As strange as the situation was, the question that immediately leaped to Zuko's mind was probably the most trivial. "She's from where?"
"Sunda Island," Uncle Iroh said. "It's one of the smaller islands, one of the 'crumbs' scattered between the main landmass and the Archipelago."
Zuko shook his head, setting his phoenix-tail hair wagging. "I've never heard of it. But never mind that now. Why is she here? Did Mother really send her?"
Iroh gave a small smile, eyebrows raised. "Well, you can always just ask her..."
Biting back a growl, Zuko marched through the doors into his suite's main parlor. Uncle remained in the bedroom, but lurked near the portal, no doubt intending to eavesdrop of the whole conversation. Zuko hardly cared. The Fire Prince focused on the girl still standing at attention in the room's center. She wore red robes reminiscent of a Sage, but the chest armor, and sword at her side, evoked the look of a non-Bender soldier in the Fire Army. She seemed too young, however, to enlist, at best being a year or so older than Azula. Of course, Zuko's little sister cultivated a more mature demeanor. This girl seemed more focused on her professionalism. She didn't move as Zuko approached her, but her eyes tracked him.
Zuko stopped several feet away from her, as though he was addressing a servant. "Explain to me why you're here. Be as detailed as possible. The report you gave my uncle was far from satisfactory."
The girl bowed. "I am Suki of Sunda, a member of the Roku Warriors. It was requested that our Order dispatch a suitable member to your presence. I was given the honor of volunteering."
Zuko frowned. This still didn't make any sense to him. "How does my mother fit into this?"
The girl's face was impassive, but she was no Mai. Her lip quirked as she took a moment too long to respond. "My understanding is that the Queen suggested my mission to the Order. I brought a scroll that should explain things. I didn't read it, it was given to me by..."
Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose and suppressed a sigh. It was always games when his mother and father battled for influence. He couldn't even get mad at them for it, because it was the way of the Fire Nation, and always (as far as he could tell) for his benefit, but the politics surrounding the interactions of the Fire Lord and his Outer Queen were much more up Azula's ally, with all the politics and skullduggery.
He turned back to Suki and said, "That gives me even less incentive to trust you. Do you even know what you stumbled into?"
"Not entirely, but the scroll probably-"
"Why did Uncle even let you in here with weapons?" Zuko began pacing, barely conscious of the act, but it made him feel a little better. It was certainly better than snorting smoke. "In fact, I should call the guards in here and have them-"
Suki stomped right over to him and shoved a scroll in his face. "Read it," she said evenly. A moment later, she added, "Your highness."
Zuko snatched the scroll quickly, and only belatedly realized that he should be worried that it was covered in some kind of poison. Suki was wearing gloves, after all. Zuko still wasn't sure if there was such a thing as a poison coating that could be applied to paper, but Azula liked to taunt him with the idea. Maybe she just wanted to keep him from reading his mail.
Zuko hated the politics of his family.
Fed up with the whole thing, Zuko unrolled the scroll and read.
'I miss you more than anything. As my Chosen, I make offerings to the Spirits that you survive your Father's court and triumph over your sister's machinations. As my son, I hope every day for your health and happiness. You and Azula both have my undying love.
'I have become aware of an important matter. Your sister has arranged for her friends- Mai and Ty Lee- to receive advanced training in their chosen fighting arts. Both have always been talented, in their own ways, but this indicates their real importance to your sister's plans. I know you have never liked spending much time with others your age, and I resisted the urge to hire bodyguards who could masquerade as social acquaintances. But, my dear, you still need allies who can protect you.
'I took the liberty of finding you a friend.
'The Roku Warriors are an Order born of Krakatau Island, where Avatar Roku once made his home. He perished there, battling a volcano long enough for the residents to all escape safely. When the new Avatar failed to appear, the Krakatau survivors felt an obligation to continue their savior's legacy of selfless action, so they formed the Order to right wrongs and protect the weak throughout the Fire Nation. They value Honor every bit as much as I know you do, and they are very skilled.
'I asked for a member about your age, of certain characteristics that I think will help you form a friendship.
'Please be nice.
'Your Proud Mother,
'The Outer Queen,
Zuko looked back up at Suki. His assigned friend. Certainly, she had a stubborn look to her that would probably serve her well in the job. "This says you're to act as my friend and bodyguard."
Suki nodded. "That was my impression."
"You left your home to come spend all your time with an incompetent prince who his own mother thinks is in over his head."
Suki kept a smile off her face, but her cheeks still scrunched in subtle amusement. "Well, you can't be all that bad."
"What about your family? What do they think of this?"
Her face went slack again. "The Order is the only family I have."
Zuko sighed, moved the nearest sofa, and dropped into it. "I don't know about this at all."
"Permission to sit down, your highness?"
Suki eased down right next to him, and smiled at him for the first time. "I don't know about this, either," she said. "But I'm Honor-bound to be the best friend you ever had. I, for one, intend to make the best of it."
"And she's very pretty, too!" Uncle called from the bedroom.
Zuko spun in his seat and snarled, "Thank you for making this even more awkward! Argh!" This time, smoke did shoot out of his nostrils.
The Roku Warrior had been in the Capital for a day by the time Azula got the full story. "It seems Mother saw fit to give Zuko his own young dangerous lady." She gave a single sharp laugh that echoed in the little garden. "Perhaps she's trying to make a new princess while she's at it. We'll have to take care of that, won't we, girls?"
"Ooh," Ty Lee sighed, "I hope we can be all be friends even though we might have to fight and eventually try to assassinate each other. I hate it when everyone takes all this personally."
Mai, of course, said nothing. Neither of the other girls noticed that her thrown knives were slightly off target for the rest of the day.
TO BE CONTINUED...