Beads clicked on her abacus as Ursa added the receipts for the sale of the mace and nutmeg. It was a truly staggering amount for so little of each spice; easily twenty times what she would have gotten in the Fire Nation. Even when she flicked beads back to cover the payment for the next shipment, they still had more wealth than many families could dream. Even nobles of the Upper Ring came to take tea with her husband and make oblique requests for money and favors.
Five years ago, they had arrived at the gates with forged passports and stolen clothes - she and Ozai could play the bandits when need be - and one precious box of cloves she had snatched before they fled the Palace.
Her mouth curved in a smile as she reached for the receipts for the cinnamon.
"Mother!" Zuko stormed into the room, book under one arm and finger-tips black with ink. "How am I supposed to do these assignments when none of the history books are even real?"
Ursa didn't remember her children being quite so angry when they still lived in the Fire Nation. "What happened, Lee?"
His eyes flashed, and she knew he hated that name. She hated it too, just like she hated Ozai's and Azula's Earth Kingdom names. They were too soft, too quiet. They didn't suit her brilliant family. They didn't suit her.
"We're supposed to write an essay on a recent historical event 'using all the proper forms'." Zuko rolled his eyes. "But none of the history books talk about anything that actually happened! And my tutor says I can't write about the Siege, the Siege never happened! Of course the Siege happened!" He kicked out abruptly, fire flaring red in a perfect execution of the Soldier Strikes the Veil technique. "I hate this city."
Her hands trembled at the blossom of true fire. She should scold him and Azula - he would never do this if Azula wasn't also firebending. They knew better. The Dai Li watched them; the young man with the hard eyes and the long braid was always there when she stepped out of the house, and the broad, bearded man with that same braid was about when she glanced out the windows.
Yet Ozai could drive her wilder than anything with just a flame cupped in his hand, these days.
She said nothing about the firebending. "Find what they do write about then, Lee. It doesn't matter what they teach - your father and I know history better than any of your tutors here in Ba Sing Se."
Zuko snarled, "They're lying, Mother. They're lying about something important, and I can't-"
Ursa slammed her hand down on the desk, making the abacus clatter and her son jump. "You will," she said firmly. "You are at the top of that class. You are better than all of them, and you will not throw that away over something so petty."
His eyes narrowed, and he looked so like his father in that moment it was shocking. "Mother-"
"Choose which hill you will die on carefully," she warned.
Zuko turned on his heel without a word and slammed the door on the way out.
With a sigh, Ursa lifted her hand from the desk and stared at the scorched handprint. "Slag."
"Lin, is dinner prepared?" Inwardly, Ursa winced at the sharpness of her question. The discussion with Zuko had fanned sparks in her that still had not settled, but the cook had done nothing to deserve their sting.
"It's ready, Lady Ying. Hot on the table, and I'll be taking Biyu out with me after I finish cleaning up." Lin glanced over her shoulder, brown eyes kind. "I took the liberty of sending her up with Miss Oma's meal. I didn't think she'd come down to eat."
Ursa frowned. "Oma was going to attend a party tonight. Why is she still here?"
"I don't know, Lady Ying."
Of course not. She often got the impression the servants found dealing with Azula to be an imposition on top of the already strange requirements she had of them. No proper, prosperous family would require their servants to live elsewhere and only work in the house from dawn to dusk. It made trusted servants hard to find - she had been lucky to find Lin, but the woman was half-Fire herself and brawnier than the Earth Kingdom appreciated in its women. An earthbending refugee with tainted blood would never have found work with any other family than hers. Grateful Lin gave Ursa's family their privacy and ensured the other servants did the same.
Without that privacy, Ursa knew her family would have exploded.
"Thank you, Lin. Have a good evening." She hardly waited for the cook's acknowledgment before she left. At the end of the hall, she decided to cut through the courtyard rather than walk all the way around the house's three sides. The late afternoon sun on her face gave her some measure of peace, as did the gentle babble of the garden's stream.
Sometimes, she was amazed at how lovely their home was in Ba Sing Se. They had poured so much money into making it the perfect Earth Kingdom home - the elegant central courtyard, the lovely garden, the family shrine in the center of the building that neither she nor Ozai used, their bedroom on the one side, their children's bedrooms in the eastern wing, their kitchens and sitting rooms in the western wing, their forbidding gate. The perfect Ba Sing Se art, the perfect Ba Sing Se arrangement to the garden, the perfect Ba Sing Se dishes, the perfect Ba Sing Se manners that Ursa still had to remember to use.
It was all beautiful, and only the garden brought any soothing to her soul. There was a koi-pond there, her one stubborn refusal of this perfect Ba Sing Se life.
The maid knelt in the hall outside of Azula's rooms, arranging dinner prettily on the lacquer tray. A drop of sweat rolled down the back of her neck, and Ursa paused. It was just after the spring equinox, only a week after that horrible night when the moon turned red. It was still bitingly cold here in Ba Sing Se, though of course, she hardly felt it.
She never felt the heat either, Ursa thought, but Biyu was sweating.
She and Ozai didn't firebend enough.
"Thank you, Biyu. Help Lin finish in the kitchen, then you may go for the day," she said briskly.
The maid startled, almost sloshing tea on her hand. "O-of course, Lady Ying!"
Ursa's expression softened as Biyu stumbled through a curtsey. She was not yet of marriageable age, and she'd lost a brother the year before. To what, Ursa wasn't entirely sure, but it had shaken the whole house of little tailors. Biyu had apparently been pining away, until an uncle who happened to work for Ursa mentioned to her father that the Lady Ying and Lord Lee needed a new housemaid. A younger daughter getting the attention of a wealthy merchant family was quite desirable, Ursa was given to understand. Especially if there was a son who might be forced into marriage to prevent a scandal.
Biyu scurried down the hall, and Ursa watched until she turned a corner before she opened Azula's door. Heat struck her face-
Blue flame flared and filled the room. Azula kicked and punched in the middle of it, her hair done up sloppily. She wore only breastband and breech-clout, and her skin shone with sweat.
She didn't look away from her katas as Ursa stood in the doorway, so Ursa took the time to study her daughter's firebending. Azula had the basics down perfectly, she noted. She moved through them as smoothly as someone who had performed them a thousand times. Beyond the basics, though, her moves looked self-taught or cobbled together from earthbending moves.
Ursa's eyes itched with tears, and she hated how much Azulon had forced them to throw away. Her little girl should be a wonder just like her father.
She stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. Now she took in the other details of the room - the rugs kicked back so Azula had a clear space to move in, the scorch-marks on the stone floor the rugs normally covered, the bolted-tight shutters. No lamps burned; the room was lit only by Azula's firebending.
Then that went out, and Ursa stood listening to her daughter's soft pants in the darkness. There came a soft sound of displaced air, and the lamps flared with red flame.
"What is it, Mother?" Azula snapped. "I'm busy!"
"Miss Huiliang has her birthday party tonight. I thought you were attending." Ursa folded her arms as she studied her daughter. "Her mother has spoken of nothing but at our teas for the past two months. Only Huiliang's coming-out party next year will be grander, she claims."
"Like I care." Azula rolled her eyes. "I don't want to watch that stupid cow 'bending party favors out of marble."
"It is a useless demonstration of skill," Ursa said carefully as she crossed the room to open the shutters. If she managed to feel it, the heat in here had to be oppressive.
"At least it's a demonstration of skill!" her daughter snapped, whirling towards her. "At least she gets to 'bend! At least someone will teach her!"
Ursa's hands gripped the edge of the windowsill. Before she married Ozai, no one would teach her much more than the basics in firebending. She had been forbidden to enlist. She had raw power - she was the Avatar's granddaughter, how could she not? But it wasn't until she came to be Ozai's wife that anyone would teach her skill.
Here in Ba Sing Se, she and Ozai were the only ones who could teach their children. But both of their firebending styles were too distinctive - her blue flames and his lightning. If the Dai Li even suspected who they had...
"Oh, Azula," she said softly, and her daughter jerked her head away.
Azula's shoulders shook. Ursa took a step towards her, reaching out to draw her daughter close, but Azula snapped around, blue fire blazing in her hands. "Leave me alone! I hate this city! I hate those girls! I hate you! Why couldn't we have stayed home?!"
Ursa folded her hands together and regarded her daughter. Could she even explain the Firelord's cruelty and apathy towards his second son and their family? Would Azula even believe it? "The alternative was far worse than this." She paused, waiting for a response, then continued after a moment, "Your dinner is waiting in the hall. Please don't let it go to waste. 'Bending takes a lot of energy."
"I hate you," Azula said more plaintively.
"I know," Ursa said softly, as she wrapped her arms around her daughter.
The emerald-green curtains rustled, and Ursa lifted her head as Ozai climbed into the bed with her. He drew the curtains around the bed neatly shut, then softly blew the hanging bronze lamps to life. Gold light filled the small room-within-a-room of their canopied bed, revealing his irate expression.
"Ying," he half-snarled, "I found myself scheming this afternoon to get us a home in the Upper Ring. I actually cared one whit about what ring we lived in!"
"Lee..." She held her arms open, and he fell on her with something like desperation. By the time they rolled apart from each other, blood flowed down his back from the rents left by her nails, mouth-shaped burns covered both their necks, and she felt bruises forming over her back and hips.
Ozai stared at her. "This place is killing me."
"It's killing us all."
He stirred restlessly, then extinguished the lamps. The sudden plunge into darkness startled Ursa until he abruptly relit the lamps, and she realized he was feeling the fire in the stars. With his power, it happened often, keeping him from sleep. In the Fire Nation, he'd leave their bed to read in another room. Here in Ba Sing Se, all he could do was come to bed late and play with the lamps.
Sometimes, she woke in the middle of the night and found him gone anyway.
"You need something to occupy yourself," she said, her voice still warm in the afterglow. "Something worthy of you, my husband."
"There is nothing worthy of me in this city."
"Then get us home."
Ozai studied her. The fires in the lamps grew redder, until she reached across to splay her hand against his chest. He sucked in a breath at her touch, and his eyes drifted shut. "You think that is wise?"
"I think we will not live much longer in this city, one way or another." Ursa curled her fingers, nails pricking against his skin.
"No," he said slowly, "One way or another, we'll be gone when the Comet comes."
Her hand slid down his chest, and the lamps went out again.
"The wife slipped."
Dai Li Commander Hyo raised his eyes from the reports spread across his desk. "Oh?"
"She used her daughter's name. Azula."
"Thank you, Tai. That could be very useful."
The Dai Li agent gave Hyo an abbreviated bow of acknowledgment. He paused, waiting for any further orders, then left when Hyo dismissed him.
Hyo bent his head back over the reports, but when he finished the current one, he did not reach for the next. Instead, he picked up a message-slate and chalked a handful of orders on it.
Five years. For the first time in five years, they had something on the mysterious family of Fire spice merchants. Something that required further investigation, but the girl's name was infinitely more than they'd known yesterday about those four.
"Alak," he called softly, handing the slate to the trainee when he appeared. "See this gets where it needs to go."
Iroh rose from his bed to find mid-morning sunlight shining through the windows. The curtains were pulled back, steam rose from the washbasin, and the wardrobe's door was not quite shut. A hint from his servants, slightly more polite than the Palace Chamberlain would have been if he'd come in himself to open Iroh's rooms this morning.
He washed and dressed, then went out to sit in the sun for a while. A serving maid brought him pastries stuffed with fruit and cream, and he found himself watching the sway of her hips more out of habit than any interest. But, he hadn't felt any interest in anything since his son died.
No, he thought as he emptied the plate, that was a lie. He did still care about one thing.
What had happened to his brother?
Six years ago, he returned home from his failure at Ba Sing Se with the vase containing his son's ashes in his hands, and he found the Fire Nation Palace in a quiet uproar. The Second Prince and his family were gone, the Firelord acted as if Ozai had never existed, and the Seneschal was lying to the half of the world who cared about Ozai and didn't live at the Palace. Her lie of choice settled quickly after his arrival - Ozai had retired to his estates elsewhere on the island with his family.
Questioning Kajizu revealed she knew nothing and questioning Father was pointless. Iroh didn't have the energy for that fight, so he'd turned his attention to the servants. Surely, someone had seen something.
It was a stableboy, of all people, who gave him the first clue as to what had happened. He said he'd prepared a carriage for Sage Geming the night Iroh's message of defeat arrived at the Palace. He had been sent away before anyone climbed inside, but in the morning, the sage was still at court and the Second Prince's family was gone.
Iroh licked cream oozing out of the pastry shell. He didn't know what in his message inspired Ozai's flight, but he would ask his brother when he found him.
Other pieces had fallen into place slowly - Ozai was not in the Fire Nation but someone in the Earth Kingdom was receiving spice from Ozai's estates. Tracking them down proved fruitless; whoever received the spice paid well not to be found, and it was almost laughably easy to lose followers in the war-torn continent. Iroh had done it himself more than a few times as an officer.
But in six years, they should have had some scrap of rumor of Ozai. Someone should have whispered about four gold-eyed Firefolk in their town, someone should have seen the distinctive dragon's tongue beard, someone should have heard the accents of Fire Nation nobility.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It was as if they had disappeared from the face of the world.
Iroh tilted his face towards the sun. Or, as he'd realized last night, as if they'd gone into a place where news did not come out.
Ba Sing Se.