The guards were trying to set Princess Azula on her feet, but she couldn’t stand—she wobbled stiffly, like a statue, and then toppled to the ground once more. Mai might have laughed, but before she could Ty Lee squeaked with terror beside her as a guard snapped her cuffs into place.
Azula screamed; a jet of smoke blasted from her mouth and Mai felt it scald her before the guards seized her by her own cuffed arms and dragged her backwards into the fort. But her eyes met Azula’s for one more moment—
Let them rot!
Then a door closed between them and Mai was in a small, dark room. Two guards held her by the arms.
“Check her—she’s probably got some hidden weapons,”
“That’s the warden’s niece, be careful!”
“She’s a traitor now.”
Mai filled her eyes with the door as the guards undressed her, put her into prison clothes. “Look at this, she’s got knives sewn into every inch of this vest!” “Take her hair down; I bet there’s some in there, too,” “You’re right!” “Here, put these clothes on, Lady Mai.”
But she didn’t move, so a guard pulled the scratchy tunic over Mai’s head. The other ran her hand roughly through Mai’s tangled hair one last time, then they dragged Mai out again, through a different door—Azula’s screams faded as they withdrew deeper into the fort—their feet pounded loudly in the echoing metal hallways—“This isn’t about you, Mai!”—A guard seized her by the upper arm and guided her down the stairs. “I’m here to protect you.”— They stopped before a cell and the door before them opened silently to receive her. “Step into the cell, please, Lady Mai.”—a flash of fire; one man moved toward her, the other away— She didn’t move.
“Lady Mai?” “She’s just a prisoner now.” “But she’s the warden’s niece.” Get off of me! “Just push her!”
Hands shoved her in the small of her back and a thin cot tripped her feet. Mai hit the floor with a soft thump as the metal door slammed shut behind her.
They put food in through a tiny flap at the bottom of the door but Mai’s body lay still on the cot, her hands behind her head and her eyes staring vacantly at the darkness above her. The food was taken away and replaced, then taken away and replaced again. Their faded words fell upon her ears and fell away unremarked:
“She hasn’t eaten anything!”
“We can’t open the door; we’re on lockdown.”
“How long is it gonna last?”
“Until the new prisoner shipment is processed. They couldn’t stop the transfer after…the escape—so the Warden’s being extra-careful.”
“Who are they?”
“Buncha Earth Kingdom girls, by the looks of them—they can’t be more than twenty years old, I think.”
“Is it just me, or are we getting more and more kids in here?”
“Doesn’t matter how old they are; they’re all criminals.”
This isn’t about you! he snapped.
“I dunno…who’d attack a bunch of teenage girls?”
Thanks, Zuko, that makes me feel all better.
The darkness was absolute. Even the tiny scrap of light when they opened the door flap hurt her eyes. They pushed more food in, and stayed to watch. Mai did not oblige them.
“She still hasn’t eaten anything?”
“Look in—is she moving?”
Only his scar was visible, the scar filling her window as his narrow eye looked at her and looked away, as he jumped into the sky and left her behind, left her in prison, left her in darkness.
Her body breathed, but Mai did not move.
Her body flinched when light struck her face once more.
“Yard time,” grunted the guard in the doorway. She frowned at Mai’s raised eyebrows as behind her herds of prisoners streams by. “You hear me? Get up!”
Mai’s eyes narrowed—but one of the prisoners walking by suddenly ducked under the guard’s arm and slipped into Mai’s cell.
“Mai!” Ty Lee squealed. “You’re here!” She seized Mai’s arm and Mai sat up despite herself, still wincing in the light.
“Come on, Mai, you’ve got to come with me! You can’t stay here; all this darkness is terrible for your complexion.”
Ty Lee dragged Mai to her feet and out the door, and in her overzealous tugging, she pulled her into the guard. Mai bounced off the guard’s armor and slammed into the doorway; the left side of her face struck the doorframe and she staggered as Ty Lee, skipping, led her forward to join the stream of prisoners.
“Oh, it’s so good to be out!” Ty Lee said carryingly. She skipped higher and higher, Mai’s arm dangling limply in her grip. “Whew—I’m so stiff! Oh—wait a second!” She stopped abruptly in the crowded hall, seized her right leg by the ankle, and pulled her foot easily over her head.
The prisoners behind them complained loudly, jostling into Mai as Ty Lee dropped her hand to stretch her left leg. “Move along!” shouted a guard.
“Oh, sorry!” Ty Lee called. She seized Mai’s hand again and resumed skipping down the hall. “Oh, it feels so good to be out of that tiny cell! I mean, at least it’s still big enough to practice in a bit, but it’s nice to jump—” she skipped so high that Mai’s arm almost jerked out of its socket—“and not bump your head on the ceiling, huh?” She glanced back at Mai, whose eyes were on the floor.
Ty Lee fell into step beside Mai. “Your hair looks really great down, Mai. You should let it loose more often!” She frowned and peered more closely at Mai’s face. “But your skin looks terrible. You were always kinda pasty before, but now…” Mai’s lip curled, and Ty Lee, sensing danger, changed tack. “Oh—oh look, we’re in the yard already. Yaaay sunshine!”
The tightly-packed stream of prisoners dissipated as they reached the open courtyard, a metal-walled compound with dirt floors. The sky above was hazy with steam; the sun was hardly visible. Mai glared at Ty Lee.
“So many people!” Ty Lee said, stepping out of the stream of people. “Who should we meet first?” She glanced at Mai, made no note of the latter’s crossed arms or flat expression, and continued, “Look, there’s a group of girls our age—let’s start with them! Hey…don’t they look familiar?”
A trio of brown-haired girls in red tunics was indeed marching towards them, all wearing similar angry expressions.
“Oh, no,” said Ty Lee. “I totally know them! Who are they! Look, Mai, they know us, too—do you remember who they are?”
Mai put a hand on Ty Lee’s shoulder but she had already bounced forward to meet the approaching girls. “Hi! I’m sorry—I know we’ve met, but w can’t remember your names.”
“We’re Kyoshi warriors,” said the girl in the middle, a teenager with a short, boyish haircut and angry grey eyes.
“Oh my gosh!” Ty Lee exclaimed. “That’s right! You guys sure look different without the face paint.”
“You were the ones who captured us!” shouted the girl with a long brown braid, who stood to the left of the first. “Outside Ba Sing Se!”
“Do you know how many refugees are probably stranded without us to protect them?” snapped the last of the girls, shorter than the other two with brown bangs and a bun tied at the nape of her neck.
“—We were just trying to find the Avatar for Azula,” said Ty Lee, a flicker of concern crossing her face. “We didn’t mean to—”
“You!” interrupted the braided Kyoshi. She pointed at Ty Lee. “You’re the one—you were paralyzing us!”
“Oh, yeah,” Ty Lee grinned weakly. “It’s called ‘chi-blocking.’ You hit people’s pressure points—”
“Is this funny to you?” demanded the first, short-haired girl. “You think this is just a game?”
“People are dying out there!” shouted the short one.
The braided girl leapt forward and swung at Ty Lee. She gasped and stepped backwards into the short girl, who pinned Ty Lee’s arms in a bear hug as the first girl lifted her foot to strike.
Ty Lee flinched and squeaked in terror, but before the first girl’s foot struck Ty Lee it landed in Mai’s raised hand.
“Leave her alone!” said Mai. Her voice was hoarse and cracked, but it carried above the courtyard din and all five girls froze, the braided girl with her fists raised, the first girl on one leg with her ankle in Mai’s grip, and Ty Lee slack in the short girl’s grip.
“What’s this! Break it up, break it up!” Two Fire Nation guards had already arrived, one with a drawn club. Mai and the short-haired Kyoshi glanced at the guards, then glared at each other; Mai threw the girl’s leg to the side at the same time as the girl kicked fiercely back at Mai, and both girls toppled backwards.
Her reflexes had been dulled by the days she had spent lying on the floor of the cell; Mai hardly managed to reach a hand around to break her fall. She hit the ground, stunned, a fierce stabbing pain in her hand.
“…Back to your cells,” the guard was shouting. “No fighting or next time it’s the cooler!”
The shortest Kyoshi had released Ty Lee, who ran to Mai’s side. The short-haired Kyoshi, who had also fallen to the ground, rose slowly, her chin raised.
“Come on, back to your cells,” the guards snapped, and with ominous looks tossed over their shoulders, the three Kyoshi were lead away.
“Gosh, thanks, Mai!” Ty Lee said as Mai sat up slowly and winced. “I always get scared when someone attacks me. I know it’s silly—we’ve attacked lots of people—but when it’s the other way around it’s different—Mai, are you all right?”
Mai’s tightly clamped jaw was trembling. She struggled to sit up and felt again the sharp pain in her palm. She lifted her hand and saw that she had landed on a pebble.
“I’m fine,” she said, her voice cracking as her stomach suddenly growled. She put a hand over her stomach and was surprised to see how badly her arms shook. “Just tired.”
“Come on,” a guard snapped from beside them. “You too. If you fight your yard time gets taken away.”
“Okay, okay! Give me a moment!” Ty Lee chided. She turned back to Mai and said sternly, “Mai, you’re not eating, aren’t you?”
Mai raised her eyebrows, then clutched her head and let out a low moan.
“I noticed,” said Ty Lee quietly. “There was a full plate of food in your cell just now, remember?”
A guard seized Ty Lee and Mai each by the arms and pulled them to their feet. Mai’s head spun; she was suddenly so hungry she felt faint.
“Listen—Mai…” said Ty Lee as the guards walked them out of the courtyard and through the corridor. Her voice seemed to be coming from far away. “I know you’re upset—about Zuko and Azula…but we’re going to get out of this, okay? You have to keep up your strength!”
Mai glanced over at her. There were lines beneath Ty Lee’s big eyes, a drawn look to her once-full cheeks. Her tightly-braided hair was frizzy and disheveled.
“Here we are,” said a guard. She opened the door to Mai’s cell.
“Mai?” Ty Lee called.
Mai tried to speak, but the guard nudged her inside and then the door slammed closed between them.
She stood still for a moment, inches from the door, listening to Ty Lee’s light steps and the guards’ heavy footfalls as they marched further down the corridor. Then she sighed and unclenched her fists; the pebble that she had scooped up at the last minute fell to the ground with a tinny clatter. The tray of food was still lying on the floor, but Mai stepped over it and threw herself down on the mattress.
She lay for a moment, on her back, staring at the ceiling. Her stomach growled.
Then, slowly, she sat up and crossed her legs. With her little finger she dragged the tray of food towards her and contemplated it.
Her stomach growled so fiercely that Mai felt a swoop of nausea. She frowned, lifted her hand—and paused, as Ty Lee’s frightened face floated up into her mind’s eye, followed by the Kyoshi’s threatening glares.
Mai gingerly picked up the bread between her thumb and index finger, examined it closely, sighed, and took a bite.
The food was not nearly enough, so once she was finished Mai lay back down on her cot, hungrier than she’d been before, her stomach roiling with pain. She lay, unmoving, with a grimace on her face, for what seemed like hours, until someone knocked on the cell door.
“Who is it?” Mai called sardonically.
“Mai, it’s your uncle.”
“Oh.” Mai looked at the ceiling. “I guess you can come in.”
The door opened and the warden stood in the doorway, his lips pursed in a glower not unlike his niece’s. “Mai,” he began. “What in the world were you thinking?”
Mai shrugged. “The family’s been trying to get me to fall in love with Zuko since I was born. This has got to be my mother’s dream come true.”
“You’ve endangered everything your mother and father have worked for!” the warden groaned. He closed the cell door behind him. “Your parents are in disgrace, and Princess Azula wants you and Ty Lee executed!”
Mai blinked, her eyes on the ceiling.
“Fire Lord Ozai has deferred judgment until after Sozin’s Comet. I would try to help you, but I’ve lost my honor—the first prisoners ever to escape the Boiling Rock—and Prince Zuko, no doubt!” He pressed a hand to his face. “The Fire Lord had ordered that he be killed on sight—and I didn’t report his presence to the Fire Lord—because I wanted to tell you first!”
Mai looked at her uncle for the first time.
“Where is Zuko now?”
“How should I know?” the Warden snapped. “The whole Fire Nation wants him dead. Wherever he is, I doubt he could survive much longer, not with Azula and the Avatar out to kill him.”
“But he was with some of the Avatar’s friends,” said Mai.
“I don’t know what any of that means,” the Warden said gruffly. “So there’s nothing I can do to help you, Mai. And your parents aren’t in a position to help you, either. They were shamed after King Bumi took New Ozai back from the Fire Nation on the Day of Black Sun—they are trying to get back in the Fire Lord’s good graces, and too close of a link to you would hurt their chances—but they’ll help you if they can.”
Mai looked back at the ceiling. “Right.”
“They are having a difficult year, Mai,” the warden said uncomfortably. “Tom-Tom’s kidnapping in the spring—”
The warden raised his eyebrows. “Your mother was very distraught—”
“She was more ‘distraught’ about her honor than Tom-Tom’s safety,” Mai said blandly, but her eyes narrowed.
The warden looked at Mai and paused. “I—I’ve brought you some food—a guard told me you didn’t eat anything the first day or so you got here—but that’s all I can do.”
“I want Zuko’s letter.”
“No,” said the warden. “That’s evidence—evidence in your favor, Mai! It proves you were not Zuko’s co-conspirator when he deserted the Fire Nation. I’ll keep it, Mai; I can use it to help you.”
“Mai!” the warden objected. He knelt down beside her. “Haven’t I always spoiled you, my only niece? You are the daughter I never had—Didn’t I take you on trips when your parents were busy, buy you sweets—I paid for your first martial arts instructor—I even gave you your first throwing knife, and look at you now! You’re a prodigy!”
“Yeah…” said Mai flatly. “Look at me now.”
The warden grew quiet. He slowly set the package in his arms on the floor, then straightened. “I’m…I’m sorry, Mai. But this is all I can do.”
She kept her eyes on the ceiling. So, with a miserable frown on his worn, wrinkled face, the warden turned around and put his hand on the cell door.
“Thank you,” Mai muttered.
He paused, but did not turn around. Then the warden opened the door and left. A guard slammed it shut again behind him.
When the cell door opened again, a helmeted Fire Nation guard stood in the doorway, her face obfuscated by the light streaming in behind her. Mai’s eyes turned to her before she could stop herself. “Azula wants you and Ty Lee executed!”
“Free time,” the guard snapped. Mai stared at her. “Get up!” She stepped in, seized Mai’s arm, and dragged her up and out of the cell. Mai’s bare foot struck her pebble and it clattered across the cell floor, but luckily the guard didn’t notice. She half-dragged a limp Mai out of the cell and deposited her into the stream of trundling prisoners.
Ty Lee was waiting at the entrance to the courtyard, searching the crowd and smiling nervously at all of the prisoners that filed past her. Her face broke into a true smile as she spotted Mai.
“Good morning!” She pirouetted on her tiptoes, took Mai’s arm, and leaped out of the crowd. “I’m so glad to see you. Let’s not get into any fights this time; we have so much to catch up on. Oh, and look—” she peered over Mai’s shoulder— “the Kyoshi are here too!”
Mai leaned against the wall and slid down to the ground, but she kept her eyes on the three girls who broke off from the other prisoners and approached them.
“Hello, girls!” said Ty Lee brightly as they walked by. “You guys must’ve just gotten moved to this prison, right? Why’s that?”
“We tried to escape from the last one,” said the shortest one.
“Don’t talk to them, Nysa!” snapped the braided one.
Ty Lee bowed to the short girl. “Nysa? My name’s Ty Lee, and this is Mai.”
Nysa glanced at the short-haired Kyoshi, who stood in between the other two and had been watching the proceedings with an expression of imperious skepticism.
“I’m Li Yut,” the short-haired, imperious girl said finally. “Deputy leader of the Kyoshi warriors.” She gestured to the braided girl. “And this is Agri.”
“You’ll learn to fear those names,” Agri grumbled. “Come on, girls.”
She tried to usher them on, but Nysa had already asked, “…Why are you two in here?”
“Nysa!” Agri snapped.
Mai’s chin fell to rest on her folded arms as Ty Lee said, “We attacked Azula. Well…I guess technically you didn’t, Mai—but you were about to. Mai attacked the guards who were trying to stop the Avatar’s friends—including Zuko— from escaping on the gondola. Then Azula was going to hurt Mai, so I blocked her chi. And now we’re here!”
“Why’d you do that?” Li Yut said.
“Because Azula was going to hurt Mai!” said Ty Lee.
“Why did Mai help the Avatar’s friend’s escape?” asked Nysa.
“I don’t know,” Ty Lee said brightly. “You’ll have to ask her.”
“You don’t know?” Mai repeated, looking at Ty Lee.
“Well, I’m sure it has something to do with Zuko,” said Ty Lee. “But it’s not like you to break the rules, Mai. We haven’t gotten a chance to talk about it.”
“But…” Mai bowed her head slightly, so her loose and disheveled hair fell about her shoulders. “If you didn’t know, why’d you help me?”
“Because Azula was going to hurt you!” Ty Lee repeated, as if it were obvious. “Silly.”
Mai looked away. “That’s a stupid reason,” she said hoarsely. For some reason the image of her baby brother swam before her eyes. She blinked it away.
One of the Kyoshi spoke.
“What?” Mai said hoarsely.
“I said,” repeated Li Yut, “Why’d you help the Avatar’s friends?”
Mai uncrossed her arms and pressed her palms to the dirt floor of the courtyard. “Because Azula was going to kill Zuko.”
Agri snorted. “That would help the Avatar, not hurt him,” she said, as Ty Lee gasped, “Do you really think so? You think Azula would kill her own brother?”
“Do you think she wouldn’t?” Mai countered flatly. She glanced at the Kyoshi and then back to the ground.
“Zuko’s apparently deserted the Fire Nation,” Ty Lee explained. “He’s promised to help the Avatar end the war and free the other nations.”
“Do you expect us to believe—” Agri began, but Li Yut interrupted her, “It’s true, Agri. I’ve heard it from other prisoners and even the guards. On the Day of Black Sun, Prince Zuko confronted Ozai—Ozai tried to kill him but he escaped on a war balloon. And then just before we arrived here, he and one of the Avatar’s friends snuck in and broke out a Water Tribe general and—so I’ve heard—our leader, Suki.” Li Yut raised her eyebrows at Mai. “But if Ty Lee is ‘stupid’ for saving you, why’d you save Zuko?”
“Zuko isn’t like me!” Mai snapped. “He’s—”
“You’re betraying your country!”
“That’s not how I see it.”
“He’s the only one I’ve ever met who actually believes in the ‘Fire Nation,’” Mai pronounced the last two words with scorn. “He actually believes in honor.” She looked at the floor. “Zuko’s not like other people.”
“Yes he is,” Agri snapped. She raised her fists and stepped closer to where Mai sat. “Your little boyfriend Zuko’s not the only life that matters in this war. But you are too spoiled and prejudiced to realize that! We Kyoshi were protecting refugees going to Ba Sing Se—people just as important as your darling Zuko, who weren’t lucky enough to be born princes or murderers or overlords—refugees trying to find a better life in Ba Sing Se—but you wouldn’t understand.”
“You two!” a guard called. “Behave over there!”
Agri leaned threateningly over Mai, but Mai did not flinch or move. “All the people who die on the road to Ba Sing Se are on your conscience,” Agri hissed. Then she turned away.
“You aren’t the first couple to get ripped apart by this war, you know,” Li Yut spoke up. “But if it’s true that Prince Zuko is helping the Avatar, perhaps he will start making amends for all the harm he’s let happen in the past.”
“So he went and got himself arrested,” Mai retorted sarcastically, playing with the pebble in her hand.
“So did you,” said Li Yut. “If Zuko helps end the war, then perhaps you’ve saved many lives by saving his. It’s a noble sacrifice.”
“Great,” Mai said flatly. “So now instead of sacrificing for the Fire Nation, I’m sacrificing for the Earth Kingdom.”
“No,” said Li Yut. “You’re sacrificing for people. For love.”
Mai sighed deeply and refused to speak again.
“I wish I had a comb!” Ty Lee exclaimed.
“Why?” Mai said flatly. It was their next yard time and Mai sat leaning against the compound wall with the pebble clenched in her fist, watching Ty Lee do handstands in front of her. “You seem to be amusing yourself just fine.”
“Yeah, but I’d love to comb your hair,” Ty Lee grinned at Mai upside-down. “You have such long, pretty hair, but you always used to keep it tied up.”
Mai raised her eyebrows. “I don’t have any hair ties here.”
“Well you should wear it down more often!” Ty Lee said cheerily. She flipped herself upright and landed cross-legged beside Mai. “These prison outfits are so baggy, and you’re so skinny and flat-chested, you’d look like a boy if you didn’t have such pretty hair.”
“ ‘Flat-chested?’” Mai repeated. She raised an eyebrow at Ty Lee but her lips curved ever so slightly. “I guess I’m just not a bouncy person,” she retorted.
“I’ve told you a thousand times, I’m not bouncy,” Ty Lee grinned. “I prefer… oh… what’s the word I prefer? It starts with a ‘B’ too…”
“Bubbly,” Mai supplied.
“Bubbly!” Ty Lee repeated triumphantly. “I love that word.” She scowled suddenly and put her hands on her hips. “You might actually get some boobs if you keep lying around like you have been. Get up and do some exercises with me!”
“I hate bubbles,” Mai scowled.
“Yeah, yeah, you like your drinks…flat…” Ty Lee smirked. “Didn’t you and Zuko have a fight about that? On Ember Island? About bubbly drinks, I mean, not your flat chest—”
Mai sighed and looked down at the pebble resting in her open palm.
“Ooh!” Ty Lee exclaimed, with sudden great enthusiasm. “Where’d you get that pebble?”
“I found it in the courtyard,” said Mai. She folded her hands over it but Ty Lee grabbed her fists.
“Mai—I never noticed—your hands are so scarred!” She held Mai’s hands up; the palms and fingers were covered in thin white scars.
“That’s what happens when you play with knives,” Mai said.
“That’s why you wear gloves…” Ty Lee said. “…Hey, you started practicing with knives because you were bored at home, right?” She squeezed Mai’s hands. “Maybe that pebble could be your knives in prison!”
Mai tossed the pebble up and caught it between her third and fourth fingers. “Maybe,” she said with a small smile.
Ty Lee suddenly jumped. “Look, Mai—Li Yut, Agri and Nysa are on the other side of the courtyard.”
“Good,” said Mai, rolling the pebble between her fingers. She almost dropped it when Ty Lee seized her arm.
“Let’s go talk to them!”
“Why?” Mai snapped as Ty Lee dragged her to her feet. “I’m sure they’d love nothing more than to beat us bloody.”
“But…” said Ty Lee. “Their story about the Ba Sing Se refugees was so sad! And they said—they said that it was our fault. I didn’t even think about that. Did you?”
“No.” Mai sighed. “I just wanted to get out of Omashu.”
“Do you think Azula knows? That we were hurting refugees?”
“Definitely,” said Mai darkly.
“Come on, let’s go talk to them.”
Mai scowled, but followed Ty Lee across the courtyard.
“Hello!” Ty Lee called as she approached the Kyoshi. Mai and Agri exchanged wary glances.
“What do you want?” Li Yut asked imperiously.
“Just saying hi,” said Ty Lee. “I think we’re the only girls about our age in here. So we should be friends!”
Li Yut raised an eyebrow. Agri laughed openly. “Kyoshi warriors, ‘friends’ with Fire Nation brats?”
“Not brats,” Li Yut said sternly. “Dangerous war criminals.”
“You’re the reason we’re in here!” Nysa exploded.
“You two are either spies or you’re even dumber than you look,” said Agri. “We’re enemies.”
“Why, though?” Ty Lee said sweetly. “Nobody’s watching us in here. I mean, the guards are watching us, but they don’t know us. Nobody here knows us. Nobody expects anything from us. We’re locked away from the outside world. So let’s be friends!”
The Kyoshi only glared.
Ty Lee smiled, undeterred. “We’re in prison, right? So in a way we can do whatever we want. I mean,” Ty Lee laughed, “Things can’t get much worse. We might as well do something crazy and be friends.”
“If you think we’re gonna—” Agri began, but Li Yut cut her off.
“You want to be friends?” she said. “You can start by teaching us ‘chi-blocking.’”
“Sure!” Ty Lee beamed. “I can do that!”
The whistle blew. Li Yut and the other Kyoshi got to their feet.
“All right,” said Li Yut. “Next free period. You two teach us how to block chi, and we’ll see how it goes from there.”
The Kyoshi strode away from them and soon the mass of red-clad prisoners returning to their cells hid them from Mai and Ty Lee’s sight.
“Well that wasn’t so bad!” Ty Lee said brightly.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Mai asked in an undertone. “Teach Earth Kingdom people chi blocking?”
“They’re not ‘Earth Kingdom people’ here,” Ty Lee said firmly, with a slight crease in her brow. “And…it’ll probably come in handy if they ever go back to helping refugees. Plus it’ll be fun!”
Mai sighed. “You can’t resist an audience, can you?”
Ty Lee stuck out her lower lip. “And you can’t resist being a downer!”
Mai glowered. “You know we can’t trust them.”
“They think the same thing about us. Look, just trust me on this one, okay?”
They were nearing Mai’s cell. A guard seized her arm and plucked her out of the herd as Mai, scowling, hissed, “just be careful!”
“It’ll be okay, Mai!” Ty Lee called as the guard pushed Mai inside and the door closed between them.
Flat on her back on the cot, Mai tossed the pebble with her fingertips. She flicked it higher than before, then lifted her legs and caught it between her toes.
“We’re in prison…We might as well do something crazy…we can do whatever we want…nobody’s watching us.”
She lifted her other leg and tossed the pebble from foot to foot.
“Mai! Your father was appointed governor! We’re like royalty here. Be happy, and enjoy it! … Mai…Do your hair properly, daughter; Prince Zuko won’t look twice at you if you let it hang about your shoulders like that.”
“Zuko loves me!”
“Prince Zuko will marry the most advantageous match his father can arrange. And your looks are an advantage, Mai!”
Mai caught the pebble between her thumb and forefinger, and stared at it until its dim silhouette eclipsed her mother’s face in her mind’s eye. Then she sighed and tossed it again.
She saw Zuko’s face, his dark hair falling into his troubled gold-colored eyes; saw Zuko’s letter, in his stiff, awkwardly formal handwriting and heard his stiff, awkwardly formal voice in her head; and she heard her own voice as well, reading the letter aloud in a tiny cell as he listened: “Dear Mai…I’m sorry you had to find out this way…but I’m leaving.”
The quick tension in his face, then the flash of fire—the guard leaped in front of her: “I’m here to protect you!”
“Get off of me!”
Mai pressed her palms against the hot iron floor of her cell and felt again the door of that other cell slamming on her, saw Zuko through the tiny window—the crinkles between his eyebrows as he looked at her, then his shiny red scar and burnt ear as he turned away, as he left her imprisoned, behind.
She saw Ty Lee grinning; Ty Lee doing cartwheels across the prison yard. “Locked away from the outside world …we can do whatever we want!”
Mai put a hand to her long, straggly, free-flowing hair. She laughed aloud.
Azula had laughed too. Mai had seen the smirk on her face even halfway across the boiling lake as she backflipped from Zuko’s gondola to safety, as she settled in to watch her brother die, and the guards on the prison dock had smiled at Mai when they saw her approach, smiled as she drew her knives, smiled even as she raised them.
Mai laughed louder, Azula’s furious face burning in her mind’s eye. “No, you miscalculated! You should have feared me more!”
Mai gasped for air, her sides splitting, a tear sliding out of her eye.
“The Fire Lord has ordered that he be killed on sight…the whole Fire Nation wants him dead…I doubt he could survive much longer, not with Azula and the Avatar out to kill him.”
Mai gasped again as tears welled up in her eyes.
“Let them rot!” Azula screamed, and only weeks before, as they drilled into the walls of Ba Sing Se: “Azula can shoot all the lightning she wants at me…”And now—her uncle’s fearful face: “Princess Azula wants you executed!”
She clutched her sides and rolled to face the wall, but she could not muffle the sound of her sobs as they echoed emptily in the tiny cell.
“Stand up straight, Mai! As if you were really going to attack me!”
Mai grimaced at Ty Lee, who stood two meters away from her in a defensive stance. Along the compound wall to their right the three Kyoshi warriors crouched, watching them.
“Look how I make a fist,” Ty Lee was saying to the Kyoshi. “I keep my middle knuckle higher than the rest. That’s because pressure points are small; you have to hit them with a small but forceful blow. The next step is to analyze your opponent.” She lifted her fists and looked at Mai. “Now, I know Mai, so I know how she attacks, but we’ll do it slowly for you. Mai, make a motion like you’re about to throw a knife at me.”
Mai lifted her arm; Ty Lee sprang forward but Mai only made a feeble flicking gesture with her wrist.
Ty Lee stopped short, her fists raised. “Mai! Come on!”
“I know what you’re about to do,” Mai grumbled.
Nysa and Li Yut laughed.
“Come on, Mai, play along,” Ty Lee said. “You know it won’t hurt for long.”
“Thanks, Mai!” Ty Lee cheered, and backed up to her original position. “Okay, now pretend to throw a knife at me for real.”
Mai lifted her right arm again and swung it forward as if tossing a knife. Before she had completed the motion, however, Ty Lee had jumped forward; she caught Mai’s forearm in her left hand and dug her thumb so fiercely into Mai’s wrist that she gasped, and with her right hand she jabbed the inside of Mai’s upper arm. Mai staggered back and Ty Lee released her now-limp arm.
“Did you see that?” Ty Lee asked the Kyoshi. “The side-sweeping motion Mai made activates these muscles right here—” she indicated her own inner arm—“and she throws by flicking her wrist. I offset her by pressing on the tendons in her wrist—that’s not chi blocking, that’s just trying to disrupt her aim—then I hit her pressure point with my knuckle, as that muscle was most extended. It’s all about knowing your body. You just look at what your opponent’s doing and hit them where their energy comes from!”
Even scowling Agri looked impressed. Ty Lee beamed. “You’ll get it! Watch my next move on Mai.”
“‘Next?’” Mai repeated.
“Yeah,” said Ty Lee. “I’m going to demonstrate a full take-down—Is that okay?”
Mai sighed again.
“Okay!” Ty Lee said brightly. “Well, since I already know Mai’s attack patterns so well, I know what she’d do next if this were a real fight and her right arm were incapacitated. Mai would feign an identical attack with her left hand, and when I move in to do the same to that arm, she would lift her left leg and shoot at me from an ankle holster she’d have attached there, right, Mai?”
“Probably,” Mai muttered. The Kyoshi laughed.
“Well, when she extends her left leg, I’m going to slide down and strike right above the back of the knee—there’ll be an extended tendon sticking out, and if I bruise that, she won’t have the strength to keep lifting her leg and balancing. Then I’ll hit her sciatic nerve on her back to finish her. Ready?”
The Kyoshi nodded.
“And Mai—just do what I said, okay? We can spar for real later.”
“All right,” Mai sighed again.
“Okay! Here we go!” Ty Lee said.
Mai lifted her left arm and arced her wrist; Ty Lee circled around to her left side but Mai leaped away, then threw her upper body backwards and extended her left leg, before her, toe pointed at Ty Lee.
Ty Lee was already charging forward, however; she threw herself to her knees and slid beneath Mai’s pointed leg. Before Mai could twist away, Ty Lee grabbed Mai’s ankle with her right hand and forced it upwards. Mai’s torso fell backwards and she raised her hands behind her head as if to flip away, but Ty Lee jabbed the back of her leg so hard that Mai gasped. She toppled sideways and Ty Lee leaped forward to strike her exposed back. Her knuckle struck Mai in the lower left side and she collapsed in a heap on her already-numb right arm.
The Kyoshi clapped. Agri cheered. Mai spat hair out of her mouth and glowered.
“Now she can’t move from about the waist down,” said Ty Lee. She bowed elegantly. “Thank you! Do you guys want to try it now?”
Nysa and Agri leaped to their feet, and Ty Lee set about correcting their fists. Li Yut approached Mai.
Mai glanced up at her, then looked away. Her eyes snapped back again, however, when Li Yut extended a hand.
“What?” Mai snapped, looking at Li Yut out of her left eye.
“I’m offering to help you,” Li Yut said dryly.
“I can’t move,” said Mai. “Remember?”
“You aren’t even trying,” Li Yut retorted. “Do you want help?”
A shrill whistle blew before Mai could respond. She felt pounding on the ground behind her, then suddenly two guards had seized Li Yut and pinned her arms behind her back.
“No fighting!” the guards shouted; more of them dragged Nysa, Agri and Ty Lee into Mai’s vision. “It’s the cooler for you four!”
Another guard knelt by Mai. “Are you all right, Lady Mai?”
Mai looked from the guard’s helmeted, blank face to Nysa and Agri, already handcuffed and being lead away, to Ty Lee’s frightened face. Their eyes met.
“Did they attack you, Lady Mai?” the guard asked, as someone knocked into Mai’s knees. She jerked in pain and saw Li Yut, handcuffed and glaring at her.
Before Mai knew it, she was being lifted by the red-armored guard. Her muscles twitched and her face screwed up—and when her eyes opened again, Ty Lee was gone.
The guard carried her down the prison halls back to her cell.
“Don’t be afraid to inform the guards if they hurt you again,” the guard was saying. “You are the warden’s niece. Prisoners should know to treat you honorably.”
“I’m offering to help you.”
Mai said nothing.
They reached her cell and the guard deposited her on the floor. Mai’s cramped lower back twinged so painfully that she nearly screamed, but no noise came out of her throat.
The guard turned his back and left the cell.
“I was a rich only child who got anything I wanted…as long as I behaved…and sat still…”
“It’s not about you, Mai!”
“Get off of me!”
The cell door closed with a clang. Mai flinched.
She lay on the cold metal floor, hardly breathing, her throat constricted. The numbness in her right arm, left leg and back seemed, if anything, to be spreading. Her limbs felt heavy and thick, like tar or drying cement. Mai twitched the fingers of her left hand, then opened her clenched fist. The pebble tumbled out of her palm. She reached for it—but the motion sent jolts of pain through her shoulder and down her spine, so with a choked sigh Mai let her arm drop limply again, the pebble inches from her fingertips.
“We can spar later, okay?”
Ty Lee’s frightened face rose before Mai’s eyes. She closed them and turned away, but Ty Lee’s face remained, her grey eyes wide and fixed on Mai’s face as the guards led her away. The Kyoshi, too, strode past her, anger in Nysa and Agri’s faces, and fear, too, and—disappointment?—in Li Yut’s.
She stared up at the dark ceiling, and remembered the stars above Ember Island as she lay on a rock and said, “…As long as I behaved…and sat still…”
And Zuko’s voice, the light of the fire flickering on his pale face: “I wish you would be high-strung and crazy for once, instead of keeping all your feelings bottled up inside!”
For a moment, Mai thought she felt a cool ocean breeze on her face—but the next, her cell felt smaller, stuffier, and hotter than ever.
“Ma’am, there’s a riot going on! I’m here to protect you!”
“Prisoners should know to treat you honorably.”
Honor. She hated that word.
Mai tried to rise, but her body would not respond. She could neither see nor feel her toes. Her stomach rumbled. A bead of sweat dripped down her forehead. Crowds of people pressed in around her, teenagers with made-up faces and thin, revealing clothing, talking and smiling about nothing at all, as miles away, Ba Sing Se burned and burned—and Zuko stood among them, sulky and glaring. One of the partygoers touched Mai and Zuko screamed at him. Mai wanted to get out, to escape the beach house and feel the ocean breeze on her skin, but she found herself coming to the defense of the idiots who had thrown the party. And Zuko rounded on her:
“Well at least I feel something! As opposed to you—you have no passion for anything! You’re just a big blah!”
The guard flung himself into her, and she boiled with rage. “Get off of me!”
Zuko, back at the beach, as Ty Lee and Azula looked on, uncomprehending: “I like it when you express yourself.”
“As long as I behaved…and sat still…”
“Did they attack you, Lady Mai?”
Mai thought of Omashu and its suffocating iron walls. She stirred restlessly—and a blinding pain shot through her body again. She lay still, drained, as in her mind’s eye Azula’s palanquin approached the gates to Omashu’s palace.
“Count me in.” she had said to Azula.“Anything to get me out of this place.”
And Zuko, weeks later: “You don’t believe in anything!”
And then the Avatar stood before them, Mai’s baby brother cradled gently in his arms, and before Mai could speak Azula bared her teeth in a smile. “We’re trading a two-year-old for a king. A powerful earthbending king. It just doesn’t seem like a fair trade, does it?”
“You want me to express myself? Leave me alone!”
They had lived at the top of Omashu, in a palace meant for earthbenders, with few doors and no windows, in the shadow of a newly-erected statue of the Fire Lord.
“We’re trading a two-year-old for a king. A powerful earthbending king. It just doesn’t seem like a fair trade, does it?”
“My mother said I had to keep out of trouble,” she had explained. “ We had my dad’s political career to think about.”
“You’re right,” said Mai. “The deal’s off.”
Mai’s throat constricted even further. She tried once more to rise, but her body felt impossibly heavy, as if her limbs had turned to stone.
Her eyes closed.
“You brought my brother?”
“He’s here,” the Avatar called back. He stood alone at the base of the Fire Lord’s statue, a baby in his arms. “We’re ready to trade.”
Azula stood beside her, shining in her gold and black armor, her arms crossed imperiously and her index and third fingers extended to rest against her elbows. Her fingernails gleamed like lightning.
She was speaking to Mai.
“…Do you mind?”
Mai could not respond. She stood beside Azula, unmoving, her eyes on the black-haired baby wriggling and cooing in the Avatar’s arms.
“It just doesn’t seem like a fair trade, does it?” Azula said. She moved forward, as smoothly as a chess piece sliding across a board, and pointed at the plaque on the pedestal beneath Mai’s feet.
“‘You’re right. The deal’s off,’” Azula read from the plaque. Mai tried to speak, but her leaden lips would not open. She did not even gasp as Azula extended one gleaming golden arm to point her two fingers at the Avatar and her brother.
Blue lightning arced across Azula’s body toward the Avatar, and bolts scattered off her in all directions, but the blue sparks brushed harmlessly across Mai’s grey face. The Avatar jumped delicately away, Tom-Tom in his arms, but did not run. “Wait!” he called across the platform. “Let’s talk!” Mai saw the lightning gleaming on Azula’s white teeth as she moved again.
The lightning shot down Azula’s extended arm and across the platform. The Avatar tried to shield Tom-Tom, whose little eyes widened as he stared at the bright lights—
Zuko leaped onto the platform. He threw himself in between Azula and the Avatar, and suddenly the blue lightning redoubled; bolts crackled across the platform, over Mai’s stone body and Azula’s golden armor.
Azula’s armor shone as the lightning sparked around her. Across the platform stood Zuko, shaking out his arms, and the Avatar, hopping lightly from foot to foot as Tom-Tom wriggled in his arms.
Azula did not move; she only smiled wide, her sharp teeth gleaming, and Mai saw the flames start behind her teeth before she burst into flame.
The blue fire struck Mai first, but she felt no heat—Mai was a statue, she was untouchable—Zuko spread his arms as if to catch the flame, and the Avatar tried to jump away but it was still Azula’s turn, still Azula’s move—
Mai watched as the flame consumed them. First Zuko, his scarred face torn with despair. Then the Avatar fell back to the burning earth, screaming, as Tom-Tom slipped from his arms and into the flames with a wail—
Mai’s eyes snapped open.
The sun, the flames, Azula’s gleaming armor, died away instantly and Mai gagged on the dark, stuffy air, her eyes wide and darting about the cell. She tried to rise but she could not move, and a spark of panic stabbed her.
To be unmoveable, unmoved, had always been her defense, her rebellion, but now—She had frozen herself and they had taken her stone-cold body and placed her on their chessboard. She tried again to move but her body only trembled viciously, and every tremor sent a jolt of pain through her stiff and aching muscles.
“…But my favorite was that little toddler—the one that kept running off and getting into trouble!”
“I remember him!” said Agri. “What was his name again?”
“Tomi,” said Nysa. “I spent that entire trip just watching him. Took every bit of my Kyoshi warrior training!” she laughed.
“How cute!” Ty Lee gushed. “Mai, that sounds like your little brother, doesn’t it?”
Mai sat a little apart, her knees drawn up to her chest. She threw a pebble at the wall.
“Yeah, his parents weren’t much help, right?” Agri said darkly.
“Why’s that?” Ty Lee asked.
“They were always arguing,” Li Yut said. “Isn’t that so? I think the father wanted to join the Earth Kingdom military once his wife and son were safe in Ba Sing Se, and she didn’t want him to leave.”
The five girls sat in a corner of the yard compound, four of them leaning against the wall, but Mai sat facing the adjacent wall. She threw her pebble again. With a small ping it struck a smudge on the wall and rolled back down to her foot. She picked it up and threw it again.
“I remember them,” Nysa said sadly. “I felt so bad for poor Tomi. He didn’t know what was going on.”
“Why wouldn’t she want him to join the military?” Ty Lee asked.
“She thought he was betraying their family,” Nysa said. She blushed. “I can’t help remembering the whole argument—it wasn’t hard to hear them.”
“We all remember,” Agri said darkly. “She said he was being selfish, trying to be a hero and thinking about his honor.”
“He said, ‘That’s not how I see it,’” Nysa intoned. “‘This isn’t about you.’ And she said,” Nysa continued in a voice thick with affected sarcasm, “‘Thanks, that makes me feel all better.’”
“That’s so sad!” Ty Lee exclaimed. “Poor little Tomi.”
Mai’s pebble pinged off the wall again.
“It’s the Fire Nation that’s responsible for stories like these!” Agri said furiously, slamming her fist into her leg. Ty Lee flinched.
“Did he leave?” Mai said suddenly over Agri.
“What?” said Agri.
Mai threw the pebble and struck a bull’s-eye on the smudge again. “Did he leave?” she repeated. “The man.”
“We don’t know,” said Nysa. Ty Lee stared at her, her grey eyes wide, as Nysa continued, “We just help refugees get to Ba Sing Se; we don’t ever get to find out how they do.”
“But Ba Sing Se fell soon after that,” said Li Yut. “So if he left, then she and Tomi are stuck in Ba Sing Se, more trapped than protected. And he’s outside, exposed to any kind of brigand, Fire Nation or no, that might attack him.”
“Yeah,” Agri said, her face darkening once more. “And wasn’t it you two who helped bring Ba Sing Se down? By disguising yourselves as us?”
“I didn’t know—” Ty Lee said suddenly. She sat with her legs bent on either side of her hips, her shoulders hunched and her hands pressed into the ground. “I would never have left the circus if I knew what was going on in the world—”
“Yes you would,” Mai snapped. Her pebble pinged off the wall again.
“Excuse me?” Ty Lee turned on her.
“You would have left anyway, because Azula didn’t really ask you,” said Mai coolly. “She ordered you.”
“Are you going to say Azula ordered you too, then?” Agri laughed cruelly.
“No!” Mai threw the pebble again; it missed its mark and rolled away. “Ty Lee had almost escaped, and Azula caught her and dragged her back. But I was still at the center—shut up with my family’s ambitions—everyone’s phony honor—but I was always quiet about it, because if I said anything they’d shut me up even tighter—and then they sent me to Omashu,” she said with venom, “where I could barely even leave my room. I was glad when Azula showed up! I wanted to escape!”
“You didn’t escape, though,” snapped Li Yut. “Did you? You’re still trapped in the Fire Nation, except now instead of being a victim you’re one of the criminals. Your parents did a pretty good job on you.”
Before she knew it Mai was on her feet, her fists raised and her nostrils flared. Ty Lee stared at her in blank shock; Nysa and Agri looked wary. Li Yut remained seated, one eyebrow arched scornfully.
“You’re not the only one with problems,” she said. “And now Ba Sing Se is a part of the Fire Nation, and Tomi’s just as trapped inside it as you are. Anything that happens to Tomi is on your conscience, too.”
Mai froze. Then she turned away, scooped up her pebble, and stalked off through the yard.
“I can’t believe you’re friends with that,” Agri said from behind her.
“No,” came Ty Lee’s distressed voice. “Mai’s not really like that, she’s just—”
What Mai was she didn’t hear. She pushed her way through a group of prisoners and continued walking through the crowds until she had almost reached the other side of the compound. What she would do when she reached the wall Mai had no idea. She walked faster, a strange pressure building in her chest—
“Leave him alone!”
“’Course I will, if you do what I say.”
Mai stopped. A guard stood in the shadow of a watchtower, half-obscured from the compound and the other guards. He had a boy—who seemed far too young to be in the Boiling Rock—in a painful headlock, and he was leering at a pale young woman who stood wringing her hands, tears dripping down her face.
“You can’t do this…!” she said in a choked voice.
“Can’t I?” the guard smirked. “Now are you gonna help your brother out or what?”
“Don’t do it,” said a second young woman to the sister. “Think of your honor—you can’t do this—”
The boy let out a whimper of pain. His sister squeaked in horror.
“Make up your mind,” the guard leered.
“Don’t—” said the second woman.
The first girl’s shoulders sagged. She bowed her tear-stained face.
“All right—all right—I’ll—”
The guard suddenly screamed in pain; he released the boy and clapped both hands to his eye, as behind him a pebble clattered to the ground.
Mai stepped in between the guard and the sister, her long black hair rippling as she raised her fists. “Leave them alone.”
The guard sneered and reached for his belt. Mai’s eyes narrowed—the girls screamed as the guard drew a long knife and rushed forward. Mai smirked.
She sidestepped the guard, caught his wrist, and bent it backwards so sharply that he cried out and released the knife. He fell to one knee with a curse.
Mai stepped back, the knife held lightly in her hand, as the guard staggered backwards to his feet. He drew a second, identical knife.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Mai with a small smile. The guard raised his knife and hurled it at her head.
Mai dropped into a squat, her hair flying behind her—but she raised one long arm and caught the knife by the handle as it flew over her.
The guard’s jaw dropped as Mai, a knife in each hand, sprang forward. Two swift kicks drove him backwards, and then an elbow to his chin left him against the compound walls, and Mai plunged both daggers beneath his upraised arms and into the walls.
Mai stepped back and surveyed the pinned guard. “Don’t ever touch them again,” she said sharply. “If you do, I’ll find out. And by the way?” She brushed her bangs aside. “You’re better off not bringing knives.”
The guard gaped in horror. “H-help!” he screamed. Mai glanced over her shoulder just as two of his fellows tackled her from behind. She hit the dirt with a grunt.
“A prisoner attacked a guard!” one of them shouted from behind her as another tied Mai’s hands behind her back.
The whole yard had gone quiet; all the prisoners stared as the two guards forced Mai to her feet while another began tugging at the knives pinning the first to the wall.
“You’re going to the cooler,” Mai’s guards snapped.
Mai looked over her shoulder. The pale girl was there, one arm around her brother, a surprised and grateful expression on her face.
The corners of Mai’s mouth lifted. “Likewise,” she said. She caught a last glimpse of the girl’s confused face before the guards marched her away, across the courtyard and past the wall where Ty Lee and the Kyoshi still sat, staring.
“Mai?” Ty Lee gasped. She jumped to her feet. Mai smiled at her, then raised her eyebrow at Li Yut. Ty Lee clapped her hands together and beamed.
Her smile widening, Mai looked forward again, then down at her feet. The toes of her right foot were curled as tightly as she could hold them, but she managed to disguise the sound of the pebble clacking against the iron floor as the guards marched her through the prison.
Mai’s hands were freezing, but she only shifted her weight on her palms and straightened her legs upwards. Then, standing on her hands with her knees still slightly bent, she began tossing her pebble from foot to foot. Her arms trembled; days of languishing in her cell had weakened her more than she had expected. She tried to stretch her legs straighter, wobbled, and almost fell, but caught herself on the cold wall.
The door opened.
“Hello, Uncle,” said Mai, upside down.
“Mai, I have urgent news from the capital,” said the Warden. “The Avatar has defeated Fire Lord Ozai.”
Mai dropped into a ball and stood up facing her uncle. “What happened?”
“I don’t know much,” the Warden said, his brow creased. Mai was almost as tall as him and looked him directly in the eyes as he said, uncomfortably, “Sozin’s comet was two days ago, and Fire Lord Ozai planned to use it to destroy the Earth Kingdom, but the Avatar and his friends destroyed his fleet and defeated him. It seems he is still alive, though—”
“And Zuko?” said Mai.
“Reports say he and one of the Avatar’s friends defeated Princess Azula, who Fire Lord Ozai left in charge of the country. He’s the de facto Fire Lord now.”
Mai folded her arms, her bangs partially covering her eyes and her loose black hair spilling over her shoulders. The cords in her long neck were taught.
“This is probably a good thing for us, Mai,” said the Warden quietly. “I am disgraced for letting Prince Zuko escape from the Boiling Rock, but now that he’s in power…and you—”
“Uncle, release me,” Mai interrupted, raising her head to look him in the eye.
He stepped back. “I can’t do that, niece—not yet—”
“Yes you can,” Mai said. “Release me immediately. I’m going back to the capitol. To Zuko,” she added as an extra incentive.
The Warden raised his hands placatingly and seemed about to speak, but then he sighed and put his hands over his face. “All right. All right! My position can’t get any worse than it already is. You’ll be on a balloon ship within the hour. But please put in a good word for me, Mai!” He started to leave the cell, but Mai put a hand on the door to stop its closing.
“Wait, Uncle,” she said gravely. “That’s not all.”
Mai stood beside a docked gondola on the roof of the Boiling Rock prison beneath a hazy, dark sky. The sun had not yet risen and a faint breeze stirred her hair. She flexed and clenched her hands so the thin white scars stood out sharply against her pale skin. Her pebble was still clutched between two fingers.
“Are you cold, miss?” said one of the two guards standing behind her. “It’s still a half hour until dawn.”
Mai looked at her. The guard held up a red cloak. On the clasp was etched the crest of the Fire Nation.
“Thanks,” Mai accepted the cloak, but folded it over one arm. “I’ll see if I like it. For now, I’m enjoying the cool air.”
The guard shrugged, bemused. “We should depart, miss.”
“Not yet,” said Mai. “We’re waiting.”
The door to the roof opened just then, and two more guards emerged, flanking Ty Lee. When she saw Mai, however, she broke free of them and ran to her.
“Mai!” she smiled, but her brow was furrowed. “What’s going on?”
“We’re getting out of here,” Mai said with a small smile. “My uncle just told me that Zuko and the Avatar have defeated Azula and the Fire Lord.”
Ty Lee’s mouth fell into an “Oh!” shape but she made no noise. Then she said, hesitatingly, “Is Azula—?”
“I think she’s still alive,” said Mai. “My uncle didn’t say different.”
Ty Lee nodded. “I’m—I’m glad she’s alive, but I’m also glad—” She broke off and looked up at Mai, who gave a small, grim smile.
“Yeah,” she said softly, “me too.”
“Are we taking off, then?” the guard said impatiently from behind them.
“Not yet,” said Mai. “We’re still waiting for more people.”
“More…?” the guard muttered as the door to the roof opened again.
Four more prison guards emerged, with Li Yut, Agri and Nysa between them. All seven looked rather confused.
Mai crossed her arms and smirked. The Kyoshi stared.
“All right,” she said, waving a hand to the guard as she turned around. “We can go now.” She stepped into the gondola and held the door open for Ty Lee.
“Oh, Mai!” Ty Lee laughed. She leapt into the gondola and threw her arms around Mai’s neck. “I told them you weren’t as grumpy as you seemed!”
“Thanks,” Mai said, squeezing Ty Lee back. “…Thanks for everything.”
“What’s going on?” Li Yut cut in as the Kyoshi stepped into the gondola.
“We’re free!” said Ty Lee, releasing Mai, who, a small smirk still on her face, called out to the guards still on the platform, “Send us off, please.”
The guards frowned and shrugged at each other, but they pulled the switch—now repaired after Mai herself had broken it weeks before—and with a jerk the gondola set off over the boiling lake.
“The Warden, my uncle, told me that the Avatar has just defeated the Fire Lord,” said Mai. “And Zuko has defeated Princess Azula. I told my uncle to release us, since Zuko will want Ty Lee and me back.”
“Why us, though?” Agri interrupted. Nysa and Li Yut watched Mai suspiciously.
Mai sighed. “Because the Avatar will want you back, won’t he? And you said your friends are in a prison near the capital, so you can get them out when we arrive. Besides,” she propped her elbows on the gondola windowsill and leaned against the wall. “It’s probably going to be boring, since it seems we’ve missed all the action.”
“‘Boring’?” Agri shouted. “People were fighting for their lives—”
“She doesn’t mean it like that!” Ty Lee interrupted, waving her hands at Agri. “Sarcasm is how Mai expresses affection.”
“What?” Agri said. Nysa laughed.
“Oh yes,” Ty Lee beamed. “That means she actually really likes you guys!”
Agri snorted, her face red. Nysa giggled. Li Yut, however, remained solemn.
“Even if the fighting’s over, there will still be a lot of work to do,” she said seriously. “A lot of displaced people will need help rebuilding their lives.”
Mai fingered her pebble and looked out the window. The haze of the boiling lake had not quite cleared yet, but a red sunrise was just visible beyond the approaching mountain ledge.
“Well,” she said, and flexed her arms, rolling the pebble between her fingers. “Maybe it won’t be so boring after all.”
**I love name meanings, but I’m not very familiar with Asian names, so I was having trouble trying to think of what to call the three Kyoshi warriors. In the end, they’re not Asian names at all: ‘Li Yut’ is an exaggeration of the first syllable of the word ‘lieutenant,’ since I imagine she is Suki’s second-in-command. ‘Agri’ comes from the word ‘aggressive,’ since she’s the most belligerent of the three. And ‘Nysa’ comes from the word ‘nice.’ **