Yue's heart leaped in her chest. She put down her brush and took a deep breath. Her poetry—the most stylish pursuit for a highborn lady, as she had been instructed—would have to wait. She schooled her expression, tucked her hands into her flowing silk sleeves, and rose from her chair to face Princess Azula, who stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.
"Good afternoon, Princess Azula." Yue bowed deeply. When she looked up, Azula's expression was one of satisfaction—the Water Tribe princess relaxed a little.
"Walk with me for a moment," Azula said. She extended an arm, which Yue took. She was careful to walk half a step behind Azula as the Fire Nation princess led the way outside into the garden. The Fire Lilies were at their peak; the red-and-gold flowers shone from every direction, filling the air with their fresh scent. Birds sang in the trees and the sun filtered through the leaves in a soft, dappled pattern of light and shadow.
"The gardens are beautiful today, Princess Azula," Yue said. She kept her eyes downcast as they strolled in a slow circle around the koi pond.
"Hmm. Yes, yes they are."
Everything seemed to be going well, but Yue was still alert for any sudden changes in Azula's mood. This was irregular, that Azula was taking her out for a walk in the garden in the middle of the day—at the time, she was usually with her father or the council of generals, planning a new attack on Earth Kingdom insurgents.
What Yue had been able to glean was disheartening indeed. She was usually able to go about her duties by putting it out of her mind, but sometimes, especially when she was alone, she couldn't help but think about the state of the world. It hurt almost too much to bear.
Aang, the world's only hope, was dead. Ba Sing Se had fallen to the Fire Nation. General Iroh, who had so bravely defended the Spirit Oasis, was imprisoned.
Yue's own situation was bearable. Sometimes quite pleasant, in fact, though she had not had any say in the matter. Not that she ever had any say in anything. She was a doll. She had always been a doll. That was all she knew.
But it was hard, wearing fine silks and eating fine food and living under the protection of a fierce and beautiful princess, knowing that there were so many in the world who were without life's basic necessities. That it was at their expense that Yue ate and wore only the finest that money could buy.
She wondered where Sokka and Katara were, or even if they were still alive. No word since the siege and their subsequent departure for the Earth Kingdom. No word since her arrival in the Fire Nation at Princess Azula's request—a safeguard for her people against another invasion. With the Avatar's help, they had protected themselves once. They would not be able to do so again.
That poor little boy...
Yue had only seen Prince Zuko a handful of times—he more or less lived at Lady Mai's house these days, only returning to the palace when he absolutely had to. But it had been obvious the very first time she'd laid eyes on him: he hadn't done it. The Avatar was dead, but Prince Zuko hadn't killed him. He didn't have it in him.
Princess Azula plucked a fire lily from a nearby patch. She delicately inserted it into Yue's hair and traced a manicured nail along the older girl's cheek.
"I've been meaning to ask you how you're adjusting to life in the Fire Nation," Azula purred. "Our summers are not for the faint of heart."
"The Fire Nation is lovely, Princess Azula."
Azula kissed her softly. "As are you, Princess Yue."
An arranged marriage to another woman had not factored into Yue's expectations for her future. No children would result from such a union, which was, in the words of her father, a decadent Fire Nation practice to which he would rather not contribute his only daughter. But Princess Azula wished it. And the favorite child of the Fire Lord was not to be denied. She made no secret of the fact that she preferred soft female flesh—only the most beautiful and exotic foreign princess would be her wife. She would accept nothing less.
As for Yue, she had known from an early age that the only choices she had were the ones given to her by her father, and later, her spouse. However, she sometimes wished that she shared the bed of a strapping young man, for all that Azula's kisses were exciting and her hands knew what they were doing.
"No one is more beautiful than you, my princess," Yue said. It seemed to please Azula. It wasn't sincere and both of them knew it, but it had only taken Yue a few days of marriage to learn that Azula valued submission more than sincere affection. Yue was only saying the things that her Fire Nation tutors had told her to say, not what was in her heart.
As far as Azula could tell, she had won.
"I notice that you enjoy poetry more than just about anything," Azula said.
"Yes. It is a very diverting pastime."
The Fire Nation princess's hand was warm and strong on Yue's cheek. "Princess Yue... I very much hope that we will grow closer together. You are my wife, after all." Her voice was very low, almost a growl, as she spoke into Yue's neck. Yue tried to put a little distance between them, but Azula's hand closed around her wrist and held her in place. "I'm sure your poetry is as lovely as you are," she whispered. "I would love to read it."
"Um... my poetry is very poor. I have only been practicing for a few months."
"Are you sure you don't have natural talent?" Azula smiled. Yue shivered a little—her yellow eyes looked very predatory. "How do you know if it's poor, if no one gets to read it?"
"I—I'm just a little self-conscious, is all," Yue stammered. Her voice was shaking, and she needed to make it stop, right now.
Azula couldn't know.
If Yue couldn't regain her composure, she would figure it out. And then...
"You're never self-conscious when we're alone together."
"I... when we're together, I have you to lead the way, to show me what to do—I'm not sure my poetry holds up to your standards."
"Hmm." Azula pulled back, but she kept a firm, commanding hand on Yue's cheek. Her lips held a smirk, but Yue thought she could detect a hint of disappointment in her eyes. A vague indication that she wasn't quite as happy and amorous as she'd been a moment ago.
Yue thought she knew what this was about, at least a little.
Lady Mai and Lady Ty Lee were Azula's oldest and closest friends, but even an uncomplicated girl like Yue could see that the relationship between them was tenuous at best. Ty Lee obeyed Azula out of fear. Whatever hold the princess had over Mai had disappeared completely with the return of Prince Zuko from exile—it seemed that Mai only stayed by Azula's side out of convenience.
Azula was always in control. Always perfect and strong, without a hint of vulnerability.
Except when they were alone together, nestled in bed under the covers. Azula's hair was out of its flawless topknot and billowed out in a dark cloud around her face, which looked fresh and playful without the heavy makeup she always wore to make herself look older. She looked at Yue with undisguised admiration, what the Water Tribe princess imagined must be similar to the way a girl would look at her elder sister whom she wanted to emulate.
On some level, Azula knew that she had already lost Mai and Ty Lee. With Yue... she was determined to do this right the first time.
Which was why Yue's heart nearly broke when Azula drifted off to sleep, leaving Yue free to slip away into the night with a scroll tucked into her robe. She would not be gone long, and Azula would find her right where she'd left her, folded safely into bed when the sun illuminated the horizon.
General Iroh's kind face broke into a welcome smile when Yue entered his cell. He'd been expecting her.
"Hello, my beautiful niece," he said. There was a touch of sadness in his voice. "Did you bring more verses for me?"
"Yes," Yue said. She pulled the scroll out and passed it through the bars. From an aesthetic standpoint, it wasn't that good—just a simple meditation on the beauty of summer and the glory of the fire lilies in full bloom. To any ordinary reader, just the musings of a silly girl with nothing to do.
The General's smile grew as he read. "A very graceful poet you are. And information on the city's garrison—you have been a busy young lady." Yue blushed.
"Princess Azula doesn't think I listen," she said quietly.
"Yes, that is easy to see. Sometimes she overlooks those whom she thinks are under her control." The General handed the scroll back. "This should be addressed to Master Piandao, of Shu Jing. He will direct it to the proper authority outside the Fire Nation."
Yue nodded. Master Piandao, of Shu Jing. She was good at getting clandestine mail out of the palace. It was a skill borne out of necessity. Even so, there was always the risk with each and every scroll that it would be discovered, deciphered, and brought to the attention of Princess Azula or even Firelord Ozai—and that would be the end of Princess Consort Yue, formerly of the Northern Water Tribe, and possibly the rest of her people as well. But she had to do this. Her influence might not be very great, but if there was something she could do, she would do it.
She bowed. "Thank you for all your help, General Iroh. I don't know what I would have done with myself were it not for you... Please, if there's anything I can do for you..."
"Actually, there is something." The General clasped his hands. "There is something that I need my nephew to know. Will you take down a note for me?"
"Of course. Anything." She took a small blank scroll and a pencil out of her other sleeve. She'd rewrite it later, to disguise her handwriting.
"Here it is: 'You need to know the story of your great-grandfather's demise. It will reveal your own destiny...'" He paused. "Ah. Princess Yue—are you familiar with invisible ink?"