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Avatar Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph were staying in the spacious house set aside for them in the Fire Nation Capital city, fast asleep even as the sun began to rise and throw pale light over the elegant buildings. Toph was the first to wake to the soft footsteps outside the house, and before she could wake the others a polite knock sounded at the door. She stood up and moved to the door as Aang and Katara snapped awake at the sound. Aang reached for his staff as Toph opened the door a crack. "What do you want?" she demanded rudely of the person standing outside.
"I have a formal invitation to the palace from Fire Lord Zuko, ma'am," came the mild answer. The voice was male, a gentle tenor that reflected the messenger's youth.
Before Toph could answer, Aang joined her at the door and addressed the man. "Thank you, hotman!" he said, bowed, and accepted the gold-decorated tube.
The messenger returned the gesture, then took a respectful step backwards before he turned and hurried down the cobbled street.
Aang closed the door and turned away, looking down at the tube in his hand.
"What is it?" Katara inquired, just finishing rolling up her sleeping bag.
"It's an invitation to the palace from Zuko," Aang answered, pulling the gold cap from the tube and upending it. A rolled sheet of parchment slid out into his hand. He passed the empty tube to Toph, unrolled the paper and read, "'Avatar Aang and Company, Fire Lord Zuko requests your presence at the royal palace tonight for a banquet and an important meeting. Please arrive and seat yourself by exactly seven o'clock.' Huh. I wonder what this important meeting is about."
Sokka had awoken in time to hear Aang read the message, and now he replied groggily, "Who cares? They're having a banquet!" He smiled at the thought of all the mountainous platters of food he'd have available.
Katara gave him a hard look and said to Aang, "Maybe there's been some news on Azula's whereabouts." She pushed herself to her feet and stood beside him.
Aang shrugged, "Maybe. I guess we'll find out tonight."
"What, you're actually planning to go?" Toph asked.
"Yeah. Why not?" Aang looked at her.
"Aren't all these meetings just formalities and stuff? You've already gone to, like, five this week."
"He's been to one meeting this month, Toph," Katara corrected.
The earthbender crossed her arms. "Whatever. I still don't get why we have to go."
"Zuko might have some important news. We need to know if there's anything we can do," Aang said, and ended the conversation by rolling up the parchment once more and stepping away.
Toph grunted and returned to her pallet on the floor. Katara placed her hands on her hips and asked Aang, "So, what do you plan to do until tonight?"
The airbender shrugged. "I don't know. Whatever we want to do, I guess."
Sokka was pulling his hair back into its usual wolf's tail. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm gonna go to the blades shop down the street and see what they have."
Since losing his sword, Sokka had taken up weapon collecting to help fill the void. So far he'd obtained a near-complete set of throwing knives, a pair of standard-issue Fire Nation military swords, and a jian nearly identical to his old one. He was now always on the lookout for new additions to his collection.
"Can I come with you?" Toph asked. "You know how they can get." She nodded toward Katara and Aang and wrinkled her nose.
"Hey!" Katara protested, "What is that supposed to mean?"
Toph smirked at her reaction. "You know exactly what I mean, Sugar Queen."
Sokka nodded in agreement with Toph, feigning seriousness. "Yes, I believe you're right, Miss Beifong. You definitely need to come with me. Otherwise you might catch...
"Oogies," he and Toph finished in unison.
Katara picked up her rolled sleeping bag and threw it at him. "Oh, get out of here, both of you!"
Aang couldn't help but laugh at them all.
Grinning, Sokka scooped up his boomerang and slung its sheath across his back, Toph fitted her headband into place, and the two of them headed out the door. "See you guys soon. Don't have too much fun without me," Sokka said, and shut the door behind him.
As soon as they'd left, Katara sighed and sat back. "Sometimes I just want to whack those two upside the head. Really."
Aang smiled at her. "Don't let them get to you, they're only kidding."
Katara sighed again. "I know. At least we're alone now." She glanced over at Aang.
"Yeah," he agreed.
Half an hour before seven o'clock, the gang was back together at the house and preparing for the night at the palace. They'd cleaned up quite a bit and straightened their clothes as best as they could, and now they were looking at least slightly better than usual; Aang's robes were fresh, Katara's hair was full and shiny, Sokka had polished his boots and boomerang, and Toph wasn't covered in dirt. By their own standards, they were ready to step into the Fire Lord's presence.
The four of them filed out of the house and made their way down the street, to the main thoroughfare, and on to the Royal Plaza. At the palace gates a servant met them and led them the rest of the way to the doors of the grand building.
Even though they'd all been there before, the enormity and beauty was as awe-inspiring as if this were the first time they'd seen it. As they walked through the vast gold-adorned doors everyone but Toph craned their necks to marvel at the impressive sights.
After a moment of winding through a wide side corridor, their little procession stopped at a smaller, but no less gorgeous, red door. The mustachioed servant pulled the door open with some effort and then bowed deeply. "The Fire Lord awaits you," he said, and then hurried off the way he'd come.
Aang led the way into the vast room beyond the door—the royal dining room. A long gold table trimmed in deep red stretched the length of the room. Chairs lined the table but only one was occupied, and servants stood along the walls. Zuko sat alone at the head of the table, and as the four visitors entered he stood respectfully. Sokka flashed a confident grin as he strode to his seat, earning dark looks from a few of the servants nearby. They positioned themselves behind their chairs and bowed to the Fire Lord, who nodded and sat down in return. Aang politely pulled out Katara's chair for her, and Sokka noticed and hastily did the same for Toph.
Once everyone present was seated, Zuko nodded to the servants lining the walls and they exited through a pair of small doors on opposite sides of the room. All was silent until they returned, bearing platters of steaming food. All four of them brightened at the sight (or, in Toph's case, the smell) of it, especially Sokka, whose face broke into a hungry grin. After they arranged the heaping plates on the table the servants left again, and Zuko relaxed visibly.
"Welcome," he said. "You can go ahead and eat."
Sokka practically jumped on the platter of meat, loading his plate and shoveling food into his mouth as if he hadn't eaten in days. The others weren't as eager. They politely filled their plates, but before they began their meal Aang asked the Fire Lord, "So...what exactly is this meeting about?"
"Yeah," Katara agreed. "None of your generals are here, or anyone."
Zuko carefully chewed and swallowed a piece of meat before answering, "I just wanted to catch you up on what's going on around here. First, my mother Ursa and Ikem are now living here at the palace, and I've appointed her my head advisor and Ikem the head of the Fire Nation's new royal entertainment troupe."
"Entertainment troupe?" Katara repeated incredulously.
Zuko smiled slightly. "Yeah. It was my mom's idea. Second, there have been sightings of strange earth-to-sky lightning strikes and unexplained forest fires near the surrounding villages."
"Azula," Aang said.
Zuko nodded once.
"Are you going to go after her?" Toph inquired through a mouthful of food.
The Fire Lord shook his head. "No. Not yet, at least. I don't think any of us are ready for that."
Aang nodded in grim agreement. "And she isn't hurting anyone?"
Zuko answered, "No. Just the trees."
The airbender was silent. Zuko continued, "Anyway, the third thing—I've formed an official imperial bodyguard. A few select men to be by my side at all times. Just in case. Most of the Elite Firebenders were loyal to my f— Ozai, so I'm not ready to trust them with my life."
"Who's in this imperial bodyguard?" Katara asked.
Zuko replied, "Five men. Huan, who's been a palace guard for a long time—"
"Oh, we know Huan!" Sokka interrupted him. "You know what I like about him? He has a boomerang! He's a firebender, but he uses a—"
"Sokka! Be quiet," Katara shushed him. Her brother scowled but fell silent.
Zuko went on as if he'd never been interrupted. "Then there's Tai Li, one of the—"
"Ty Lee? But she's a Kyoshi Warrior," Toph cut in.
"Not Ty Lee, Tai—"
"The Kyoshi Warriors are here? Why didn't anyone tell me?" Sokka cried.
"They aren't here, I said—"
"They aren't? But Toph just—"
"Hey, I thought he said—"
"Everyone, quiet!" Aang finally shouted. "Let Zuko explain."
The Fire Lord took a deep breath before he said, "Tai Li, T-A-I L-I. He's part of the guard. Then there's Kaibo, Shin Tse, and Xing. Okay? They're all trusted soldiers, and I feel like I can depend on them."
"Xing. Hehe," Sokka snickered to himself. Katara gave him a frown.
Aang nodded to Zuko. "I think that's a pretty good idea. Hopefully you'll sleep better knowing you've got someone watching your back," he said.
Zuko smiled slightly. "My thoughts exactly." Then he stood up. Everyone else followed suit, and the Fire Lord addressed them formally, "Avatar Aang and company, I thank you for accepting my invitation and attending this meeting. You are dismissed." He bowed shallowly, and the four visitors returned the gesture.
"It was our honor," said Aang.
"Stay safe, Zuko," Katara told him.
"Thanks for the food!" Sokka called.
"Later, Mister Fire Lord," Toph said.
Team Avatar filed out through the big red door, where the same mustachioed servant led them down the corridor and to the main entrance, then out to the gates. "A pleasure to have you here, honored guests," he said, bowing.
"A pleasure to be here, Hotman," Aang answered with a bow in turn. The little man hurried away then, and the four teens left the palace grounds.
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