Chapter 1: Happy Announcements
The announcement that Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa were expecting their first child was met with general good will throughout the Fire Nation. Crown Prince Iroh had only the one son, and his wife was not in good health, so another heir was not expected from him. Ozai’s child would provide security to the royal line, and security for the royal line was security for the nation as a whole.
So Prince Zuko’s birth was an occasion of joy for the people. Still, it was widely expected that Iroh and Lu Ten would succeed to the throne in due course, and Zuko’s role would only be that of an understudy, like his father.
Two years later, when news came that Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa were expecting again, this was met with similar feelings. How nice for the little Prince Zuko, to have a younger brother or sister. How fortunate for Fire Lord Azulon, to have yet another heir - fifth in line, but one never did know.
When word came some months later of the birth of Princess Azula, the people’s rejoicing was somewhat tempered with melancholy, for they could not forget how all of Fire Lord Azulon’s daughters had died so young. What a tragedy. But now there was hope for this new princess.
It was the third announcement that first raised a few eyebrows, coming so soon on the heels of Princess Azula’s arrival. Peasant women might give birth twice in one year, but was such a thing really fitting of Princess Ursa’s royal dignity? The cold-hearted disapproved, while the more impish tongues began wagging with speculation about the royal marriage, and whether it was Ozai or Ursa who was the more insatiable of the two.
Prince Azar was born three weeks shy of Princess Azula’s first birthday, and the people dutifully rejoiced again, though there was a wry cant to the celebrations this time, a wink and a nudge that made an inside joke of the whole thing.
There was a three year respite before the fourth announcement, a fact which could not help but be remarked upon now. And even more eyebrows were raised this time. “Really? Another one?” seemed to be the general sentiment. There was scarcely any pretense of the need for more heirs at this point - Prince Lu Ten was a young man coming of age in good health, expected to marry in a few years’ time, and already had three younger cousins.
So if the celebrations for the birth of Prince Shinzo were less enthusiastic than those for his older siblings, it was not out of any lack of patriotism, but merely the feeling that it was all a bit redundant. Still, a holiday was a holiday, and among the common people no one really complained.
The fifth announcement, two years later, came with an official statement from Fire Lord Azulon that Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa had gone above and beyond the call of duty in providing the Fire Nation with sons and a daughter who would one day aid in her continuing mission to spread her greatness throughout the world. It was a rebuke to anyone among the people who might speak ill of the royal couple’s fecundity, of course, and some of the nobles who had deliberately contented themselves with one or two children took it as a slight against them as well. But others saw it as a backhanded compliment to Prince Ozai himself, officially a commendation but in reality a stern warning from his father - enough already.
Naturally, this time Princess Ursa gave birth to twins - Prince Raizu and Prince Denzu.
The twin princes were two years old, and speculation had begun as to whether there would be another happy announcement soon, or whether Ozai had heeded his father’s warning. It did in fact turn out to be an eventful year for the royal family, but of a rather different sort.
First there was the shock of the untimely death of Prince Lu Ten, followed closely by the blow of Prince Iroh’s retreat from Ba Sing Se, the bitter failure of a campaign for which so many families had sacrificed their sons and daughters. It was not long after that double loss that Fire Lord Azulon himself was taken from them - and Prince Ozai unexpectedly took the throne in his stead.
Amidst all this upheaval, the quiet disappearance of Princess Ursa could almost have gone unnoticed, except that in the years that followed, there were no more happy announcements after all.
Chapter 2: Best Laid Plans
Ozai liked his office.
It was quiet, for one thing. The children were not allowed in here, servants would not dare enter unless summoned - or sent by his father to fetch him, though that was a rare occurrence. When he needed peace and solitude, his office was always a place where he could find it.
It was also where he felt most accomplished. True, he was unmatched in his prowess as a firebender, but so long as the Fire Lord kept him far from any battlefield, the honor those skills won him was hollow. It was Iroh who would win the glory of victory in the conquest of Ba Sing Se, and any duels or staged matches Ozai won would be paltry feats by comparison. But so long as Iroh remained far from court, he was of little use to their father in the day-to-day governance of their nation - and on that matter, the Fire Lord did deign to delegate responsibility to his younger son as he himself grew older.
Responsibility, if not honor.
Still, in reviewing budget plans, taking careful notes on proposed laws, and writing summary memos on all sorts of issues for his father to read - agricultural production, tax revenue, crime rates, military officers up for promotion and ministers due to retire - Ozai felt he had learned much of the trade of being Fire Lord. Between that and his obviously superior firebending skills, it only remained to convince his father, somehow, to see that he was the worthier heir, and not Iroh.
So yes, Ozai liked the quiet, productive time he spent in his office. When it was quiet and productive.
Ursa did not usually sleep so late into the morning.
She did not feel the need to rise at the crack of dawn like her firebending husband - or any of their firebending children - but she still liked to get an early start to the day. She usually had breakfast with Ozai and the children after he had finished his morning meditation and firebending practice, then spent some time with just the children when Ozai went to work in his office, until the older ones started their lessons for the day with their various tutors and the younger ones were left in the care of the governesses in the nursery.
But this morning, when Ursa reluctantly pried her eyes open, she knew it was already well past breakfast time.
She had good reason to be tired, so she wasn’t surprised. Still, she felt a little annoyed with herself as she got out of bed and dressed. The maid who helped her said nothing, as a good servant should, but Ursa imagined the judgement behind her impassive expression anyway.
She ate alone, without much appetite, and then inquired after the rest of her family. Ozai was already at work, office door firmly shut, which Ursa knew meant he would not emerge at least until noon. The older children had just gone to their lessons. That left only the little ones in the nursery, but Ursa decided she would stop in to see them, at least, before lunch.
She found Shinzo and Denzu in the midst of a squabble which both Li and Lo were doing their best to break up. Nothing the two elderly governesses said could have quite the effect of their mother’s unexpected appearance, however, and both boys were soon sobbing their grievances into her lap - Shinzo had taken Denzu’s favorite toy, Denzu had pinched Shinzo in retaliation, and each was now convinced of the other’s utter wickedness.
Ursa consoled both boys, and gave them both a stern admonition that brothers ought to learn how to share with each other. “And speaking of brothers,” she said, squeezing Denzu a little closer as the last of his hiccoughing sobs died down. “Where’s Raizu?”
Denzu said nothing. Shinzo blinked in surprise, looked around, and then shrugged. Raizu hadn’t been part of their little disagreement, and neither of the little boys had cared for anything beyond that in the moment.
But Li and Lo were also looking around the nursery in alarm.
Ozai usually got more work done in the morning.
He’d started out alright, rising from sleep at his usual time for meditation at dawn, followed by firebending practice. Ursa had still been sleeping soundly when he left her in his bed, but that was her usual way - and given how little sleep either of them had gotten, hardly surprising. Ozai, on the other hand, had always prided himself on being able to stick to his demanding schedule regardless of his wife’s whims.
When she hadn’t shown up for breakfast, he’d resented it slightly. Partly because it left him alone in the face of the chatter of six children - Azar had kept going on about some modifications he had made to his hunting bow, Shinzo and Azula had engaged in a boasting match about their respective firebending abilities which Zuko had tried pathetically to engage in, one of the twins had made a mess of his food, and the other had kept asking after his mother in his soft baby voice. But partly Ozai had also been resentful because he was beginning to feel his own exhaustion after his rigorous morning firebending regime. That, too, he blamed on her.
So when he had sent the children off to their governesses and shut himself in his office after breakfast, it had been even more of a respite than usual. Yet he’d found himself yawning through his paperwork, losing track of his place as he read through the reports on his desk, and struggling to write a coherent sentence in his memos. There was simply no denying it - he was tired.
He called for one of his aides and ordered a pot of strong black tea to be brought to him. It helped clear his head, and he returned to his work with renewed focus - only for another distraction to unexpectedly present itself. Something - or someone - was tugging at his robes as if trying to climb up onto his lap.
Abruptly dropping the scroll in his hands and pushing back his chair, Ozai looked under his desk with a scowl. Sure enough, there was one of the twins - the quiet one, not the messy eater. Denzu? Raizu? Why on earth had he let Ursa give them such similar names? Either way, he was looking up at Ozai with wide eyes and a solemn little pout, his chubby little hands still stretched out towards him.
Ozai reached under the desk to drag the boy out, banged the back of his own head on the top of the desk in the process and bit back an oath that Ursa would certainly not approve of him saying in front of one of the children, then failed to stifle an even stronger oath when he saw that the teacup on his desk had spilled all over the scroll he had been reading.
This was Ursa’s fault, all of it, and so it was her name that he shouted in frustration as he attempted to one-handedly rescue the important government document from his spilled tea.
Ursa had left Shinzo and Denzu in the nursery with Li and Lo, and begun her search. Zuko and Azula were with their firebending masters. Azar was with his archery instructor. None of them had seen Raizu. Ursa had checked all the family apartments, the kitchens, the gardens, every one of Raizu’s usual hiding places, and he had not turned up. Now, she was beginning to worry.
Her anxiety only increased when one of her husband’s personal aides came running towards her. “Princess Ursa,” the young man greeted her with a hasty bow. “Prince Ozai...requests your presence…” He was short of breath and clearly rattled, which suggested to Ursa that Ozai had not put the request quite so nicely. “In his office…” the young man added.
Ursa took one last cursory look around the garden, and then set off for Ozai’s office, not running as the servant had, but at a nice brisk pace nonetheless. Whatever her husband wanted, he would have to let it wait, and help her look for their son first.
But when she marched past the rest of Ozai’s nervous aides and let herself into his office, her search came to an end - for there was Raizu. Ozai had a firm grasp on the back of his shirt and was holding him at arm’s length.
“Your son…” he began angrily.
But Ursa didn’t let him finish. “You found him!” she exclaimed, rushing forward to scoop the little boy into her arms. Ozai quickly let him go. “It was naughty of you to run off like that, Raizu,” Ursa scolded as she hugged him. “Mama was worried.”
“Whichever one he is,” Ozai said sullenly, waving a tea-stained scroll at her, “get him out of here before he does any more damage.”
Ursa frowned at her husband’s attitude - but looking him over and taking in his beleaguered appearance, her heart softened a little. He did hate to be disturbed when he was working, which was why the children were not allowed in his office. And knowing him, he must have pushed himself to stick to his strict morning schedule in spite of how tired he clearly was, and was now feeling the consequences.
“Alright, Raizu,” Ursa said, still looking her husband in the eye pointedly. “Let’s leave Daddy in peace now.”
The boy did not protest as she brought him back to the nursery - Raizu hardly ever complained or fussed, so unusual for a child of his age. Denzu and Shinzo were happy to see that their brother had been found, and Li and Lo relieved that no harm had come to their wayward charge. The elderly governesses offered Ursa profuse apologies for having lost track of the little prince, but Ursa forgave them easily since all had ended well. They had had their hands full with the other two, after all.
It wasn’t like Ursa didn’t realize just how much of a handful her children could be.
Ursa had chosen to throw her own schedule to the wind and spend the rest of the day with the children, while Ozai had stubbornly stuck to his, which meant he had not seen her again until the whole family had dinner together. This went better than breakfast, with Ursa managing to keep the messy twin in line - Ozai was fairly certain now that one was Denzu - and effortlessly directing the older children’s conversation so that they did not all clamor for his attention at once.
After dinner she had put the children to bed, and Ozai himself had retired not long after - it had been a long day, and he was determined to be up at dawn again tomorrow better rested. But just as he was beginning to drift off to sleep, he heard the sound of a door being gently opened and shut, and then felt his wife slip into his bed beside him.
“Ursa,” he said firmly as she pressed herself close to his side. “I am losing patience with you.”
“That’s alright,” Ursa replied coquettishly. “I won’t keep you up late this time.” But the kiss she placed at the base of his neck suggested she had other plans.
With a sigh of frustration, Ozai shifted and wrapped his arms around her, mostly to keep her still and forestall any other devious ideas she might have. “I mean it,” he insisted in a low voice. “We are neither of us as young as we used to be, and frankly it is.... unseemly in a woman of your age…”
“That wasn’t what you said last night,” Ursa whispered back without a hint of shame, but Ozai studiously ignored her and went on.
“...and a mother of six children already, no less…”
“Seven,” Ursa corrected him in an even softer voice.
“A mother of seven children,” Ozai amended. “And…” His tirade trailed off into silence as he did a quick mental count. Zuko, Azula, Azar, Shinzo, and the twins. No, that was definitely six. Which meant…
Ozai released Ursa from his arms and rolled away from her with a tired groan. “Again?”
“Again,” Ursa confirmed, sidling back up to him and resting her head on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t be so surprised, my love. You know very well what causes it.”
Ozai pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand. “I’m too old for this,” he complained - though whether this complaint was addressed more to her or to Agni himself he could not say.
Either way, it was Ursa who laughed at him. “You’re far younger than your father was when he had you,” she pointed out.
“That’s different,” Ozai muttered irritably. And it was different. His father had only had one son, with two daughters dead already and the third weak and sickly, when Ozai had come around. His own birth had been necessary. He and Ursa, on the other hand, had five healthy firebending children, plus the one nonbender who seemed unlikely to die anytime soon, either. And the Fire Lord had already warned him, last time…
“We don’t have to tell the Fire Lord just yet,” Ursa said as if reading his mind. She wrapped one arm over his waist, a gesture more comforting than sensual.
Ozai sighed again. “He will find out eventually.” And he would be less than pleased, of that Ozai was certain, and once again it was Ursa’s fault…
“Ozai,” Ursa’s gentle voice broke through his dark train of thought. “Are you happy?”
“No,” Ozai replied honestly.
“That’s alright,” Ursa said, holding him more tightly. “I understand.” And Ozai knew she did, for he had told her all about what the Fire Lord had said the last time she was pregnant, the unsubtle insinuations he had made about how other couples kept from “breeding like rabaroos”. They had argued about it, and Ursa had won, as she always did on these matters. “You’re afraid.”
“I am not afraid of my father,” Ozai insisted. And in the darkness, where he didn’t have to look her in the eye, he could almost convince himself Ursa would believe it.
At any rate, she did not argue, but merely gave a noncommittal hum in reply. “I did promise not to keep you up late,” she said, shifting slightly to make herself more comfortable. “Let’s not worry about it any more tonight.”
Ozai agreed, and with a few more whispered words of goodnight, they lapsed into silence. Soon Ursa’s even breathing told him that she had indeed fallen asleep, but in spite of his own exhaustion, Ozai found himself too anxious now to put his mind at rest.
Seven children, he thought. The situation was becoming desperate. Action would have to be taken, somehow, before the Fire Lord learned of this. He would have to do something soon, to increase his standing in his father’s eyes, if he hoped to avoid his wrath for this blatant failure - worse, this blatant disobedience.
Thus he passed yet another restless night, thanks once again to his wife.
Chapter 3: The Last Time
For full clarity, this chapter takes place two years prior to the previous one.
Ozai had already had this conversation with his father four times before, but he had never quite dreaded it like he did this time.
The Fire Lord had granted his request for a private audience, but insisted on receiving him in the throne room, with the wall of flames lit between them and all the other attendant formalities. Ozai had not been surprised - his father seldom spoke to him in any informal setting unless Iroh was also present, and Iroh was too busy preparing for his upcoming campaign in the Earth Kingdom, on which his own son would be accompanying him for the first time, to bother with such a matter as this. Not that Ozai wanted his brother to be here for this conversation.
To be honest, Ozai did not want to have this conversation at all. But there was no getting out of it now, and so he bowed before the throne and hoped for the best.
“Prince Ozai,” his father greeted him coolly as Ozai lifted his forehead from the floor. “You had something important to discuss with me?” He did not bid Ozai to rise, and so he remained kneeling.
“Yes, Father,” Ozai replied. The Fire Lord had no patience for beating around the bush, so Ozai got straight to the point. “I am pleased to inform you that Princess Ursa is with child again.”
Behind the flickering wall of flames, his father’s eyes narrowed. “Is that so?” he asked, leaning forward. “And are you truly pleased with this development?”
Ozai sat up a little straighter. “Our children are the future of the Fire Nation,” he recited, a practiced speech taken almost word for word from the literature that the ministry of education sent out to all the provinces. He would know, for he had helped to write it. “They will spread Agni’s civilizing light throughout the world…”
“Do not quote my own propaganda to me,” the Fire Lord cut him off, pointing one finger in a stern warning. “That is all well and good for the commoners who must fill out the ranks of our armies. But no such contribution was asked of you.”
Ozai nodded in acknowledgement of this point, and tried a slightly different tactic. “Should the royal family not lead by example?”
His father laughed at this, but it was a mirthless sound which told Ozai it had been a misstep. “Is that what you think?” the Fire Lord asked, a dangerous edge to his voice. “That you are a better example to our people than Prince Iroh? Or myself?”
“Of course not,” Ozai hastily replied, giving an apologetic half bow. “Did you not have five children of your own, Father?”
“Two of whom were dead, and a third well on her way to following them, by the time the fifth was born,” his father reminded him, as if Ozai could forget what had happened to them. Then, lest there was any doubt as to his intended meaning, he added, “Had your sisters lived, you would not be here, Prince Ozai.”
And were he not here, Fire Lady Ilah still would be. Ozai had heard all this before. He scowled at the floor in front of him, hands clenched into fists on his knees, and said nothing.
Unexpectedly, the Fire Lord got to his feet, extinguished the wall of flames, and came down from the throne to stand in front of Ozai. “I thought I had made it clear after the last one,” he said in a more even tone, “that you and your wife had sufficiently fulfilled your duty.” He folded his hands in the wide sleeves of his robes, looking down at his son. “I am beginning to wonder if there were deficiencies in your education on these matters.”
Ozai fought to maintain his composure. His father had largely entrusted that portion of his “education” to Iroh, and Iroh’s tutelage had consisted of wildly inappropriate suggestions which Ozai had resisted at every turn. But he was hardly naive. “No, Father,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Because none of the other noble couples of the court are breeding like rabaroos,” his father went on as if he hadn’t said anything. “There are means of controlling it. If they are all aware of them, then why aren’t you?”
Ozai glanced away, seething. This was the part of the conversation he had been most dreading, for he knew that the true answer to that question would be one the Fire Lord would find unacceptable. So Ozai steeled his nerve and did something he had almost never done before: he lied to his father, at least by implication.
“None of those methods are foolproof,” he said with all the calm he could muster.
The Fire Lord scoffed. “And you are the fool that proves it, I suppose.”
Ozai did not trust himself to speak at that moment. Fortunately, after a brief strained silence, his father spoke again, evidently not caring that Ozai had nothing to say for himself. “The fourth was understandable, since the third was a nonbender,” he mused aloud. Then his voice grew stern again. “Look at me, Prince Ozai.”
Ozai obediently raised his eyes and met his father’s unforgiving gaze.
“Five is quite more than sufficient,” the Fire Lord said slowly, enunciating each word. “There will be no more after this - for your wife’s sake if not your own. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Father,” Ozai replied, bowing again. And whether it was convincing enough, or his father was just tired of this conversation, after that he was promptly dismissed.
“How did the Fire Lord take the news?” Ursa asked him later that evening.
They were alone in her apartments. Ursa had changed into her nightclothes, and beneath the tied sash of her dressing gown the curve of her stomach was already starting to show, though she was still not very far along. Ozai had put off telling his father as long as he reasonably could have.
“He is displeased with us,” Ozai answered bluntly.
Ursa gave an annoyed huff, but didn’t look up from her embroidery. “I don’t see why he has any cause to be,” she said primly, pushing her needle down through the fabric.
“An excessive number of heirs can cause problems,” Ozai replied without much feeling, looking down at the dark wine in the goblet he held in one hand. It was a lesson that had been drilled into him by his history tutors when he was a boy, a lesson he had evidently not learned well enough for his father’s liking.
Ursa seemed even more unconvinced than he was. “Lu Ten will be Fire Lord someday,” she said firmly, tugging on the red thread she was working with to pull her stitches tight. “He will have children of his own, and one of them will succeed him.” She glanced up from her needlework at last, giving Ozai a pointed look. “The likelihood of any of our children ever fighting each other for the throne seems rather slim, doesn’t it?”
Ozai frowned, but did not voice any disagreement. Privately, he had his own hopes for the future of the throne, but it would only upset Ursa to say anything about that now. And on the face of it, he could not dispute what she had said. “My father still seems to think it’s not worth the risk,” he said instead.
Ursa’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Your father…”
“Is the Fire Lord,” Ozai cut her off. “His word is law.”
Ursa set her embroidery hoop aside on the sofa. “There is a higher law even than the word of the Fire Lord.”
Ozai sighed, leaning his head against the back of his chair. “Not this again.” He had humored her in many of her old-fashioned ideas all these years, but this was one point on which he had never acquiesced to her. And he was not about to do so now. “I don’t need another of your lectures.”
“Fine,” Ursa replied, folding her arms. “But how many children we are blessed with is not your father’s decision.”
“Perhaps not,” Ozai allowed with a grimace, recalling his earlier conversation. “But perhaps it is ours.” And then he told her everything the Fire Lord had said.
Ursa stared at him in shock. “No,” she said sharply, in answer to the implied question. “Absolutely not.” She got to her feet, pacing the room. “That he would suggest such a thing is no surprise, but I can’t believe you would ever think for a minute that I…”
“Would it really be such a crime?” Ozai asked, setting aside his wine goblet and getting to his feet as well. “Is five children not enough?”
Ursa rounded on him angrily. “It is not a question of enough!” Her hands were balled into fists now, shaking. “That is not how you think of children! And as for those methods the rest of the court supposedly knows so much about, they are disgusting, for one thing, and they would make a complete mockery of our marriage, for another…”
Ozai strode across the room, took hold of her hands, and silenced her in the best way he knew how - by covering her lips with his own. She stiffened in surprise at first, struggled against him briefly in the final throes of her anger, but then relaxed into the kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck. When he finally pulled away, she said no more.
“I understand your feelings about this,” Ozai said in a low voice, cupping her chin with one hand. “And I have always respected them. This is not an immediate issue at present, but…” She opened her mouth to speak again, and he shifted his hand, pressing one finger to her lips to close them. “The Fire Lord has made his will clear. Neither you nor I can go against that.”
He let his hand fall away from her face. Ursa did not even attempt to speak this time, but in the firm set of her mouth and the fire in her eyes, he read her answer plainly enough: You cannot, she was thinking. I can.
Ozai was momentarily conscious of a distinct fear that indeed she would. But then she was kissing him again, and the argument was soon forgotten for the time being.
Ozai was not with Ursa when she informed the children, but when he saw her at lunch afterwards he knew right away from her mood that it had gone much better than his conversation with his father.
“Zuko and Azar are very excited,” Ursa said happily between delicate bites of her food - plain rice, steamed vegetables, and unseasoned komodo chicken, for strong flavors did not agree with her when she was pregnant. “I don’t know that Shinzo really understood,” she added more thoughtfully. Ozai was hardly surprised at this, for Shinzo was a mere two years old, and did not understand most things. “But,” Ursa went on, smiling again, “he could tell his brothers were happy, so he was happy, too.”
“What about Azula?” Ozai asked, picking at his own more flavorful food.
Ursa frowned. “She was...less enthusiastic,” she admitted, then took a careful sip of her tea. “She offered her congratulations, actually. Very formal and polite.”
Ozai chuckled. “That means she’s furious,” he explained. How strange it was, that their daughter was the only one of their children his wife did not seem to understand - and the only one that Ozai ever felt he did.
Ursa rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m sure she’ll come around. She’s got two younger brothers already, it’s not like this is a new concept to her.”
Ozai gave a thoughtful hum, already planning to have his own talk with Azula later. “Perhaps she doesn’t like the idea because she has two younger brothers already.”
Ursa gave him a warning look, but did not directly address what he was insinuating. “It might be a younger sister this time,” she said instead. Then, with a shrug, she added, “It might even be two.”
Ozai suddenly found himself choking on a crab dumpling. Ursa seemed unconcerned about his plight, and when his coughing finally dislodged the food from his windpipe, she merely raised an eyebrow at him. “What?” was all he managed to rasp out.
“I spoke to my midwife,” Ursa explained. “She thinks it might be twins this time, based on how soon I started showing.”
Ozai breathed a sigh of relief. Ursa put great faith in her midwife’s expertise, but the woman was merely a rustic practitioner of ancient superstitions whom the royal physicians tolerated to appease their princess. “I suppose we’ll have to wait and see,” he replied evenly, regaining his composure.
Ursa smiled knowingly. “She also thinks I’m in fine health, with several more good childbearing years ahead of me.” She lifted a morsel of rice to her mouth, chewed carefully, and swallowed. Ozai did not respond. “Isn’t that good news?” she prompted.
They would have to wait and see about that as well, Ozai thought. But aloud he only said, “I certainly hope you will not suffer any complications.” Which was also the truth. He knew well enough that childbearing could be a dangerous business - it had claimed the life of his own mother, as he had so often been reminded.
But Ursa remained cheerful and confident, and not without good reason, for they both knew all of her previous pregnancies had been as uncomplicated as could be. They had truly been blessed indeed.
“But why do we need another stupid baby?” Azula asked him later. He had taken her aside for a private firebending lesson that afternoon, as he sometimes did, for she was progressing at a far more rapid pace than the tutor charged with instructing her and Zuko was willing to advance with her. Ozai intended to find her a new master soon, one who would not hold her back, and could focus on helping her achieve her potential without having to worry about her less gifted older brother.
“Watch your language,” he scolded reflexively. “And your stance.”
Azula adjusted her feet so her stance was almost flawless. “But why?” she repeated.
“That is none of your concern,” Ozai replied, folding his arms. It was certainly not a conversation he was prepared to have with his six-year-old daughter. “Now, the first form again.”
Azula blew on her neatly trimmed bangs with a huff, but went through the first form as she had been told. Like her opening stance, it was almost perfect, but not quite. “That was not right,” Ozai pointed out when she had finished. “Can you tell me why?”
Azula thought for a moment, bouncing on the balls of her feet and swinging her arms. “My knees were too stiff,” she said at last.
“Correct,” Ozai said with a nod. “Do it again.”
Azula resumed the opening stance of the form, adjusted her feet once more, and then bent her knees, lowering her center of gravity just slightly. This time, when she went through the form, there were no mistakes.
“Better,” Ozai said, and Azula grinned in triumph. “That is what I expect from you every time we drill this form from now on.”
Azula nodded, and Ozai knew she would make sure to meet that expectation.
They went through a few more of the basic forms, perfecting her technique on each of them in turn, and then Ozai showed her a few more intermediate moves to begin practicing - whether her tutor liked it or not. Azula absorbed all his instruction eagerly, further cementing Ozai’s opinion that her current teacher was only doing her a disservice by refusing to let her advance beyond Zuko. They ended their lesson with some cooldown stretches, followed by brief meditation - Azula’s least favorite part.
When he dismissed her back to her room to clean up and change for dinner, Azula bowed politely, but did not immediately leave the training grounds. “You’re not happy about the new baby either, are you?” she asked, looking him straight in the eye. That impertinence, Ozai thought, she got entirely from her mother.
“Your new sibling is coming whether you like it or not,” Ozai replied, dodging the question. “I suggest you reconcile yourself to that fact, and focus on the things that are within your control.”
Azula frowned, considering this answer. Ozai turned to go, trusting Azula would follow his instructions in due course. But before he made it to the edge of the training grounds, Azula called out to him again.
“Dad?” she said, her voice uncharacteristically childlike - even though she was a child, Azula hardly ever talked like one, at least to him. Ozai halted and looked back over his shoulder to see her, wide-eyed and worrying her lower lip. “What if this one becomes a better firebender than me?”
Of course that was her concern, Ozai realized. Azula knew her worth, and would naturally be anxious to keep her position. He should have expected no less from her.
“Don’t let him,” Ozai replied. Then he walked away.
The royal physicians, some months later, confided in Prince Ozai that they shared the midwife’s suspicions that indeed Princess Ursa might be carrying twins. But they would not call it a sure thing, and so Ozai felt no need to mention this to the Fire Lord. There was no use buying trouble before its time.
When Ursa’s pains began a full month ahead of schedule, however, there was no keeping that a secret. Ozai, as usual, was forbidden from entering the birthing room - another of Ursa’s old fashioned ideas, which he had to admit at least did no harm, aside from to his nerves. But unlike with the previous births, this time the Fire Lord chose to wait it out with him in the gardens.
“Rather early, isn’t it?” his father remarked from his comfortable seat in the shade.
“Not so early,” Ozai replied, standing by the fountain and staring at the golden dragon atop it. Twins often did come early, the physicians had told him, but he was still determined not to divulge that possibility until it became a certainty.
“I hope your streak of luck hasn’t run out,” his father said with evident sarcasm. “We would hate to lose Princess Ursa to your reckless need to procreate.”
“Indeed,” Ozai agreed, feeling sickened rather than angered by the barb. The reckless need for more children was Ursa’s, of course, not his, but that was yet another thing his father did not need to know. And he had allowed himself, perhaps foolishly, to be lulled into a sense of security by her previous good fortune, and her own confidence, up until now. But suddenly he considered his father’s words seriously.
What if there was a problem? Surely, even if it was twins, and that was why the birth was coming so soon, that only presented double the opportunity for complications to arise? What would he do, what would become of him, if his own child - or children - cost him his wife?
Ozai looked over at the shade of the cherry tree where his father sat, and did not think he would like the answer to that question.
“You begin to see my point, don’t you, Prince Ozai?” his father said softly - perhaps even, Ozai would have thought if it were any other man, sympathetically. The old man did not stir from his seat, and offered no gesture of consolation, but there was an unusual warmth in his voice as he went on. “Spirits willing, all will be well. Let this be the last time you cast yourself upon their mercy in this way.”
Ozai could only nod, and turn back to the fountain. It was Ursa’s favorite. Please, Agni, he thought impulsively, looking into the dragon’s golden eyes. Let her be alright. And then, though he was not a praying man by habit, he added a second petition: And don’t let it be twins.
His father said no more, and so neither did Ozai. Some time later, an excited clamor of high-pitched voices alerted him to the fact that his children were running towards him through the gardens. How undignified they looked, he thought with a frown.
“Dad!” Zuko was shouting excitedly as he drew nearer, his younger siblings trailing behind him. “The midwife said we could be the ones to tell you! Mom had twins!”
So much for the power of prayer, Ozai thought.
“Twins!” Azar repeated as the children drew to a halt in front of him. “Two little brothers!” He clapped his hands in excitement.
Shinzo, who was just catching up with the older children, copied this gesture and repeated in turn, “Two!” He had understood that much, it seemed.
“And your mother?” Ozai asked.
“She’s fine, of course,” Azula replied, not as overjoyed as her brothers. “The doctors said she and the babies are all healthy.”
“How blessed you are indeed,” came the Fire Lord’s voice from the shade - once again the cold, imperious voice Ozai had known all his life. The children, noticing their grandfather there for the first time, all hastily turned and bowed - Shinzo rather clumsily, of course. The Fire Lord rose to his feet, and went on, “Twin sons, and their mother in good health. The spirits really have smiled upon your family today.” He met Ozai’s gaze pointedly, and added in a lower voice, not for the children’s ears, “All the more reason to be cautious in the future.”
With that, the Fire Lord took his leave.
“Twins,” Ozai said, looking down at the two swaddled bundles in the cradle. One was sleeping soundly, while the other wriggled like a little worm.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Ursa said tiredly from the bed where she was propped up with several pillows. Her hair was loose and her face a bit pale, but her eyes were glowing. She was beautiful, Ozai thought. The twins, on the other hand…
“They look like babies,” Ozai replied diplomatically. Which was to say, they looked like ugly, wrinkled monkeys, as all babies did, especially newborns. Even Azula had not been a pretty child until she was several months old.
Ursa laughed at this, and leaned over, resting one hand on the edge of the cradle which had been placed close to her bed, and stroking the fine, dark hair atop each of the babies’ heads with the other. “They’re precious,” she insisted.
The wriggly one let out a little mewling cry, and Ursa leaned further to lift him out of the cradle. Ozai hastily reached out to grasp her elbow in support. She smiled at him as she rested back against her pillows, holding the baby to her breast, and Ozai thought, for that smile, he would do anything in the world. Perhaps even defy the Fire Lord himself.
“You see?” Ursa said softly, looking back down at the baby as she soothed him. “Aren’t they worth it?”
No, Ozai thought. Not them. Perhaps he would come to find some affection for the twins someday, but children held no interest for him until they were at least old enough to reason with, and Azar was only just at that age, in his estimation. But Ursa herself - she was worth everything, and he could deny her nothing. If it came to her will or the Fire Lord’s, he would do hers.
He didn’t answer her question. But leaning forward, he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “Get some rest, my love.”
Chapter 4: Birds of a Feather
New servants in the palace, aware that among Prince Ozai’s many children there was indeed a pair of twins, often assumed Azula and Azar were that pair. It was an easy mistake to make, for they were nearly as close in age as brother and sister could be without being twins. And among all the children, they happened to resemble each other the most - both with amber eyes the exact shade of their mother’s, jet black hair like their father, and matching features that looked slightly harsh for a girl on Azula and slightly delicate for a boy on Azar.
Yet Azula was always quick to correct anyone who made this error, and to point out that she had been there first by almost a full year.
Eleven months and one week, to be precise, Azar would then specify immediately afterwards.
The other reason, perhaps, that they were mistaken for twins, was that they seemed to go together as a pair so often, in spite of their differences.
Azula was the most prodigious firebender anyone could remember, and Azar was the first nonbender born into the royal family in generations. Azula was the apple of her father’s eye, while Azar, like their older brother Zuko, had a tendency to cling to their mother’s skirts. But whether because of their closeness in age, or some other affinity between them, when left to their own devices they were frequently inseparable.
But perhaps it should not have been so surprising that Azar was Azula’s favorite brother. Her two closest school friends were also nonbenders, after all.
“Like this!” Ty Lee said brightly, and then demonstrated another flawless cartwheel. “Now you try, Mai.”
Mai gave a reluctant sigh, but attempted to copy the other girl nonetheless. Her legs didn’t reach as high into the air, and she came down in a graceless crouch.
“Hmm,” Ty Lee said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Not a bad start, but maybe you should practice more handstands first.” She reached down and helped Mai to her feet.
“My turn,” Azula declared. She did a lot better than Mai - hers actually looked like a cartwheel - but she didn’t stick the landing and wobbled, off-balance. Ty Lee helpfully showed her the correct way to do it again, only for Azula to abruptly push her over once she finished. Mai and Azula both laughed, and after a moment of blinking in confusion on the ground, Ty Lee joined in.
“Alright,” Ty Lee said, springing back to her feet and dusting the grass off her clothes. “Your turn, Azar!”
Azar looked up from the feathers he was carefully trimming. His archery instructor, a retired captain of the Yu Yan archers, had him experimenting with different types of fletching - so far he had tried komodo chicken and pig hen feathers, and today he was working on the wing feathers he had talked the messenger hawk keepers into giving him. “I’m not doing cartwheels,” he said, shaking his head.
“Aw, you have to at least try,” Ty Lee argued, hands on her hips.
“Yeah, we all did it,” Mai added, though she didn’t sound as enthusiastic. She never did.
“What’s the matter?” Azula taunted. “Are you afraid you’re not good enough?”
Azar rolled his eyes at his sister. “If I do it wrong, you’ll just laugh at me,” he reasoned, pointing the feather in his hand in one direction. Then pointing the opposite direction with it, he went on, “If I do it right, you’ll just knock me down.”
Ty Lee and Mai glanced at each other, and both of them shrugged, as if to say he had a point.
“I promise,” Azula said solemnly, placing one hand over her heart. “If you do it right, I will not knock you down.”
Well, that was a lie, Azar thought. Still, Azula was being persistent. And when she got an idea in her head, there was usually no talking her out of it.
“Okay, fine,” Azar relented, setting down the feather and getting to his feet. He took a few steps away from his work, into the same broad stretch of grass where the girls had done their cartwheels a moment ago.
He could flub it, he thought. If he just fell over on purpose, the girls would laugh and that would be the end of it. He might even genuinely fall - he wasn’t that good at cartwheels. But if he deliberately messed up, and Azula figured it out, she’d just be mad at him. And she was already in the start of one of her moods.
So he did the cartwheel as best he could - nowhere near as well as Ty Lee, but at least as good as Azula. And sure enough, as soon as he was back on his feet, Azula was moving to knock him down. But unlike Ty Lee, Azar was prepared for it.
He ducked out of the way, and when Azula overbalanced, he pushed her instead. Azula dropped, rolled, and kicked at his legs. Azar kicked back, but she was already up on her feet again, one fist swinging for him - and grinning wildly. Azula loved a good fight. He batted the punch away, and swung back with one of his own, which she evaded, grabbing hold of his other arm and twisting. Azar tried to kick at her again, then...
“Azula! Azar!” their mother’s angry voice sounded across the gardens.
Azula quickly let him go. “We were just playing, Mom!” she called out innocently.
“Really?” their mother asked skeptically as she strode across the grass towards them. Ty Lee and Mai half bowed as she approached, but her eyes were fixed on Azar.
“Really, Mom,” Azar agreed, ignoring how the arm that Azula had twisted was throbbing. He’d had worse. “It was just a game, honest.”
His mother seemed somewhat mollified by his reassurance, though she did glance at Ty Lee and Mai. They of course both nodded in agreement as well - they would never contradict Azula to her mother, certainly not when Azar backed her up.
“Well I don’t like the look of that game,” their mother finally said. “You shouldn’t play so rough with each other.”
Azula and Azar both nodded obediently and agreed they wouldn’t do it again.
“Anyway,” their mother went on in a happier tone. “I was looking for you because we’ve had a letter from Uncle Iroh, and I wanted to read it with everyone together.” By “everyone” she meant all the children - Azar knew his father never cared what Uncle Iroh wrote in his letters to the family, only what came in the official military reports.
They said goodbye to Mai and Ty Lee and followed their mother out of the garden. Behind her back, Azula gave him one last playful shove, grinning in triumph. But Azar did not retaliate, and only grinned back. After all, she hadn’t knocked him down.
Uncle Iroh, of course, had sent gifts for all of them.
Azar did not know his uncle particularly well, for he had been away fighting in the Earth Kingdom for over two years now. But he always sent presents for birthdays and New Year’s, and whenever else he felt like it. Some of the gifts were better than others, in Azar’s opinion, but they always made it an exciting event when his letters arrived.
This time, Zuko got the best gift out of all of them - a ceremonial dagger surrendered by an Earth Kingdom general himself. Azar saw Azula eyeing it enviously, even before she received her own far less interesting gift of an Earth Kingdom fashion doll, and he couldn’t blame her. Though he did wonder what either of them would need a knife for, since they both had their firebending.
Azar was about as underwhelmed with his present as Azula had been with hers - a book of Earth Kingdom fairy tales held little interest for him - but he didn’t see the need to make such a fuss about it, and even if he could have, he wouldn’t have done anything so dramatic as set it on fire. Shinzo received a puzzle box of black obsidian stone, which Uncle Iroh’s letter said contained a treasure, probably candy by the sound of it. For Raizu and Denzu, their uncle had sent a pair of cuddly animal toys, one a moose lion and the other a badger mole. The twins, at least, seemed content.
“You’d better watch that knife closely,” Azar warned Zuko as their mother left the room, and Li and Lo took Raizu and Denzu away for their nap. Zuko gave him a strange look, uncomprehending, but Azar didn’t elaborate. If Zuko couldn’t figure out that Azula wanted the knife even with that warning, he’d have to learn the hard way.
“What a waste of time,” Azula scoffed, tossing aside the charred remains of her doll. Shinzo wrinkled his nose as the blackened silk and porcelain landed at his feet. “Uncle’s never going to take Ba Sing Se.”
“It sounds like he’s getting really close,” Zuko argued, holding up his new dagger as proof. “No one’s ever made it through the outer wall before!”
“The outer wall is still miles from the city itself, Zuzu,” Azula said with a superior tone, her hands planted on her hips. Zuko glared in response to the nickname, which only Azula ever dared to call him to his face. Shinzo, who had no interest in arguing military tactics, retreated to the couch, fiddling with his puzzle box.
“But it’s mostly farmland within the outer wall,” Azar pointed out, flipping idly through the pages of his book. The illustrations were cool, he supposed, depicting all sorts of mythical creatures like goblins and lion turtles, but the scrolls of Earth Kingdom geography he’d been reading with his tutor yesterday were more interesting. “The Earth Army will probably fall back to their next line of defenses on the inner walls without much of a fight.”
“True,” Azula admitted begrudgingly. She frowned, considering for a moment, then laughed. “But it took Uncle Fatso two years to get through the outer wall. I doubt he’ll break into the city any faster.”
“I’d like to see anyone else do better,” Zuko defended their uncle. Azar, who was losing interest in this conversation now that it was going to degrade into another spat between Zuko and Azula, went and joined Shinzo on the couch.
“Dad could,” Azula countered, and Azar knew she had him there. “And someday I will.”
Zuko had his own retort to their sister’s boast, but Azar merely scoffed to himself. Not without my help, he thought.
“Can’t get it to open?” he said aloud to Shinzo instead.
“No,” Shinzo admitted, turning the smooth black stone box over in his hands. It was very finely crafted, with the seams where the pieces met barely visible. Not at all an appropriate gift for a four-year-old, Azar thought. “Maybe it’s broken?” his little brother ventured, shaking it so its contents rattled again.
“Well, this opens just fine,” Azar replied, laying out the fairy tale book on his lap. He turned to the full-page illustration of the lion turtle, and Shinzo’s eyes went wide.
“Woah,” his little brother breathed. “What is that?”
“It’s an ancient Earth Kingdom monster,” Azar replied, leaning in conspiratorially. “This book is full of them…” But then, as if thinking better of it, he pulled back, closing the book. “I’d better not show you. I don’t want you to have nightmares.”
“Aw, come on!” Shinzo whined, grasping for the book, but Azar moved it carefully out of his reach. “I won’t get scared, I promise!”
“It was my gift,” Azar said, holding the book close to his chest protectively. “Uncle Iroh sent it to me because he knew I was old enough to handle it.”
“I’m old enough, too!” Shinzo insisted, holding up all the fingers on one hand. “I’ll be five soon!” Azar knew “soon” was an exaggeration - Shinzo’s birthday was still months away - but he tilted his head to one side as if considering this point anyway.
“I guess you’re not such a baby anymore,” he said thoughtfully. He laid the book flat in his lap again, still closed, and went on in a regretful tone, “Still, it was my present…”
Shinzo gasped, a brilliant idea evidently having just occurred to him. “I’ll trade you!” he offered, holding out the puzzle box with both hands.
“Are you sure?” Azar asked firmly.
“Yeah, come on!” Shinzo insisted, shaking the box again in his eagerness.
“Oh, well, alright,” Azar relented. Plucking the box from his brother’s hands, he deposited the book in its place. Shinzo immediately opened it and began searching its pages for more monsters, but Azar was already sliding off the couch and stuffing the puzzle box into the front pocket of his tunic.
Zuko and Azula were still sniping at each other, but Azar grabbed Azula’s hand as he made his escape. “Come on, let’s go throw things at Ty Lee,” he said, knowing Azula wouldn’t say no to her favorite game. Ty Lee could dodge anything, whether it was knives, arrows, or fireballs.
Shinzo would figure out eventually that the book wasn’t as exciting as Azar had made it out to be, but his disappointment would be Zuko’s problem to deal with then.
Later that evening, after he’d gotten washed up but hadn’t been called for dinner yet, Azar lay on his stomach across his bed and got to work on the puzzle box. It was rectangular in shape, smoothly polished, and had panels on both of the short sides that slid back and forth. Each of the sliding pieces raised or lowered the side marginally. Azar figured it was merely a matter of figuring out the right sequence to move the pieces in, and then the top of the box would be free to slide off - assuming there wasn’t some secondary puzzle after that.
He’d been playing with the box for a good fifteen minutes when Azula came into his room without knocking.
“Hey, Zula,” he greeted her absently, sliding another piece on the left side of the box. She got away with calling Zuko by her nickname, and he got away with calling her by his. It probably helped that he never did it in front of anyone else.
“You stole Shinzo’s gift?” Azula asked, coming to stand in front of him. She sounded vaguely impressed.
“Of course I didn’t steal it,” Azar replied, rolling his eyes at her again. “He gave it to me.” He moved another piece on the right side and pushed at the top of the box experimentally, but it still wouldn’t budge.
“Oh,” Azula said, sounding less impressed. She crossed her arms and leaned against the bedpost. “Gave it to you in exchange for what?”
“The fairytale book,” Azar replied, sliding the lowest piece on each side of the box forwards simultaneously. Still no luck, but he felt sure he was getting close…
“I would have just stolen it if I were you,” Azula said, examining her nails. Their mother wouldn’t let her wear nail polish yet, but Azula was still careful to keep her nails otherwise perfectly manicured. “Then you’d have the book and the box.”
“I didn’t want the book, obviously,” Azar shot back. He moved the same two pieces again, but this time the left one forwards and the right one backwards. He pushed at the lid again, and sat up with a cry of triumph as it slid free. “Got it!”
Azula leaned over, clearly interested in what “treasure” the box contained. As Azar had suspected, it turned out to be a handful of licorice candies. He unwrapped one and popped it in his mouth, then tossed another to Azula.
Azula caught the licorice easily, then held it up between two fingers. “Taking candy from a baby, brother?” she said ironically.
Azar shrugged. “I’ll give him some later if he asks.” It was the box itself he’d really wanted.
“You’re so generous,” Azula replied in the same ironic tone as she unwrapped her own candy. She chewed it slowly, savoring it - licorice wasn’t her favorite, but Azula did have a sweet tooth. They would of course not be mentioning to their mother that they had been eating candy before dinner.
Azar slid the lid of the box back into place over the rest of the candies, and reset the puzzle. It looked just as smooth and impenetrable as ever, but now that he had cracked it once, he was confident he could open in again in a matter of seconds, when he wanted to.
Then he glanced over at Azula, who was now rolling the licorice wrapper between her fingers thoughtfully. “Don’t try to take the knife from Zuko,” he warned her impulsively.
Azula scoffed, and incinerated the wrapper. “Why do you care?” she said accusingly. “Do you think you can convince him to trade it to you for that stupid box?”
“No,” Azar replied, rolling his own candy wrapper into a ball between his thumb and forefinger and flicking it at her. She shot a little jet of flame at it, incinerating that one as well. “But if you steal it, you know Zuko will just tell Mom, and she’ll make you give it back.” Picking up the puzzle box again, Azar turned it over once in his hands, considering where to put it, then settled for hiding it under his pillow for the time being. “Then you won’t have the knife, and you’ll have gotten in trouble for nothing.”
Azula sighed, pushing herself off the bedpost. “You might be right,” she admitted, pacing the length of his room. “I’ll have to get the knife some other way.”
Sitting up on his knees, Azar grinned. “When we conquer Ba Sing Se someday, I’m sure you can get another general to give you one of your own.”
Azula laughed. “And you can have all the puzzle boxes you want, is that it?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Azar replied with a shrug.
They were called for dinner just then, so they dropped the conversation. It might be a joke between them now, but Azar had every intention of one day leading a great military campaign in earnest - by his sister’s side, of course, but it would be every bit his victory as it was hers, if not more. But puzzle boxes were not what he was hoping to win with his conquests.
They were the last two to enter the dining room, everyone else already having taken their seats, and their father was clearly not happy about having been kept waiting. “Azar,” he said sternly as Azula took her place beside him, and Azar his own spot next to Zuko. “You will come promptly when called next time.” Azula, who had been just as late as he was, got no such scolding.
“Sorry, Dad,” Azar replied, dropping his eyes.
Without even acknowledging the apology, their father turned to Azula and asked her how her firebending lessons had gone that day.
Chapter 5: Ember Island
The house on Ember Island had belonged to the royal family for generations, so it was Ozai who had memories of vacationing there as a boy. But it was unequivocally Ursa who looked forward to their family trips there more. She loved everything about Ember Island - the beaches, the town, the theater - and especially thrived in the uninterrupted family time their vacations afforded them. Ozai, for his part, usually spent the first day or so of the trip in a foul mood. But he would always relax and have a good time eventually, Ursa knew, no matter how much he would complain about going before the trip each year.
This year, in particular, Ursa felt that her husband needed the time away, in spite of his protestations. She knew that current circumstances at home and abroad were weighing on him, all his old insecurities about his position in his father’s eyes, and his brother’s shadow. It would do him good, she thought, to leave all that behind for a while, to spend less time worrying about Azulon and Iroh, and more time with the family he had who loved him unconditionally.
It would be good for the children, as well.
Their first day was always a family beach day, and this year was no exception, with the whole family traipsing down to the shore of the private cove in which their house was situated. Ursa had coaxed her husband into setting up the canopy and beach chairs with a minimum of grumbling, and the two of them were now comfortably situated. Azula and Azar were building a sand castle - a very heavily fortified one, by the look of it. Shinzo was trying to help them, mostly by finding pebbles and bits of seaweed with which to decorate the ramparts. A little ways away, Zuko was supervising the twins as they explored the tidal pools among the rocks.
Watching their children play, Ursa and Ozai had nothing to do but relax. At least, Ursa did.
Glancing over at her husband, Ursa raised an eyebrow as he opened the round leather case he’d insisted on bringing down from the house with him and removed one of several scrolls. She had brought a book with her as well, of course, but she somehow doubted Ozai was doing mere light beach reading, judging by the official seal on the back of the scroll in his hands.
“Ozai, you’re not working on vacation, are you?” Ursa asked reproachfully. He usually complained about the backlog of work that would pile up while they were away, but he’d never actually brought work with him before.
“Just the latest reports from Ba Sing Se,” Ozai replied, his eyes still on the scroll. “I don’t want to fall behind on the situation.”
It was on the tip of Ursa’s tongue to say that Iroh could manage the siege just as well whether Ozai was reading about it or not. But she knew that poking at that sore spot would hardly improve her husband’s attitude towards their vacation. “Well, we would hate for you to miss anything important,” she said instead, as Denzu made his way over to them from the tidal pool.
Ursa smiled at her youngest son, but the boy ran straight to his father’s side. “Daddy, look!” he said excitedly, holding up a small object in his little hand - something he had found in the tidal pool, no doubt.
“Show your mother,” Ozai replied, waving Denzu away without looking.
Denzu pouted, his brows drawn in frustration. Ursa sympathized with the child’s feelings completely, and reached over to draw him to her side. “Let me see what you have there,” she said encouragingly.
Denzu proudly showed her. It was a spiral snail shell, white with brown speckles - a common species found on this island, but a rather attractive example. “How lovely!” Ursa exclaimed, and Denzu beamed up at her.
“For you, Mama,” he said, dropping the shell into her hands, his attempt to present this gift to his father a moment ago apparently already forgotten. Ursa thanked him, kissed his forehead, and sent him back to play with his brothers.
“It is a lovely shell,” Ursa said pointedly after a moment. Ozai gave a faint hum of acknowledgement, but he had just pulled another scroll from the case and was now cross-referencing the two. “Maybe, if you’re lucky,” Ursa added, “he’ll bring another one for you.”
That at least earned her a brief, exasperated glance, which Ursa took as a sign of progress.
And Ozai was in luck, for Denzu did try again, running back to them a few minutes later. This time Ursa could see that the shell he had found was larger, a rose colored conch that he could barely grasp with one pudgy little hand. “Look, Daddy, look!” he repeated as he held this new prize up for his father’s inspection.
In the same vein of progress, Ozai did look this time - but only to frown and immediately return to his important military reports. “Yes, alright,” he muttered with another dismissive gesture.
This was marginally better, but clearly it was still not the response Denzu was hoping for, and the boy’s infantile anger at this second disappointment was evident. Ursa once again redirected his attention.
“Do you know what these shells can do?” she asked, taking the conch from his hand and holding it up before him.
“What?” Denzu asked, wide-eyed.
“If you hold it just so,” Ursa explained, placing the open side of the shell against his ear, “you can hear the whole ocean inside it.”
Denzu listened carefully for a moment, his face screwed up in concentration - and then it broke out into a smile. “Wow!” he exclaimed, grabbing the conch from her hands again and running back over to his brothers. “Hey, Zuko!” he called out. “Guess what it can do!”
Ursa laughed fondly, watching Zuko obligingly kneel down so Denzu could hold the conch shell to his ear. Ozai, who had looked up from his scrolls at the sound of her laughter, observed the same sight far more stoically.
“He’s so good with the little ones,” Ursa said, as Zuko took the conch shell and held it to Raizu’s ear in turn. Raizu smiled up at his big brother, and when Denzu reclaimed his shell, Zuko took both twins by the hands and led them further down the beach to continue their exploration.
Ursa rested both her hands over her stomach. They still hadn’t told the children yet, but by this time next year when they returned to Ember Island, there would be a new baby with them. Ursa was sure Zuko would be just as good of a big brother to this one as he was to all the others.
But when she glanced back over at Ozai, Ursa saw that he was scowling, with a faraway look in his eyes, like he was seeing not the boys in front of him but some other distant memory. She reached for his hand, breaking him out of this trance. “At least try to enjoy this vacation, my love,” she said softly.
Ozai squeezed her hand, but shook his head. “I need to finish these first,” he insisted, gesturing towards his scrolls.
“Fine,” Ursa said reluctantly, withdrawing her hand from his grasp. “But if you’re still working tomorrow, I will personally throw those scrolls into the sea.”
Ozai was unimpressed by this threat. “These scrolls are the property of the Fire Lord’s government,” he said, tapping the seal on one of them for emphasis.
“Then let the Fire Lord try and stop me,” Ursa replied petulantly. With that, she got up and strode across the sand to inspect Azar and Azula’s castle, which was now complete and even had a filled moat. The two of them were now sketching out rudimentary battle plans in the sand, while Shinzo had run down to the water and was amusing himself by jumping in the waves.
It was a calm day, and the surf wasn’t rough at all, so Ursa was not too concerned about Shinzo. Still, after complimenting Azula and Azar on their castle building, she took hold of Shinzo’s hand in one of hers, hiking her skirt up to her knees with the other, and accompanied him in wading through the shallows.
Distracted by the other children, she didn’t notice Denzu’s third attempt to get his father’s attention until it was too late.
“Denzu, no!” she heard Zuko call out, and she whipped around to see her oldest chasing after his youngest brother - though Zuko was hindered by the fact that he was carrying Raizu on his hip at the same time. Denzu himself was darting back towards the shade of the canopy, where Ozai was still engrossed in his scrolls, as fast as his little legs would carry him. It registered in Ursa’s mind what he was holding this time - a massive spider crab, its body bigger than Denzu’s head and its long legs flailing wildly - just as Denzu proudly deposited his latest find right onto Ozai’s lap.
Ursa was already running back up the beach, but she knew she wouldn’t make it in time. There was a loud cry of outrage and alarm - Ozai’s, of course - and then the singular sight of the giant crab flying through the air in a wide arc, its legs still flailing madly in all directions, until it finally came down in the water with a faint splash.
“What in Agni’s name–” Ozai was shouting just as Ursa reached the canopy, the other children all trailing behind her. He was scowling down at Denzu - thankfully, there did not seem to be any physical damage done to either of them, for Ursa knew the spider crab’s claws were quite powerful - and Denzu was glaring back up at him with an almost identical expression.
“Daddy!” the little boy shouted back, stamping one foot and pointing in the direction in which the unfortunate crustacean had just flown away. “My crab!”
Ursa intervened. “Denzu,” she said sternly, kneeling down in front of the little boy. “That was not safe at all.” Denzu blinked at her in confusion, and Ursa took hold of both of his hands. “You do not pick up live animals without permission,” she explained.
Shinzo, the last of the other children to catch up with them under the canopy, had a rather different view on the situation. “Wow, Dad!” he exclaimed, bouncing on his feet. “You threw that crab like a hundred feet!”
It was probably not that far, Ursa thought as Azar stifled a giggle and Azula rolled her eyes. But Ozai had turned his attention to Zuko, who was still holding Raizu.
“You,” he said, pointing, and Zuko took half a step back. Raizu’s arms tightened around his neck. “You should be keeping a closer eye on your brothers.”
“Ozai!” Ursa objected, rising to her feet.
But Zuko bowed his head, accepting the blame. “Sorry, Dad,” he said sincerely.
Ursa took Raizu from Zuko, settling him on her own hip, and put her other arm around Zuko’s shoulders. “You can’t blame him,” she said, giving her husband a warning look.
But Ozai was already packing his precious scrolls back into the leather case he had brought them in. “I’m going back inside,” he announced, not looking at her, “so I can work without any further interruptions.” And with that, he ducked out from under the canopy, and marched back up the slope to the house.
Shinzo flopped down in Ozai’s now vacant beach chair. “Denzu, you made Dad so mad…” he observed with something that Ursa thought sounded uncomfortably like admiration.
“No!” Denzu insisted, crossing his arms. “Daddy made me mad!”
“Well, since we’re all here,” Ursa said exasperatedly, sitting down in her own chair with Raizu in her lap and flipping open the picnic basket she had brought. “Who’d like a snack?” And that got an enthusiastic response from all the children.
She would deal with her husband later.
Ursa had words with Ozai in private, after lunch, when the twins were napping and the older children playing a board game in the sitting room. He’d finished reading all of the military reports in the small study at the back of the house, and intended to spend the afternoon in there as well, writing a memo to the Fire Lord on his observations of improvements that could be made to the strategy of the siege of Ba Sing Se.
“Do you really think that would be the best use of your time?” Ursa asked him pointedly, her voice low and even.
Ozai glared back at her across the table, where the reports and his notes were neatly spread out. “Are you suggesting the Fire Lord does not need my input on the most important military campaign in our nation’s history?”
“I am suggesting,’’ Ursa replied, gripping the back of the chair in front of her, “that the Fire Lord does not need you quite so urgently at this particular moment as your children do.”
Ozai shook his head, dipped his pen in the inkwell, and began writing on a fresh sheet of paper. “This will not take long,” he assured her. “I will run some firebending drills with Zuko and Azula this evening.”
Ursa let out an annoyed huff. “That is not what I mean!”
Ozai looked back up at her, impassive. “Very well, Shinzo can join us, too,” he conceded. “But the twins are too young for serious training.”
“I am not talking about training!” Ursa snapped, marching around to the other side of the table to stand next to Ozai’s chair. Still he did not get up. “I am talking about playing with your children, spending time together as a family, because that is what we came on this vacation to do!”
“I see,” Ozai said, making a mark on one of the pages of his notes. “Surely that can wait until tomorrow.”
“You don’t–” Ursa began to argue. But Ozai set down his pen, took hold of her hand, and cut her off.
“Tomorrow, Ursa,” he insisted. And then he had the nerve to kiss the back of her hand, as if to seal the deal. That, she supposed, was the best she was going to get out of him for now.
The rest of the afternoon passed peaceably, and true to his word, when Ozai did finally emerge from the study, he took Zuko, Azula, and Shinzo out into the courtyard for firebending drills, while Azar practiced his archery and Ursa played with the twins. Zuko came away from this lesson rather frustrated, as he often did, but Azula and Shinzo were in high spirits, each having earned their father’s much sought-after praise. Progress, Ursa reminded herself. It was all progress.
It started to rain just after dinner, so they were unable to gather the whole family around a bonfire as they usually did in the evenings. She tried to coax Ozai into getting out the pipa anyway and playing for them in the sitting room, but he brushed off this suggestion, his mind once again elsewhere. At least by the time Ursa left him to put the younger children to bed Azula had drawn him into a game of cards with the older ones.
The beach house was quite spacious, but the boys still shared rooms. This was nothing out of the ordinary for Shinzo and the twins, who still slept in the nursery at the palace, but it was an adventure for Zuko and Azar, who normally each had their own. As she brought the little ones upstairs, Ursa thought about the new baby again, and wondered, if this one was finally another girl, would Azula be so happy about sharing her room one day?
But she put those thoughts aside as she got Shinzo and the twins ready for bed, and settled in to read them a story. She was seated at the foot of Shinzo’s bed, with Shinzo himself already tucked in. Denzu lay on his stomach on top of the covers on the bed he and Raizu shared, his chin propped up on his hands. But Raizu insisted on snuggling up to her side as she read, tucking himself neatly under one arm.
Shinzo asked a lot of questions, and Denzu offered commentary on the story as well, as best as he could. But Raizu was content just to sit and listen. Ursa wasn’t surprised, for Raizu was easily the quietest of her children. He could speak when he wanted to, in a perfectly clear little voice. But most of the time he simply did not.
Ursa finished the story, gently refused Shinzo and Denzu’s pleas for another, and looked down at Raizu. He was smiling up at her with tired eyes, his little arms wrapped as far as they could go around her middle, where unbeknownst to him his own little brother or sister was growing. Raizu, like Zuko, would be a very good big brother, Ursa thought. He seemed to be so full of love, and just longing to share it.
She leaned over and kissed Shinzo goodnight. “Sleep well, darling,” she said, pulling the covers up to his chin.
“G’night, Mom,” Shinzo said reluctantly - but like Raizu, she could see his eyes were drooping with sleep, too.
Picking Raizu up, Ursa brought him over to the other bed and tucked him and Denzu in as well. “Good night, my loves,” she said, kissing them each in turn.
“Night, Mama,” Denzu replied, his eyes already closed. Raizu, of course, said nothing, but he reached one little hand out from under the covers and patted her cheek, and that, to Ursa, spoke volumes.
Later, when the older children had gone to sleep as well and she and Ozai were getting themselves ready for bed, she paused in the act of brushing her hair and saw, in the reflection of the mirror, Ozai seated on the edge of their bed, once again with that faraway look.
“I’m sure the rain will stop by morning,” Ursa said, just to break the silence.
Ozai nodded. “It usually does.” He was familiar with Ember Island’s weather patterns, of course. He’d been coming here longer than she had, staying in this very house for years stretching well back into his own boyhood.
Ursa set down her hairbrush, and went to sit next to him on the bed, to his right. “I know you’re worried, about everything,” she said, reaching for his left hand and placing it over her stomach. He had been moody and withdrawn like this ever since she had told him about her latest pregnancy. “But the whole point of this trip is not to spend time worrying.”
Ozai was silent for a moment, looking down at her hands, clasped over his, but not as if he were really seeing them. Whether it was the past or the future he was looking into, her husband’s mind was still clearly elsewhere.
“My father,” Ozai said at last, very softly, “never trained with me himself.”
Ursa leaned on his shoulder. “I know you try,” she admitted. Ozai was not a patient man by nature, and interacting with children did not come naturally to him. Ursa had no illusions about that. “But children need more than training.”
“That,” Ozai replied, working his hand free of her grip and raising it to cup the side of her face instead, “is what they have you for.”
Her husband, Ursa well knew, had never had a mother at all to make up for his own father’s shortcomings. It was the past that had been haunting him today, it seemed, and that fully softened Ursa’s heart towards him - and made her more determined than ever to secure their family’s future.
The rain did indeed let up the following morning, and Ozai did indeed play with the children that day. It was teaching them how to play volleyball that he dedicated the morning to, which was still a rather vigorous and competitive activity, but at least Azar got to feel included, if not the little ones. He made up for it by including Shinzo in the afternoon firebending drills again, and even spending some time with the twins playing spark - a baby firebender’s game that helped young children practice controlling their own flames, which of course Ursa couldn’t play with them.
Most importantly, to Ursa’s mind, Ozai stayed out of the study, and did no work that day.
And with that, their vacation really took off. The next few days were truly spent together, as a family, enjoying the peace and natural beauty of their little section of the island. They would venture into the town eventually, of course, but Ursa always preferred the first part of the vacation to be spent with just her husband and children.
It still rained most evenings, so there were no bonfires. But the days were lovely, until the end of the first week, when the morning dawned gray and drizzly and the clouds stubbornly refused to part. That day, the children had to play indoors.
There was only so much of board games and card games that Ozai could take, and for that Ursa didn’t blame him. So she forgave him when he once again shut himself in the study that afternoon. She was feeling rather worn out herself - a consequence of the pregnancy, no doubt - so when she put the twins down for their afternoon nap, she told Zuko to keep an eye on the rest of his siblings and went to lie down for a bit as well.
She was roused some time later by the sound of shouting coming from downstairs. When she dragged herself out of bed and into the sitting room, she found that it was Zuko and Azula who were having the argument, of course. Azar was staying out of it, as he usually did. Shinzo, seated next to him on the couch and holding a paper cutout that looked like the Fire Lord’s crown, though it was now torn, seemed to be at a loss.
Ursa was at a loss, too. “Alright, that’s enough!” she said, raising her voice over the two shouting children and putting herself between them. “I expect this kind of squabbling from the little ones, but you are both old enough to know better.”
“Azula started it!” Zuko accused, pointing at his sister. “I was just playing with Shinzo, and we were minding our own business, when she comes in and starts freaking out at us!”
Ursa frowned. “Now, I’m sure Azula wouldn’t get mad at you for no reason,” she began, reaching for her daughter. But Azula pulled back.
“It’s a funny sort of game, setting him up to be your puppet Fire Lord,” Azula shot back, pointing at Shinzo. Ursa began to understand. “Some people would call that treason,” Azula added, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“It was just a game!” Zuko protested, but before the two of them could resume arguing, Ursa made a gesture to silence him. Walking over to the couch and kneeling down in front of Shinzo, she asked him politely if she could see his crown, and the boy obediently placed it into her hand.
She turned back to Azula, holding up the torn paper cutout. “Is this what you were so upset about?”
“Get him used to wearing a paper crown, and who knows?” Azula reasoned, crossing her arms stubbornly. “Soon he might decide he wants the real thing.”
“I don’t think your four-year-old brother is planning a coup,” Ursa replied with all the patience she could muster, waving the flimsy paper crown at Azula for emphasis. “And I doubt either Shinzo or Zuko meant any disrespect by their game.”
“But–” Azula started to argue, but Ursa cut her off.
“No but’s,” she said firmly, pointing one finger in a warning gesture. “You owe your brothers an apology.”
Azula’s face was livid. Ursa knew that being made to apologize was the thing Azula hated most, but that only made it all the more necessary, in her opinion. The girl was far too proud for her own good. She glared up at Ursa now, but kept her mouth firmly shut.
“I’m waiting,” Ursa said pointedly, unmoved by her daughter’s glare.
Azula’s eyes fell at last. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” she muttered, vaguely in Zuko’s direction.
“And?” Ursa prompted, holding up the torn paper crown once more.
Azula sighed and rolled her eyes. “And I’m sorry I ripped your crown,” she added in a rush, with an impatient gesture towards Shinzo. “Is that good enough?” she asked, once again meeting Ursa’s eye.
It was hardly a heartfelt apology, but Ursa decided she had made her point. “That will do,” she said with a nod.
Without waiting for any further instruction, Azula stormed out of the room, calling over her shoulder for Azar to follow her - unnecessarily, in Ursa’s opinion, for Azar always did seem to play his sister’s second shadow. She caught him as he passed by and gave him an affectionate squeeze before letting him go to follow Azula. Then she handed the paper crown back to Shinzo.
Zuko shrugged awkwardly in the ensuing silence. “I probably shouldn’t have shouted at her either, I guess.”
“No, you should not have,” Ursa agreed, sitting next to Shinzo on the couch. “But I understand why you did.”
Zuko nodded and asked to be excused, and Ursa let him go, hoping that if he was going to look for Azula to offer an apology of his own, it would not merely devolve into another argument. Knowing Azula’s temper, it would probably be best if Zuko gave her some space for a while.
“Mom?” Shinzo asked, looking up at her with a frown. “Why does Azula hate me?”
“Oh, darling,” Ursa said, drawing Shinzo onto her lap. “Azula doesn’t hate you.”
“She’s always mean to me,” Shinzo protested, crumpling the remains of the paper crown in his hands, though he leaned into his mother’s embrace.
“Not always,” Ursa corrected him, thinking of how they had played together nicely on the first day of the vacation, working on the sand castle. “Sometimes, yes, she is, but that’s not because she hates you.”
“Then why?” Shinzo asked again.
“Azula is just…” Ursa trailed off, struggling to find the words to explain. She didn’t understand Azula herself sometimes, if she was being honest. But she did like to think she knew a thing or two about children, by this point in her life. “She takes things very seriously,” she said at last. Then, in a lower voice, half to herself, she added, “Like your father.”
“Oh,” Shinzo replied, seemingly accepting this explanation. “Does she need an office so she can close the door too?”
Ursa laughed at this question, and that seemed to brighten Shinzo’s mood. But when she brought him out of the sitting room later to look for the other children, and they walked past the door to the study which had stayed firmly shut all afternoon, Ursa frowned at the idea.
Family shouldn’t have to shut each other out.
That night, rain or no rain, was to be their first night in town since arriving at Ember Island. The little ones would be staying home with a governess to mind them, but Ursa insisted on Ozai and the older children accompanying her to the theater. The Ember Island Players were putting on their production of Love Amongst the Dragons again, and it was not to be missed.
“I just hope they’ve gotten better musicians than last year,” Ozai muttered when she told him what their plans were for the evening.
Ursa smiled patiently. “They might have, if they had a royal patron,” she reminded him.
Ozai frowned. “I already told you, I am not giving my patronage to that maudlin troupe of–”
“Artists and visionaries whose work your wife loves very much?” Ursa pointedly finished for him.
Ozai scoffed. “Yes, that,” he said. And that was the end of the argument.
Zuko and Azula were not exactly enthusiastic either, though Azar, who had not been old enough to accompany them to the theater last year, was intrigued. As they took their seats in the box of honor - not officially the royal box, for the theater had no royal patron - Azar sat close to her on her right, with Zuko on her left. Azula sat on the other side of Azar, with Ozai at the end of the row next to her.
“You’re in for a real treat,” Ursa told Azar just before the curtain went up, and he grinned back at her, clearly excited for his first show. She ignored the way Azula rolled her eyes behind her brother’s back.
The first act of the play was even better than Ursa remembered it from previous years. She thought they had improved the music, though of course that was more Ozai’s area of expertise than hers. But the music had never been the main attraction of the theater for her. It was the drama and the visual spectacle of the productions that awed her, and on those counts the Ember Island Players never disappointed. Their dragon puppets were the most lifelike Ursa had ever seen, and when the Dark Water Spirit first rose out of the mist on stage, she heard Azar let out a little gasp beside her.
One of her children, at least, was enjoying the play as much as she was.
Unfortunately, when the lights came back up at the intermission, Ursa could see that Azar was the only one enjoying it aside from her. Zuko tried to be polite, but clearly had nothing nice to say. Ozai still complained about the music not being up to his standards. And Azula thought the story was ridiculous.
“But the stage effects!” Azar protested in the face of his sister’s scorn for the play. “The way they made those dragons fly must involve a whole wire system, and…” Turning back to Ursa, he asked eagerly, “Mom, how did they do that transformation scene?”
“I don’t know,” Ursa admitted. The effects when the Dark Water Spirit cursed the Dragon Emperor to take on a mortal form were all new this year, and they were spectacular. “It was partly to do with the lighting, probably…”
Ozai took Zuko and Azula to visit the snack stand, while Ursa and Azar spent the rest of the intermission discussing the play, much to Ursa’s delight.
During the second act, Ursa couldn’t help sneaking glances over at Azar as he took it all in with a look of wonder on his face. It was nice to finally have someone else in the family who appreciated the theater like she did. She kept hoping that Zuko, at least, might be swayed still, but he remained slouched in his seat, unimpressed. Azula at one point leaned against her father, who put his arm around her shoulders, and though it was impossible to say for sure in the darkness, Ursa suspected they had both fallen asleep.
Uncultured simpletons, she thought disapprovingly - but the thought was still tempered with affection.
The rest of the audience did not share her family’s lack of appreciation for the performing arts, at least, and she and Azar both gladly joined in the standing ovation the players received at the end of the second act. Ursa thought about bringing Azar backstage to meet the cast and crew - patrons or not, being royalty came with some privileges - but seeing Ozai’s impatience to leave the theater, she thought better of it. She’d bring Azar back for that another night.
The rain had let up at last, which made for a pleasant walk back from the town to their house. Zuko, Azula, and Azar amused themselves catching fireflies along the way, and Ursa walked arm in arm with Ozai behind the children. “Azar liked it,” Ursa pointed out unnecessarily, a faint, smug smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
Ozai shook his head. “There’s no accounting for Azar.”
Ursa raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ozai made a vague gesture ahead of them, towards where Azar was peering at the glowing insect cupped in Zuko’s hands. “Of all of our children,” he said in a low voice, “he is the most...enigmatic.”
Ursa frowned. That was how she felt about Azula at times, though she didn’t like to admit it. “There’s nothing enigmatic about Azar,” she insisted. All the boys, really, were very straightforward, as far as she was concerned. All that made Azar different was that he had no firebending with which to win his father’s approval, and had to go about it in other ways.
And that, Ursa thought as Azar glanced shyly back at them, then ran after Azula, should not be something Ozai found so hard to understand. True, her husband was one of the most powerful benders alive - if not the most, as he believed himself to be - but who was it who had spent the first day of their vacation writing a memo to the Fire Lord, hoping not to be forgotten in his older brother’s coming military triumph?
“He’s a lot like you, really,” Ursa said softly, leaning her head against her husband’s shoulder.
“Not when it comes to taste in theater, evidently,” Ozai replied.
And Ursa couldn’t help but laugh at that.
A few days later, after breaking up yet another fight between Azula and Zuko, Ursa decided she and Azula needed to spend some time together, just the two of them. She didn’t want to be always scolding the girl, and a mother and daughter shopping trip, she thought, would be the perfect way for them to have a more positive experience with one another. So they left the boys with Ozai, and headed into town to explore the market.
Azula was reluctant at first, and sulked through the first few stalls Ursa stopped to look at. But when they came to the merchant selling jewelry and hair accessories, she couldn’t hide her interest. “Well,” Ursa said, seeing her chance. “We have to stop here.”
They admired a display of necklaces first. Azula admitted she liked the opal pendant at the center of the jewelry case, and Ursa agreed it was exquisite, but of course it was much too fine a piece for a young girl. She steered her daughter towards the more age-appropriate hair accessories next, holding up a clip decorated with pink and purple glass beads. “What do you think of this?” she asked, holding up to Azula’s hair and turning her towards the mirror next to the display.
Azula wrinkled her nose. “It looks like something Ty Lee would wear.”
Ursa laughed, taking that as a no. “Alright then, you pick something,” she said, setting the clip back down and giving her daughter a nudge of encouragement.
Azula considered for a moment, eyes slowly scanning the selection of clips, hair pins, and other baubles, before she reached out and picked up an enameled comb with the image of a blue dragon. “This one,” she said confidently.
The proprietor of the stall had of course been watching them. “The young lady has excellent taste,” he said approvingly, which Ursa took to mean the comb was one of the more expensive hair accessories on offer. Still, Azula really liked it.
“It is lovely,” Ursa agreed, smiling at her daughter’s reflection in the mirror. “We’ll take it.” And Azula actually smiled back.
They made a few more purchases at other stalls - Ursa bought seeds to try planting some new flowers in the palace gardens, and Azula picked out gifts for both of her friends, Mai and Ty Lee. Even when Azula asked about the stall selling cosmetics, and Ursa told her gently that she wasn’t old enough for such things, Azula took it in stride and didn’t fight her. Overall, Ursa thought their shopping trip was going quite well.
Then, they came to the section of the market with the stalls selling clothing.
Azula wasn’t interested in any of the outfits Ursa wanted her to try on, but didn’t offer alternative suggestions of her own, either. This Ursa found mildly suspect, for she knew it wasn’t as if her daughter didn’t care about her appearance.
Then, Azula politely asked if she could buy a new swimsuit.
“What’s wrong with the ones you have?” Ursa asked, raising an eyebrow. Azula had a whole collection of lovely little swimming dresses in various shades of red and pink back at the house.
“Nothing,” Azula replied innocently. “They’re just so...old-fashioned.” Ursa frowned at that, for Azula’s swim clothes were made in the same style as her own, which she had always thought was rather timeless. “Can’t I have something like that?” Azula asked, pointing to a mannequin outside a nearby stall.
The mannequin in question was modeling an adult swimsuit, though Ursa could see child sizes of the same fashion on display as well. It was two pieces, with a halter top that bared the midriff and a low waistband on the skirt.
“That,” Ursa said with disapproval, “is hardly appropriate for a grown woman, much less a little girl.”
But unlike with the makeup, Azula did not readily accept her mother’s judgement on this issue. “Ty Lee and her sisters get to wear two piece swimsuits,” she argued defiantly.
“If Ty Lee’s mother wants her daughters parading around half naked, that’s her business,” Ursa replied, taking Azula’s hand and leading her away from the swimsuit stall. “But you, young lady, shall not be.”
Azula yanked her hand out of her mother’s grip, and though she still obediently followed after her, she also muttered something under her breath.
“What was that?” Ursa challenged her.
“I said you’re such a prude!” Azula snapped, stamping her foot.
“And you,” Ursa replied, hands on her hips, “are in far too much of a hurry to grow up, in the worst way possible.” Between the swimsuit and the makeup, Ursa was honestly starting to worry about just where her daughter was getting such ideas. Perhaps Ty Lee and her older sisters were to blame. But she took a deep breath, and tried for a more conciliatory tone. “You’ll thank me for this someday,” she assured the girl.
Azula did not look convinced. But she did not mouth off again. Still, the rest of the shopping trip was not as much fun, and when they got back to the house, Azula shut herself in her room until lunch. Perhaps, Ursa thought, Shinzo had been right about what she needed.
That afternoon, when she looked in on the children’s firebending practice with Ozai, she could tell that Azula was pushing herself harder than ever, the flames she generated almost looking, to Ursa’s inexpert eye, on par with those of an adult firebender.
Ozai lavished praise upon her for it.
They finally got around to doing a bonfire that evening, and Ozai was out of excuses for not playing the pipa for them. Ursa brought the instrument outside, just to emphasize this point, as Ozai got the fire started. With a reluctant sigh, he opened the case and tuned the instrument as the children gathered round - Denzu and Raizu sitting on either side of Ursa, Azula and Shinzo on either side of their father, and Zuko and Azar in between.
Ursa had never quite understood why Ozai was so reluctant to use his musical talents. He played beautifully - not just the pipa, although that was what he had been taught as a child, but any instrument she had ever seen him pick up. He had a good singing voice, too, and a good memory for both melodies and lyrics that gave him an encyclopedic knowledge of songs to draw on. But Ozai, usually so proud of anything he could accomplish, was almost downright shy about his music. It was only on vacation that he ever played for the children, and Ursa hardly got to hear him any more often these days.
She supposed it was not something the Fire Lord had ever praised him for, though everyone else who had been so lucky as to hear him play certainly had.
Satisfied at last with the instrument’s tuning, Ozai plucked out the opening notes of a song - an old folk ballad about a phoenix and a dragon. Ursa and the older children knew all the words, and sang along, while the little ones did their best to join in on the chorus. The next song he played was more melancholy - its lyrics told of a soldier returning home from war as the sole survivor of his unit - and Ursa and the children simply sat and listened. Watching Ozai as he sang, Ursa thought this was the most at peace she had seen him since they had come to Ember Island.
When the children joined in again on the next, more upbeat song, Ozai didn’t even grimace at the little ones’ sour notes.
“Zuko,” Ursa said when that song was done, an idea suddenly occurring to her. “Did you bring your flute with you?”
Zuko looked at her in surprise. “Yeah, it’s in my room.”
“Why don’t you go get it,” Ursa suggested. “Then you and your father can play together.”
Zuko didn’t move from his spot by the fire, looking to his father for approval. Ozai met his oldest son’s eye, considered for a moment...and then, to Ursa’s immense relief, gave a curt nod. Then, and only then, did Zuko leap to his feet and run to get his own instrument.
Azula, who had begged her father that year to let her quit her own flute lessons, and finally prevailed upon him with the reasoning that it would give her more time for firebending practice, poked at the coals of the bonfire sullenly. “Zuko doesn’t know as many songs as Dad,” she complained, though Ursa suspected this was far from the true source of her displeasure.
“He’s a quick learner,” Ursa defended him.
“He is,” Ozai agreed, absently plucking out a chord. “When it comes to music, anyway.”
Azula seemed reassured by this.
Zuko rejoined them a moment later, flute in hand. This time they started with a song he knew, and Zuko played it well, flawlessly keeping time with his father. After they had gone through a few more of the pieces Zuko had mastered already - both folk songs and classical ballads - Ozai suggested a new one, The Song of the Dragon Empress. It was from Love Amongst the Dragons, and it was one of Ursa’s favorite pieces of music.
“I don’t know that one,” Zuko said hesitantly.
“It’s simple,” Ozai said. “Listen.” He played the melody on the pipa once, then held out his hand. Zuko passed him the flute, and Ozai demonstrated the melody again on his instrument - every bit as flawlessly as he had played it on the pipa, of course. “Now you do it,” he said, passing the flute back to Zuko.
Zuko hesitated a moment, adjusting his fingering on the instrument. He glanced at Ursa, who gave him an encouraging smile, but Ozai snapped his fingers, drawing Zuko’s attention away from her. “Your mother can’t help you,” he said sternly. “Just play.”
Zuko put the flute to his lips and played.
The notes were right, but the sound was faint, tremulous, lacking in confidence. Ursa thought it was rather good for a first attempt of a song he had never played before, but Ozai wasn’t satisfied.
“Not like that,” Ozai said, though to his credit Zuko did not stop playing. “This isn’t the first time you’ve ever held a flute. Play it right.”
Zuko sat up a little straighter, and the sound of his playing steadied, but it was still not the full-bodied sound of when his father had demonstrated the melody. “Ozai,” Ursa said warningly, before her husband could criticize the boy any further. “He’s trying.”
Ozai gave her an exasperated look. “He can do better.” He turned back to Zuko, not saying anything else, but what he expected clearly written on his face: Do it better.
Azula poked at the coals of the fire again, and the flames danced higher for a moment. Something hardened in Zuko’s eyes, he adjusted his grip on the flute, and without ever ceasing to play, suddenly he did it. The music burst forth into full life, sweet and clear.
“That’s it,” Ozai said with a nod, and then he joined in on the pipa.
They played a few more songs together - some that Zuko knew, others that he had to learn. But buoyed by his success with the Dragon Empress song, Zuko met his father’s expectations on all of them. When it grew late, and they had to carry the little ones back into the house, Zuko went to bed positively glowing with pride.
“He’s so gifted,” Ursa commented in a low voice as she watched Zuko climb up the stairs.
But Ozai, who was putting the pipa away in the front hall closet, shook his head, and Ursa was glad Zuko was upstairs and out of earshot when he spoke. “If that boy had half as much skill in firebending…”
Ursa frowned at him. “Do you ever wish Azula was better at music?”
Ozai gave her a strange look, uncomprehending. “Music,” he said, shutting the closet door, “is trivial.”
That night when she undressed, before she put on her nightgown, Ursa examined her reflection in the mirror. Having borne six children already, her stomach had been varying degrees of round for over a decade now, but she thought it was beginning to look larger than usual again. Not obviously so - she wasn’t showing as early as she had with the twins, which was to be expected if there was once again only one this time - but as she ran her hand over the curve of her belly, it definitely felt firmer and fuller.
Ozai, once again seated on the bed behind her, watched her without saying a word. This time, he did not look far away, but fully present in the moment.
“I hope this one is a girl,” Ursa confided, her hand resting over her navel.
“Of course,” Ozai agreed neutrally. “We have quite the imbalance as it is.”
Ursa turned away from the mirror and grinned at him. “It will take more than this one to fully even things out,” she teased.
Ozai was unamused. “We’re pushing our luck already,” he reminded her. Then he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It won’t be long before I’m facing the Fire Lord again to tell him…”
Ursa immediately felt bad for having reminded him of that particular anxiety. She didn’t share his conviction that the conversation he would have to have with his father would be so awful as he seemed to expect, but she was the one who had insisted this vacation was supposed to be an escape from worrying about all that. She went to the bed, knelt behind him, and wrapped both her arms around him. “It’s alright, my love,” she whispered, pressing a kiss to his temple. All the muscles in his back and neck were tense. “Everything will be alright.”
Ozai was not a man given to great displays of emotion, but Ursa felt him tremble in her arms, and wondered for a moment if he was going to cry. Instead, he turned around suddenly and grasped her close to his chest, his lips pressing down hard on her own.
Later, as they lay in bed and Ursa idly ran her fingers through her husband’s hair, he whispered back to her, “It will be alright. I’ll make sure of it.”
Ursa smiled in the darkness, satisfied.
That Prince Ozai would marry Lady Ursa was a fact which had been agreed upon by their fathers years before their actual marriage - an agreement which was, happily, much to the satisfaction of both young people. And though the road from that agreement to the marriage itself had not been entirely smooth, still when the wedding preparations began in earnest it was an event long anticipated.
Among those preparations, it was customary for the betrothed couple to seek out spiritual guidance from some appropriate source prior to their nuptials. Ozai did not expect this to be a complicated affair - when Iroh had married, he and his wife-to-be had met with the High Sage for less than an hour, and that was that. The High Sage would not be officiating at Ozai’s wedding, but he didn’t see why they couldn’t meet with the sage from the Great Temple who would be.
Ursa, however, had other ideas.
Near her family’s estate was a minor temple, dedicated to some ancient Avatar that Ozai had never even heard of. A single fire sage managed this shrine, and Ursa apparently put great stock in his wisdom. It was to this man that she wanted them to go for their spiritual counsel, and it would be no mere afternoon’s interview, but a multi-day retreat at the rural temple.
“It seems harmless enough,” Iroh observed when Ozai complained of this plan. “You’ll spend a few days in the countryside, listening to the no doubt charming tales of an eccentric old man, and make your future wife happy in the process.”
Ozai should have known Iroh wouldn’t understand. He never did. “But Father…” he started to protest.
Fire Lord Azulon didn’t let him finish. “Your brother is right,” he said, moving one of his tiles in the pai sho game he and Iroh were playing. Iroh let out a distressed sound at the move, and Azulon grinned in triumph. “There’s no reason not to give Lady Ursa what she wants on this matter.”
No reason except that it was a waste of time, Ozai thought. But if the Fire Lord told him to go along with it, then he would have to. He supposed he should be grateful his father wasn’t trying to marry Ursa off to anyone else this time, like the last debacle. “If you say so, Father,” he replied sullenly.
Sure enough, as Iroh considered his next move in the game, the Fire Lord finally looked at his younger son. “You were the one who was so set on marrying her,” he reminded Ozai, as if Ozai could have forgotten. “You’ll have to learn how to manage her.”
“Am I to do that by giving in to her on everything?” Ozai asked, his hands balling into fists where they rested on top of his knees.
Azulon laughed mirthlessly. “I leave that for you to determine,” he said with the slightest narrowing of his eyes. “But you shall go on her retreat with her sage, and perhaps that will help you find your answer.” Then he turned his attention back to the pai sho board just as Iroh moved another tile. “You may leave us now,” he added, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Ozai bowed, and took his leave.
In the corridor, he had the displeasure of running into none other than his eleven-year-old nephew. “Uncle Ozai!” Lu Ten greeted him cheerfully, the spitting image of his father - though of course, Ozai had never known Iroh so young.
“Prince Lu Ten,” Ozai returned the boy’s greeting with stiff formality. He never knew how to talk to the child, and had little interest in doing so, but unfortunately that did not seem to deter the boy. Ozai glanced about for a governess or a tutor - just because his mother was too ill to mind him didn’t mean the boy should be allowed to roam about unsupervised, surely? But he saw no one.
He continued on his way down the hall towards his own apartments, hoping Lu Ten would simply go about whatever business an eleven-year-old could have and leave him be. But to his dismay, the boy fell into step beside him. “Can I ask you a question?” he said in the same bright tone with which he had greeted him.
“That was a question,” Ozai pointed out.
Lu Ten laughed, but forged ahead. “When you and Lady Ursa get married,” he said, apparently not caring that the permission he had sought for this interrogation had not been granted, “are you going to have lots of children?”
Ozai stopped short, and glared down at the boy. “What kind of question is that?” he asked sharply. It was an entirely inappropriate subject to discuss with a child, and a rude thing for even an adult to ask, let alone his nephew. What was Iroh teaching the boy, he wondered incredulously.
“It’s just that there’s no other kids in the family,” Lu Ten replied, spreading his arms wide to indicate the empty corridor around them as if this illustrated his point. Then his eyes fell, and he lowered his arms back to his sides. “Dad says I can’t have any brothers or sisters because Mom’s too sick, but I thought it’d still be nice to have lots of cousins…”
Ozai frowned. “You have no shortage of playmates,” he pointed out. The nobles who lived at court were naturally all eager for their own sons and daughters to befriend the young prince and heir presumptive.
“Yeah,” Lu Ten agreed, the toe of his boot scuffing against the polished wood floor. “But it’s not the same.”
For a moment, Ozai felt a stirring of sympathy. There had been sycophantic nobles in his own boyhood as well, naturally, but his brother had been too old to be a real companion to him in his early years, and the only other child close to his age had been too sickly, too fragile to play with him, until she had been taken from him long before her time.
But Lu Ten was eleven years old already, and every bit his father’s son. “Whatever cousins you one day have,” Ozai said sternly, “they will be far younger than you.”
His nephew looked back up at him, apparently encouraged, which had not been Ozai’s intent. “But they’ll grow up!” he pointed out eagerly.
“So will you,” Ozai replied. And then he borrowed his father’s favorite tactic for ending a conversation. “Good day, Prince Lu Ten.”
This time, the boy took the hint, and did not follow him.
The retreat itself was to last three days. But Ursa’s family estate, and the shrine she insisted upon, were located on one of the middle islands, a full two days’ journey from the capital by ship, which meant the total time Ozai would be away from court would amount to a full week.
“You know,” Iroh had said to him before he left, with that roguish grin Ozai hated, “most young men would be thrilled at the chance to spend a full week alone with their betrothed.”
Ozai, used to years of his brother’s taunting about this, had nonetheless flushed with anger and informed Iroh that such dishonorable insinuations were beneath him, and the full proprieties would be observed on this trip. One of Ursa’s maiden aunts was accompanying them as chaperone on the journey, and upon their arrival, Ursa would stay at the estate while Ozai himself would be quartered in the temple’s guesthouse. They would be spending their days there in prayer and contemplation guided by an elderly fire sage, before returning to the capital once again under the supervision of Ursa’s aunt. Furthermore, the mere suggestion of the idea that he would show such disrespect to the woman he was going to marry was outrageous.
Iroh had chuckled, patted Ozai on the shoulder, and wished him a pleasant trip.
Other than that, the two day journey to the shrine passed without incident. Ursa was in high spirits, which helped to draw Ozai out of his sour mood somewhat. Her Aunt Leona, who was a navy veteran, even proved capable of conversation which Ozai found halfway interesting, and her company was more than just a formality to be put up with. Ozai got the impression she teased Ursa rather a lot, though, for whenever he came upon the two of them together, Ursa was always blushing.
He thought she was very pretty when she blushed.
The temple itself was a small structure, located at the tip of a rocky peninsula on the island’s southern coast. Ozai, used to the massive temples in the capital city, was unimpressed by this mere three story pagoda - especially as they drew nearer and he saw that its red paint was peeling, and there were tiles missing from the roof. “This is what we had to come all the way out here for?” he asked aloud.
Ursa gave him a patient look. “It’s not the building we’re here for,” she pointed out.
“Right,” her aunt agreed before Ozai could argue further. “It’s the crack-pot wisdom of the fire sage that time forgot.”
“Aunt Leona,” Ursa scolded, as Ozai felt his expectations plummet even further.
“Hey,” Leona said defensively, pointing one finger at her niece. “I grew up on this estate the same as you did, and he was ancient even when I was a little girl.”
Given the distinguished woman’s salt-and-pepper hair and pronounced laugh lines, Ozai realized that was saying something.
“Fire Sage Kung is a venerable and holy man,” Ursa protested.
“That may be,” her aunt conceded. “But he is not a young man.”
Any further argument between the two women was thankfully forestalled when the venerable and holy man in question emerged from the temple to greet them.
Ozai was used to the appearance of old men - his own father was advanced in years, as were many of his advisors, and the High Sage had celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday just a few months past. But Fire Sage Kung made them all look hale and spry by comparison. His back was stooped and he leaned heavily on a walking stick, his face was wrinkled and liver-spotted, his hair pure white and his eyes dim - could the man even see, Ozai found himself wondering.
But he must have been able to, for he greeted them immediately. “Prince Ozai,” he said with as much of a bow as he could muster - his voice was unexpectedly strong given his appearance. “Lady Ursa, Captain Leona,” he greeted each of the women in turn. “Welcome to the temple of Avatar Roza.”
“We’re so glad to be here, Sifu Kung,” Ursa replied. Ozai raised an eyebrow at this, for addressing a fire sage as sifu was an outdated practice, discouraged since his grandfather’s reign. But he supposed it must be a concession to the old man’s considerable age.
Leona took her leave of them there, handing Ozai and Ursa over to the supervision of Fire Sage Kung, who insisted their first order of business must be to offer prayers at the shrine - in thanksgiving for their safe arrival, and in supplication for their spiritual enrichment in the coming days. The inside of the temple was as unimpressive to Ozai as its exterior - dark, musty, the statue of its namesake not even life size, unless Avatar Roza had been an uncommonly diminutive woman. Her painted wooden likeness wielded a sword in one hand, and a dark red flame in the other, and seemed dwarfed by the emptiness of the sanctuary around her.
“There used to be a larger statue,” Fire Sage Kung commented as they exited the temple some time later, as if he had read Ozai’s mind. “It was made of gold.” With a feeble gesture of his free hand, the old fire sage motioned them towards the guest house beside the temple. “Let us take some refreshment now.”
“What happened to it?” Ozai found himself asking as they made their way down the stone path to the guest house, his curiosity getting the better of him. “The old statue, that is.”
To his surprise, it was Ursa who answered. “It was seized by Fire Lord Sozin,” she explained, a bitterness coloring her voice that was at odds with her high spirits on the trip thus far, “when the temple was unable to pay his new taxes.”
Ozai frowned at this answer. But Kung merely chuckled as he opened the door of the guest house to let them in. “Now, Lady Ursa,” he chided in an avuncular tone. “Let’s not talk politics.”
“I should think that counts as history rather than politics,” Ozai commented as he stepped inside the front room of the guest house, which also appeared to be its kitchen. Sozin’s temple taxes had been instituted at the start of the war, nearly a century ago. Though there had been some opposition to them at the time, they were entirely uncontroversial now.
But Kung shook his head and gave another kindly laugh. “How short-sighted, the memories of the young,” he said, as if to himself, as he stoked the kitchen fire and set the kettle on it. He made another feeble gesture indicating Ozai and Ursa should sit at the kitchen table - a plain but sturdy wooden table, with plain but sturdy wooden stools. “You are to be married in a month’s time, yes?” he called over his shoulder as he stumped around the kitchen with his walking stick, getting the rest of the tea service ready.
“That is correct,” Ozai replied. Ursa smiled at him, and he smiled back - to think, it was only a month to go now, when he had been waiting for his father to allow him to marry her for years.
“So soon,” Kung muttered, bringing a tray to the table, delicately balanced on his one free hand, bearing tea cups and candied dates. “So little time to prepare.” The kettle began to whistle, and the old man stumped back over to the fire to attend to it.
“Prince Ozai and I,” Ursa spoke up, then gave another bashful look in his direction. “Well, it has been our intention to marry for some time.”
“And yet you have not brought him to see me until now?” Kung asked as he poured the hot water into the teapot.
“There...hasn’t been the opportunity,” Ursa explained hesitantly. Ozai’s obligatory journey to hunt for the Avatar had taken precedence, of course, and then there had been his father’s thankfully short-lived attempt to take her away from him. “We only just received the Fire Lord’s blessing recently.”
The old fire sage chuckled again as he set the lid on the teapot to steep. “I am teasing you, child,” he said fondly. But then he gave Ozai a rather more stern look. “It is good that you are here now.”
Ozai refused to flinch under the old fire sage’s scrutiny. Compared to his own father, Kung was hardly intimidating. “You have known Lady Ursa for some time?” he asked instead.
“Since she was born,” Kung replied, banking the kitchen fire - he used his bare hands to handle the coals, Ozai noted approvingly. “And I knew her mother and her aunts since they were born, too.” Belatedly, Ozai remembered Ursa’s Aunt Leona had mentioned knowing him as a girl as well. Kung cleaned his hands on a kitchen rag, and went on, “If you want to know how long I have been the guardian of Avatar Roza’s shrine, I was sent here after your grandfather’s reforms, so that I would stop causing trouble.” The old man smiled to himself, and shook his head. “But now I am the one talking politics,” he added apologetically.
Sozin’s religious reforms had come after his temple taxes, at the very end of his reign. That was still quite some time ago. Ozai narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the old man, wondering what sort of trouble he could have caused back then, and if he had been suitably chastened since.
But Kung either didn’t notice Ozai’s suspicion or didn’t care. He served them their tea and turned the conversation to lighter matters, asking Ursa about her father’s health and Ozai about his leisure interests - he was delighted when Ursa informed him that he played the pipa, though disappointed to learn Ozai had not brought the instrument with him.
After the tea was finished, the old fire sage produced reading material for each of them - a treatise on marriage written by Avatar Roza herself. He showed Ozai to his room in the guest house, and then left him to his reading while he escorted Ursa back to the estate, informing him that they would reconvene for dinner and more prayers that evening.
As Ozai set himself to his task, he remembered his brother’s prediction about what this retreat would entail, and shook his head. The old man was eccentric enough, but so far Ozai was far from charmed.
They discussed what they had read so far over dinner. Ursa had made greater headway, for she was a faster reader, and consequently had far more to say. But Fire Sage Kung was not content to let her dominate the conversation, and insisted on asking Ozai’s opinions on every one of her points. Keeping in mind his father’s words, Ozai mostly agreed with what she had to say, for the treatise was a very spiritual work that he had a hard time seeing the relevance of, and he did not think it worth the trouble of arguing with her.
But the old man seemed to realize what he was doing. “You are a very accommodating man,” he observed dryly. “Do you really take issue with nothing Lady Ursa has said?”
Ozai raised an eyebrow, challenging. “Perhaps she and I are simply of one mind.”
“I wonder,” Kung replied, clearly unconvinced. “How much have you discussed your future together, as husband and wife?”
“Oh, plenty,” Ursa assured him, setting down her chopsticks and fiddling with the edge of her napkin. “We’ve talked about the royal charities I shall work with, and which provinces we shall visit on our first tour…”
“Child,” the old fire sage cut her off gently, with a fond but reproachful look. “You know better than that. I mean the things that really matter.” He grasped the air in front of him with one hand and shook his closed fist as he said this. “Have you talked about your children, for example?”
Ozai met Ursa’s eye across the table, and saw she was as at a loss as he was. They both knew they would have children, of course. It was expected of them. “What is there to discuss about children?” Ozai asked.
Fire Sage Kung chuckled. “How many of them you anticipate having, for one thing,” he suggested.
“Ah,” Ozai replied, just as Ursa said, “Oh, that’s easy.”
With a blithe smile, Ursa went on, “We’ll have as many as the spirits see fit to give us.”
“Two, of course,” Ozai said at the same time.
“What?” both Ursa and Ozai said in unison, and equal degrees of alarm.
“You see,” Fire Sage Kung said, far more smugly than Ozai liked. “It’s a good thing I asked.”
“Two?” Ursa repeated incredulously. “Just two?”
“At least I have a number in mind,” Ozai shot back, “and not some ridiculous vague notion.”
Ursa’s eyes flashed with anger. So much for him being an accommodating man. But the old fire sage did not seem surprised by this turn the conversation had taken. “If I may ask, Prince Ozai,” he put in mildly, “how did you arrive at that number?”
Ozai had to pause to think about it. Really, it had just been an assumption. “Well, one isn’t enough,” he began. Accidents happened, and illness touched even the royal family, as he well knew. “Two is much safer.”
“But why only two?” Ursa pressed him. The color was rising in her cheeks, and though it was due to anger rather than any girlish blush this time, Ozai couldn’t help but find it equally lovely.
Unfortunately, he had no good answer to her question. “What need is there for more?” he asked with a shrug.
“Whether or not they are needed,” Ursa replied, spitting out the last word as if it were something distasteful, “it seems...that is, it’s rather likely that…” She was having difficulty putting her thoughts into words - not a problem Ozai had ever known Ursa to have before - and he realized, to both his surprise and amusement, that she was embarrassed now, even as she was still angry. “Well, unless we are very unlucky, more than two will probably come,” she finally said in a rush.
Ozai did not follow her meaning. But Fire Sage Kung apparently did. “You can not assume that, Lady Ursa,” he said in the same tone of fond reproach. “Your own mother…”
“Sifu Kung,” Ursa cut him off. Her face was quite red now, but her voice was firm, though her eyes were fixed at a nondescript point on the table. “Let us just say that I know my own health, and I do not share my mother’s affliction.”
“Very well,” the old fire sage replied with a conciliatory nod. “That is also something your future husband should know, of course.”
“But I don’t understand,” Ozai protested. “Why shouldn’t we be able to stop at two?”
Urza looked up, and met his eye, and behind all her discomfort he saw at last the boldness he was used to in her. “It is not for us to decide,” she said primly.
This did not really answer Ozai’s questions.
“That is something else you must discuss,” Fire Sage Kung pointed out. “But not, perhaps, right this moment.” Ursa let out an audible sigh of relief at this pronouncement, and the old fire sage went on, “It will be a more fruitful discussion when Prince Ozai has finished reading Avatar Roza’s treatise.”
Ozai certainly hoped it would be, but he would not bet on those hopes. “Was Avatar Roza married?” he asked, suddenly wondering just why some woman from centuries ago was supposed to be such an authority on this subject.
Fire Sage Kung gave him a strange look. “No,” he said. “What on earth has that got to do with anything?”
Ozai adjusted his hopes further downward still.
When the awkward dinner finally came to an end, he was almost glad for the silence of the temple as the old fire sage led them through evening prayers. He studied the painted wooden statue again, still wondering about this long-dead woman about whom he knew so little. Then, he snuck a sideways glance at Ursa, her eyes closed in prayer and an expression of fervent devotion upon her face. There she was, living and breathing beside him, soon to be his wife as he had always known she was meant to be - and yet how little he was beginning to suspect he knew about her as well.
The next day began with prayers again - Ozai was starting to see the pattern - followed by breakfast, and then more time for private reading and study. Ozai finished Avatar Roza’s treatise, and sure enough there was an entire section towards the end dedicated to the question of children, though Ozai found it even more incomprehensible than the rest.
Fire Sage Kung spent part of the morning in private conversation with Ursa. Ozai had no idea what they discussed, but he was assured that his turn would come that evening.
After midday prayers and lunch, the next item on the agenda was, to Ozai’s surprise, a hike. He had been unable to hide his skepticism when the old fire sage had announced this as their afternoon activity, but though he leaned heavily on his walking stick, Kung proved quite more than capable of leading them on a vigorous trek into the hills.
Almost equally surprising to Ozai was what Ursa had chosen to wear on their expedition. He himself had left formal court attire behind in favor of a lightweight tunic and trousers, and he would have expected Ursa to change into something similar for the hike. Instead, she was still wearing what she had that morning: a dress. It was short-sleeved, and the skirt fell only to mid-calf, but it was very much a dress.
“Is that practical?” Ozai asked as they set out on their hike.
Ursa gave him a wry smile. “I’ve hiked this trail before,” she reminded him. Presumably that meant she had also done it in a dress before. At least, Ozai noted, she had a sensible pair of boots on her feet. Still, he was perplexed.
They walked side by side, following Fire Sage Kung, without speaking for a while. But Ozai was still wondering. “Why not just wear pants?” he finally asked, an honest question.
Ursa looked up at him. Her hair was pinned back and off her neck, different from her usual style. “Have you ever seen me wear pants?” she said pointedly.
Ozai thought for a moment. “No,” he admitted. But he had never seen her away from court, prior to this trip, and court protocol dictated long robes for both women and men, in most circumstances. “But I didn’t think you had something against them.”
Ursa shrugged. “I don’t like wearing them. It’s not ladylike.” Then she picked up her pace, walking ahead of him as if to prove a point. “And I’ve always gotten by just fine in skirts.”
At this oddly prideful pronouncement, Ozai was left wondering if Ursa was not, in her own way, as eccentric as the ancient fire sage she so revered.
They reached the crest of a particularly steep hill some time later. It was by no means the highest point on the island, but it did afford them a sweeping view of the peninsula where the temple was located and the sea beyond it.
“Let us rest here a while,” Fire Sage Kung declared, and Ozai noted with some envy that the old man did not even look winded as he hobbled towards a low, flat stone that made a convenient seat. “I will sit here, and take in the view,” Kung informed them as he sat. “Why don’t you two go over there,” he said, pointing with his walking stick, “and discuss what you were unable to yesterday evening.”
As they followed the old man’s instructions, Ozai quickly realized that the spot he hand indicated would keep the two of them well within the fire sage’s deceptively sharp eyesight, but out of his earshot. A concession to Ursa’s embarrassment, he supposed, and wondered if she had requested this of him during their morning conversation.
“Well,” Ursa said, sitting down in the grass, her skirt fanning out around her, bright pink against the green grass. “You finished your reading, I suppose?”
“I did,” Ozai confirmed, sitting next to her - not too close, wary as he was of propriety, and the old fire sage’s eyes still on them. “But Ursa,” he said, incredulous, “all that nonsense about the spirits and the divine purposes for which marriage was instituted...you don’t really believe that.”
Ursa raised her chin. “I do.” Then, in an even more challenging tone, she added, “What else would marriage be for?”
Ozai sighed in frustration. “Obviously having children is part of it,” he conceded, drawing his knees up and resting his elbows atop them, his hands clasped loosely. “But marriage is a human institution. It’s of no concern to the spirits how many children we have.”
“What about the Fire Lord?” Ursa asked, sitting up a little straighter. “Is his position a mere human institution?”
“Of course not,” Ozai immediately replied. “But that’s different. He is Agni’s anointed.”
“As solemnized in the sacred ritual of his coronation,” Ursa agreed with a nod. Then she looked away, towards the temple, so small from this distance. “I happen to believe our marriage rites will be equally sacred.”
“Sacred, yes,” Ozai agreed. Marriages were officiated by the sages for a reason. “But not–”
“No,” Ursa cut him off. “There is no ‘but’. It is a sacred act with a sacred purpose, and to deliberately do anything which would... frustrate that purpose…” She folded her hands in her lap, and looked down at them demurely. “It would be wrong.”
She was not, Ozai realized with a jolt, speaking of the rites which would take place in the Great Temple, but of the other act which would bind them as husband and wife. He felt his own face flush, as it did whenever Iroh would tease him about such things, but this time he could not pretend it was due to anger at any improper suggestion. “I never said we should...frustrate that purpose entirely,” Ozai replied, defensive.
Ursa’s eyes remained downcast, but she clenched her hands tighter. “I will not do it even once,” she said, her voice soft but firm.
Ozai tried to imagine their future as she saw it. How many children would they end up with, if they did nothing to prevent them? Four? Five? Would Ursa change her mind at some point, and decide that they had adequately fulfilled whatever purpose she thought the spirits had for their marriage, or would she remain obstinate, bearing child after child for years on end?
Ursa looked up at him again, waiting for his reaction. Her eyes flashed, and her mouth was set. The latter option, in that moment, seemed alarmingly likely.
Even more alarmingly, Ozai found he did not want her any less for it.
“If you feel that strongly about it…” Ozai began, and then caught himself. Here he was, about to give in to her again. The force of her convictions was something he admired about her, but how could she hide that force behind her ancient Avatars and old-fashioned fire sages and all their backwards ideas? “If you really feel so strongly about following Avatar Roza’s teachings,” Ozai amended, reaching for her hands, still clasped tightly in her lap, “do you intend to submit to your husband’s will as she recommends as well?”
Even more than the incomprehensible spiritual ramblings about the bearing of children, it was that section of Avatar Roza’s treatise which had most shocked Ozai. Women in the Fire Nation were equals to men, and had been for generations. They served at every level of the government and military - as Ursa’s own aunt had done. The idea that they should be made to occupy an inferior role in marriage was regressive, the sort of custom to be expected of the Earth Kingdom or the barbaric Water Tribes, perhaps, but hardly fitting for the most advanced nation in the world.
And Ursa - bold, confident Ursa, who spoke her mind without fear, who catered to no one’s opinion but always did what she thought was right - she could never be content in such a degrading position.
But Ursa did not back down. “Insofar as my husband’s will does not contradict the higher moral law,” she said archly, words that sounded too academic to be her own and yet were spoken with full faith, “then yes.”
“The higher moral law?” Ozai repeated.
Ursa unclasped her hands, taking hold of his. “That always comes first,” she explained, leaning in closer. “All other authority - whether it is the Fire Lord’s over his people, or a naval captain’s over her crew, or a husband’s over his wife - it is always subject to that.”
“And you,” Ozai said incredulously, placing his other hand atop hers, so that both of their hands were joined. “You would be subject not just to that law, but to me?”
He expected her to laugh in his face, or to fly into a rage. Surely he must not have understood, or she must not have fully thought it through, her antiquated idea of how marriage was supposed to work. But now she would realize. She was so spirited, and he was never going to learn to “manage” her, no matter what his father said…
But Ursa only smiled serenely at him. “That’s how much I trust you.”
It was Ozai who laughed instead. “I don’t believe you.”
That provoked her ire the way that his question had not. She glared at him, defiant - which Ozai thought rather proved his point - and pulled her hands away from his. “I am entirely serious!” she insisted. “But if it’s all just a joke to you, then I’ll…”
“You’ll what, Ursa?” Ozai challenged her. “Report me to the officers of your higher moral law?”
Ursa did not reply. Her lips, pressed into a grim line, trembled. Vaguely, Ozai realized that this was the first time he had ever seen her rendered speechless. But any satisfaction he might have taken from this was swiftly quashed when she rose to her feet with perfect poise and walked calmly over to Fire Sage Kung, who was now studiously watching the clouds roll by overhead, as if either of them could be fooled into thinking he hadn’t had his eyes on them all along.
“Sifu Kung,” Ursa said politely. “Please take me home.” Her voice was cold. It reminded Ozai of his father, and he scowled at the thought. “I have no wish to speak with this man any further.”
Even the old fire sage seemed surprised by this declaration. “Alright, child,” he replied softly. “If that is your wish.” They hiked back down from the hills in tense silence, and Ozai was left at the temple guest house while Kung escorted Ursa back to the estate.
More than ever, Ozai was not looking forward to his private conversation with Fire Sage Kung that evening.
“It might comfort you to know,” the old fire sage said as he poured Ozai a cup of tea, “that you are not the first prospective husband I have known to infuriate his bride during this time of preparation.”
Seated once again at the kitchen table, Ozai frowned down at his teacup. “That is not very comforting.”
Kung took his own seat, opposite Ozai. “Oh, we always work things out in the end,” the fire sage continued, still trying to reassure him. “That’s what this retreat is for, after all. Better to hash these things out now.”
Kung took a sip of his own tea, but Ozai did not drink, nor did he eat any of the dried fruit that the old fire sage had set out on the table. Left alone at the guest house that afternoon when Ursa went back to her family’s estate, he had re-read the controversial treatise by Avatar Roza that had sparked the whole argument, trying to understand. But he could not, and he had come away only more convinced that it was all nonsense, which Ursa would have to be a fool to believe.
He hadn’t taken her for a fool.
“Can this be worked out?” he asked morosely, folding his arms and leaning his elbows on the table, not caring at all if Kung thought him rude for it. “If she is so set on her beliefs…”
“You do not share those beliefs, evidently,” the old fire sage observed, apparently unperturbed by Ozai’s poor manners.
“No,” Ozai confirmed, for there seemed little point in denying it now.
Fire Sage Kung sighed. “At least you are honest about it,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s better than most men.”
Ozai was struck by this comment, for he could see no point in dissembling on this matter. Why shouldn’t he speak his mind? “I do not see the need for having some unmanageable brood of offspring like she wants,” he insisted. “Let alone why it should be a moral question.”
Kung smiled patiently. “Even most men would not draw the line at two before they considered it an unmanageable brood.”
“We have already established,” Ozai replied sullenly, “that I am not like most men.”
The old fire sage chuckled, irritating Ozai further. “Still,” he said with a pointed glance at Ozai’s untouched tea. He then took another sip from his own cup. “Is there a reason you settled on two?” Ozai opened his mouth to protest that he had already explained his reasoning, but the fire sage cut him off, anticipating this. “You have told me your reasons, such as they are, why you want more than one, and why you don’t want a large number,” he clarified. “But why two, specifically, and not, say, three?”
Ozai frowned. He still hadn’t given the exact number much thought. Two seemed reasonable. Manageable. “I am one of two,” he replied. And so he had been, since he was five years old.
“I see,” Kung said, setting his teacup down gently on the table. “And were you happy, growing up that way?”
That question, Ozai really didn’t have to think very hard to answer. “I doubt more would have improved the situation,” he muttered, as much to himself as to the old man. His oldest two sisters he had never known, dead before his own birth, but the third he remembered. Even had she lived, what would it have changed? Iroh would have been what he was anyway. Worse yet, their sisters might have grown up to be like him.
“Lady Ursa has no brothers or sisters,” Kung interrupted his thoughts to point out, though Ozai was well aware of this fact. With a wistful smile, the old man went on, “I knew her as a girl, remember. She was a darling child. But desperately lonely.”
Of course. Ozai should have realized. Ursa, growing up alone, had romanticized the idea of siblings, and now she was still desperate to vicariously fulfill that old longing. Little did she know, what trouble siblings could be, and little would she listen to his opinions on the matter. “She would give me more power over her than I ever asked for or expected,” he complained aloud, “and yet the one place I wish to draw the line, she refuses.”
The old fire sage was silent for a moment, slowly rotating his teacup on the table between his thumb and forefinger. “There are some things, Prince Ozai,” he said at last, in a solemn tone, “not even you have the right to do.”
Ozai sat up straight, bristling. “You think I am asking for too much?” he demanded, fixing the old man across from him with a hard look.
“It is not what I think,” the fire sage replied levelly, raising his dim eyes to meet Ozai’s glare, “but what Lady Ursa thinks that concerns you. So what you should be asking is which is stronger: your objection to her beliefs, or your love for her?”
The old man’s words were like a knife to Ozai’s heart. He narrowed his eyes. “That is an insolent question.”
Fire Sage Kung took another sip of his tea. “It is the only question that matters,” he insisted. “And I think it is one you know the answer to.”
Ozai got up from the table, stalking over to the small kitchen window. From there, he could see the dirt path that led towards the estate where Ursa had grown up, where she had retreated to now in her anger at him. If he yielded now, what sort of man was he? He would not let himself be bullied or cajoled by anyone, least of all her. He should leave her there at her ancestral home, let her stew in her anger and return to court alone…
To face his father, alone, and tell him he had cast aside the woman he had insisted on for years? To face his brother and his hideous efforts to set him up with some other bride, or concubine, or worse? To never again hear her laugh, never see her eyes beaming with admiration for him again, never know the gentleness of her touch or the taste of her lips? Was that what he wanted, because he had to be in control?
“Damn her outrageous beliefs,” Ozai said through gritted teeth, his hands clenched tightly. But it sounded miserable, pathetic and weak, even to his own ears, and he knew the fire sage would see through it. He rounded on the old man, pointing accusingly. “Am I to give in to her on everything?” he demanded, the same question he had asked his father, the question he was supposedly on this retreat to answer for himself. “Is that what you would have me do?”
“Not on everything,” Fire Sage Kung replied, still seated at the kitchen table, unperturbed. “Only when she is right.” Then he too rose to his feet, and came to stand beside Ozai at the window, looking out towards the estate as he had done. “Most of all, what I would have you do is not break her heart.”
It seemed absurd to Ozai, in that moment, the idea that he could ever do anything to hurt her.
“How can I,” he replied gruffly, crossing his arms, “if she will not speak to me?”
The fire sage’s face remained towards the window. “Oh, she will return for prayers this evening,” he assured Ozai with remarkable confidence. “You will speak to her then.” He turned to look at Ozai - to look up at him, for Ozai had a good deal of height on the stooped old man. “I suggest you reflect carefully on what you will say to her.”
Ozai scowled down at the old man, but said nothing.
After a moment, Fire Sage Kung nodded anyway. “But first, let us return to our tea, before it gets cold.”
Ozai resisted the urge to roll his eyes at the old man as they returned to the table. “We could always warm it up again.” They were both of them firebenders, and it would take nothing more than a thought.
This turned out to be the first thing Ozai had said that visibly offended the eccentric old fire sage. “Reheated tea?” he said scornfully, shaking his head. “Perish the thought.”
Ursa returned to the temple that evening just in time for prayers, as Fire Sage Kung had predicted, though she cut it so close that Ozai had no chance to say a word to her beforehand. And throughout the ritual, though Ozai tried to catch her eye several times, she remained studiously reverent and aloof. Only when the final mantra had been chanted and they had made their way down the temple steps outside did she look at Ozai at all.
The sun was in its last stages of setting, but even in the twilight Ozai could see plainly that Ursa was still angry. “Do you deign to speak to me now?” he asked, his own ire once again provoked by her stubbornness.
Ursa was unabashed, as always. “That depends,” she said cooly, “on whether you have anything to say that will be worth listening to.”
She was infuriating, Ozai thought. But his own anger felt futile, powerless, flagging just as his inner fire ebbed as Agni’s rays retreated below the horizon. He would not live without her, no matter how infuriating she was.
“I spoke rashly, earlier,” he admitted.
“Yes, you did,” she agreed, not sounding terribly impressed.
At the top of the steps, Fire Sage Kung closed the temple doors for the night, and waited, watching them. Self-conscious, Ozai reached for Ursa’s hand - she did not pull away, a good sign - and drew her a few paces further, out of earshot but still within sight, as they had been that afternoon in the hills.
“One way or another,” Ozai began, still holding Ursa’s hand, “we will be expected to have children, once we are married.”
Ursa nodded, but said no more. In the fading light, Ozai could see that some of her anger had abated as well. She knew, after all, what he was like, how difficult this was for him, just as he knew how strong and proud she could be. She was listening patiently, now.
“I am still unconvinced about these...ideas you have,” Ozai went on, choosing his words carefully. For a moment, he was afraid she might pull her hand away, and his grip tightened. “But I can see that you believe in them strongly, and I…” Ozai hesitated, searching himself, taking one final stock of just how much he was willing to concede.
“I am willing to leave the precise number of the children we will have an open question,” he said at last.
Ursa raised an eyebrow, wary. “An open question?” she repeated.
“Yes,” Ozai said with a nod.
“How open?” Ursa challenged him. But in the last golden rays of Agni’s beneficence, he saw the spark in her eyes, and knew that he had won her, and it was only a matter of time now.
“More than two,” Ozai allowed, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He could handle three, certainly, perhaps even four. They would be his children, and he would be vigilant about their upbringing - and Ursa would love them. “We can...revisit this subject in future years.”
Ursa held out a moment longer. He knew it was not the full concession she wanted. But it was as much as she was going to get, at present. She seemed to realize this as well, and her expression softened. “That is...acceptable,” she finally said. Then, remarkably, she blushed again. “It should be something a husband and wife discuss often, anyway.”
Ozai bowed his head and kissed the back of her hand, an old-fashioned gesture he knew she would appreciate. Ursa smiled up at him, and squeezed his hand slightly in return.
The final day of their retreat with Fire Sage Kung consisted, aside from the requisite prayers, in far more practical advice and instruction than Ozai had expected, some of it quite humiliating to discuss with the old man. But he endured it all, for Ursa’s sake, until her Aunt Leona finally returned that afternoon to escort them on their journey back to the capital.
“Remember,” the old fire sage told Ozai as his final parting bit of wisdom, “you must always guard with care the treasure you are being given.”
“Always,” Ozai agreed, looking at where Ursa stood a ways away, talking to her aunt. With all her eccentricities, her pride and her stubbornness, he still loved her, and would never let any harm come to her.
“Being married to her will challenge you,” Fire Sage Kung went on. Ozai gave a short chuckle at this pronouncement, for he could certainly imagine that it would indeed be the case. “But if you can rise to the challenge, you will be a better man for it,” the fire sage concluded.
Ozai thanked the old man politely, and they left the temple at last.
“So,” Leona asked him after they had boarded the ship that would take them back to the capital, “was Sifu Kung everything you expected him to be?” She used the old-fashioned honorific with a touch of irony, unlike Ursa.
“I do not believe anyone could have expected that,” Ozai replied neutrally. Fire Sage Kung had to be seen to be believed.
Leona seemed to take his meaning, and laughed, but Ursa either missed the implication or chose to ignore it. Ozai suspected the latter, but either way she simply looped her arm through his, her hand resting on his forearm, and smiled up at him. “I’m so glad we came here,” she said earnestly.
Ozai was more glad they were leaving, but knew better than to say so. Instead he just laid his other hand over hers on his arm, and pulled her a little closer to his side. Very soon, less than a month now, and she would be his at last.
Ursa blushed once more at this gesture, causing her aunt to raise an eyebrow and make a teasing remark. But for the rest of the voyage back to the capital, there were no more arguments between Ozai and Ursa.
Perhaps his father would call that learning how to manage her after all.
For more details on Azulon's attempt to marry Ursa off to someone else, see Forever, Almost Never by iamfitzwilliamdarcy.
It was only a few days after their return from Ember Island that the news came.
Ozai was still catching up on the backlog of work that had accumulated in his absence, silently cursing all the time he had wasted on vacation, when the courier brought him the letter from Iroh. But it was marked as personal rather than official, so he had sent it away without opening it. Let Ursa deal with whatever inanities Iroh wanted them to tell the children. He had more important things to do, and he spent the rest of the morning doing them, working straight through lunch without a word to anyone else, and thankfully without any interruptions.
That was how he was caught off guard in his audience with the Fire Lord that afternoon.
Ozai knew as soon as he set foot in the throne room that something was wrong, for the wall of flames before the throne was not lit, leaving the room in near darkness. For a moment, Ozai wondered if his father was even there, or if he had gotten the time for his audience wrong. But as he stepped closer to the dias, he could see the silhouette of the Fire Lord’s form, seated on the throne - and hunched over.
“Father?” Ozai asked in alarm, making his way carefully up the steps to the dias and lighting a flame in one hand so he could see better. If his father was ill, or injured somehow…
The Fire Lord raised his head from where it had rested in his hands, his eyes livid - and, shockingly, wet with tears. “How dare you approach the throne without permission!” he bellowed, sending a wave of fire in Ozai’s direction with a sweeping gesture of one arm.
Ozai scrambled out of the way, back down the steps, and hastily knelt as protocol dictated, letting his own flame go out and plunging the room back into darkness. “Forgive me,” he said, pressing his forehead to the floor. “I was concerned…”
“If you had any genuine concern for me,” his father’s voice echoed in the darkness, stern and yet alarmingly tremulous, “you would have left me alone, after what has happened, rather than come to pester me with your inconsequential...” There was a strangled quality to the last word, and he did not finish the sentence.
Still kneeling, Ozai looked up at his father, barely visible once more. “But Father,” he asked in confusion, “what has happened?”
He heard the Fire Lord take a deep, shuddering breath. “You really have not heard?” He gave a short, humorless laugh, which sounded almost like a sob. “My youngest child, clueless once again. I should not be surprised.”
Ozai ignored the slight, and waited. He was hesitant to say anything more - he had never seen his father so openly distraught before, and was wary of provoking his temper again when he was in this unpredictable mood. Even in his vague childhood memories from all those years ago, when she had died, he could not recall anything like this…
Ozai wondered if there was any chance it was Iroh who had died this time.
Soon enough, the Fire Lord collected himself, and spoke again, his voice heavy with sorrow. “Prince Lu Ten has fallen on the walls of Ba Sing Se.”
“I see,” Ozai replied, smothering his own disappointment. “That is indeed a great loss for the Fire Nation.” Though privately, Ozai thought the loss perhaps not quite so great. Lu Ten had always struck him as a dissolute youth, taking too much after his father, and lacking in the qualities a future Fire Lord ought to possess. And his death, after all, would mean that Ozai himself was now once again the heir presumptive…
“A great loss for the Fire Nation,” his father repeated contemptuously, still hidden in the near darkness. “Is that what you have to say for yourself?”
Ozai was at a loss. What else did his father want him to say? It wasn’t as if he could have done anything to prevent Lu Ten’s death, for he had never been permitted anywhere near a battlefield, much as he had begged to be allowed to fight for his nation in his younger days. His father was well aware that he and Iroh’s son had not been close, and would have seen through any false sentimentalism. “I am...very sorry, Father,” Ozai tried, in a low voice. And it was true, in a way - he was sorry to see the Fire Lord so grieved.
There was a tense moment of silence before his father spoke again. “Get out,” he said, not coldly the way Ozai was used to being dismissed, but with unveiled disgust.
“Father, I–” Ozai began.
“Out!” the Fire Lord shouted, the flames around the throne suddenly bursting into life to illuminate his haggard, tear-streaked face once more. Ozai found him far more terrifying that way.
He left the throne room without bowing, but just this once, he didn’t think his father would care.
“You know what this means?” Azula asked after their mother had left the gardens to inform the younger children of the same sad news she had just shared with them - which Azar thought was rather pointless, since Shinzo and the twins were too young to even remember cousin Lu Ten.
“Yeah,” Zuko replied in a subdued voice, sitting down in the grass by the turtle duck pond. “It sounds like Uncle Iroh’s really devastated.”
Azula rolled her eyes. “Not that, dum dum.”
“It means Dad is next in line now,” Azar supplied instead, twirling the arrow he’d been working on between his fingers. “For the throne.”
“Exactly,” Azula said, gesturing towards him with one hand as if to say yes, thank you, you get it. Not that she would ever say that with her words. “Now that Uncle has no heir, Dad’s that much closer to being Fire Lord himself someday.”
“I guess,” Zuko replied with a shrug. “Unless Uncle remarries and has another kid.”
Azula laughed, sitting down next to Zuko. “Please,” she said sarcastically, giving Zuko’s shoulder a playful shove. She was in one of her good moods today. “If Uncle was going to be bothered to remarry, he would have done it years ago.”
Azar sat in the grass as well, on the other side of Azula. “Maybe he just didn’t want to, so soon after his wife died.” He dragged the point of his arrow through the shallows of the pond, watching the ripples spread across the surface of the water. Their aunt had died before he was born, and he had never been close with their Uncle, whom they hadn’t seen in over two years at this point, but it seemed reasonable to assume that a sentimental man like Iroh would have felt that way.
“Yeah,” Zuko agreed, picking at the blades of grass next to him thoughtfully. “But maybe Azula’s right, though. If he was too sad to get married again after his wife died, he’ll probably feel the same way now that he’s lost his son.”
Azar tossed the arrow aside. “It’s different now, though,” he pointed out, shifting so he sat facing his siblings. Azula was looking at him with one eyebrow arched slightly, while Zuko’s eyes were still downcast. “Now he needs a new wife to give him a new heir. It’s the responsible thing for a crown prince to do.”
Azula laughed again, a short, dismissive chuckle. “You think Uncle will do the responsible thing?” She shook her head, then reached out and put one arm each around his and Zuko’s shoulders. “Besides,” she continued in a more conspiratorial tone, “he doesn’t need another heir. He’s got Dad, and Dad’s got us.”
Zuko glanced up, and managed a hint of a smile, but didn’t say anything. “Right,” Azar agreed on behalf of both of them. “Dad’s got us.” There was no arguing the fact that the line of succession was still secure, even with Lu Ten gone.
But privately, Azar wondered if his sister was really seeing the full picture.
Ursa had heard news before Ozai, for she had actually read Iroh’s letter - a tear-stained missive written in a shaky hand which she handed to him later, looking rather distraught herself. “That poor boy,” she said, wiping away her own tears.
“He was twenty-two,” Ozai replied, frowning down at Iroh’s letter and wondering why his brother had felt the need to pen it himself rather than delegate the task to one of his scribes who would presumably be less stricken with grief. “And he fell in the service of the Fire Nation. There is no nobler way to die.”
“Of course,” Ursa agreed, then sat down with a heavy sigh. They were in the sitting area of his apartments, where Ursa usually complained that the couches were not as comfortable as her own, but today she didn’t seem to mind. “I doubt that will be much consolation to Iroh, though.”
“It should be,” Ozai said, tossing the letter aside on the table next to the couch. Lu Ten had been a man, not a child, and Iroh ought to have known the risks of war. “Such sacrifices have been made by countless other families in the cause of sharing our nation’s greatness with the world.”
“Ozai, really,” Ursa scolded, but it was a mild, tired sort of scolding, and she reached for him with one hand at the same time. “No one doubts your patriotism, but you can’t tell me if it were one of our children who had been killed over some Earth Kingdom city you would be so unmoved by it.”
Ozai took her hand, and sat next to her. “I would be proud, Ursa.”
Ursa gave him a long, searching look. Then she sighed again, and shook her head. “Let’s pray we never find out.” Then she shifted closer to him on the couch, resting her head against his chest, and they were both content to let the conversation end there.
Several more days passed. Ozai did not request any further audience with his father yet, and the Fire Lord did not summon him. There were no more letters from Iroh, but the official reports from the officers serving under him indicated that progress on the siege of Ba Sing Se had ground to a halt since Prince Lu Ten’s death. His brother, it seemed, had lost the stomach for war.
It was disgraceful, Ozai thought. Iroh ought to be fighting harder than ever to subjugate the Earth Kingdom to the Fire Lord’s will. If he gave up now, the entire siege, including his son’s death, would have been in vain. What kind of father would dishonor his own child’s sacrifice like that, would let his only son go unavenged?
But then came the word that Iroh was doing just that. The army had suffered heavy losses in both men and morale, and was unable to continue - that was the official reason given for why they were returning home, and Iroh was taking an extended sabbatical. Yet Ozai suspected the morale problem had started from the top. The army would not fight for a prince who no longer had the strength to lead them.
Surely, Ozai thought, now his father must see how weak Iroh was, how ineffectual he would be as Fire Lord. And now that he had no surviving issue - no legitimate issue, anyway - that branch of the dynasty was all but withered and dead.
Ozai’s branch, on the other hand, was fruitful and thriving, more so than he or his father had ever wanted. Five firebending children, all potential heirs, not to mention Ursa’s latest pregnancy - which he still did not intend to mention until he absolutely had to, preferably not until after he had persuaded his father to see things his way. And had Ozai not proved himself capable these past years, with all of the work he had done diligently to aid his father in the administration of their nation?
The Fire Lord had been grieved, of course, by the death of his oldest grandchild. That was his right. But he was a shrewd man, and once enough time passed, he could not fail to see the advantages of the proposal Ozai had to make.
Two weeks after the news of Lu Ten’s death, Ozai decided enough time had indeed passed.
“Bring your elbow down a little more, Prince Azar.” As he spoke this instruction, Master Jian pressed down on Azar’s elbow with the end of his walking stick, adjusting the angle at which he held the arrow on his drawn bowstring. “Now release.”
Azar let the arrow fly, and it hit the target soundly - closer to the center than his last shot, but still in the white ring around it. “Better,” Master Jian said with a nod.
Azar frowned. “Let me try again,” he insisted, pulling another arrow from his quiver. They were shooting from fifteen yards today, farther than he had ever been allowed to attempt before, and he was determined to hit the center of the target at least once before the lesson was through.
“Once more,” Master Jian agreed with a nod, resting the end of his walking stick on the ground in front of him and leaning on it with both hands. Until a knee injury had forced him into an early retirement a few years ago, Master Jian had been the captain of the Yu Yan archers, and was therefore accustomed to excellence and approved of his royal pupil’s desire to achieve it. “But,” he warned sternly, “this time I shall not correct you.”
Azar nodded in understanding, fitting the arrow to the string and drawing his bow again. He aimed carefully, adjusting his elbow without prompting this time, shifting his stance ever so slightly. The last shot had gone too far to the right, so he had to shoot a little more to the left this time. He took a deep breath in, then released it and the arrow in unison.
Another sound hit - still not dead center, but definitely on the red circle this time. Azar smiled in satisfaction.
“Good,” Master Jian said. His praise was always curt, but Azar appreciated it.
“You’ll tell my father, right?” he asked, plucking idly at his bowstring. “That I’m shooting farther now?”
“When your accuracy is sufficient to merit the update,” Master Jian replied. Azar’s face fell. “Now for our next lesson, I would like you to prepare the following arrows…”
Azar listened intently to his master’s instructions, bowed when he was dismissed, and left the archery range. He intended to start on the arrows he’d been assigned to prepare right away, to get those done so he’d have more time to practice before tomorrow’s lesson. If the next time he saw Master Jian, he could hit the center of the target from fifteen yards on the first shot, maybe then he would have earned a positive report to his father…
But as he left the archery range, Azar was met by his mother. “We have an audience with the Fire Lord,” she informed him, taking his bow and quiver. “I’ll put these away. You hurry and get changed - best clothes.”
“What does Grandfather want to see us for?” Azar asked in surprise. He knew the Fire Lord met with his father regularly, but aside from official occasions, he hardly ever bothered with the children. Azar had last seen him at the memorial service held for Lu Ten, over a week ago, and of course he had not spoken to any of them at that time.
“Your father requested it,” his mother replied hurriedly, already turning away. “Now go on, I’ve got to get the little ones ready.”
This was to be an audience for the whole family, then, Azar thought as his mother walked away, and he headed to his room to change as he’d been told. How odd.
Ozai had initially intended only to bring the oldest of the children with him before the Fire Lord. But Shinzo had made great strides in his firebending recently, which Ozai felt bolstered his case, and ultimately he decided presenting all the children as a group was its own argument. He didn’t think his father had seen them all together since the twins had been newborn infants.
The throne room was back in its usual state, bright flames surrounding the dias and illuminating the cavernous space with the Fire Lord’s own light. The Fire Lord himself had also regained his usual composure. Ozai took all of this as a good sign.
He drilled the older children on their knowledge of Fire Nation military history first. Azula of course answered every question asked of her - and some that were asked of her brothers - without hesitation. Azar answered not only correctly, but elaborately, making unprompted comparisons between the tactics of various generals or the outcomes of certain battles. Zuko struggled with some of the more difficult questions, but came off not looking like a complete idiot, which Ozai supposed would have to do.
It was the firebending demonstration he had really pinned his hopes on. “Shinzo,” he called, and the four-year-old perked up eagerly by his mother’s side, now that it was his turn. “Let us see what you can do.”
“Go on,” Ursa added encouragingly, as she wrangled one squirming twin on her lap. The other one seemed to have fallen asleep leaning against her side, and Ozai began to regret having brought them.
But Shinzo got to his feet and stepped forward with pride. He held out both of his hands cupped in front of him, and after a moment’s concentration, produced a little orange flame cradled in his palms.
Ozai grinned with pride. Most firebenders Shinzo’s age were still only making sparks. On the dias, the Fire Lord remained impassive - but the boy was not done yet.
Carefully, Shinzo drew his hands apart, spreading them slightly wider than shoulder width. The flame remained in his right hand. He took a deep breath, then tossed the flame and caught it neatly with his opposite hand. He then repeated this exercise, tossing the flame back and forth several times, each time with greater speed.
“Such precision and control is remarkable at his age,” Ozai commented as Shinzo extinguished his flame and bowed before the throne. The Fire Lord gave a noncommittal hum and waved the boy back to his seat. Well, Ozai thought, that was only the first act.
“Azula,” Ozai called next. He did not miss the way Azula shot a glare at Shinzo as he went back to Ursa’s side and she got to her feet. That was good, he thought. The more she wanted to outshine her brothers, the more motivated she would be. “Show the Fire Lord what we have been practicing.”
If Shinzo had impressive potential as a firebender, Azula was old enough to have actual skill. The forms he had been teaching her in their one-on-one lessons were difficult for benders twice her age - and yet she demonstrated them now flawlessly.
“A true firebending prodigy,” Ozai said proudly as Azula ended her demonstration. “Just like her grandfather, for whom she is named.”
“So it would seem,” the Fire Lord replied, waving her back to her seat as he had Shinzo.
Ozai had planned to give Zuko another chance next - not with anything so ambitious as what his sister had done, for he knew that was hopelessly beyond the boy, but if Zuko stuck to the basics he was at least competent. But to his surprise, his eldest spoke up before Ozai could even call his name.
“Shouldn’t Azar have a turn, too, Father?” Zuko asked, nudging his brother with his elbow. At Zuko’s urging, Azar got to his feet and stepped forward as well.
Ozai frowned as the boy stood before the dias, for Azar had nothing to demonstrate in this area. But his seven-year-old son looked up at the Fire Lord calmly and spoke in a clear voice. “I can make my own arrows, and string and draw my own bow, and I can hit the center on the target every time from ten yards.”
Ozai knew all this was true, for the boy’s instructor had told him as much. But it did little to support the case he was building.
Indeed, the Fire Lord did not look impressed. “We are not at the archery range, are we, boy?”
“No, Grandfather,” Azar replied levelly. Then he too bowed and returned to his seat next to Zuko.
Before Ozai could get the audience back on track, the Fire Lord spoke again. “You are trying my patience, Prince Ozai,” he declared. “What do you mean by parading your children in front of me like some kind of eel hound and pony show?”
Ozai sat up a little straighter. “I had hoped you would be pleased with your grandchildren’s accomplishments.”
His father scoffed. “Just speak plainly and tell me what you want.” Then, with a sweeping gesture, he added, “Everyone else, leave us.”
Ursa bowed and collected the children, carrying one twin on each hip, and telling Shinzo to hold Zuko’s hand. As she ushered them out of the throne room, Ozai just caught her saying to Zuko in a low voice, “I’m proud of you for speaking up for Azar like that…”
“Well?” his father prompted when they were alone, steepling his hands. “What have you to say for yourself?”
“Father,” Ozai began, bowing his head respectfully. “You must realize that Iroh has failed you. By calling off the siege of Ba Sing Se, he has turned what should have been our nation’s greatest victory into our most humiliating defeat. With Lu Ten’s death, his line is extinct. And to make matters worse, he does not even return to court to support you, but goes off on some self-indulgent voyage.”
“Your point, Prince Ozai,” his father warned from behind his wall of flames.
Ozai looked up at him. His father was old, but his wits were as sharp as ever. He had never been a man to live in the past, to let sentiment blind him to what needed to be done. “I am here, Father,” Ozai said earnestly, all he had wanted to say for years. “I have always been here, and I have never let you down. My children are alive and well, and will serve our nation with dedication as I have.” Taking a deep breath, he arrived at last at his request - his plea for justice, really, for it was only right that his father do as he asked on this matter. “Name me as your heir, and let me and my children serve you properly.”
But as the flames around the dias flared higher than ever, and the Fire Lord leaped to his feet with surprising agility for a man of his age, Ozai knew at once that his request had not been well received.
Neither Azar nor Azula made a sound when the flames around the dias erupted, but Azar could see that Azula’s knuckles had gone white where they clutched at the curtain they were hidden behind.
“You dare to betray your own brother like this?” their grandfather roared, shouting down at their father from the throne. “To suggest that I should disown my first born, immediately after the loss of his own beloved son!”
“Not disown him,” their father hastily corrected, still kneeling. His back was towards the spot where they hid, but Azar could hear the frown in his voice. He knew what that sounded like. “Just alter the succession. It is what’s best for–”
“What do you know of what is best?” the Fire Lord cut him off savagely. The flames had gone back down to their normal height, but their grandfather still sounded angry. “I think Iroh has suffered enough. You, on the other hand…” The Fire Lord resumed his seat on the throne, hands gripping the low armrests. “You have been coddled by fortune for far too long.”
Azar wasn’t sure whether he shifted towards Azula, or Azula shifted towards him, but either way the coldness in their grandfather’s voice made him suppress a shiver, and he was glad for the close presence of his sister by his side. It had been her idea to stay and eavesdrop on this conversation, but he didn’t think even she could have imagined this would be how it would go.
Their father said nothing, awaiting the Fire Lord’s sentence. Azar had never seen him so humbled. At last, the Fire Lord spoke again. “You are proud of your pack of brats, and you imagine that their number is to your credit, even when I have expressly told you otherwise. Do you realize that it is mere dumb luck that not one of them has yet been taken from you?”
The Fire Lord paused, as if expecting an answer, so their father hesitantly spoke up again. “Forgive me, if I spoke carelessly…”
“Treacherously, you mean,” the Fire Lord interrupted him once more. Azar heard Azula draw in a sharp breath beside him, but he felt like he could barely breathe at all. “If you think the loss of a child is such an insignificant thing,” the Fire Lord went on, “then perhaps it is time you experienced it for yourself.”
There was another pause, and Azar held his breath, waiting for his father to say something. But this time, he remained silent, his head bowed.
“Yes,” the Fire Lord continued. “You will learn to respect your brother’s suffering, when you have tasted it for yourself - a fraction of it, I should say.” They were too far away to make out the Fire Lord’s expression clearly, but Azar could see he leaned forward on the throne. “After all, you have so many children to spare.”
Azar glanced at Azula in alarm, but her eyes remained fixed on the gap in the curtains, a grim expression on her face. Looking back, he saw their father bow once more. “Father,” he pleaded, “I am your loyal son.”
“Then you will do as you are told this time,” the Fire Lord replied, unmoved. “My patience is at an end. By dawn you must decide which of your children you can live without - and make your choice wisely. Do I make myself clear?”
No, Azar thought. No, no, that couldn’t be right, he couldn’t mean…
“Yes, Father,” his father replied.
The Fire Lord dismissed him, and then left the throne room himself shortly after, plunging it into darkness as the flames around the dias went out. As soon as the coast was clear, Azar burst out from behind the curtain, barely hearing Azula calling after him. He ran from the throne room, through the corridors of the palace, past confused servants and annoyed courtiers, not even thinking about where he was going until he got to the archery range.
It was deserted. Azar leaned against the wall, breathing heavily, then slid down to the ground and clutched his knees to his chest, hiding his face. Azula found him like that a moment later, kicking his foot without a word to alert him to her presence.
Azar looked up at his sister, blinking back tears. “Dad’s going to kill me,” he said, his voice little more than a strained whisper.
Azula scowled and set her hands on her hips, defiant. “No, he’s not.”
He should never have brought the children, Ozai thought bitterly as he slammed the door to his office following the disastrous audience in the throne room.
He should have met with the Fire Lord alone, as he always did, and informed him of Ursa’s pregnancy, and left the question of succession for another day. His father would still have been furious, of course, but with his anger directed merely at Ozai’s failure to follow his orders on limiting the size of his family, what was the worst he would have done? Forced them to get rid of it, most likely, a punishment which would have outraged Ursa, but compared to what he had ordered Ozai to do now…
Briefly, Ozai wondered if it wasn’t too late. If he went to his father at dawn tomorrow and offered the life of his seventh child in atonement for his transgression, would his father accept it?
Probably not, he concluded with a frustrated sigh, pacing his office. It would look like an attempt to weasel out of his punishment, and would make matters worse, revealing his other transgression now, and cause his father to exact even greater retribution. No, the only way he was getting out of this with any shred of hope of restoring his standing in his father’s eyes was to do exactly what the Fire Lord wanted of him.
And he did know exactly what the Fire Lord wanted him to do. Iroh was his father’s beloved first born son, just as Lu Ten had been to Iroh, the fact that none of Iroh’s subsequent children had lived long enough to be born notwithstanding. For disrespecting this sacred bond between father and firstborn, the Fire Lord’s sense of justice would be satisfied with nothing less than the same sacrifice on Ozai’s part.
Tired of pacing, Ozai sat down heavily in his chair, elbows resting on his desk and head in his hands. If it were Azar, or even one of the twins, it would be less objectionable. He supposed he should content himself with the fact that his father only wanted Zuko’s life, and not Azula’s or Shinzo’s. The situation was desperate and unpleasant, but in Ozai’s estimation it could certainly be worse.
But either way, that was not the real problem.
He had hidden it from his father, all these years, for her sake but also for his own reputation. He had let his father think him naive, incompetant, even disobedient, in certain matters, rather than let him know the truth, which was that he never had learned the lesson his father had warned him he would need to learn when he married her. For all her pious talk of submission to her husband, it was Ursa’s will that held the final sway. He had never once been able to prevail over her.
And he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Ursa would never let him do this, even if it brought the wrath of the Fire Lord down upon their entire family.
Azula had attempted to convince him that it was Zuko whose life the Fire Lord expected their father to sacrifice, because he was the first born, but Azar couldn’t bring himself to believe it as confidently as she did.
Their father had been told to choose which one of them he could live without, and Azar knew the answer to that question. He knew which of them Dad scolded the most, showed the least interest in, even looked at the least often during family gatherings. He knew Master Jian reported all his progress in archery to his father, and his other tutors gave good reports on his mastery of his other subjects, and yet Dad never said anything to him about it. Azar wasn’t stupid. He knew the one thing he was lacking, that all his siblings had, that he never would, that made them all so much more valuable in their father’s eyes.
But all he could do at the moment was retrieve his bow and quiver, take up his position fifteen yards from the target, and practice some more.
His hands were shaking, though, and his arrows kept going wide of the mark, even worse than his lesson earlier that day. He threw down his bow in frustration and marched over to the target to retrieve them, pulling them out roughly - one from the white circle around the center, three in the next red ring out from that, one more each in the next two rings, and the final one in the outermost white ring that Azar hadn’t landed an arrow in for years, at any distance. Pathetic. No wonder…
He choked back a sob, and turned to see his mother standing at the other end of the range. Dropping the arrows, he ran to her.
His mother held him, rubbing his back and muttering soothing words as he cried. But after a moment, when he had calmed down a little, she crouched down to his height and held him at arms’ length, and he could see the grave expression on her face. “I’ve already spoken to Azula,” she said, shifting her grip from his shoulders to his hands. “She was taunting Zuko with some outrageous tale…” She shook her head, then fixed him with a firm look. “I need you to tell me if what she said is true.”
Azar nodded, his breath still coming in hiccoughing gasps. His mother squeezed his hands tighter. “Did you stay in the throne room after the rest of us left?”
“Y-yes,” Azar answered. He pulled one hand from his mother’s grip to wipe at his eyes, trying to regain composure.
“What exactly did the Fire Lord tell your father to do?” his mother asked.
She didn’t want to hear from him what his father had said, Azar noted. She trusted Azula to tell the truth about that much at least. “He said…” Another hiccough cut his answer short. “Dad has to…”
“Did he tell him to kill Zuko?” his mother asked sharply, her grip on his hand tightening again. So Azula had tried that story on her as well, and on Zuko himself, by the sound of it. His older brother would probably believe it, but of course Mom knew better, knew to be suspicious.
Azar shook his head, and for a moment his mother looked relieved. But he still had to tell her the truth. “He told him to choose.”
His mother’s face paled. “To choose?” she repeated, a hint of alarm creeping into her voice.
“Which one of us…” Azar’s explanation broke off into another sob, and he threw himself back into his mother’s arms, burying his face against her shoulder. “Don’t let him choose me, Mom,” he cried miserably, repeating it like a mantra. “Don’t let him choose me...don’t let him choose me…”
His mother stood, picking him up, and though he normally would have considered himself too old to be carried like one of his baby brothers, Azar did not resist. She held him tightly as she carried him back to his room, laid him in his bed, pulled off his shoes, and tucked the covers around him. “Don’t be afraid, my love,” she said, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “Nothing like that will happen.”
It wasn’t late - it wasn’t even dinnertime yet - but Azar was exhausted. His mother stayed by his side, whispering soothing words to him again, until he drifted off to sleep. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed was her face.
His mother was a nonbender, just like him. But in that final glimpse of her before sleep claimed him, Azar saw fire in her eyes.
When Ursa found him in his office that evening, Ozai had made no progress. He had tried to think of a way out, other suitably severe and debasing penances he could offer to do, even ways he could fake the death of one of the children. But he knew none of the former would appease his father, and none of the latter would fool him for long. What was there to be done?
Ursa, of course, had plenty to say on the matter - insults to hurl at him for his folly, which he accepted as his due, and then further outraged reproaches when he admitted his own helplessness, that he could see no way out of having to comply with the Fire Lord’s orders. It was all as Ozai had expected.
But what she said next shocked him.
She reached out and grasped both of his wrists, pulling his hands to her, palms upwards. “If you have so little concern for blood on your hands,” she whispered dangerously, “don’t let it be the blood of an innocent.”
Ozai stared at her for a moment as the implication of her words sank in. She couldn’t mean...she wouldn’t dare suggest… He leaned in closer to her, replying in a low whisper, as if he thought he could keep this conversation a secret even from Agni himself. “That would be sacrilege,” he reminded her. Surely she with all her traditional ideas should know that much. “It is blasphemy even to suggest it.”
“Don’t you plead piety with me now,” Ursa replied hotly, her nails digging into the soft insides of his wrists. It was true, this was a reversal of his typical role in these arguments, but Ozai would have thought it would be to her liking. “What do you think the spirits would do to a man who killed his own son?”
“Nothing so terrible as what they’d do to the one who killed their anointed,” Ozai replied, his hands shaking with what he tried to convince himself was righteous fury at the mere suggestion of such an abominable deed.
“I can’t believe you,” Ursa muttered, dropping his hands abruptly. The look on her face as she turned away was one of unveiled disgust - not unlike how his father had looked at him, when he’d learned of Lu Ten’s death. But she could not order him to leave, and so she had to content herself with storming out of his office instead.
He called her name after her, but she ignored him.
When Azar woke again, it was much later. The sky outside his window was dark, a moonless night, and all was still and quiet. But, perhaps unsurprisingly since he had slept through dinner, Azar was starving.
He slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to the door, opening it cautiously, just a crack. He and Azula had snuck into the kitchens for snacks any number of times before, and it would be trivial to do it again now. Seeing the corridor deserted, he crept out of his room and made his way through the dimly lit halls.
It was more difficult to reach the kitchens than he had anticipated, for there seemed to be an unusual number of people about the palace halls for this hour of the night, and he had to keep ducking into doorways and behind tapestries to keep from being spotted. Everyone who passed by also seemed to be in a great hurry, however, and none took any notice of him, even when he was forced to use less than ideal hiding spots.
Azar wondered, a pit forming in his stomach, what was going on. His mother had assured him nothing would happen, but as servants and courtiers rushed by and he caught snatches of their hushed conversations, he kept hearing words like unexpected, another loss, and finally the dreaded phrase dead for mere hours.
By the time he made it to the kitchens, he wasn’t feeling very hungry anymore. Still, he took some bread and dried fruit from the pantry, wrapped it in a linen napkin, and brought it back up to his room in case his appetite returned later.
Before he made it all the way back, however, Azar noticed someone else sneaking around the halls of the family wing of the palace - his sister. Azula spotted him as well, and put a finger to her lips. Azar nodded in acknowledgement. Of course neither of them was going to rat the other out. But he did wonder what she was up to.
He followed her all the way to the door to Zuko’s room, which was ajar. From within, he could just make out their mother’s voice.
“Never forget who you are,” she was saying urgently, presumably to Zuko - which meant he was not the one who was dead. Azar wondered with vague horror if it was one of the twins, then. But he heard their mother speak again. “And never stop looking out for your brothers and sister.”
A moment later, her footsteps approached the door, as hurried as everyone else who had passed through the halls of the palace that night. Azar and Azula scrambled away, hiding behind an ornamental wooden screen against the nearest wall just as their mother emerged from Zuko’s room, drawing the hood of a dark cloak over her head.
She did not stop at any other door. Azar had a sudden impulse to run after her, but Azula grabbed him by the wrist with a vice-like grip and pulled him back. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed.
“I wasn’t gonna tell on you!” Azar protested, struggling against her. The bundle of food he’d brought from the kitchen fell to the floor and was trampled underfoot as they fought, and Azar thought the noise of their scuffle was sure to attract more attention than anything he could have done on his own.
But no one came, and by the time he freed himself from his sister’s grasp, their mother was gone.
In one final mad gesture on this night ruled by madness, Ozai went to the docks to see Ursa off, in violation of all protocol and good sense.
Ursa was clearly furious to see him there, even though she was still crying. “Are you here to make sure I really leave?” she spat at him, clutching her dark cloak tightly around herself.
“I am here to say goodbye,” Ozai replied, reaching for her. She shrank from him, taking a step backwards, towards the boat that would soon carry her away for good. She had been angry with him any number of times before, but never like this. Never had she fled from his mere touch as if it were something hateful. And after tonight, he would never have the chance to touch her again.
In the end, for all their machinations, he was to know the pain of a great loss of his own after all. He wondered if it truly would have been worse, to have carried out his father’s orders and made Ursa hate him, but at least to have kept her here, with him. Or perhaps it would have been just as painful, in a different way, and there had never been any way for him to escape.
“Banished traitors have no right to goodbyes,” Ursa taunted him.
Ozai took a step closer to her, and she shrank back again, though her chin was still lifted defiantly. “The Fire Lord,” he said pointedly, “can make exceptions.”
“I see,” Ursa replied, fresh tears falling from her eyes. She let them fall. “For this, you can make an exception.”
“For this, yes,” Ozai said, lunging forward again and seizing her hand before she could back away from his reach. “But not in all things.” Ursa fought against his grasp, but he held on tight, gripping her hand in both of his. Just this once, she was not going to win. “There is, after all, a higher law even than the word of the Fire Lord.”
Ursa stilled, perhaps in shock, but Ozai took advantage of the moment to press a kiss to her hand - not the back of it, like some antiquated gesture, prim and proper, but the palm, warm and soft. It was a true lover’s kiss, the last either of them would ever know.
Ursa recovered her strength, pulled her hand away, and slapped him.
It was a crime to strike the Fire Lord. Ozai knew, his jaw tightening as he met her burning gaze, that Ursa knew this as well as he did. There was no need for him to point it out to her. Besides, as she would likely throw back in his face if he did, what was he going to do now? Banish her?
“Your ship has been well provisioned,” he said instead, with a calm that amazed even himself. “And you will find an adequate sum in your purse, for wherever you choose to go, to set yourself up comfortably and...care for the child.” This last he said in a lower voice, for still none but the two of them knew she was pregnant, and Ozai had resolved to keep it that way. “Which I know,” he added, resisting the urge to take her hand again, “I can trust you to do well.”
“Don’t pretend,” Ursa bit back, wrapping her arms protectively around her middle, “that you care at all about this child.”
Ozai stood a little straighter. “Of course I do,” he replied, voice rising in spite of his own desire for secrecy. “If I did not care about the child, or you…”
“I would be facing the traitor’s death I deserve,” Ursa finished for him, dark irony coloring her voice.
“Yes, you would,” Ozai agreed, staring her down. Another tear fell, and as before she made no move to wipe it away. Neither did he, though he longed to - he would not allow himself to reach for her again. But, some small part of him thought quietly, if she reached out for him instead…
She did not. “And the rest of our children?” she asked, smoothing her hands over the folds of her cloak. “How will you care for them?”
“To the best of my ability,” Ozai replied, bristling. He knew he had never been an ideal father in her eyes, but she certainly knew it had not been for lack of effort on his part. “As I always have.”
Ursa let out a sigh that sent a shiver down his spine. “Oh, my love,” she said softly, shaking her head. How dare she use that tone of voice, Ozai thought, so tender and sincere, when her tear-filled eyes were still burning with anger and hate. “You will have to do much better than that.”
Then she turned and swept away from him, up the gangplank of the waiting ship, the hem of her cloak fanning out behind her and her head held high, as proud and regal as any Fire Lady, though she would never be acknowledged with that title.
Ozai watched the ship pull away from the dock and slip away into the harbor, still dark before the dawn. When it was out of sight, he reached up and rubbed the spot on his cheek where she had struck him.
Then he turned his back on her, and began the long walk back to the palace.
Thus concludes this story, though not this AU. I have plans - lots of plans - about what happens with all of those kids after this, but I don't know if I'll actually be writing them any time soon. This felt like a natural stopping place for now.
If any of the original dialogue or scenes in this chapter looked familiar, that's because I decided not to reinvent the wheel and cribbed from other fics I've written that covered similar ground, most notably The Tragic End of Fire Lord Azulon, which, while definitely not part of this AU, is probably of interest to any readers of it.