For disclaimers, please refer to the prologue. Many thanks to my reviewers! You made my week! I wrote this in celebration for the exams week being over. Yay! As I have very little time to spare, this is pretty short. Oh yes, I need a beta. Anyone who would be willing to help me in this fic is welcome.
Chapter One: Grudging Respect
Katara stared at her reflection in the huge mirror of her room as she put down the hairbrush on top of the dresser table. She experimentally moved her head left and right to make sure that her hair was pinned properly and not one strand strayed out of place. She twirled around slowly, letting the full skirts of her robes catch wind and flutter gracefully back to the mahogany floor. Satisfied with what she saw she smiled to herself.
"All right, Katara," she mumbled to her reflection, "this is judgment day. Never let that idiot get to you and never lose your temper. This is for the sake of your people. Failure is not acceptable. Right. Check. Good, I'm ready…."
Her guts squirmed uncomfortably as butterflies rose up to her throat and her breakfast was coming back with a vengeance.
"Then again, maybe not."
The young deputy chieftess of the Southern Water Tribes sat back down on the polished oak stool while she tried to regain her composure. Sighing, she glanced back at the mirror and couldn't believe that the beautiful woman looking back was herself.
Gone were the days when she used to wear the tatty and forlorn clothing of the South; now she wore robes made of the purest blue silks and interwoven with pure silver thread. The top half of her long, chestnut hair was pinned into a bun with silver and pearl combs which permitted wispy curls from escaping the pile while the rest of her hair tumbled into her shoulders as soft ringlets. Her face was carefully made up with make-up that made her appear classy and sophisticated, austere yet friendly, businesslike but warm instead of tacky and whorish.
Katara sighed again.
It was the annual summit of the leaders of all the regions of the world. Every half year, the leaders would come to one host country and talk about the progress of their nations and also it was a time for them to socialize and improve relations with the other countries. This year, it was to be held at the Shenlong Palace of the Fire Nation.
And Katara hated the place.
For her, the palace was more than an opulent building made to boast about richness and power though it conveyed more of the glaring insecurity of its tenants, or more precisely, its builder.
It was the site of many a death; murder and blood plagued its halls while suffering and pain echoed in its walls. It was where the Last Battle was held, where Aang, the Avatar, finally defeated the tyrant whose shadow loomed over the rest of the world like a foreboding storm cloud. The battle was fierce yet fast. In a few hours, the cruel dictator was brought down by the simplest of all tricks: beating him at his own game.
Katara smiled at the thought. She, for one, didn't recall much of the incident as she passed out in the middle of it.
More like in the beginning. The bastard was about to deliver you a fireball but….
His son, the most arrogant person on Earth, saved you.
The teenager buried her face in her palms as it coloured.
Imaging, having your life indebted to the idiot. What has the world gone to?
She sat there, wallowing in her misery about being indebted to a snotty brat when a knock was heard on the other side of her door. After mumbling the person's permission to pass, she straightened herself up; it would not do well for a leader to be seen bawling like a child.
"Mistress Katara," said the lady-in-waiting assigned to her. "Your presence in the Sozun hall is requested. I am to escort you on your way. If you have any more preparations to be done, please tell me now so we may hurry up and get you to the hall immediately," she added politely.
"No, I am ready, please lead the way and thank you," Katara replied as she got to her feet.
The lady-in-waiting permitted herself a small smile. Katara was among the few whom she had served who had the grace to thank her for whatever she did. Though she was born to abhor anyone born outside the Fire Nation, she could not help but have overwhelming respect and amazement at the woman standing in front of her. She decided that her present mistress was nice, down-to-earth, and one of the few women who did not drape themselves over her master, Lord Zuko, whenever he was in a three-foot radius. In fact, she looked that she loathed the very ground the Fire Lord walks in and she could not help and admire the courage of the girl. Hell, this Water Bender must have balls larger than even the toughest generals in the Fire Army.
The lady-in-waiting nodded to Katara and turned around, a silent signal for the chieftess to follow her.
"So, how long have you been working here?" asked Katara to diffuse the silence. The way to the main halls of the Fire Palace was a long distance from her rooms and would take quite a stretch for her legs. Thankfully, she wore her most sensible cotton shoes underneath the grandeur of her robes. Katara, even in a place of power and richness, still had a practical mind.
"I have been working here since I was old enough to walk," the lady-in-waiting replied in icy politeness. Though she had a deep reverence for the woman beside her, she knew her place and it wouldn't do for her to start chatting up to the woman like they were old friends. Plus, most of the servants in the castle still hold their past bigotry against non-Fire Nationals and she knew that her chumming up to the Chieftess of the Southern Water Tribes would be regarded as treason.
"Oh, that must be a long time…. So, you were born here? Is your family here?"
"Yes, I was born here. As for the second question, I have no family."
Something in her tone when she spoke the last words made Katara not press the subject further so she shifted to safer grounds.
"What's your name? You've been serving me since I came here days ago, but you never told me your name. My name's Katara by the way, I'm sure you know that since you call me 'Mistress Katara' always, but please just call me Katara. The officiousness of this place is really getting a bit uncomfortable for me."
"Please forgive me for the transgression that I have not introduced myself properly to you. My name is Kimiko. And it would not do for me to call you simply by your name. I am but a servant, and you are my appointed master while you are here and it is my duty to serve you. About the officiousness, it's a bit stifling now and then, but you'll get used to it."
Katara rolled her eyes. "Okay then. when we're in front of other people, call me whatever they want you to call me, but will you please call me Katara when it's just the two of us? I mean, I'm not used to being the master of anybody…well, except my brother and Aang, but that's another case."
"Your brother…is he the young man who came here about a year ago? I remember that he looked a bit like you…."
"Yeah, that's my brother, Sokka. He's the second chief of our tribe, after our father. He was here on the last summit, but I didn't go. My father and him are away on some journey to train or something and they left me to look after the tribe. I swear, they're just slacking off some place having coconut drinks in some beach while they load me all the work. Men!"
"And I gather that the Aang you spoke of before is the Avatar?" Kimiko was really getting comfortable with the lady.
"Yup, and he's a sweet guy, and at some point, I thought I was in love with him." Katara sighed wistfully as she stared at the floor. "But it didn't work out with us. He's the Avatar; he has more important things to do than be with me and keep me company. In his last letter, he told me that he was in the Earth Kingdom and bettering his skills with Earth Bending. Come to think of it, Sokka and my father met him at some point so they're journeying together. Can you imagine, three helpless men in a journey? Man, I wish I could see their faces when it's laundry day!" Katara laughed with complete mirth, yet Kimiko detected a slight longing in her eyes—a longing to be with her family.
Kimiko smiled. "I'm sure that they also miss you terribly," she said comfortingly. "And I agree, men are so helpless with household chores. They're so macho out there, but in the house, the women are the macho ones."
The two continued their pleasurable conversation until they reached the large oak double doors that lead to the Sozun Hall.
"This is where I leave you," said Kimiko. "If you wish to summon me for anything, I am at the servant's quarters, awaiting your instruction. I may wish you good luck and show some girl power there, but you do not need it. Just go in there and show them that even though you're the only girl there, you can kick their asses as easily as conjuring an icicle."
Katara laughed at Kimiko's words. "You really know how to charge up my confidence, don't you?"
"Of course, it's my job to make sure that my mistress is prepared to do anything, even if the situation is dire and they may end up dead. At least, you won't go in there cowering," Kimiko shrugged delicately.
Katara shook her head. "Kimiko, I am falling in love with you."
Kimiko took a step back. "When I said that I was at your service, I didn't mean that kind of service. I don't swing that way, my lady."
Katara glared at her but she can see the teasing glint in the lady-in-waiting's eyes and she laughed. "FYI, I am also not a lesbian. Anyway, thanks for the moral boost. I'll call for you when the meeting is over."
"As you wish. Get in there and blow them away!"
Katara nodded and the guards opened the doors for her. She stepped inside, the butterflies coming up to her throat again but she managed to have a grand entrance and look as calm and cool as possible even though she felt the eyes of occupants in the room trained on her. She pointedly ignored every leer, snort, glance and glare directed her way as she took her seat at the long table, on the right of the Fire Lord Zuko.
Had she been inculcated with the knowledge with how Fire Palace protocol works, she would have understood the meaning of her place at the table—something that the Fire Lord himself insisted on. Usually, it was the Chief Royal Adviser or a part of the Royal Family that had the grace of sitting on the right side of the King, but today, Iroh—the current Chief Royal Adviser—was seated on Zuko's left side.
Katara missed the sudden gleam in Iroh's eyes as she sat down, nor did she notice the way Zuko stared at her graceful form when she straightened in her seat and folded her hands delicately across her lap, giving the impression that she was as subservient as the next servant in the palace yet her face which was set in a mask of pure determination and brilliance gave away her rank as a high official.
Zuko cleared his throat.
"Now that we are all here, I wish to open the first meeting of this summit. For years, our world has been healing from the wounds caused by the unfortunate war. Now, progress is seen on every corner of the globe and for that, I congratulate you leaders in your efforts. As such, we are gathered here to further discuss any other developments that may need heeding so as to help the people, not only those affected by the war, but also those born in the new generation so that they may not have a world torn and ravaged by war as their first memory.
"What my ancestors have done in the past is a great mistake, a mistake a I wish to rectify by helping as much as I can. It is not an easy task, rebuilding our world, but with each other's help, I know we can do it. I have faith in every one of you to do in your utmost skills and knowledge what needs to be done in order to achieve that goal. I now ask you to trust me, trust the nation that was once your enemy to help you. So far, we have made slow but steady progress and it brings me joy to see people having smiles because finally, their lives are moving in a direction not directed to destruction."
Katara applauded politely with the rest of the leaders at that little speech and couldn't help but feel a degree of respect for the guy. He was brave, noble, and damn it, he had a heart somewhere underneath the ton of armor. He was actually willing to undo all of what his predecessors had done and was obviously ashamed of what they did. She knew that at first, many of his people were against helping the other nations but he managed to persuade them. He must be a good leader and diplomat then…
…Or a damn good artist.
Great, I'm actually having respect for the guy, even though his sight makes me want to hurl, Katara thought morosely as the clapping died down and murmurs began to quiet as well. Next thing I know, I'm falling in love with him and having little Zukos and Kataras around this palace.
She felt her lunch at her throat at the thought and she immediately banished the disgusting thought.
Bad images, bad images! Let's file that up to 'Weird And Something Not To Be Thought Of Ever Again,' shall we?
With some effort, she focused back her attention to Zuko's ramblings instead of her disturbing images.
When the meeting was coming to a close and so were Katara's eyes, the door burst open and a soldier came in. After muttering a hurried apology to everyone, he strode in the room, up to Zuko and whispered in his Lord's ear. Everyone else tensed knowing that something must have gone wrong.
Zuko's face hardened with every second and when the soldier was finished, he thanked and dismissed him immediately.
Zuko cast Katara a short, sharp glance before addressing the whole room.
"An unfortunate incident has occurred," he informed in ringing tones as his voiced echoed off the walls. No one dared to even take a breath as they listened intently. For some reason, the glance Zuko gave Katara's way made her apprehensive and she couldn't help but have Goosebumps all over her skin as she waited with bated breath with what the Fire Lord had to say.
"An attack was made to my army deployed in the Southern Water tribes," he said gravely, his eyes becoming cold points of steel. "They killed most of my men, and also some Water soldiers."
The leaders gasped and the murmurs began again but Katara sat in her seat, unable to make a move or even a sound.
Her village was attacked? But…how?
"Don't worry, Katara," Zuko interrupted as she opened her mouth to speak. "None of your tribesmen, except those at the Fire Camps were harmed. They were more focused on the Fire soldiers. I already sent some ships to take care of your tribe in case they come back."
Katara only nodded in response but her eyes told everything she wanted to say to him, beginning with a heartfelt thank you. Zuko nodded back, his eyes becoming molten pools of gold and Katara felt her knees buckle under his warm gaze but she dismissed it as the nerves that gave way when she worried about her people's fate.
She knew that her respect for the Fire Lord went up for more than a few notches.
If you're wondering how and why Katara and Kimiko became friends so fast when Kimiko was raised to have a prejudice against her kind and she saw herself as just a servant, that will be answered in later chapters. Constructive criticisms are highly appreciated. REVIEW, please!Rienne