"Lan, for the love of Agni!" An Chen shouts.
Lan untangles herself from the length of blue ribbon she's holding and stands up. "Let me guess, I spun the wrong way," Lan says.
"Yes," says An Chen. "Let's take that scene from the top, Lan, Huang, starting right after Nuo exits, and this time remember which way you're going!"
Lan bows—An Chen can smell the sarcasm—and returns to her mark, tucking the ribbon away. Huang follows suit.
"You are no longer my brother!" Lan says. "You are an enemy!"
"No!" Huang responds. "I am the rightful heir to the throne!"
"We'll see!" Lan answers, and whips out the blue ribbon.
"If I may interrupt," says a voice, and that is not in the script; An Chen whirls on the speaker and opens her mouth to shout this erring stagehand down, then sees that the speaker is wearing Fire Nation uniform.
An Chen looks at Lan and Huang. "Enough," she says, not that it matters because they've already stopped the choreographed fight. She turns back to the soldier. "What is it?"
The soldier bows. "Firelord Zuko desires the presence of the playwright and the director of The Boy in the Iceberg and two more of the Ember Island Players' number," she says. "At your earliest convenience."
"Hai Fen!" An Chen hollers at the nearest stagehand. "Go find Pu On Tim! Now!" She turns to Lan and Huang. "You two, with me!"
"But—" Lan protests.
"No buts!" An Chen snaps. "You heard the messenger! Huang, lucky you, you get to meet the inspiration for your character. Lan, you're coming along."
The soldier sent to fetch the Players escorts the four of them to a particular room in what An Chen suspects is the Firelord's personal vacation house. There, to An Chen's surprise, waits a woman that she, at least, recognizes from Xiu's depiction of her. "Lady Mai," An Chen says, bowing. Huang, Lan, and On Tim follow suit.
"The Firelord is a busy man," says Lady Mai, and An Chen frets: portrayals of the Firelord have always required the Firelord's personal approval. "I speak with his voice." An Chen relaxes. "What are your names?" Lady Mai asks.
"I am Song An Chen," says An Chen with a bow, "director of the Ember Island Players. This is Ning Huang, who plays Prince Zuko, and Hui Lan, who plays Princess Azula, and Pu On Tim, author of The Boy in the Iceberg." Each bows as they are named.
"Not a bad play," says a man standing out of An Chen's line of sight. "Toph was particularly enamored of the man who plays her."
An Chen turns to look. The scar is unmistakable: she is in the presence of Firelord Zuko.
"Don't kneel," the Firelord and Lady Mai say in unison, and An Chen and the others halt mid-motion. The Firelord continues, "I am here as a private citizen, at Lady Mai's invitation."
...the Firelord, playing a role? But on second glance, of course he is; where Lady Mai is formally dressed, the Firelord is wearing the uniform of a common soldier. Lady Mai wears the headpiece of a princess of the Fire Nation—so rumors are true; the Firelord has chosen a bride, and to An Chen's surprise it's not Lady Katara—and the Firelord's hair is loose instead of in a topknot with a headpiece to match Lady Mai's.
"My Lord—" Lan begins.
"He serves tea in Ba Sing Se," Lady Mai interrupts.
That makes no sense.
"My Lady," An Chen tries, "the four of us cannot perform the whole of the play." There is a bedamned reason why her letter requesting approval of the play said 'any time the Firelord desires, after the autumn equinox' and 'at the Ember Island Theater'.
"I know," Lady Mai says. "The Firelord did not summon you to approve or disapprove of how he is depicted in the play, either the version he saw before the comet came or the version you now desire to perform."
Firelord Zuko has seen the play? The one in which former Princess Azula kills then-Prince Zuko?
Oh Agni they're all going to die.
"The Firelord's approval of political art is no longer necessary," Lady Mai continues. "If you desire to continue performing The Boy in the Iceberg with the ending approved by Ozai, you may. If you desire to perform the play with the ending you wish approved by Firelord Zuko, you may. If you desire to perform this play or any other with content supportive of or critical of the Firelord or the Fire Nation, you may. Do not waste the Firelord's time or mine by requesting official approval of your art before it becomes public; such approval will be neither granted nor denied."
"My Lady, I don't understand," Huang says.
That makes, probably, four of them.
"Let me try to explain," says the Firelord, and four pairs of eyes are rapt on his face. An Chen tries not to stare at his scar. "My friends and I saw The Boy in the Iceberg some days before the war ended. Toph liked it until the very end, but none of the rest of us did. But you see, whether we like it doesn't matter. Whether the Firelord likes it doesn't matter. You are free to play whomever you like however you like—accurately is preferable to inaccurately, of course," the Firelord says with a nod to Pu On Tim; everyone in the Players knows how much effort On Tim put in to get the play accurate. "But if your idea of 'accurate' differs from mine, you are the artists. Your idea wins. The worst thing likely to happen to the Firelord if you mock him is he gets laughed at. I assure you," he adds, smiling ruefully, "he is very used to being laughed at."
"You won't censor us?" An Chen asks, and immediately claps a hand over her mouth. That's rather more direct than she ever intended to be with the Firelord.
"No one will censor anyone for any reason," says Lady Mai. "That's the point."
"We do have opinions on the play," the Firelord says. "But whether you hear our opinions and whether you change the play in any way after hearing them is entirely up to you."
"My Lord Tea Server," On Tim says, "if you had creative control over my play, what would you do?"
"I'd put the scar on the proper side of Prince Zuko's face," the Firelord says at once. "And I'd begin the play with Zuko's exile and end with his coronation, and take out the bits where he and Katara are flirting. That never happened."
"As you wish," On Tim says, bowing.
"You still don't understand," Lady Mai says. "The opinions of a private citizen have no bearing on your play. The opinions of the Firelord have even less bearing on your play."
"Unless we want them to?" An Chen asks.
"Yes," says Lady Mai. "It is your play, not the Firelord's and not mine, and certainly not that of a tea server from Ba Sing Se. If you want to change it, it is entirely your doing."
"As my lady says," says An Chen, bowing.
The Firelord smiles broadly. Lady Mai smiles a little. "Dismissed," says Lady Mai.