In which intentions and motivations are confused
Mai's room in the Breckenridge home was as finely appointed as any she had ever seen, but when she adjourned there in the hour before dinner was to be served that was the least of her concerns. The servants had arranged her chests neatly and she opened each of them, packed full as they were, at her mother's behest, with what seemed to Mai every dress she had ever owned. It was a concession made of weariness, not out of any belief that such an abundance of affects would ever be necessary, but Mai found herself relieved by it all the same as — stripped down to her chemise and stay — she held gown after gown up for comparison in front of the full-length mirror.
She felt quite ridiculous, the very image of the empty-headed magpies she had scorned for the whole of her adulthood, and wondered if she would have felt more charitably towards them had there been more than one man in the world whose natural powers sent her into such a state. But, no, perhaps her own awareness of the absurdity of her excessive engagement in choosing a dress for something so simple as dinner set her apart still again. It had not occurred to her, in fact, until after his abrupt departure from the parlour that the state in which he had first seen her was not the one she might have wished.
Being fresh from a long journey improved upon no one's appearance and her companions had not allowed her to clean up before their conversation. Her hair had been in some disarray and the hem of her dress stained by the unpleasant weather in which a great many of her carriage changes had taken place. The belated embarrassment overcame her as Ty Lee and Azula were describing a shop from which Ty Lee intended to buy a new hat for the dinner party Azula was holding the next day, and it held onto her still after they had separated to dress for dinner. She repaired her hair immediately and sent the dress for laundering, but it seemed the longer she stood, unable to pick a dress, the more dire the decision appeared.
Mai cast away garments from both hands and drew a deep breath. There would be nothing, nothing at all ever in the world, about which she truly cared that should be definitively decided based on which dress she was wearing. Mai breathed out, allowing her temporarily-fled rationality to return to her, and picked up a dress. The decision made, it was not long before she was completely attired and, with a final minor adjustment to her hair, she opened the door and proceeded into the hallway. She paused for a moment, considering the likely location of the dining hall, which, if she had been told she had just as soon forgotten, but in that time, Ty Lee had appeared from her own door just down the hall.
They met at the median between their locations, and Ty Lee took Mai's arm to lead her back the way from which she had come.
"Mai! That is a lovely muslin," Ty Lee said, having quickly appraised her. "Is it Indian?"
"It is," Mai confirmed. "Mother will have nothing less. Appearances must be kept up." There was not a day in the company of anyone outside of their own family that Mrs. Myerscough did not speak at great length about how the furor over the duties on Indian cotton was a lot of talk about a mere trifle — to some, at any rate.
"I'd dare say they have been," Ty Lee assured her cheerfully. Then, she frowned. "Though you could stand a brighter color. This maroon is almost drab!"
"Should I be like you then?" Mai shook her head. Ty Lee's earlier gown, in pastel trimmed with red, had been replaced by one in an even rosier shade. "I see your affection for the color pink remains undimmed."
"Quite. I do believe I have never been pinker!" Ty Lee exclaimed, taking no insult. Mai smiled in spite of herself, still surprised that she should ever miss the other girl's incessant cheerfulness, but unwilling to fight the emotion nonetheless. Ty Lee noticed this and squeezed Mai's arm more tightly.
"Oh, Mai. It makes me so sad to think of you all alone in Westmacott," she opined.
"I was hardly alone, Ty Lee. With all of the acquaintances that my mother tried to force, I would often have wished to be imore/i alone."
"I don't mean literally alone," Ty Lee clarified quickly. "Just that there was no one to be pretty with you." She leaned towards Mai bringing her mouth closer to Mai's ear before saying conspiratorially, as though those that would take insult were lurking in the walls: "We were always far and away the prettiest. Unless some of the girls underwent some much needed alteration. Was anyone greatly improved by the years?"
Mai shrugged one shoulder. "To be truthful, I spent so little time with any of them I could not tell you with any great authority."
"Rightly so," Ty Lee said with a nod, approving of this course of action.
They were descending the stairs when the bell rang clear and crisp through the house and Ty Lee began to move at a less leisurely pace, dragging Mai along with her.
"We should make haste to the dining parlour. You'll remember how Azula hates tardiness," she explained. "Besides, I'm sure you're in quite the rush to see Zuko again."
"Oh, do be quiet," Mai snapped, but Ty Lee only laughed.
Brother and sister were indeed already present and arranged when Mai and Ty Lee arrived, Azula at the head of the table and Zuko to her left. Azula's expression was the image of placidity, but Zuko, arms crossed and head turned to regard some other corner of the room, seemed ill at ease. Ty Lee quickly slipped behind Mai as they filed towards the right side of the table, thus forcing Mai to take the seat directly across from Zuko. He looked up at her briefly, then refocused his attentions on his empty plate.
"So sweet of you two to join us," Azula said evenly, though Mai was certain that no more than a minute or two could have elapsed between the ringing of the dinner bell and their arrival.
They passed a few minutes in silence other than the clinking of silverware and Mai and Ty Lee's quick compliments on the fine table Azula had set. Mai looked up at Zuko no fewer than three times, but on each occasion he was still intently studying his plate. But silence could never long reign when Ty Lee was present.
"You know, Azula, in the hall Mai and I were talking," she began. "And do you remember how much prettier we all were than the rest of the girls in Westmacott? Well, apparently, none of them became any less homely in time, Mai was able to remember. Though, of course, she did not associate with them much."
"Our dear Mai always has been of discerning tastes," Azula allowed. "In most things."
Ty Lee's agreement was vehement. "Of course, and I despaired of how lonely she must have been because of it. Can you just imagine her, arm in arm down the lane with the likes Mr. Appleton's nieces from Kyoshi Place down fresh from Surrey? What a lopsided company that would have made." Ty Lee giggled. "Just think with them so overly made up — as if that would mask their plainness — and our Mai on one end, all out of place."
"You do paint such a tragic picture, Ty Lee," Mai said, shaking her head. "Though, I think I could have it borne it as long as they did not inflict their sense of fashion on me."
"The girls in London are of better quality on that score, at least," Azula added smoothly. "I should not be ashamed to be seen with at least some of them." She turned suddenly. "Don't you think, Zuko?
Zuko looked up, appearing surprised to be included in the conversation so abruptly. "I suppose," he said distractedly.
"Oh, how sad they would be to hear you so unenthusiastic." Azula made a tutting sound. "My brother is quite popular," she said, this time directed at Mai, who kept the sudden clenching in her stomach imperceptible on her face.
"You exaggerate, Azula," Zuko responded firmly.
"I don't believe that I do, but this is veering from the primary topic. Pray tell, dear brother, do you agree that all of the charms of Westmacott have been relocated right here? Answer carefully."
Zuko blinked rapidly, looked at Mai, then looked away immediately as though he had not meant to do so, and then frowned more deeply than before. His discomfort was plain.
"What charms it possessed, yes," he finally mumbled.
Azula looked ready to pounce once more and so Mai spoke quickly, grasping for a change of subject.
"Mr. Breckenridge, I am curious, what was it that had you out of sorts this afternoon?" she asked, then quickly clarified. "When you first came into the parlour. I believe you mentioned a contraption?"
Zuko fixed her with an odd look before responding. "A curricle. A pointless extravagance given that the carriage we already owned is far more useful. I can hardly stand the thing, but my sister continually promises every silly girl she meets a trip through Hyde Park or the like. One might think she was renting out both it and my services."
"Ah," Mai said, realizing immediately how completely her attempt to derail Azula's tormenting him over his unconfessed, unacknowledged — and some part of her said, unconfirmed — affections had gone awry.
"It is only because you're so antisocial, Zuko," Azula said, voice dripping with false sincerity. "I am your sister and I worry for you ever settling down. What crime is it really to try and acquaint you with nice girls?"
"You are well aware your crime is against both propriety and good sense."
Azula was undaunted. "But you wouldn't object giving Mai a ride, I'm sure. She is an old friend, after all." Mai looked back and forth between the siblings, fully engaged in their current battle. Beside her, Ty Lee seemed unmoved, and Mai wondered if this happened so often as to seem commonplace.
Zuko's dismissal was firm and immediate. "I'm sure Miss Myerscough wishes no such journey having just spent the better part of the last day being jostled about in a carriage."
It was, in fact, too absolute a rejection for Mai's taste, and the injury to her pride was more troublesome in her irritation at its existence than anything else. "I have had my fill of the smell of horses, at least," she said curtly. "I shall not pain you."
Zuko returned to staring discontentedly at his plate and Mai similarly fixed her attention absolutely on the consumption of her repast.
"Would you look at that, Ty Lee," Azula said after a moment, smile evident in her tone, "Their sour expressions match."
"How adorable," Ty Lee agreed.
Irritation and a vague disappointment drove Mai to retire soon after dinner. All the better to lie in her bed and puzzle pointlessly about the reception she had thusfar received. Azula and Ty Lee had been as expected, but Zuko troubled her. Mai could not determine the cause of his strange shifts in mood. He had always been emotional, that was certain, but never inconsistent. Yet, in the course of this single day, he seemed to fluctuate wildly between what she perceived as indicative of affection for her and that which seemed to indicate concerted disinterest. This frustration followed her into slumber and she woke the next morning in ill humour. Though that could have also been owed to Ty Lee's early morning practicing at the pianoforte, singing scales at the highest volume of which she was capable.
The morning also saw the promised shopping trip which lifted Mai's spirits. London was far more interesting and had far more to partake of than Westmacott and there were institutions of further interest beyond shops and sweets parlours, Azula and Ty Lee assured her, for exploration at a later date. By the afternoon, when they came to rest in the sitting room, everyone seemed of much improved disposition, with the exception of Ty Lee who never wavered in her good humour. She played the pianoforte, thankfully without vocal accompaniment at Azula's behest, as Azula and Mai played cards. Even Zuko joined them shortly, sitting at the desk, engaged in writing the nature of which he would not reveal to Azula, regardless of her needling. Mai chanced glances at him every so often, usually to find that he seemed to have been looking at her as well. All the same, he was altogether more peaceful than he had appeared previously and Mai could not fault her trip at all if it were to remain similar to this for its entirety. Azula split her attention between cheating at piquet and reviewing the guest list of that night's dinner with Ty Lee, who seemed to have a mental catalogue of the attendees and their most recent occupations.
"Mai, come take a turn with me," Azula demanded as they finished another hand. "I feel dreadfully idle."
Mai obliged, standing and looping her arm through Azula's as they began a lap about the room. Mai noticed that Zuko shuffled his papers when they passed him at the desk and she saw that familiar predatory interest gleam in Azula's eyes. But instead of addressing some remark or jibe at Zuko, Azula addressed Ty Lee instead.
"Have I yet mentioned Miss Sartorius, Ty Lee?"
Ty Lee's playing did not cease as she shook her head. "You hadn't, but Song Treffry told me this past Thursday that Star isn't coming tonight."
Azula pulled up, jerking Mai to a stop as well. She actually appeared surprised. "Whyever not?"
"I believe she said that she was going to the Assembly Rooms instead."
"To what end? Playing whist with old widows? As that will surely be the only company she will have there for the next week or two at least."
Ty Lee made a noncommittal sound, apparently concentrating more fully on the passage she was currently playing than the comings and goings of Miss Star Sartorius, and Azula looked in deep thought as she began walking again.
"She must think to snub me," she said after a moment, seeming almost amused. "Certainly there can be no other reason, as she rarely misses an invitation to be even in the same building as Zuko."
Zuko snorted dismissively. "She won't be missed, I assure you," he said as Mai and Azula neared him again.
"No, I don't suppose she will," Azula replied, then with unnaturally quick hands snatched up the clutch of papers over which Zuko had been poring.
"Azula!" he exclaimed, but she had, after releasing Mai, already danced a few steps away to examine her spoils.
"How could she ever be missed when it is clear that you are already so very taken?" With a flourish, Azula presented one of the papers she had absconded with to the room.
Mai inhaled sharply as she regarded it. It was a sketch, but still careful. Mai recognized the collar of the very dress that she was wearing, and thick black lines imitated the sweep of her hair. Nestled between: a fair and easily identifiable rendering of her features.
"It's one of your better works, brother," Azula said. "But perhaps your degree of attachment to the subject improves them."
Zuko was nearly shaking, his face a rictus of rage and incredulity.
"You are intolerable!" he yelled, and Ty Lee's playing came to a halt in a cacophony of jumbled notes.
"And you are horribly obvious." Azula smiled around the words. "About everything, as it were, but particularly about the fact that you have, shall we say, a certain fondness for Miss Myerscough. And she's only been here a day."
"I am so very obvious," he gritted out, still incensed, eyes boring into Azula's, "in that sitting, unoccupied, I found her a unique subject among ladies — most of whom are pleased and lively or at least pretending to it — in the stern and imposing manner of her countenance. I thought she should make an uncommon portrait, but you can never let anything alone. Not even when-"
He stopped suddenly and Azula waited, challenging, almost daring him to continue, but it was Mai who next spoke.
"Such a shame then," she said, voice flat, "that there is not circus nearby. Clearly, I would delight the masses in all my weirdness."
Zuko spun to face her, as if only just remembering that she was present. "I do not mean to say that- that is- you are-" He growled in frustration. "I'm sorry," he finally managed, voice still raised, before brushing past Azula and fleeing the room.
Azula walked back over to the desk and delicately lay the picture on it, her air entirely casual. "He's so very temperamental."
"No matter," Mai said, bringing all of her will to bear in order to convince herself, that even for just this moment, that was true, "Tell me more of tonight's party."
The gathering was a sort, it turned out, that Azula had with some frequency. Some score or so guests, and its description reminded Mai of little more than the teas they'd had in their youth, to which Azula would invite certain girls and not invite others in turn, and the only purpose of which was for her to be entertained, in some cases by the quality of the company, in most others by cataloguing their failures.
By its sound, Mai was certain that the current party was largely for the latter purpose as both Azula and Ty Lee had informed her that some of the most fashionable of their acquaintances would not be in London for a few weeks yet. But even for being only good company as opposed to excellent company, Mai still found the party-goers largely more tolerable than the people of Westmacott, though she did have cause to suspect that anyone would be immediately improved by virtue of being in London. Mai, herself, was the object of much attention as her arrival had not been well-publicized, and she could practically see the internal considerations of her name, appearance, and fortune on their faces. Gentlemen tried to charm her and young ladies attempted to discern the degree of her interest in those same gentlemen and whether she would be a good connection for their own interests.
It was all a welcome assistance to her attempt to ignore Zuko wholesale, but ultimately not enough. Regardless of how hard she tried Mai could not ignore him, in either his presence or absence, though the latter was more often the case. He seemed to deliberately arrange himself as far as possible away from his sister and her companions, and Mai often saw him the focus of an excess of feminine attention. He demurred for the most part, from what Mai could see, with the exception of one girl, to whom Mai espied him speaking quietly on numerous occasions throughout the evening, until the question of who exactly the girl was nearly burned in her veins.
She was commonly pretty, Mai supposed, brown-haired and large-eyed, plainly dressed. She leaned towards Zuko whenever he spoke and often rested her hand on his forearm to punctuate some — surely inane — thing she had said. Mai made certain that Zuko had finally left her side for a moment before she inquired after her with Azula.
"Oh, she's no one," Azula said dismissively, turning her attention back to the table where Ty Lee was engaged in a rather noisy game of loo with four gentlemen. "Ty Lee, you really shouldn't take all of their earnings," Azula counseled her after a delighted shriek accompanied the end of another hand.
"I shall take whatever they will allow to be taken," Ty Lee proclaimed to raucous laughter from the table. For a moment, Azula's normally well-schooled countenance was distorted, then it passed as she refocused her attention on Mai.
"How did she come to be invited, then," Mai asked, "if she is no one?"
"Zuko has recently developed the sad tendency to seek her company. Her name is Jin Scurfield. She's of middling birth and has no fortune to speak of. There is a childless, but far more well-appointed couple of whom she is the favourite godchild so she has turned up here for the last few seasons, generally beneath most notice still. However, my brother seems to have become more closely acquainted with her since she got in from Somerset a month or so ago." Azula stopped, studying Mai's face carefully. "You aren't jealous are you?" she asked solicitously, though Mai was sure that the primary source of her eagerness was not concern.
"What reason should I have to be jealous?"
Azula only smiled before dedicating her attention to insinuating herself into the card game still going on.
Mai watched Zuko return to Jin Scurfield's side across the room, but was forced to look away when the girl turned suddenly and caught her eye. When Mai looked back they were gone and it was a moment before she realized that they had disappeared onto the veranda. Mai rose and crossed the room carefully, trying not to call attention to herself. When she arrived near the doors to the veranda she stood off to one side and strained her ears to hear their conversation. At first, she could not make anything out over another ruckus originating from the card table, but it calmed just in time for Mai to hear her own name.
"-particular attention from your sister's friend, Miss Myerscough," Jin Scurfield was saying.
"I hadn't noticed," came Zuko's even response.
"Quite a feat," Jin said softly. Mai thought she detected a trace of humour. "She is extremely handsome, don't you think?"
A pause. "I suppose so."
This time, Jin's amusement was obvious as she laughed. "I dare say anyone with eyes would suppose so. Is she very much…like your sister in disposition, then?"
There was a longer pause, and when he spoke Zuko's voice was rough. "She is easily vexed and continually displeased. She does share my sister's biting wit, at the least, that's certain. And I do not think she has a single whimsical or romantic notion in her body, so gripped she always was by such an ungirlish pragmatism, cynicism almost, even when we were children."
"So many offenses against the perfect image of a bright and lively young lady." Jin sounded almost surprised. "Dare I ask then, what you think of her?"
His next words came in a rush. "I should much rather not think of her at all if it suits you."
Mai back quickly away from the doors, unable to stand any more. Somehow her legs carried her back to her seat, where she rested, perceiving nothing else in the crowded room.
He accused her of cynicism and yet she had been the most foolish of whimsical girls. She had thought that some ephemeral childish affection should last all these years, follow him into adulthood, when he actually had activity and purpose, a life to distract him from it. Constancy to such an insignificant thing could only be managed by the idle and detached, sitting in the corner of her manor's library or staring at the unchanging countryside out of her bedroom window. His inconsistency was no such thing. He was surprised to see her because he had not know she was to arrive, nothing else, and, not only that, but he resented the failures of her character, and perhaps the reminder of his lacking taste in childhood, enough to speak so abominably of her to some other woman to whom she had not even been introduced.
Mai clenched her hands into fists and willed herself to find calm. She had thought this, expected so many things like it, because she iwas/i pragmatic, and she summoned up all the force of that trait to school her emotions. After all, she could not lose what was never truly hers to begin with.
Still, her fists remained clenched for the rest of the night.