Ursa had always been an actress.
Before Ozai had demanded her hand in marriage, before she had borne two children to the younger Fire Prince, before she had been torn from her life and her love ( Ikem, Ikem, Ikem ) to be made a quiet, compliant lady of the court, she had been an actress. And now, she still was, putting up the mask of the Fire Princess, all for the safety of herself and her children.
How fitting, then, that it was on a dark and stormy night that she would finally have her revenge.
She already had one child with her- Azula was there, clinging to her hand and pretending the storms outside didn’t scare her at all, pretending she didn’t tremble and hold on tighter with every clap of thunder and flash of unseen lightning. Now, she needed to find Zuko. Find Zuko, and she could leave. Find Zuko, and they would all be free, together, away from Ozai, never to return.
But fate would not let her away so easily.
The lightning struck before either of them realized it. Ozai, in all his glory, all his hatred and rage and fire, fire, fire, standing atop the wall with a furious expression and a fistful of cracking energy. Ever staring, ever watchful.
Ursa’s firebending was too weak to combat him, and she knew if she went back, everything would have been for naught. She would be kept from her children, never allowed another chance at escape.
Right now, there was only one option. The best-case scenario now, even if not the scenario Ursa ever would have wanted.
She took Azula, and as she cursed the gods for making her choose, for forcing her hand, Ursa ran, and she left Zuko behind.
Zuko knew that he was being lied to.
As much as Azula had liked to tell him otherwise, he wasn’t stupid. Assassins never would have been able to break into the Fire Palace, let alone kidnap not Lady Ursa, but Princess Azula as well. No one would have made it past Father, even if they managed to subdue the dozens of guards around every corner.
And if Mother hadn’t been taken away, she had left on her own. With Azula, and without Zuko.
Why… why would Mother leave him alone? Did Mother not love him? Did she love Azula and not Zuko? Azula always said the opposite. She told Zuko that Mother loved him but not her, and that Father loved her but not him.
Azula always lies.
Zuko had learned years ago to never believe Azula without proof. He always fell for it at first, but then he remembered himself, and she usually dropped it once she realized he was skeptical. Azula lied about everything else, so she must have lied about that too. Father and Mother loved both of them, and Azula was just trying to upset her older brother like she always did.
Mother left. With Azula. That was proof enough that there had been some truth in his thoughts.
Mother loved Azula, and not Zuko. She wouldn’t have left him if she loved him. Azula had lied, about who really loved who. But Zuko had known that, hadn’t he? He’d known Azula was the favorite. There was no way she wouldn’t be. Perfect temperament towards everything and everyone, never snapping, prodigious firebending, and what did Zuko have? Swords he was forbidden from using, the weakest flame in the entire family, and an unfortunate habit of asking the wrong questions.
It was clear. Zuko hadn’t earned Mother’s love, and maybe he never had.
Ozai was furious.
Ursa had the gall to not only run away from a life as a princess, but to take Ozai’s daughter with her? And to top it all off, she had taken Ozai’s prodigy and left him with a pathetic disappointment. There was no use for someone so weak, especially amongst royals. But now, Ozai had no other options. The disappointment would have to do, unless he either found Azula again or bore a new heir with another wife.
His own father was understanding. Ozai’s mother, Fire Lady Ilah, had never done such a thing, but then, she had been completely loyal to the Fire Nation. Obviously, Ursa was disloyal, and therefore a traitor.
The question now wasn’t whether he would have his soldiers go after Ursa. Father had already told him he would be allowed to handle his wife’s transgressions as he saw fit. He would retrieve Azula and punish Ursa as she deserved. No, the question was how to handle Iroh and Lu Ten.
Ozai planned to be the next Fire Lord. To do that, he needed the two people in his way to be out of his way. Perhaps an Agni Kai would be the best way to deal with Iroh, but Ozai’s elder brother was both an excellent firebender and too polite for his own good. Father would never allow an Agni Kai when he knew his firstborn had done no wrong.
( He had done Ozai wrong by existing, by being born first, not that Father would accept that line of reasoning. )
No, if Ozai wanted Iroh and Lu Ten gone, he needed to be more careful in his methods. With Ursa gone he had no one with poisoning expertise, but if a tragic accident were to occur… well, it wouldn’t be too hard to pay a few dirt-licking soldiers to fight to kill.
However, it seemed his father had other plans.
“Prince Ozai, the Fire Lord wishes to see you in his throne room,” bowed a servant. Ozai ignored her presence entirely, walking right past her to head to the throne room. She said no more, to his relief. Low-class scum should feel lucky they were even allowed as servants to those blessed by Agni himself.
Ozai stalked down the hall, keeping his arms tucked behind him to avoid any stray sparks. Nothing had been going his way as of late, but he was sure that would change ( even if he had to force it to ).
Fire Lord Azulon sat atop his throne, staring down at his son with a look of fiery chill. “Ozai.”
“Father.” The prince knelt at his father’s feet, head lowered in rightful deference.
“Your wife and younger daughter have both been taken away by assassins. Am I correct?”
“Yes, Father. Ursa and Azula were regretfully taken away, though I am lucky Zuko was spared.”
Azulon knew this was a lie. He saw how Ozai’s fingers twitched, heard his son grit his teeth saying that he was lucky Zuko had not been taken. Ozai’s favoritism towards his daughter was not subtle, and it was common knowledge that Ursa had never loved her husband. Though, why she would take Ozai’s favored rather than her own, Azulon wondered.
He regarded his son with slightly less intensity. “It is indeed unfortunate. To protect Prince Zuko, arrangements must be made. Prince Lu Ten will be called back from the frontlines to teach the young prince firebending. Perhaps he will be able to do what the sages could not.”
Ozai stiffened. It was almost imperceptible, but Azulon saw. Azulon always saw. His only granddaughter had seemingly been developing that particular skill as well, before Ursa had stolen her away.
Nevertheless, Azulon’s son nodded obediently. “Of course, Father. I am sure Zuko’s bending will improve with good influence.”
Azulon nodded, and sent him away.
And as he sat atop his gilded throne, he thought.
Ozai hated his son; that much was clear. But was it worth the trouble to keep the extra heir around? He had Iroh, Lu Ten, and Ozai. Then again, war was a fickle thing, and with Iroh staying on the frontlines there was no telling what might happen.
Azulon had nothing against the boy, himself. It was merely a matter of if he was necessary. Princess Azula would have been better, but he could make do. Training would be needed, as would strict discipline. He would allow Ozai to determine those. Azulon had no doubts Ozai would push his son as far as he could go, and then farther. If the boy was not strong enough, then so be it. Weakness was intolerable, and anything intolerable was unnecessary.
He had no problems with Ozai’s twisting of the truth, either. Azulon was always able to discern who was lying, and at the moment it was a necessary lie to protect the royal family’s reputation.
If word got out that the prince’s wife had run away with his daughter, it would raise questions Azulon did not care to answer. All it would take would be a particularly talkative servant, and rumors would spread like wildfire. The servant would, of course, be punished, but Azulon was reminded of one of his elder son’s beloved proverbs: one cannot gather the scattered thistledown once the wind has blown it all away. Once the rumor was out, there was no reigning it back in. Hence, the necessary lie.
Unquestionably, he could admit this was an intriguing set of circumstances. Perhaps Lu Ten would teach the boy well; perhaps he would not. Perhaps Ozai would continue to lie and attempt a betrayal; perhaps he would not. Perhaps a servant would leak a rumor and allow the thistledown to fly free; perhaps they would not. Possibilities were unnecessary when there were so many to consider.
For now, Azulon would wait, and allow the scene to play out on its own.