If Mama Tayo Doesn't Approve…
"The trials and tribulations of finding a worthy Fire Lady"
(A/N: Yes, I'm still alive. The muses seemed to have gone on vacation as I started helping a friend as a live-in babysitter 5 days a week. Not long after that, I managed to slice off part of my pinky finger with a food slicer while prepping dinner. You never realize how much you use your fingers until you lose the use of said fingers, even if only temporarily.
6/17/16: The finger is nicely healed, can barely tell that it happened unless I point it out and the baby is over a year old now since I last worked on this story.)
~~ ( - ) ~~
At 17 he'd been crowned Fire Lord and faced the task of putting his nation to rights after a century of misrule. By 19 the Fire Nation was on a slow but steady comeback. The economy was stabilizing again, trade was starting to pick up as well. His own personal holdings were doing amazingly well thanks to the contacts he made during his travels. The White Lotus Merchant Clan was known for its integrity, the willingness to try new ideas and the assistance it gave to new businesses just starting up. Now at almost 22, his council was slowly starting to pressure for him to either find a bride and marry or take a suitable concubine to bed and start fathering children so there would be a line of succession should anything happen to him.
And that was the crux of the matter.
Every single avaliable daughter (and quite a few sons as well) of nobles that had been introduced at court, held very little interest for him. A few of the nobles had even tried to interest him in their underage children (for Agni sake, one had barely been 5 years old!) he had come down hard and let it be very well known he refused to condone such exploitations of children as a means of gaining political favors with him. He had nothing against the children themselves, often enjoying their refreshingly innocent company over that of their manipulative parents, especially when he introduced them to Tayo. Only a few held back at first, usually the older ones, but soon enough they were up close petting her and asking all sorts of questions. By the time they left they were asking their parents for Ostrich Horses or Emu Ponies of their own. Of the older set that tried to catch his attention, very few were unwilling to enter the stables with him, if it meant there was a chance to become Fire Lady or Consort.
Not a single one made it past Tayo's scrutiny. And they tried, oh did they try. From attempted bribery (sugar beets, tea apples and sweet treats were the top of the list) to threats of what they would do once they became Fire Lady or Consort. A handful were just outright terrified of her or any large animal in general. Armed with the information passed on to him from Tayo via Kasai, Zuko was able to deal with each one accordingly. Some he managed to steer towards more appropriate suitors and life pursuits, others he let it be know that while their presence at court would be tolerated, he was not required to be welcoming of their presence. Thankfully there was very few of the last type. Overall for the most part, he was polite to those that fell in the middle but made it known he would not be courting them.
Unfortunately the last time he found anyone of interest was when he was 16 and still traveling around in the Earth Kingdom as Xue the Wandering Merchant. He'd seen the girl, interacted with her for all of a few days here and there, then nothing since. It didn't help matters that she was, at the time, one of his sister's companions. He wasn't sure what had happened to her. After a little investigation he found that she'd been disowned by her parents after she had been accused of betrayal by his sister. Her uncle had been pretty tight lipped about her whereabouts at the time as well. He did not press for answers, which was his own fault, but to be fair he was rather swamped since it was close to the start of his rule.
~~ ( - ) ~~
Currently Zuko was sitting in his office, enjoying the peace and quiet as he read personal correspondences from various people. Kasai was in her normal spot on the rather large desk, a piece of slate next to her along with a bowl full of chalk sticks.
Letters from Toph were interesting. Ever since she figured out the right blend of extremely fine rock dust to ink ratio then demanded he teach her how to write, he'd been getting letters from her at least once a month. Not only did he get some of the latest gossip from the Earth Kingdom, but he also found out some of the latest marketing trends before they reached the Fire Nation. Some of the information he kept to himself, but the rest he usually passed on. "Oh great Agni, not again…" he muttered. When he heard the scratching sound of chalk on slate he looked over and read the odd marks.
'present/current - what/inquiry' Kasai wrote out, then added 'father/brother/elder'
" 'What did Uncle do this time?'," he translated automatically into modern. With a sigh, he scanned through the letter from Toph again. "He's been gathering 'potential babymakers' - Toph's words not mine - again at the Jasmine Dragon and plans to introduce them to me when I make my trip to Ba Sing Se next week for the annual trade summit."
Kasai placed one hand over her face as she ducked her head down as she started to make the hissing sounds, which was the equivilent of her snickering.
"Oh sure, laugh. You know if Uncle thought he could find another Phoenix-Dragon like you, he would attempt to play matchmaker between you," Zuko pointed out as he rolled the scroll back up and set it to the side. "Thank the spirits Tayo isn't due to come into season for at least another two moon cycles," he muttered to himself as he picked up another scroll. He knew that besides Tea and Pai Sho, his Uncle loved nothing better than hunting down bargains and playing matchmaker.
~~ ( - ) ~~
Several days later, way past time when he should be asleep, Zuko was ghosting through the halls of the palace once more. Kasai was, as usual, perched on his shoulder.
It had been another trying evening of dealing with over ambitious nobles and their equally ambitious offspring. All he wanted to do was unwind enough that he could get a few hours of sleep before sunrise and morning court. Early on in his reign as Fire Lord, he found that claiming to meditate during the hour before and after high noon, seeking Agni's wisdom to make his decisions on matters that had been brought to him during Court, gave him a chance to revitalize himself with the energy of the sun as well as take a much needed nap. Everyone left him alone during those hours, even the Fire sages, though he was pretty sure they knew what he was doing from the few knowing looks he'd gotten.
He didn't go out of his way to avoid the patrolling guards anymore and said guards no longer insisted on accompanying him either. If he planned on skulking around, he would inform Commander Xunlai to station guards appropriately. Since tonight was not a night of skulking, he acknowledged the guards he passed with the tiniest of nods as he headed to the stables. Inside the royal stables, those lanterns still lit were dimmed to allow the stable hands on duty just enough light to see by but not so much as to keep the komodo rhinos or Tayo awake.
Zuko's unusually sharp hearing picked up the sounds of Tayo cooing and clucking the moment he entered the stables. It was a sound he knew by heart, having been the one to cause her to make those sounds almost exclusively when he'd take a stiff brush to her beak, nares and head. He paused, then slipped into one of the stalls and stealthily made his way to the upper level of the barn. Unlike most stables, the royal stable had an open second floor with moderate sized walkway that allowed access to the large window like structures. The temperature of the stable's interior was controlled with a combination of trained fire benders and the opening or closing of the structures. Thanks to years of experience and constant training, he was able to stealthily make his way across the walkway until he was in a spot of deep shadows just above Tayo's stable. (He made a mental note to inform Xunlai of the lack of guards in the stable area. Komodo rhinos were not an infallible determinant for a determined interloper.)
Kasai hopped from Zuko's shoulder, gliding across the darkness to another cross beam. Her talons made nary a sound as she landed. Slowly she folded her wings before belly crawling along the beam and slithering around the support post. From there she hopped across to the stable's divider wall, moving across the top then around another support post before winging her way over to land lightly on Tayo's back. She sat back on her haunches as she flipped her wings closed then chirped inquisitively.
The cloaked figure paused, bringing up a finger to the mouth of the mask it wore. 'Sshhhh,' the figure seemed to 'say', before they went back to scratching and brushing Tayo around her nares, ears, and crest-mane.
Zuko watched from the shadows as the person continued brushing his ostrich horse. To date, no one had ever come close to turning her into a cooing and clucking pile of feathers. For nearly an hour, he sat and watched, fascinated with the person's near hypnotic movements.
Somewhere in the distance, a temple gong sounded, breaking the spell. With one last pat, the cloaked figure slipped away. Zuko roused himself with a sigh as Kasai rejoined him. He made his way back down to the ground, stopping by Tayo's stall long enough to check on her before he departed as well.
~~ ( - ) ~~
Over the next few days, he returned to the stables each night to wait for the cloaked figure to appear. The time for his departure to Ba Sing Se was fast approaching which meant it would be weeks before he returned to the palace here in Captial City. By the time he returned the mysterious person may be long gone and he would never have a chance to find out who it was.
The final few days prior to departure was were usually made up of pure chaos. The royal air ship was checked and rechecked, the last call for luggage was made for those guests and servants traveling with the Fire Lord and the last of the food items were loaded. The day of departure was filled with ceremonies at the main temple, at the palace and at the airship dock.
As Fire Lord Zuko rode Tayo to the airship docks, sharp eyed nobles spotted the happy expression on his face as well as the addition to his ceremonial robes. A simple netsuke in the shape of an ostrich horse with a phoenix-dragon on its back hung from his sash along with a sagemono, also with the same design carved into it. He had finally accepted someone's courting offer. Zuko had barely set foot onboard the royal airship when the nobles started their mad scramble to find out just who's courtship offer he had accepted. No one noticed Tayo's happy clucking as she followed the dark haired stable hand to her special stall in the belly of the airship.
netsuke - purse ornament/token - given by the woman to the man -
simple ostrich horse and nix-dragon