Walking through the Fire Palace gardens the next day, Katara heard plaintive strains of music floating through the surrounding windows. Most of the other occupants of the water garden were content to let the notes wash over them, transporting them to a place far away, even if solitary and slightly melancholy, just like the sounds of the horn playing. But Katara judged that would be because they weren't forced into a commitment beyond their control. And she was wrong. In fact, six of the seven others would have been more than happy to abandon their positions within the Fire Nation political state and take up cabbage selling (despite the drop in cabbage prospects ever since the Avatar reappeared – funny coincidence, that). The seventh was The Duke, who would probably have laughed in all their faces if they told him about their issues. However, like the others, he was content to sit back and let the day just pass him by as long as possible. Most people confronted with a choice between relaxation and exertion are like that. I am, anyway.
However, this particular Waterbender wasn't.
Finally pinpointing the source of the sounds, Katara threw open the ornate double doors of the enclosed gazebo by the little lake. She narrowed her eyes at the sight that confronted her, and loudly proclaimed, "Aha! I've found you, Zuko!"
Fire Lord Zuko let the interrupted piece fade into silence as he looked up at her listlessly. "What do you need, Katara?"
She faced him, hands on hips. "I wanted to know the latest news on finding new Fire Council members, and see if there's anything I can do to speed things up."
Zuko sighed, resting his forehead against his folded hands. "Unfortunately, there's not really anything you can do. Uncle's been trying hard too, and we interviewed twelve people already today, but all I've been able to find so far is maybe May's uncle, who wants to retire from the prison system. And I'm only considering him because May brought him. Honestly, he scares the daylights out of me."
"Well, if that's all you found so far, maybe you should still be out there instead of cooped up in here playing that… thing," Katara ended uncertainly.
Zuko opened one eye and considered the instrument in his lap dispiritedly. "I always practice my soonghi horn when I need some time alone. It helps me organize my thoughts." He closed his eyes again and buried his face in the crook of his elbow, making his voice muffled. "May knew to leave me alone when I played my soonghi horn."
Katara drew herself up, enraged. "Well, excuse me! I'd leave you alone much longer if that message didn't get in yesterday appointing me official Water Tribe ambassador to the Fire Nation. I can't help it if I'm completely useless here until this whole mess is straightened out except to remind you how much more you like your old girlfriend!"
Finally pushed passed his limits, Zuko shouted back, "Well, this situation's not my fault either! I'm not the one who made the stupid engagements! And I can't help it if you're not as sensitive as May either!" As a final act of defiance, Zuko turned away from Katara and raised the soonghi horn back up into position.
Katara huffed in sheer rage. "Well then, don't let me interrupt your practice any longer, Fire Lord Zuko." With a small flick of her wrist, she slipped out the door.
Zuko would have yelled a parting shot if he hadn't found his lips frozen to the soonghi horn mouthpiece by his own breath's moisture. It actually changed what he would have said if his face were free, as it reminded him that May's first response to his solitary horn-playing actually was remarkably similar. It was a little comforting, but also gave him a very unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach. He began to realize this probably wasn't the last time he would experience that sensation.
Elsewhere in the Earth Kingdom, earlier that day, a platoon of green-enshrouded warriors trudged along a sandy embankment. As they jogged along, one slowed down: the last in line, one who moved more like a dancer or circus performer than a martial artist and whose green robes hung on her just a little more awkwardly, like she was still unused to how she should compensate for their added weight and restriction.
Ty Lee had slowed because she had seen something glinting in the dune to her right: a small winking glint, shining and dimming like the ebb and flow of a well-executed series of jabs, rather than the steely sheen of flying kunai or steady stream of bright blue fire. It seemed comforting somehow, so she decided to investigate without alerting her new sister warriors of Kiyoshi.
What she found was a sword in the sand, all but buried except for the eensiest teensiest bit of the tip which had caught the light. As she lifted it, she could feel its balance and heft, and had just enough experience to know that they did not match its appearance and size.
Now, Ty Lee wasn't stupid. She may take orders like a loyal guard dog, prattle on about pink auras, and have a penchant for walking on her hands, but she wasn't an idiot. In fact, if I met anyone with those characteristics myself, I wouldn't underestimate their abilities (except that bit about pink auras. I still have no idea what Ty Lee was on about with that). As a matter of fact, Ty Lee had heard Sokka moaning about losing his "space sword," and knew the airship battle had taken place rather near this patrol area, and she could add two and two together quite nicely. So she grabbed the sword and raced to rejoin the warriors, planning to tell them about her find at the next stop.
However, that occurred much sooner than she expected. Just as she caught up with them, the leader of the platoon signaled a halt with her upheld closed fist, extending it suddenly to allow a harnessed hawk to land smoothly on her gauntlet. She rubbed the bird soothingly, extracting a scroll from the cylinder on its back. "The Bei Fong must have sent you on ahead with the latest news from Suki. You know, I think I've heard of you. Hawkie?"
The hawk shrilled once in recognition.
"Wow, that Sokka sure has boundless creativity," one warrior snickered.
"I think it's a cute name!" Ty Lee defended her crush indignantly.
The previous speaker just patted her back soothingly.
"Listen up, girls. This is big news. There was some sort of fiasco on the political scene, and now there are three new sets of couples to promote alliances: Fire Lord Zuko and Katara, Avatar Aang and Princess Azula, and Sokka and Toph. You can see how this affects our chief. Fortunately, they're only temporary, but Suki sounds concerned anyway."
"I still don't really get the last one," another girl said.
Ty Lee agreed silently. However, with this latest development, she got the feeling that maybe she should keep her little discovery to herself. As she hitched the sword under her armor backplate, hoping it would go unnoticed, she heard the leader speak up again.
"We've got a call for at least one of us to head up to the Fire Nation, in order to keep an eye on things there while the Chief travels back here. Are there any volunteers?"
Before she knew it, Ty Lee had her foot raised high in the air as she stood on the tips of her fingers in the sand. "Oooh! Pick me!"
The leader considered her thoughtfully. "Well, you are familiar with Fire Nation customs, and you have picked up all the Kiyoshi Warrior stances very quickly. I think it would work, since you're so enthusiastic about it." She smiled at the handstanding girl. "Very well, warrior. You may set off whenever you're fit to travel."
"Oh, I'm ready now!" With the last echoing cry, Ty Lee raced impulsively to the south.
"Doesn't she need any supplies or anything?" asked another warrior concernedly.
"She'll be fine," their leader answered dismissively, scanning the letter again. "Though maybe I should have told her that Suki's coming here with Toph and Sokka, who's the Water Tribe's new Earth Kingdom ambassador. Oh well." She rolled up the scroll and replaced it into its container. "Time to move out, girls!"