Thanks to Avocado Love for beta'ing!
- KILLER PAWN -
Chapter 01: Sleepover
Unlike most people who visited the Fire Nation's Royal Palace, Mai was not required to buy a ticket. The guards waved her through the service entrance without even asking to see her authorization. Azula had a servant telephone her to come over often enough that her face merited no curiosity.
Inside, the household staff conducted themselves with stoic professionalism. Maids glided silently through the perfumed halls. Servants went about cleaning and polishing the palace's trove of national treasures. Guards in gold trimmed red-and-black spiky armor patrolled the halls, possibly on high alert for wayward Earth Kingdom tourists looking for a bathroom. Mai ignored them all just as she did the palace's ostentatious splendor. Both were only meant for show.
A deaf-mute servant from the royal household staff was waiting outside Azula's private study. She bowed deeply, then opened the door.
"Ah! You're early. Please, sit. The tea is almost ready."
The door closed and locked behind Mai.
"My nephew tells me you enjoy Kuding tea. Not the most popular drink outside the healing houses, but I think it shows a strong sense of character to appreciate such bitterness. Please stand up."
Mai peeled herself off the floor. She might not have been a monarchist like Uncle, but she knew when to kowtow. "Your Majesty, this one is humbled by such an unexpected delight.
The Fire Lord laughed from his belly. "Your mother taught you well, Lady Mai, but I do not think your rank demands such utter submission."
She sat in a chair. "I am not a noblewoman, Your Majesty."
"You are the budding flower of womanhood. That makes you a lady in my book." He flashed her a smile that Mai assumed must have been charming to a different sort of woman fifty years ago. "Besides, I hardly think your parents raised you to believe in the excesses of republicanism."
This was true, but it was also not a tactful line of conversation to pursue. The Fire Lord thankfully changed topics. "I understand you have been blessed with a baby brother."
As they made brainless small talk about Tom-Tom, the Fire Lord took handleless teacups into his hands and began warming them with his firebending. For a man who poked fun at egalitarianism, he had an unsettling way of reversing the standards of decorum. Not that she could ever impress a tea master with her own presentation ability.
At least the tea smelled excellent.
Iroh filled up the opposite side of the desk. His grey hair was pulled up in an old-fashioned top-knot, boasting the five pronged headpiece of the Fire Lord. It seemed oddly natural on him, not like how Zuko and Azula were self-conscious of the headpieces they donned for state functions. The image of dignified royalty, however, took a mortal blow from the sight of Fire Lord Iroh fussing over his tea set like a perfectionist maid.
Although perfect is what the tea turned out to be: sharply bitter, followed by a hint of sweet, medicinal coolness on her tongue. Mai could not remember a better cup, even if the Fire Lord winced at his own brew.
"Bracing," he choked out.
Afterwards, they set their teacups aside.
"Now," Iroh began, "I'm sure you're wondering why I deceived you. I won't keep you in suspense any longer, Lady Mai. The crown has a request of you." He offered up his palms. "And this is going to sound really strange, so please do not throw one of your knives at me. I am just an old man and my reflexes are slow."
Mai very much doubted that last part.
"I want you to summer with my nephew on Ember Island."
The Fire Lord smiled again, this time too widely. Sweat beaded his forehead. "Prince Zuko and a representative from the Earth Kingdom will be helping to train a special student, and the politics involved are vital to the Fire Nation's reunification."
"You see, the Avatar has returned."
She stared at the Fire Lord, waiting to see if he was telling another joke, but he didn't have a good straight face. "Which Water Tribe is the Avatar from?"
"Neither. It is the lost airbender. Before you ask, Avatar Aang is still only sixteen. It is very complicated."
Mai filed that away for later. There was a more pressing, mundane issue to deal with. "I'm guessing my father already volunteered me for this, since he's not here and you're not Azula."
The Fire Lord's smile was pleasant, self-assured, and utterly unrevealing of whatever he might have been thinking. Mai was struck by the thought that this is what she probably would have been raised to act like if she had been born a boy, and what Tom-Tom would look like in his old age.
Iroh said, "I'm meeting with you because I want to give you a choice in the matter."
"So you wanted to waste both our time."
"Good tea is never a waste, Lady Mai."
On that note, he refilled their cups.
She asked, "So why Zuko?"
"Avatars can live for a long time. Their friendship is a greater prize than any jewel, one that be inherited by Zuko's children after he becomes Fire Lord. Any noble can be elected Grand Secretariat, but the position isn't hereditary. The royal family can provide that service to the state."
Which made a certain amount of sense if you were a monarchist, which Mai wasn't, so long as Zuko didn't ostracize himself from high society like Lu Ten had. Mai let the topic drop. It had been settled before she had even stepped into the room. "You think this new Avatar will really help the Fire Nation?"
"He is the only one who can," the Fire Lord replied. "No matter what the militarists think, we will never possess sufficient force of arms to retake all the islands the Earth Kingdom expelled us from. Only the Avatar can restore balance to the world."
"And you both want me to... what? Convince the Avatar of the righteousness of our cause?" Wonder of wonders, she managed to say that without throwing up a little in her mouth.
Iroh rested clasped hands on his belly. "No. The Grand Secretariat and I have an even more essential task for you to complete."
"We want you to make some friends."
. . .
"Wooo! Road trip!"
"Sokka, get off the bison."
"Aang, buddy, you gotta relax. In a few days it's going to be sandy beaches, skimpy swimsuits, and all the free meat a royal chef can prepare. Nothing could possibly go wrong!"
"That may be true, but your luggage isn't packing itself."
"Eh, you do mine, I'll do yours."
"I don't believe in worldly goods, Sokka."
"You should really try. They're a lot of fun."
"Well, while you're busy with Appa, I'm going to go keep Katara company. Maybe get in a little private practice. Y'know, waterbending like waterbenders do."
"You know what's also fun to try, Aang?"
. . .
Unlike the previous night's feast, which Sokka still pleasantly enjoyed in his full stomach, their final send-off was private. It took place in a snowfield east of their grandmother's village, early enough that most everyone was still asleep.
Mom might have said something when she hugged him goodbye, but it was mostly lost in her tears. Sokka felt vaguely unmanly about the whole thing. He let it slide. For his Mom's sake.
Gran-Gran was more prosaic. "Don't get any girls in a family way, grandson."
"Kanna!" Mom said.
"That goes the same for you, Avatar."
Aang rubbed his head sheepishly. "Wouldn't think of it, Gran-Gran."
The look she shot him said everything there was to say about what Gran-Gran thought of young men off adventuring. Sokka had to admit he'd had a few thoughts of his own along those lines since Aang asked him to go along. This adventure would be his last chance for fun for a long time. Come autumn, it was off to the Naval Academy.
"Don't forget to write," Katara said, hugging him. "And make sure Aang doesn't skip practicing his waterbending forms. Just because he's the Avatar doesn't mean he gets to stop exercising."
"Don't worry. I'll keep the airhead in line."
Aang cleared his throat. "Good luck performing at the New Moon Celebration, Katara. I wish I could be there, but I'm sure you'll do great."
Katara blushed. "Thanks."
The monk and his sister suddenly found other things to look at when the silence between them stretched out. The whole thing gave Sokka the oogies. Bad enough that he'd walked in on them kissing, but at least it was over once they'd broken up a few weeks later. Or so he had thought.
Aang, he decided, needed a new girlfriend, fast.
"Have fun, Sokka," Dad said, thankfully breaking the tension, "and remember to make your family proud."