Characters: Mai, Ty Lee, Li (OC), Zhukazu (OC), Azula
Word Count: 2900+ words
Summary: The young man who attaches himself to Ty Lee at Azula's thirteenth birthday party is wrong, and Mai means to protect her friend from him.
Mai raised her eyes from idle contemplation of the carpet to see Ty Lee waving her over. Her friend stood with a handsome young man, and they were both smiling at her. She frowned. There was a hunger in the young man's smile she didn't like. It wasn't quite the sort of a man who didn't realize she and Ty Lee did not come as a pair.
She slipped through the crowd of people attending Azula's birthday bash to join her friend. Firelord Ozai's celebration of Princess Azula's thirteenth birthday was lavish but the mood of the party felt forced. Azula had begged her father for such a big party, but she had retreated earlier in the evening to the mock-throne and was ignoring everything but the most superficial of conversations. Mai had expected that; Azula didn't like people well enough to enjoy a big party, and she certainly had no idea how to host one.
"Ty Lee," Mai said on reaching her friend, giving the young man a guarded look. He wore his hair long, she noted. Unfashionably long, but there was a proper topknot in place. His robes were loose and high-cut; she could see the collar disappearing under his hair. It seemed too much for the summer's heat, but the young man wasn't sweating at all.
"What was so interesting about the carpet?" Ty Lee asked brightly, her tone making the question honest rather than mocking.
"Nothing, really," Mai murmured. Nothing at all. It was just habit to stay out of the way and quiet, but never to leave until all of the other guests had. Even when she was bored stiff. "There was no one I wanted to talk to."
"That's a pity," the young man said.
Ty Lee shot him a warning look that she evidently thought Mai didn't catch. "This is Li."
"Li...?" Mai tilted her head slightly.
Li chuckled nervously, reaching up to tug on his hair. "I get that a lot. No relation to the Li clan."
"He's from... Jagged Coast Island?" Ty Lee said, glancing at him for confirmation.
Li nodded. "From near the Sea of Trees." He paused, then hastily added, "It's really not as bad as a lot of people think. Most of the suicides have dropped off since Daimyo Akio rose to power. Or so my grandfather says. The daimyo has a lot of patrols through the woods, and there are many warnings and signs. People don't die there so much."
"What about the spirits?" Ty Lee asked with interest. "Everyone says there are lots of malevolent spirits in the Sea of Trees."
Mai merely raised an eyebrow. What an... interesting place for a young man to come from. Jagged Coast Island was reputed for its horrors, and no place was more spirit-haunted and dangerous than the Sea of Trees. The trees there, she had heard people at her father's parties say, grew so close together it was always dusk, and there were no wild animals. The only sound was the wind, at best. Never trust an animal there, they said, for the only animals in the Sea of Trees were spirit-creatures.
Something about it enticed people to give up their lives there. Once, when she was up far later than her parents had meant her to be, she had overheard a haggard old officer telling in a hushed voice how it was something more than just the spirits that led to so many suicides. It was the nature of the Sea of Trees itself, he contended, and they ought to burn the whole thing and salt the ashes.
His friend had castigated him for drinking too much, she recalled.
"I've never met any spirits there," Li was saying to Ty Lee, "At least not any dangerous ones."
The realization that Li was lying snapped in Mai's head with a thunk like shuriken biting into wood.
"How interesting," she said, her tone suggesting nothing but boredom. "Ty Lee, have you had a chance to speak to Azula since she ascended to her throne?"
Ty Lee shook her head as Li shot an apprehensive glance at the princess. Most people did, though, whenever their attention was dragged to her.
Mai gripped Ty Lee by the elbow. "Let's do that. You, get Ty Lee a drink."
Ty Lee gave Li a bright smile. "I'll meet you later? Over by the wall-scroll of Blue-Fire Jaraka? I'd take you to Azula, only her aura is really spiky right now-"
"It's all right. I'll see you in a little while, Ty Lee." He held up his hands, sleeves slipping up a bit. Mai caught a flash of darkness on his arm before his sleeves fell down again.
Mai drew Ty Lee in Azula's directions. "I don't like him."
"There's something wrong with his aura," Ty Lee said in a worried voice. "I think he's dying, Mai. I just thought I'd be nice and let him have some good memories before he burns up."
She frowned. Ty Lee's aura-reading was strange, but she was right more often than not. If she thought the young man was dying, he likely was. But Mai knew she read people better than Ty Lee did, and Li was not right.
She said nothing, though. Instead she focused her attention on Azula. The princess lounged on her throne, a smaller and less opulent version of the Firelord's own. A smile curved her mouth, but it kept slipping off. The oxblood-red she was finally old enough to wear only served to draw attention to her uncertain mood.
Mai and Ty Lee stopped in front of her, pressing their fists to their palms. They bowed out of synch, Ty Lee practically bouncing up from hers while Mai counted out the proper length of a bow due between a noble of her standing and the First Princess of the nation.
"Mai. Ty Lee." Azula leaned forward, resting an elbow on her leg in clear mimicry of a portrait of Firelord Sozin hanging in the library. "Are you enjoying my birthday party?"
"Very much," Mai answered politely, the words rolling off her tongue without any bother with how she actually felt.
"Lots!" Ty Lee said. "There's so many cute boys and girls, and I've been talking with so many new people. Some of them are really interested in the colonies, but you know my family left there when I was so young, I don't have anything to tell them. Some of the older boys are going to enlist soon, and some of the girls too."
Azula smiled condescendingly. "How nice."
"Tell her about Li," Mai murmured.
"Which one?" Azula asked, scorn coloring her voice. "I know Father invited Li Jiayi, Li Ming, Li Yuan, and a few others. They breed like weaselrabbits."
"Li isn't a member of the Li clan," Ty Lee said. "He's just named Li. He's from Jagged Coast Island. Near the Sea of Trees."
A frown twisted Azula's mouth. "What's so interesting about him?"
Mai raised her eyes to meet the princess's. "Nothing, if we're lucky."
Both Azula and Ty Lee gave her puzzled looks.
"Well," Azula said slowly, tilting her head slightly but never taking her eyes from Mai's. "You let me know if he becomes interesting."
"Of course." Mai bowed. "We won't bother you any longer, princess. Come on, Ty Lee, we should go find your friend before he finds someone else."
Ty Lee looked back and forth between the two of them. "Your auras are.... blending? No, that's not quite it..."
She trailed off as Mai took her by the elbow, leading her in the direction of where Li waited by the wall-scroll of Blue Fire Jaraka. The young man had two bronze goblets in one hand and a third one in his other. He smiled as he saw them heading over, raising the single goblet in a salute.
Mai frowned, her eyes flicking from side to side as she looked for some excuse not to meet him. She didn't like it when people assumed she wanted to spend time with them. Oh, spirits, someone had invited her cousin. Of course they had. Zhikazu was the only other noble of Red Chrysanthemum Island about Azula's age.
She gritted her teeth. "Zhikazu!"
"Mai!" Zhikazu called brightly, breaking away from the knot of admiring boys. She was two years older than Mai and curvy. Gold pins held her brown hair back, and there were even small red studs in her earlobes. Her mother came from Cehual Island, however, and anyone could see the touch of Sun Warrior blood in the shape of Zhikazu's cheeks and eyes.
Mai pulled away from Ty Lee to meet her cousin halfway. "How are you doing?"
"Lovely." She lowered her voice, "The colony brat getting to you? Or you just aren't in the mood to dance for the princess?"
Mai's eyes narrowed. "Ty Lee has a boy."
"Mm." Zhikazu's bow-shaped lips curled in a smile. Several young men drifted closer until Mai gave them a frosty glare. "Speaking of boys, cousin, you've been avoiding some of them all night. Li Jiayi was trying so hard to talk to you earlier."
"He was boring," Mai said in a flat voice.
"He's a Li," Zhikazu agreed.
Mai frowned. Jiayi had not been boring in the few moments when he'd admired the knife she'd almost cut him with. But he had taken the hint to leave. It was just... That flash of not-boring combined with warm bronze eyes... Zhikazu shouldn't say he was boring just because he was a Li.
Unlike other girls Mai knew, Zhikazu could never be counted on to fill silences. She'd gotten more from her mother than her looks and her jewelry, after all. They stared at each other in silence for long moments, Zhikazu's smile fading until her expression matched Mai's.
"It'll be different in a few years," Zhikazu said at last. "When Azula's a woman, the Firelord will make her his heir, and then you won't have the luxury of sending boys away who come sniffing around. One of the heir's dear friends is much too valuable a playing piece for our daimyo and your parents to waste."
Mai's hands clenched into fists. She was thankful for the full sleeves of her party dress; she'd never give her cousin the satisfaction of getting under her skin. "Maybe someone interesting will come along before then. I am a year older than Azula."
Zhikazu snorted. "If you marry young to escape the possibility of an arranged marriage, you deserve what you get."
Mai flicked a glance towards the wall-scroll of Blue Fire Jaraka. Ty Lee had better be having a good time, or-
Ty Lee wasn't there. Neither was Li.
She craned her neck, turning away from her cousin to scan the entire party. Among all the people, though, she couldn't pick out her friend nor the long-haired young man. "Where's Ty Lee?"
"She and her boy went sneaking off down a corridor," Zhikazu said in annoyance. "Like I would have been doing if you hadn't called me over."
"No, you wouldn't," Mai murmured. "You're a tease."
"You're right about that," Zhikazu admitted. "There, that corridor. Nothing interesting down that way, but it's plenty dark. Good place to take a boy."
"Good place for a boy to take you." Her eyes narrowed. She didn't have as many weapons in this dress as she would have liked, but Ty Lee was down there alone with that not-right young man. Come rock or high water, Mai was going after her.
She slipped through the crowd, hardly even brushing someone's clothes in passing. She sensed Zhizaku following in her wake but ignored her cousin. She ducked down the corridor when she reached it, pausing to study the layout. Pillars lined the corridor, heavily carved and casting dark shadows. Farther down, there were the familiar spills of lamplight, but they were not enough to properly light the corridor.
"If you want to get off alone with a boy," Zhizaku said quietly, "You'd go off in the shadows far enough from the party that everything's just a pleasing babble, but close enough that the shadows are sharp and dark and people in the light can't see well."
Mai nodded and flicked her wrists. Knives dropped out of their sheaths into her hands, and she slunk forward, listening as best she could.
At the seventh pillar, she caught a muffled sound to the right. She threw her knife before she hardly looked, heard a startled yelp and the tear of cloth. She darted forward, and there was Ty Lee pressed up against the wall, Li standing over her. The back of his robe was torn open, but instead of pale skin, Mai saw only darkness.
For a painfully long moment, Mai had no idea what she was looking at.
Then Zhikazu came up behind her, igniting red flame on her fist. "Honestly, Mai, you can't just-"
In the light, Ty Lee's mouth was bloody and her eyes glazed. The darkness of Li's back vanished, revealing empty space enclosed in a red, pulsing shell of meat.
Zhikazu's fire flared and went out. "Kuudou!"
Hollow spirit. Liver-devouring monsters who had no backs and only a shell of a body. What was one even doing on Fire Island-
Li grabbed Ty Lee by the arm, yanking her close, and Mai snapped her other knife at his head. He swept his arm, catching the blade in the long cloth of his sleeve.
"Tell Azula this is interesting, cousin!" Mai flung needles at the kuudou, drawing a jagged path up his arm and shoulder. "Now!"
Li snarled as Zhikazu took off at a run. A barbed tongue slipped out of his mouth, licking his mouth and slicing them open to bleed yellow ichor. "You smell of chrysanthemums. What care you for an Earth girl?"
"She's not Earth," Mai hissed. "Haven't you heard? We're conquering the Earth Kingdom."
The kuudou looked confused, then dipped his head as Ty Lee weakly struggled in his arms. The barbed tongue flashed across her friend's face, yellow ichor spilling into Ty Lee's mouth. Her eyes rolled up in her head even as Mai threw another knife at Li's head.
It took him in the eye. He just smiled.
"Come and free her," Li crooned. "She's your friend, Mai, you can't leave her with me. You know what I do to people."
Mai gritted her teeth and fumbled for her last knife. If she got in arm's reach of the kuudou, she was as good as dead. For Ty Lee's sake, she needed to stay back, keep harrying the monster until Azula could get there.
"You shouldn't be here," she said, holding her knife as if to stab with it. "The Fire Sages will do worse than burn you."
"This world will end in a year. I thought I'd have some fun before it goes." Li grinned, the expression horrific with his barbed tongue and the knife through his eye.
Mai's eyes narrowed as she realized the kuudou was sidling closer to her. She stepped back without looking behind her, trying to think of what to do with her last knife. Maybe she could put it in that tongue of his, but she didn't want to risk her last weapon on anything less than a killing shot.
"Down!" Azula snapped behind her, and Mai dropped to the floor. So did the kuudou, letting Ty Lee fall from his grasp to flop bonelessly. Blue fire roared over both their heads.
Li grinned and scuttled forward, barbed tongue flicking over Mai's face, dripping ichor over her skin. She cringed in disgust, lashing out with her knife and scoring along his throat. Yellow ichor spilled out, hissing onto her knife and scarring the metal like acid.
Blue fire flashed again, lighting up Li's robe. It crumbled and burned, and the fire got inside him, burning like he was a brazier.
His fingers tangled in Mai's hair, and she slashed wildly with her ruined knife as he pulled her towards a kiss. With her other hand, she yanked the knife out of his eye and stabbed-
Azula snarled in rage, and the heat of her fire scorched Mai's face. The ends of her hair puffed to ash, and the end of Ty Lee's braid caught on fire.
Li shrieked as he burned. The sound would never leave Mai's nightmares.
When it was done, she looked up at Azula. She felt numb, too numb to even worry about Ty Lee. She just wanted to sit and wait until the world changed.
Azula frowned down at her in puzzlement. "You're crying."
Mai blinked dully, then reached up to touch just under her eyes. Oh. So she was. "I guess."
Azula scowled. "You let it poison you. I expect that kind of thing from Ty Lee, but you're supposed to be smarter than her, Mai." The princess rolled her eyes sunward. "Well. At least you two found something interesting. You two will stay in my rooms tonight, in case there are others."
Mai nodded, and Azula's scowl wavered. For a moment, she looked stranger than Mai had ever seen her - she looked afraid.
Tentatively, the princess patted her hair. "You and Ty Lee just need to sleep. You'll be better in the morning." She closed her eyes. "Fire Sage Geming is coming. He'll say the same thing. You'll be fine."
Her voice cracked, and Mai gazed up at her dully.
"You'll be fine," Azula repeated, "Or I'll burn the entire Sea of Trees to ashes."
Author's Notes: The kuudou is a creature of my invention, though I used a number of traits from various supernatural critters.