Later historians, when studying that curious period of carnage and slaughter, called it the Red Month. In recounting their tales and fantasies, the superstitious named it the Madness.
For Mai, it was the summer of blood.
No one of intellect believed the stories anymore. How Sozin's Comet, blazing and terrible, had seared the heavens and turned the Fire Nation mad. Exaggeration, the scholars claimed. Simple enough to explain rationally; desperate for victory, Ozai had simply goaded his people into a patriotic frenzy and let them loose. The presence of the comet, they said, was merely a dramatic coincidence, fodder for the fools who twisted history to their advantage.
True, it was rare for such a manic state to be sustained for the long span of a month; unusual too, for the frenzy to work on so vast a population, and survive in the face of such outrageous horrors.
A terrible thing, an unlikely thing. But not impossible.
Mai did not expect them to understand, nor did their ignorance concern her; she felt very deeply that that summer of long-ago was far better remembered as a bland note in the history books than anything nearer to the truth. But Mai had often wondered at the ability of her children's children to comprehend those dreadful truths, even if she had chosen to share them. She had never been a bender, but whether through the intuition of age or some other instinct, she had no doubt; that ancient power was dying, draining from the world as the Avatar spirit before it. And as it died, so failed the ability of the young to understand.
And so Mai listened as the infant wise quoted their scholars, as they re-imagined the lives her friends and enemies had lived, as they volleyed theories of Ozai's Fall. She could have corrected them a thousand times over; she never did. Mai watched through dimming eyes as those who called themselves masters failed to produce what her friends once had in the blush of childhood. And she felt it within her as slowly, sadly, that once tremendous force became a skill, a talent, a mere curiosity. It would likely outlive her. But not by very long.
But these were thoughts of the night, of the still hours when Mai lay alone and listened to the quiet pulse of the world. During the day, she occupied herself with life; with slow, stately walks, with painting, with tea. It was an absurdly dull life. She would have despised it when she was young, perhaps even spoken brashly of preferring death. But Mai had seen enough of death, and had learned long ago not to wish for what would come on its own. Life-- aching and quiet and precious and dull-- was all she wanted now.
Her children wanted more.
The long argument ended suddenly, and too innocently for Mai to errect her habbitual iron defenses. "Mother," her daughter Zana had said one evening. "Tomo asked me earlier if he could speak with you. He's writing his thesis for the University, do you remember? He wants to interview you about…ah…"
Zana stopped, tongue held by her brush with ever-threatening transgression. Mai held up her good hand in silent warning, veined and lightly spotted, but still lily-white. Even her own children, through all the long years, had hesitated to question their mother of the past; she had only to shift her right hand in their sight to quell their questions.
But in recent years the gesture and its implications seemed to have lost its potency. It was history, her children said, as they had so many times. Didn't she want her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, to know of her deeds? Why wouldn't she let them tell the world of their brilliant matriarch, who had fought so bravely as the longest war died in agony?
Unspoken beneath these high claims of familial honor, Mai could hear quite their deeper intentions like the bass line of a simple symphony. They craved the whispered knowledge, the answer to the old mysteries that had drifted on the horizon of their childhoods like ancestral spirits. And they needed answers before their mother finally relinquished her iron grip on the living world.
"What did you say to him?" Mai's voice was softer now, but the old edge remained. "What does the boy expect to hear?" Zana was silent for a moment. "Whatever you wish to tell him, Mother."
Tomo arrived the following afternoon. Shrewd timing on the boy's part; it was still early spring, and night would fall before long if either of them wished to end the interview abruptly. Another not-unlikely thing; Mai's lips twitched in approval.
She waited on the small veranda behind the house, where she could watch winter as slowly lost its grip on the earth. Her youngest grandchild was prompt, of course, like every other dry-nosed scholar she had met. "Grandmother," he said as he knelt, with a solemnity so thick he might have been addressing her shrine. "I am honored that you have agreed to speak with me."
Mai studied him. Pale, serious, a streak of young arrogance dazzling his eyes; so very like her dead husband. Mai wondered, suddenly, what the boy saw as he looked at her like that. An old woman, clearly, though her face had not wrinkled so much as set deeper into its hard, familiar lines that spoke quite clearly of her age and attitude. Her hair was not gray but deep, lustrous silver; her eyes were weak, but bright and clear. It struck Mai suddenly that Azula would have been devastatingly jealous at seeing her so well preserved. The dead princess would have aged like her mother, a beauty in youth, all loveliness stolen by treacherous age. Life had been deeply unkind to Ursa, though death, at least, saw her true beauty remembered.
And then Mai noticed that Tomo's eyes had traveled to her right hand, resting on the arm of her chair. She had ceased bothering to conceal it years before, but now she wondered if the sight frightened him. Physical evidence of war often did that to those who dallied too long in libraries. She forced her lips not to curl in distaste.
"Nonsense," Mai answered finally, her voice brisk with decision. "I haven't passed on to the spirits just yet. It isn't as though I had to make a particularly long trip."