"Would you like to feed the turtleducks?" Princess Ursa asks, and Mai wouldn't, actually, but she knows what her mother would say if she refuses. Besides, she's already fled from Ty Lee trying to teach Azula a backflip, an attempt she just knows will end badly, and there's a better chance that she'll see Zuko if she's in the company of the Princess. Plus, Azula won't pitch a screaming fit in front of her mother when the backflip thing doesn't work out.
"Of course, your highness," Mai says with precisely the correct amount of deference, preparing to stand and accompany the Princess to the tea pavilion with its pond-side chairs and stone floor. Instead, the Princess sits down beside Mai, heedless of her silk robes in the damp grass, and gestures to one of the servants discreetly concealed by the pillars surrounding the courtyard. That servant emerges with a tray of bread loaves, which makes Mai wonder how often the Princess does this. She doesn't think the turtleducks look overfed, but how would she know?
"Now," Princess Ursa says as she takes one of the loaves from the tray, "I don't know if you know this, but there's a trick to feeding turtleducks. You have to let the mother test the food...."
Despite herself, Mai gets drawn into the activity. The ducklings are kind of cute, especially when they dunk down to get the pieces of bread she scatters carefully in imitation of Princess Ursa. The courtyard is peaceful, and it's nice to spend time with an adult who isn't focused on making sure she behaves perfectly. The Princess is very kind, and doesn't even scold her when she giggles at two ducklings going for the same piece of bread and colliding with each other. While their mother sorts them both out, the afternoon is interrupted by Azula stomping into sight.
"Hello, darling," Princess Ursa calls out to her. "Would you like to feed the turtleducks with us?"
Azula pauses, narrowing her eyes when she sees Mai next to her mother. When she speaks, however, it's with the calculated sweetness she always uses with her mother. "No, thank you, Mother. I'm very tired, so I think I'll retire until supper. I've already sent Ty Lee home."
Mai can just imagine how that went, and is doubly glad she wasn't there to see it. Unfortunately, since she's here as Azula's guest, Azula's declaration means she has to leave too, and she was actually enjoying herself. Plus, she hasn't seen Zuko at all today.
"All right, dear, you sleep well," Princess Ursa says, unfazed. She smiles down at Mai. "I guess that makes you my guest now, yes?"
It's quite clear to Mai that Azula doesn't like that idea at all, and she waits for Azula to say something to make her mother send Mai home. Apparently, Azula can't think of anything that wouldn't betray her anger, so instead she continues her march toward her rooms. That probably means Mai should prepare herself for revenge next time she visits, but right now she doesn't mind.
Right now, there's Princess Ursa's comforting presence, and turtleducks to feed.
Mai's parents are full of the news at breakfast: Fire Lord Azulon is dead, Princess Ursa fled in the night, and now Ozai is Fire Lord, long may he reign. Mai's first thought is for how sad Zuko must be, with his mother gone. Her second thought, weirdly, is to wonder if the servants will take over feeding the turtleducks.
Naturally, her family are at the forefront of the audience that witnesses Azulon's funeral and Ozai's coronation. She stands next to Ty Lee, expecting that they'll both be summoned by Azula once the ceremony's over. She turns out to be right, and it's no surprise to find Azula waiting and smiling in the royal children's courtyard.
"My father is Fire Lord, just like I knew he should be," she says by way of greeting. Ty Lee looks a little startled, and stumbles to a halt in what was clearly meant to be a hug of commiseration. Mai, who had no illusions that Azula would mourn either grandfather or mother, simply stops where she is and gives Azula the bow the Fire Lord's daughter deserves.
"Congratulations on your father's elevation to Fire Lord, long may he reign," she says without inflection.
"Umm, yes, congratulations," Ty Lee echoes.
Azula gloats, and continues to gloat as she lays out the plans she's certain her father is making to continue the Fire Nation's war on the Earth Kingdom, until at last the whole world is under Fire Nation rule, as it should be. Mai lets her mind wander as Azula speaks. She's not particularly interested in the Fire Lord's ambitions, or Azula's assumptions as to those ambitions. She's more interested in where Zuko is, and how he's doing.
At last, Azula receives a summons from her father, which she declares to be a meeting to lay out his new expectations of her as a Fire Lord's daughter (and potential heir, she doesn't say, but Mai's learned how her mind works). She invites both Mai and Ty Lee to stay for supper, which is essentially an order that leaves them aimless in the palace compound while Azula's gone. Ty Lee declares a need to meditate, probably still stunned at Azula's unalloyed triumph, so Mai decides to try the most likely place where Zuko might be.
As expected, he's sitting by the pond in the royal family's public courtyard, staring red-eyed into the water. Without a word, Mai sits down beside him, and joins him in staring at the water. One of the things she likes about Zuko is that he's fine not saying anything, and she thinks maybe he likes that about her. He's got one hand up close to his face, probably from brushing away tears, and one hand pressed to the ground. Greatly daring, Mai sets her own hand on top of that one as lightly as possible. She gets no response for a long moment, and then Zuko turns his hand over to grasp her fingers tightly. He still doesn't say anything, so neither does she, just watching the meandering patterns the turtleducks make on the water, until a servant calls them in to supper.
Mai's not sure why she seeks out the pond after being freed and brought to the palace. Perhaps it's that the palace hasn't changed when the whole world has, and she needs a place to come to terms with that. Perhaps it's that she still associates the pond with better times, though after Azula's revelations about her mother's feelings toward her, Mai can't quite lose herself in the memories of Ursa's kindness and generosity as she once could.
Perhaps it's that this is the only place she feels she can think about Azula now without descending into true despair. Zuko's won, she's won, but it's not the victory she expected. It's not a Fire Nation victory, it's not Azula's triumphant vision of ruling the world. It's the nations renegotiating an harmonious peace, it's Zuko and the Avatar collaborating on a future where one nation rising against the others would be more difficult. It's Ty Lee across the seas on Kyoshi Island, and Azula broken and locked away for an indeterminable amount of time.
It's herself, staring down into the pond alone, suspiciously red-eyed. She gestures to a servant to bring bread. She was going to wait until Zuko emerged, but she thinks the turtleducks look hungry. She tears the bread into larger chunks than usual, and her own reflection breaks up into ripples under the force.
After her latest visit with Azula, Mai immediately seeks out the pond once more. She takes a few moments to watch the turtleducks swimming and regain her composure, then summons Lord Iroh to attend her.
"You know where their mother is," Mai says without preamble when Iroh joins her in the courtyard. "I need to get a message to her."
"With respect, your majesty--" Iroh begins, but Mai raises her arm and he obediently falls silent.
"Zuko is out hunting for her, yes, and I understand she may have reasons not to let him find her yet. My message, however, cannot wait."
Iroh takes a visible breath and asks, "It's Azula, isn't it?"
Mai sees no reason to dissemble. "Yes. She's not getting better."
Iroh nods, unsurprised. "And you think her mother might help."
"I don't know," Mai admits, remembering Azula's impassioned speech on an Ember Islands beach, so many years ago. Still, so many of Azula's ramblings are connected to her mother, Mai thinks perhaps seeing the real thing again might at least heal that part of her longlost friend. "But it's worth a try."
"Then I'll deliver it myself," Iroh declares, and Mai sees something of the man Zuko so respects.
"Take some tea while I compose the message," she says, gesturing a servant forward. She knows the man's fondness for tea, and hopes he understands it as a gesture of gratitude.
He smiles, clearly pleased. "And I would like some bread to feed the turtleducks, if I may."
There's something knowing in his tone, and when Mai looks sharply at him, he nods as though they're co-conspirators. She supposes they are.
She orders the bread.