Disclaimer: Avatar: The Last Airbender belongs to Bryke and Nickelodeon, not me.
"He's joking, isn't he?"
The courier shook his head as he folded the royal summons into a leather case. "The king is intent," he said. "He says that there will always be a risk of the Fire Nation attacking if there isn't a permanent tie."
The stableboy tossed a saddle over the back of an ostrich horse. "Seems cruel to send some poor little girl off to marry the Fire Lord, without even asking her first," he said.
"This is no poor little girl," the courier said. He leaped up and straddled the ostrich horse. "This is the Lady."
The stableboy watched the courier gallop away, wide-eyed. "Heaven help the Fire Lord," he mumbled under his breath.
Only one girl could possibly earthbend while wearing a silk dress and ribbons in her hair. Toph grinned as she tore furrows in the earth. The soft silk of her knee-length dress fluttered pleasantly against her skin, and the sun warmed her bare shoulders. Life was nice.
"Toph!" her mother called. "Toph, where are you?"
She dropped her hands and brushed the dirt away. "In my garden," she hollered.
Four years ago, when she left home for the first time, this had been a lovely place full of well-tended flowers and carefully manicured trees. Now it was her own personal earthbending circle.
Her mother sighed heavily as she picked her way around the broken stones and muddy holes. "Darling, a letter's just arrived," she said. "It's very important."
"I don't want to hear any more fan mail," she said, rolling her eyes. She lifted her hands and raised a massive wall of earth.
"This isn't a fan letter, precious," Poppy said. "It's…it's a summons from the Earth King."
"So?" Toph shrugged. "Read it to me."
Her mother cleared his throat. "From his high royal majesty, King Kuei of the earth Kingdom, from the palace of Ba Sing Se, to her ladyship, Toph Bei Fong of Gaoling: greetings," she read.
"Just get on with it," Toph said irritably.
"In light of the recent end of the Hundred Years' War, it is imperative to cement the shaky ties between the Earth Kingdom and our former enemy, now ally, the Fire Nation," Poppy continued. "As our noble and illustrious history recounts, the surest way to create an alliance between our two countries is through marriage. A girl of Earth Kingdom blood and noble birth must be wed to the Fire Lord."
Toph's eyes widened. "I hope this doesn't mean what I think it means," she said.
The paper rattled in Poppy's hands. "Therefore, the king requests that you, Lady Toph Bei Fong, should be married to the Fire Lord before the end of the year," she said.
The earth garden rumbled. "Oh, no," Toph said. "Oh, no! I am not marrying the Fire Lord!"
"You have to, precious," Poppy said. "The king has requested it. Imagine, my little girl, the queen of the Fire Nation."
"Don't imagine!" Toph said. "I'm not going to marry him. I'm not going to marry…Zuko." She paused. "The king honestly expects me to marry Zuko?"
"Apparently," Poppy said. She twisted the letter in her hands. "I've already told your father. He's ecstatic."
"Of course he is," Toph muttered, plunking down into the dirt. A shield of mud splashed around her.
"Don't do that," Poppy pleaded. "You're getting your dress dirty."
"That's the least of my concerns," she snapped. She dug her hands into the comforting earth, leapt to her feet, and charged farther into the heart of the garden.
Zuko sat on the white marble steps of the palace. The sounds of the party still chimed happily- music and laughter and animated chatting. He sat underneath a paper lantern, fiddling with the little gold ring and dully watching the light flicker over the band.
"She turned you down?"
Zuko sighed and slid the ring onto his pinky. "What else?" he said.
Iroh sat down next to him. "Good riddance!" he said emphatically.
"What?" Zuko scowled.
"I never liked her," Iroh scowled. "She was just so dour and unhappy all the time. You can do so much better."
"Uncle, my girlfriend refused my proposal and broke up with me an hour ago," Zuko said. "I don't really want to hear about 'doing better' just yet."
"Did she say why she wouldn't marry you?" Iroh inquired.
Zuko slid the ring off his finger and into his palm. "She said that our relationship was just left over from when we were kids," he said. "She said…that she was growing up and she had to let go, and it was time I did too." He looked across the wide courtyard, as if by staring he could bring her back. "So she left."
"Left the party?"
"The party, the palace…I think she left the city," Zuko said. "She's done with me."
Iroh cleared his throat. "You do remember the law, don't you?" he said.
"You mean the one that says the Fire Lord must be married before the fifth year of his rule?" Zuko scowled. "Of course I remember. Why else do you think I tried to propose to Mai?"
"What about that Water Tribe girl?" Iroh suggested. "I always liked her."
Zuko's scowled deepened. He clutched the gold ring until the square ruby in the center dug into his palm. "She's off with the Avatar," he sulked.
Iroh patted Zuko on the arm. "I know you're not fond of the idea, but you remember the letter from the Earth King, right?" he said.
"The one where he offers some poor Earth Kingdom girl to marry me?" Zuko snorted. "Yeah, I remember."
"Why not take him up on the offer?" Iroh said. "I know it isn't your first choice, to accept an arranged marriage, but if you're not married before the end of the summer, the parliament could challenge your right to rule."
Zuko groaned and dropped his head to his hands. "I'll never convince Mai to marry me," he said. "I might as well."
Lots of people write about Zuko and Katara getting forced into an arranged marriage. I thought I'd write about Zuko and Toph. Just for a change of pace. But will they go through with it? Ooh, deep questions.