A. N. : Dates mentioned here are mostly based on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, as well as the traditional Japanese time system. Figuring dates in AtlA is awfully hard and I don't recommend it. But yeah, the koala-sheep is equivalent to the month of the goat, typically the 6th one, taking place roughly from June to July, while the hour of the ostrich-horse would be the hour of the horse, aka noon. I am issuing a warning for this chapter, meaning that I will offer a short synthesis of it before next chapter, so that people who didn't feel up to reading this one will still be able to follow. If you are sensitive to themes of suicidal ideation and irreality, I would recommend you skip this chapter. For the others, hope you'll enjoy the suffering !
Dawn breaks in front of Azula's eyes.
She doesn't see it, not really, only knows Agni's ship has once again crossed Tui's sea because she feels her chi grow stronger – she presses a palm against her throat, trying to ease the soreness caused by the knot there, only managing to make herself choke when her muscles twitch uncontrollably.
There's a tingle in her fingers, the bite of spider-ants, a painful numbness caused by her overuse of lightning.
Azula presses her arms against her stomach, exhales. She's been sitting on the rudimentary bed, unsleeping, in the same position, ever since the balloon took off. Felt the sun set, then rise again just now.
They will reach the Caldera soon.
She feels nothing at the thought.
It's quite odd, in a way, but she supposes she had the time to accept – to accept –
Her whole body shudders with the next remnant of lightning.
Acceptance is the wrong word. She simply had no choice but to force her emotions under her control, drowning them in the waters of duty. Right now, this is the only way she can best Zuko once more.
Zuko – she grits her teeth –
Zuko surpassed her. Beat her at her own game, redirected her lightning and didn't even give her the honor of a death in combat, and all the while she heard in her mind the cries of the child Father will replace her with, the child who will be heir in her stead, who will be better simply by virtue of being born after she failed.
Father will replace her. He will throw her away, will take a new wife and make a new heir that he will make sure won't be the same failure as the two firsts, won't bear the same accursed blood and weakness as Her, because that has to be the only explanation, that woman's lineage tainting the greatness of the Fire Lords, twisting all that Father taught Azula, until all that's left is failure.
Until all Azula has left to save her honor is to walk home and take what Father will give her, embrace the flames and say thank you, accept her punishment like a true Princess of the Fire Nation, like a true daughter of Ozai, nothing like that treacherous woman, nothing like that coward Zuko, who couldn't even kill her when it mattered !
She will not be Zuko. Won't let that happen she is better –
Azula walks down the balloon, orders a servant to warn the Fire Lord of her arrival, very pointedly ignores the shadow of failure standing in the corner of her eye, and enters her rooms to make herself presentable for her very last audience.
There is no servant waiting for her, no bath, no camellia oil, no nail polish or make up, only Her silhouette in the mirror, murmuring things Azula refuses to hear, and a note on the desk, kept in place with a paperweight Azula has never seen here before.
Her arms twitch, and she presses them against her stomach once more.
She forces herself to breathe.
Walks to the desk. The note bears the royal insignia, the seal of the Fire Lords, and Father's signature. The paperweight –
The paperweight is a ceremonial knife.
In the mirror, Mother tries to reassure her with the same words She used to tell Zuko all the time back then. Azula doesn't listen. Mother never saw her worth, and so her love is meaningless.
All that matters is – Fire Lord Ozai, ruler of the Fire Islands, ruler of the Fire Empire, Great Priest of Agni, son of Fire Lord Azulon blessed be his name, grandson of Fire Lord Sozin blessed be his name,
Hereby decrees that Crown Princess Azula of the Fire Nation, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai, daughter of Ursa, be stripped of her titles and possessions, safe for the clothes she wears on her person,
That her name be struck from the Nation's record and her deeds passed on to her honored father's name,
That she be exiled from the Caldera and struck down immediately should she ever cross the Mouth of the Dragon,
That the habitual rules of exile be applied to her in all Fire Nation territories and among Fire Nation people, such that any who would harm her would suffer no consequence under the Law,
This decree takes hold on the day of signature, on the seventh year of the reign of Fire Lord Ozai, the sixth day of the koala-sheep, at the hour of the ostrich-horse.
Someone is screaming. Not the – not the child, the replacement heir that's been haunting Azula's thoughts ever since she first heard its cries on the battlefield in Tenuht.
Someone has been screaming the whole time she was reading her sentence, the noise only growing in intensity with time, from a vague whimper to a throat-wrenching howl, and it's hurting her head, she needs to find the culprit and make them shut their mouth, definitively, for daring to disturb her while she accepts the punishment Father gave – the punishment she wasn't even worth receiving in person – it's not fair – it's just exile, she can – Zuko had the honor of an Agni Kai – she can get a new name, a new – Zuko had a parting gift – a fool's errand – something to fuel his inner fire – she should be glad Father didn't burn – he discarded – her, didn't – kill her, she wishes he – hadn't left her that knife to cut her – throat and – hair with – die with honor – scissors are so much more practical –
It occurs to Azula that maybe she is the one screaming.
It matters not. She is – nothing. A non-existence. No one will come if a ghost shouts at nothing. Father certainly won't, he didn't even care enough to tell her in person, didn't even care enough to be angry at her and hurt her like he did Zuko.
She should be thankful. Instead she feels empty. She wasn't even worth the effort.
She is nothing.
It's not true, says Mother, you are still Azula, still my daughter, and Azula wants to laugh at that. Her daughter !? What a joke ! It was always Zuko Zuko Zuko, sweet and precious Zuko, and nothing Azula did mattered and now She is gone ! Because of Zuko ! For Zuko ! Azula – Mother tries, Azula doesn't stop – it was always Zuko Mother looked at, always him She protected – no one else would've, Azula – and She abandoned them, abandoned Azula, all for the sake of this useless, good for nothing – I had to Azula, I couldn't let – and if it had been her that Grandfather had wanted dead, Mother would've left her to die ! Good riddance ! Protect useless Zuzu and get rid of the monster !
Azula laughs, throat hurting, one hand grabbing the knife on the desk, shaking and twitching, grip weak from the numbness and the lightning and the spider-ants coursing through her veins.
It's not true, Mother says again, Azula I loved you, I still love you, I never would've let anyone hurt you Azula, Azula, Azula unsheathes the ceremonial knife, looks at the dark blade – Azula, Azula – brandishes the knife, grabs the copy of the decree and throws it in anger at – Mother's face, so kind and soft, her eyes – Azula's eyes – close to tears, her arms extending as if to hug – Azula's throat is raw from the screaming but she can't stop she wants Her to shut up, needs her to go – away, you left me once before already, I don't need you anymore – than Father needs her even though she was perfect, even though she always did as he – asks Azula to point the knife elsewhere, it's dangerous, she could accidentally – hurt herself, even though there's nothing to hurt, only the ghost of what once was to kill – Mother, oh how she'd want that, make her pay for leaving Azula with nothing – left to do but raise the knife and cut –
Azula's hair falls.
Mother's face in the mirror looks nothing like Mother anymore, looks like a howling ghost or a madwoman, looks like nothing Azula knows, and so she throws the knife at it, shattering the blade and the glass and leaving her all alone in the room, with nothing but herself.
That is to say, nothing at all.