Of Fire Lady Mai, consort to Fire Lord Zuko and mother of Fire Lord Sujin and Princess Kiyoko, the historical records contain little of interest. Inscriptions and other primary documents indicate that she adequately fulfilled the traditional ceremonial duties of her role, but little else. From the official historical records kept by the Fire Sages, it can be strongly inferred that the union between Fire Lord Zuko and Lady Mai was a political marriage designed to give the new Fire Lord's reign a veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of Princess Azula's supporters. (This tactic was one of the notable failures of Fire Lord Zuko's reign; for more information about the ensuing rebellion, see Islands of Rebellion: The Fire Nation After Sozin's War by Lo Chu Men, Ba Sing Se University Press.)
Though increasingly popular, the theory that Fire Lady Mai played a covert role in ensuring the ongoing political stability of the Fire Nation (or, indeed, the other nations) is at best a romantic pseudo-history conceived by lady patriots of the Fire Nation. (For more about these theories, see The Delusion of the Shadow Queen by Lo Chu Men, Ba Sing Se University Press, or the original monograph that originated the so-called Shadow Queen Theory, Knife of the Fire Lord, attributed to Lady Chin-chiao of the Fire Nation.) There is simply no evidence that Fire Lady Mai made any contribution to the Fire Nation beyond the birth and upbringing of her children and other traditional feminine duties.
Except from The Court of Fire Lord Zuko, Lo Chu Men, Ba Sing Se University Press.
In the very deepest shadow, Mai waited.
This was her least favourite part. Crouching in the dark, measuring time in the movements of guards. Her left foot was going numb, and if she moved too fast, she might dislodge the loose roof tile by her knee. She shifted carefully, watching the the silhouetted guard on the wall below.
One day, she promised herself, she'd get to do a job in a busy port town, or maybe the Lower Ring. One of those places where the noise and movement never stopped. Where women probably hid themselves on rooftops all the time.
Instead, she was in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se, where the respectable people of the city went to bed early, and everyone else closed their curtains.
A ginger bearded-cat leaped up beside her, and the loose tile slipped out of its place, shattering on the street below. The guard whirled around. Mai held her breath, but the man peered into the shadows for only a moment, then looked away.
Mai, who had spent most of her childhood pitting her skills against the Imperial Firebenders with Azula and Ty Lee, was a little disappointed.
The cat rubbed its cheek against her hip and purred.
It was an hour before the guards changed shift. According to procedure, they were not to leave their posts before the relief arrived, but Mai had been watching this man for three nights, and he never bothered to wait. The moment he was out of sight, she took a short run up, and jumped from the roof down to the wide wall below.
Without pausing for breath, she leaped off the wall into the garden. She landed with a soft thump and stopped, listening.
Above, she heard the slam of a metal door. The relief guard had arrived. Less than thirty seconds to get out from the wall's shadow, into the courtyard.
She did it in twenty-three seconds. Not her best time. She still hadn’t regained the speed and agility she lost when she was pregnant with Kiyoko, six years ago. Maybe it was age, plus the difficulty of training in the open without giving herself away. Come summer, Mai decided, in the privacy of the Ember Island house, she would practice against Zuko and his dao. It was time that the children began to learn traditional weapon-craft. She picked the lock on the laundry and let herself in.
She lingered in the laundry for a few moments to catch her breath, but she didn't dare stay long. She slipped upstairs, her shoes silent on the stone floors, her heart pounding in her ears.
This was a large compound, and avoiding the main corridors and stairways meant that it took her almost twenty minutes to reach her destination. The ambassador's study smelled of paper, perfume and ink, not unlike Mai's childhood home. Teeth on edge, she entered.
It was a warm night, and the curtains had been left open, giving her a clear view of the courtyard, the walls, and the Middle Ring below. All was still, all was silent.
At the other end of the room, the ostentatious fireplace was cold, its broad mantelpiece casting deep shadows. Mai seated herself behind the ambassador's desk and waited for her cue.
Four minutes later, the earth rumbled and the building shook, although the rest of the neighbourhood was still.
From a floor below and the wall outside came urgent voices and the noise of rushing bodies.
Sixty seconds later, a roar of fire erupted outside, bathing the courtyard and office in bright orange light for a few seconds, revealing the shadows, and the figure they concealed.
The knife was in Mai's hand before she had time for conscious thought. It was deflected with a wave of flame from the ambassador's hand.
"I apologise, Fire Lady," said Ambassador Zu-chin, as the guards filled the room. Her smile was pitying. "I fear you're rather outmatched."
Mai was on her feet, blades and darts at her fingertips, but these guards were locals, earthbenders. One burly man knocked her dart aside with a stone disk, then sent it spinning through the air to strike her in the side of the head.
As Mai lost consciousness, her last thought was of Zuko.
"I know you're awake, Fire Lady."
Mai gave up the pretence and opened her eyes. She lay on the stone floor in a damp, cool room. The only source of light was those horrible luminescent crystals that were all over Ba Sing Se. Looking eerie in the greenish light, Zu-chin, the Fire Nation's ambassador to the Earth Kingdom -- Zuko's ambassador, whom she had recommended herself, was seated on a carved wooden chair, as calm and well-presented as if she were attending on the Earth King himself.
"How many fingers am I holding up?" she asked.
"Three," said Mai, "but they're sort of spinning."
The ambassador's laugh was a soft, sharp exhalation.
"Forgive me," she said. "I was more concerned with neutralising your knives at that moment."
Mai surreptitiously checked her sleeves, but she already knew what she would find. All of her shuriken and stilettos, every holster and launcher, all were gone. Even the knives in her hair had been taken.
"In a more civilised age," said Zu-chin, "a visit from the Fire Lady would be preceded by weeks -- months, even -- of preparation. Now, it seems, she breaks in like a common burglar. I can't imagine what your father would say."
"Nothing useful," said Mai. Her head was beginning to clear at last, and with that clarity came the dawning realisation of just how badly she had miscalculated.
"Maybe I'll hand you over to the city guards and watch the scandal from a safe distance."
"That's not like you," said Mai, keeping her tone bland. "Where's the profit?"
The ambassador laughed.
"I do admire you," she said. "You mustn't think I don't. To move from prison to the new Fire Lord's bed was clever, but actually getting him to marry you, to name your children as his heirs -- I'm not a betting woman, but I'm told the odds were considered long."
Mai said nothing. She kept her attention on Zu-chin's hands, on her lacquered nails. Her vision was improving. The ambassador's nails tapped restlessly on the arm of her chair, the only part of her that betrayed any emotion.
"It's an extraordinary achievement. I don't think you'd remember, but I was friends with your parents when you were young."
"I remember." Creeping out of bed to listen to the click of pai sho tiles, low-voiced adult conversations that grew louder as they consumed soju and ginseng wine. Back then, she had thought her parents' lives mysterious and glamorous. Only a few years later, she had been permitted to sit up and listen to the adults, and realised how utterly dull they were.
But Zu-chin had vanished from her parents' circle by then, never to be mentioned except in the whisper of a warning.
"I suppose I don't need to ask what brought you here tonight."
Mai sat up carefully. Her hair was loose, strands caught in the sticky, drying blood on the side of her head.
"I think it was the tanks," she said. "Weapon like that starts turning up in the hands of petty Earth Kingdom warlords, people notice."
"You didn't notice until now," Zu-chin pointed out.
"Are you finishing for a compliment?" Mai asked. "Fine. You covered your tracks so well, I honestly thought I was here tonight to arrest another clerk-turned-pawn. Until I saw you in the office, I wasn't even sure you knew about this business."
The ambassador threw her head back and laughed, a full-throated laugh that was so completely at odds with her proper, ladylike presence that Mai was a little dizzied.
"I didn't realise your plans had gone so awry," Zu-chin said. "We found the guard, you know."
"The firebender who created the diversion. Lieutenant Hong. You can give him a medal if he survives the night."
Mai watched those painted nails and concentrated on her breathing. She had grown up with Azula. Zu-chin was only a small predator by comparison.
Only, she had already underestimated Zu-chin. And the consequences--
"So what are you going to do with me?"
"That," said the ambassador, "is a difficult question." Tap, tap, tap went the nails. "I certainly don't need the encumbrance of a prisoner."
"Waste of time and energy," Mai agreed.
"I still like the idea of having you arrested like a commoner."
"I've been in jail. There are worse things."
"Do you think so? When your husband released me from Ozai's prison camp, I swore I'd never go back. Maybe I'll have you bound and thrown in the sewer, like the gambling houses do to debtors in the Lower Ring."
"Or I could sell you to the warlords. Whichever one offers the most. Getting you back would distract the Fire Lord for some time. He might even start another war." Tap. Tap. Tap. "It's profitable, war. Once you stop caring about -- well, everything. All those people fighting for land or food or beliefs." This last word was uttered with a faint sneer.
"You spoke out against the war," said Mai.
"And look where it got me. Twelve years in prison. Forgotten, until the boy-king rescued me and offered me -- this."
"So you're punishing Zuko for what his father did?"
Zu-chin shrugged. "Patriotism is a disease of the mind, and it's endemic in the Fire Nation. I thought I'd be horrified, to look at the world and not care. Instead it was liberating." She fixed Mai's gaze with her own. "I thought you would understand that."
"I do," said Mai. "Only it turned out I did care about some things."
"I make a lot of them," Mai agreed. "But if you think Zuko will start another war over me--"
"His devotion is renowned."
"Yeah," said Mai, "that's why he's surrounded by people who are a lot smarter than he is. You think the Avatar will let him start another war? Or his uncle?" She rested the palms of her hands on the stones, feeling distant vibrations. An earthbender might have been able to make sense of the movement. All she could do was hope. "I've been putting together the pieces of your puzzle for a while. I don't think you're a murderer."
"I didn't think you were a spy for the Fire Lord. I thought he'd be more protective."
The vibrations in the earth grew stronger. Zu-chin, sitting in her wooden chair, shoe leather between her feet and the stone, didn't sense it. A rock came loose beneath Mai's hand. Then another. Perfect disks of rock.
"You know how it is," said Mai, "balancing family and career. We both made compromises."
At any moment, the earthbender guards would notice the activity beneath the compound. And if she moved too fast or too slow--
"Ozai had your husband executed, didn't he? I understand why you're angry."
"I'm not angry. I've simply adjusted my priorities."
There was a shout in the corridor, quickly silenced.
"You sound like Azula," said Mai.
Zu-chin’s jaw set. She rose to her feet, fire crackling in her palms.
Mai let the first stone disk fly.
It wasn't as well-balanced as a knife, but it was heavy, and the ambassador was unprepared. The unexpected blow knocked her to her knees, and Mai stood up.
"Seriously," she said, "you thought I'd come here alone?"
The earth opened up behind her.
"Sorry, Mai," said Toph, shifting the rocks beneath Zu-chin's feet so that she was slammed up against the wall, arms and legs encased in stone shackles, "didn't you say something about scaring a clerk into a confession? Something about this being simple," the door flew open, admitting two guards, but Toph immobilised them in a heartbeat, "and safe," there were footsteps rushing down the corridor, a whisper of fabric and steel, then silence, "and boring?"
Slightly unsteady, and not just because of the shifting ground, Mai made her way over to the doorway. Three guards lay in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. A shadow dropped to the ground beside her, a man in black, his face hidden by an opera mask.
"Well," said Mai, "it was pretty boring. What are you doing here?"
Zuko took off the mask. "I got worried."
"Or you didn't want to be left out of the fun," said Mai. She squeezed his hand.
"You're bleeding," he said. "Can you walk straight?"
"Imperial Firebenders are on their way."
"I'll stick around," said Toph. "Otherwise they'll be chiseling people out of rock all night. You two should get home. Someone's probably about to go wake you up and tell you your ambassador's a traitor. Try to look surprised."
They slipped out through the passage Toph had created.
"I guess I'm going to have to give this up," said Mai. "There's no element of surprise when the whole world knows what I do for you."
"She'll keep quiet," said Zuko. "Otherwise I might change my mind about a house arrest." Off Mai's glance he added, "You think there's any evidence left by now? She'll retire quietly with her pension and her honour intact. And Imperial Guards, to ensure her safety in her old age."
Mai nodded. The penalty for Zu-chin's crimes was supposed to be treason, but Zuko wasn't a killer either.
And this way, her secret was safe. For a little while longer.
"Uncle's place?" he asked as they emerged onto the surface.
"I told the ministers I needed some time with my family. We should probably get home before the Imperial messenger arrives, though."
They walked, hand in hand, through the dark streets.
"Did you know people were taking bets on whether or not you'd actually marry me?"
"How do you think Sokka paid for his wedding gift?"
"I hope Toph finds my knives."
"She will. And she'll take all the credit for taking down Zu-chin."
"She can have it." They were nearing Iroh's home. Zuko passed her his mask, and she concealed it in a fold of her sleeve. "We should take the kids to Ember Island this summer. If Sujin's hands are steady enough, I'd like to teach him to throw the shuriken."
"Kiyoko's been asking me for months to teach her the dao," Zuko admitted.
Iroh's house was quiet but for his prodigious snores. In silence, they changed into bedclothes, and Zuko washed the blood from Mai's face and hair.
They were in bed for almost twenty minutes before the messenger knocked at the door. He delivered his news to Zuko, and barely even looked at Mai.
In the shadows, she smiled.
I first heard the stories of the Fire Lady's exploits as spy from my mother. It was a family legend that Fire Lady Mai herself had been responsible for the forced retirement of her great-aunt, the once-Ambassador Zu-chin. For this reason, my mother was almost forbidden to attend the Royal Fire Academy, as the family did not wish her to spend time with Princess Kiyoko, with whom she was of an age.
Nevertheless, my mother did go to school with the princess, and to the relief of the family, they did not become friends. Indeed, their rivalry culminated in the Solstice Conflagration, destroying two buildings, the meditation gardens and a statue of Fire Lord Azulon taming the dragons. In this light, my mother's discovery that Princess Kiyoko was able to confirm certain claims of Zu-chin bears all the more weight, for even in adulthood, Mother had no desire to pander to the princess or her family.
Myself, I have dedicated my life to the search for evidence of Fire Lady Mai's exploits. I publish this small monograph, replete as it is with rumour and gossip handed down through families, in the hope that it will be read by someone who possesses both the evidence, and the will to share it, to bring Lady Mai's achievements out of the shadows and into the light of history.
Except from Knife of the Fire Lord, attributed to Lady Chin-chiao of the Fire Nation