i. we were humbled
It is early in the morning when they take Mai from her cell, wrench her to her feet, and manacle her wrists behind her back. Surrounded by guards, she does not make a sound. Three weeks (really, a lifetime) of practice serve her well. Three weeks since she threw down her weapons and surrendered, since Ozai was defeated and she was left to sit in a cell alone and ignored.
She holds her head high as they escort her to the throne room anyway.
The Fire Lord's hall is wide and grand and Mai has not been inside since she was a child. They stop her thirty paces from the throne and a sharp blow to the small of her back sends her to her knees. One of the guards places a heavy hand on her shoulder and pushes her into a bow. The floor is warm against her cheek.
"That's enough," says the Fire Lord sharply.
The guard removes his hand and she sits up, tries to meet Zuko's eyes past the wall of flame that separates them. Years and experience and a bloody revolution lie between them too, but she wonders, as she has many times before, if he ever thought of her in his time away or if now, as she kneels before him, is the first time he has considered her since he left. She can read nothing on his face and realizes that somewhere along the way he learned how to better hide his emotions.
"Mai, daughter of Mao and Tsuneko," he begins without preamble and all she thinks is how much deeper his voice has gotten, how he doesn't sound at all awkward in these formal tones, even while she is stung by lack the familiarity, "you stand accused of treason, an extraordinarily serious offense."
"Yes," she manages when he pauses, her voice rough from disuse. She says no more, ready to hear what he has planned for her and tries not to be hurt that it clearly will be no different than what he would prescribe for any other prisoner. Long moments stretch out before he speaks again.
"And what do you have to say for yourself?" he asks, and she hears a note of entreaty in his voice, begins to wonder what game is being played. She turns her head slightly, her eyes darting to the side as she takes in the solemn forms standing amongst the columns of the hall. His ministers and advisors, she realizes, and understands.
This isn't just about her, her sentencing, her fate. This is about his rule, how he treats his prisoners, those who were not aligned with him, speaks volumes about the kind of Fire Lord he will be. She has known him since she was seven years old and knows that he is not cruel. She also knows, however, that there's a strong possibility that he can no longer afford to be kind. He cannot be perceived as weak; weak Fire Lords meet quick ends. Absurdly, her spirits lift anyway, boosted by the realization that it's not about what he wants to do; it's about what he has to do, and about what he can get away with. He's given her the only opening he was able to, so she takes it.
"I'm not a traitor," she says and hears it echo from the high ceiling.
He blinks. "You hunted me."
"I didn't catch you."
The flames rise a bit higher and she's not entirely sure if it's for show or not. "That doesn't change the fact that it was your intention. You were ranged on the opposite side."
"I was ranged on the side of my country. My only intention was to serve the throne. No matter who sits on it. A princess gave me orders and I took them. And when she wasn't a princess anymore, I laid down my weapons."
His eyes dart to the sides just for an instant before he reponds. Mai does not let herself look, cannot bring herself to see their reactions. "Your argument has some validity, considering you did surrender with honor...You're saying that your convictions have not changed? Even now, after you've been arrested, jailed, and kneel here pleading for your life, with the full understanding that even if I were to grant you that, I could just as easily take it back without a moment's notice if you displease me?"
"I would still serve the throne till my dying breath if you would allow it," she declares without hesitation.
Zuko tilts his head, his eyes boring into hers, unblinking. "That's not good enough," he says slowly, deliberately.
Mai closes her eyes and all she can hear is her heart beating in her chest, seeming loud enough to drown out any words she could speak. Except, she has no words, and she frantically tries to think of where she misstepped. She opens her eyes to see him staring at her still and all of a sudden it comes to her, and she wonders why after a lifetime with Azula it wasn't more obvious to her of all people.
"Then I will serve you," she says and it comes out rushed, but with every bit of fervency she can muster. "I will serve you, my lord, not an abstract or a principle. My only allegiance will be to you and you alone."
He nods, just once, and one of the guards unlocks her shackles. She bows again immediately, forehead pressed against the marble because she understands that he has risked much by granting her her freedom, her life.
"Thank you, your Majesty. I am now and always will be your loyal servant," she says before sitting up again.
"You're dismissed," he replies, voice even, "someone will see you to quarters and attend to you."
Mai stands and looks back at him once more before proceeding back towards the entrance through which she came.
He does not move. He does not step down from his dais, walk through the flames and take her hand, but the corner of his mouth twitches upward and his eyes are gleaming and Mai feels as though he did.