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an ice floe, slowly drifting out to sea

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i.

"Come with me," says her husband, her bright and careless husband, "come with me to the garden. I've something new to show you."

It is late, and the bed's silken covers are soft beneath her, but Ursa goes. There is nothing more beautiful than her husband alight with power and pride in mastery.

"I've been watching my brother's practice," Ozai confides, as he stretches his arms over his head in a sure, graceful arch and sets his stance wide. "There's so much my teachers won't yet show me, so much that I'm ready for."

Ursa thinks him unwise, but it is a little thought, warm with a new wife's fondness. Wisdom is for the old. She watches him deepen his breath, drop his hands to his center, and then spread them wide.

She watches the lightning gather at his fingertips, send tendrils outward, and then recoil.

She watches him fall.

ii.

Four physicians have come and gone while she sits motionless by his bed. They cluck their tongues and tug their beards, listen to his chest and measure his breaths.

Ursa can measure, too, and she knows they are slowing.

She knows other things, too, favored wife of an indulgent husband who whispers confidences across the pillows. She stands and walks out, leaving the fifth physician to his work.

iii.

The prison is three days' ride from the capital. She makes the trip in two, and leaves her mongoose lizard heaving for breath in the courtyard.

The guards are soft here, though they think themselves strong. All their effort is turned inward. She flashes her seal, speaks sharply to them, and they part before her like flames around green wood. No one asks for documents to prove her claims.

"Bring me your healers," she says.

The women they assemble are ragged, hair in tangles and too-thin legs swaying as they walk. She stands straight and silent as the guards line them up before her and does not speak until they have been brought to their knees.

"I am in need of your services," she says.

None of them speak. None of them raise their eyes to her. She waits, though inside her heart thumps, counting each wasted second.

At last one woman tilts back her head, revealing pale grey eyes. "What will you give me in return?" she asks.

The guard kicks her down before he sees Ursa's raised hand and steps back.

"Your freedom," Ursa says. But there was a moment's pause before her words, and both she and the woman know it was too long.

The woman stands anyway, and this time the guards make no move to stop her. "I will come."

Ursa nods, as though she knew the answer, as though her heart were not beating its way out of her chest, and gestures for the woman to follow.

As the woman turns her back on her fellows, the guards begin to gather them for the long march back to their cells.

iv.

Her name is Hama. Yes, she knows healing. Yes, she will tend to Ursa's husband.

She says nothing except in answer to Ursa's questions, and she says very little even then.

Inside the palace, servants melt away before Ursa. Her face is stiff, and from their cringing bows it must be a terror to behold. Hama follows in her wake, a cold and silent shadow.

In the sickroom, she finds a new physician attending to the old routine while a servant gently bathes her limp, unmoving husband with a square of soft crimson cloth.

"Out," she tells them, and they takes one look and flee.

Hama is at the servant's abandoned basin before the screen slides shut. Ursa cannot see Hama's face, but she can see the set of her shoulders as she plunges her hands into the water. All sign of hunched submission fades away.

For a moment, neither woman moves. In the silence, Ursa can hear her the faint rattle of her husband's breathing. She is risking everything on this.

Then Hama moves to Ozai, water wrapped around her hands like gloves woven from glass ribbons, and bends over him. She touches his forehead, his chest, his center of chi, and her graceful fingers glow blue as they pass along his body.

Ursa lets out a breath, then another. She times her breathing to her husband's, which no longer rattles, and settles by the bed to wait.

v.

Ozai is sleeping, his chest rising and falling in an easy, even rhythm. Ursa watches him, aware that Hama is watching her.

After long moments, she looks up and meets the other woman's gaze.

"You are free, now," she says, and flinches at Hama's laugh. All Ursa's self-control, held so tightly this past week, has broken with her husband's fever.

"Free to go where?" Hama demands. "Will you give me a ship? An escort, to my tribe? Or did you mean me to set up a physician's business in the capital? Come one, come all, feel the healing touch of your enemy."

Ursa has no answers for her.

"Free to return to prison," Hama concludes, and turns away. She is gazing out the window. Perhaps she thinks it her last moments to see the moon.

"No." Ursa finds a little steel, yet. "I will find rooms for you, here." She owes this woman everything, and she will not repay her with bars and cold stone walls.

"A prison's still a prison, for all the ice is warmed with furs," Hama says. But she doesn't say no.

vi.

Ursa has the nursery aired out, the beds made fresh and the chimneys cleaned. Lu Ten has long since left it behind, and Ursa has no children of her own as yet. The servants will pass the cleaning off as the spring fancy of a woman hungry for sons and daughters, and let it grow musty again.

It is as safe a place as any for Hama to stay. The doors even have locks, to keep curious children from wandering out when they should stay safe in bed.

Hama eyes the locks, and says nothing. Ursa leaves them unlatched.

They both know Hama has nowhere to go.

vii.

Ursa drops the dinner tray on Hama's table with a force that sends broth sloshing over the edge of the translucent china bowl, but the other woman's eyes never leave her weaving.

Hama has been making and unmaking her rug for months, now. The thick wool yarn she needs is hard to come by in the palace, though Ursa did her best and even found a scrap of blue. Ursa has no patience with the work now. She grabs Hama's wrists, stilling them, and when Hama looks up, she meets Hama's cold grey eyes with her own furious glare.

"What did you do to him?" she demands. "What did you do to my husband?"

Hama shrugs. "I healed him, as you asked."

"You did more than that."

Ozai is awake, and Ozai is hale. The doctors call it a miracle. He stands tall and strong, and his firebending forms are sharper than ever.

But he takes no pride in it, none of the almost childish glee that once accompanied each new trick and mastered challenge. Lightning comes when he calls and flies at his order, and he only frowns and summons it again to throw it further.

Where once he was wild and careless, driven by passion and joy, now he is cold. Ursa had prayed for him to learn wisdom, and now the prayer tastes like ashes on her tongue.

He comes to her at night, speaking of heirs, and leaves before sunrise. His time is spent at practice and in conference with his father, and he no longer calls her to watch or whispers confidences as she dozes.

"I healed him," Hama repeats. "I gave him strength. I made him all he wished to be."

"Change him back," Ursa orders, hiding her doubts in a high-handed noble’s tone while all too aware it is a robe that has never quite fit.

Hama laughs. Ursa has grown to hate her crow-like caw. "And will you tell him about your pet waterbender? Will he fold his hands and sit for me?"

Ursa slams the screen behind her, but she can still hear laughter echoing in her ears.

viii.

Zuko is born at midwinter, and his first breaths are weak, fluttering things that remind Ursa of another sickbed. It seems long ago.

It is an inauspicious day for a firebender's birth. Ozai watches him struggle for breath, and his face folds into a frown.

That was you, once, Ursa thinks, but she knows better now than to raise her voice at him. And she is tired, so tired from the birth.

It is three weeks before the physicians are certain Zuko will live, and even then they whisper that his lungs will always be delicate, perhaps too delicate for fire.

ix.

Ozai never visits his disappointing son. Ursa installs Zuko in the nursery chambers, on the far side from Hama, and tends to his meals and medicines herself. Hama's privacy has never been more secure.

Ursa comes from a meeting with Lady Lee, exhausted from the delicate thrusts of words and fans, breasts aching with milk, and stops in Zuko's doorway. Hama is holding him to her chest, crooning some soft song of nonsense words. The scene is peaceful, pastoral, and yet Ursa feels anger leap within her chest.

"Put down my son."

Hama turns to face her, and holds out her arms, offering Zuko to Ursa.

"He's a beautiful boy," Hama says. There is a softness to her words that Ursa has never heard before. Or perhaps she is imagining it. Whichever is true, Ursa takes Zuko gently, rather than snatch him from the other woman's arms, and she does not step away before lowering his mouth to her breast.

It is more than Ozai has ever said.

"He is," she says. "My beautiful boy."

"I had a boy, once," Hama says.

Ursa has no response. She finds a chair and sits, settling Zuko into her lap, and says nothing when Hama sits beside her and begins cooing her nonsense song again. The setting sun bathes the room in pink-tinged light.

They stay there until Zuko has finished feeding, shoulders almost touching. From a distance, they might look like friends.

In the morning, Ursa has new chambers prepared for Hama and hires a Fire Nation matron of sterling reputation to serve as Zuko's nurse. She has not forgotten the lesson of Ozai.

Sometimes, she listens to Zuko's easier breathing, and wonders at her choice.

x.

Hama's new chambers are further from Ursa's, and Ursa has little reason to visit them. She has spread a story of a reclusive aunt, in the capital to recover from some devastating loss, and no one questions it. Her husband certainly will not. He has other matters to attend to than his wife's embarrassing relations, matters of war and flame.

Servants bring trays of food and leave them outside Hama's door each morning. Ursa has no more reason to do a servant's work herself.

And yet she does.

She is not capital born and bred, and she finds the endless jockeying for position among the high-born ladies exhausting. Once she had ignored them for her husband's company. Now she has nowhere else to turn.

"Why do you persist in doing that?" she asks, as she watches Hama deftly unwind warp from weft, unraveling her just-finished rug.

Hama shrugs. "What other work do I have to do?"

Ursa comes the next day with her needlework kit, and spends long hours trying to teach Hama the art of silk embroidery. The woman is a poor student. Ursa remembers her hands, graceful with streams of water, and cannot understand why they cannot place a stitch just so, follow the angle of a leaf and the curve of a fire lily petal.

"So much effort, your nation spends," Hama mocks, "on something that will burn."

But she gathers all the strands of blue and green and black, meant for accents and shadows, and Ursa comes one day to find Hama hard at work. Her stitches are too big, their angles sloppy, but as they spread across the fabric Ursa sees within them the toss of waves and wild curl of surf.

No proper Fire Nation lady would sew that way.

Ursa finds it beautiful. Her own stitches slow as she watches Hama's patterns unfold, watches Hama's hands move across the fabric.

"Here," Hama says. "It's done. Take it."

Hama returns to her weaving. She wants nothing of the Fire Nation, no matter how much she bends its arts to her own vision.

Ursa pins the hanging in her chambers, and sometimes thinks she can hear the waves in her sleep.

xi.

"What is that?" Ozai asks, staring at the hanging. He has come to her bed again, the first time since her belly swelled with Zuko two years ago. The disappointment of his first child, it seems, has faded, and he is ready for the next attempt. "Where did you find it?"

"At the market," she lies.

He frowns. "Burn it. I'll send you something more suitable. Something auspicious, to welcome our new child."

While he watches, she carries Hama's embroidery to the fireplace and casts it on the flames.

She closes her eyes and tries to remember each stitch as he thrusts into her, but all she can see is blackened, crumbling silk.

So much effort on something that will burn.

She never tells Hama.

xii.

Ursa's daughter is born at midsummer, and her eyes are so bright Ursa sometimes fears her swaddling clothes will catch flame.

Ursa presents her to Ozai and watches a smile, slow and possessive, spread across his face.

"A true heir," he proclaims, and begins for the first time to concern himself with the raising of his children. He even smiles at Ursa, and troubles himself on occasion to ask about her day.

She stumbles, the first few times. She is so unused to questions, she has forgotten how to lie. But his eyes and ears are focused on Azula, and he does not notice her stuttering.

She visits Hama less, exploring the boundaries of her husband's newly expanded regard, sharing attention between both children. Zuko is a quiet child, still, sweet and eager to please. He watches his baby sister with something like awe.

Azula cries and cries, demanding, every moment Ursa's attention drifts from her. She wants milk, now, changing, now. With Ozai present to indulge her, she rarely has to wait.

As Ursa watches her children grow, Zuko always unsure and looking for approval, Azula sharp and brittle as obsidian and never looking back, Ursa wonders again about Hama's influence. She had been so sure she was protecting Zuko by moving the woman away, so sure her songs would turn to poison in his ears.

But it is Azula who follows after Ozai, and Azula has never seen Hama at all.

xiii.

They just have returned from Ember Island, and both the children are tucked in their beds, when Ursa goes to visit Hama. Ozai is busy at his desk, buried in the paperwork that has erupted in their absence. He will not look for her tonight.

Ursa slides the screen open, and Hama jerks her head up from where she is crouching on the floor. Rats go scattering into the corners of the room, though the full moon pouring in through the open window leaves few shadows. Ursa raises her hand to her mouth.

"I'll find you new chambers," she says at last, when the urge to shriek has subsided.

"Don't trouble yourself," Hama says. She is smiling, her lips pulled back. In the moonlight, her white teeth stand out starkly. "They're friends. Here, look."

She raises a hand, and one rat dances forward on his hind legs, a mincing parody of a courtier's walk.

Ursa closes the screen behind her, and sits heavily on the nearest chair.

"What are you doing?"

Hama shrugs. "I grew tired of weaving."

"I'll bring you more silks," Ursa says wildly.

"Oh, no," Hama says. "This is more fun." She stares at Ursa, eyes as wide as her smile, and Ursa feels herself sinking into the cold grey stare. She leans forward, and then further forward, until the chair is ready to tip.

A rat chirps, Hama glances down, and Ursa sags back into the chair. When Hama looks up again, her expression is calmer.

"I'll bring them anyway," Ursa promises. She resolves to visit more often. Hama has spent too much time alone.

She does not let herself wonder why her instinct is not to slam the screen and lock it behind her instead. She never (never) lets herself remember that there is a cell still waiting for Hama, three day's ride away.

She owes the woman too much. With Ozai's attention once again on her, she can make herself forget how much she has already paid.

xiv.

When Hama finishes her second embroidery, a tiny scrap no more than a hand span across that shows three spread-winged gulls, Ursa buries it deep in her drawer where Ozai will never see.

xv.

As the years pass and Ozai's attention does not waver, sometimes Ursa can almost forget the accident, can pretend her life has progressed in one clean, unbroken line, from maidenhood to first love to marriage to family.

He still treats his son like a cursed thing, holding him at arm's length, but she spends long afternoons with Zuko and imagines it fair compensation. She can build happiness from this.

Until the night she hears Azula's gleeful tale of a private meeting between Ozai and the Fire Lord, her whispered tidings of murder.

She goes to her husband, prostrates herself before him, and begs him not to do this.

He laughs, a cold, sharp sound that has nothing of Hama's wildness. That does not make it comforting.

"We can have other sons," he says, a pronouncement with no room for doubt or disagreement. "He is weak. You know that. He is not worth the attention you lavish on him."

"There is another way," she disagrees, ignoring the warning in Ozai’s tone.

"Another way to the throne for me?" he asks, but the question is rhetorical. He is already turning away.

"Yes," Ursa says. "Yes."

He listens. She tells him.

"You speak treason," he says, each word clear and stacked upon the other like stones.

So do you, she wants to say, plotting to displace your brother. Instead she schools her face to stillness, and waits.

"If you do this thing," he says, "If you can do this thing, I will spare your son."

Not "our son," she notices. Never "our son."

"But Ursa," he says, and his voice is hard, "there will be no place for you here."

"I understand," she says.

She knocks her head once to the floor, and stands to leave.

There is no final parting kiss.

xvi.

It is nearly midnight, but Hama is awake, as she always is when the full moon is high.

"I am in need of your services," Ursa says, when she has closed the screen behind her.

"And what will you give me in exchange?" Hama asks. There are no guards to intervene. She regards Ursa without blinking, chin tilted up.

Ursa stares back, ignoring things that skitter in the corners of the room.

"Your freedom," she says.

Hama throws back her head and laughs her hoarse crow's laugh, cawing and cawing until Ursa thinks she will never stop. Moments tick away. Ursa has not been this aware of time's passing since she first met Hama while her husband's life faded.

"And will you give me a ship?" Hama asks. She sounds bored, now. "You know what freedom is worth."

"I will give you a ship," Ursa says steadily. "And I will sail it with you."

Hama stands so fast that Ursa cannot remember seeing her move. Her hands (and when did her graceful fingers turn to claws?) reach out to grasp Ursa's shoulders, and she pulls her close, then closer still, pressing their lips together.

Hama's mouth parts, and Ursa's tongue moves. The other woman tastes like salt, like blood.

Hama is the first to step back, and Ursa almost steps forward to follow before she catches herself.

"I will come," Hama says simply.

Ursa explains.

xvii.

In the morning, Azulon's body servant will swear he watched as his master stamped his seal on the document of succession. If the hand that moved the brush to cross the seal with the final strokes of signature trembled, what of it? Such could be expected, of a dying man.

In the morning, three maids will swear they saw Azulon stagger through the halls to deposit the document beneath the door of his council chambers with his own hands, and two will swear they saw him stagger back. They will swear it even as four die under question.

In the morning, the physicians will examine Azulon and say his heart failed quietly in the night, stopped pumping blood between one beat and the next. Though they grind bits of flesh and boil it over flames, they will find no trace of poison.

A suspicious death, but a natural one. A suspicious document, but a verifiable one.

Ozai will be crowned with his daughter and son flanking him, his son two step further back. His wife, the court is told, is indisposed. She has gone to the country to recuperate.

It is too soon, he judges, for another royal death. Perhaps in a few years, she can be said to have slipped away.

xviii.

A small boat cuts through the open waves, wreathed in fog. Its sails are down and oars are still, and one woman stands at the prow, arms upraised, summoning the wave that bears it onward.

Behind Hama, legs folded under and back to the mast, Ursa sits still, her head tilted back to the sky.

A flock of flying manatee surge out of the waves to their left and swoop around the inside border of their circle of fog before settling back into the sea.

Hama laughs, and there is no hint of the crow about it. "Isn't it beautiful?" she asks. And then, "Isn't it?" more sharply, when Ursa makes no reply.

"It is," Ursa says at last. Hama hums a brief, sharp note of satisfaction.

Rays of sunlight glitter through the mist, doing nothing to cut it away, surrounding the ship in gilded bars. They frame Hama perfectly, make the grey strands of her once night-black hair shine silver.

"Come here," Hama says. "I've something to show you."

Ursa draws herself to her feet, finds balance on the shifting deck, and goes to join her.