleeve. ‘Father liked me.’ A lie, really—what she and father had was something different and far better than mere likes or dislikes. She’d used the term Zuko would understand. ‘Don’t worry, mother likes you,’ she added. Her tone made it clear which one was preferable.
Zuko looked up, his hands still resting on his knees. ‘Mother likes you too.’
He sounded unconvinced. ‘No, she doesn’t,’ she said, her tone as indifferent as she could make it, which was very. ‘She thinks I am odd, and unpleasant, and wrong. But I don’t really care.’ She turned her face away, riffled through her memories in search of a time when she and Ursa hadn’t been engaged in a constant—
—tug-of-war. As she’d expected, she found none. Her earliest memory was of her mother’s stunned face after Zula had abandoned her exploration of her own toes to calmly inform her that the proper name for the thing Ursa was offering her was “biscuit”, actually. She thought of all the little skirmishes in their silent war, the rebukes when Zula said the things everybody else was thinking but didn’t have the guts to voice. The barely-suppressed sighs when Zula would sit, face bolted shut, through some session of poetry or art appreciation only to rush away at the earliest possible opportunity, back to scrolls and books full of strategy and fighting forms.
The looks her mother would give her sometimes, sideways looks, under-the-eyelashes looks. Zula was never sure whether she was meant to notice those looks; had she cared, she wouldn’t be sure which option would be preferable. The look of someone wondering what exactly was it she had given birth to. Someone wondering where exactly this little stranger had come from, this odd creature with the face of a little girl and a tongue full of thorns, a steel contraption mind. A creature who had been born to cleave mountains in half and fire off rocks rather than sculpt them.
If she were weak, it would, she was sure, bother her. But she wasn’t weak, and so when Ursa and Zuko laughed together and she was sure they were mocking her in their conspiratorial whispering, Zula told herself all she should notice was the way they sounded like a flock of frightened birds.
‘No. I am sure you don’t,’ Zuko said, and got to his feet. She felt like telling him something sharp for having intruded in her thoughts.
Instead she just shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter. I will be a general someday.’
‘Girls can’t be generals,’ he scoffed, then paused. His tone lost its mockery. ‘I guess they maybe have women generals in Kyoshi Island, though. But I think they call them something else—what is that word they used before, we learned it in our lessons—shou something? Or maybe it was sou…’
Zula glared at him. ‘You’re even terrible at insults.’ She carried on before he could reply. ‘Besides, I don’t have to travel all the way to Kyoshi Island. When you were so busy failing to memorise their old language, did you skip your history and geography lessons? There were female generals, sometimes. And if we lived in a village, I would have to know how to defend our land against… gazellions, or whatever. Things with fangs. Even if I were a non-bender. So do try to keep up.’
‘But you shouldn’t have to,’ he said, a little bristly. Maybe he was annoyed by her crack about his forgotten lessons. ‘I mean, that’s the point of Ba Sing Se. That’s why it’s the greatest city in the world. It’s like—like in those old days when you could travel alone with a big bag of money from the eastern mountains to the shores of the Lonely Sea and not have to worry about, well, anything. You don’t have to spend your life surviving. You can use your bending for culture and art and—’
‘Yes, I was told all that too,’ Zula said. She glanced at the spyglass, where a thread of moonlight blazed on the metal. ‘Do you still think there is no war in Ba Sing Se?’
More silence. Then Zuko’s hand rose before falling back to his side. ‘Can we not fight all the time?’ he said.
Something inside her swayed, as if she were practicing a difficult form and was about to lose her balance. ‘What are you talking about, dum-dum?’ she said.
He didn’t argue back. Instead he stepped up to her, so close she was sure she could feel his breath on her skin. ‘We’re brother and sister,’ he said. ‘We’re supposed to help each other. Not tear each other down all the time. It’s wrong.’
She turned away. Some odd little stone bobbed in her throat. ‘You sound like a fool,’ she said, but the words were pebble-small, pebble-weak.
Behind her she could hear her brother stepping away, the thump of a stone being bended in frustration. She could almost see him: the balled hands, the set jaw. He was about to tell her she was crazy, then stomp away. Good.
Instead, something alighted on her shoulder. She nearly shook it away in revulsion, as if it were a large insect. ‘Father is dead, Zula,’ he said.
She pulled her shoulder away. ‘I know. I told you.’
‘Father is dead,’ he said again, his tone still blank. ‘Father is dead.’
‘—dead. Father is dead. Father is—’
Shut up shut up shut up
‘I know!’ she yelled, and spun around. ‘I know! I know!’
The stones in the walls groaned and shook, sprayed down dust. Under her feet, the floor quaked. The spyglass wobbled perilously with a thin cry from its rust-stiff hinges.
She dropped to her knees, spent, her heart racing, pain shooting through her muscles. Loose hair stuck to her forehead, damp with—
—sweat. The room stilled. Silence poured back.
There. There. She looked up at her brother’s face, high up above hers. ‘Are you happy? Are you enjoying it?’ she blurted out. She pushed the hair off her eyes with the back of her hand and had to fight the urge to sink her nails into her own flesh. ‘I’m not going to cry.’
He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smirk. That’s because he’s weak and a fool, she wanted to tell herself, but she could barely manage the thought. Right now she was so tired she was sure she could sleep for a hundred years. Maybe the ash-heads would be gone when she woke up. Maybe if the whole city fell asleep a palace of sand would rise up around them, like in the story.
‘I know,’ he said, and kneeled down in front of her, slowly, carefully, as if he were about to pick up a wounded bird. ‘You never do.’ His hand reached out, nearly touching hers. She grimaced, hesitated, and finally let her fingers touch his. His grip felt warm against her skin, and she couldn’t remember when this had last happened, her letting him hold her hand like this. She must have been young enough to allow ribbons in her hair, and mother must have made them do it.
Nobody was making her now, and the feeling was not altogether unpleasant.
‘I’ll teach you,’ he said. Brightly, almost. ‘Whatever sifu Lan teaches me, I’ll teach you.’
Half an eye-roll. ‘No, advanced… basket-weaving.’
‘Your jokes are still terrible, dum-dum,’ she said, but they both laughed, and then remained in place, her hand still caught in his, until the laughter cooled.
‘Besides,’ he added, ‘it will probably take the two of us to beat those floating machines.’
She frowned. ‘What are you talking about?’
Even in the shadows, she could tell he was surprised. ‘What do you mean? They’re right there in the spyglass.’
‘No they’re not,’ she said, but their hands were already parting, and she stood up with a wipe of her hands on her trousers and a rush of blood back into her legs.
‘Well, take a look, then.’
She ignored him and pressed one open eye against the spyglass’s lens. Dust specks made her blink a few times. Her fingers fiddled with the creaky mechanism controlling the magnification. The last time she had done this in daylight, and she was sure the glass hadn’t been quite this dirty. A coppery scent filled her nose and mouth, as if she’d just stuck her face in two fistfuls of coins. Still, she was sure she had it now: the spread of the city, the houses small like rows of toys, the Fire Nation lines, and—
That must be what Zuko was talking about, those little oval pinpricks floating in the night sky above the scarlet plague-circle. Paper lanterns, she thought at first, but of course that was impossible. Mathematics had never interested her, but she knew enough to calculate scale and distance. Those things had to be much bigger than the biggest kite. Bigger than a house. As big as a street, maybe. Airborne as if it were the most natural thing in the world, instead of impossible. She swallowed, the sides of her throat rubbing together like sandpaper, and pictured a giant mechanical spider-fly moving across the city, crushing stone underneath its blade-bristled legs, releasing a flock of fire-breathing birds bred for biting and tearing. She shook the image away as she pulled back from the spyglass and stood up. It was—
‘They must be some kind of war machine,’ she said.
‘That’s what I said. Did you seen them before?’ Zuko asked.
‘No. But I’m not worried,’ she added quickly.
He shrugged. ‘Whatever. We should probably head back home.’
She didn’t argue. The lines from the book floated up again as they walked towards the stairs and she held them close like a prayer bead or a balance stone, repeated them in her head like a mantra. Let the rocks on the ground be your army. Let the pebbles be your arrows. Let every speck of dirt and every grain of sand besiege your enemy.
Above them, the moon was a lidless, unseeing eye.