- KILLER PAWN -
Chapter 06: Consideration
The office was furnished in sumptuous style. Trophies from the admiral's long family history of service to the Dragon Throne filled the room. Ty Lee felt that history gradually press down on her chest like bent stone, suffocating her as she sat perched on her seat.
Zhao stood at the window to the rear of his grand desk, hands clasped behind his back. His figure was a looming black terror against the clean sunlight. Ty Lee couldn't bring herself to look at the admiral. "If you don't cooperate," he warned, "you know what will happen to your family, girl."
Ty Lee sobbed into her sleeve.
Zhao strode around his desk and stood over her. "Is your father's life worth your defiance? Your mother's? Tell me what I want to know!"
Sniffling, Ty Lee lowered her arm. "You're asking me to hurt someone I love. And the worst part is that I'm considering it."
He knelt down, bringing himself eye-level with her. With a clench fist, he demanded, "Tell me where the crown prince is hiding!"
"No!" Ty Lee twisted away. "I'll never talk! I'd die before I betrayed the revolution!"
Zhao threw out an arm and pointed out the window to the courtyard below. "Do you think anyone would stop me if I order an execution squad assembled? TELL. ME. WHERE. PRINCE AZULON. IS!"
And on that cue, the door to Zhao's office was thrown open.
"Azulon!" Ty Lee cried.
"Ilah!" said Li.
"I knew you'd come for me!"
"Yes," said Zhao, rising, fists igniting, "the prince has come - TO HIS DOOM!"
"Aaaaaaaaand cut!" Daoyan hopped out of his Director's chair, clapped enthusiastically. "Great take, people. I could really feel the sizzling emotion."
"I don't see why I can't just say the prince has come to his 'death.' 'Doom' is just so over the top."
Daoyan said, "Zhao, buddy, we've been over this. The censors just don't like the word 'death' in family movies."
"So I can threaten to execute people, but I can't use the word 'death'." Zhao snorted. "Why do we even bother caring about the censors? Unless they read lips, they won't know what I'm saying."
Ty Lee hugged her co-star's arm. "I didn't think it was over the top at all. You were very menacing."
"Hmm. You think so?"
"Totally!" Ty Lee slipped off him. She gave Zhao a pat on the back. "I can't wait to see what you do with the agni kai scene."
Zhao relaxed. "Well, who am I to argue with the most popular, beautiful actress in the world?"
While Zhao was distracted, Daoyan gave her a thumbs up. Ty Lee winked back. Zhao could get a little too wound up at times, trying to give an 'immortal' performance as he called it.
An assistant came up to her, a bouquet of red-veined soot irises in hand. Ty Lee took them and breathed in their perfume. Her favorite! But who could have known?
Daoyan frowned at the rear at the stage. "Hey hey hey. Who are they and how'd they get into my studio?"
"Who's they?" Ty Lee asked, turning to look. "MAI!"
. . .
Jaw hanging loose, Sokka watched as Ty Lee - the Ty Lee - sprinted over towards him in all her bouncy glory. The only flaw in this dream come true was that instead of hugging him, Ty Lee threw herself at the ox headed sourpuss. Sokka tried and succeeded at not letting that distract him from Ty Lee - the Ty Lee - hugging another girl.
Damn it, he had to keep it together. Not freak out in the presence of a gorgeous movie star.
"Mai! It's so good to see you! What are you doing in Ever-Ash City?" She spared a glance for him. "And who's this cutie?"
Cutie? Him? Him!
Okay, he might have peed himself a little hearing that.
Keep it together, Sokka. Be a man. Be THE man.
"H~i," he said, voice cracking.
Ty Lee, still hugging Mai's left arm, held up her bouquet. "You remembered."
"How could I forget? Only you would like such ugly flowers because they complement your aura. They make it look a chimney vomited all over you."
"Oh Mai, you haven't changed one bit!" Ty Lee tugged on the other girl's limp arm. "C'mon, let's go have lunch together! I know this little hole in the wall that serves the best Hot and Numbing Fish."
Mai asked, "Don't you have...?"
"Oh? My scenes are done for the day."
"They are?" Daoyan called out from across the studio.
"Yup!" said Ty Lee, smiling. "Come on!"
. . .
This time as they walked through the film lot, the Water Tribe idiot wasn't busy rubbernecking at everything. Instead his eyes were, ugh, glued onto Ty Lee. Next time Mai got stuck with a mission, she was bringing that Kyoshi clown along instead.
"How'd you even get past security?" Ty Lee asked.
"I'm an elite warrior who's trained for many years in the art of stealth. I think I can get myself backstage." As they passed the guard at the front gate, Mai pressed a wad of yuan into his waiting palm. "Here's the other half."
Ty Lee's little hole in the wall turned out to be anything but, with a kowtowing staff immaculately dressed in uniforms styled after those of a royal Fire Nation servant. Their manners were risible imitations of the real thing, although Mai supposed nearly everyone who dined here had no basis for comparison. It wasn't like anyone from the ruling class would go slumming in the Earth Kingdom colonies. Even Lu Ten lived with his empty-headed divorcee on the mainland Earth Kingdom. Ty Lee, on the other hand, had her own booth.
At least the fish was both hot and mouth-numbing.
"So you're playing Azula's grandmother," Mai said.
"A member of the royal family."
"Isn't that illegal without the Fire Lord's approval?"
"Is it?" Ty Lee wondered aloud, not looking up from drawing smiley faces in the steam condensation on her tea cup. "Oh gosh, then they might arrest me if I ever went back home. I really shouldn't ever go."
Mai smiled, small and tight.
Sokka, who had tucked the table cloth into his lap, spoke with his mouth full of boar-q-pine bun, "I'm kinda surprised that they're letting you make a movie with a hero Fire Lord." He belatedly swallowed, then took a big gulp of spiced tea. "From what I've seen lately, you people and the colonials get along like rat-vipers and cat-mongooses."
"They change the title cards for each nation," Ty Lee explained. "So the story's a little different for everybody. That way, nobody gets upset!"
"Each nation?" Sokka asked.
"The Fire Nation and," Ty Lee's hand fluttered around, indicating the room and colonial city beyond them, "the Earth Kingdom."
Mai said, "Azula would blow her top if she saw her grandfather bending over backwards to apologize for war crimes."
"I think she would be happy to see how her grandparents overthrew a big meanie like Sozin to bring peace to the world!"
"Right before they flew off on winged ostrich-unicorns."
"Huh. I don't remember that part, Mai."
"That's my... never mind."
Sokka, meanwhile, was still coming to grips with having his precious little world turned upside down. "I didn't know there were multiple versions of movies. Do they do the same thing for the Piandao serials?"
"He's a fanboy," Mai explained.
Ty Lee tapped her lips. "I don't know. We work for different studios. But good question!"
Sokka preened. "Well, you know what they say, a man's sexiest attribute is his brain, and I've got a big one."
She giggled. "And what else is big about-"
"If you finish that sentence," Mai declared, "I'll slit my wrists."
Ty Lee reached across the table and gave her a playful punch. If it had been a real one, Mai wouldn't have been able to move her arm for a quarter hour. "Oh Mai! Don't worry. I was only kidding around with Soahkah."
"It's pronounced 'Sock-Ka,' actually," he said.
"I wouldn't steal your boyfriend."
"He is not my boyfriend."
"Awwwww! That's so cute!"
"No, he's really not my boyfriend."
"She's really not," Sokka said.
"He doesn't even like Fire Nation women," Mai said. "He said I was too bony and pale."
"He did?" If you could bottle Ty Lee's furious chipmunk-wasp death glares, Mai was certain the Fire Nation would be able to reconquer the colonies in a single day and night. No one could withstand such force. "That wasn't very nice."
"Um, well... now wait just a minute! What I meant was that - that Mai is a very handsome woman and, um, maybe 'handsome' is the wrong word. In fact on further reflection it's probably the worst compliment I could give. But Mai is very pretty in a non-Water Tribe sort of way! Just like you, except with fewer curves and more knives."
Mai propped her chin up. "So now I'm flat-chested."
Sokka banged his head on the table and left it there. "I'm going to stop talking."
Ty Lee sipped her green tea. "So what is the daughter of the Grand Secretariat doing here?"
. . .
The clawed hand stroked Sokka's face. "You are like a delicate flower. Water Tribe skin tone, zo alluring."
He flinched away, but there was no escaping from the hair stylist. "I can disguise myself just fine!"
"We're not skulking through some backwater flea market this time," Mai replied from the next chair over. She was number two on the list, but had decided to pass the time by enjoying a front row seat to his debasement.
"I know that! And should we really be talking about our super-secret spy stuff in front of the hair lady?"
"You can completely trust She Liao," said Ty Lee. "She doesn't care for politics or anything silly like that, only her art."
"Zooka! It is time to make... ze magiks!"
. . .
Locked alone in a dressing room with Ty Lee, a sense of mortal peril suddenly befell Mai. Something which she hadn't even felt on Ember Island during actual mortal peril. But then, back then she hadn't faced the prospect of being a doll for Ty Lee to dress up. That the starlet wouldn't stop breaking out in giggles helped matters precisely zero percent.
Once Ty Lee was finally finished, Mai looked at herself in the mirror.
"I'm a dead woman."
Ty Lee draped herself over Mai's shoulders, giving her a little hug from behind. "Cheer up! Nobody will know you're you!"
That part was true. Mai certainly never would have been caught dead in the yellow-on-black monstrosity Ty Lee had wrapped her in. Colonial fashions favored slim silhouettes, below-knee hemlines, open sandals, and bared midsections. All of which meant bared skin and lots of it. Mai felt hideously exposed, and all around gross. Only her belt offered any readily accessible place to keep her knives.
On top of that, She Liao had pulled Mai's hair out of its customary ox horns. Now the great mass of it was behind her head in a braid, leaving prominent but slim bangs up front.
Where Mai drew the line was being dressed like a corpse. Her top folded right-on-left, like you saw dead people dressed before they were cremated...
...and on living people embarked on a suicide mission.
"Why did you dress me for a funeral?"
"It's the latest colonial fashion!" Ty Lee made a fist. "Tearing down the old order, making a statement about con... confernity? About being forced to fit in with what people think!"
There was a knock on the door. Sokka's muffled voice asked, "You decent?"
Mai replied, "Decent is not a word I'd use to describe this outfit."
"Come in!" said her friend.
The dressing room door creaked open, revealing Sokka transformed. The sight caused Ty Lee to slap a hand over her own mouth. A strangled laugh still managed to escape.
Mai said, "Decent isn't a word I'd use to describe yours, either."