"...You want us to just go out there and yell that we're Fire Nation?"
"Just be yourself, Mai. Go out there and complain. Loudly," Azula said, waving off her skepticism. "Trust me, if the Dai Li have been working against the Earth King for as long as has been reported, simply arresting their leader changes nothing. There are more secret police in a single block of Ba Sing Se at any given moment than there are in the entire Fire Nation capital. You will certainly be heard, and it will be back to Long Feng within the hour."
Mai scowled. The source of her irritation had less to do with the princess's plan to recruit the Dai Li to her cause, and more with the fact that she had a new faceful of makeup and another day of listening to the Earth King blather to look forward to after this little performance. But that didn't mean she liked the plan either.
"Come on, Mai, it'll be fun. I've always wanted to try acting," Ty Lee said enthusiastically.
The whole show felt frightfully staged to Mai. The gaudy Kiyoshi costume did nothing to dispel the feeling that she had been cast in a bad play. The reason for her deep distaste for the heavy makeup suddenly snapped into place in her mind as she recalled the mind-numbing hours she'd endured in the theatre while her mother wept through overemotional renditions of Flame Eternal: the Tale of Mushan Ra and In the Embers of Love.
Azula, however, seemed confident that the ruse had worked. "Good work, girls," she said, coming up to the pair and glancing around overhead. Mai looked covertly upward too, half-expecting to see a green-garbed spy hanging from the ceiling like an overgrown spiderfrog. "I'm sure the Dai Li will deliver the message. We should expect to hear from this Long Feng sometime in the next day or two."
The Earth King (and the Royal Bear), it turned out, were both heavy sleepers, in the habit of rising late and retiring early. With the exception of a few hours in the afternoon when His Royal Laziness saw fit to come lounge on his oversized chair and talk to his freakshow pet, the "Kiyoshi warriors" had the honor of guarding an empty room for most of the day.
In case someone made off with the throne cushions, Mai supposed.
Ty Lee tried to strike up conversation a few times, only to be curtly reprimanded by Azula. The Fire Princess had a lot on her mind. Unsurprising, given that she was planning to do opportunistically in the next couple days what her father, uncle, and grandfather had been struggling to do for the last couple generations. Attempting to slide in this kind of one-in-a-million victory only months before the coming of Sozin's comet, the opportunity the armies had been waiting for for years now, was just like Azula.
Not for the first time, Mai meditated on the practically supernatural luck that seemed to scurry around after the princess like some particularly fickle spirit, and tried not to be overwhelmed by the sheer insanity of what they had set in motion.
The patter of wild footsteps broke into her thoughts. Mai looked up to find a familiar figure in blue running toward them: the Avatar's water witch, Katara.
A jolt of pure adrenaline slipped down her spine. Azula made no move yet, though so Mai sat as perfectly still as she could (which was pretty darn still, as she'd had plenty of practice over the years). Time for a real test of their disguises.
Remarkably, they held.
"Thank goodness you're here, Suki," Katara gasped. The waterbender was out of breath, as though she'd run through the entire Palace to get here. "Something terrible is going on. The Fire Nation has infiltrated the city—"
Had the Dai Li exposed them after all? Mai glanced at Ty Lee, who tensed to spring.
"—I just saw Prince Zuko and his Uncle! We have to tell the Earth King right away!"
Azula rose smoothly to her feet, even as Mai suddenly felt as though she were paralyzed.
"Oh, don't worry," Azula drawled. "I'll be sure to let him know."
The waterwitch realized her mistake too late. Before she could get into a proper attacking stance, Ty Lee had immobilized her. Shaking off the numb feeling that had settled over her, Mai rose to follow Azula as they gathered around their new prisoner. Water dribbled out of a pouch at her belt, leaving the shocked girl staring up at them from a puddle of her own element.
"So, Zu Zu's in the city too. I think it's time for a family reunion," Azula purred. "For now, though, we'd better put our guest somewhere where she can have some privacy. Why don't you ladies make her comfortable in our quarters."
Katara opened her mouth, probably to shout for help. Mai let a stiletto fall to her hand. "I wouldn't," she advised.
"Gag her," Azula said, bending to pick up a scroll the waterbender had dropped. "And make absolutely sure she's secure." Quizzically, she unrolled the scroll and skimmed it. Her eyes widened visibly. Then her mouth curled into an unbearably smug shape, and she rolled it tightly back up, tucking it into the back of her belt. "We'll have to find some way to reward her later for her all of her help," Azula added, making Katara growl and lunge at her.
Or, rather, growl and twitch in her general direction.
Mai and Ty Lee dragged the glaring bender through the halls with her arms slung over their shoulders, which looked at least somewhat less suspicious than carrying her by her wrists and ankles. With her chi blocked, she hung bonelessly between them, wiggling her fingers and growling furiously against the headband they'd stuffed in her mouth.
They took away her waterskin and bound her tightly with strips Mai cut from the spare sheets (taking no small amount of pleasure in the small act of vandalism).
"We can't just leave her like this. What if she gets loose, or a servant hears her?" Ty Lee scratched her head quizzically.
"Drug her," Mai suggested. "Find the Palace apothecary and tell him one of us is having trouble sleeping at night. Then we can just put her to bed. Azula will come up with something better for long term."
Still gagged, the water witch's hot blue eyes burned like poison. It served her right, in Mai's opinion. There'd been no love lost between them anyway, but after leading them on a wild turtleduck chase all over the Earth Kingdom, this Katara girl had finally managed to get under her skin. She'd finally put the prince from her mind again, and this peasant squealer had to drag him right on back to her attention—and Azula's. Thanks a lot, she found herself thinking, glaring right back.
"Good idea! Say, we're getting pretty good at this undercover stuff, aren't we?"
The Dai Li came a little after midnight.
They were reasonably quiet. Mai probably wouldn't have heard them if she hadn't been awake anyway. Every sound ground against her nerves—the creak of cicadas, the hush of wind around stone buildings, the periodic distant clanking and calls of the ceremonial Palace Guard changing watches in the courtyard below, the rustling of sheets whenever Ty Lee shifted beside her, and the breathing of both her friends and their prisoner, drugged up and arranged in a convincing sleeping pose in Ty Lee's bed.
If they weren't in hostile territory, Mai would have been tempted to take some of the powdered root they'd fed Katara herself.
The scrape of leather boots on the stone windowsill and the faint creak of armor was a welcome distraction. Slitting her eyes almost closed and breathing slowly, Mai watched the two round-helmeted shadows steal across the room to Azula's bed. The scuffle was brief. The princess pretended to struggle just enough to be believable but not long enough to prolong things.
Spiriting people away in the dead of night was evidently old hat for the Dai Li. In less than two minutes after creeping through the window, the agents were gone with the Fire Princess.
Mai counted out five breaths as their footsteps faded down the hall. Then Ty Lee flipped over to face her, her grin gleaming in the dim moonlight. "It worked!" she whispered excitedly. "Things are going just like Azula planned!"
"Yeah," Mai agreed, pretending to be sleepy. She hadn't realized Ty Lee had been awake, and didn't really feel like talking right now.
Subtle hints weren't exactly Ty Lee's strong point, however. "Do you think they'll be back soon?"
She gave a one-shouldered shrug. How was she supposed to know? She wasn't going to worry about Azula until the sun started rising without her return.
"I think this is actually going to work. We're actually going to conquer this giant city with just three people." Ty Lee stifled a giggle with one hand. "Too bad, the Earth King has such a nice aura. Do you think Azula would let me keep Bosco?"
"…Why would you want to?"
"He's so fluffy and friendly! He reminds me of the platypus-bears at Brighttop. I could train him to dance and do somersaults."
Mai rolled her eyes.
"I'm sure you'd like him if you gave him a chance." Ty Lee propped herself up on one elbow, squinting in the darkness to make sure Katara was still unconscious. "Soooo," she said, taking on that catty look that almost always prefaced some incredibly annoying statement. "What do you think Zuko's doing right now?"
Mai curled deeper into the blankets, frowning. Of all the everything she didn't want to talk about, that was the last. "Well, most people sleep in the middle of the night."
"It's such a weird coincidence that he's here too, right when we are," Ty Lee mused. "It's like destiny."
"There's no such thing as destiny," Mai said flatly. "And it's not that weird. It's the biggest city in the world. Everyone in the Mud Kingdom with nowhere better to be is stuck here."
"You're such a killjoy sometimes. Azula wrote in that fake summons that they should come tomorrow. That's so soon. Aren't you excited to see him again?"
"I don't care one way or the other."
"Uh-huh. Is that why you've been tossing and turning all night?"
Sighing, Mai rolled to turn her back on Ty Lee. "It's these scratchy blankets. It's like lying on a pile of sparkthistles."
"It's at least a hundred times more comfy than sleeping on the ground, and you slept fine when we were doing that. Why don't you ever want to talk about Zuko?"
"I haven't seen him in years. I have nothing to say about him."
Ty Lee's voice dropped slightly. "You're worried Azula's going to do something terrible to him, aren't you."
That had crossed her mind.
"Come on, Mai. It'll be fine. He's her brother. If Azula can take down the whole Earth Kingdom, I'm sure she can figure out a way to get Zuko back home in one piece."
Wrong. There was only one throne, after all, and willingness to share had never been a noteworthy characteristic of Azula's personality.
"You're right, Ty Lee. When Zuko and his uncle fall for Azula's trap, she'll probably just invite him back and have a big party, and the Firelord will pardon him and redact his banishment, and everything will be exactly like it was," she deadpanned.
"Hah. You are worried. You still like him, don't you?" Ty Lee said triumphantly.
She sighed through her teeth. Why couldn't anyone ever just leave her alone? "Think what you want. It doesn't matter."
"You'd feel better if you talked about it," she wheedled.
No, Mai was pretty sure she wouldn't. "I'm going to sleep."
"Two seconds ago you said you couldn't sleep on these blankets."
Mai closed her eyes and ignored her friend.
When Azula returned, she was not being dragged by the Dai Li agents. She was leading them. (Surprise, surprise.) With a flick of her hand, the lamps flared to life.
"Azula!" Horrified, Mai yanked the covers to her chin.
"Keep it down, Mai," the princess snapped. "You'll wake someone up. It's the middle of the night."
"Oh, is that why it gets all dark?"
"Don't be such a prude," Ty Lee laughed. "You're wearing a shift and a nightrobe. Hello," she said, turning a coquettish look on the Dai Li. They both flushed awkwardly.
"Not now, Ty Lee," Azula said curtly. "Both of you get up and get dressed immediately. We and our new allies have work to do."
"I will, as soon as they go wait in the sitting room," Mai grated, as Ty Lee practically flounced out of bed in her shift. It didn't even reach to her knees.
Azula rolled her eyes, but made a commanding gesture to the two men who had invaded their bedroom. "We captured the Avatar's waterbender earlier today. Take her on your way out. Is there somewhere secure but unofficial we can store her without the Palace Guard running across her?" She followed them and stood in the doorway, tossing a look back at Mai as though to say, happy now?
No, not particularly. Grudgingly, Mai slid out of bed and grabbed her Kiyoshi garb.
"The Palace is built on top of the Old City and the Catacombs, La—Your Highness," one of the agents replied. They seemed a little uncomfortable addressing the princess. "There are still large portions of it intact but unused. We could seal her in a cave for now."
"Perfect. Take her away. Don't damage her—we may find a use for her later." Azula tapped her lip thoughtfully. "The Old Palace, you say? Is the old throne room still intact?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Full armor and makeup, ladies," Azula said decisively. "Stop sighing, Mai. Have the squad commanders of the Dai Li form up in the old throne room, then come back to take us there. And bring me a Dai Li uniform. We must make sure the city is absolutely secure by the time the Avatar returns. The sooner we take the Palace, the more time the army will have to secure the lower rings. I want the Earth King deposed by dinner tomorrow."
It was unfortunate that her stupid brain had kept her up during the few hours that she might have slept last night. They never made it back to bed. The small hours of the morning were spent 'conspirating', as Ty Lee put it. There was a lot to do: preparing the Dai Li for the idea of a coup, figuring out what individuals of the Earth King's cabinet and ranking officials needed to be secured and when, drawing up time tables and backup plans in case anything went wrong, and various other loose ends. They'd only gone back to their quarters long enough to freshen up their facepaint and have "standing breakfast".
Standing breakfast was one thing while camping, but somehow it was more galling when they were in a Palace with a perfectly well-stocked (if unimaginative) kitchen.
Now Mai and Ty Lee were standing guard at one entrance to the little-used Ambassadorial Wing of the Palace, on the off chance that a curious servant might hear any strange noises and interrupt Azula's plans. The Princess and the lieutenants of the Dai Li had decided the old Fire Nation Suite would be the most convenient stage for one of those "loose ends": rounding up the rogue Fire Nation General and his wayward nephew. According to the Dai Li, nobody ever went there except once or twice a year to sweep up the dust and cobwebs. They were the first Fire Nation "representatives" to enter the Fire Nation Ambassador's suite in over 80 years.
Oh, the irony.
The crash of earthbending sounded distantly, echoing down the hall. She rather congratulated herself on not even flinching or looking that way, but her stomach clenched.
"Oh good, it sounds like they're wrapping up," Ty Lee said, dropping into a backbend to look down the empty hall. "I hope Azula sends us back to the throne room with Bosco."
Ty Lee got her wish. A few minutes later Azula strode up to meet them, sans the four Dai Li she'd left with. "Zuko has been apprehended. General Iroh got away, but he didn't even let Dum-Dum out of his sight to be banished. He's sure to be back. You girls make sure the Earth King is secure while the Dai Li and I take out his retainers and generals." Azula tapped thoughtfully on her lip and lowered her voice. "We have to be quick on our feet today. Some of the lieutenants just went to free Long Feng. He'll try to be trouble." The princess rolled her eyes at that. "The Dai Li understand this coup is vital to their interests at the moment, but they may balk at a full occupation." Scowling, she concluded, "I want you two to stay clear today as much as is practical. Report to the throne room and stay there until I say otherwise. Keep up your disguises as long as you can, but make sure the Earth King doesn't budge until we're ready. Tell him 'Suki' is still out with Katara.""
The two girls exchanged dismayed looks. "We're just babysitting the Mud King during the whole coup?" Mai repeated. They were finally doing something exciting, something that could keep her mind off of things, and Azula wanted them to just sit it out? It wasn't fair.
"I'll need both of you to hold down this city until the army gets here, so I want you both in top form later," Azula explained brusquely. "There aren't many pieces on the board on our side, but it's just barely enough to work with. Unless we're very lucky, I'll probably need to make use of Zuzu too."
"What makes you think Zuko would help?" Mai asked, carefully neutral.
"Simple. I can offer him the one thing he wants more than anything," Azula smirked. "Come on, I have things to do. I don't have all morning to listen to you complain."
The Earth King accepted their claim that Suki and Katara had gone to the spas without question, though he had plenty of excited questions about how the three of them had spent the morning. He didn't get out much. The overgrown child enjoyed listening to the tales of their wild escapades in Ba Sing Se as much as Ty Lee enjoyed making them up. Mai counted tiles on the ceiling and tried not to wonder where Azula had stashed her brother while the Earth King swallowed one outrageous story after another.
"That reminds me," he said suddenly, perking up. "Your other friends are back!"
For a split second Ty Lee was thrown for a loop, but she quickly rebounded, replying brightly as Mai actually started listening to their exchange. "All of them? Where did they go?"
"Yes, it was Aang, Sokka, and Toph," the king said, ticking them off on his long fingers. "They probably went to the house where they had been staying to find Suki and Katara."
Ty Lee met Mai's blank face with a taut grin that looked like it had been painted there. The Avatar wasn't supposed to be back for another five days. This was the worst possible timing. Even now the generals and cabinet were being rounded up.
"It's unfortunate that we missed them," Mai said smoothly. "We'll have to catch up with them later. I didn't know they would be back so early."
"Well, they said something about Katara being in trouble," the Earth King shrugged. "I don't know where they got that idea."
"That's great, because now we get to spend more time with them," Ty Lee quickly jumped in before he started to speculate.
"Suki has been missing them especially," Mai hinted. "Maybe we should go tell her they're back."
"But she wanted us to stay here and protect the Earth King and Bosco," her friend said, biting her lip. "I don't think she wants us interrupting while she's at the spa."
Mai struggled for a good metaphor. "Right, but…they might accidentally run into each other at the spa." She winced internally.
The Earth King was (understandably, for once) perplexed. "But that would be good, wouldn't it? That would be such a nice surprise."
"Because…" Mai cast about, seizing on Ty Lee's earlier teasing accusation. "Suki's such a prude. She might be embarrassed if the boys saw her there."
"Modesty is becoming in a young lady," the Earth King acceded, though he still looked a little confused.
"Right," Ty Lee managed, obviously struggling not to giggle. If she laughed right now, honestly— "But if our friends went back to the house to find them, maybe by the time they go looking for Suki and Katara, the girls will already be done at the spa, so they'll be all ready to hang out."
Mai moved to stick her hands up her sleeves, then remembered she was wearing inferior girly clothes that cinched inconveniently at the wrists. She turned the gesture into a shrug, hoping it hadn't been too awkward. "That is…possible," she said reluctantly.
"Oh, well it's no problem," the Earth King interrupted, pleased. "Here they are now!"
"Thank goodness we're in time!" cried the Water tribe peasant boy, running to them with the little Mudbender girl at his heels—Toph, Mai surmised. The Avatar had apparently found better things to do.
The Earth King blinked. "In time for what?"
The scrimmage that ensued was brief, and cut short far too quickly.
"This fight is over," rang out Azula's voice.
Mai turned, knife in hand, to see the princess on the dais, holding a flame to the terrified-looking Earth King's head. The Avatar's friends immediately halted their attack, surrendering. Once they were disabled Azula shoved the hapless king impatiently to one of the Dai Li agents that had accompanied her.
"Get them all out of my sight," she ordered, giving Ty Lee and Mai a nod. "Come back here when they're secured."
The Dai Li led them down to the dungeons of the Palace, where they put the Avatar's friends and the king in a dank cell. Strangely enough, the dungeons were almost comforting. The walls and doors and even the floor were iron, clanking under the Dai Li's feet as though they were back in the Fire Nation. It made sense, Mai supposed, since they probably were built to hold earthbenders.
One of the agents started to shove the bear into an adjoining cell, but Ty Lee stopped him.
"Wait! I'm keeping him!" she said, hugging one of the bear's furry arms. The bear make an odd moaning sound as Mai and the Dai Li exchanged looks. Apparently the agents felt the same away about the silly animal as she did.
"What's that animal doing here? I ordered you to put them all away," Azula said when they got back. She was lounging on the throne, talking to a crestfallen man who, by the looks of it, must have spent at least five hours every day pruning carefully pruning his hair. The thready mustaches of the Earth Kingdom nobles completely mystified Mai. Was it purposeful, or were they just incapable of growing thicker beards?
"Can't I keep him, Azula?" Ty Lee wheedled.
"Whatever." The princess made an impatient gesture. "The Dai Li have new uniforms for you. Get changed, then come back and meet us here. We have work to do. I'm going to go collect Prince Zuko. Once we've got the Palace secured we'll deal with the traitor and the Avatar." She turned to the thread-bearded man. "You have your orders, Long Feng. Get to it."
"Yes, Highness," he said with a stiff bow.
Little bits and snatches of reflection had managed to sneak through the cracks of Mai's determination not to think about the issue over the course of the last several days, and as she sat on the steps of the royal dais of Ba Sing Se, they all finally piled into a single conclusion:
She did not want to see Zuko.
All the prince brought into her life, she had realized, was complication. Confused feelings, difficult politics, unreasonable expectations from her parents, tension with Azula. The last three years…well, they hadn't been fun, exactly, but there had been decidedly less wire-walking. In fact, they were practically peaceful compared to when she and Zuko had been in courtship. Or so it seemed, looking back from this moment.
Inconveniently, now that she had come to this conclusion, it didn't matter, because Azula was off to get him. From some dungeon. To be another pawn in her crazy machinations.
Wonderful. What could possibly go wrong?
Ty Lee clearly had no such misgivings. Something of much more vital import had monopolized her attention.
"Come on, it's easy," she was saying to her new pet. She had been trying for the last several minutes to teach it tricks, without much success. "You just walk on your front paws instead of your rear ones. Like this."
She demonstrated for the fifth time in as many minutes, then gasped. Mai glanced over to see her friend stuck in a backbend, her hands and feet encased in the floor.
"That is a nice trick," piped a little voice.
The Avatar's friends and the moron king had somehow magicked themselves out of a metal cell, Mai observed dully. How typical of them. The Water Tribe boy raised his boomerang and the little Mud girl stomped up a boulder, like they expected Mai to attack.
She could pretty well guess what they wanted.
"Just take the bear," Mai said, exasperated. Like it mattered. Like anything mattered.
Ty Lee did not feel the same way. "Mai! How could you let them just walk out with Bosco?" she practically wailed after they had fled.
Sighing, she dragged herself to her feet, looking around for something to chip at the stone encasing her friend's hands and feet. Appealing though the idea was on some levels, it probably wasn't a very friendish thing to do to just leave her friend trapped like that.
"It's just a stupid animal, Ty Lee. You'll get over it." An engraved torch casing seemed like her best bet. Lifting it out of its wall sconce, Mai dumped the burning brand unceremoniously on the stone floor to burn out, and went back over to where Ty Lee was stuck in the floor. This was just so stupid, on so many levels. Her whole life right now was stupid. The entire world was stupid for existing.
"That's terrible. You're heartless," the other girl accused.
Wouldn't that be nice. "If you say so," Mai said dispassionately.
By the time Azula returned, they had only managed to unstick one of Ty Lee's hands.
"I can't leave you alone for half an hour?" she drawled, gesturing curtly to the gaggle of Dai Li agents following her. Seconds later the floor obligingly let go of the acrobat.
Out of the entire hateful world, Mai probably hated benders the most.
"You four, pull up some tables in here. We'll use the throne room as a headquarters for now," Azula was ordering as Mai helped Ty Lee stiffly to her feet. "Get parchment and messenger hawks. And lock down the compound. I don't want anyone entering or exiting the Palace until I say otherwise. Send guards down to the dungeons where the Avatar's friends and the Earth King are being held—the waterbender might attempt to rescue them. Kill her on sight. Mai, Ty Lee—"
"They're already gone," Ty Lee said, sounding actually irate for possibly the first time in her life. "They kidnapped Bosco, and now they're gone."
"Oh?" Surprisingly, Azula's expression was one of sardonic amusement rather than rage. "No matter, the Avatar is dead."
Well, that was easy.
"There's not much his ragtag little friends can do now," she went on. "Both of you go down and check the dungeons anyway. Check the cell for weaknesses and figure out how they escaped. We've captured Uncle, and I wouldn't want him to…go missing."
Azula directed this last to a scruffy Earth Kingdom servant who had tailed along with the Dai Li. He looked away sullenly to stare at the floor. Mai only caught a glimpse of the angry scar that savaged his face and realized he wasn't a servant as she and Ty Lee bowed and turned to obey.
Zuko was gone by the time they came back to the throne room to report the bizarre case of the crumpled metal cell door. In their absence, the earthbenders had literally turned large chunks of the travertine floor into tables. Several large maps and documents were rolled out and held flat with what looked like more bits of the floor, and Dai Li agents and a couple servants were hustling this way and that with hawks and more scrolls and strips of rare burgundy and black fabric that looked as though they had been cut from dusty robes and seat cushions. The Princess was in the thick of it, dribbling wax from a candle onto a scroll casing.
"Mai, come here," Azula ordered, pressing her signet ring into the hot wax then handing the scroll over to the servant, who fumblingly tied it with a burgundy strip of cloth and attached it to a hawk's outstretched claw. A second scroll was thrust toward Mai.
"A temporary field commission. You're to report directly to me as acting lieutenant colonel until the official surrender of Ba Sing Se, and I'm assigning a squadron of 350 Dai Li agents to your command. Once the army has entered and our occupation is secure, your commission will expire. Don't worry. I won't expect you to report to morning drills once we're finished here." Azula smirked a little.
Mai unrolled the parchment and stared at the briskly-drawn characters, not really reading it. "…Ok?"
"We have seized the tiger-snake's head, but our grip is still tenuous. We must paralyze the body. The population must be kept calm and ignorant until our hold on the city is firm and it is too late for them to rebel. Don't worry about Long Feng or Zuko for now. I'll be keeping them under my eye. I'm going to arrange for the formal surrender and the army's invasion, and ensure the peaceful turnover of the lower rings. I will be busy and I will need Ty Lee with me to keep any troublesome benders cooperative. You will keep the Palace locked down in the meantime."
"I see," said Mai.
The memory of the farcical prisoner exchange was playing vividly through her mind. The thrilling power, the pressing responsibility, all ultimately a façade. From the start, really, because Azula had been there all along, to take over if she had faltered.
This was a little more involved than trading a nutcase for a baby. All the entrances and exits to the compound were to be kept secured, the guards watching over the prisoners monitored, the hundreds of royal staff and the administrative offices kept subdued and continuing in their duties, any attempts at resisting the takeover quelled before they could gain traction. More prisoners would be coming in to be held temporarily, officials and leaders who could be considered a threat to the fragile occupation. Mai was to see to it that the compound was kept running as close to normal as possible, keeping a lid on the fall of Ba Sing Se until the Princess was ready to declare her victory.
Illustrating with lists of names and maps of the compound, Azula explained exactly what she expected over the next few days in black-and-white sentences, curt and concise. It was the same brisk, pedantic voice she had always used when they were kids, blathering on about long-finished wars, and Mai hadn't slept last night. She yawned.
"Pay attention! This is very important," the other girl snapped. "I'm sorry, is this not entertaining enough for you? This is not a 'baby-sitting' mission, Mai. There will be serious repercussions if you fail me this time. Would letting the greatest victory of the war so far slip out of our grasp and being executed by the mud people be less boring to you?"
Mai didn't dare roll her eyes. "Of course not, Princess. It's just…."
A lot. A soldier's job. A leader's job.
"You were there for the occupation of Omashu. You must have learned something. I know your limits, Mai. Doubting yourself is doubting my judgment. You don't doubt my judgment, do you?"
"No, Princess," Mai said. It was unclear to herself as she said it whether or not she was lying. Not that it mattered. There was no other acceptable answer.