Three years and some months later
For the Fire Lord’s sake, Ying Hua hoped this visit to Kyoshi Island will be uneventful. The problem was whatever happened during these visits seemed to evoke such big changes or extremities, and she was not a fan of extremes in anyone, let alone monarchs who could broker war and peace.
The first time the Fire Lord had gone was during the first year of his reign. He had been squeezed by the sheer work of rebuilding a world, holding a nation together, and surviving multiple attempts on his life. When he came back from the brief visit, he was even more rattled. A week later, a group of Kyoshi warriors led by Suki were sworn in as his new bodyguards. It took many months before he could feel at ease with them.
The second time he’d gone, when things at home seemed to be held together through his sheer will and determination, he wore his most grave and serious face before sailing. What came back surprisingly, was not the boy who’d been forced to age beyond his years, but just a boy, who sputtered with genuine happiness, and he began to move about his day with not only a sense of purpose, but a self-assuredness as a result of lightness in his heart.
The third time he’d gone, things were finally settling down, and he began to rely on processes instead of constantly sticking out his own neck. There were still endless piles of paperwork and meetings, but the world he had envisioned was slowly coming together. He’d been exuberant and excited before he left, and she’d caught him pacing, talking to himself in wild gesticulations more than once, as if rehearsing a conversation.
Yet when he came back, he cancelled all his engagements for a day only to throw himself back to work next day in a manner that could only be described as passive fury. When he wasn’t in the throne or council room he had shut himself off in his study, dismissing all his attendants, and only ate morsels of the food they’d left for him at the door.
Ying Hua had never seen anything close to the degree of extremes in the three years she’d served the Fire Lord. So when for the first time she’d been summoned to accompany him on his fourth trip to the Kyoshi Island, she was careful to pick up on his mood. The fact that he was composed, almost easygoing, only made her more nervous.
At least she was one of the three attendants, two personal secretaries, all of the Kyoshi guards, a few other security trainees, and two councilors on this trip. So in the case their young lord falls apart, there would be many hands to pick up the pieces.
Of course, the first thing they did after getting off the ship was an elaborate handover ceremony of the Kyoshi warriors returning home for good. The leader of the Kyoshi, Suki, bowed to the Fire Lord after his speech, followed by the rest of the warriors, and the rest of the trainees who were instated as the new royal imperial bodyguards.
“I’m still going to keep an eye on you while we’re here though,” insisted Suki.
It had been almost a year since the last serious attempt on the him that made it beyond the front gate of the palace, but the Fire Lord simply replied with a half grunt.
As if that wasn’t eventful enough, after more meet and greets with government officials from the island, by lunch they were all whisked away to an elaborately decorated restaurant. Ying Hua had expected the Fire Lord to dine with said officials, but who knew they would retreat as soon as the Fire Lord sat down by himself at a great round table.
Dishes arrived from the hands of well-dressed servers. There were cold dishes, followed by hot dishes, a soup, then rice and noodles, until the table was filled to the brink. Ying Hua was surprised to find the food to be Fire Nation. She smelled enough peppercorn in the air to feel feint and heavenly that she curled her toes.
When the Fire Lord didn’t so much as lift his chopsticks, but simply stared at the feast in front of him, a woman dressed in a cook’s attire strode out angrily and snapped at him with no decorum in mind. “Well, what are you waiting for?”
Ying Hua had to make sure to look and see that the crown was affixed to the Fire Lord’s head, because this was a woman who evidently didn’t see it.
“Well, you, Azula.” The Fire Lord cocked his head, and Ying Hua traded a look of surprise with another attendant. Of course, the princess Azula who’d gone crazy and been “contained" all this time at the Kyoshi Island. Now how in the world did she become a chef? Ying Hua took in some of the award plaques on the wall, an award-winning chef? "You’ve clearly taken to heart of serving your guests much more than they can eat. Join me so we don’t waste?”
“If you insist. But if you’re going by that logic, why don’t we get all your underlings to sit down too?”
That was how Ying Hua had one of the most boisterous, delicious meals of her life from the hands of a royal. This she will have to tell her grandkids. Served one of the baddest Fire Lords in the nation’s history, who was burned by his own father, banished, then betrayed his nation and finished off by overthrowing his own father? Check. Served by one of the baddest Fire Princesses in the nation’s history, who was the prodigy, the favorite, until her mind went bunkers, only to become an A-List chef with a scalding sense of humor? Check.
She thought they’d really finished for the day when the Fire Lord returned to his temporary chambers, but no sooner after a short rest, a change of attire, did the Fire Lord’s series of more meetings began. It was late afternoon by the time they left the government compound, and instead of heading back, they’d gone to what appeared to be flower shop.
If it was a flower shop, it was certainly no ordinary flower shop, but interconnected rooms with highly designed exhibits, centering on one or two avant-garde flower arrangements. Passing through the rooms in light steps following the Fire Lord, Ying Hua thought she’d fallen into a dream world full of strange curios, moving ornaments, and fantastically smelling plants when they finally arrived at some kind of administrative office.
Behind a sliding screen doors decorated with fanciful dragonflies, shadows and voices loomed back and forth in what appeared to be a meeting. A young assistant almost jumped at seeing the Fire Lord, and nearly leaped to the screen doors before the Fire Lord halted him with his hand.
“No, I’m fine waiting here,” and the Fire Lord sat himself down on a very elaborate chair that could pass for a forest creature.
So they waited, and waited, and when the screens finally slid open, a rather severe-looking woman emerged and handed a stack of notes to the young assistant. “I need these meeting notes reorganized and distributed to all store managers in two days. And tell Haiyun that the design for #4 needs to be toned down, less the form of the sunset moth, but the idea of it. Oh, also, cancel everything I have tomorrow.”
The young assistant was frantically scribbling notes on a pad when the woman saw the Fire Lord from the side of her eye. She said “oh” without any emotion in her voice, and continued with her arms crossed, “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”
“Squeezed together all my meetings so I could fit you in today,” the Fire Lord appeared just as at ease. After a moment of interminable silence as they stared at each other, he added with a smile. "Mai.”
Mai. Lady Mai! The Lady Mai who gave her first task with the Fire Lord. The Fire Lord’s Lady Mai who disappeared more than three years ago! The phantom-like Lady Mai, who despite having disappeared from court life, have been the center of intrigue and rumors to why the Fire Lord had refused any consorts. Ying Hua felt her knees go weak and she couldn’t help it when a muffled sound escaped her mouth. She covered her mouth with her hand instantly when she felt a dozen pair of eyes, including the Fire Lord and Lady Mai’s, on her. It was probably a good thing they ignored her.
“Fire Lord,” Lady Mai turned her attention back to the Fire Lord in a small bow with her hand and fist.
The Fire Lord cleared his throat, then gestured for his secretary. “I’m here to present you…”
“Wait,” Mai called to her assistant, gesturing to the cup of tea he was holding. “Fei, what tea did you serve the Fire Lord?”
“The first Zhuyeqing bud from Mount Ermei, madam!”
“With what water?”
“The first snow collected from the petal of the plum, madam.”
“Oh good, and I see you’re using the plum dehua white ceramic. Wonderful!” she smiled, and Ying Hua swore there was a small nod in her direction.
The Fire Lord looked down at his cup then up at Mai, “the first snow plum dehua what…?”
“And you call Iroh uncle.”
“Tea has never been my forte.”
Ying Hua watched them banter back and forth a while, with a strong suspicion that they weren’t talking about tea, but she had no idea what they were saying at all, until the Fire Lord cleared his throat again, and finally his assistant stepped out to unveil a giant banner with the characters for “most innovative” and “small business” with the Fire Nation emblem on it.
“I’m here to present to you the award for most innovative small business…” the Fire Lord began solemnly before Mai interrupted him, stuck her head back into the meeting room, brought out six other staff members and pushed them forward to hold the banner together.
After a short speech, many bows, Mai’s assistant was suddenly handing out rounds of rice wine, and an impromptu party suddenly broke out and everyone was getting drunk. Ying Hua wondered if she was the only one who noticed the Fire Lord and Lady Mai slipping away through the door. She looked over at the Kyoshi warriors and wondered if she should notify Suki when she saw a soft knowing smile on the warrior leader’s face, staring at the door where the two had left.
“Thanks everyone for your hard work! Now let’s drink more!” Suki raised her cup of wine to a roar of cheers.
So the rumors were true, thought Ying Hua with a grin, their young lord had never gotten over her.
“You think anyone noticed?”
“You think she’ll...?”
Mai hummed “come with me” in his ear. A few swiveled doors, sharp turns, and cabbages overturned, there they were, red faced from a shot of wine each, from running, and laughing. She pulled him along, zipping past the town center crowds, fast enough that no one could fixate on him. When they finally reached the quiet part of town with its rows of houses and sound of crickets, the sun was setting and he stopped her.
“Wait, slow down,” the running made him feel the alcohol hotly on his face.
“It’s all right. We’ll walk from here,” said Mai, staring at the sun with a hand shading half her face. “That girl who squeaked when she saw me, I think I remember her from Coronation Day.”
The alcohol didn’t seem to affect Mai at all, but when they exchanged a look, he thought he saw her blush. Coronation Day had been the last time they kissed, before she left with Azula the next day, before she left with Azula again, and all that was more than over three years ago.
“Right. She’s not a kid anymore huh. I guess this must mean we’re old too.”
Zuko snorted. “Sometimes I think Ying Hua knows more about what’s going on than all my old advisors. Their combined uselessness makes me feel like I’ve aged a thousand years in the last three.”
“You did good,” she tore her eye from the sun, and stepped up to eye him. She had been almost the same height as him when she left, but in the last three years Zuko had grown taller, and she had to tilt her chin by just a touch more. “You did really good, for the world.”
“Mai…” he felt the heat not from alcohol as she moved in closer.
“I’ve been wanting to try something. Humor me?” she asked.
When she kissed him, the sun was on the side of his face, and Zuko felt zapped back into the continuum of their last kiss. This kiss too was long and full of too much unsaid, and Zuko knew right then and there that he loved her still, but instead of pulling her closer, he broke the kiss and gaped.
“Mai, what are you? What is…?” he sputtered. “What about you and Ryu?”
He was surprised it didn’t hurt as much to say Ryu's name out loud. The last time he’d been at Kyoshi Island, he’d been full of hope. Back home, assassination attempts had dwindled and some of his policies were actually taking effect. At Kyoshi Island, Azula had made a 180 degree turn from seriously injuring Ty Lee in the first year, solitary confinement, to sharing quarters with Ty Lee and Mai, to throwing all her residual rage into cooking, to becoming an award-winning chef. They’d come a long way and Zuko thought it was high time for him to try again with Mai.
That was when he met Ryu. Ryu, who helped her start a branch of her aunt’s flower shop at the Kyoshi Island. Ryu, who scavenged for strange, exotic plants in strange, exotic places. Ryu, who knew all about plants, and in fact, gave him a plant that cured the persisting ache in his chest from his Agni Kai with Azula. Ryu, who bowed to him while keeping a hand at the small of her back. Life had gone on for her and he couldn’t even see it.
The worst thing was, she’d said to him that last time, albeit sadly, “Zuko, you really can’t be serious about waiting.”
He was. He was serious about everything he says. But after that he’d tried really hard to move on, to go on dates, and he thought he was in a really good place after delaying almost a year to see her again. Then of course, she'd had to push her tongue inside his mouth to remind him of hope.
It was such a Mai kiss. So committed, nearly violent, but still in control. He’d fallen in love with that kiss. If everyday Mai was made of cool indifference, kissing Mai was a revelation, like unlocking a deeper part of her that no one was allowed to see.
“Wait, don’t answer that,” Zuko answered himself, and with a hand on her back, backed them against the side wall of a house in a deeper kiss. The wooden slats of the house thudded against her back, the hit tapered by his hand. He withdrew that hand, entwined both hands with with hers, and then he pressed so hard against her because he was too afraid she might not be real.
When it ended, they were both out of breath when Mai teased, “Well, that was different. Practice much? New concubines?”
“No,” he intoned, locking his hands on her jaw. “It was always you.”
She looked down, cleared her throat, straightened herself, then smoothed her clothes. “Well, it didn’t work out for me and concubines either.”
Zuko’s eyes widen. “What do you mean?”
She shook her head, as if embarrassed. “It didn’t work for Ryu and I.”
“It didn’t… work?”
“He wasn’t you.”
Oh, said Zuko’s heart. “Oh,” said Zuko.
Then she took his hand, and nodded once sharply toward the cobblestone street. “Come on, let’s walk. I want to show you something.”
They walked on in silence. Mai gripped his fingers tentatively, as if they’ve never held hands before. After two turns onto an even quieter off street, they were in front of a house surrounded by green rice fields, and it was Zuko who intertwined her fingers and held her hand tightly.
Mai pointed at the house. “My house.”
“Your house,” Zuko mused and smiled, eyeing the handsome one story wooden house, remembering when he used to tell his palanquin bearers to go to “Mai’s house” so many times that the head attendant finally said dryly one day, “oh, don’t tell me, Lady Mai’s house.”
They pushed open a small gate, a door, and stepped into the house. The house looked nothing like Mai's parents’ back at the capital. If her parents’ place had been ornate, meticulously decorated, her home now was simple and rustic. He slipped off his shoes and took in the old furniture, the strange art on the walls, the assortment of potteries, glass, and other ornaments that reminded him of her flower shop and office. She’d shut the door and rang a small bell in prayer in front of her small shrine alter, then turned to him.
“It looks small but it’s actually pretty big for one person. Azula, Ty Lee and I used to all live here, but then Azula wanted to get a place nearby the restaurant, and you know, Ty Lee just has to keep an eye on Azula...”
“Yeah, we really have Ty Lee to thank to bring Azula back,” he said.
“Or the fact that they both almost died for it. Or the fact that Azula found cooking. Or maybe, it was always in her to come back,” she led him into to the living room which only had a small low table and a few cushions beside the alter. Before he could say anything, she moved to open the large screen doors that revealed a garden.
A breathtaking number of exotic plants, climbing ivies, and one large cherry-apple tree occupied the small garden. Across from it, the house continued with another wing of rooms. In the distance, the sun had set behind a mountain. Zuko breathed in the view. There was a wild quality about the garden, but at the same time, he knew it was tended to with great care. A space that was wholly hers.
“You did good too, Mai,” he whispered.
She flashed him a smile. “You think so?”
“Yeah, this place, it’s amazing, and you seem happy.”
After the terrifying pair of kisses they shared on the street, Zuko thought of nothing except the moment he was standing in. He and Mai, back together, but all of a sudden he was thrust back into doubt.
Mai had really done well. She had a home here, a successful business, her friends were nearby, and there were men she could date and breakup and marry and start a family with that wouldn’t require her to go through the struggles of court life, the life of nobility that she hated, that kept her shackled. Here she was free. Zuko realized just because she kissed him didn’t mean she was screaming to jump back into whatever it was they had.
But she did say, “he wasn’t you,” and Zuko’s face reddened at that thought.
A cup of tea suddenly appeared in front of him. “You’re brooding at the conifers. Some things don’t change, even if kisses do.”
Zuko sipped on his tea and they listened to the crickets.
“You know, my bedroom still looks exactly the way my father left it,” Zuko began. “The servants moved all his things, but the decorations, furniture, and the arrangement haven't changed. I took one look at it in the beginning and said I was going back to my old room. Of course, advisors argued otherwise, and it would’ve just been another battle. So I vowed that I was going to redecorate it and make it my own. Three years later and nothing in that room has changed.”
“You can’t fight your battles all at once, Zuko. You had to put a country, a world back together.”
“Is it worth it? Look at what you’ve done with Azula. You guys have resurrected an entire human being. From completely shattered, to a functioning human being. You built a home. You built a business. You belong to a community. Everything I do is so abstract, so intangible. I feel like a ghost peddling a wing-ed machine that only I can make out the outlines of, and I have no idea where it’s going.”
Mai leaned back, crossed her arms, and eyed him.
He continued. “I really did try to see other people after seeing you last time. You know why it didn’t work? No one looks at me like I’m human anymore, and between all the paperwork, and treaties, and appeals, and meetings, and assassinations, I can’t even find the time to be human.”
“What are you really trying to say? Are you lonely? Do you regret the path you chose?”
“No!” Zuko exclaimed, his own urgency surprised himself. “I know… this is what I’m meant to be doing. No matter how hard, even if it feels like I’m groping in the dark, alone.”
“That’s a little sad,” Mai removed her outer jacket made of emerald green silk, and folded it neatly down on the bamboo matted floor.
“But seeing you reminds me of what I lost, and who would I be if I didn’t brood about it during a sunset, by a garden, drinking tea?”
Mai froze, then after smoothing out the last wrinkles of her folded jacket, she turned her back to him, and moved her hands behind her back to untie the sash that held together her robe. “I want to show you something,” she said.
Once her robe is untied, she let it hang on her shoulders like a cloak. Underneath the robe, Mai worked discreetly and quickly. A pile of holsters, straps, and bindings, along with a clattering of many knives landed next to the discarded outer jacket. Then, in what was fast becoming an excruciating sequence for Zuko, whose voice died in his throat as he croaked her name, pieces of thin, silk undergarments landed on top of the knives.
His hand fell on her right shoulder with a defeated, possibly frustrated “wait,” and she removed his hand gently and shook her head. Finally, she rearranged herself so that she was sitting on her knees again, her robed back facing him as she swept her long, bun-less hair to the left side of her shoulder.
“Before, you asked me to show you where you burned me,” she began, “I wouldn’t, because I knew you’d blame yourself for it. What I didn’t tell you is the burn brought me close to a moment where I actually thought I was dying, and I’d reacted with such a fear that I was ashamed. That the scars afterward were so bad, that I started hating my reflection in the mirror, and hated myself.”
With that explanation, she brushed off her silken robe so that it slid off her shoulder to reveal her naked back from shoulder to buttock. Zuko braced himself, but instead of scars, an impossible swirl of searing colors — of flames, smoke, gods and demon — danced in front of him. He drew a sharp intake of breath.
Mai extended her arm and leg so that besides the right side of her back, Zuko could see the colors continue up her right arm, almost touching her wrist, and down the right side of her hip, leg, and almost touching ankle. A tattoo made more luminous by the canvas that was her white marble skin.
“After Azula showed the first signs of getting better, I paid a visit to Shengyi, a renowned body ink master around these parts. She was twelfth in her generation of artists. I brought tea as an offering, and told her I wanted a tattoo to cover up my scars. She took my tea but rejected my request. Still I felt lighter after chatting with her, so I started to visit her the first of each month, with no mention of the tattoo. Then during one of these visits, she told me she was finally ready to do a tattoo for me.”
Zuko stared at the tattoo running vertically down Mai’s body, half in shock, half mesmerized. Seeing half of Mai’s body — her bright pale skin — marred by in, paralyzed him, and he blamed himself for this otherworldly mark, and the unimaginable pain that she must have gone through to get it. Yet, the tattoo itself was clearly a work of a master. The colors seemed to dance with life. The red of blood looked as if wet. On her lower back, extraordinarily detailed scenes from the eight great hells were etched onto her skin — from the lowest beggar and outcast with ragged clothes and broken teeth, to the artisan and merchant, their talent and cleverness dispelled, to the courtier of sumptuous clothes and the holy-men with Yin-Yang swishes, human beings of every kind, were engulfed by fire and smoke, tormented by wardens of hell.
Mai continued. “Of course, she had three special rules for all her work. One, she chooses her clients. Two, she chooses the ink design for her clients. Three, her clients are not allowed to see what the design is, until, of course, the finished work lives in the skin. Before she began her work on me, she poured out a droplet of potion from a vial, and she told me with this drop, my scar will fade completely in a month, and should I choose, she will begin her work on me, or she gave me the choice of simply not coming back and live on with my unblemished skin.”
Zuko traced the lines of the hell fire with his index finger, until his eyes rested on the most striking image on the right side of her upper back. A plummeting carriage roared through time and space, and inside the carriage, a beautiful woman with hip length black hair flying upward in flames. The full whiteness of her throat laid bare, and even though her face was not yet filled in, the whole scene was executed so wondrously he could almost hear the woman’s dreadful screams.
“I’m sorry,” said Zuko, “To have put you through this pain.”
Mai shook her head, but didn’t turn to face him. “No, I’m sorry, Zuko, for not being strong enough to stand next to you. I can’t believe you were stupid enough to wait.”
Zuko’s eyes clouded, his finger shook slightly at the sight of the faceless woman, and he swallowed. “Her face, it’s not filled in, what happened to her?”
“This work has taken over two years, and the woman’s face will be the last part to be filled. As for what happens to her, Shengyi hasn’t told me, only that it was a lost story amongst her people that she wished to preserve.”
“She’s falling,” Zuko opened his palm slowly and trailed it up until it rested on her shoulder.
“Maybe, or it could be something else,” she rolled her head until it rested against his hand.
“Come home with me.”
“To be with a ghost pedaling a winged-machine, going nowhere, in the dark?”
“Maybe,” suddenly he flipped his hand and steered her head until she faced him, until he bracketed her naked form between his bent knees, and collected her firmly around his arms, and he said, “Or it could be something else.”