The younger woman tapped the end of her brush against her chin while her companion filled their cups. The paper in front of her was littered with half-formed ideas and spots of ink.
"So, they almost got caught in the main banquet hall. Do you think they'll risk it again?"
"Hmm." She took a sip of wine and blotted her lips. "No, the banquet hall's not that interesting. Not for the book, anyway."
"The throne room?"
"Now we're talking."
Captain Jee slapped the worn serial down on Zuko's desk. The Firelord flinched as if the cheap, yellowed pages had smacked him in the face instead.
"The guardswomen have been passing this one around. I only just found it." The Captain of the Guard's face held its usual frown, but there was a light of furious desperation in his eyes.
"It's no use." Zuko rubbed his forehead. "There's no way we can find all the copies before everyone... reads them."
"Maybe we don't need to panic." Jee braced his hands on the desk, but then seemed to remember what that desk had been used for in issue seven ("Still Longing for the Ocean") and stepped back a bit. "It's about a fictional relationship between a fictional Firelord and his fictional captain. As far as we know, that's all anyone thinks it is."
"Bullshit. Have you even read any of these?" Zuko flipped the book open with a pencil so he wouldn't have to touch the pages. "They've got our difference in age, your hair, my eyes, years at sea, everything. It's not a coincidence. Listen to this. The fire still burned, the conflagration that warmed their lonely souls those nights on the stormy deep, when they were just a princeling seeking a harbor and a lieutenant more gray than green, two flames sensing the desire of the other-"
"Stop! Stop. Sir." Jee squeezed his eyes shut, apparently trying to purge the tawdry prose from his memory. "Of course I've read them. Someone knows more than they should. How they ever found out all this..."
Zuko closed the pamphlet and covered it with a sheet of paper so he didn't have to look at the illustration on the cover. "Doesn't matter."
"If we ignore it, they'll lose interest."
"At least until the next issue comes out."
"Even so. It'll have to end eventually."
"Breaking the desk was a stroke of genius, by the way."
"Thank you." A knowing smirk. Judging by the gossip among women of the palace city, that development had been very popular indeed.
"We need to follow up with something even better."
"I don't know. It's been a while since we've written cuddling though. Everyone likes a good cuddle. Let's use it as a breather before the 'even better' thing."
Palace servants were, of course, trained to be seen and not heard. Part of the palace itself, really. For the most part they were superb at it.
Every time he heard a stifled giggle from somewhere in the wings, Zuko whirled around, bug-eyed, looking for the culprit-but she always managed to compose herself before she was caught. For some reason, it became necessary to discuss matters of palace security with Jee more frequently than usual ever since that thrice-damned novel went to sale. Or maybe he was just noticing it more that people started giggling every time they were in the same room.
He strode down the hall, blocking out the sound and repeating his mantra of it will pass, it will pass, it will pass...
Jee was headed down the hallway from the opposite direction, a sheaf of paper in one hand and murder in his eyes.
"Captain Jee. Any news yet on the-"
"We have to do something. This can't continue." He brandished the slightly-crumpled handful of pamphlets.
Zuko raised his eyebrow. "Whatever happened to 'if we ignore it, they'll lose interest'?"
"The newest issue came out today," Jee explained through clenched teeth. "I banned it from the guardhouse to minimize distractions. But no matter how many I confiscate-" he shook the pamphlets again "-they keep smuggling them in somehow."
"It didn't bother you this much last time."
"Read it." He flung rather than handed one of the copies to Zuko. It had a woman's comb in place of a bookmark.
The young Firelord scanned the appropriate page, squinting and steeling himself against the overly-ornate turn of phrase as usual.
Zuko looked up, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly for a few seconds before he managed to speak. "How... how would they even know that?"
"It's either a very good guess, or this drivel is being written by... an acquaintance." The disapproval in Jee's voice was nearly tangible. He took the copy from Zuko and put it back with the others.
Zuko felt a laugh bubble up in his stomach, but it died before it could get out. "So," he said. He crossed his arms and put on what he hoped was a properly sober expression. "Which of your former lovers had a thing for writing smutty romance stories?"
Jee scowled. "Just wait. It won't be as funny when it's at your expense."
"I wonder how long it will take for them to catch on."
"Catch on? Them?" A secretive chuckle. "Never." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Maybe we should take pity on them. Give them a clue."
"We already did. A pretty 'big' one, heh heh..."
"That has to be the worst pun I've ever heard... it absolutely must go in the book."
The next days were agonizing as more copies made their way into the palace somehow and women's whispers fluttered in every corner, breathlessly discussing the newest plot development and every lurid detail of the completely and undeniably fictional love affair.
As usual, though, it died down, and the maids and guardswomen settled in to wait for the next intallment to be released.
Jee and Zuko, meanwhile, took the time to develop a plan.
Jee rubbed his chin, frowning slightly.
"Do you regret the parts that... aren't fiction?"
"No," Zuko said right away. "It's just that turning it all into a trashy serial was... unnecessary."
The guardsman began to pace slowly in front of the Firelord's desk, hands clasped behind his back. "Unchecked slander could undermine your authority and should be squashed. But this isn't unchecked slander. So far I think you've done a very good job of not overreacting."
"Just barely," Zuko muttered. He wished he could go out, hunt down every single copy, and burn them into oblivion. But Jee was right.
"Yes, well, I also knew you when you thought self-control was a type of boiler valve."
Zuko glared. "You were trying to make a point."
"Right. It's not unchecked slander. In fact, looking over some of these again, I think the author might be a supporter. They're just going about spreading their opinions in a... slightly unorthodox manner." He flipped through the stack of serials on the desk. "Issue one, he or she supports United Republic independence. Issue two, incredibly obvious disapproval of the previous regime. Issue three, favorable mention of the Firelord's friendship with the Avatar. Issue four refutes the claims that the Firelord is a pretender to the throne... it just keeps going on and on."
"You actually read them twice?"
"Yes, sir. I was looking for clues about the author, but found this instead." Jee tapped an open page. "It's subtle, and buried in all the romance stuff. That way it isn't dismissed as a political tract, not to mention read by a wider audience. One that you've had trouble with, I might add-women of all ages."
"You read them twice."
Zuko leaned forward and rested his chin on his hand. "We still have to find a way to get rid of them."
"Even now that you know all this?"
"Yeah." That familiar flutter of dread, like something looming around the corner, started up in Zuko's chest. "At least... we have to find a way to keep them out of the palace. I don't care what everyone else reads, as long as..." he trailed off.
Jee stood silently for a moment, not understanding. Then his face took on an expression of dawning comprehension-that, and displeasure. He took a step closer to the desk. "Sir," he said, his voice low and controlled. "I assume you informed your wife of everything that you experienced before you were reunited with her."
"I did! Sort of." His face was burning. He looked at the inkstone on his desk and not at Jee's annoyed face. "I think she might know. I told her that she wasn't the first... but that she was the first woman... or at least that's what I think I tried to say..."
Jee leaned in very close. He looked exasperated, but there was something like amusement in the corner of his mouth. Just a little. Maybe. He spoke very slowly, as if Zuko were some kind of idiot. "Firelord Zuko. When you intend to marry someone, it's best to be completely open with them about everyone you have slept with in the past. Especially if he's currently working for you."
"Lady Mai is an intelligent woman," Jee continued. "She's probably figured it out already. But if she hasn't, it's probably best that she not learn the truth from a cheap serial."
"Must I explain it again? Go tell her. Now."
"We're going to have to finish this thing sometime."
"I suppose. I don't know about you, but I have plenty of ideas for more. Maybe if we came up with a definite endpoint, and then took as much time as we wanted getting there-until we run out of ideas, or until the public gets tired of it."
"Or better yet, we could stop publishing for a while and start up again once everyone's forgotten about it."
"Good idea. Let's keep that in mind."
Zuko's footsteps felt like lead as he trudged through hallways and galleries on the way to Mai's parlor. He knew she wouldn't be upset-she said it herself, she could never stay upset with him, even when he did something monumentally stupid.
Besides, he'd already told her. Mostly. They'd been as open with each other as two awkward, largely inexperienced teenagers could be-she'd even told him that she kissed Ty Lee a few times, out of curiosity. As far as he knew, she hadn't told that to anyone else. And now, a few years later, none of it was even an issue.
He sighed and pushed the door open.
Mai was entertaining someone-Guardswoman Ming, off-duty. She stood when Zuko entered. There was a great mass of paper on the table between them.
"You wouldn't happen to have seen my husband recently, would you?"
"Actually, I just got done talking to him," Zuko said. "He's probably near my office, if you're looking for him."
She gave a short bow and left the room. Zuko took a deep breath and stepped closer to the table. Mai treated him to a slight, secretive smile.
"Mai, I have to tell you someth-" he stopped. All words escaped his brain as he looked down at the paper on the table. Much of it was illegible, or smeared, or consisting of unintelligible diagrams. Two sets of handwriting-Mai and Ming, working together on something.
His face grew warm again as he discerned certain words from the mess. Heaving. Turgid. Throbbing.
"Hmm?" Mai's smile grew wider. She laced her hands beneath her chin and looked up at Zuko, feigning innocence.
His throat had dried up. He cleared it several times.
"Um. Never mind, I guess."