Greetings. To anyone who read my earlier story: thanks for sticking with me and giving this one a chance. It will be very different from the other one, but hopefully you won't be disappointed. For everyone who didn't read "In the Madhouse": it's probably not necessary that you read it. However, it might be helpful if you did. This is a sequel, after all.
Also, here's a note for any history buffs out there. The plot of this story required that I do some thinking about the Fire Nation, its history, people, politics, etc. I realize that it would have been best if I took my inspiration from the cultures of East Asia. I don't know much about that part of the world, though, and I don't have time to do a lot of research. Since I'm a classicist by trade, I looked to the one imperial culture that I do know well: ancient Rome. Any resemblances to people and events of the late Republic/early principate are not strictly coincidental.
Chapter 1 – A Troubling Start
For the first time in her life, the sun hurt her.
Azula tried to open her eyes again, and once again shut them tight against the pain. Why did the sun hurt her eyes? And why was she so surprised? What was wrong with this…this…
The question slipped away, along with conscious thought. When her faltering brain finally produced an answer, Azula didn't realize there had been a lapse. The sun hurt her eyes because she hadn't seen it in…What had Innocent said? Eight months?
Innocent. No, Shin. Memory struck with concussive force. Azula gasped, flailed in panic. Where was she? Before she could sort it out, Azula had another, more disturbing revelation. The pain surprised her because…because she had never before woken to the blazing, mid-morning sun. She had missed the dawn.
Pain be damned. She opened her eyes, lifted her arm despite protesting muscles, and willed the fire.
She didn't lower her arm or head: they fell. A deep and insistent languor spread over her entire body, an overpowering compulsion to sleep and heal. That was unacceptable in the current crisis, so Azula gathered her forces, and rolled herself over all at once.
The momentous effort pulled a war cry from somewhere down deep, wherever desperate heaves came from. The maneuver was worth it though, because it finally shook off the last of the grogginess.
Azula did a brief self-survey and concluded that she didn't feel good. In fact, she felt really, really bad. She felt terrible. She felt as if she had just fought her way out of a fortress full of homicidal maniacs with nothing but her naked body and a crowbar. But it could be worse. By some Agni-sent miracle, she didn't seem to have any broken bones.
As she half-crawled, half-slithered towards a nearby stream, Azula revised her estimate. She thought she might have some cracked ribs on her left side, and maybe two of her toes were broken.
The "stream" was really a muddy little trickle. Drainage from the road. That's right: the road was behind her, up an incline. Had she stumbled down here on purpose, or had she fallen? The memory of her midnight flight was jumbled and nightmarish. It seemed like she ran for hours, but in truth she probably hadn't made it far. Exhaustion and injuries and delayed horror had slowed her, eventually dragging her down completely.
Azula paused before drinking and took a deep breath: if she passed out now, she would drown face-down in an inch of sludge. Then she lowered her head and slurped greedily at the cloudy liquid. Disgusting, she thought, even as she gulped more and more. As soon as she got to civilization, she would buy-
Oh my god, where had it gone? Azula scrabbled back over the slick, rain-soaked ground, looking for the purse Shin had given her. What if she had lost it somewhere on the road? No. Here it was, right where she woke up.
Azula cradled all her worldly wealth to her chest and considered her situation. The trees told her that she was in the Earth Kingdom: the steaming jungles of the Fire Nation never had such gentle, temperate vegetation. The colonies, then, probably somewhere towards the north. At least she wouldn't have to hijack a ship, or play stowaway. Unlike the Fire Islands, there was plenty of space in the Earth Kingdom to disappear into.
That was small consolation, and so was her pouch of small change. She was stranded only-the-spirits-knew where, on a continent full of hostile peoples. Her brother, the so-called Firelord, would turn the full might of the military machine against her. If pursuers weren't already on her trail, they would be soon – perhaps with orders to kill. But this desperate fugitive had no family, no friends, no firebending, and very little money. She didn't even have a plan. All she had were untreated injuries and a history of mental problems.
You're not in your cell. That's all that matters. She should get up and go, but Azula basked in the sunshine instead. She couldn't help it. After a quick, reflexive look around, to make sure nobody was watching, she lay back down. Then she rubbed herself wantonly all over the rough, warm earth, as if it could erase the memory of smooth, cold metal. She wallowed and reveled in the muck like some grubby dirtbender. She even buried her face in it, so she could smell the living things and kiss the free soil.
Her small joy and pathetic comfort were short-lived. When she turned onto her back, she lifted her eyes to the beautiful blue sky…and froze. A tiny, soundless sigh escaped her lips.
There, high above the trees, slipping silently and ominously through the cheerful summer breezes, was an imperial war balloon.
Zuko was acting in a way unbecoming the Firelord. His father would have told him that true men didn't run away from unpleasant tasks, and that kings ran to meet them. Azula wouldn't have said a thing – just shamed him with her own perfect composure. Mai would have pointed out that he was betraying too much emotion.
They would all be right, but at the moment Zuko didn't care. His balloon had touched down into a frenzied chaos that still hadn't ended. His men were currently helping the other soldiers with their bloody task. Apparently some of the mental patients refused – violently and tenaciously – to submit to armed authorities: they had to be cleared out hall-by-hall, room-by-room.
Now the Firelord was sitting at a desk and fidgeting, playing with a writing brush so he wouldn't have to look anyone in the face. A considerate officer had told Zuko, gently and quietly, that they would look for the princess – meaning, of course, that they would search for her remains. The man's tact was wasted. They wouldn't find her, Zuko had no doubts. She was long gone and laughing at him.
They were still bothering him with their reports. He let the talk wash over him: Zuko didn't need to hear the sordid details. Even the surprising presence of hardened criminals was a minor detail, a mystery not worth solving. To him, the source and means of their mass rampage seemed clear enough.
Death. Pain. Destruction. Waste. And all because of her. That's all he needed to know.
Her. The Princess. The daughter of Ozai. His sister, Azula. Zuko let himself feel the full force of his guilt and shame: his own stupid idealism had allowed her to do this. Instead of locking her safely away in some dungeon, where she belonged, he had foolishly hoped that she could see the error of her ways and repent. Now the lives she wrecked were on his conscience too.
She had tried to kill him and his friends, had imprisoned his girlfriend, had plotted genocide with a tyrant, and aspired to be a tyrant in her turn. For all that, Zuko was surprised at what he found here.
He remembered her girly aversion to gore and grime and mess, which she always tried to hide. He thought of her fierce, straight-backed pride and determination, and how he still envied her cool precision. At her peak, Azula had seemed like a living vessel of potential energy, of raw power focused and channeled by intellect, always controlled and waiting, mastered and calculating.
Yes. Despite everything, Zuko was shocked. He was shocked at this gleeful and senseless butchery, where there was no prize or advantage to be had.
Azula always lies, he reminded himself. Everything about her was always a lie. The professionalism and cold competence were just a mask for her sickness. He had no reason to envy a freak, no matter how skilled and dangerous.
From her very earliest days, Azula had proved how unnatural she was. She had tormented her only sibling, and held him back in any way she could. She had scorned her own mother, and her relationship with their father was just bizarre. If she seemed invulnerable, it wasn't anything to admire. She simply lacked human feeling.
Zuko did feel, and that's why he had made so many mistakes about her. It wasn't all softness and stupidity. It was perfectly right for a good person to look for the best in his own family.
Well, there would be no more mistakes. It had taken him too long to overcome his own blindness. His only excuse was that habit made anything seem normal. After years of rubbing shoulders with a lunatic at the breakfast table, he supposed he had just gotten used to her.
A nearby soldier finally said something that caught his attention. Zuko forgot about his sister for a whole second and jerked his head up. "Did you say-"
Before he could finish, the man himself walked into the room. Zuko had heard correctly: it was none other than the great admiral, head of the ancient house of the Aomori, master of the East Marches, the leader and the best of those brilliant eastern warriors.
Zuko almost stood up and bowed. In his childhood it would have been expected. This noble lord could command respect even from a royal prince. He caught himself, but not before he rose out of his chair just enough to be noticed. That should have annoyed him. And it should have annoyed him when one of his subjects sat down in the Firelord's presence without asking.
Zuko didn't even notice. He was too fascinated . The man across from him looked to be in his mid- to late-thirties, dark-haired like most Fire Nationals, but golden-hued and green-eyed. The East Marches were those islands closest to the Earth Kingdom. The locals had intermarried with Earth peoples for centuries, and looked it. Since Sozin's war had sparked a frenzy of bigotry and xenophobia, most people thought it was disgraceful to have Earth blood. But if the Easterlings cared about what others said, they never showed it. And nobody ever dared ask them to their faces.
Before the days of great iron battle cruisers, little wooden ships had hugged the coastlines and rarely ventured out into the open sea. That meant that invading warlords and marauding pirates had naturally landed on the eastern islands, and tried to force their way through to the heart of the Fire Nation. But the sons of those forbidding shores had single-handedly thrown off the enemy again and again.
The East Marches were the home of legends and heroes, and here was its greatest child. He was the finest military mind of his generation, and a rival to Iroh himself. His exploits were the stuff of epic. Zuko had been taught to look up to him: he was a paragon of Fire Nation manhood, a model for everything a boy should want to be.
"Do you like what you see?"
Zuko jumped. Shit. I was staring. "I..uh-"
The admiral flashed his justly famous smile. It transformed his face, which went from outrageously handsome to irresistibly attractive. "I believe it's customary to exchange greetings."
"Of course. I'm sorry." Shit. Should I be apologizing? Zuko rose and extended his hand. Too late, he remembered the admiral's deformity. Feeling a little confused and embarrassed, he stuck out his other hand – only to realize that he was still holding the writing brush. Flushing up to the roots of his hair, Zuko put it down and tried again.
To his surprise and pleasure, the older man didn't shake his hand, but grasped his forearm. It was a gesture of fellowship and respect from one warrior to another. His next words made Zuko flush again, this time for a different reason.
"It's an honor to finally meet you. It's not every day that I speak with someone more famous than myself."
"More famous? Hardly, and certainly not better. I'm honored to meet you. We did meet before, but-"
"But you still had your boyhood knot. I think I remember. You do yourself an injustice, though. Your story has spread throughout the world: the boy-king who defied a tyrant and brought peace to millions. It's impressive and inspiring."
That's right. Zuko was the Firelord, and he had ushered in a new era. The admiral had made his reputation in an unjust war. Now his heroics were obsolete. There was no reason for Zuko to be awed or intimidated.
That's what he told himself anyway. But, as he scrambled for something to say, Zuko realized that there was a difference between knowing it and believing it.
Tell me about the Battle for Strongwind Bay.
So, you challenged Firelord Azulon to an Agni Kai?
Is it true that you beat a giant in a boxing match? naked? after drinking six flagons of wine?
How did you steal Lord Saito's spy list? I heard that you disguised yourself as a woman and seduced him.
Have you really bedded three sets of triplets?
"I'm sure you're wondering why I'm taking up your time. I wouldn't dream of it if I didn't think I could serve you." The admiral narrowed his gaze, and Zuko suddenly felt uncomfortable. "You're sister was here, wasn't she?"
"The guards sent out several messenger hawks, asking for help. We were close by and intercepted one of them. My provincial command just ended, you know, and I'm traveling home. I rush here to the rescue…and who do I find but the Firelord? I think there are only two people who could bring you out to this backwater hole, and everyone knows that Ozai is rotting in the Tower.
"This leaves you with a problem. We both know that Azula wouldn't role over and die so easily. She's out there somewhere, but how are you going to find her? An army would be too slow, and you could hardly march one into the Earth Kingdom even if you wanted to."
"You're right. I've already thought of that."
"You need a small, fast, inconspicuous group. But you can't do it yourself, can you?"
"No. They started sending me messages from the capital almost as soon as I left. I have to get back tonight."
"I don't want to boast, but my men have an excellent reputation."
"Of course. They're the best. Everyone knows that."
"I myself am a naval commander, but I'm considered something of a specialist in amphibious assaults. I've had plenty of experience on land."
"And my family is well-connected in both the colonies and the Earth Kingdom. We have properties here, and extensive business interests. If I am recognized, no one would question my presence in the area. You want to keep this secret, don't you?"
"Well, then. I'm the man for the job. I thought you might ask me anyway, so I decided to save you the trouble and present myself."
"It did occur to me," Zuko lied, "but are you sure you want to? I know you're overdue for a furlough, and you've earned the right to decline."
"I consider it my duty, and a pleasure as well. The Princess and I worked together on several occasions, but I wouldn't count her as a friend."
"I should think not."
Again came the searching look. "You've heard the story, then?"
"I know what she did to you. She's always hurting people. I wouldn't expect anybody to like her." Zuko was starting to feel oppressed again. Oh Azula… "I mean, just look at what she did here."
"It is off-putting, isn't it? Will I have the honor of bringing the offender to justice?"
"It's yours, since you want it. You've relieved my mind, and I thank you."
"No, thank you."
The admiral stood up and bowed to him. The Firelord felt an undignified little thrill at the gesture and its meaning.
"By the way, my uncle and I are eating before we leave. The last I saw, he was talking to some guards, but I'm sure he wouldn't want to miss you. Will you dine with us?"
"It would be my pleasure." He hesitated. "Before I go, I do need to know two things. Is it true that the Princess can't firebend?"
"Good. That will make my job easier. And when I do find her…?"
Zuko realized what he was getting at. "I-"
The words stuck in his throat, but then Zuko thought of her latest victims. The corpses, the traumatized soldiers, the huddled group of scared and confused mental patients, looking at him with haunted eyes. One girl hadn't looked at anybody. She had simply hidden her face and rocked – on and on and on – afraid to risk even the slightest human contact. All that misery, just so Azula could send him a message.
It would never stop. Azula was no good: no good for anybody, no good even for herself. She was also a danger to the throne, and thus to the entire nation. He was the Firelord now, and it was his job to protect his people – no matter what the personal cost, no matter how hard or ruthless the decision.
When he spoke, Zuko felt a touch of pride. His voice didn't shake at all.
"Of course I prefer that you bring her in alive. But if you can't… If you can't, then I understand."
The admiral strode into his tent, the humble dwelling that he used when traveling. It was currently set up near the mysterious fortress which had housed the Princess Azula.
He spread out his arms, and a servant promptly took his cloak. Another servant placed a jeweled goblet in his hand. He drained the contents in one gulp, then held it out for more wine. Only then did he speak.
"I need to change. I'll be eating with the Firelord."
Someone threw himself down to the marble floor and crouched on all fours. The admiral set his booted foot on the boy's back, so his other page could unlace it.
"Well, Old Man, what did you learn? What the hell is this place?"
The "old man" was leaning against a tastefully fluted column. Lao had been with his lordship since that noble scion's birth, and had served him in whatever role he required: nurse, bodyguard, mentor, trusted adviser, best friend, and second-in-command.
"It's a hospital-" the admiral choked on his drink "-for the mentally unbalanced."
"I've never seen a hospital with such impressive fortifications. Or so many locked cells." He raised his arms, allowing the attendants to lift off his corselet.
"It gets better. This project was approved and funded by none other than General Huang."
Now a servant was undoing his lordship's neck cloth. "Huang the humanitarian? Hardly. What exactly were they really doing at this so-called hospital?"
"That I don't know. It's all very secretive, and the people who work here don't want to talk."
The admiral was now completely stripped. His man was standing by with a bucket, but he didn't immediately take it. As he always did at this point, he stood for a moment, proud and challenging in his exposed body. Even naked he completely dominated his surroundings. The people watching were his people, his entourage. They were no more noticeable in his presence than the tiny insects flitting around a bright light. And like bugs to a light, or compass needles to the north star, these lesser humans were drawn to him, finding in him a new center for their universe.
His self-satisfied exhibition was completely unconscious. If he ever thought about it, he would have said that he hated to deprive others of a good view.
His lordship finally took the bucket and dumped the icy water over his head. As he toweled off, he continued, "I suppose they don't want to talk about their collection of criminal lunatics, either. "
"They especially don't want to talk about that."
He tossed the towel aside, and his devoted lackeys rushed to dress their master for dinner. "The Firelord seems to think that his sister is responsible for this mess. You remember the Princess."
"It would be hard to forget."
"You saw what it was like in there: it's worse than the sack of Hangzhou. Does that seem like Azula's style to you?"
"Not at all."
"Precisely. Mysteries on mysteries."
"Speaking of the Princess, how did your audience with the Firelord go?"
"Wonderfully. Our glorious young leader is terribly insecure. I dropped a few compliments, and he was falling all over himself to agree with me."
"He's lost some of his swagger, I'm sure. Things aren't going well for him, by all accounts. So we're going after the Princess? Alone?"
An anxious young man interrupted. "Sir, your valet has noticed a spot on your boots and begs your leave to clean them. I know it will delay you, but he says that he'll kill himself if you shame him by seeing the Firelord in dirty boots."
The admiral looked amused. "I would never interfere with Jeong's art. I'll wait." He dropped himself onto a nearby couch and sprawled over the gold-gilt silk.
At that moment, an exquisite young woman emerged from a different room, resplendent in a shimmering gown shot with pearls. It was the admiral's latest gift to her. She knelt elegantly to his side and rested her head on his knee. "May I pleasure My Lord?"
He reached out absently and stroked her sleek hair. "Later. I'm in a hurry right now. I'm going to dine with the Firelord."
She pouted. "You should be Firelord."
He looked at her more closely. "How much am I paying you?"
She told him.
"That's not enough. I'll double it."
"He must really hate her."
The admiral glanced at his troubled lieutenant and raised his eyebrows.
"Zuko," Lao clarified. "He must really hate his sister."
The great commander smiled. "What? You wouldn't send me to fetch your sister?"
"I wouldn't send you after anyone's sister. Or their wife, daughter, mother, cousin, niece, granny, or great aunt."
"Granny and great aunt? You wound me. I would never take advantage of someone old and ugly."
"Seriously, though. Why is he doing this? Does he expect you to kill her?"
"I don't know. Probably. His signals were a little confused."
"And he trusts you? Doesn't he realize-"
"Actually, I don't believe he does."
Lao's lip curled contemptuously. "He's stupid."
"I couldn't say yet. But he's definitely naïve, and he doesn't see clearly where his sister is concerned. He knows that she's a threat, but he doesn't understand the real danger. It's never occurred to him to think about her that way."
"We'll see. One thing at a time, though. Send someone to pick up her trail, but tell him not to engage. She's too dangerous for one man. The rest of us will have to catch up in a day or two: there are things to be learned here before we go.
"Then we'll hunt." Admiral Shen gazed down at his wooden limb. "That little slut owes me a hand. And then some."