Azula stood surprised at first, but then returned to her gleeful state. "A waterbender manipulating flames?" she asked. "That looks more like firebending to me. Also," she tossed her hair to the side, "I thought the benders of the Water Tribe had blue eyes, not the golden eyes of the Fire Nation?"
A flurry of murmurs arose from the group. Katara lowered her gaze, but given the fury with which she'd been staring at Azula only moments before, she didn't expect it to do any good. The damage was done.
"Clearly my brother has asked the avatar to swap his powers with those of the Water Tribe girl," Azula went on. "An act of open defiance against our country. How can we trust someone like that to rule us?"
Zuko felt fear course through his veins as echoing voices floated through the crowd:
"We can't trust him."
"How could he do this?"
Zuko felt the shame of banishment creeping, surrounding him again, at the time when he should've been most able to stop it. Several of the guards quickly advanced. He motioned for the water he'd used to heal his uncle to come up next to him, while Katara and Iroh's hands glowed with orange flames.
Azula, however, did not react. "Are you so sure you want to attack me?" she asked. Then, glaring at Zuko, she added on, "Especially you, brother. And when I have such interesting information for you."
Zuko shoved his arm forward and the water shot off like an arrow. Azula easily sidestepped it.
"Don't mess with me!" Zuko said.
"It's hardly messing with you." Azula smiled. "You see, unlike you, I actually know how to talk to Dad to get the info I want." Her eyes narrowed as her grin widened. "I know where Mom is."
For a moment, Zuko thought his heart stopped. Then a voice seemed to chant in his head, Azula always lies. Azula always lies.
"I don't believe you!" he shouted, his hands starting to shake. The guards took a step closer, now within distance to grab him whenever they chose. Iroh and Katara stood unmoving, both looking at Zuko to determine their next moves.
Before anybody could act, however, a low vibration sounded throughout the room. Suddenly, several of the guards blocking the entrance way were thrown backwards as the ground beneath them jolted and curved.
"Thought it sounded like a scuffle up here," Toph's voice called out. She rushed into the room, followed by Aang, Mai, and Sokka. Then she turned to face Azula. "Didn't someone lock you up or something? You're really annoying." Even three more enemies in the room, however, did not throw off Azula's piercing grin. She flicked her fingers, just slightly, barely noticeable. The guards closest to Katara and Zuko moved in and grabbed them, pulling their hands behind their backs.
"Use your feet!" Zuko called out to Katara. She reacted almost instantly. Straightening her constrained arms, Katara pushed her feet down as hard as she could, slamming onto the man's toes. She then twisted herself enough to create a small flame at the man's feet. He jumped back in surprise, loosening his grip enough for her to break free. With full use of her body, she sent a much larger flame in his direction and he staggered away, heading for the safety of the crowd.
Zuko, unfortunately, didn't fare so well. The guard who grabbed him was a bit more clever, holding Zuko's body still with one huge arm and using his free hand to put a dagger to Zuko's throat. Zuko gasped and tried to move, but the blade pressed stronger against his skin, and his arms were far too weak to put up any resistance beyond that.
"Everyone freeze!" Azula ordered. "Unless you want to see your new leader in a pile of blood."
Zuko gritted his teeth. No, this couldn't be happening. He was supposed to be able to hold his own, not be the weakling that Azula used to manipulate everyone. How could he let this happen?
Aang gave up the fight first, immediately throwing his hands up in surrender. Katara, Mai, and Iroh followed suit, and this time two guards came up to restrain each of them instead of one. Toph growled under her breath before finally doing the same.
Azula looked around, anger dancing in her eyes. "Where's the last one?" she demanded. The guards looked at each other in confusion.
"The boy from the water tribe! Where is he?" Azula demanded. Again, more blank stares. Somehow, with everyone focused on the benders, Sokka had managed to sneak out. Not bad.
"Find him – search the palace!" Azula yelled. Three guards ran obediently off. Azula scoffed as they left. She knew better than to let a loose string like Sokka go, but she wasn't going to let it ruin her moment of victory either. She walked first up to Toph.
"I hear you made quite a mess of a fire nation airship. A metal fire nation air ship. That's a pretty neat trick. But don't worry. I'm making sure your prison is especially tailored." Toph spit at her. Unfortunately, she missed.
Azula barely glanced at Katara. "Unfortunately for you, I know very well how to deal with firebenders. You'll be getting your own... private room." Katara scowled.
Next, Azula spoke to the guard restraining Zuko, who'd now been surrounded by several of his comrades. "Take my brother to the dungeon, and I want twice as many guards around him as everyone else. Keep anything away from him that has water, especially plants. He eats and drinks only when someone's restraining him, am I clear?"
"Yes, princess!" came the reply, though they did not yet move.
Finally, Azula faced Aang. "Now, you've got a bit of a dilemma. You want to give people the impression that this is a smooth transition to a new era. That my brother is a capable leader who's got everything under control. Having me publicly seize control of the throne now would be, I daresay, disastrous for you, am I right?"
Aang said nothing. He only glared at her, breaking her gaze once or twice to see if there was any weakness in the guard holding Zuko. But the blade was so close that even the slightest movement could mean a slice through Zuko's throat. Aang clearly wasn't willing to take that risk.
"So here's my proposal," Azula said. "As you so kindly pointed out while I was imprisoned, Zuko has been working together with you to keep the peace. That means that you can speak for him. So I'm going to let my little takeover here remain a secret for the time being, and you're going to do everything you can to maintain the image that Zuko is still running the show. Am I clear?"
Aang still remained silent at first, which flared up Azula's temper. She raised her hand and slapped the avatar across the face. "I said, am I clear?"
"Yes," Aang said through gritted teeth. "You're perfectly clear." Grinning in victory, Azula motioned for the guard holding Zuko to carry out her orders and take him to the dungeon. Zuko hung his head in humiliation. His weakness had gotten them into this situation – emotionally, he had not stood up to Aang and demanded to have all Azula's powers removed. Physically, he couldn't defend himself. He didn't need his father telling him how much of a failure he was now. That was clear all on its own.