"Nephew, the banquet started an hour ago-"
Zuko's chopsticks clattered down onto his plate. "It's only been an hour?"
"Yes, an hour," Iroh continued. "It should continue for another three at least-"
"And then you will be expected to escort the couple to their marriage bed."
Zuko groaned. "How long will that be?"
"Usually the guests leave the bedchamber before midnight."
"I'm surprised you didn't know this already," said Mai, bemused. "You've been to weddings before."
"I was just a kid! And I never had to stay at them."
"He would sneak out during the toasts," said Iroh mildly. "By then, his governess was paying more attention to the wine."
"What am I supposed to do in someone else's bedroom for that long?"
"You're supposed to tease them," said Mai.
"I should think you could figure that out on your own, Nephew."
Zuko shuddered. "But I can't…they can't possibly…I'm the Fire Lord!"
"You are also a young man," said Iroh. "And this is what young men do at weddings."
"But I barely know them!"
Mai shrugged. "They barely know each other."
She said it unthinkingly, though it was true. Chan was an admiral's son and the girl, Zheng, was the daughter of a distant governor. The match had been arranged through the proper channels, and they had met the way so many couples of their standing did — when she had stepped out of her palanquin that afternoon, and Chan had lifted her veil.
Zuko's mouth snapped closed and he hunched down in his high-backed chair, his eyes on his plate.
Further along the table, to Iroh's left, Toph was helping herself to roast duck. "I don't know why you're so bent out of shape about this," she said. "It's just an arranged marriage."
Zuko didn't answer, though he sunk even lower.
Mai sighed. Over the past few months, the newly crowned Fire Lord had been forced to endure all manner of official functions, but he hadn't seemed to mind that much until today. Mai felt she knew him well, better that most people certainly, but she was surprised by his dark mood. He'd struck her as the type to enjoy a wedding, for what it symbolized if not the particular people involved.
But while Iroh had sniffed loudly through the ceremony, Zuko had stood beside her with his jaw clenched and his hands curled into fists.
Iroh and Toph were whispering to each other, now, in between mouthfuls of duck and wine. Zuko's eyes had shifted to where Chan and Zheng were seated across the room. Chan looked bored, and Zheng was watching a group of boys at another table. Zuko scowled.
Mai pushed back from the table and stood, mindful of her trailing sleeves. "Let's go for a walk," she said.
Zuko sighed and got to his feet. He still looked faintly ridiculous in his robes of office, and tonight the effect was worse than usual, his slim frame lost in yards of brocade. Mai smiled at him as she took the arm he offered. Maybe he was just feeling awkward.
Despite Zuko's reforms and Aang's enthusiastic efforts, dancing hadn't really caught on in the Fire Nation yet. Music was played at banquets like this one, but no one paid it much mind. Those who weren't eating stood along the edge of the open courtyard in small groups, eyeing the other guests and trading gossip. Mai would have liked to ignore them, but Zuko's moody silence made it difficult. As they walked along under strings of paper lanterns, snatches of conversation rose above the hum of the crowd, and Mai couldn't help but overhear them.
"My sister's friend's cousin is a lieutenant, and she said that Admiral Chan said they weren't allowed to see each other anymore."
"But he's sitting right there!"
"Well, apparently his father's a general, and he-"
The girls quieted when they saw Zuko, giggling a little behind their hands as he passed. Zuko's grip on Mai's arm tightened and he scowled even harder, but he didn't say anything, and Mai hoped he hadn't understood what they were talking about.
Unfortunately, she had — her attendants had been giggling about it for weeks. Zheng's lover, the third son of General Shinu, had been a captain in the army overseas. Now that the war was over he was free to roam the capital again. And if the chambermaid was to be believed, he roamed his way into Zheng's bedroom nearly every night.
Mai hadn't noticed that many empty chairs at the banquet, but the path was well-stocked with whispering girls, and she found she couldn't steer Zuko away from all of them.
"Are you serious? That guy with the hair?"
"Oh come on, you really didn't notice? They were in that house together for weeks!"
"Oh, they got pretty friendly all right. You could hear them from the beach-"
Mai quickened her pace, dragging Zuko out of range. Too late, it seemed. Zuko was glowering across the courtyard at Chan, who had wandered away from his seat to mingle with his friends. Mai recognized the boy Zuko had roughed up at the party on Ember Island — his hair was hard to miss, and so was the way he looked at Chan.
"Let's go back to the table," said Mai. "Iroh's probably wondering where we are."
Zuko didn't reply, but his hold on her was now tight enough to hurt.
"We shouldn't leave him alone with Toph. Remember the candlesticks?" She watched his face, hoping for some twitch of amusement. No such luck. He stared straight ahead, his mouth set in a thin, white line. "It's just talk, Zuko, it doesn't mean anything."
That got a response, at least, but not an encouraging one. "Is it true?" he asked quietly.
Mai sighed. "Does it really matter?"
"I need some air," he said, and pulled her through a low, round gate and into the garden beyond.
No lanterns had been lit here, and Mai suspected the shadows were as crowded as the path had been. But Zuko didn't seem to care. They followed a twisting stone walkway between the willow trees, around the edge of a pond and across a small bridge.
Zuko stopped at its apex and looked down at the water. There were carp in the pond, and their scales caught the moonlight as they swam.
"I can't go back there," he said.
"No one expects you to do anything," said Mai. "You can just sit and eat cake for the rest of the night."
"Until I have to follow them to their bedroom."
Mai winced. "It's a stupid tradition. You can probably get out of it."
Zuko held his head in his hands and let out a frustrated growl. "Why did I let Uncle talk me into this?"
"Because you're the Fire Lord and when people invite you to things you have to go."
"Why? So I can bless their sham weddings and pretend not to notice they're both in love with other people?"
Mai sighed and rested a hand on Zuko's back. His sentimental view of relationships was very sweet, and she hoped it never changed. But unfortunately, not everyone shared his perspective. "I don't think Chan's in love," she said dryly.
"You don't know that," Zuko muttered.
"Maybe. But it doesn't matter, even if he is. Or if Zheng is. It's not like getting married will change anything." Zuko looked up from the water, and she went on, thinking that perhaps she'd gotten to the root of it. "No one cares what they do, as long as they have kids. You know that."
"So they'll just keep…?" Mai nodded, and Zuko's eyes widened with horror. "But that's even worse!"
"Marriage is supposed to mean something! It's supposed to be about loving each other and having a family together and-"
"Zuko I don't understand why you're getting all worked up about this. You don't even like any of these people."
"And they don't like each other! And they're married! And that's…that's messed up!"
"Things have worked this way for hundreds of years. You know that. You grew up here, you couldn't have missed it."
"That was different!"
"How was it different?" Mai asked, completely exasperated.
"It didn't have anything to do with me then!"
That brought Mai up short. "Neither does this," she said. "These aren't your friends. This isn't your wedding."
"Not yet," Zuko muttered, his tone low and ominous. He hung his head, and his topknot sagged under the weight of his crown. "Mai, I don't think I can do this."
She felt her chest tighten, her heart beating a little faster. Not again. "Do what?" she asked. Whatever it was he wanted to say, she'd make sure no letters were involved this time.
Zuko's face was in shadow, hiding his expression. "I know everyone expects me to act a certain way," he said slowly. "I'm supposed to go to all these stupid parties, and talk to the right people, and say the right things. And I'm…" His voice broke, and he paused a moment before he went on. "Do you know how many concubines my father kept?"
Mai didn't like where this was going at all. "Lots, probably," she said evenly. "Not that it matters. Your father did a lot of things that you aren't going to do."
"My father was a horrible man," said Zuko, without the bitterness that usually accompanied this subject. "But people respected him. Until the end, they really liked him. They thought he was a great Fire Lord. Because he acted like one."
"And so do…" Mai's reassurance petered out, and he looked up at her again, his face sliding back into the moonlight. He was biting his lip, his eyebrow angled upwards in an almost comical expression of worry. Their gazes met, his more eloquent than his words ever were, and an evening of sullen misery finally made its reasons known.
"Is that what this is about?" Mai wasn't sure if she wanted to kiss him or strangle him, so she settled on a loud sigh and an eye roll — both very satisfying — as she took hold of his arm. "All right. We're going back to the table."
Zuko stumbled a little as she dragged him off the bridge and onto the path, the long robes getting in the way of his feet. "But-"
"Now," said Mai, in a tone that left no room for argument.
As they ducked through the moon gate a second time, she thought she heard startled whispers in the bushes. Zuko glanced nervously at the shadows, but Mai ignored them. She'd had her fill of gossip for the evening.
Thankfully, Iroh and Toph were still seated at their table. They'd left the candlesticks alone this time, though Mai suspected the gravy boat hadn't been shaped like a badgermole an hour ago. As usual, Toph was the first to notice Mai and Zuko's approach, and she nudged Iroh with her elbow. He whipped something suspiciously phallic off the table and out of sight, and the two of them wore identical expressions of angelic innocence by the time Mai reached them.
She didn't bother to sit down. They stopped across the table from Iroh and Toph, who looked between them curiously.
"Is everything all right?" asked Iroh. "I had wondered if you were coming back."
"We had some things we needed to talk about," said Mai.
"Oh really?" Toph drawled, undoubtedly browsing through the physical details of Zuko's anxiety.
"Anything I can do to help?" asked Iroh.
"Yes," said Mai. She pointed at Zuko, poking his brocaded arm with her finger. "Does he need to have any concubines?"
If Iroh thought this an odd question, he didn't show it. "Absolutely not!" he said seriously. "And I would disown him as my nephew if he even entertained the idea."
Toph snorted. "Like Doofus here could manage more than one girl at a time anyway."
Zuko looked as if he wanted to crawl under the table, but Mai wasn't finished. "But his father had them. And so did Azulon. And Sozin."
"I do not think any of those men should be held up as examples of proper behavior," said Iroh. "Avatar Roku married the woman he loved, and never strayed from her through all their years together. Nor did Sozin's father, if his writings are to be believed." Iroh smiled kindly at Zuko, who had turned very pink. "Both of them were good men who did great things for their country. Not unlike a certain young Fire Lord I could name."
"Is he blushing?" Toph snorted, which made him blush even harder. "It feels like he is."
"Can I sit down, now?" Zuko asked in a strangled voice.
"Are you done making yourself pointlessly miserable?" Mai asked. Zuko managed a stiff nod. "Then go ahead."
Once they were safely in their chairs, stacks of dragon and phoenix cakes and bottles of wine laid out along the table, the conversation returned to less fraught topics. Mai didn't care much for sweets, but she sipped at her wine and listened as Iroh and Toph argued about tea. (He remained steadfast in his preference for Jasmine, which she dismissed as wussy flower water, preferring the more robust flavor of Lapsang Souchong.)
"But it tastes like a campfire!" Iroh protested.
"Exactly," said Toph through a mouthful of lotus seed cake.
Zuko was listening as well, and looked far less ruffled than he had before, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips. Mai put her goblet down and leaned closer to speak quietly beside his ear. "So you hate weddings, huh?"
He smiled and slipped an arm around her shoulders. "I don't hate all weddings," he murmured.
"I'll keep that in mind," she said. "Just in case it comes up."
He chuckled a little as he kissed her. The setting demanded more chastity than normal, but she could feel the heat that lay behind it. "It will," he said, the words sounding like a promise.
Which was, undoubtedly, how he'd meant them.