Disclaimer: Mike and Bryan still won't let me have the ATLA characters. *pouts*
A/N: This one came about after some musing about what kind of Fire Lady Mai might become. Many fun images come to mind...this is just one of them.
Zuko resisted the urge to cover his ears. All around him, the clamor of generals, ambassadors, and diplomats rose and echoed off the walls of the council chamber. It was his first official meeting with all his advisors. But no one had ever told him it would be so loud, and so chaotic.
But then, there were a lot of things people had neglected to tell him about being Fire Lord.
"My Lord, there have been six infractions this week…"
"Nonsense, are you really going to address that concern first?"
"A Fire Lord's duty has always been--"
They were like a group of bickering children. Somehow, Zuko had never noticed how argumentative they all were. And now he was in charge of them all.
Silently, he asked Agni to grant him patience.
He took a deep breath, and then said in the clearest voice he could, "Gentlemen, please."
At least they all quieted as soon as they realized their newly appointed Lord was speaking.
"I'll address all of your comments and concerns in turn. There's enough time to discuss everything. But I am only one person, you know." He attempted a small smile, seeing if his attempt at humor had gotten through to this group of frowning men.
It hadn't. Zuko knew from the deep stares that were focused on him that one of his fears as the new ruler was coming true. They thought he was too young. These men were sizing him up, seeing if he was someone who could be respected and taken seriously. A lot hung on these first days of impression.
He felt Mai's hand brush his ever so slightly. She had been sitting beside him, back ramrod straight and eyes fixed on an invisible point. Zuko had announced his decision to make Mai his consort until they could arrange an official marriage, which allowed her to at least accompany him to meetings such as this. Unfortunately, Zuko thought, the Fire Nation still didn't think much of females being involved in matters of high politics. Mai was mostly a figurehead in this meeting of men. Still, Zuko appreciated her presence, and her touch even more. The council table was too low for Mai to actually hold his hand, but even the small contact reassured him.
"So," Zuko continued, trying to make his voice sound as serious and commanding as possible. "I have here a list of points that need to be discussed." Even looking at the long piece of parchment made Zuko grimace inwardly. Still, he unrolled it on the table before him.
"Now, the most pressing thing to do is prioritize these concerns. We need to decide which ones need to be addressed first." Zuko swallowed. He hoped he was getting all this royal terminology correct.
As it turned out, that was the least of his problems.
His simple words unleashed a veritable flood of talk from the seated men. Zuko was shocked. He was certain the councils had never looked like this under his father. The change of leadership and the shambles that the nation had become must have changed the way the council acted.
Zuko thought about how he must look to these men. A young man, only in his teens still, coming out of a period of war and exile to take charge of one of the largest nations on earth. They probably thought they could run right over him with their talk and demands. He had not been here long enough to command their respect.
"The law enforcement has been overrun since the war ended…"
"Of course the first attention must be given to the soldiers…"
"Rebuilding houses is in the interest of everyone…"
Zuko considered for a brief moment letting his old temper resurface and telling the whole council to shut up, but he thought better of it immediately. He looked helplessly down at the parchment list. He had to do this…this meeting was pivotal. If he didn't handle this correctly, they would never accept him as their Fire Lord.
But the truth was, these men were partly right. He was only a teenager, and he had only ever grown up observing his own father's strategies. And whatever else happened, he did not want to rule like his father.
He was thinking so hard, trying to tune out the clamor for just one moment, that he almost didn't notice Mai pick up the parchment and stand. Immediately, a hush fell over the arguing council. The eyes of at least twenty men followed Mai as she stood gracefully and walked across the council chamber. The crackling of the flames could actually be heard over the silence.
One man started to say something angry, but the words seemed to catch in his throat and die.
With complete poise, Mai unrolled the piece of parchment against one of the columns that lined the chamber. Faster than Zuko could blink, a dagger appeared in her hand, slipped right out of her sleeve as usual. With a brisk movement, Mai slammed the dagger into the top of the parchment with a satisfying thud. Then she began to back away from it, pacing down the length of the stone floor.
"Lady Mai…" began a gray-bearded official darkly, his brows knitted furiously. Many other men were glaring at her too, obviously appalled that a woman had acted so openly in the middle of a council.
Mai ignored these reprimands, her eyes fixed on the parchment she had pinned to the pillar. Zuko recognized the look in her dark eyes, even from a distance. She couldn't possibly be thinking…?
But she was.
When Mai was approximately thirty paces from the column, she stopped. Another shruiken appeared almost magically in her fingers. She narrowed her eyes, taking careful aim, as Zuko had watched her do to so many targets before.
And then she threw.
It really was a beautiful throw. The shruiken flew straight and true, thudding deeply into the center of the parchment.
Still with total calm, Mai walked back to the paper. She pulled the projectile out and slid it back down her wide sleeve. Then she pressed a pale forefinger to the list where the shruiken had pierced, and read in a clear, monotone voice into the dead silence,
" 'Need for further reinforcements to be sent to Ba Sing Se for reconstruction'."
She turned to face the assembly, who were all staring at her in stunned amazement. "Well, there's your first item for discussion. Go crazy."
Folding her hands demurely back into her robe, Mai walked back to the head of the table and sank down into her place beside Zuko, the picture of the obedient consort.
The eyes of every person in the room followed her. Zuko cleared his throat loudly, trying very, very hard not to laugh.
"Well, that's as good a place to start as any. Master Shi, if you would?" he addressed the man who was currently ambassador to Ba Sing Se. He noticed as Shi rose that, while there was some muted murmuring, not one man raised his voice. Zuko made a mental note to thank Mai profusely for this later when they got a moment alone. Everyone in the room still appeared to be in shock. Zuko guessed that never in the history of the Fire Nation had they been spoken to in such a manner.
Privately, Zuko thought they'd better start learning.