The families that served the Fire Lord were very old. They traced their lineages back three, four hundred years and had gained a certain type of nobility in their own right. They held no lands, nor commanded any armies, but they were acknowledged and honored throughout the Fire Nation.
To be a part of the Fire Lord's household was a privilege. To become skilled required the utmost of dedication. They were the keepers of the Fire Nation's rules of rituals and etiquettes. As much as the ancient order of Fire Sages, those who served the Fire Lord's house kept wisdom alive through the dark years.
And not just Fire Nation rituals; the rituals between the other Nations and their responses were included in their wisdom. How a Fire Nation child must greet an Earth Kingdom elder. How a Water Tribesman might court an Air Bender nun. How an Earth Kingdom swordsman might challenge a Fire Nation Noble to a game of pai sho. How much money a Fire Bender owed the spouse of the loser of an Agni Kai in recompense.
Secretly, the Firelord's servants had kept the knowledge of all of these rituals alive, in anticipation of the Avatar's eventual return. The families had never lost their faith, even as they served the Firelord's House. The families always knew that their first loyalty was first to the Fire Nation, second to the House of the Firelord, and only then to the Firelord.
Since Firelord Zuko had ascended the throne, scrolls that had been hidden for a hundred years had been resurrected from their hiding places by the families. Rituals that Firelord Sozin had decreed out of fashion or even down right illegal were now observed again in the Firelord's Court.
Ship's Master Wen was the oldest member of the families that served the Firelord's House. Wen had travelled with General Iroh most of his adult life, serving as his Ship's Master or House Master until Iroh had gone into exile in the Earth Kingdom. He had been with Iroh through many of the man's famous adventures. A soothsayer had predicted, at Wen's birth, that he would be the Fire Lord's own right hand. Thusly, Wen had been raised with the aim of serving Fire Lord Iroh.
When Iroh lost his son, Wen had been the one to coax him to eat and drink. He had been the one to stand between Iroh and his own sword. The one to witness the man's tears and rages until they had run their course.
That had been too late to prevent Iroh's brother from usurping the Fire Nation throne, of course. All through those years at sea, Wen had cooked for Iroh, procured his tea, washed his clothes, made his bed, done all those things that must happen invisibly.
Of course, Iroh had always seen Wen. Iroh saw everyone. That was why Iroh was such a dangerous man.
When Zuko had ascended the throne, Iroh had asked Wen to take care of Zuko. Much wisdom and dignity had been lost due to the former Fire Lord's folly. Wen and the others who served the Fire Lord's House were charged with restoring the old ways.
Which was why Wen found himself having a late morning meal with this young chit of a girl who was trying to arrange a banquet for a Court of the Four Nations, without the vaguest idea of what she was doing.
These outlanders were so very strange to Wen. The girl was a noble and had the posture and bearing, but Wen was beginning to believe she did not quite understand the stature of her guests.
Last night, Firelady Mai and Avatar Aang had conveyed Wen to the Duke Vedris and Lady Sandralene's fortress on the Avatar's air bison. He had come to help Sandrilene with the arrangements and ceremonies of the banquet and Court.
Fire Lord Zuko was not one to stand on ceremony, but as Wen reminded him, these rules of etiquette were deep and meaningful. The Fire Lord was not just a person. The Fire Lord was the Heart of the Fire Nation and people needed to see that. It made them feel safe in their leader.
More, if they were to find Air Nomads who remembered the old ways, Wen reasoned, perhaps it was best if they used the old ways of doing things while they were here. It would be another way of offering a gesture of respect.
"Do you think eight courses would be too much?" asked the Lady Sandrilene, rather carelessly.
Eight was an auspicious number. Wen nodded slowly, "Eight courses, yes. Eight is the number of prosperity. Eight courses first, and then I suppose eight more after the entertainment."
Sandrilene blinked at him. "Eight...more?"
Wen studied the girl, "Yes." Wen wondered if there had been a bad harvest, or if perhaps sixteen was unlucky here. She seemed discomfited.
"That's an awful lot of food." Sandrilene remarked, cautiously.
Wen looked down at the two platters of food that had been set in front of he and the Lady a moment ago by her maid. Oddly, they had placed the platter right in front of him.
Under his teacup, there was a small plate. It was a different arrangement, but Wen supposed he could cope. He drew his own chopsticks from his sleeve and set them on the table, waiting for the hostess to begin her repast.
She filled their teacups from the small pot her servants had brought, without removing them from the plates. She then poured milk into her tea from a small jug. Wen would have to tell Iroh about that. The man would be very interested in tasting it.
She then picked up one of the multiple forks on the table and shoveled food directly off the platter closest to herself into her mouth.
Wen blinked, trying not to stare at the girl. He also quelled the urge to slap her hand and send her to sit in the corner until she could eat like a human being, as he would have done with his own child.
At least she shut her mouth as she chewed.
Wen slipped his teacup from his plate, used the fork set near the platter to serve himself a reasonable portion of the meat and egg dish. He avoided anything he couldn't identify. Some of the things on the platter he didn't even like to guess at.
The Lady Sandrilene looked at him curiously. Perhaps she thought that, as Wen was technically a servant, she could get away with eating like a swine.
Wen made sure none of that uncharitable thought showed on his face as he took up his chopsticks and plate.
Sandrilene swallowed her food and then tilted her head to the side. She seemed very awkward, as well she might, given her lack of finesse.
"How do you use those?" she asked, after a moment, indicating his chopsticks.
Without a word he stretched out his hand to show her how the chopsticks were grasped. Wen had noted that none of these outlanders ate in anything approaching a civilized fashion, so, perhaps the girl just didn't know better than to eat off a platter.
The Lady smiled happily, "Would you show me how to do that?" she asked.
Wen nodded gravely at her, "Of course, Lady. I taught the Firelord Zuko, the Princess Azula and General Iroh's son. I can certainly tutor you. When we have some time, of course." Wen left out the fact that the children had all been three years old.
"So, I've made seating chart." The Lady Sandrilene told him, "And, I was wondering if there was any particular decorations or flowers traditional for a formal banquet." She put a parchment onto the table and a few bits of cloth, "Now I thought I'd use white table linens since this is going to be so..."
Wen cut her off, feeling a little shocked, "White table linens?" he asked.
"Well, yes." She replied, "Since they go with everything, after all."
"Is your family in mourning?" asked Wen, seriously.
"Mourning?" the girl said, sounding confused.
"I can't think of any other reason why one would put white on the table. Unless it is a funeral dinner." Wen wanted to shake the girl now. Was she trying to insult the Fire Lord?
"White is a funeral color?"
"Obviously." Wen took a deep breath, trying to remain serene.
"Oh...ahhh...would blue be all right?" Sandrilene asked tentatively.
Wen nodded, He'd seen that the castle standard was a blue and green color scheme, "Since you are hosting Court, it is traditional to use the colors of your own house."
"But not white?"
"Lady, I do not think you want that sort of omen hovering over your hall." Wen replied, gravely.
The girl was silent for a long moment, "No, I wouldn't" she said in a subdued voice, "So, I had thought to put Lord Zuko, Lady Mai and Prince Sokka at the high table. I'll put Aang, Katara and Toph at the second table with the mages and dedicates."
Wen was already shaking his head, "The Avatar and his consort must be at the high table." he said with finality, "The Avatar's chair goes to the right of the hosts. The Avatar's Consort, the Sifu Katara sits to the right of him. The next to the right would be the Fire Lord and the Fire Lady. Prince Sokka and the Lady Toph should be seated to the left of the hosts."
The Lady frowned, "We don't generally seat mages or dedicates at the high table. I mean, I combined the head table and the second table at the last banquet, but this is much more formal. I'm inviting the local nobles and they might take it amiss. I'm sure the Fire Lord and Prince Sokka don't want to start negotiations on a sour note."
Wen stared. He had suspected, now he was sure, that the Lady had no idea whom she was hosting, "Neither the Fire Lord nor the Prince Sokka will negotiate without the presence of The Avatar." he told her harshly, "The Fire Lord Zuko is the first Fire Lord in a hundred years to rule with the Mandate of Heaven. He will not jeopardize that."
"The Mandate of Heaven?" asked the girl blankly.
Wen nodded, "The blessing of the Spirit World." He put his plate and his chopsticks down, "The Avatar is not a formal man, but these rituals must be observed. It shows the people that the Peace is real. Every noble house in every nation has restored these rituals."
Sandrilene blinked, "But, how can a dedicate..? I mean, you talk as though the Avatar outranks the Fire Lord? I mean..."
"The Avatar is no mere monk." Wen told her sternly, "He is the bridge between the Spirit World and this. If we speak of rank, the Avatar must outrank the ruler of each of the Four Nations. Did you not see the Fire Lord bow before him?"
"Uhh...I wasn't there when the Fire Lord arrived...I heard that the Fire Lord and Aang were close friends..." the girl trailed off.
"The Peace of the Four Nations is due to the presence of the Avatar. Avatar Aang and his companions defeated the former Fire Lord and placed then-Prince Zuko on the throne. He ended the Hundred Year War." Wen was not going to go into the whole detail of the thing.
The Lady's eyes were huge, "So...he's your ruler?" she was looking a little frightened now.
Wen shook his head, "No, he advises. Each Nation is ruled by their own leader, but the Four Nations are held together by the Avatar."
"Oh." The girl said.
Suddenly, all the color drained out of the girl's face. Wen sat ready to wake her from a swoon, she was so pale. He noticed that her hands had started shaking.
"Lady?" he asked carefully, wondering if he should reassure the girl that the Avatar was very slow to take insult.
"I need to talk to my Uncle, right away." She said, sounding frightened, "Something terrible has happened." She stood and her maid came forward, "Would you have the chief cook meet with Master Wen?" she told the maid, who nodded.
"I'm sorry," Sandrilene said, "I just..." she didn't finish and fairly ran from the room.
Wen was puzzled. It seemed to him that the high born girl was a trifle high strung, but now he wondered if she was sickly and given to bouts of panic.
"Don't mind her, Master Wen." the maid told him, clearly seeing his bafflement, "She can talk in her head with her foster sisters and brother. It's a mage thing. She gets that far away look when she hears them." the maid looked worried, "Seems like one of them gave her some bad news."
It would be several hours before Master Wen heard that the Avatar had been kidnapped.