I do not remember my mother or father. I do not remember their faces, their voices, or their touch. They are two of the most important people I should have been able to know and love like so many other children, but never did. They are non-existent entities, two faceless, mindless ghosts I never met.
I do not long for them.
For how can one miss what one never had?
I remember the Master and the Mistress. It would be applying an unneeded emotional attachment to say that they were my figurative "parents". However, they were certainly two of the most important guiding adults in my early life. They found my brother and I, took us in, fed us, clothed us, and sheltered us. They taught me many things that would determine the course of my life. I'm not sure, to this day, whether there was any love involved. Mayhap it had just been a situation that benefited both of our needs.
I remember Suki. She was the Master and Mistress's daughter, and my earliest playmate during my childhood.
I remember my brother Sokka. There is probably something to be said about him being the only surviving blood relative I had, but being brother and sister renders all the rest of it meaningless.
I remember Kyoshi Island, my one true home. I have no memories of a life before Kyoshi. It encompassed my whole world as a child.
Although I knew from an early age that I had not been born there, I grew up expecting that I would live there until I died of old age. I would participate in all the old traditions of the Island, and would marry a boy who would give me children to continue the surviving population.
We were an illegal people. The last outpost of a surviving rebel group still foolishly resisting Fire Empire rule. It wasn't till I was older that I realized how stupid we all were. Kyoshi had all of five thousand residents and supporters on that tiny island. The Fire Empire had the rest of the world. Really, how could we resist their might? Our warriors, trained in our traditional manner, were among the best in the world. But what were a few highly-capable fighters against an enormous army of millions that the Fire Empire possessed?
It wasn't something that concerned me overmuch as a child. It was the Master and Mistress's duty to contemplate large problems such as that. I focused on playing and sleeping and eating, ignorant of the matters of the world.
It was probably the greatest gift anybody could ever give me. The gift of a carefree childhood life, unburdened with responsibilities and worries.
No such life lasts forever.
"You can't play with us, Sokka." Suki said confidently, sitting on the straw mat next to me. I twined a piece of my doll's straw hair around my index finger and said nothing. Suki was the leader, the big kid, and made all the important decisions, like the rules which governed our playtime.
"Why not?" Sokka whined. He was a dark figure in the doorway of bright light. He shifted, one foot scratching the back of the other leg.
"Because you have boy germs!" Suki laughed, making her own doll leap through the air until it came to a rest next to mine. "Right, Katara?"
I was silent. I didn't like choosing sides. I never did. I wanted so badly to play with Suki, because she was a year older than me, and I thought she was an idol worth worshipping. But the rejected expression on my brother's face hurt as well.
"Maybe…" I whispered. "Maybe Sokka could be the guard soldier for the dolls. To protect them from the monsters."
I held my breath, waiting for something to happen. Would Suki sniff in derision and abandon me? Would Sokka dismiss my idea as a stupid one?
But before I could say anything, Sokka had bounded over happily from the door, and sat down next to us with a twig in his hand. He gave it a shorter stick to wave around as a sword.
Suki opened her mouth to protest, but seemed to change her mind and just sighed exasperatedly, before nodding in reluctant acceptance. I let out a sigh of relief, glad the situation had been resolved. All three of us resumed playing on the sunlit, mat-covered floor of the small house.
Sokka was seven, Suki six, and myself five. I felt content, sitting there in the warm sunlight with my best friend and my only sibling.
This was my childhood. A happy existence muddled only by playtime quarrels. This bright life of mine had been mine forever, since a soldier on patrol had found my brother and I washed up on the shore of Kyoshi Island Our ages were not definitive, but the Kyoshi residents guessed that at the time, I was three, and my brother give. We didn't have a real birth date, so we celebrated getting one year older the same day Suki celebrated hers.
We were undeniably lucky. The Master and Mistress of Kyoshi Island, Suki's parents, magnanimously took us in and fed, clothed, and sheltered us. My brother and I had escaped a watery death in the ocean, and ended up in the care of the two leaders of the Kyoshi tribe. We were lucky to not have been found by Fire Empire soldiers. They would have left two fatherless babies for dead. Abandoned orphans had no family honor and prestige. If we had been left behind by our own parents, then obviously something was wrong with us.
We were never raised with that sort of idea on Kyoshi. We were valued and treated equally by everybody. The fact that we had no parents was overlooked most of the time. If we got into trouble, we were disciplined by the Master and Mistress. If we got hurt, the Island healer took care of us kindly. We received the exact same education every other child got. The usual reading and writing lessons, along with some calculating and most important of all, war training.
"Ow!" Sokka complained loudly from his sprawled position on the sandy beach. He'd been thrown to the ground not a second before by a now-triumphant Suki, who stood over him with her wooden sword. We weren't allowed to use real weapons until we passed our novice training. Suki had just executed an impressive move that Instructor Tzan had taught us earlier that week.
"Serves you right for not blocking it correctly!" Suki taunted my brother, while at the same time helping him up from the ground. "You were too slow on the upswing."
Sokka knew she was right, and scowled before brushing off his clothes and they both got back into position.
I sat on a piece of driftwood a bit further up the beach, watching them and waiting for my turn to practice. We had just gotten out of lessons for the day, and we were all eager to begin practicing our new swordfighting techniques. Starting from the age of nine, every child on Kyoshi was trained in the arts of war. Sokka had started a year earlier than Suki and I. I technically wasn't supposed to start my lessons until next year, for I was still eight years old, but I had been allowed to join because I wanted to be in the same class and level as Suki.
Sokka had a year's experience on the both of us, so that's why he was so rankled when Suki defeated him with a move that he should have mastered his first year.
A flurry of sand rose in the air as the two charged at each other, swinging wildly. I watched them quietly, sitting under the bright blue sky. It was more of a game to all of us than anything else.
Soon enough, Suki had disarmed my brother again, and shouted that it was my turn. Sokka growled and came to sit down next to me on the log while I rose up with my wooden sword to fight Suki.
I moved into the fighting stance that had been the first thing Instructor Tzan had taught us, and waited for Suki to make the first move. The wooden sword was a bit heavy and ungainly in my hand, but I was quickly becoming used to its weight. Suki treated the sword like it was an extra extension of her arm. We'd started training at the same time, but she was already far beyond my own ability, and quickly catching up to my brother.
I barely blocked one of her wilder swings, quickly swiping a piece of my dark hair out of my eyes. Her eyes were intent as she came at me again, and I stepped backwards to lessen most of the blow.
Before I knew it, I was reeling over into the ocean water, with Suki's sword coming straight at my face. I could do nothing to block it, as my sword was stuck in the wet sand.
Something inside my chest burst forth, and in a moment of utter desperation, I flung my free arm forward, pulling at something, I didn't know what, and a clear liquid splash hit Suki straight in the face. Crying out in surprise she keeled over, waving her arms wildly through the air, batting at some unknown enemy.
The entire beach was silent except for my harsh breathing. Suki stared at me in shock, and Sokka had stood up from his sitting position.
I looked at the dark stain of water seeping into Suki's robes and wetting the sand beneath her.
"What – What was that?" She whispered, eyes still wide.
I shook my head hard.
"Yeah Katara, what was that?" Sokka asked quietly.
I shook my head again.
"I don't know." I said. My voice seemed to be coming from somewhere far away.
A determined expression came over Suki's face. She stood up, brushing the sand from her shirt. "Do it again." She ordered.
I too, wanted to know if it had been a fluke. Maybe some sea animal had chosen that opportune moment to squirt water at Suki.
I waved my hands over the ocean water lapping at my feet. I felt incredibly foolish, and was sure I looked like a complete idiot. Some part of me wanted that water to be an accident, but another part of me, a deeper part, knew it was no accident.
Nothing happened. I put my hands firmly next to my sides again. The water continued to move in its regular way.
"Maybe it was just a fish." Sokka suggested. I began to nod and agree with him, when Suki cracked her sword against my side. I cried out in pain and jumped back. She followed, swinging her wooden weapon at my head.
I leaped back and forth, trying to avoid her advances. My sword was still stuck in the sand. "What are you doing, Suki?" I yelled.
She didn't answer, but determinedly kept hacking at my body. I was sure she had gone insane.
Suki grabbed the blunt edge of the wooden blade and shoved the long wood up under my chin, forcing my head back and cutting off my air supply. She was stronger and slightly larger than I, so I could do nothing but keep stepping backwards into the waves. She forced the sword higher, causing bright flashes of pain to rocket through my skull.
That roiling mass in my chest rose again, and both my hands automatically shot up and swung at Suki's face.
But it wasn't my arms that connected with her surprised expression. Instead, it was two geysers of ocean water.
Spluttering, she let go of the sword and fell back, coughing, onto the sand.
I looked at my hands in amazement. It had just happened again.
Sokka gave Suki a hand up. Wiping the water out of her eyes, she examined me carefully. "It only happens when she's threatened." My friend remarked.
"Some kind of defense mechanism." Sokka mused.
"I think I should see the Mistress." I said quietly.
All three of us agreed silently and gathered up our things. We trekked back over the sands dunes to the village, not speaking a word to each other.
We arrived at the largest building in the village, and walked up the steps to knock on the screen door. A man dressed in a trainee's clothes opened it for us and silently let us in. This was where the Master and Mistress spent most of their days, overseeing important matters concerning the welfare of the island. It was not their family house, but the administrative building for the village. All three of us children were not familiar with it.
The man who led us through the building stopped at an ornate screen door and opened it, revealing the Mistress sitting before a low table in the ceremonial green robes of her position. She put down her brush, and motioned us inside. The man left, shutting the screen quietly behind him.
We knelt in front of the table, Suki and Sokka on either side of me.
"Something happened on the beach today." Suki spoke up first.
Her mother gazed at us patiently. I was used to her painted white face by now. I had never seen her without the traditional make-up on. It was part of her position, a tradition that had been handed down since the Avatar Kyoshi had lived. And that was a very long time ago.
I glanced down at my hands in my lap. Sometimes the Mistress's expressionless face scared me. Even though she was my guardian.
"Katara… Katara did something with the water." Sokka said quietly.
"What exactly?" The Mistress said. Her voice was calm, neutral, perfectly patient. But it almost made you feel that she didn't particularly like you. She didn't hate you, but she didn't favor you. It was not a warm mother's voice.
"She made it move with her hands." Suki explained, trying to copy my earlier movements. "She made it so the water attacked me while we were sparring."
Nothing changed in Mistress's expression.
After an uncomfortable silence for five minutes, she dismissed Suki and Sokka.
I wanted to leave with them as they headed out the door, sneaking encouraging glances back at me. I did not want to stay in a room alone with the Mistress.
She unrolled a scroll from under her desk, and set it on top where I could see it. Four brightly painted figures were on the paper, each with a different word next to it. I read it silently to myself. Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Each miniature figure was in the motion of controlling the element written next to them.
It wasn't a surprise to me. The Fire Empire had mastery of the fire element, as everyone well knew. It was their greatest weapon, something that had allowed them to conquer the world.
The old Earth Kingdom was no more. They were all second-class citizens who served the Fire Empire. Many of their people had been killed in the last battle, and the remaining population lead no better lives. A sort of segregation had been imposed on the world. Fire people were nobility, and the Earth people served them. It had been that way ever since Lord Zuko the first had conquered the great cities of the Earth Kingdom. The Earth people had no freedom, and from birth they served their masters.
The Air Nomads were dead. They had been dead since the last Avatar, Aang, had died, over a century ago. They were utterly extinct.
And so were the Water Tribes. At the same time he had enslaved the Earth benders, Lord Zuko had exterminated the Water benders. Some say he had gone crazy when his Water bender wife had died, leaving him a slightly deformed son. He took his insanity and used it to annihilate every last man, woman, and child in the Water Tribes. There had been none left.
My finger rubbed the picture of the Water bender gently.
The Mistress looked at me with her dark eyes.
"Do you know what this means?" Her calm voice asked me.
I nodded. What more was there to say?
"If only… If only we knew who your parents were." The Mistress said.
I wished to know as well, probably more than the Mistress did. Had my parents been renegades who were descended from Water benders who had, somehow, escaped the mass killings? Was that how this ability was passed down to me?
Before I left her presence, Mistress gave me several more scrolls to read over. They were antique, curling and yellow at the edges. Every single one of them had detailed teachings about Water bending. I held them as if they were sacred objects.
"We have no teachers who could teach you what you need to know." The Mistress said, shutting the screen door behind me. "You're on your own."
I sat on the beach, incidentally the same one I'd been at when I had discovered my ability, four years ago. By now, I'd pored through every single reference the Mistress had given me that pertained to my situation. After extensive, constant practice, I had perfected most of them. There was a hunger, a desperation in me that wanted to know more and more and more about the water. After I'd used every resource from the scrolls, I set out to discover my own techniques and forms.
A loop of water swirled through the air after my index finger. I dipped it and twisted it absentmindedly while the rest of the ocean lapped at my toes. It was almost effortless now, my control of liquid.
I could hear someone running through the sand behind me. It was Suki, I knew, because her footsteps were lighter. She slapped my shoulder as she neared, and I reluctantly dropped my water.
"Time for training!" She yelped, and set off back towards the village.
Soon enough, we both arrived at the training barracks, and began our early morning practice. Suki had already gotten out her sword, and my brother was on the other side of the field, throwing his boomerang.
Although we were required to be able to use all weapons, everybody had their favorite, the one they preferred to use. For Suki, that was her metal-bright sword. She enjoyed the close combat, the whirl and clang of metal as the sword met the adversary, again and again. It wasn't just a sword to her, it was a longer piece of her arm.
My brother preferred the boomerang, and he wasn't bad with it either. I could never figure out how to get it to come back to me after hitting my target. My aim wasn't bad, but the boomerang never fell back into my arms. Sokka seemed to call it to him, and it returned home every time, like a faithful dog. He said it was something about the angle and the speed which combined to have the boomerang skip off the target and return straight to your hands. I never understood.
Because I had such good aim, my Instructor advised archery at first for me. I hit almost all the targets, but the hassle of a bow and arrow never appealed to me. I didn't like relying on a piece of wood and string to send my weapon singing into the red bull's eye. I liked using my own hands and arms. I didn't like using extra equipment that required so much time spent oiling and stringing and bending the bow.
The knives were for me. Short, medium, long. The solid feel of wood and metal in my hand, and the swing as it left my palm and went sailing, whirling through the air until it sunk hilt-deep into the wood of a tree. And they were so easy to hid, especially the small ones. Swords, boomerangs, bow and arrow. Those you had to carry out where everyone could see what you possessed. The knives I could hide in my sleeves, on my legs, in my shoes, under my shirt. I could conceal them so that no one knew what deadly sharpness I had on my body, and I could slip them out and have them in the bull's-eye in less than two seconds, without any of the usual banging and grunting that accompanied other weapons.
Secret and silent and quick. An assassin's weapons.
After training, Suki and I crept up against the dividing wall that separated our novice training field from the warriors'. Peering over the stone, we watched with an almost worshipful air at the green figures on the field below us. They moved as one, practicing advanced moves that hopefully, one day, Suki and I would learn.
"Four more years for me." Suki sighed. "Four more years until I can wear the green robes and the white paint."
"Five for me." I said, a bit disgruntled. Sometimes I hated being the youngest out of our trio.
"Sokka only has three more years until he joins the men's faction." Suki remarked, looking west to where the men's training barracks were. The men's division was much like the women's, except with different traditions and uniforms.
"He's really excited about it." I said, watching the figures spar below us.
"Imagine his expression if he doesn't past the test!" Suki shrieked in laughter. "Wouldn't that be just horrible?"
"He'll pass." I said confidently.
Suki rolled her eyes. "Of course. I know that. I was just kidding." Sokka was the best in his age group, just as Suki was the best in hers. I was second, but only because I trained in the same level as Suki did. It never bothered me that she was a better fighter. It was just the way things had always been. Always.
Even though no one said it, everyone knew by now that Suki was the heir for leadership once Master and Mistress retired or died. Not only were they her parents, and it was required of her to keep the bloodline going, but she was an adept fighter and studious in academics. A perfect next Mistress.
As for the heir to Master, that was still being decided. But I had my suspicions already.
I was elated and felt happier than I ever had in my life. Sokka had come out of the Initiation House triumphant and yelling, "I'm in! I passed!"
The crowd outside had erupted into mass cheers and congratulations. Sokka had been whisked off by senior members of the male warriors, to the ceremony that would put him, for the first time, in the official uniform and armor of a warrior.
Suki and I had clasped hands and crowed for joy outside. The festivities had been launched and everyone was in a good mood. The initiation of men and women into the warrior caste was an occasion of celebration for everyone. It was a great party that honored the new warriors and wished them good luck and a long life.
The long life part never rang true. They were warriors after all, and warriors were expected to kill, and eventually be killed. It was an ironic celebration of life, and of death.
But we all enjoyed it while we could. Parents cried and laughed with pride at their children who had achieved the highest honor, the ability to defend Kyoshi Island. Those parents could be crying with sorrow and grief not a year later, when the dead bodies of their offspring came home. Sometimes the bodies were never found. Most all of the time, the bodies that did come back were blackened and singed by fire beyond recognition.
I moved through the crowd, people patting me on the back and congratulating me for my brother's success. They all asked, "You'll be next in no time, hm, Katara? Good luck to you when you do!"
Two more years left until I too, could take the initiation test. It was a secret rite of passage that no one spoke of. If you had passed and experienced it, you still didn't tell others. It would be blasphemy to do so. It was probably the most important tradition of Kyoshi Island.
Somehow, I got separated from Suki. I looked for her through the crowd of heads talking and laughing. I wasn't a short girl – in fact, I was one of the tallest ones in my age group, taller than some of the boys. But I still couldn't see her anywhere.
Finally escaping from the edge of the celebrating crowd, I loped along the beach after I spotted a pair of footprints that looked to be around Suki's size. Where had she gone? We usually went everywhere together, being the best of friends. Most of the times Sokka hung out with us as well, completing our perfect trio.
I followed the footprints until I came to a copse of trees at the edge of the beach, and something, something in me told me to stop and not go any further. I peered silently though the leaves, and spotted two figures on the other side of the trees.
It was Suki, and my brother.
How queer. He should have been in the barracks, getting ready for his first spar as a warrior, and getting to know his fellow soldiers.
I couldn't exactly hear what they were saying, but Suki said something in a low voice, and a red blush appeared on my brother's cheeks.
I was confused. What was going on? They were standing awfully close together. One of my earliest suspicions burst into life again. Impossible.
Then Suki leaned in on her toes, and kissed my brother. It was not a sisterly kiss on the cheek, or a friend-to-friend affectionate peck.
Then Sokka pulled her in closer, into his arms. She wrapped her own arms around his shoulders.
I didn't want to see anymore. I stumbled backwards silently, and turned to run back along the beach, back the way I'd come.
For some reason, I felt horribly betrayed. I felt like crying. This was so stupid. So stupid. I wasn't jealous, that was for sure. Sokka was my brother, and Suki was my best friend. I wanted the best for both of them. But I wanted it in a way that I would be included.
I wasn't jealous that someone had kissed my brother, or that someone had kissed my best friend. I was jealous that my brother and my best friend had kissed.
I was utterly hurt because we'd always done things together, the three of us. We played together, got in trouble together, grew up together.
And now, here they were, involved in something that I would never be able to be a part of.
I knew they would be happy together. I knew Suki would choose Sokka to be the Master's heir. And I knew the Master and Mistress would choose him to be Suki's partner as well. He was a fine, upstanding young man who would take leadership happily. Suki and Sokka would be the perfect pair to lead the island. They were both great fighters and intelligent people. Everybody knew who they were, and everybody loved them.
I wondered what my place in this would be.
I wanted desperately to be a part of something. My brother and Suki were destined for greatness, to be the next leaders of Kyoshi Island. They would make hard decisions for the good of the people. I wanted to serve as well. I wanted to do something worthwhile, something that would save lives.
What would happen to me?
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Another year passed, and Suki went through the initiation for the women warriors. She passed, as was expected of her, and great festivities continued long into the night in her honor. I was happy for her, extremely happy. When she emerged from the Initiation House, she leapt into my brother's arms, and to the delight of the crowd, they kissed in front of everyone. Everybody sighed at the romantic and hopeful sight of two young people in love. They were the joy and pride of Kyoshi Island.
As the dancing and feasting and singing slowly died down, Sokka and Suki received a summons to see the Master and Mistress in the building. Curiously, I was also invited to go along.
As soon as we stepped into the cool inside of the house, the outside noises disappeared and all three of us walked down the hallway. I flashed back to when, eight years ago, the three of us had walked down this same corridor to see the Mistress. At that time, the problem had been myself and my strange new ability to Water bend. That had been back when we were younger, shorter, and utterly ignorant about life.
Now, eight years later, only two things had changed. We were all older and taller.
The screen door slid aside, and we walked in before kneeling before the low table. Master and Mistress sat behind it and stared at us calmly.
When we rose to face them, I realized that I was the only one in the room dressed in normal, civilian garb. Suki, Sokka, Mistress, and Master were all dressed in the adult dress that came with the initiation into the warrior caste. It made me feel… excluded.
Next year, I told myself. Next year I'll be part of them. When I turn seventeen, I'll pass my test, and I'll be a part of them again.
The Master spoke up. His deep voice resonated throughout the room.
"Congratulations on your initiation, Suki." He said. There was a warm in his voice that I'd never heard before.
Suki bowed low again. "Thank you, father."
"We are very proud of you, my daughter." Mistress said. There was a glow of affection on her face, the first time I'd ever seen anything other than the usual neutrality. It was also the first time I'd heard Mistress refer to Suki as her daughter in front of us.
A horrible, stabbing feeling hit my chest. I was envious of Suki. I wished that Master would talk to me affectionately. I wished Mistress would look at me affectionately.
Master and Mistress turned to my brother. He glowed under their praise. The words and what they said are unnecessary. It is the way they said it, the expression on their faces, the warmth in their voices, that made it all matter.
Mistress turned her face to me, and somehow I felt cold. "Katara. One more year of training is left to you before your initiation. Make sure that year is not wasted."
I tried not to cry, and my voice came steady. I had control. At sixteen years old, I had control. "Yes, Mistress."
I was dismissed then, because Master and Mistress had things to tell Sokka and Suki that involved their inheritance and future lives. It had nothing to do with me.
I left, and slowly trudged back to the beach. Most of the festivities were over by now, the celebrants having left.
Once in the water, I let myself go. I only cried when I was in the ocean. Because then I could pretend that I wasn't crying, that the salty water on my face came from the ocean.
Make sure that year is not wasted. Mistress's voice echoed in my head as I rose out of the water to dry myself off. The bright light of the full moon shone down on me. I would not waste that year. I would train harder than I had ever trained in my life. I would pass initiation, and Mistress and Master would speak to me like I was their daughter.
I would be someone who deserved a mother and father.
The big day started when Suki shook me awake in the bright light of morning.
"Wake up, Katara!" She hissed, unable to contain her excitement. "Wake up!"
I was out of my bed in less than a second.
Suki smoothed my hair down for me as I sat, trembling, on the side of the bed to dress. "Are you ready? Are you nervous? Are you excited?" She asked me, a smile on her face.
I just shook my head. "I might throw up." I whispered.
She laughed. "You'll be fine. I know you'll pass. You won't have a single problem."
I caught her hand. She was like a big sister to me. I had learned to accept her and my brother's relationship, and almost welcomed it, indeed. Once they were married, Suki would be sister to me in name as well as emotion.
"Give me a hint, Suki! Warn me about what I'll need to do." I was desperate. I'd waited for this day my entire life.
She laughed and shook my hand off her arm. "You know that's against the rules! I can't tell you a thing, Katara, and I won't. I just know that you're going to be fine."
I nodded mutely, and we stood.
Once we left the house, sunlight poured onto my face, and the crowds lining the side of the street cheered and roared as I came out. They waved and yelled all the way up to the Initiation House, were Suki finally let go of my arm. I wondered where Sokka was. I wanted to hug him and have him reassure me that I'd be fine.
Suki hugged me and whispered in my ear, "You'll be absolutely fantastic." Then she broke away, leaving me on the steps of the House to join the crowd. Her happy face was all that anchored me to the earth. Where was Sokka?
The screen door opened, and an emotionless warrior directed me inside. Where was my brother? I cast one last glance over my shoulder as the door slid shut. Where was he?
My entire body trembled as I followed that warrior down the hallway. I had no idea what to expect. An entire life of watching others pass into this house, and I had no idea what was going to happen. A spar, to prove my fighting abilities? A written test where I had to calculate numbers? I passage to read out loud? An essay I had to write?
The screen door slid open in front of me, and the warrior bowed me in.
I stepped over the threshold, and saw the interior of the room.
The Mistress sat behind a low wooden table.
Numb, I walked forward, knelt and bowed in the usual manner, and sat up to stare into her calm white face.
We gazed at each other across the surface of a wooden table, and across the gulf of seventeen years of life.
Neither of us said anything for the longest, longest time. The initiation couldn't possibly be a staring contest, could it?
"Do you know who the Fire Emperor is?" Her calm voice filled the room.
I couldn't help the shock and surprise that engulfed my face. It was just so unexpected. So unbelievable that she would ask me that stupid of a question on the day of my initiation! Was this a test? Was this all I needed to do in order to pass? Worse yet, was it a trick question?
"Emperor Zuko II." I replied, throat scratchy and dry. Was this it?
She nodded slowly, her blank white face revealing nothing.
"Do you know why he was named after his famous predecessor?"
I swallowed hard. Everybody knew it. Everybody had heard of the prophecy. "Because – because he would be the one to finish what the first Zuko started."
"Emperor Zuko II is the enemy." Mistress stated.
I knew that. Everybody on Kyoshi knew that. "I know that."
"Good. Tell me, what would happen if the current Fire Emperor were to finish what his ancestor started?"
"We would all die." I whispered. This was why we still trained warriors on our tiny island. In order to preserve our way of life, for a small chance against the huge wave that was the Fire army. To protect ourselves from extermination. To rebel.
"Good. Tell me, what would happen if the current Fire Emperor were to find out that you, Katara, were the last surviving Water bender in the world?"
A cold fear gripped me. Somehow, I knew that this was not the usual initiation. The questions had become much to personal. "I would die."
We sat in silence for a few more moments. My mind was racing. What was going on here?
"I assume that you know the absolute hopelessness of our situation." The Mistress said. "I assume that you know we have zero chance of defeating the Empire's armies. That our cause is a lost cause. That we are all going to die."
It was this, more than anything else, that made me pissed off. "How – how can you say that?" I gaped at her.
She stared calmly at me. "Is it not true?"
"No!" I all but shouted. "You think that all the people who've died for us so far, all the new warriors we've trained, all the long years of clinging to hope, are all for nothing?" My harsh breathing filled the room. "Isn't that what you and Master have been working against? Our annihilation?"
Mistress continued to gaze at my face. "It is."
I stared at her.
"But we have come to a point recently, Katara, that we operate solely on desperation. Majority of the public does not know it. Suki does not know it. But I think your brother does. Most of the scouting parties we send out do not come back, ever again. We find their charred, stinking bodies if we are lucky." Mistress stated matter-of-factly. "It's been awhile since we have made any headway into the stronghold of the Fire Empire. We are losing, Katara."
I plucked at a bit of loose straw on the ground. I couldn't look at her. It seemed my entire world had come crashing down around me. Being told by the leader of your island that you were losing the war against an age-old enemy was earth-shaking.
"There is nothing more we can do in the realm of force and might. We can keep sending out warriors, Katara, but all that's going to happen is that they'll come back dead."
She was telling me this for a reason. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I think you need to know."
I waited for the ultimatum. And it came.
"And because I think… you can do something about it."
I slowly raised my eyes to meet hers. "One Water bender can do nothing against an army of Fire benders. Even if water is fire's weakness."
"You must remember," Mistress started. "the first Lord Zuko."
"Everyone remembers him. The Insane Emperor, everyone called him. The one who led the genocide of the Water benders." My people, I thought. I'd never thought of them before as that. But they were. I was a Water bender, and the first Lord Zuko had killed them.
"Do you remember why he went insane?"
"His wife died."
"His wife, who was a Water bender."
She couldn't possibly be suggesting… "I'm not marrying the Fire Emperor."
"I wasn't suggesting that."
"Good. Because it would be impossible."
"Do you know what his wife's name was?"
I drew a blank.
"Yes?" I answered automatically.
"His wife's name was Katara."
"Why are you telling me this? Wait – why did you name me after her?" It was getting more and more confusing by the second. And I didn't get what the first Lord Zuko's wife had to do with defeating the current Fire Emperor.
"And her brother's name was Sokka. Soon after he learned of his sister's death, he escaped the Fire Empire and came to Kyoshi Island, where he married the leader of the women warriors. Her name was Suki." Mistress's pale white face regarded me silently. "They had children, who continued the Kyoshi royal line."
"Then that means – "
"It means that the Kyoshi royal family is related to the Fire Empire royalty. The current Lord Zuko and I are cousins, several times removed."
Talk about irony. "It's like a repeat of history." I said. "Suki and Sokka are going to get married soon."
"What has this got to do with me? Marriage is already out of the question."
"I'm giving you the opportunity to save your people." The Mistress said. "The Master and I have discussed this… and we have decided that our greatest need is… someone inside the Fire Empire."
"You mean a spy."
"We mean, more accurately," The Mistress paused here, something she'd never done before. "An assassin."
"You want me to leave home and kill the Fire Emperor." I stated, numb inside.
"What made you think – "
"I'm not stupid." I cut her off. "You're going to send me away from Kyoshi island, away from my brother and Suki, and make me join the enemy in order to kill the Fire Emperor."
"Isn't this what you wanted? An opportunity to serve Kyoshi?"
I sat there and couldn't prove her wrong. "Not this way. Not a dishonorable way."
"Serving your people is not dishonorable."
"Assassination is. Assassination is back stabbing and sneaking and lying."
"It can be if you think of it that way."
We stared at each other. The goal I'd been working towards for so long, the initiation into the warrior caste, was out of my reach. I would not be receiving the green robes and face paint and wooden fan today. I would not be participating in the centuries old ritual that would name me a full-grown, adult woman.
"I'm not a good enough of a fighter to do this." I said. What I really meant was, why me?
"You know we can't send Suki." Mistress said.
"What about Sokka?" I was speaking out of childish spite now. I already knew the reasons why.
"You know why we can't send your brother either."
"Because they're not expendable." I spat out the ugly truth. "Because you can't afford to have them die."
The Mistress did not say a word. And that, more than anything else in the world, confirmed what I'd just said.
"I won't force your decision – "
"You already know my decision." I spit. She'd cornered me, manipulated me, and she knew it. She knew I would die for my brother and Suki. She knew I would feel like I owed something to her and the Master. She knew that I would think that the only way I could pay off my life debt to this island was to save them from destruction, even though it meant putting my own life on the line.
I owed the Kyoshi royal family my life, and I would repay them by risking it.
I didn't want to leave. I didn't want to step out of the Initiation House un-initiated and still a girl. I didn't want to leave my brother and Suki and enter enemy territory. I didn't want to have to kill anybody.
"Good. Then that's settled." The Mistress said. Her voice was confident and sure. She'd known she would win all along. "There are several more details we shall have to discuss. Would you like to do that now or later?"
She was giving me the option to digest the information and my decision. But I'd sit through it. I'd take it.
"I'll discuss it now."
"The absolute most important fact is-" The Mistress began.
"-Fire Emperor Zuko is the enemy."
A/N: New story. As for several of my old reviewers, I know you're screaming "WHAT HAPPENED TO HUNTER AND PREY?" Well it's on a hiatus, due to writer's block. I'm really sorry to say, but after I came back from my vacation, I lost all inspiration for it. But I haven't abandoned it completely yet. I just needed to get this prologue part out. It was originally going to be called "Rebirth" but I decided to change the name. So go ahead, review and give me your opinion.
Feels weird not answering anyone's questions for once. Ah well.