Fire Lord Zuko sighed tremendously, resting his face in his hands.
"What's the news now?" he asked half-heartedly, neither moving his head nor hands as he addressed his General.
"More reports of unrest in the Southern Farmlands," General An said nervously. He was a fresh-faced and eager young man, but inexperienced and, to put it gently, ineffectual. Unfortunately for Zuko, he was the best available man for the job. "Over half a dozen riots in the last week alone."
How far his great Nation had fallen.
"File it with the others. I've no time for that now," Zuko said sternly as the nervous man obeyed. Zuko was used to his Generals being made of sterner stuff than An, but all the Generals he knew had been in his Father's Court. As such, every last one of them, both the good and the bad, now sat idly behind the walls of the Imperial Prison, awaiting news of their impending trial dates.
"Any news from the Earth King?"
"Not that I know of…Oh, wait," An corrected himself before making another grievous error, of which there had been far too many for Zuko's liking over the past few months. "A missive from the Royal Court at Ba Sing Se arrived for you."
An produced the folded letter from his vestments and Zuko examined it carefully.
"…When did you say this letter arrived?" Zuko asked as calmly as he could. An began to sweat, noticing the young Fire Lord's eyes (both good and bad) lingering on the postmark date.
"Oh…ah…um…Forgive me please, your Majesty…It's just…I'm not used to doing clerical duties…"
"…It's fine," Zuko managed through gritted teeth. He had gained considerable control over his fiery temper during the past few years, but his General was really pushing him to his limits. If he had retained the self-restraint of his youth, this man would have been on fire by now. "Go get Mai for me, please."
"Of course, my Lord," An said graciously with a bow. He hurriedly made his way towards the entrance hall.
"Oh, and An?"
"When you're done with that, I'd like you to post a notice asking for new hires…Particularly with administrative duties."
With that the sweaty man disappeared from Zuko's sight, causing the Fire Lord to sigh once more.
With nearly the entirety of the Royal Court in prison awaiting trial, Zuko had been extremely shorthanded, especially since post-war periods were apparently filled with egregious amounts of paperwork. He didn't remember the last time he slept or ate, though the few servants that remained were careful to take good care of him.
Maybe a little too good, he thought grimly, as he placed his hand over his stomach. Though he didn't want to admit it to himself, Zuko had become slightly…softer than in his youth. He was not large by any means, but he had definitely gained a thin layer of fat over his previously chiseled physique. He hoped it wasn't that noticeable to anyone else, especially since the eyes of the entire world were resting on him.
His eyes now rested on the letter in his hands, which made his stomach tighten with unease.
"You called?" came a drawling, familiar voice. Mai stood before him, leaning casually in the doorway.
"Yeah," Zuko said as he sat up straight and tightened his core muscles in his girlfriend's presence. He handed the wrinkled letter, stamped with the official seal of Earth King Kuei, to the stoic woman standing in front of his desk. "This came a few weeks ago. There was a delay in the delivery."
"An An-related delay?" Mai asked knowingly. Zuko nodded.
"…They're finally moving forward with Father's trial. The date's been set for six months from now."
"I hate bureaucracy. Aren't all the reparations we've made enough for these bottom-feeders?" Mai said with disgust as her sharp eyes scanned the letter's contents quickly.
"No. Earth King Kuei lost face during the Fall of Ba Sing Se…he'll do whatever it takes to get that back…Even if it means dragging my entire family in chains through the mud of his capital," Zuko said bitterly. He had already jumped through countless flaming hoops to protect himself, his retired Uncle, and his unstable sister from being placed on trial. Now, it was his father's turn, and there was little he could do about it, even if he wanted to. "They're out for blood, and they won't stop until they get it."
"They're asking for death?" Mai asked quietly, her normally half-lidded eyes widening slightly as she finished reading the letter. "He's already in prison and his bending was taken away. How much more do they want to do to him?"
"They're not punishing him, they're punishing us. Our whole country," Zuko muttered, grinding his inkstone agitatedly. "And they have every right to. We wiped out the Air Nomads and almost the entire Northern Water Tribe. And who knows how many Earth Kingdom citizens we've displaced, imprisoned, or executed…"
"I know, but how long do we have to keep paying for the sins of our idiot fathers?"
It was a rhetorical question, one Zuko wished he knew the answer to. He let out a low growl purely out of habit, and Mai placed her hand on his gently.
"When's the last time you've had a break? You look…terrible."
"I'll take one in a little bit. First, I need you to send this letter out for me," Zuko said, dipping his brush in the fresh black ink in his inkwell and rolling out a sheet of fresh white paper. His calligraphy had improved greatly over the years, especially with all this practice. Elegant characters filled the paper as his brush danced across it with fast, perfect strokes.
Mai nodded. Zuko wouldn't have asked her to do it if it weren't of utmost importance, and she was feeling pretty bored that day. "To where?"
A/N: Phew. Wrote this a while ago, only had the courage to post it now what with The Search being released soon. A little slow and heavy on the exposition, but I promise it'll pick up in the next couple of chapters. Also, don't hate me because I made Zuko a little less fit than his animated incarnation. He's having difficulty transitioning from his world-weary lifestyle to a sedentary one and his physique was just one way to reflect that. Don't worry, it's going to go somewhere, I promise.