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|Mother Knows Best|
June 26, 2012
Previously in Air
Rozen has been arrested for the attempted assassination of Firelady Mai. However, neither Jeong Jeong nor Mai are convinced he's guilty. Kuzarr, on the other hand, is horrified that the Lady was so close to danger and has manipulated her and Princess Ursa into leaving the Palace -and staying with Mai's mother.
Chapter Twenty-Three: Mother Knows Best
Mai was not happy with the idea of leaving the Palace. But she hated the idea of staying with her parents. She was explaining to Kuzarr exactly how much she hated it and all the things in the world she would prefer to endure when the door was flung open and a heartfelt cry chilled her blood.
"Mai, darling!" Her mother Ayame rushed into the room, arms flung wide open.
Mai stood rigid as she was enveloped in a smothering hug. She glared balefully at Kuzarr over her mother's shoulder. He was fighting hard to maintain his composure.
"Are you alright?" Ayame cried, hugging her daughter even tighter. "Is everything okay?"
"Fine, mother," Mai said tiredly. "You didn't have to come, you know. We were coming over this evening."
Ayame pulled suddenly away, indignant at the very idea. "Don't be ridiculous! I've come to collect you myself, to make certain you get there safely." She glared suspiciously at the two women lurking against the wall. They were dressed in horrendously masculine uniforms –obviously soldiers or bodyguards or some other kind of hired thugs. "Someone has to."
"Mother." Mai would never snap at her mother, but her voice was edged with warning. She stepped back from the embrace.
Ayame would not be cowed. "What do you expect? Really, Mai, your father and I haven't heard a word from you since..." Her voice faltered. She couldn't bring herself to actually utter the fate of her grandson. Tears stung at her eyes so she quickly hurried on. "And we had to find that out in a letter! Now I learn there's an assassin in the Palace!"
Kuzarr coughed politely. "Was," he corrected. "He has been arrested."
Ayame turned on him with narrowed eyes. "I suppose you're the soldier playing at being royalty?" she said with obvious disdain. "Impersonating my daughter's husband?"
Kuzarr inclined his head. "Only until the crisis is passed."
"And while that monster was skulking around the Palace, where were you?" Ayame demanded. "What exactly were you doing during that crisis?"
"Mother." Mai's voice was sharp.
Kuzarr held Ayame's level gaze for a moment. "It's a fact that the threat came too close. It is inexcusable. And it won't happen again." His eyes burned with resolve. "I plan to do everything in my power to get to the bottom of this. Until then, I believe your home will be the most secure place for the Lady and Princess until we feel their safety is no longer compromised."
Ayame was pleased with his answer. At least he knew his place.
Mai scoffed softly. "You feel our safety is compromised. I am not so certain." She glared once more at Kuzarr. "And I am not pleased about this."
Ayame turned sharply to her daughter. "Then it's a good thing you're not in charge of your protection!"
Mai looked mildly surprised.
"You would have stayed in the Palace after someone tried to kill you?" Ayame couldn't even imagine. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She turned to Kuzarr again. "I assume you have some kind of protection planned?"
"Of course," Kuzarr replied. "The Kyoshi Warriors will accompany you home, along with several selected Imperial Firebenders. In addition there will be a battalion of soldiers on guard around your estate."
Ayame nodded. "That sounds quite sufficient. We'll be leaving just as soon as I find my elusive granddaughter." She turned to Mai. "Where is Ursa?"
If paying attention during her lessons had been problematic for Ursa before, now it was almost futile. In addition to the absence of both Roh-Roh and her father, there was a rumored attempt on her mother's life and that morning she had been informed they were going to stay with her grandparents. She didn't know for how long.
And yet, as frustrating as these sessions became on him, Tutor Gouitn insisted they continue. Ursa didn't know why. What was so great about the imports and exports of the Earth Kingdom? How could they possibly take her mind off her worries? Tutor Gouitn seemed to realize the lessons alone weren't helping because, lately, he had begun bringing Sakura along.
Ursa decided that she liked Sakura. At least, she was sure she would like her, if Sakura would finally open up and not utter things like 'your majesty' and 'Princess' on the rare occasions she did speak. And if she would ever stop curtseying.
Sakura was so quiet, half the time Gouitn would actually forget she was there. And Sakura didn't even seem to mind. It made Ursa wonder how the two were related. She was debating between uncle and niece or cousins four times removed when she remembered Gouitn had introduced the girl merely as his 'charge'. Were they even related at all?
Ursa didn't even jump. Gouitn's impatient cry was becoming an all too frequent occurrence.
Gouitn stressed each word, enunciating clearly. "Do you know the answer?"
Ursa couldn't even remember what topic they were on. "Drought."
Gouitn heaved a great, dramatic sigh. He squeezed the bridge of his nose to show just how exasperated he was. "An hour," he uttered. "For an entire hour, I have been trying to teach you about the arts. Masters, masterpieces, did you even see the examples? Beauties, all of them! And you haven't absorbed a single detail!"
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Ursa quipped.
Gouitn's face convulsed, turning redder and redder, until it was nearly purple.
Sakura giggled. Gouitn shot her an evil eye, but her outburst surprised even Sakura. She clapped a hand over her mouth and turned nearly as red as the tutor.
That was when Ursa's mother came to the rescue. Mai did not necessarily agree with Gouitn when he said the lessons were good for her daughter. Her visits were coming earlier and earlier into the day, which often put an end to the sessions.
"How are the lessons coming, Tutor Gouitn?"
Gouitn jumped in surprise, whirling to face the door. "Ah, Lady Mai," he said, bowing deeply. "And the Lady's sister!"
Ursa honestly didn't know why her grandmother blushed so hard. Sure, it might have been flattering the first time he said it, possibly the second...but by now, she would have thought it would be old. But Ayame seemed to like it just as much as the first time.
"I'm afraid the lessons aren't progressing well at all," Gouitn confided. "It seems the Princess is having trouble concentrating."
"Not surprising," her grandmother said softly, shaking her head sadly.
"Of course not," Gouitn agreed sympathetically. Every trace of impatience had vanished the moment they entered.
Mai did not join in their discussion. Instead, she smiled at Ursa. Ursa smiled back.
"I thought I would end the lessons prematurely," Gouitn announced, "As they don't seem to be helping –today," he was quick to add. "But I thought that, perhaps, if in the future her majesty might like some company..." He gestured at his charge. "Sakura is very nearly the Princess's own age." He smiled at Mai but as she wasn't paying any attention to him, turned it on her mother. "I believe it could be a great help."
"That's what you said about the lessons," Mai pointed out, proving she was listening after all.
Gouitn quickly shot her the neglected smile.
"I think it's a wonderful idea!" Ayame gushed. "Some girl company will work wonders on Ursa's mood, I just know it!"
"There's nothing wrong with Ursa's mood," Mai was quick to point. "Especially under the circumstances."
"No, of course not, dear," Ayame soothed, "I only meant to say it will give her something to do, other than wandering aimlessly about the house."
I do have something to do, Ursa thought. But she wasn't going to tell them what. So aloud, she said, "'To wander is a great achievement; for who knows what you shall encounter.'"
Mai's lips twitched in a smile, recognizing one of Uncle Iroh's many proverbs. But her grandmother –and her tutor– didn't seem impressed.
In hushed tones, Ayame asked, "What is the nonsense that she spouts?"
"I have no idea," the tutor admitted, "But it has disrupted more than one class."
Ayame sighed sadly. What was she to do with such a young woman? "Well you may think there's nothing unusual about Ursa's behavior, Mai," she announced, "But I believe she could benefit from the company of this young lady. Therefore," she turned to Sakura, smiling, "I absolutely insist you join us for tea someday soon."
Sakura, not surprisingly, made no response.
"She would love to," Gouitn accepted.
"Wonderful!" Ayame cried. "The Princess will need some time to settle in to her new accommodations, of course, but we can arrange for the tea after her lessons one day, perhaps?"
Gouitn smiled. "Perfect."
Ursa sighed softly. She remembered to sit ramrod straight on the couch and not to cross her legs. The harder habit to avoid was swinging her feet, since they dangled several inches above the floor. Yuki stood at her shoulder. She was a nice woman, Ursa thought, and very good at her job. Unfortunately, that job was shadowing Ursa's every move and never letting her out of her sight.
"My, this is quite oppressive, isn't it?" Her grandmother lamented. "If only we could have a moment of privacy." She glared meaningfully at several guards in the room.
"They can't leave, Mother," Mai explained. "If they aren't with us, they can't protect us."
When the councilors began backing Mai into a corner, she insisted she would only accept the protection of bodyguards if she was the one to choose them. The Council was less than pleased with her choices –especially when she allowed Ursa to request Joji– but what could they do? Aside from Yuki, there were two soldiers named Ming and Lilly who had acted on occasion as the Lady's bodyguards, just as Yuki had done for the Princess. They stood readily at their charges shoulders, while Joji and Tsaira stood guard at the room's door.
Ming, though devoted to her duty, had a kind heart and a sense of humor. Impatience and a certain degree of intolerance for haughty commanders were the banes of her promising career. She had spent more than one stint as prison guard to 'cool off and learn respect'. Lilly was the yin to Ming's yang. She was trained in the work of a bodyguard, always stoic and professional, and kept Ming in check. She spoke little and possessed more patience than anyone Mai had ever known.
Ayame was disappointed. "I suppose that's necessary..."
The Kyoshis and several more soldiers were busy investigating the estate, looking for any signs of spies, tampering or traps.
Ursa brightened a little when her uncle Tom-Tom slouched onto the couch beside her. Yuki tensed, but a bodyguard wasn't supposed to trust anyone. Tom-Tom successfully ignored the toned soldier. "You look bored, Sury."
Ursa tried to smile, but her heart wasn't in it. Her grandmother went on nagging and her mother sat rigidly, pretending to listen.
"I taught the turtle-duck a new trick," Tom-Tom said. "You want to see?"
Ursa's eyes lit up. A year ago, she and Roh-Roh had rescued the baby from a rooftop. In the process she had frightened both her parents, nearly broken her neck, and made an adamant admirer of her little brother. Upon examination they found that the baby turtle-duck had a broken wing. Tom-Tom offered to nurture her back to health, but he grew so attached to the creature that he never got around to putting her back on the pond. He taught her tricks and fed her from his palm. Tom-Tom named the baby Ursa, after her savior.
"Come on." Tom-Tom took her by the hand and led her out of the room, Yuki following after them and Joji only a step behind.
"Feels like a parade," Tom-Tom muttered.
They passed the Kyoshis returning from their search to report.
"Everything looks secure," Sokka said.
"Excellent!" Ayame declared. "Now can we have a little privacy?"
Sokka blinked at her.
Suki smiled helpfully. "Someone must accompany the Firelady at all times," she explained. "Someone trained to protect her." She turned to Mai. "Captain Kio and his men will remain on guard outside."
"They'll have a hard time getting past him," Sokka said with a chuckle.
"Well, if you must stay," Ayame said in exasperation, "Don't stand there all day. Help them with the bags!"
She gestured beyond them and the Kyoshis turned to look. The house servants waited expectantly, struggling under the burden of the royal guests' luggage.
Suki bristled. "Excuse me?" Her tone was polite, but her words were clipped.
"We're not the help; we're the Kyoshi Warriors!" Sokka exploded, waving his arms. He glanced down at his clothes. "Did I forget to take off the servant disguise?"
"...warriors?" She ran her eyes over the group doubtfully. Three women –was that one Ty Lee?– and one madman. "Well then, why don't you go and sharpen your swords, or something? Really, two pairs of prying eyes are more than enough!" She waved vaguely in the direction of Ming and Lilly.
Sokka opened his mouth to retort that they were guarding something, but Suki pulled at his arm. "Come on, Sokka. We'll search the perimeter again."
"Wait." Mai eased out of her mother's grip, gliding over to the Kyoshis. She said softly, "I'd like you to do me a favor."
"It's about Rozen, isn't it?" Ty Lee guessed.
Mai nodded. "I want to know how and I want to know why. Zuko trusted Rozen as much as Jeong-Jeong; he doesn't trust that unconditionally for no reason." Her eyes darkened. "Most of all, I want to know how the Palace guards found out about this 'assassination' before we did."
Sokka and Suki exchanged knowing glances.
"We were a little curious about that ourselves," Sokka said. "We've already started looking into it."
Suki nodded. "Rozen has a sister. We thought we would pay her a visit, to see how she's doing and what she knows. Hopefully tie up the loose ends."
"Just be discreet." Mai looked pointedly at Sokka. "I'd prefer no one else found out about this."
Sokka was highly offended. "I can be discreet!" His indignant cry startled Mai's mother and her servants.
Mai rolled her eyes; Suki stifled a giggle.
"Oh, uh...I can be discreet," he whispered.
"I'll keep the Tactless Oaf in line," Suki assured her. "Ty Lee and Keiko will stay here as guard and cover our tracks."
Mai nodded her thanks. "I want to know everything, as soon as you get back."
Suki cast a glance at Mai's mother. "You will," she assured.
The Kyoshis departed and Mai was left to the mercy of her mother.
"Now, Mai, dear," Ayame said, looping her arm through her daughter's. "We can finally have time to talk." She glanced at the bodyguards. "In relative privacy."
Neither Ming nor Lilly batted an eye.
They sat together on the couch and she took Mai's hands in hers. Mai braced herself for the pointless drivel her mother would insist on, to 'keep her mind off things'. Her mother tended to enjoy gossiping and discussing the hopeless fashions that were constantly in and out of style among the court nobles. Mai did not often make social calls.
But Ayame surprised her daughter. She gazed deep into Mai's eyes, with unbound concern and sincerity. "How are you, Mai?"
The question caught Mai off guard. She realized that since Zuko left, no one had once asked her this question. Veiling emotions was second nature to Mai. Ty Lee and the others knew that, and they were probably afraid of upsetting a torrent of repressed emotions. And now, it was her mother who finally posed the question; the woman who taught her to never allow her feelings to control her.
Perhaps for the first time Mai realized she wasn't well. She was barely hanging on and, though she'd never admit it, she needed Zuko. The only thing that sustained Mai was her children. Ursa needed her to be strong, needed to know that everything was going to be okay. And Roh-Roh, wherever he was, needed his mother to play the part given her, to give Zuko the time he needed.
"I've been better," Mai admitted.
Her mother clasped her hands tight. "Everything will turn out, Mai. You'll see."
Mai couldn't say how comforting those words felt. Only her eyes could.
This chapter title comes from the fun villainess song in Tangled. Love that movie. Though I really prefer the Reprise of the song; it's darker and has a very Ursula/Little Mermaid vibe. Seriously, villains get the best songs!
Originally, Ayame's name was going to be Yumi. However, it was far too close to the name of Ursa's personal bodyguard, Yuki.
On an interesting note, Ayame and Yuki were the names of a pair of brothers in the manga Fruits Basket. I didn't actually read the manga until after I had chosen the names, so that's just another funky quirk of fate, I guess.
Obviously, Mai and her mother don't get along well. However, they're still mother and daughter; I thought it fitting that Ayame should be the one to comfort Mai.
For some reason, I've always loved Tom-Tom. I have some fun with him in this, though he doesn't have a huge role. It was just so interesting to wonder what being Mai's baby brother would be like...
The baby turtle duck and Ursa's heroic rescue mentioned in this chapter were the events seen in Zuko's nightmare in.
Signing off now; laptop batteries running out. Egad! >_<
For the collective works of the author, go here.