And She Watches the Fire: Part 1
My mother is one of the kindest, strongest and smartest people I know. It sounds like a cliché, but I assure you that I speak the truth. After all, my mother always taught me never to lie.
She's beautiful, poised, and even-tempered. Her long, lustrous hair is always elegantly done, and her bearing regal no matter what the circumstances. Even people who don't like her respect her, because it becomes clear only moments after you meet her, that altruism is not simply a cloak she takes on and off at her leisure; she is a woman of principle and strength. She has lived the war and lost much from it, and made preventing it from happening again her life's work. How can you not respect a woman like that?
Most people think that it's difficult for me to live in Mom's shadow; Waterbending Master, peacemaker, diplomat...these are only a few of the titles she wears as easily as she does the golden rings in her hair. She was a girl from a small tribe in the South Pole, who stood by the Avatar's side and saw the end of the war. That girl became a woman who helped change the way of the world. She's my hero and someone I aspire to be one day. Mom took me with her whenever she had to travel for her work, and I saw more of the world before I was five than, most people do at fifty. I never wanted for anything, because she gave me everything I needed. She's all I ever had to look up to, because in all my life it was just her.
I have never met my father. I know next to nothing about him. I don't even know his name. All I know is that when I ask Mom about him, she gets quiet and sad, and her eyes get this far away, haunted look to them. She looks into the fire that always burns in our hearth, as if it has the answers that she needed to give. When I ask her about him, she always turns her head away from me, as if she can't quite look me in the eye.
I know I look a lot like him.
I have Mom's long, thick hair, her build, and soft cocoa skin, a shade or two lighter than hers. I wear the colors of the Water Tribe, and I grew up on stories about the moon and the ocean, but my face is not like that of other Water Tribe citizens. Long and narrow, my features are more fine, my eyes more almond-shaped than round...and amber instead of blue.
My father is a Firebender.
That was never a secret in our household or our people, because it would have been a very difficult secret to keep. Even if there were no mirrors around, I would have figured it out. When I was seven years old, I remember waking up early in the morning, feeling as if my blood was on fire. I know this sounds painful, but I assure you it wasn't. In fact, it made me feel energized, as if I was being woken up by a powerful blast of energy. I looked out the window of our house in the South Pole and I saw the sun coming up from the horizon. Since that day, I wake up with the sun and welcome it.
I remember Mom's expression when I told her. It was a cross between anger, surprise, and sadness—she has a very expressive face. Then, she lit a candle and asked me if I could bend it. I stared at it, willing it to move, but the flame danced on without my help. A few days later, I started to bend water. I'd never seen Mom look more relieved, and she held me tight, murmuring something that sounded like a name.
It is difficult to unhinge her—and the possibility of my being a Firebender was one of the few instances—but it has happened. Not surprisingly, it happens whenever the Fire Nation is involved. I used to think that she tensed up whenever a Fire Nation soldier was around because of her memories of the war, but I know better now. She is endlessly polite and genteel with dignitaries from there, but always cool. She is careful when she engages them and looks spent when they finally leave.
The Fire Nation is the one place in this world I've never been, and even though I understand why she has never brought me there, I was always a little bit angry about it. It's changed a lot since the war, become a more beautiful place, and she's been there more times than I can count. Since, I couldn't go there and I couldn't ask questions about my father, I turned to books and peeked at top-secret reports to learn what I could about the Fire Nation. Consequently, I know more about it than any girl my age should. I even learned a few Firebending moves that I sometimes use with Waterbending; this usually results in some blown-up icebergs.
You can imagine my delight when I was finally given the chance to go there after all those years of waiting and wondering.
It took me ten years to become a Waterbending Master even more powerful than my mother, but I followed in her footsteps. She was 16 when she was made Ambassador of the Southern Water Tribe, but times have changed and we've become a lot more sophisticated since then. At 17, I became one of many young diplomatic apprentices who see that the Water Tribe's interests are protected in the other countries.
And as soon as my initial training was completed, I was sent to the Fire Nation.
Mom was not happy when she learned about my first assignment, and I stopped her before she could have me sent somewhere else. It was one of our worst fights, but even then, she didn't give anything away about her past. She told me she didn't want to see me hurt, to get caught up in things that didn't really involve me—a statement that I didn't understand then.
The current Fire Lord seems to be a fair and even-handed leader, ushering in an era of peace that was sorely needed after the war his ancestors started. He rebuilt their broken economy and society, and more importantly, gave them pride in being a peaceful nation rather than a warrior society. He redefined honor for his people and because of that, he's respected in our world. He has two children, a son and a daughter. His son will be Fire Lord one day and I hope he's as good as his father.
That same year I became a Waterbender, an ambassador from the Fire Nation came to visit the North Pole. My mother had been charged with caring for him and in the weeks before his visit, I had never seen her so tightly wound. She'd lost weight and she'd worried over every little detail. She'd lost her temper often, and at night, I'd heard her crying in her room. At seven years old, I hadn't been equipped to comfort her—though I'm still not sure I could now, either.
I remember having been surprised to see that the ambassador was an old man, too old to have been traveling to the ends of the world, but there he'd stood, stooped with age and bald, though he still had a ponytail with a small gold fire crown stuck in it. I remember he'd greeted my mother with joy and warmth, which she'd returned gladly, her eyes shining with tears.
Then, he looked at me and gasped with surprise.
Mom had told him who I was, said my name, and before I could even move, he had me in his arms and was giving me a big hug that made me laugh.
Hope, he said in a big booming voice, translating my name. What a perfect name for you.
He had brought her a parchment, a letter sealed with red wax and pressed with a symbol I didn't recognize. He'd also come with a trunk full of toys and gifts from the Fire Nation, most of which were for me. At the time, I had been more than happy to have new toys to play with, and they'd succeeded in distracting me enough so that the grownups could speak without a little girl running around or listening in.
How I wish I had listened in.
When he'd left, Mom was quiet a lot, and she would sit in front of our fire, lost in her thoughts, even though she usually had work scattered around her. She hadn't said much, but she'd held me often, and it had broken my little heart to see her so sad. Together, we would watch the fire, and even though I hadn't been able to offer her any words, the way she'd held me, told me that my being there was enough.
The old man didn't come back again because the next spring, he passed away. My mother cried when she heard the news. Again, she said a name I couldn't make out, holding a hand over her heart as if it would break if she didn't. She went to the Fire Nation to go to his funeral and left me behind.
I remember the day I arrived in the Fire Nation as clearly as yesterday. I stood at the bow of my sturdy Water Tribe ship, watching the sunrise. Mom sent my uncle with me on that trip, but that early in the day; he was somewhere down below, sleeping. I could see the jagged cliffs that shadow the capital city of the Fire Nation, and could make out the gently sloping roofs of the houses. I imagined seeing the palace of the Fire Lord, though I knew it's too far to see. In two hours, we would be docking in my father's home country and as the sun rose, my blood sang as if it knew I was coming home.
The thought made me feel guilty—and still does. Home will always be my mother's house in the South Pole, but a part of me belonged to this unknown place, to a faceless man with the same eyes and the same face. I reminded myself how much Mom loved me and how difficult life was for her, raising me and protecting me from the judgment of others. I told myself that he must have hurt her badly, that he must have been unwilling to start a family with her, and that he is undeserving of her pain. I repeated these things in my head as the ship drew inevitably closer to my destiny.
The sky was slowly turning from night into day, but the docks and the town beyond were bustling with activity. Uncle finally woke up, and he steered the ship to a private dock around the other side of the harbor and in plain sight of the royal palace. The first time I saw the Fire Lord's palace, my breath caught in my throat. It was even more impressive than the drawings and descriptions I had come across. The palace has many levels and various partitions, the slopes of their roofs curving into each other, and on the highest point, there was, and always will be, a golden flame.
I grinned when Uncle docked our ship under the royal flag. He didn't look nearly as excited as I did; in fact, he looked grim, which is rare for him. Waiting below, there was a small group of people and I made my way down the gangplank as soon as it was lowered. Uncle called out for me to wait, but I was already bowing to the young man who had come forward. He was a few years older than I was, and dressed in a red tunic and pants. He was weaponless, though I was sure he was a skilled Firebender. There was no doubt that he was royalty, because sitting in his ponytail was that same golden flame that sat high above our heads. He blinked with surprise when he saw my face and my eyes, but didn't comment on it.
A mark of good breeding, I could almost hear Mom say.
He greeted me solemnly and looked a little sleepy when he introduced himself as Crown Prince Taku. I told him my name and with a wave of his hand, he signaled the rest of the group to stay, as he started for the palace. Uncle tried to come along, but the Prince was insistent that I go alone. Naturally, I was suspicious, but I didn't argue, because as soon as we were out of an earshot, he told me that I had an audience with the Fire Lord. I remember I tripped over the hem of my traveling cloak, but his hand was there in a flash, helping me get my balance.
The Fire Lord's throne room is behind set of thick double doors, a swirling dragon etched on their surface. The doors opened without the Prince touching them and he strode in with the kind of confidence of someone who knows he'll always be welcome. He announced my name in a clear strong voice and I followed, feeling like a country bumpkin. I'd seen many things in my life, from Ba Sing Se's legendary outer wall, to the chutes and slides of Omashu, and even the towering spires of the Southern Air Temple, but the opulence of the Fire Lord's throne room was something else altogether. It spoke of power and wealth; with nothing, more than pillars of swirled marble...but it's possible that the aura was coming from the man who sat behind the wall of fire.
I couldn't see the Fire Lord's face because of the flames that separated him from me, even when I went to stand next to the Prince. In a low rasping voice, the Fire Lord told his son to leave the room, to leave him alone with me. Fear was a knot in my gut, and I almost reached out to grab Prince Taku's hand. Instead, I curled my hands into fists and prayed to the Moon Goddess that I wouldn't pass out.
To my shock, the flames lowered and then disappeared. I saw the Fire Lord's face then, pale even in the shadows of the room. There was a discoloration around his left eye and there were murmurings that he'd been burned badly once, and then later healed by a Waterbender. But I learned to take stories about the Fire Lord with a grain of salt. When he stood, his back was straight, his chin held high enough for him to be called arrogant. But the look on his face was far from it. His expression was that of a man who had felt too much pain, who had lost too much.
And he looked at me as if I had just brought it all back for him.
He said my name as he came down from the dais, his clear amber gold eyes on my face as he came closer. He was younger than I thought, and probably looked older than he was because of the thin mustache and pointed beard that covered his chin. He had long, shining black hair that fell down to the middle of his back, the front half of it pulled away from his face and the ever present golden flame resting in the ponytail at the crown of his head.
We stared at each other silently, and the room suddenly felt like a vacuum as I studied his face, traced the familiar lines and dips I'd seen countless times in the mirror. He stared back, his eyes hazy with emotion, his mouth half-open with wonder. He lifted his hand and put it on my cheek. It was warm. Then he said the two words that nearly brought me to my knees.