Thank you to Magery for insight and opinion!
It's the clash of metal that first alerts Azula to the fact that something is amiss. The crash of her personal guard against her office doors as they collapse inward is the next.
"You could knock." She remarks dryly as she surveys the men attempting to gather themselves at her feet.
"Forgive us, Your Highness. We tried to stop her." One grunts between heavy breaths.
Azula regards the short woman standing in their midst. "Of course you did."
"I just wanted to chat but Cappy here told me you were busy." Toph indicates the man closest to her foot with a nudge of her toe
Azula assess the green eyed woman with a stare. "Captain, you may go. We will speak about your ineffectiveness later." She dismisses the guards without deigning to look at them.
Toph smirks as the men slink from the room. "Don't be too harsh on them. I am the greatest Metal Bender in the world." Toph boasts as the office doors close, leaving the two women alone in the main room of Azula's offices.
"So I hear." Azula curtly replies as she turns away, crossing the room back to the table piled high with books.
Toph fidgets shifting her weight from one foot to the other. The stones under her feet shiver in response. Azula ignores the faint motion and scans one of the tomes before her. Sauntering to the edge of the table, Toph leans forward resting her chin in her hands.
"What'cha doing?" She asks playfully in a sing-song voice.
"Zuko's job." Azula replies tersely
Toph's impish smile melts into a frown. "I know that. That's kinda your point. What part of his job?"
Azula sighs in annoyance. "The boring part."
Rewriting Fire Nation law has never been Zuko's strong point and when it comes to succession law Azula does not trust any of his conniving ministers with the task of deciding just who will sit on the Dragon throne next.
Cheerfully, Toph stands up bouncing onto the balls of her feet. "Maybe I could help?"
The absurdity of the offer causes Azula to scowl. "I'm sure I can manage just fine."
Toph grins lopsidedly at her. "Aw, come on, Princess. I've spent my fair share listening to Twinkles be all diplomatic. You might be surprised at what I've picked up."
Azula glares at the shorter woman before rolling her eyes at the absurdity of glaring at a blind woman. "I'm dealing with centuries of Fire Nation Law that is far more complicated than whether or not fruit pies should be the national symbol."
Azula's extensive education in judiciary matters had been put to the test in more than one lively debate with the Avatar about the future fledgling Air Nation and the world itself. Inwardly she smirks at the imagined looks on the faces of her detractors if they knew just how much Aang relied on her for navigating the tricky politics of the world's stage and deciphering the more obtuse laws the various politicians tried to bog progress down with. More than one had been perplexed at the simple monk's understanding of their complex system of archaic law and his ability to find loopholes that even their own experts of jurisprudence could not. If they only knew how much the Avatar had confided in his paramour, then they would tread more carefully around her.
Considering her brisk statement a dismissal, Azula picks up her quill and scrawls on a parchment lying amidst the books.
Toph folds her arms as she turns away and leans her back against the edge of the table. "Fair enough." She allows with a shrug. Azula hums in response but doesn't stop writing. "I mean I picked up plenty of other things while I was hanging out at the temple."
"I'm sure you did." Azula replies absently as she peruses another book, letting the sharp edge of her nail scrape across the same ancient paper that Sozin himself once read.
Toph shoves off the table, ignoring Azula's irritated growl as the table shifts under her quill, and wanders the perimeter of the room, flexing her toes and feeling out the vibrations of the bustling palace beyond the quiet contentment of Azula's office.
"Don't get me wrong. Twinkles is like my best friend but he's a bit boring." Azula ignores the comment so she continues. "I mean even the acolytes say so and you know what a bunch of airheads they are." She feels the ground shift as Azula's interest is piqued and she stands up straight. Toph leans close to the wall squinting at what she suspects is a portrait. "It's all 'Aang this' and 'Aang that.'" She explains with a wave of her hand before folding it behind her back with its mate.
"If that is true then why would they say he is boring?" Azula asks drolly.
Toph rocks back onto the heels of her feet. "Cause there's only one of him and like a hundred of them. The poor guy had to put a lock on his door just to sleep through the night without some overeager woman crawling into bed with him wanting to show him how great she think the Avatar is."
The temperature of the room shoots up several degrees in a way that is so reminiscent of Sparky but just as quickly simmers back down again that is nothing like the Fire Lord and his rather notable temper. The Fire Bender's control is impressive and Toph gives a begrudging tilt of her head in Azula's direction.
"If you are trying to make me jealous then it won't work." Azula states disdainfully. Toph doesn't bother pointing out the princesses' ire and remains quiet, so Azula returns to her task. After a few moments Azula says thoughtfully "Slipping into a man's bed in the middle of the night seems rather undignified."
Azula does not consider her own nights of doing just the same thing but then again the Avatar always seemed to welcome the interruption and was sure to prove it to her.
Toph resists the urge to smile. "Yeah, it's not on par with prancing around half naked in a rainstorm but what can you do. It doesn't exactly rain a lot there."
"I was not prancing around half naked in a rainstorm." Azula grits out quietly.
There was certainly no prancing and the rainstorm was hardly her doing.
"Sure, you weren't. You were just creating a diversion while Sparky finally made his move on Sugar Queen."Toph teases.
In her head, Toph can practically hear Sokka's whiny voice complain about how Zuko and Katara finally put years of simmering sexual tension behind them and got together.
Azula growls. "What is your point?"
The royal's patience is wearing thin so Toph opts to make her move. Toph's heavy steps shake the room as she closes the distance and the table inches back when her hands hit the edge. She leans forward staring Azula down with serious eyes.
"Look, Princess, if you want to spend the rest of your life doing Zuko's paperwork, that's up to you. I'm sure you're living up to daddy's expectations. But keep up the ice queen act and you're going to lose him. He's my friend; my best friend and for some stupid reason he seems to care about you. Trust me though, that's not going to last forever and it won't be too long before someone else does more than just catch his eye."
Azula notes the fire in the woman's opaque green eyes but refuses to be drawn into another pointless argument about the Avatar. "I see."
Irritated at the low key response, Toph turns away and stomps towards the door. She pauses with her fingers on the handle but doesn't bother facing towards the princess.
"What?" Azula scowls at her continued presence.
"Lien. She's the one to look out for. Aang's not said much but I'm betting that out of all of them that she'd be the one he wouldn't kick out of bed."
Azula weighs Toph's words with more seriousness than she lets on. "Why are you telling me this?"
Toph blows out a breath. "Because I like you. I like you and Aang together. And I don't like her .She doesn't really care about him. I watched Aang be with the wrong person for the wrong reasons for years. I don't want to see it again. He deserves better than that. It'd be nice if one of you would quit being so damn dense and get over yourselves!"
The reverberations of the slamming door shakes the stonework more than usual and Azula casually observes the dust and small bits of rock that rain down onto the table before brushing it off and returning to her work.
"She's got spunk." Mai comments dryly from the door of the other room.
"Is that the word for it?" Azula asks as she turns the page of the book.
"Zuko called it irritating." Mai's voice replies as she draws nearer to stand at the edge of the table.
"Zuzu always had a way with words." Azula falls silent not commenting farther as she stands up and presses the palm of her hand into her aching lower back. She fixes Mai with an all too familiar look. With a slight nod, Mai glides away. "You better get Ty Lee for this one." She senses Mai pausing at the door. "I certainly wouldn't want you to stab anyone."Mai glares and Azula's smirk widens. She waves off the noblewoman with her hand and returns her attention to rewriting the future of the throne.
The palace private gardens are teeming with people from all four corners of the world. They "ooh" and "aah" over the sights that no one but the inner circle of the Fire Nation has seen for centuries. A group of chattering women giggle and gossip on the very grass that Sozin had forbidden anyone's feet but the Fire Lord's to touch. Mai settles for rolling her eyes instead of the bored sigh she longs to give while Ty Lee listens with rapt attention to the women seated before them discussing tonight's ball.
"It's off the shoulder and low cut." One of them announces proudly. "It's going to be a knockout. He won't be able to take his eyes off me."
"You can't do that! We aren't supposed to alter our robes. Cai is going to kill you." One young girl says with hushed reprimand.
"Oh what is she going to do about it? Besides it's not her opinion I care about." The older girl dismisses, shaking her long black hair to the side.
"Please, since we got here, he hasn't had eyes for anyone but her." Another acolyte points out with a sneer of her thin lips.
The girl is undaunted with her remarks. "And she hasn't given him the time of day. She's always off dancing and flirting with whomever." She replies with a sniff before turning her attention to the two Fire Nation women in their midst.
"It sounds just lovely." Ty Lee gushes with all her typical Ty Leeish enthusiasm. "I can't wait to see it! I'm sure you will be simply gorgeous!"
Lien hesitates before smiling in return. Mai sees she is still unsure what to think about the newcomers to the small group of Air Acolytes gathered in the garden so she adds. "It does sound nice." She doesn't miss the suffering look Ty Lee gives her from out the corner of her eye. Compliments and Mai do not go hand in hand. Her part in this reconnaissance of the Avatar's potential new interest is to keep Ty Lee on task.
"Well, if you ask me, I don't think it's going to matter how much skin you show off, Lien. He didn't go for your tricks at the temple and he's not going to go for them here! For spirit's sake, it's Katara's wedding!"
The significance of the wedding of the Avatar's former girlfriend is not lost on the acolytes.
"Exactly!" Lien fires back. "He told me himself he can't wait to get this over."
A shorter woman scoffs. "That has nothing to do with Katara and everything to do with Azula. He's been dreading seeing her."
"Do you blame him? Aang just needs to know there are other women that won't treat him like dirt." Lien responds primly.
Mai tosses Ty Lee a look with an arched brow. Lien notices and smiles benignly. "Being Fire Nation, maybe you could tell us what happened. I mean you were here, right? You're part of the court, aren't you?" Her green eyes are suddenly prying.
Ty Lee has always found dishonesty to be rather distasteful and her smile falters. "Oh, um…."
Dealing with the man-hungry vipers is more Mai's domain so she steps in smoothly. "We weren't privy to anything. All we know is the Fire Lord wasn't happy with whatever happened and has kept Azula close ever since."
Mai has no issues in keeping their connection to the Princess under wraps.
Lien's disappointment shines clearly on her face. "Oh, I see."
Ty Lee gives a sympathetic look. "Princess Azula isn't exactly known for her compassion. Maybe it was something like that."
Mai nearly reacts at the surprisingly disparaging, though accurate, assessment from one of Azula's biggest supporters.
The other woman doesn't seem to notice. "Hmm, I don't see the appeal of her anyway. I know she's the Fire Lord's sister and all but she's hardly attractive; those eyes and that temper." Lien gives a visible shudder for emphasis.
Ty Lee's face scrunches up with a retort but Mai quickly grabs her wrist and gives it a gentle squeeze. "We thought the same thing." She offers with a pointed smile. "So, tell me more about the temple?"
The ballroom of the Fire Nation palace is one again teeming with people. Music fills the air and dancers take the floor for another gala in a series of celebrations meant to culminate in the Fire Lord's wedding. Food and drink flow in abundance. It is the latter that the nervous Air acolyte partakes of more than she probably should especially given that she stands in the company of the very people legends are made of.
Lien forces herself to sip the glass of champagne instead of the gulps that finished off the previous ones. It wouldn't do well to make herself sick no matter how many times the Fire Lord's yellow eyes stare her down. If Aang notices the tension, he says nothing as he chats happily with the future Fire Lady and her brother. Ever attentive though he is sure to include her as well and part of her is grateful to not be left out. It isn't until the conversation rolls around to Ember Island, that Zuko thankfully ignores her and joins with the others.
"Next time, Sokka's cut off." Zuko grumbles at the Water Tribe man. "I do not want a repeat of that!"
"Hey, I fell. You can't blame a guy for an accident." Sokka argues good naturedly.
"You broke a two hundred year old dresser. Just what were you two doing?"
Suki's face flushes and Sokka waggles his eyebrows. "Wouldn't you like to know!"
The others break out in laughter, except Zuko whose glare only deepens. "I should banish you."
Sokka laughs unconcerned. "Please, in a few days won't half the Fire Nation belong to Katara?"
"It doesn't work like that." Zuko argues tiredly, even as Katara leans into him giggling.
"Speaking of those things, I was doing some reading in the library," Sokka says in that tone of his he gets when he thinks he has a brilliant idea. "Isn't there like a bride price you're supposed to pay?"
Zuko's face is very telling of his thoughts on that. "No, but, traditionally, there is a dowry."
Sokka looks affronted."I'm giving you the last Water Bender in the South Pole!"
"Giving?" Katara chimes in looking either amused or ticked off.
Sokka tilts his head towards his sister. "Fine, letting you marry my baby sister. That should count for something."
Zuko glowers at his future brother in law before turning his head back to the room full of dancing people scanning the crowd as he has done a dozen times since they first congregated on the raised platform just off the dance floor. Something is different about this time though as he turns away from the group blocking their view.
"You're just in time," He says to the newcomer of their group as he helps guide her up the stairs leading up from the dance floor. "Sokka was just bringing up the issue of dowries."
Lien feels a sort of tension flow through the group and she herself clenches her glass a bit tighter and shrinks closer to Aang as the princess comes into view dressed in full ballroom regalia sparkling with jewels and heavy skirts. The full display of the Royal family is before her and Lien feels more than a little intimidated.
Thankfully Azula ignores her as she turns her attention to Sokka with an arch of her brow. "Was he now?"
Sokka smirks at Azula, unphased at the light in her eyes. "No, we were discussing how half the Fire Nation will be Katara's soon."
Azula blinks at him as if unsure if she has heard correctly before looking up at her brother in question. "It doesn't work like that."
Zuko only shakes his head in amusement but keeps hold of her hand as he pulls her close.
"I haven't seen you all day. I was getting concerned." Lien imagines she can hear a bit of reproach in his tone.
"I've been busy, brother." She replies with a mysterious smile as her eyes give Lien a lazy once over.
The Fire Lord becomes serious as he scrutinizes his sibling."Anything I need to know about?"
The princess looks up at him, the picture of an adoring little sister. "Of course not. It's all taken care of."
Zuko holds her gaze for a moment as if assessing her words before curtly nodding and returning to the conversation that has since moved on to a play they attended on their last Ember Island vacation. Lien, however, barely registers the back and forth between Sokka and Suki about who was the better actor to portray the Water Tribe man. Instead she keeps her eyes discreetly fixed on the Fire Lord and his sister.
The Fire Lord doesn't relinquish his hold on the princess, instead threading her arm through his and laying his hand across her wrist. The touch is deceptively gentle but Lien sees the tension in his grip.
The princess looks out towards the room and casually takes an offered glass of champagne from a passing servant's tray. Just as smoothly, Zuko reaches out to take the glass from her and downs the drink before handing the empty glass off to Katara who nonchalantly places it on the tray of another servant passing by. The action is so seamless Lien is sure it has been repeated a thousand times.
Azula huffs as she moves to pull away from Zuko but his firm hand on her arm holds her tight.
"Azula." Zuko warns in a whisper.
She only smiles in response and fixes another sugary smile on her face.
"At least this time they didn't have a girl playing you right, Aang?" Sokka throws out with a laugh.
Aang's smile is more a grimace "That and I didn't die this time."
The others laugh drowning out Azula's snip back to Zuko.
Ignoring the now furious Fire Lord beside her, Azula chimes in, "I don't know. She did have a certain something."
"You saw that?" Aang grins widely at her, eyebrows shooting up in surprise. The animated expression is more a testament to the Avatar's own indulgence of the free-flowing drink than his actual interest in what the princess has to say. Lien is sure of it.
Azula smirks as she glances back up at the Fire Lord. "We may have spent a few days on Ember Island before Sozin's comet."
Zuko scowls showing his memories were not so fond. "Ozai wanted us out of the way so he could plot."
"He wanted you out of the way, brother." Azula corrects smugly. "I already knew what he was up to."
Zuko doesn't even look at her. "Azula nearly skipped out on the show so she and Ty Lee could continue to devastate some boys on the beach at volleyball. I managed to avoid the theater altogether." For the first time he gives an actual smile.
The name Ty Lee jars Lien and she wanders if it could be the same woman that approached her in the gardens earlier.
"So that's why there wasn't any beach volleyball when we got there!" Sokka exclaims. "They said it was a hazard." He turns to Suki with a grin and a lilt in his voice. "Remember that game on Kyoshi last time?"
The rest of the group falls into the memories of the past but Lien has nothing to contribute so she inconspicuously returns to watching the royals. Zuko and Azula watch the lively discussion with distant interest. Their golden eyes watch the back and forth but aside from a few comments here and there from the Fire Lord they remain above the fray. Zuko's hand still rests on Azula's wrist where it is draped over his arm and the tension is still in the Fire Lord's fingertips. Lien watches as the Zuko quietly turns his head into his sister's hair and whispers something. The woman's golden eyes don't waver or look away from the image of Katara teasing Sokka over the damage he and Suko committed at the Fire Lord's house the first time they were at the island.
When the Fire Lord turns back to the group, he smoothly interjects, "And you asked why you didn't have more than a bed in your room this time around."
"You were afraid we would break something? That's just..that's just rude!" Sokka sputters. Suki, fueled by too much champagne, breaks into a full bellied laugh
"He's got a point." Aang says thoughtfully. "You didn't exactly leave your room at the temple in one piece."
Hearing Aang talk distracts Lien momentarily as she turns her attention to the Air Bender, especially when he steps closer to Sokka, pressing his warm side against her own. She flushes as she has only felt the solid feel of him against her once before and the sheer heat he generates is shocking all the same.
It must be his inner Fire Bender, Lien thinks sourly looking back at the princess as the woman slyly turns her head towards the Fire Lord angling up. Zuko leans down closing the distance to hear the Azula's whispered reply. He straightens with a stern look on his face while the princess pulls back with a faint smirk.
The others laugh while Sokka gapes at the Avatar. "You said it was okay! That it was old and neglected! You used the word neglected!"
"Of course it's neglected, Sokka. We saw how well Twinkles here takes care of things."Toph emphasizes with a thumb in the Avatar's direction. "It's a wonder those temples are still standing!"
The remarks are in good nature, Lien is sure of that. These are the Avatar's dearest friends but mention of the temples which have fallen into ruin twinges at that part of her that loves her new nation.
"Speaking of that, Aang," Conversation halts as the princess addresses the Avatar by name. "Before you leave, I will release the funds for the rebuilding of the temples to you." Aang turns to face her with wide curious eyes but Azula continues on. "Either that or you can have the bills sent directly to the palace."
For once the Avatar is speechless. "Azula, I don't know what to say. That's wonderful!"
Azula's smile is perhaps the most genuine Lien has yet to see. "Thank Zuko. I am merely the messenger." She emphasizes her point with an adoring gaze up at her brother.
The look on the Fire Lord's face is very telling. "I hope to see them restored soon. I don't care how much it costs either."
The siblings find themselves quickly wrapped up in a flurry of color as Aang's enthusiasm gets the better of him and he hugs them both. The others look on in surprise. Lien knows it isn't that the Avatar is doling out hugs. That is a rather common thing. He is a very physical person. It's the recipients of the hug that are most curious.
The Fire Lord is one of his closest friends. Even the whole mess with Katara didn't seem to put a damper on that. Zuko fought at his side and helped win the war. That Lien understands. Azula on the other hand is a former enemy that bested the Avatar in the last battle they fought and later became entangled in what Lien can only guess was an embittered affair between them. Aang doesn't speak about it much but she has overheard conversations between him and Toph that have filled in many of the less savory details.
When Aang pulls back, he expresses his genuine gratitude to the Fire Lord and the princess before fully relinquishing his grasp on them. The princess comes back into view working with the hand, that the Fire Lord hasn't claimed as his own, to smooth her hair back into some semblance of order after the unexpected and, Lien suspects, unwelcome contact.
Once she has tamed the disarray to her satisfaction, Azula adds, "If you were open to the idea, I have another proposal for you."
From beside her, Lien feels Aang straighten up in attention. "Oh?"
A quick look at the Fire Lord shows interest on the man's face as well.
Azula smiles demurely. "It has been brought to my attention that there are several children displaced from the war, many of them orphaned." The subject is unpleasant and to her credit, Azula's face reflects that. "What if the Air Nation were to take in some of these children and give them homes and raise them in the ways of the nomads?"
Zuko arches an eyebrow but doesn't comment, instead his golden eyes flicker from the naked expression on his sister's face to the surprised look on his friend's.
"I…" Aang stops himself before drawing in a deep breath. His gray eyes seek out Lien's before he continues. "What do you think of that? It would be wonderful but that is a lot to ask of the acolytes."
Lien inwardly cringes as suddenly the attention of everyone is on her but she ponders it over. The Air Nation is a tightly knit society but also a very warm one.
"From what I have seen, the Air Nation seems to take a community approach to child-rearing. There would simply be more children in need of rearing." Azula explains with a very pointed look at Lien.
Lien nods as the princess' words are true. While most children have at least one parent at the temple, they can expect to be looked after by any adult living there. It creates a warm and happy atmosphere, an atmosphere ideal for helping heal the wounds of the war.
"It would stretch our resources but I think it would be great." Lien answers truthfully.
It's the right answer and Aang beams a smile at her. "We will have to work out the details but yes that is wonderful." He turns his attention back to Azula. "Thank you for suggesting it." There is an unasked question in his voice to which Azula smiles.
"Ty Lee's husband has dealt with his share of post war clean up. It has been a concern of the good Admiral's for some time." Azula brushes off the Avatar's gratitude with a shrug. "Don't worry about resources. Anything you need from us is yours."
Lien knows Aang well enough to know he wants to step in and give the woman a breath-stealing hug but he restrains himself and settles for a warm thank you instead. Azula smiles graciously in reply.
"Well, I don't know about any of you but it has been far too long since I have danced with my sister." Zuko announces before looking to Azula with a nod to the dance floor a few steps down from the platform. "Shall we?"
The look in the Fire Lord's eyes does not leave room for disagreement and Lien watches as Azula smirks in response. "Of course, brother, it really has been far too long."
As they make their way to the floor, Lien tries to follow with her eyes, curious as to the undercurrent between the siblings, but they are soon swallowed up by the crowd so she turns her attention back to the group and their latest discussion about the upcoming nuptials.
Zuko's hand is searing against her own. "What game are you playing?" He snarls under his breath, whispers of smoke slipping from his tongue.
Azula keeps her face carefully schooled in a blank expression, never tipping others off as to what she and the Fire Lord discuss with a quirk of her lips or an arch of her brow. Spies are always watching.
"I am merely doing what you want me to do. I'm fixing things."
Zuko's eyes narrow. "You're manipulating him with orphans."
Briefly, she closes her eyes to prevent herself from snapping at him. He leads her through the steps of the dance and she effortlessly follows. When she opens them, she experiences momentarily disorientation as the whole room is turned around on her.
"I meant it, Zuko. Admiral Tsuji is serious about this and he has talked my ear off incessantly about it every time I have to see him, which is quite often given Ty Lee is always hovering."
"He's been on patrol." Zuko grits between clenched teeth.
At least he is aware they are being watched and she smiles approval at him.
"He writes to her constantly. He's in love." She does not include that the admiral makes frequent and sometimes unscheduled visits to see his new wife.
Zuko's grip tightens on her hip as he pulls her closer. "Fine, so you aren't using orphans to manipulate him."
"Why do you always think the worst of me, brother?" Her voice is lilting as she fixes him with one of her famous penetrating stares. "One might think you don't trust me." She playfully pouts at him.
"Forget it," Zuko mutters under his breath as he leads her through another turn of the dance. The skirts of other nobles crowd nip at Azula's so he leads her to a part of the floor that is less crowded.
"You can't meet with her alone." Azula whispers once there is distance with anyone listening in. "You're weak and she knows it."
"I'm not weak." Zuko bites out quietly still keeping his face carefully blank but his golden eyes scream fury at her. "Jevian won't get what she wants."
"Please, she is causing havoc. She already got what she wants." Azula remarks with disdain.
"Only because you let her." Zuko answers with his own smirk and a taunt. "You and Aang played right into her hands. She loves it."
The minister had done well in ensuring there was no lingering romantic connection between the Avatar and the Princess during the annual Summit of the Four Nations. To what end though, Zuko isn't sure.
"Please, I doubt she spares a thought about it." Azula dismisses with one of her famous mood shifts as Zuko leads her off the floor as the dance ends. "You know what she wants, Zuko."
Zuko does know. Jevian wants weapons and supplies. Ba Sing Se is gearing up for a confrontation with Omashu. The threat of civil war looms over the Earth Kingdom like a cloud. The war threatens the rest of the world as it could pull the other nations back into the fray.
They duck behind one of the large curtains which conceal various passageways. Often these passages lead to rooms for various interludes. Zuko briefly ponders renovating the palace to get rid of them. The nobility have enough opportunity for infidelity without doing it right under his own roof. Azula strolls arm in arm with him as they pass through the hall in twists and turns to another door that is far simpler than anything one would expect in the Fire Lord's palace. It leads to the private residence he shares with Katara.
Once they are safely ensconced, Zuko replies. "While Bumi is alive, Jevian won't do anything." Zuko and Aang have already at length discussed this situation. The old king is hanging on though not by much and Zuko doesn't bother adding how difficult it is for Aang to face losing another link to his past.
"Of course, she won't." Azula says dryly as she sinks into one of the soft plush chairs and kicking off her heels. "The instant they put that old man in the ground Prince Boquin will take the throne, restock the royal harem and ride off to war."
Boquin, Bumi's oldest, does not have his father's respect for neutral jing. He is more a man of action.
"We are staying out of it. When Bumi passes, I'm imposing an embargo. No weapons, no supplies, nothing will be sold to the Earth Kingdom."
Azula seethes at this. "You will be cutting off the merchants from their largest market. Do you know what that will do to us?"
"Yes, I do but we can't afford to be caught in this, Azula. I don't want it to look like we are picking sides and have people hate us even more." Zuko sits in the chair opposite from her, grateful to be off his feet at last.
She rolls her eyes as she flexes her toes outward, staring at her stockinged feet as if seeing them for the first time before meeting his stare. He sees the tiredness still lingering in her eyes.
"Don't meet with her alone." She says softly.
The look in her eyes and tone of her voice are not new to the Fire Lord. Jevian cost Azula more than the minister may ever know. More than anyone barring Azula, Katara, and Zuko know.
"I can take care of myself. You pass the word along to Omashu. The Fire Nation is not getting involved in this war." Zuko rests his elbow on the arm of the chair leaning his chin against it.
For weeks both of them have been hounded by agents of both Omashu and Ba Sing Se to work out some sort of trade accord. It was tacitly understood that whichever side gained the Fire Nation as an ally, even one that merely sold them goods, would be the victor.
Azula nods. Ever since Zuko whispered in her ear in the ballroom that Jevian requested a private meeting with him sans Azula she has been tense. Ba Sing Se is stepping up their campaign.
They fall in silence with only the ticking the clock on the mantle filling the air until Azula's voice breaks the spell.
"This is going to cost us, Zuko." His eyes dart to her startled out of his own thoughts. The yellow glows eerily in the dark of the room. "I don't mean financially either." His hand drops from his face as he leans back in the chair holding her gaze. "Jevian is out for blood, Zuko. She's going to get it."
Over the last year, Azula has become more impressed with the different facets Zuko shows to her. It's an intriguing study of his character and one that she takes more than a passing interest in. When he smiles she sees that it is not a smile of pleasure. No, this smile is one that is all too reminiscent of whose son Zuko truly is. The flicking light of the torch highlights the unmarred side of Zuko's face. It's not the beloved brother sitting across from her any longer. It is Ozai's sneering face before her speaking in Zuko's voice.
"It's your blood she's after, Azula."
The same blood in Zuko's veins runs through her own. Azula is Ozai's progeny as well. She gives the same chilling smile back.
"Maybe this time she'll get it."