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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.

 

Chapter Text

The rising sun stoked the banked embers of Azula’s spirit, and she sat upright, blinking at the alien angle of the light. Every dawn in the Fire Nation was rose-golden, red and heady, and the sun sprang up over the horizon in the span of only a few minutes. In the south, the sun’s course was more elliptical, and it took almost three quarters of an hour, by Earth Kingdom measure, for the sun to fully raise his golden head above the sea. 

The odd stiffness in her muscles, and the memory of all that she had done the previous night, returned to her. She glanced to her right, expecting to find the chieftain still drowsing. He was watching her with grim, sleepless eyes. She’d seen a mountain-leopard once, poised on velvet paws in the cleft of a great cedar. Its gaze had been much the same.

He truly did not want her, then. She was surprised at the way her pride buckled under the realization. She was the Princess of the Fire Nation; didn’t he know how beautiful she was, how valuable, how desirable? Who was he, a savage barbarian, to feel anything except admiration for her? Who was he to look at her as though she were a burden?

She turned away from him, away from the coldness in his pale blue eyes. Why had he allowed her to sleep with her ear pressed to his heart, if he felt such animosity towards her? All her certainty from the previous night, her belief that she could manage him, that she could make him heed her, fled away, the way wind drives sheets of snow onwards with its gelid breath.

“How are you?” He asked. His voice was low, gentle, irreconcilable to his frigid gaze.

“It’s my custom to practice my firebending at dawn,” she responded. Her hair was loose and tangled about her neck; she needed a comb, but she had no idea where her trunks had been stored. “Where may I do so?”

“My daughter practices her bending in the open field by the South Harbor,” Hakoda said. His voice was even, emotionless. “I will ask her to show you, and if you find it acceptable, you may practice there. If not, we will find another place for you.”

“I will let you know if it displeases me,” she said, stiffly. In the light of day, she was ashamed by how she touched him, by how willingly she yielded to him. She carded her fingers through her hair, and winced when they snagged on a knot that he caused when he buried his hands in her tresses.

“At breakfast I will introduce my children to you,” he said. “I’ve asked them to make you welcome, and I’m certain Katara will be a good friend to you, but please just… just understand.” She would almost feel sorry for the way his voice trembled, if she didn’t find it so atrociously weak. What kind of a chieftain was he, if he showed so much uncertainty, if he begged favors from his wife of not yet twelve hours? Perhaps he had heard about her exceptional bending ability, and he was frightened of her.

That would warm her heart. Once she established whether or not he intended to read her letters, she would write to Zuko and let him know that she had managed to conquer the spirit of her husband, and in record time too. Undoubtedly he would appreciate knowing the chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe was just as weak as he was.

“Where are my possessions?” She asked. He glanced around the igloo.

“They must not have been moved from your mother’s hut,” he said. “I apologize. There are Katara’s furs that you can wear in the meantime, and they’ll be warmer than your silks in any case. I’m afraid we have to disregard luxury in the south, or else we risk death by exposure.”

“I need a comb,” she said. He glanced at her, a quick flash of eyes, the kind of look that she knew from her early childhood when, under her father’s tutelage, she spent the long summer days sparring with students double, or even triple, her age. She knew assessment when she was subjected to it. Let him guess about her, let him wonder. He would be surprised, no matter what.

“I will loan you my wife’s,” he said. Resentment pulsed through her, as sharp and sudden as the ache between her legs was dull and constant. He rose (she noticed the way he favored his left side, as though to compensate for an old injury. She had not noticed anything when she had lain with him the previous night.) He dug through a strange, sea-green copper chest, and pulled out a comb of carved ivory, the teeth slightly too far apart to be of much use to her.

When she was younger, her father had always said that she was born to immolate the world. He took her before the Fire Sages and demanded that they lay the old oath of Satum Ignis upon her, even though she was a child, and a girl. He saw that she was born to burn the world, that she was the ekpyrosis made flesh. He had taught her how to summon blue flames to her fists. The thought occurred to her, and almost within the same instant, she had accomplished it.

She held the comb in her right hand, and allowed her fire to swallow it. Black smoke sprang instantly from the slight flaws in the burning ivory, and it crumbled to ash in her palm in the time it took Hakoda to stretch out his arm to stop her.

The fire dissipated, and she casually blew the ash from her hand.

She was not afraid of him. Let him beat her, at least she would know how to unbalance him. Her father had always told her it was better to act than to react.

“Forgive my choice of words,” he said. His voice was tight, but she had to strain to hear the anger. It coalesced around the edges of his tone, but if she had not been listening for it, she would not have heard it. “I have spoken of Kya as my wife for more than half my life. I did not intend to disregard you.” She waited for him to strike her, her muscles all relaxed, perfectly prepared to absorb the blow, no matter where he hit her. She half-hoped that he would bloody her lip, if only because it distressed her mother to see her wounded. He did not move towards her. 

She wondered if perhaps she should have combed her hair first. It truly was a mess, and she would have to face her mother with it unkempt. The thought pricked her pride. She would look like she enjoyed it, without bruises on her body to evince his brutality.

“Sit down, Azula,” he said. For the first time, she heard the ice-cold, bone-thin sliver of authority in his voice, and she obeyed him. She sat in seiza, hands folded prettily, head bowed. The effect of her beauty and youthful loveliness would be greater, she knew, if her hair were properly coiffed, but she was aware that, nonetheless, she was stunning. Most likely, a savage like him would have no idea how to manage her. She heard him rifling through a chest, and for a half-moment, she wondered whether he intended to strike her with something other than his hands.

That would be humiliating. She wasn’t a child to be beaten with a stick, she was his wife, she at least deserved the courtesy of his clenched fists or his open palm. How was she supposed to gauge his strength, and his tolerance for her aggravations, if he wouldn’t meet flesh with flesh? Trust a barbarian to refuse to play fair.

“You’ll forgive me for not trusting you with another comb,” he said, but his tone was ironic, not furious. She felt him gather a single strand of her long, dark hair, and she felt him tease the comb through her tangles. She stiffened. Apart from Zuko, and her father when she was a girl, he was the first man to ever touch her hair. “Despite what you may have been told,” he said, almost conversationally. “The Southern Water Tribe is no more barbarous than your Fire Nation.” His hands were gentle, efficient, unsparing. He knew how to avoid tugging painfully on her scalp, he knew how to gently unsnarl the knots in her long hair.

Her mother had combed her hair like this when she was younger, before she was granted a handmaiden to perform the task for her. 

How would a chieftain, a man, come to be so well versed in this?

The brush of his fingers against her scalp sent pleasant prickles tingling down her spine.

“Only a barbarian would allow such a slight to go unpunished,” she said. Hakoda’s hands did not cease their gentle movements.

“Perhaps I did not understand it as a slight,” he said. Black bile and ice-blue fire swelled in her stomach. Who was he to define her actions for her, to impose his perspective? 

“I intended it as one.”

“I know.” His comb came to a tangled patch, and he worked through it without making her so much as wince. 

At least if her father had married her to Admiral Zhao, she would have understood him.

____________________________

His children, fur-clad and somber, presented themselves to her outside the igloo with all the warmth of an ice storm. 

“Katara, child of my hearth,” Hakoda said, gesturing to his daughter. The girl was dressed elaborately in silver furs and blue felt, but she had a bender’s poise about her, and Azula could see from the strong lines of her body that she was an accomplished one, even if she did wield the lesser element of water. “Azula, flesh of my flesh.” Katara looked at her, her eyes cool, her gaze interested. 

“Wife of my father,” she said, every word crisp. “Welcome to our hearth. I will call the sons you bear my father “brother,” and I will call the daughters you bear my father “sister,” and I will honor you as a child honors her mother for all the days of my life.”

“And Sokka, my son and the heir to my hearth,” Hakoda said, and Azula glanced at the boy, and then, despite herself, she looked again. Katara was still girlish, but Sokka was undeniably a man. His head was shaved except for the top of his head, which was braided and pulled backwards into a wolf tail. His beard was neatly trimmed, and accented his sharp cheeks. His body rippled with muscle, and he lounged against the igloo’s walls the way a wolf lies hidden in the snow. He wore a strange fur coat, and he had painted blue designs across his skin, so he looked half animal, half spirit. 

“Wife of my father,” he said, and his voice echoed in her ears and thrummed in her heart. “Welcome to our hearth. I will call the sons you bear my father “brother,” and I will call the daughters you bear my father “sister,”and I will honor you as a child honors his mother for all the days of my life.” He looked at her then, and she almost fell backwards from the intensity of his gaze. She had never seen such cold, clear blue in all her life.

“Thank you,” she said, too tremulously for a princess of the Fire Nation.

“Wonderful,” Hakoda said, and Azula turned back toward her new husband, and away from the riveting eyes of his barbarian son. At least Hakoda made an effort at civilization, unlike his feral heir. 

“It’s the middle of the muskmoose migration, Dad,” Sokka said. His voice was rough, it grated across her skin. She glanced at him, fur-clad, his cheek scarred by either a weapon or a beast, his hair absolutely uncivilized, and she shivered. She could not imagine having someone like him as her kin. “I’m going back out onto the glacier.”

“Be safe, Son,” he said. “And see if you can’t come home in time for courting season this year.”

“I think one wedding this summer is more than enough,” Sokka said, dryly, and turned on his heel and stalked away. His boots made no sound on the snow.

“Sokka hates when his hunts are interrupted,” Katara said, and Azula sniffed. (His scent lingered in the thin chill air, wild and herbal and musky.)

“How provincial,” she said, and she was pleased with how ironic she sounded. She did not miss the look that Katara cast her father, and she did not miss the way her husband glanced at his daughter.

Her skin prickled with the knowledge that she was an outsider, wed to a man who did not want her, whose loyalties to tribe and children were already firmly established.

“Azula, Katara will show you her sparring grounds while I discover what messes were made at our wedding feast. I will see you and your mother at dinner.” Katara looked for a moment as though she were going to protest, but Hakoda glared at her, and she bit her lip and fell silent.

“This way,” she said, coldly, and Azula followed in her wake.

_________________________

After Katara showed her the training ground, and informed her in no uncertain terms that she used it every evening at moonrise, during which time Azula would not be welcome.

“Do you not bend during the day?” Azula asked, careful to keep her tone neutral.

“The moon makes me more powerful,” Katara said, and Azula nodded thoughtfully. 

“I suppose that explains why the Fire Nation has always had the advantage over your people,” she said. She genuinely did not mean it as a slight, but Katara all but snarled, and turned on her, her eyes blazing.

“You think you can come into my home and insult my people, just because your uncle sold you to my father? You’re a spoiled princess who’s never known a fight in her life.”

Azula had always had a temper, and Katara’s words, and Sokka’s barbarian eyes, and Hakoda’s inscrutability and open disinterest in her had all conspired to rouse it. Without thinking, she called a wall of fire between herself and the chieftain’s daughter, who swiftly countered with a wall of ice. She was faster than Azula had imagined, and the way she moved was far, far different from the centered, balanced, predictable movements of the firebenders she sparred with in the Royal Palace.

For the first time in a few weeks, Azula felt perfectly in control of her situation. Blue fire bloomed from her feet, the girl parried and hurled shards of ice, sharp enough to blind, sharp enough to cut, which Azula turned to steam.

Katara sent a wave of cold water barreling towards her, and Azula leapt backwards and to the side, wrapping fire around her, preparing to send it outwards.

They sparred for the better part of ten minutes, longer than Azula had sparred with an individual opponent in years. She saw a flaw in the girl’s footwork, and would have won, but when she glanced sideways to ensure no trap had been laid to ensnare her, she saw Sokka, his gaze fixed on them, leaning against the wall of a drydock, some strange curved weapon in his hands.

The shock of seeing him caused her to miss Katara’s closing move, and she reacted, but too late. She held fire against the girl’s neck, and Katara held ice against her own.

“Draw?” Katara asked, amiably. Azula’s heart pounded in her throat.

“Draw,” she said, considerably less cordially. 

“I take it back,” Katara said. “You fight well for a princess.”

“I’m the greatest bender of my generation,” she said. 

“Good for you,” Katara said, and if she weren’t a barbarian savage, Azula would have admired the clear disinterest in the girl’s tone, the way her words froze over, a lake’s surface after a winter storm. Azula hadn’t overplayed her hand in years. She felt vaguely humiliated, but despite that, excitement prickled down her spine at the thought of training with the girl, of learning her strategies, and then of beating her so soundly she won’t dream of challenging her again. 

“I thought that Water Tribe women only learned healing,” Azula said. Katara scowled.

“That’s true in the North, but not here.”

Azula glanced over her shoulder. Sokka had vanished into the busy crowd at the wharfs.

“Shall I take you to your mother?” Katara asked.

“No need to inconvenience yourself,” Azula said. “I’ll find my way.”

“We should spar again,” Katara called to her retreating back. “I’ve missed having a challenge.”

“Name your time,” Azula said, already plotting to annihilate her. 

_______________________

Azula did manage to find her mother, but only after getting lost twice. She had to retrace her way to the docks and walk the route she had taken the day before. She’d eaten little at breakfast with the chieftain’s children, and less the night before, so she was starving when she finally came upon her mother, writing a letter in her little hut.

“Azula!” She exclaimed. “I must be honest, I expected you a little earlier. The chieftain kept you, did he?” Her eyes glinted with mischief, and Azula glowered at her.

“I sparred with his daughter.”

“Oh, I’m glad you’re making an effort,” her mother said. “It’s so good to see you trying, Azula.” Azula could not help the irritation that flared through her at her mother’s condescension. She spoke as though she were a child learning how to share her toys, and not a grown woman.

She chose instead to inspect a hard fruit laid out for her mother to eat, some kind of Earth Kingdom kumquat. She popped it in her mouth and chewed. It was more sour than she expected, but its aftertaste was not unpleasant, so she ate another.

“So?” Her mother asked. “Was he good to you?”

“Sure,” Azula said, turning away to hide her reddened cheeks.

“So you see, your uncle had your best interests at heart all along. You should write to him and thank him for such an advantageous match-”

“He wanted me out the way so he can ensure Zuko’s loyalty is single-minded,” Azula said, coldly. “Not that I blame him of course. If our positions were reversed, I’d have exiled him to a barbarian wasteland too. But don’t fool yourself, Mother, and certainly don’t try to fool me. My uncle would have married me to the chieftain whether or not he was good to me.”

“You are so unbelievably selfish,” her mother said, softly, almost to herself. Azula told herself the prickle she felt behind her eyes was anger at her mother’s words.

“I’ll see you at dinner, Mother,” she said, and despite her gnawing hunger, she left.

________________________

Azula had no obligations that day except for the ritual dinner at nightfall, so she resolved to walk the entire port city, to assess its strengths and weaknesses, and to learn its layout. If she determined that Hakoda did not intend to read her correspondences, she would send her observations to Zuko, so she would be invaluable to her brother, and so that he would remember her when he did ascend the Dragon Throne. 

She began close to the water, and she observed the Water Tribe boats out at sea, fishing, perhaps, or harvesting the pungent sea prunes from their underwater farms. The waterfront had stone buildings, some of imported stone from the Earth Kingdom, recognizable by its color, but most glacierstone quarried in the pole. The Water Tribe flag, a quartermoon above a cresting wave, flew from the administrative center and the quaymaster’s house, but most of the boats sailed under their own colors, usually blue or silver, and then the red, yellow, green, or gold patterns of the individual tribes. 

It was strangely liberating to wander about, unguarded and unobserved. Since her marriage to Hakoda, she had not been permitted to enter the Caldera without a palanquin, and she had not walked a city street unescorted in her entire life. Dressed in Katara’s borrowed clothes, with her hair swept beneath a fur hat, she looked indistinguishable from a tribeswoman, just so long as no one looked at her eyes. Once this anonymity might have irritated her, but a decade of Iroh’s rule had taught her to value occasional invisibility.

She saw the harbormaster inspecting Earth Kingdom junks, probably among the last of the season; his face bore the pinched, pedantic look of all low level functionaries. She watched the eaglulls wheeling above her, turning somersaults on the rough currents of glacial air. 

From the harbor, she walked up through the market district. A sign informed her that it was the Fourth Fair, and she gathered from the smell that that meant fresh fish and little else of interest. She hurried up the sharply inclined street, and at its end found the Administrative Center of the South Pole, as the sign outside it proclaimed in the three most predominant native languages, she assumed, and also in demotic.

The building was half glacierstone, half ice, just like Hakoda’s igloo, and it loomed over the little market the way a cloudbank huddles over a mountain’s peak. Comparing it to the Dragon Palace in the Caldera was like comparing a rosebush to a cypress tree.

Still, she stood for a moment in the building’s shadow, and she tried to imagine what it would be like to make the wretched little building her seat of power. At the very least it needed red accents to brighten the dull stone.

“Azula?” Even though she was completely free to go where she pleased, she still jumped guiltily at Hakoda’s voice. Her uncle would have been furious if he knew she was wandering unwatched and unguarded, but Hakoda only offered her a slight smile when he turned. She saw he was with a man slightly taller than he was, dressed in the silver, indigo, and ivory of a tribal chieftain. “Azula,” Hakoda said again. “I’d like for you to meet Bato, Chief of the Mother Mountain tribe, and my second in command. Bato, this is Ozai’s daughter and Iroh’s ward, Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, my wife.” Bato looked at her, and then looked at Hakoda.

“You weren’t joking when you said she was a girl.”

“Be polite, Bato,” Hakoda said, but his tone was not the monitory threat of an offended chieftain. Instead it was soft, almost pleading.

“Princess Azula,” Bato said, inclining his head. His words dripped venom onto the thin dusting of snow that had started to fall in the past hour. 

“Chief Bato,” she said, sweet as spun sugar. She watched the way his eyes flickered to Hakoda’s, and she knew that she had an enemy who would love to see her unseated.

“I’m glad you’re seeing the city,” Hakoda said. “Was there anything at the market that you wanted?”

“I don’t have much use for raw fish, I’m afraid,” she said. She meant it as a joke, but Bato frowned.

“Are you not interested in providing for your husband’s table?” He asked, and Azula bristled at both his tone and his insinuation.

“Bato,” Hakoda said, and this time his voice had a vein of iron in it. “Princess Azula is no doubt unaccustomed to our ways. Give her time to adjust.”

“Of course,” he said, bitterly, and Azula resolved to make him regret his rudeness, preferably sooner rather than later. Once she’d had time to adjust.

“Shall we escort you somewhere, Azula?” Hakoda asked. She was tempted to accept, if only because she saw how Bato’s knuckles whitened, but she had been enjoying her solitude, and she wanted to set a precedent for solitary walks early.

“No thank you, Hakoda,” she said, and she saw Bato’s jaw clench at Hakoda’s name in her mouth. 

“Very well then,” he said. “Bato, we have work to do. Do you want to show me the proposal the emissary from Omashu showed you earlier?” 

Azula turned from their conversation, and began her long walk into the upper regions of the city. Her stomach growled, and she told herself that dinner was at sundown, which was not too far away. She could manage until then.

________________________________


The chieftain, his daughter, Azula, and her mother sat cross legged before his hearthfire, and he and Azula poured the customary libations to the spirits and their ancestors, and her mother brushed ash from Azula’s wedding fire, almost a decade old at this point, on Hakoda’s head, and named him her son in the old language.

They ate a strange, smooth, salty, fatty meat that Hakoda informed her was blackfish, which Sokka had harpooned earlier in the season. 

“I apologize that my son could not be here, Lady Ursa,” Hakoda said. “But he is sworn to the Moon Spirit, and as a result he spends most of the summer hunting. It was all I could do to get him to return for my wedding.”

“Oh, I understand, Chief,” Azula’s mother said. “Children are difficult to manage, especially when grown.” Hakoda laughed, and Azula’s heart throbs dully. The pain angered her, and she had to breathe deeply to prevent her fingertips from sparking. “You’ll understand soon, Azula, I’m sure.” Azula dug her nails into her palms, and did not look at her mother, nor at her husband, nor at Katara, who also seemed to be studiously avoiding anyone’s gaze.

“In her own time,” Hakoda said, gently, and he covered her hand with his, in a gesture she knows is meant to be comforting. If she had needed comforting, she would have been almost grateful for it.

___________________________

Azula bade goodnight to her mother outside the igloo, and the woman clutched her tightly.

“It’s such a privilege to see you fulfilling your duties,” she said. “You looked positively regal, Azula. You should be proud.”

“Pride is generally reserved for what one has had a hand in, Mother,” she said, and her mother clucked her tongue.

“Always a sharp word,” she sighed. “But marriage tempered me, and I suppose it will temper you in time. Have a good night, Azula. Try to be soft; it’s so much more becoming of a woman.”

Azula swallowed her words, swallowed the fire the built in her throat and threatened to spill out between her teeth. Not for the first time, she wondered what it would be like to be Zuko, and to have her mother know her for Agni’s light on earth.

She’d always been a disappointment to everyone except her father. He saw her for who she was, an ekpyrosis made flesh, a cataclysm-in-skin. He would never have told her to be soft.

When she re-entered the igloo, she saw Hakoda reading in his furs before the fire, and Katara dressed in a loose tunic, obviously meant for bending.

“I’ll be about two hours, Dad,” she said, and he grunted his acknowledgement. She glanced at Azula, a quick, uncertain glance, with some strange, unreadable emotion on her face. “Sleep well,” she said, in a way that suggested she was talking to both of them.

“Watch out for the sealacanth that’s been prowling the harbors, dear.” Katara nodded, and ducked out the igloo’s entrance. “I’ve got a few reports I need to finish,” Hakoda said. The reading glasses perched on his nose cast shadows that looked like wrinkles on his face. “But feel free to doze off. I imagine you must be tired after a long day.”

“Very well,” she said. She readied herself for bed behind the small screen for privacy, grateful that her possessions had finally been delivered to the chieftain’s igloo.

She felt less gratitude for her nightdresses. They were flimsy silk, embroidered with their interlocking sigils, and when she crossed the room, conscious of the bitingly cold air, Hakoda glanced at her and frowned.

“We’ll need to get you warmer bedclothes before winter sets in,” he said, and turned back to his reading.

Azula did not take his words to heart. She didn’t care that he did not so much as spare a glance at her both, swathed in finer silk than he’d probably seen in his lifetime, barbarian savage that he was. Probably he didn't know how to appreciate it, or her. Instead, she crawled beneath the pile of furs, trying not to let her shivering show.

“Hakoda?” She asked, and she was pleased that her tone sounded suitably imperious, despite the goosebumps on her arms.

“Yes Azula?”

“What did Katara mean when she said she’d be back?”

“Well, she still lives with me,” he said, and then he set down his scroll and turned to her. Azula caught the words increased trade differential suggests Earth Kingdom intends- and then forced herself to look away. In any case, she wasn’t very interested. 

“She will sleep here?” Azula asked, and Hakoda shifted.

“Well, not in our furs, no. But she is the child of my hearth, and so she will sleep before my fire.” Azula felt a trickle of horror drip down her spine, cold water from an icicle frigid on her skin.

“Do you-” she paused, searching for words, her mother’s admonition ringing in her ears. “Do you people lie with each other in the full sight of your children?”

“No,” Hakoda said. She thought she heard anger in his voice, and that made her glad. “We value privacy just as your people do, but we also value heat in winter, and two bodies warm an igloo much less successfully than four.”

“I see,” Azula said, coldly. She thought of Katara’s exit, how carefully she had specified the time of her return, and she felt her face heat. It was- it was obscene, there was no other word for it.

“Good night, Azula,” he said, and she turned her back on him, and made no reply. When she breathed, the fire breathed with her, and sooner than she would have thought possible, she fell asleep.

_____________________________

When she awoke in the middle of the night, Hakoda was gone from her bed, and Katara was curled up before the banked fire, wrapped in her furs. Azula heard soft voices at the igloo’s entrance, and when they continued for the better part of a quarter hour, and her husband remained absent from their bed, she resolved to find out whom he was speaking to.

She crept silently across the floor, careful to give Katara a wide berth, and she crouched before the low entrance, behind the fur covering that was drawn against the cold.

“We knew this day would come eventually,” she heard Hakoda murmur. His voice seemed strangely thick. 

“That makes it no easier,” Bato responded. She had not known what she expected, but Bato was far from the top of her list.

“I must be to her what I would wish a man to be to Katara,” Hakoda said, voice low. “That which we are, we are.” Then there was silence. Belatedly, she realized she must have caught the tail end of conversation, so she scrambled back into bed, her eyes now fully adjusted to the dim light. She’d scarcely settled herself when Hakoda pulled the skin stretched over the entrance aside, allowing cold air to momentarily flood the igloo. 

He sighed, and stoked the fire to new heights, adding a few strange dried squares and a single log, and then he slipped beneath their furs, facing away from her. 

Was she such a burden? His words rankled her, her pride twinged. Why had he talked to his second, in secret and at night and about her?

__________________________

Her mother returned to the Fire Nation on the last boat north, and Azula gradually adjusted to life as a married woman. Truthfully, her days were not unpleasant. She woke at dawn and practiced her bending, sometimes with Katara, who was always willing to try something new, and very rarely tired before Azula herself, and sometimes alone. She quickly grew bored of wandering the city, and when she asked Hakoda to be placed on his military council, intending to bargain with him, and expecting to wind up on the advisory board for shipping and commerce, or something equally as dull, she was surprised when he acquiesced, although he asked her to observe before she spoke, and to avoid overtly contradicting him in public, which she mostly managed.

He wisely did not ask her to cook his dinners, but she occasionally helped him, if the mood struck her. She read what she wanted from the library, which she was pleased to discover held almost as many books as the library in the Dragon Palace, and Hakoda interfered with her life only when it was absolutely necessary. 

Her husband was true to his word in other ways. He never reached across the expanse of their furs to touch her, not even when Katara was making one of her frequent trips to the outlying villages as an instructor and healer. He never gaped at her, his hands never lingered, he never made any crude comments about her, and he certainly never tolerated them when he was present to hear them directed at her. If it wasn’t for the way his eyes flickered over her when she wore flattering furs, she would have thought him completely disinterested.

She assumed, at first, that he must keep a lover, but no women in his employ or acquaintance seemed overly familiar with him, and he slept faithfully beside her each night.

She contemplated him more and more frequently, as autumn turned to bitter winter, and the sun vanished, and she crouched, weak and wan and frigid, before the bright fires that burned across the city. He was certainly handsome, but more than that, he was one of the few tribesmen who did not seem to openly despise her for being Fire Nation. Ships could not pass through the winter storms, so she had no correspondence with her family.

When Katara was once more away, this time to guide Sokka and the other trackers who had stayed late on the glacier back to the city, Azula turned to Hakoda, who lay reading in bed, his glasses a strange bird perched on the angular stump of his nose, and she looked at his muscular arms, and his dark, not unlovely skin, and she thought of her mother’s statement that the chieftain was handsome by any standard.

The wine she’d had at dinner and afterwards hadn’t helped. It was a spirit day honoring the birth of the last Water Tribe avatar, and the alcohol sang in her veins and stoked the fire in her blood. She was lonely and cold and eager to be touched. She could not even often touch herself, because Hakoda shared her bed, and she burned with want, not for Hakoda, necessarily, but for closeness with another.

“Is everything well, Azula?” He asked, and she paused, and she swallowed, and she spoke.

“I am cold.”

“I’ll fetch you another fur,” he said. “We keep our extras in that chest over there-” he made to rise, but she touched his arm.

“Hakoda-” she said, and he looked at her, still dressed in her ridiculous thin silk nightgown. His eyes lingered slightly longer than he normally permitted on her breasts.

“What do you want, Azula?” He asked, setting aside his letter. She surged upward, and pressed her lips to his, and for a few glorious moments he kissed her back, and then he pulled away. 

“Azula,” he said. “If you want this, if we are to lie together, then you must be prepared for children. We must fulfill the terms of our wedding contract.”

She counted the days in her head. She was safe for the next week or so, provided her cycle was not wildly out of rhythm.

“Fine,” she said, and Hakoda laughed a not-unpleasant laugh, and set aside his glasses.

“Alright then,” he said. “Help me remove this ridiculous silk of yours.” Somehow undressing herself felt even more scandalous than being undressed, and if she were not a princess of the Fire Nation, she would have covered herself from his examination. But then he tangled his hands in her hair, and pressed his lips to his, and touched her bare breasts with his hands, and she shut her eyes and felt his blue gaze on her skin, so like Sokka’s when she had met him.

“My pretty girl,” he murmured, his voice almost as hoarse as his son’s. Her spine tingled at his touch and at his praise, and she let her legs fall open to his exploring hand. She hoped that he would put his mouth on her, as she had read about in the imperial library, but his touch alone was pleasant enough, and when he slipped inside her, she groaned at fullness after months of emptiness.

She curled her hands in his hair, and tugged his mouth to her neck, and she tried not to imagine that his hair was brown, instead of beginning to grey.