Mai entered her quarters, made straight for her divan, and sank down onto it with a sigh. Her head rolled back against the arm of the couch as she squeezed her eyes shut. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Ye gods, how am I supposed to manage him in this situation? It's like trying to ride an untamed komodo rhino, for Agni's sake! The thought sent pain knifing through her already-throbbing head. With a groan, she pressed her fingers against her temples.
"Headache, my lady?" came the quiet voice of her personal servant, Miko. Mai nodded wordlessly. "Shall I fetch you the usual remedy?"
"Yes. And something involving chocolate – I don't care what." The young queen rubbed the sides of her head, wincing. She heard the footsteps of the servant girl retreating, and the soft click as the door closed behind her.
It had been a long couple of days. She and Zuko were meeting with various leaders from the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes, trying to patch together a Four Nations Treaty that was looking less and less stable with every day that went by. The political situation was tense and extremely sensitive – she understood that. Unfortunately, it was beginning to look as if her husband didn't.
- Well, no. That wasn't quite fair, she had to admit. Zuko did understand that things were unstable and required finesse. He just seemed to be incapable of getting around his own impatience and bad temper, particularly if certain policies of his own were called into question. She and Iroh had coached him endlessly, and she herself was with him at every meeting, adroitly spinning her own words and trying to guide his. In the end, though, there was only so much that she could do. He was the Fire Lord – she was only his queen. Sometimes she could only stand by and watch helplessly as a flash of Zuko's wrath destroyed what had taken weeks of negotiation to build.
Take the initial talks with the Water Tribes, for example. The Four Nations Treaty had been brokered over a period of three weeks of intense talks, presided over by the Avatar. In it, the Fire Nation had agreed to cease all hostilities against the other three nations (or what was left of them), and to aid them in rebuilding – particularly the Southern Water Tribe, which was in danger of dying out completely. The Fire Nation had also returned some of the cities and territory taken during the War (although this really only applied to the Earth Kingdom.) There had been great optimism during that time.
Trouble had soon emerged – first with the Water Tribes. The Southern Water Tribe, not unreasonably, harbored deep resentment against the Fire Nation for the atrocities that had been committed against it, particularly in the last hundred years of the War. Most of its citizens had spent time in Fire Nation prisons and concentration camps; many had even been born in these places. Relations were tense enough as it was. And then it had come to light that Admirals Hisato and Zai were members of Zuko's advisory council. Mai could remember how Chief Hakoda and General Bato had confronted the Fire Lord, furious in the Water Tribe's cold and understated way. Zuko had commiserated with them, to some extent – but then his arrogance had reared its ugly head.
The young noblewoman pressed her hands against her eyes, grimacing as she remembered how the scene had unfolded. She knew, of course, why Admirals Hisato and Zai were on the council. In order to control the Fire Nation, there were certain key noble families and houses that had to be kept onside. She and Zuko had known that they would have to make deals with the devil in some cases. The admirals were two of the three that they had made such deals with – the third being General Tazao. Their inclusion on the council had secured the support of the House of Jiang, the Chows, the Bai Shans and the House of Zhao. That had solidified Zuko's hold on the throne, and prevented the Fire Nation from being plunged into civil war.
But instead of making conciliatory references to this – or, really, being conciliatory at all – Zuko had instead pulled some line about the council being purely a Fire Nation issue. When General Bato had pressed, Zuko had actually gotten angry, and pointed out that the members of his council had nothing to do with the issues at hand. The Southern Water Tribe had promptly walked out of the talks, and had angrily demanded that the Fire Nation withdraw completely from their lands and coastal waters. They had even refused any further help in rebuilding from the Fire Nation, instead forming alliances with the Earth Kingdom and the Northern Water Tribe. For its part, the Northern Water Tribe had also withdrawn from most official dealings with the Fire Nation in support of its southern counterpart. What contact they still did have with the Fire Nation was cold, at best. Mai and Zuko were still trying to straighten out that mess.
That had only been the beginning. The Earth Kingdom, while officially an ally of the Fire Nation, was a large country, with many nearly-autonomous cities and territories. A number of these were decidedly hostile to the Fire Nation. Even before the end of the war, there had been numerous mercenary groups dedicated to attacking and pushing the Fire Nation out of Earth Kingdom territory. The end of the war had not ended their activities. There had already been a number of attacks against Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom.
This had, in turn, created the tense situation that was now escalating within the Earth Kingdom. King Kuei wanted the Fire Nation to withdraw its troops from Earth Kingdom soil. This was a perfectly natural thing to demand, from his perspective. Mai would have done the same thing in his situation. It was impossible, of course, given the situation with the mercenary groups – but it was still natural. As such, it was a demand that should have been met with respect and tact. But Zuko had instead been blunt, and had taken a hard line with the Earth King's representative this morning. He had told the man that the troops were necessary to protect Fire Nation citizens, and had flatly refused to even discuss their withdrawal. Mai and Avatar Aang had just barely managed to contain the situation enough to keep the angry Earth Kingdom ambassadors from walking out of the discussions entirely. The rickety Four Nations Treaty was in danger of collapsing completely, a mere sixteen months after its inception.
Mai wondered if she, at seventeen, was still too young to retire her crown.
A more savvy Fire Lord could have negotiated these dangerous waters, she knew. She could probably navigate them herself, if she had the right advisors; she knew how to handle people, soften or sharpen her words at need, and tell people what they wanted to hear. In short, she was capable of seeing past the end of her own nose. Her husband, however...
Her husband simply was not a politician.
She mulled this over. Miko returned just then, bearing a steaming cup of tea, a bowl of rose-scented water, and a chocolate truffle. Mai ate the truffle, sipped at the tea, and leaned her head back to allow the quiet servant girl to bathe her brow with the perfumed liquid. Its scent made the young queen breathe deeply and relax; the worst of her pain eased. She quietly dismissed Miko. Then she laid her head back again. What had she been thinking about? - Oh, yes. Zuko was not a politician.
The young queen chewed the inside of her lip thoughtfully. Zuko, she decided, would have done very well as a military general. He was stubborn and hardheaded, more than capable of giving orders, and as relentless as any military man she'd ever known. He was skilled at fighting and at military strategy. His style would have suited that role completely. He was not, however, the man who ought to be at the helm of a nation this politically complex, or a man who should have ever been involved in delicate international treaty negotiations. His bluntness and impatience made him more of a liability there than anything. Which begged the question – what, if anything, could she do about any of this?
There was a limit to how much coaching could accomplish. She had carefully gone over everything with him countless times, explaining and warning and instructing in turn, but he always seemed to find a new trap to fall into. In time, she and General Iroh could likely mold him into a passable politician, but that would likely take years – time that they just plain didn't have. It was only a matter of time before Zuko's blunders plunged the world into yet another war.
Which led her to...other options. Mai sat up a little, touching her fingertips together and resting her mouth on them. She was not a woman whose loyalties changed easily, nor was she one who would take unreasonable risks. There had been a time not so long ago when she would sooner have considered eating nails than turning on Zuko. That, however, had been before he had turned on her. Three months ago, she had been kidnapped by his younger sister, Azula, and held as a hostage while the former princess and her lover, the acrobatic Ty Lee, had fled from Zuko. Azula had been under sentence of death at the time for having hired an assassin to kill her brother. Soldiers had caught up to them in the Earth Kingdom, and Ty Lee had been wounded in the battle. Through a complicated chain of events, Mai had wound up rescuing Ty Lee from death by torture at the hands of Zuko's men, and hidden the little acrobat with some old friends of hers. Zuko had been furious. He had actually had Mai imprisoned and psychologically tortured for over a week. And while he had later freed her and offered her his hesitant apologies, the incident had destroyed the love that Mai had thought was unbreakable.
They had learned to cope in the weeks that followed. To the world, they showed a united front. She still appeared on his arm at official functions, to all appearances his willing bride. Mai still sat at his right hand during political conferences as well, ever ready to whisper advice into his ear at opportune moments. But she never visited his quarters anymore, nor did he enter hers. They took their meals separately whenever possible. Their conversation was polite and impersonal. - They were acting, in short, very much like her own parents had done, and how she suspected that Fire Lord Ozai and his wife had acted as well. Her lips curved. Ah, the new generation. So full of promise.
- But all that could be left for another time. Right now, Mai needed to think. She ran through mental lists of names as her eyes narrowed slightly. She wasn't yet really planning anything. There were only options to be weighed, and people to be considered. She leaned back again, closing her eyes. Most of Zuko's outright enemies were languishing in prison right now, and had been since her husband had been crowned Fire Lord seventeen months ago. But they had mostly been warmongers, anyway – not people she wanted to align herself with. No. She needed to consider the old noble houses that hadn't supported the war, or had at least been lukewarm in their support of it. And within those, if she could find people who thought the same way she did, then perhaps she could begin to build...friendships. Mai smirked a bit.
She was going to have to be very cautious. That much she knew. Her husband wasn't stupid, and even from the Earth Kingdom, General Iroh seemed to always know most of what was happening; she would have to cover her tracks carefully. I'll begin, she told herself, at the tea party I'm throwing when Mother and Father arrive next week. Lady Shung and Lady Bai Jiang will be there, and both their clans didn't like the war. I think Lord Shung was a supporter of Ozai, though...I'll have to tread carefully with them for a while, at least until I know what they really think about things.
This would probably be the most complex political game Mai had ever played, and there was a lot at stake. She sipped her tea calmly. The fragrance of the rosewater still lingered in the air; she smirked. The board is set up, and the games begin. I place a rose tile...