Chapter One
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Trust Yourself When All Men Doubt You




Ty Lee/Mai



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Chapter Three

Ty Lee walked down the torchlit corridor of the Victory's Crucible, her replacement side boy walking in front of her as he escorted her to the ship's sea cabin. The unassuming thirteen year old young man with black hair and brown eyes, kept looking over his shoulder at the two guards Michiko had insisted on making her bring along, a terrified look in his eyes. He no doubt thinks that they'll sever his torso if he so much as looks at me cross-eyed, which judging from the fact that they both are livid, I'd say he's probably right. I'd try calming him, but I doubt that'll work, considering what happened to his, ah, unfortunate predecessor. She shook her head, wondering who that young woman had been, and why she, or whoever had been holding her leash, had wanted her dead. The thought that Azula had been behind it crossed her mind, but as soon as it did she discounted it. The once knife-sharp mind of Azula had been shattered, leaving behind someone with the average faculties of a toddler.

"We're here, sir," the midshipman said when they reached the nondescript metal door at the end of the corridor. It looked like the dozen other nondescript metal doors that had lined both bulkheads: they had angular shapes, with black lettering indicating either armories, machine shops, or whatever other function they served. The only difference here was that the characters for "Sea Cabin" were written next to the door.

"You're free to go, Middy," Ty Lee said, sighing. Her terrified side boy came to attention, bowed, and skittered off down the corridor, breaking into a dead run almost immediately, the sound of his feet hitting metal echoing even as he rounded the corner and was out of sight.

Motioning for her guards to stay where they were, she turned and knocked on the door.

"Come," a female voice said from the other side of the door.

Ty Lee nodded to herself and pulled open the metal door and stepped inside, shutting it behind her.

The sea cabin of the Victory's Crucible was like a thousand other sea cabins in the Navy: though wide it was sparsely furnished, with only a desk on the far bulkhead, under the porthole that was letting in the red-orange light of the setting sun. Behind that desk sat a woman in her mid to late thirties. Like half of all Fire Nation women she had black hair, though she couldn't see what color her eyes were because she was staring out the window and looking at the sun on the ocean.

Ty Lee sighed and, coming to attention said, "Reporting as ordered, sir."

The older woman turned around, and giving her an appraising look with eyes that she could see were green as a leaf, a surprising shade for a daughter of the Fire Nation.

"Sit down, Major," she said, gesturing towards the empty chair and using the courtesy rank that tradition demanded she was to be given in the presence of the ship's actual captain.

Like the good officer she was, Ty Lee sat down and waited for the other woman to finish contemplating whatever she was contemplating as she stared out at the ocean.

"Major," the Captain of the Victory's Crucible said, as she turned around, a genuinely apologetic look in her eyes. "For the record, I'd like to state that I apologize for what happened earlier." She shook her head, "The midshipman who sign aboard our ships are supposed to be screened, precisely to prevent incidents like what happened this morning."

"Thank you, sir," she responded. "I-," then she stopped, smacking herself mentally for her lapse in forgetting to ask the permission of the captain to speak.

The other woman realized that, and nodded. "Speak freely, Major. I want to know your thoughts."

She sighed. "I don't think for one moment that that girl wanted me dead for her own reasons."

"Neither do I," Captain Nara said, staring out the window again. "Neither do I." She shook her head, and she saw her fists ball, and she realized she was on the verge of striking something, either with her fist or with a burst of fire. "I'm this vessel's captain, I'm responsible for the safety and conduct of everyone aboard her," Nara said. "Something broke down somewhere, Midshipman Haran was either a violent psychopath who couldn't accept that the war was over, in which case that problem was solved for me. Or she was working for someone and I'd be remiss in my duties as this vessel's captain if I didn't find out who he or she was." She turned to face her. "Which is why I called you here."

"Sir?" Ty Lee found herself asking, even though she knew the answer the moment the word left her lips.

"Major," Captain said, turning around and facing her again, and she could see the wary unease on her face and hear it in her voice. "I'm faced with the unenviable possibility of their being more than one traitor in our midst. I've served with my officers a long time. I know their husbands, their wives, and their children. But something just doesn't read right. The way I see it, the two of us are at cross-purposes to each other now, much more than we were this morning. You want get to you and your men to your new home without multiple stab wounds and I want to ensure that I can go to sleep at night without fear of being killed on my own ship. I need you to run this down, see if there's anyone else on this ship who poses a danger to this ship, her crew, and her passengers. If only to ensure our paranoia is only in our heads."

Ty Lee sighed, she'd known this was coming halfway through the first part of this conversation, and every part of her agreed with the Captain's assessment, her anger still stewing at the attempt on her life. She was not going to sit around and wait if they, whoever "they" were, were going to try this again.

"I'll be ready for anything, sir," Ty Lee said, nodding. "Anything at all."

Ten minutes later, Ty Lee slipped into her quarters and closed the door, her mind still swimming as she tried to figure out how precisely she was supposed to get started doing what she'd just agreed to do. Part of her was still screaming at her for agreeing to do this. First Zuko, she thought to herself, now this. I should really start to add the word 'No' to my vocabulary.

"How'd it go with Captain Nara?" She heard Mai say from behind her, her voice cracking with the unmistakable tones of worry on her voice. Concerned, she wheeled around to see her sitting on the bed, an oddly forlorn look on her face on her angular yet pretty face. The sixteen-year-old was also uncharacteristically ringing her hands together.

"What is it?" Ty Lee asked, wondering what could have her so on edge, all thought of Captain Nara forgotten.

"I've wanted to tell you why I've joined you on this mission," Mai said. "Of course, what happened earlier interrupted but now that that is resolved for the moment, I need to tell you."

"What's wrong?"

"Yesterday morning," she said, "one of the things that we knew was coming up finally came up. Firelord Zuko's Privy Council brought up the primary reason for the bulk of the instability in the Fire Nation."

Ty Lee understood immediately, considering she'd led her company in quelling some of the more...restive sections of the area surrounding capital, "The lack of a valid heir to the throne."

"Yes," Mai said, nodding. "Firelord Zuko is beloved by the people, but he has made his share of enemies. Should those enemies kill him before he can sire an heir to the throne, it will come to a succession fight between the noble houses for control. Granted, Zuko sidestepped the issue by declaring an edict that Katara would assume the regency until such time that she could choose a permanent heir, but still, there are a thousand reasons why that should be avoided."

"Yeah," Ty Lee said, nodding. "Not the least of which is the fact that the people will not take kindly to a foreigner holding the throne even temporarily, and whoever Katara would choose would be seen as a puppet of a foreign power. He or she might not live long enough to actually assume power, much less sire or birth an heir of their own." Unlike the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation practiced equal primogeniture: property and power passed to the eldest child, son or daughter. It was part of the reason Mai's parents were so cold to her: in their minds she wasn't comporting herself like a woman who would one day be a future lady. That and the fact that the heads of their family, through whatever quirk of breeding that had her family to prosperity had been lords for the past three centuries, giving rise to the belief among them that men made better Peers then women. The birth of the first female firstborn in three hundred years had been a great disappointment to them.

She also knew that they were so desperate for a male heir, that they were actively seeking an excuse to disinherit Mai that wouldn't be seen as breaking Fire Nation law. Unfortunately for them, unless she proves herself to be infertile, then they can't legally do a thing.

"So, they convinced Zuko and I that the time had come," Mai said, and in an instant, she was snapped out of her ruminations. "That we had to get married to stabilize the Fire Nation, even if we used moon tea to hold off on producing an heir until things settled down."

"You mean," she said, shocked.

"Yes, I am now Firelady Mai," she said, and for a brief moment, genuine happiness bloomed on her face, to be replaced in an instant by cold worry.

"But I'm not the only one."

"What?" Ty Lee said, confused.

"You know our laws allow for polygamy," Mai said, faintly annoyed. "It's become less and less common in the past hundred and fifty years, but it's still not unknown in our lands." She sighed, and a glistening tear sliding out of her left eye, she said, "As per tradition, the royal physician examined me to see if I could bear the next Firelord, and she...she pronounced me infertile."

"Oh, Mai, I'm so sorry," Ty Lee said quickly, then she put together what she'd said, with her cryptic statement from earlier. "Oh, Spirits," Ty Lee began. Fire Nation law demanded that at least one spouse, if the Firelord had more than one, be capable of bearing children. "Who else-"

"The Privy Council, the ones that didn't accompany Zuko during the final days of the war," Mai said, "were throwing around several possible candidates, but Zuko wouldn't have it. In such pain as I've never seen him, he said that if he was going to have more than one wife, he wanted the other woman to at least be someone he already knew, respected and liked."

"One of Aang's companions," Ty Lee said, nodding. "Katara's with Aang, Suki's with Sokka," then it hit her, what had happened. There was only one other woman in that group that had brought Ozai and Azula down and saved mankind from extinction, and she was of marriageable age. "Toph."

Mai nodded forlornly. "Toph."

"I can't imagine Toph went along with this willingly," Ty Lee said, disbelievingly. The almost fourteen year old was ornery, tough, and didn't take anyone's bullshit without some of her own. The traits so similar to Mai in her had led Mai and Toph to becoming quite close over the past five months. And she felt her heart hurt, no wonder Mai was in pain.

"She put up a fight, yes," she said, "begging Zuko to choose one of the women the Privy Council was bandying about, to even marry one of the women on the council, but it wasn't as aggressive as it should have been."

Ty Lee was about to ask her to elaborate when another thought hit her, one of annoyance. "Wait a second, if Zuko needed to marry a woman who was fertile, why didn't he even ask me? Last I checked I was a woman, and the odds of both of us being infertile are astronomical." I wouldn't have done it, she thought, indignant, but still I should've at least been considered.

"Because he didn't want to hurt you, by pressuring you into a marriage when you'd been so badly hurt by what happened in the Rock!" Mai snapped, glaring. Softening her voice, she sighed and said, "Toph didn't put up as much fight as she would've under other circumstances because she realized that it was a way of putting off permanently the attempts of those Bei Fong family representatives that keep trying to lure her home so she could get married off."

"That would do it," Ty Lee said, annoyance on her voice as she remembered the representatives of the Bei Fong's financial interests in the Fire Nation in the palace. "I remember I had to have my men forcibly escort some of them off the palace grounds when they got...insistent." And after one of them tried to give me a feel up but that's neither here nor there.

"Also," Mai said, sighing again. "I think another part of it is that Toph has always had a thing for Zuko, I could hear it on her voice whenever we talked of him, and unlike her friends, she didn't settle into a relationship after the war. That, coupled with her family, probably was one of the reasons her own resistance wasn't as intense as it usually was, though she still didn't want to do it. Which gets to why I'm here." She sighed. "We came up with a plan to at least try to extricate Toph from this situation. Both marriages went ahead as planned, but I was to join the expedition to both tell you what's at stake, and assist in looking for Ursa, in the hopes that she was pregnant with another one of Ozai's children before her disappearance. If that's true, he or she can be the next heir, and we can set Toph free. If that's not the case, then I'll have to," and she closed her eyes, before finishing, the pain that etched itself into her very soul getting to her, "I'll have to get used to sharing Zuko with Toph and the fact that Toph will one day bear Zuko's children."

"Let's hope we find her, then," Ty Lee said. The other thorn in this situation coming to the fore she said, "You realize that for the marriage to be considered valid Toph and Zuko will have consummate the marriage tonight, and since the odds of this set of circumstances occurring are vanishingly small, they'll have to for when and if this aspect of the mission fails."

Mai nodded blankly and flopped back onto Ty Lee's bed. After a long moment, she said, "I know."

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