Chapter XII: Promise, Part II
Katara didn't need Mai, or Shen Li, or Ty Lee, or even Zuko himself to tell her that she was in trouble. Kaeda was waiting patiently across the threshold to her rooms, inconspicuously blocking the door. Her smile was as sharp and innocent as a stray piece of broken, beautiful glass, but Katara had no idea what she wanted, or what she was waiting for.
The awkward silence stretched out for five painful seconds before Kaeda graciously relented. "It is traditional for a young foreigner to bow to the hostess before entering."
Katara was glad her dusky skin hid her flush as she hastily inclined her head. But inside she was furiously thinking. This was the fourth 'casual' comment the Minister's wife had dropped on the way to her quarters. She lived in the Western wing of the Palace when she didn't live in her family's estate in the Fujin Province, so the walk hadn't even been that long.
And there was only so much barbed criticism she could take. She was starting to wonder if she hadn't just stumbled from the frying pan into the fire.
"Excuse me," Katara tried to make her voice smooth, and just as sure as the other woman's. "It's customary in the Water Tribes to offer a guest some sort of indication of what's happening."
Her heart was beating fast as the Minister's wife slowly inclined her head. She wondered if the woman could read her just as easily as she thought she'd read the Fire Nation nobles those few nights ago. Probably, with the way that finely plucked eyebrow was arching. She swallowed drily. Perhaps she'd only thought she could understand, perhaps everyone was dancing around her in a dragon waltz that she just didn't know the steps to...
Kaeda smiled. "Well in that case," she said. "Come in, and I will tell you everything. Some traditions must be observed."
Katara eyed the rooms beyond carefully. They didn't seem all that threatening. The opulence of the Fire Nation Palace was starting to wear thin on her. Which was good. Katara thought that in these times, if she'd kept on gaping after every turned corner, someone would have eaten her alive.
She stepped through, chin raised and steady.
Kaeda's quarters were elegant, but oddly personalised. Katara was used to the red drapes and gold carpet now, but there was an intimate portrait of her and her children hanging from the welcoming chamber's wall, and a sprig of warm flowers decorated each corner. She kept her eyes mostly on the woman herself though, who'd shut the door behind her the moment she stepped through. The click of the key in the lock had been oddly muffled in the lushly carpeted room, but Katara'd heard it nonetheless.
"Please, sit," the noblewoman gestured her into an adjoining chamber, this one smaller and cosier. Cushions lay piled up into tasteful heaps against the walls, but although they looked comfortable, Katara tensed when she heard the sound of a key in a lock again.
"I'd prefer to stand, please," she said through a dry throat.
Kaeda turned away from the door with an impatient wave. "Sit," she said, folding herself down onto the soft red and black cushions with exquisite grace. "I'm not going to hurt you."
The waterbender opened her mouth, about to deliver a biting retort, but stopped when she saw the catlike look on the other woman's face. "Although I appreciate that you are intelligent enough to be careful. Please, sit," she said again, and Katara, to her surprise, found herself sitting down warily opposite her.
"So," she said, trying to regain some level of control over the situation. "What did you want to see me for, my Lady?"
Kaeda's eyes sharpened with amusement. "Such manners," she murmured. "I expected less, from a peasant."
Katara's mouth dropped. "Excuse me-"
The Minister's wife cut over her protests like a knife. "You have to understand, that's what they see you as. Even Sheng, although I doubt he underestimates you quite as much as the others."
Kaeda's features narrowed. Her hands were clasped over her folded knees, and her head was tilted in just the right way to throw the shadow from the warm torchlight straight into her face. That was when Katara realised this room had no windows, only a tightly funnelled, almost invisible vent that let the smoke out.
"I can't afford for you to be stupid, waterbender." The Minister's wife said slowly. "Too much is riding on this."
Katara gritted her teeth. Stupid? "They," she repeated aloud, and this time it wasn't a question. "Zuko's Ministers. The Fire Nation elite."
The smile sharp enough to cut stone reappeared. "Correct. And have you noticed anything else about them?"
Katara furrowed her brow. "That they're all reptilian bastards?" she said, before remembering that one of them was her husband. Horror replaced the vitriol in a cold, shocking rush. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that-"
This time, the noblewoman actually laughed. It was a cruel laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. "Close, but not quite. They're all men, and most of them are old. Old as the hills. What does that tell you?"
Another question, said in that lilting way, from a mouth below eyes bright with both confidence and sheer smugness. It felt like she was being tested, but she didn't know what she was being tested for. Katara felt the urge to snap at her to just be straight. The way she was talking, she clearly knew the answers to all her questions. There was a goal to all of this, and Katara just wanted to get there. She didn't want to spend any more time than necessary in this small, closed, stifling room. Even with just the two of them there, the heat in the enclosed space was making her both drowsy and a little claustrophobic.
She interlaced her fingers tightly on her own lap, feeling the urge to put her hands on her hips but realising that that would make her look ridiculous while sitting down. "Lady Kaeda, with all due respect, I'd like to know where you're going with this."
Kaeda stared at her, the brightness in her gaze dimming slightly. "I will not always be here to do your thinking for you, waterbender." A little of the smugness returned. "Although I do intend to live quite a long time. Which is why I need your trust, mind, and absolute secrecy on this matter."
Katara raised her eyebrow in return. It felt good. "When you haven't told me anything about it? Not likely."
Perhaps it was the stubbornness she'd deliberately infused into her voice. Perhaps it was just the way she'd said it. Either way, Kaeda's face frosted over into a still mask, even as her knuckles whitened across her knees.
"Look," she bit, and Katara was surprised to hear how marked the contrast was between the exterior and the voice. "I appreciate the paranoia, Lady Katara. In fact, I applaud it. But I am your only friend in the palace right now, and you are playing a very dangerous game. I suggest that you cooperate with me."
The air seemed to distill in her ears. There was only the crackling of the torch, and her own harsh breathing. "Lady Kaeda," she replied severely, matching title for title, " All I know is that you made a rather inflammatory remark the other night at Zuko's Court Dinner, made a very convenient appearance twenty minutes ago, and have led me into a small, locked room. Forgive me if I'm not feeling very trusting at the moment."
Kaeda's lips tightened. "This room is locked because it ensures us utter privacy." She gestured at the walls. "There are eyes all over the palace. There are eyes here, but they are all mine. If you or I took one step out of that door, we would be back into the realm my husband controls, and believe me, it is not a very comfortable one for the topics that I wish to discuss with you."
Katara's breath slowed. "And what might those be?"
The noblewoman paused for a moment, as if debating something. And then her own chin lifted, strong and proud. "Revolution."
The waterbender stood.
"Hear me out," Kaeda said, in a tone of voice that made it an order and not an appeal. "I'm talking about a revolution within the upper circle, the Fire Lord's Ministers and the elite." Her smile this time was almost ironic, although it was no less brutal. "I'm not talking about revolution against your precious Fire Lord himself, although I hear that there's already one."
"How do you know about that?" Katara found herself asking, before wanting to hit something. Great, Katara, she thought. Just walk into her bluff. "I-I mean, they're just bandits..."
"Please," Kaeda looked disdainful. "No one is buying that story. Not to mention, even if I didn't have my sources, no one is stopping the refugees from talking about men in Fire Nation uniform with the most interesting chant. Men like an old farmer with a Painted Lady amulet around his neck, who also spoke about a spirit with blue eyes."
"Pauzon," Katara whispered after a moment of stunned comprehension. "But how?"
"He had a private meeting with the Fire Lord not long ago. I can lead you to him, if you like."
Katara's head spun. "But if it was a private meeting..."
She inhaled deeply, trying to calm herself. So Pauzon was in the city, and had even managed to make it to Zuko's presence. That was a good thing. She could focus on the positive connotations before she even wanted to think about the negative ones. Her deep breath brought a whiff of smoke into her lungs from the single flickering torch set into the wall, and she found herself blinking, and then coughing.
Katara grimaced. She desperately wanted some, but she was also feeling paranoid enough right now that she wasn't sure whether it would be laced with poison. Why else would the Minister's wife have just blandly admitted she had someone spying on Zuko's private meetings? "No thank you."
An almost predatorial look flashed across the other woman's face, and then it was gone. "Have it your way. But yes, I do have access to that information, and I have access to a lot else besides. And I can give it to you if you promise yourself to secrecy now, and agree to listen to what I have to say."
"Come on," Kaeda murmured. "Haven't I intrigued you?"
"Yes," the waterbender admitted grudgingly. There was no reason for lying in this regards. "But I still don't understand what you..."
There was a panicked knock on the door.
Within one second, Kaeda had arranged herself to look completely, arrogantly nonchalant even as she swept herself up and turned the key in the lock. "Yes?"
Katara stood too. There was a wide-eyed, panting messenger on the threshold, with eyes only for the imposing woman in front of him. "E-excuse me, my Lady... Someone said... they'd seen you with Lady Katara. Do you...?"
A rush of alarm hit her. "I'm here," she said, stepping forwards. "What's wrong?"
"The Fire Lord... throne room... poison... they've called for the Royal Physician and the other Waterbender Healer and..."
Katara's heart leapt. She didn't feel herself moving to the door or pushing anyone aside, she just moved. She was almost out of the quarters when she heard desperately running steps behind her, and a surprisingly desperate cry.
"Lady Katara!" It was Kaeda. "Do you promise?"
Katara didn't think. She didn't have time. "I promise!" she cried back, and then ran.
A while ago, I promised a lot of my dear reviewers that I'd at least think about posting shorter chapters up. Then I went to Europe. I'm back home in Australia now, so I really have no excuse, so here is the first of hopefully a long stream of shorter chapters that will eventually lead to this story becoming complete. I can't apologise enough for the wait, so I won't start. Instead, I'll just thank everyone again who is still sticking with me, even with the long waits and intermittent chapters. Thank you. Thank you.