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Fair Flame

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She wed the chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe by proxy. Her uncle had only just slain her father and reclaimed his title; the country still trembled uneasily on the precipice of conflict, and the worst famine in a century. Her knowledge of marriage was limited to what she saw between Ozai and Ursa. She spoke her vows before Agni’s sacred fire at evening, and then her mother robed her in sea-blue cloth, covering up the red and gold of her ancient lineage with the winter felt of the Water Tribes.

The cloth was rough against her skin, the felt scratchy and austere, for a girl raised from the cradle in rare silks. She was overly warm, garbed in the winter clothing of an alien people during the long, hot summer of the Fire Nation, and she was aggravated that she had been drawn away from her advanced firebending lesson to speak words she did not know before the black stone altar of her ancient god.

About a thousand miles south, as the cormorant flies, the chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe spoke his own vows before the moon’s reflection on the ocean, and he poured out a costly vial of ambergris over the roiling saltwater, which calmed as though doused in oil. It was an auspicious sign, his mother said.

His children, his son and daughter older than his bride, stood shivering on the sea-shore.

But Azula learned all this later. All she knew, when she plighted her troth before the visage of her god, was that her father was dead, and her uncle liked her brother more than he liked her, and that when she was grown, she would have to leave the Fire Nation and live in the south amongst the barbarians who eat babies when the winters are very cold, and who profane the sacred flames of Agni with the bodies of their dead.

She was young enough that being grown seemed distant as the south itself. As soon as the ceremony was over, she shed the blue felt and pulled her hair loose from its elaborate coiffe, and washed the ceremonial white makeup from her face. The twin moons of her child-fat cheeks rose, dripping water and lead paint, into the silver-handed mirror her uncle had given her as a wedding gift.

Her father would not have wasted her time with pointless ceremonies. He would not have married her to a barbarian savage. He would have wanted her to burn them alive.

Zuko was sitting solemnly in the royal gardens when she finally found him. He was newly thirteen, but he hadn’t started growing yet, so she was almost up to his eyes. Because he was uncle’s favorite, and also the Crown Prince, he got to wear the pin that Avatar Roku got from Sozin. The gold against his black hair glimmered like the morningstar in the brumal night.

“Zula!” He exclaimed, scrambling upright.

“I wish you were Fire Lord,” she said, petulantly. “Because I wouldn’t let you make me marry a disgusting barbarian. I’d burn you right up if you tried!” Her brother’s face fell, his brow contracted, and he put on his Zuko-thinking face that meant she’d hurt him a bit more than she intended. Unexpectedly, he swept her up into a hug, which was absolutely unacceptable. She struck her elbow into his stomach, and he released her with a pained gasp.

“Zula, I’m sorry,” he said, seriously. His ridiculous Zuko-hair was coming loose from his stupid Crown Prince’s pin, and his eyes had that watery look that meant he was being even weaker than usual. “Once I’m Fire Lord, I’ll annul your marriage, promise. I don’t even care at all about the alliance, I don’t want you to go south-” his voice was becoming all swimmy-trembly, and Azula wanted him to not cry, because otherwise Mother would assume that she had been tormenting him, and it wasn’t fair that she got blamed for making him cry even when she did no such thing.

“Good,” she said. “Then I can be here and make you my puppet Fire Lord, like how Pylon secretly ruled for his stupid older brother.”

“I’d like that,” he said, sincerely, which he wasn’t supposed to like at all. To make things go back to normal, she lit a smoldering fire on the inside of one of his many flowing robes, and left him to extinguish it.

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Her life did not change much after she was married. Her official title was longer, since the chieftain’s name was appended her own, but her uncle so rarely summoned her before court that it made little difference. She ought to have worn the darker crimson of a married woman, but except at official court functions that had Water Tribe envoys in attendance, this was not required of her. The maids and guards and servants still called her “Princess Azula,” and still cowered in fear of her because of who she was and what she could do. Everything was as it should be, and she sometimes forgot for months at a time that she was married at all.

The seasons passed, winter and summer and winter and summer, and winter and summer revolving over the land like the great disk of the waxing and waning moon. Azula grew taller and stronger, eclipsed first her father, then her grandfather, and then her great-grandfather in her talent for bending, until her uncle alone stood as her equal.

He had the power of the state behind him; she did not even have her mother’s favor.

Azula learned that she would be expected to lie beneath the chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe, and sate his lust, and surrender to him willingly, and bear his children.

She burned up the blue felt of her wedding cloak, and assured her uncle it was a careless accident. From the way he looked at her, she knew he did not believe her, but she did not belong to him, so he could do nothing to her.

The first time she ran away, she was fourteen. Her brother, as Crown Prince, had the key to the royal treasury, and it was easy to steal it from him during one of their sparring matches. Silly Zuko did not notice, even though guarding the keys was one of the duties of his office, and he was supposed to keep careful watch over them. She wondered, later, if maybe he had known, and had chosen not to notice. He always was stupid like that, always picking the side of the powerless. He ought to have known better.

She stole two pockets worth of unmixed gold, fled the high walls of the imperial palace, and made her way down to the harbor, where she tried to charter a ship to Omashu.

A golden-eyed girl with pounds of precious metal on her person would have been enough to raise the suspicions of any captain. She was given a cabin all to herself, told the ship would weigh anchor come evening, and she enjoyed a precious hour of freedom. Her uncle’s guards retrieved her before high tide came in and the ship could set sail. She could have fought them off, maybe, but the ship was made of wood, and she was not eager to risk the fire-quenching waters of the sea.

Her uncle was furious, of course. He lectured her for the better part of an hour about her selfishness and the necessity of individual sacrifice for the greater good. Zuko too was marrying a stranger, but he did not threaten international diplomacy by running off to the Earth Kingdom on a whim. He was a dutiful, noble, honorable boy with a good head on his shoulders, and she would be wise to emulate him.

Zuko was marrying a girl his own age, the beautiful, almost interesting Princess Yue, and he would not have to abandon the Fire Nation when he was grown. 

Azula said as much, in the proud, imperial tone that she knew her uncle most detested.

Her uncle could not punish her. She was, technically, married, which meant she was her husband’s to discipline. Iroh could not exile her from Court, or send her to live in a convent with the Hearth Virgins in the frigid Black Mountains, or lock her in her chambers until she came of age.

What he did was worse. He wrote to the southern chieftain and said he could wed her early, if he wished, as a gesture of goodwill between the nations. Azula spent the better part of two months in anguish, dreading the letter from the lecherous stranger that would prematurely end her childhood, and strip her of her country and her culture and all the home that she had ever known.

But when the letter came, the chieftain expressed his desire for a longer engagement, and stated, in no uncertain terms, that he was content to wait until she came of age, and not even according to the standards of his people, who married young, but according to the standards of her own.

So, the date of her departure was pushed backwards a year, instead of being brought forwards, and when her uncle told her this, she was surprised to hear relief in his tone.

“I have been too harsh with you, Azula,” he said, in that slow, temperate way he had that made his words seem important, even when they weren’t. “I acted in anger, and I repented of it. The chieftain is a good man, and I am grateful that he saw more clearly than I did.”

“I wish he had summoned me, so I could escape your tyranny,” she said, and her uncle’s visage did not twist into rage, but into sorrow.

“Oh Azula,” he said. “If I could make this easier for you-”

“Teach me to wield lightning,” she said. “Who knows what I may face in the south, I will need it to protect myself.”

“Lightning is a perilous skill,” her uncle said, but his voice was thick with guilt.

“If Zuko had the capacity, you would teach him,” she said. Her uncle’s eyes fell, and she did not think she imagined the slump of his broad shoulders. 

“I am a busy man, and the production of lightning is no easy feat.” he said. “But I will meet you in the royal barracks every day at dawn until you have learned it.”

“I’m a quick student,” she said. “I won’t require much of your time.”

Her second attempt at running away was more successful. She would have made it all the way to Kyoshi, and probably could have disappeared entirely into the vast Earth Kingdom, if a great typhoon hadn’t arisen and driven the unfortunate ship back to port. Her uncle’s soldiers were waiting for the ship at the harbor, and they beat the captain and all the passengers bloody, and dragged her back to the palace like a prisoner, not a princess.

She had never been under any illusions. 

After that, she was watched much more closely. Her twittering handmaidens chirped around her like sparrowkeets, her sagacious, dull-eyed tutors admonished her about duty, and her mother took to telling her pleasant stories of her marriage to Ozai, as though Azula had not seen the woman’s bruises flower like firelilies in springtime whenever life aggravated Ozai. 

The seasons passed, winter and summer and winter and summer again. Azula came of age, but unlike when Zuko turned eighteen, no grand party was held in her honor, and no foreign dignitaries made the long trip to the Caldera to wish her well. Even the traditional thousand and one lanterns for good luck were done away with, because although it was her birthday, although she was Sozin’s blood and worthy of honor, she was not celebrated, but instead, her departure to the Southern Water Tribe.

Her uncle the Fire Lord bade her farewell on the pier, with dark golden eyes that almost looked teary.

“You are doing a good thing, Azula,” he said. “Anyone can fight, but so few people can bring peace. Your name will be remembered for centuries as the princess who brought the world to peace.”

“I’m not doing anything, Uncle,” she said. “Please, don’t be deluded on that account.” She turned away from him, and towards her silly brother, who was actually crying, not heaving sobs, mercifully, but occasional little tears that leaked pitifully out the corner of his golden eyes. She obviously had not made him miserable enough, if he was so sad to see her go. 

“Zula,” he whispered, and embraced her. She could feel his disgusting brother-tears soaking into her nice new silks, but he’d probably be distraught if she pulled away. And no one else would dare to embrace her. “Zula, I tried everything, I did. I promise that when I’m Fire Lord-”

“In twenty years, or thirty?” She asked. His face fell, and she realized suddenly that if she made him miserable right before her departure, she might never get to make him miserable again. If she was nice to him, just this once, maybe he’d come visit her in the cold of the southern pole. “Just let me know if you want to ascend early.”

“You’re a menace,” he said, without any real conviction. “Take care, Zula. I’ll write you lots of letters, and I’ll light a candle for you every day.” And he would too, the sweet child. He had always looked young for his age, but he looked positively childish, swathed in the fine red and gold of his office, his fresh face clouded in sorrow.

“You’re eminently forgettable, but I will endeavor to keep you in my memory,” she said, but she didn’t elbow him when he pulled her closer for another hug.

“May you travel swiftly under Agni’s eye,” her uncle said. She ought to have knelt to receive his benediction, but she was wearing costly red silks, and the dockyards were filthy. She bent her head, and did not miss the flash of aggravation that passed over his features and vanished.

She strode ahead of her mother, up the gangplank of the great royal caraval, and she tried not to shudder at the uneasy feeling of the wooden ship rolling beneath her cloth-shod feet. She shut herself within her cabin, and contemplated arson.

Of course she would not be left alone. Ursa’s gentle footfalls roused her from her furious lethargy, and she turned away from her mother’s timid touch.

“You made it difficult for your uncle to love you,” her mother said. Azula lay sullenly on the hard ship’s bed, staring out the porthole at the gradually receding Caldera. “You reminded him so much of his brother with your obstinacy, but he is fond of you, and he has made you a good match.”

“The chieftain has a daughter my age, and a son older,” Azula said, in a tone that edged towards querulous. 

“Sozin married a girl younger than you when he was your uncle’s age. The southern chieftain is a few years my junior, not even thirty eight. He has a long life left, and you will have time to raise strong sons and beautiful daughters with him.”

“I don’t want to,” Azula said. “And I won’t do it. You can’t make me, not you, not uncle.”

“Zula,” her mother said, gently. “I know what it means to marry someone older. I know how painful it can be to wed a stranger, and how isolating it can feel to be alone in a strange city. But think of your brother. He is not strong like you or your uncle, he is gentle and kind, and he needs the goodwill of our former enemies, or his rule and our country will be imperiled.”

“Then he should marry the chieftain, and I should be Fire Lord,” Azula said, but her mother merely shook her head in that way that meant she was disappointed.

She never shook her head like that at Zuko. No one was ever disappointed in Zuko.

The boat swayed sickeningly, and Azula buried her face in the canvas pillow that smelled faintly of salt and dried fish. Her fingertips prickled with static, and her dry lips scraped against the rough fabric.

Her mother sat with her for a time, then rose and left the cabin, shutting the door behind her.

The summer moon was slow in rising, and the rocking of the boat beneath her body kept her anxious and awake. When the first brush of the dawn’s rays reddened the eastern horizon, she was still awake.

____________________________

The voyage south was hastened by the July tailwinds and the aestival trade currents that sped the royal caravel over the great grey ocean. The captain could have shown her their declension on the lines of latitude that ran vertically across his great map of the known world, if she wished it. The quartermaster could have taught her to navigate by sextant and starlight. The boatswain could have organized daily parades in her honor, which was her right as a daughter of Sozin, even if she was technically no longer Fire Nation.

She did not need maps and charts and tables of trigonometric equations to tell her that the sun’s great circuit was growing shallower, nor that the days were shortening. She could feel her power waning with the sunlight, and she grew to hate the long shadows of evening that every day came swifter after dawn.

“If he is cruel to me I will burn him alive,” she told her mother, when they came within sight of the cold, grey landmass of the South.

“From what I’ve heard he’s not a cruel man. But Azula, you must think of Zuko. What do you think would happen to him, if you were to break the alliance?”

“I am the blood of Sozin too,” she said, but she knew even before the words had fled her teeth that she had made a mistake. To assert power was to betray weakness. Her uncle did not even need to raise his voice to make men tremble. Her mother touched her shoulder in a way that Azula supposed was meant to be comforting.

The land rose up to meet them out the sea, and as they drew closer, Azula realized the deep harbor had been strung with banners of red and blue, and little lanterns shaped like miniature moons and flames.

“Now isn’t that lovely?” Her mother asked, and Azula said nothing.

All too quickly the ship came into harbor, and dropped anchor, and was made fast to the pier. Somewhere close by a drum and a few flutes struck up some song she did not know, and then her mother was tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, and directing her to follow her honor guard off the ship, down to the waiting crowd.

A chill breeze raised goosebumps on her skin, and she shuddered in her ceremonial purple silks. The thought came suddenly, desperately, that she could call lightning down from heaven and strike the ship and burn it and herself up at once, but by then her feet were moving, and she was almost on land.

The ground wobbled beneath her when she stood firm, and it took all her years of training to keep from stumbling. She saw with gnawing horror that there were piles of grey snow swept against the stone edifice of the harbor, although it was still the middle August. The crowd of blue-clad people parted, and she raised her eyes to find her husband.

She recognized him by the silver moon that held back half his hair. He was dressed in blue felt and rich silver skins, taller than her by a head. His skin, what little she could see of it, was dark and sun-scarred. She took a breath, and looked into his face. His angular jaw was covered in a well-trimmed brown beard, his cheeks were sharp and not yet sagging into wrinkles, his eyes were a bright, almost painful blue. He had a slight peppering of grey hairs around his temple, but his hair was thick and full, although shorter than was customary in the Fire Nation.

Even by Fire Nation standards, he was not uncomely.

“Princess Azula,” he said, and dipped his head to her. He said her name as though he had been practicing its pronunciation for weeks.

“Chieftain,” she said, and bent her head as little as she could without seeming rude.

“You must be freezing,” he said, and before she could protest, he had draped the heavy silver fur around her shoulders, obscuring the fine embroidery on her costly silk. “We will find you clothes appropriate to the south,” he said. “For now, welcome to you, and to your people. We have prepared lodgings for you, and once you have bathed and rested, we will have a feast to celebrate our marriage.” He said the last word hesitantly, as though it disquieted him. Well, let it.

“Thank you,” she said, and then he was gone, vanished back into the crowd of spectators, silent except for the weak pounding of the drum and the yammering of the flutes. She shivered, and allowed herself to draw the fur more tightly round her shoulders.

“He’s quite good looking,” her mother said conspiratorially, and for the first time in her life, Azula wished she were an earthbender, so she could open up a cavern in the permafrost and be swallowed whole.

________________________

But even that indignity paled in comparison to what happened next. In a strange, circular stone hut that was built over a natural hot spring, her mother stripped her of her new fur (which was quite soft and luxurious, even if it was a bit barbaric to be wearing the skins of an entire tundra wolf) and her purple silks, and scrubbed her skin until she was red and raw, and then, horror of horrors, began to shave her, until she was pink and hairless as a newborn badger-vole. 

And even worse, she began to talk about the pleasures of the marriage-bed, as though Azula had not had access to the restricted scrolls of the Fire Nation Imperial Library, and did not know exactly what grown-up people did with each other.

“I’ve never heard a bad word spoken about the chieftain,” her mother said. “You could do far worse, Azula. You know your father was considering Admiral Zhao, and he had neither the chieftain’s manners nor his fair reputation. I believe he will be good to you.”

Azula looked at her reflection in the silver-handled mirror. She could have passed for her mother twenty years ago, with her long, night-dark hair and rounded cheeks and wide, golden eyes. Her mother had darkened them with kohl, and accented her lips and her cheeks with rouge, so she looked flushed and healthy, despite the pallor of her skin. She wore a different purple dress with crimson trimmings, and her mother draped the chieftain’s wolf-skin round her shoulders.

“You’re beautiful,” her mother said, very softly. “You look like a queen.”

“Mom-” Azula protested, but her mother had already pulled away.

“We should hurry,” she said. “We don’t want to keep the tribe waiting.”

_______________________________

She had expected they would eat out of doors, perhaps in a courtyard or an open zone of the small city, but she was astonished to find that dinner was arranged beneath a great ice dome set up high on a glacier, that allowed a view of the peninsula and the great grey ocean that encircled it. The ice was clear and cold to the touch, and she could not help wondering what would happen if she were to melt through it with a single burning fingertip.

There were more of the blue-clad tribesmen around, men and women and some children running underfoot, all wearing what passed for finery amongst barbarians. As a princess of the Fire Nation, Azula was not at all intimidated by the hostile gazes of the strangers, but instead held her head high and her spine straight.

Her mother delivered her hand into the chieftain’s. His palm was warm without being clammy, and he looked into her eyes when he spoke to her.

“You look radiant, Princess Azula.”

“Thank you,” she said, but even she was conscious of how stiff she sounded.

“It’s tradition for newlyweds to eat under the quartermoon alone,” the chieftain said. “But if you would like to join us, Lady Ursa-”

“I would not impose,” her mother said. “I will eat with the sailors. Thank you for your hospitality, Chieftain. We are grateful to you for joining with us in peace.”

The chieftain dipped his head, and offered Azula not his arm, as would be proper, but his hand. She did not want to offend, but what would her mother, or the sailors, or her honor guard, think of her, holding hands with a man?

Then again, word of the scandal would surely reach her uncle. She seized the chieftain’s right hand in her left, and kept her eyes fixed firmly on the white stone path that led to a reflecting well. The ground rolled uneasily beneath her, and she had to grip him rather harder than she intended to keep from falling.

“I can tell you were recently at sea,” he said, with a slight smile. “I know how difficult it can be to adjust to land again, but in a few days you’ll be back to normal.”

“Thank you,” she said, and kept her eyes fixed firmly on the ground. His long legs flashed in and out of her vision, clad in breeches that were fur-trimmed and evidently well-worn.

He seated her before the great stone well, and he sat beside her. She could look down and see all the people, the mingled blue and red of his and hers, and she could look out beyond and see the grey sea frothing to white around the breakers. She could look up and watch the inset stars glimmering in the dome of heaven, beyond the glass dome of ice. She shivered, and hugged her borrowed fur more tightly around her body.

“My daughter made this place,” the chieftain said. “Katara. You’ll meet her and my son, Sokka, tomorrow. We have a superstition about- it’s just bad luck for the new wife to meet the children of the old before she’s married.”

“But we are married,” she blurted out, before she could stop herself, before she could understand what he meant, and he glanced at her with a look that might well be pity, which was infuriating. She was a princess of the Fire Nation, pity was unbecoming. She flushed red, but at least he had the decency to look away.

Food was brought, and she took as little as she could while still being polite. Her stomach was still in knots from sea-travel (not from nervousness, certainly), and she had no appetite. She didn’t recognize the odd dishes of seaweed and mussel and crab and lobster and fish; they were oddly pungent, lacking the fine spice of her home. It was not until the dish of unami-eel was brought that she felt much inclination at all to eat.

“My Sokka hunted the beast himself,” the chieftain said. “It’s one of the largest in the tribe’s memory, we were all quite proud of him. He said to be sure to mention that to you when it was served.” She laughed despite herself at this, and the chieftain’s eyes softened in the corners.

She ate the eel, and it was good.

“Your uncle wanted to marry my daughter,” the chieftain said, when the stars above them had turned and the waning moon had begun to rise. His speech was nothing like the liquid vowels of court. A rough burr clung around the edges of his syllables, and made his words alien to her. “Of course, I would hear nothing of it. I told him girls have no business marrying old men. But your uncle was determined to join our bloodlines, one way or another, and I am ashamed to say I valued your freedom less than I valued my daughter’s.” Azula kept her face emotionless, and lifted a moist mayflower cake to her lips. It was supposed to taste like nectar; her tongue rebelled against the edge of sawdust. “I’ve been married before. I have no wish to marry again, least of all to a child my children’s age.”

“I am sorry to inconvenience you, Chieftain,” she said, and she was quite pleased with the frigidness of her tone. The chieftain visibly flinched. Weak. She could not imagine a world where a ruler could so readily reveal his emotions.

“I was unclear. I only meant, I can imagine it is not easy for you to marry someone like me at your age, when you should be marrying someone you love.” She did not deign to respond to that, because how could he possibly imagine? It was well enough for him, he was a man, and everyone knew men enjoyed lying with women, even if they didn’t love them. She noticed his fingers, absent any rings except for one of either whalebone or ivory, she could not tell, drumming anxiously on the wooden table.

Were all the aliens of the Water Tribe so easy to read? No wonder Sozin found them so easy to conquer, if they could not even control their own bodies, let alone their own territory.

“Once we have had a child, a son or a daughter, I truly do not care which, then I will look away,” Hakoda said. Azula’s spine stiffened, and all the hairs on the back of her neck stood abruptly on end. “So long as you take care to bear no baby except mine-”

“Do you think the ancient House of Sozin is a breeding-ground of whores?” She asked, her voice the low hiss of smoke from a fire. “I swore my oath to you before Agni, I would never-”

“Forgive me,” Hakoda said. “I meant no offense.” And she could have laughed out loud, because she knew then, from the contrite tenor of his brogue, from the way he looked away from her, that she could manage him. He would not force her to her knees, he would not make her take him in his mouth, most likely he would not beat her even if she displeased him. He would be easy for her to master, he would be generous and simple like the barbarian he was, and she could grow used to him, and perhaps even grow fond of him, the way one grows fond of a harmless old sheepdog that bleats in the springtime, but produces fine wool in the fall. “I know you are a woman of honor, I only meant I do not wish to suck away all your youth and leave you joyless and bitter before your time.”

“I took no offense, Chieftain,” she said, but her voice was chill enough to bely her words, and she knew he felt her disdain dripping from her. It was good, all would be well.

“I am sorry,” the chieftain said again, and he busied himself with his underdone meat so he would not have to look at her.

_______________________

He poured her wine, first one cup, then a second, and then, when she finished that, a third. She’d never had so much in such a short succession, but he seemed eager for her to drink, and she found that the more of the red liquid she swallowed, the more easily she could look upon her husband.

He was a barbarian, obviously, but her mother had not been wrong when she said he was good-looking. He could have been fat, or old, or beak-nosed like Chieftain Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe. Certainly she could have married an uglier man, or one who was less courteous.

“It’s getting late,” the chieftain said, and her heart stuttered. “We may as well get this over with, don’t you think?”

“Quite right,” Azula said. No sense in showing anything but pride and strength to him. He took her hand again, and led her down through the great ice building, between the segregated tables of red and blue. No one stopped them. No one said anything. They watched her go with icy eyes, and no one raised a toast to her health, or wished them the good fortune of a son.

She had not imagined peace would feel quite so much like terror.

“Ancient grudges are hard to dislodge,” the chieftain said. “Many of those present have kin slain by Fire Nation soldiers. My own wife-” he paused, and cleared his throat, and swallowed. “My first wife, I’m sure you know, was murdered.”

“What was done under Fire Lord Azulon does not reflect the will of Fire Lord Iroh,” Azula said, as she had been told to say.

“I fully acknowledge that,” the chieftain said. “I ask only that you give the tribesmen time to accept this. We are a kind people, and generous. Once they see you are one of us, they will welcome you.”

“Of course,” Azula said. The chieftain nodded awkwardly, and, when they were out of sight of his people, he dropped her hand. The night air felt slightly colder, and she could not help her shiver.

“I won’t expect you to pretend,” he said. “I won’t ask anything of you after tonight. When you are ready to have a child, you may come to me, but until then, you are free to do what you want. If you like sailing I’m certain my daughter will go with you, or, I know hunting is a great sport in the north. My son is the best hunter of his generation, he would be willing to teach you how to snare prey. Or if you happen to like politics, I’m certain I can find you a task suited to your interests in my council.”

“Your consideration is appreciated, Chieftain,” she said, coolly.

He led her to his igloo, and when she saw the barbarian pile of furs raised before the central fire, she found the courage to ask for more wine. He gave it to her without comment.

“You’re a pretty girl,” he said. “And I haven’t quite lost all my youth yet. This doesn’t need to be difficult or painful for either of us, so long as we don’t think about it.” He kissed her then, softly, gently, without crowding her, allowing her the space to pull away.

She almost did. But her marriage would have to be consummated one way or another, and she had had enough wine that her stomach was no longer wound in knots, and in the lit fire of his strange, half-stone, half-snow igloo, his skin looked golden, and his hair looked dark. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was kissed by someone who meant it.

She let him undress her, and she was grateful when his hands only skimmed the curves of her body, and did not linger on her skin.,

“Do you want more wine?” He asked her, and she knew that she had had enough because his question moved her.

“No, Chieftain,” she said.

“Hakoda,” he said. “Please.”

“Hakoda, then.” He slipped his fingers in between her legs, and she jolted at the intimacy of his touch.

“It’s alright,” he soothed, as though she were a beast and not a girl. If she was even the slightest bit anxious, she might have been calmed by his steady voice. 

She felt some strange sensation stealing to her inmost marrow, while with creeping fire it ravaged her veins. Her blood rose like the sun leaping over the far eastern shore at dawn, and when he guided her hands to his shoulders, she allowed herself to touch him. His muscles flexed under his skin, and she could tell that although he was no bender, he still cared for his body.

She felt less pain than she expected when he eased himself into her. It was rather like the uncomfortable buildup of sparks before she could generate lightning, complete with pain sparking sourly at the edges. His apology was so contrite that she wondered whether he was enjoying this any more than she. Still, when she opened her eyes, he was looking at her, and his movements were gentle.

And then it was over, and he pulled himself off her and draped a blanket round himself almost in the same movement.

Her muscles ached strangely, and she bit her lip to focus on something concrete. Hakoda rose, and dipped a cast-off rag in a pot of water beside the fire, and wiped the inside of her legs. She saw no blood, and her heart, which had been fluttering, instantly stilled. He was a barbarian, after all. What would he do? He followed her gaze, then met her eyes with his.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, gently. “I know. Would you like me to leave?” She bit her lip harder. She should say yes, of course, but her insides felt strangely unmoored from her outsides, and her mind was fuzzy with drink, and she did not like the way the wind howled outside the igloo like a great tundra wolf. “Tell you what,” he said, conversationally, sitting down beside her. “I’ll stay till you tell me to go.”

She said nothing, but he laid down beside her, and she found if she pressed her ear to his chest she could hear his heart beating steadily.

She could shock it into stillness, if she wanted. It would be easy enough, and then she could simply say he collapsed on top of her. It would be horrific, but she’d soldier on, a sad, mourning widow after less than a day with her husband.

But undoubtedly her uncle would make her marry again, and most likely to some spoiled, ignorant princeling of the Earth Kingdom. 

Hakoda’s heart beat onwards, steadily, and sometime between contemplating his murder and contemplating the way his beard had rather pleasantly scraped against her neck, she fell asleep. The great, waning moon sank beneath the western ocean, and the dawn spread rosy fingers out across the sea.