“It’s regrettable, but it has to be done.”
Iroh froze. He’d intended to go in and deliver a report on Earth Kingdom troop movements, but it was clear that Fire Lord Azulon had other things on his mind.
“Please, father.” That was Ozai. “Azula has such talent; it would be a pity to waste it. Besides, she didn’t know what she was doing. It was a mistake.”
“No, Ozai. She knew precisely what she was doing.” Iroh did not need to see his father to know what that icy tone meant. “She will be put to death tomorrow.”
“Does she have to kept in jail, like a common criminal? She’s a princess. She deserves better. Let her stay with us on her last night,” Ozai begged. “Please, father. Have some mercy.”
“Surely you know better than to expect mercy of me,” Azulon replied harshly. “But I will give her one last night with her family. I don’t want the entire palace talking about this, after all. They will be told that she died in an unfortunate training accident.”
“Thank you, father. Azula and I–”
“That’s enough. Now get out of my sight.”
What had Azula done? Did it even matter? Iroh knew that the girl was strange – colder and more callous than any eight-year-old had a right to be – but it hurt to think of any child being put to death. Since Ozai was going to be the obedient son and not save his daughter, he would have to prevent it from happening himself.
After all, now that his son was dead, there was nothing keeping him here.
“Let me go.” Azula squirmed against the restraints Iroh had been forced to place on her. “Let me go. You’re lying. Grandfather would never do that to me.”
“I overheard it, Azula. Whatever you did earned you a death sentence. Do you want to die?” Iroh asked. He hadn’t expected so much resistance, nor had he been prepared to face her Firebending. Ozai was right; she did have an amazing amount of talent. But, after longer than he would have liked, he had managed to restrain her and take her onboard a ship he’d commandeered. He’d persuaded the crew to set a course for the Earth Kingdom. Yet he still hadn’t managed to convince Azula that she would have been in peril had she stayed, nor had he been able to find out exactly what it was she’d done.
“He deserved it,” Azula finally said.
“Deserved what, Azula?” Iroh asked, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. What kind of little girl was he saving?
“Are you really that slow?” Azula said. “Are you really unable to figure it out for yourself?”
“You tried to kill him?” Iroh inquired, looking straight into Azula’s golden eyes. “You tried to kill Fire Lord Azulon. And I would have been next, had you been able to carry out your plan.”
“Precisely.” Azula smiled for the first time. “Neither grandfather nor you deserve to be Fire Lord. My father is the only one worthy of the title,” she added defiantly.
Iroh had never imagined that a child could act this way. Something was very wrong with Azula. He’d thought that he’d be able to fix it. He’d thought that it was Ozai’s fault. Perhaps he had miscalculated.
“Having second thoughts?” Azula asked, immediately picking up on his discomfort. “You’re just like my mother, aren’t you? She thinks that I’m a monster.”
“You are not a monster.” Iroh shook his head. “You are merely–”
“Confused?” Azula interrupted. “No. I knew exactly what I was doing, and why I was doing it. Maybe that does make me a monster. But at least I’m not like you and mother. At least I’m not weak,” Azula said disdainfully. “Just so you know, I still don’t believe you. Grandfather wouldn’t hurt me. I’m far too valuable to the Fire Nation.”
“When you try to kill people, they tend to take it personally,” Iroh said wryly. “He was going to have you executed and claim that you died in a training accident. I’m sure that my father is already sending ships after us.”
“I’ll believe that when I see proof of it,” Azula responded.
“Then you’ll believe it soon enough,” Iroh said. He’d already spotted the ships approaching on the horizon. Azula was stubborn, but she was most certainly not stupid. She’d believe it soon enough.
SIX YEARS LATER:
“I’m going to practice, Uncle,” Azula said as she finished cleaning the tables in Iroh’s modest, but tidy tea shop.
“Be careful, Azula,” Iroh warned.
“I will be.” Azula took off her apron and wrapped herself in a green Earth Kingdom robe. She couldn’t wait to get to the dark, damp cave where she allowed herself to practice her Firebending. It wasn’t fit for a princess; that much was certain. But she wasn’t exactly a princess any longer, was she? She’d realized that six years ago, when half a fleet of Fire Nation ships had fired on her and Uncle, aiming to kill them both.
They’d survived more due to luck than anything else. But luck would never again have to be a factor. She’d decided then and there – as their small ship pulled away from the rest – that she was going to be the best Firebender the world had ever known. Her father would regret having caved to her grandfather when she finally reemerged in a flurry of fire. He would regret not having valued her more.
Azula stared up at the full moon. She didn’t need its light to make it to the cave; she knew the way perfectly, and was able to get there easily even on the darkest of nights. There, she applied Uncle’s teachings and toiled, tirelessly, to achieve her potential. At first, her Firebending had been fueled by sheer fury at her situation. But Uncle had taught her to abandon that; now, thanks to his teachings, she was an expert both at creating blue flames and at generating and redirecting lightning.
She felt the power inside her, felt the flames building on her fingertips. Blue light subsequently illuminated the cave. Azula almost smiled as the energy left her body and surged up all around her. When she was Firebending, she could forget about how humiliating her daily existence was. She could immerse herself in the task at hand, and think about nothing else. At first, she’d been timid; she’d been so frightened of getting caught Firebending that she hadn’t dared do much at all. But six years later, she was substantially less scared. Though she fully intended to be careful, as well, she sometimes got so caught up in her work that flashes of light could be seen from the outside of the cave.
By the time she heard the footsteps approaching, therefore, she could neither deny that she’d been there, nor could she claim that she hadn’t been Firebending. Azula readied herself for combat. If necessary, she would kill to protect her secret.
The voice was that of a young girl – of somebody around Azula’s age, in fact – so she supposed there was no harm in answering. She could always kill the girl. Once done, however, the action could never be taken back.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” Azula responded.
“My name is Katara,” the girl said, coming closer. “I saw you. You’re a Firebender, aren’t you?”
“I am.” There was no point in denying it now; Azula had a sense that Katara wasn’t going to be easily convinced otherwise regardless of what she said. She lit a small flame above her right hand, illuminating the cave. Once she saw that Katara was dressed in blue, she commented derisively, “You must be from one of the Water Tribes.”
“I’m a Waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe.” Katara straightened, and spoke proudly. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m–” Azula paused. Her identity as a Firebender had already been exposed, thanks to her carelessness. Was there even a point to lying to this girl about who she truly was, at this point? “I’m Azula, the daughter of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai.”
“You’re the daughter of Fire Lord Ozai?” Katara asked incredulously.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” Azula sighed. Uncle had taught her to appreciate other cultures as well as her own, but part of her couldn’t help but feel contempt for this Water Tribe peasant. “Although, as you might have already guessed, my father disowned me a long time ago.” Azula’s eyes narrowed at the thought. “Now, what is it you want from me?”
“I know we’ve only just met, but we’re running out of time. So I’m going to go ahead and tell you that I’m traveling with the Avatar. He needs a Firebending teacher if he’s going to defeat, you know–”
“My father?” Azula filled in when Katara hesitated.
For the first time, Azula could sense that Katara was a little bit scared. But this was precisely the time when Katara should relax. The chances that she’d let Katara live had just gone way up; if the girl was telling the truth, this could be her chance to finally give Ozai the punishment he so richly deserved for having agreed to have her put to death. Besides, if Uncle didn’t want to be Fire Lord, and she defeated both her father and her pathetic older brother, she would be welcomed back at long last.
“So,” Azula said after a long pause, “when do we begin?”