"Oh that the desert were my dwelling place,
With only one fair spirit for my minister.
I might forget the human race,
And hating no one, love her only."
"Tell me…do you know what it feels like to be betrayed?"
Those bitter words, each syllable slashing against her heart, were breathed so softly into her ear that she barely heard them.
She licked her lips. "Betrayal?" she whispered back, her voice unsteady, her heart slamming against her body with each ragged breath she took.
The man who spoke before pulled back just enough that she could see that sadistic glimmer in his amber eyes. "Yes. The way it feels to wake up one day and realize that your entire life was a lie. The way it feels to realize that you can trust no one. The way it feels to have your soul shredded to pieces by people you thought you could trust… people you thought you could…. Love." The last word was dropped as carelessly as a young boy dropping a penny. It was as if the man who spoke of the emotion held no happy feelings for it. "The way that I've felt not once, but twice. You think I'd get smarter, wouldn't you? I trusted again, and again I had it thrown in my face…" He choked on something that could have been a sob.
A silence stretched between them. The only thing that permeated it was their shared breaths. An inhale here…and exhale there. In. Out. In. Out.
She lowered her eyes, and looked back into his. Sadness shone in hers, making her cobalt eyes sparkle in the candlelight.
The man sneered, and the arms that pinned her to the bed grew tense. "Your tears mean nothing to me… Katara." Disgust dripped from his voice. "Answer the question. "
Katara closed her eyes and took a jagged breath. Do I feel betrayed? she wondered, her body aching from the harsh way that he held her. "No," she said, her voice uneven.
The man swore sharply, and began to drag her up from the bed. She grabbed his shirt and stopped him, forcing him to look into her eyes. "That answer is for the monster who found me tonight and tore apart my world in a childish fit of anger. The one who tried to make me bleed because he doesn't know how to fix his own pain. He hasn't betrayed me. He's a stranger."
His eyes flared, and his lip curled. "You don't have the right--" he began, only to be cut off as the hands that curled into his shirt roughly jerked him.
"No," she began, her voice stronger. "I'm not done. My next answer is for the man I knew yesterday. The man I met six months ago when I first came here with nothing but the clothes on my back. The man who woke me up early in the mornings to show me the sunrise, the man who laughed with me, for the man who proudly walked me through his city, for the man who took me on horse rides through the desert, the man who held my hand though the night, for the man who protected me, cherished me… loved me." When she spoke the word, there was no sardonic twist. Her love was real. Her knowledge of the emotion…real.
"Do I feel betrayed by him?" she mused, letting go of his clothes and sinking back to the bed. "I thought that when I was sold into slavery I felt betrayed. But now I know what it feels like in every sense of the word. Like you said… my soul shredded to pieces my a person I thought I could trust. A man I thought I loved. And it disgusts me," she spat, "to think that the man who held me so tenderly last night is the same one who won't believe my word over that of his council!"
He grabbed her arm roughly and pulled her up, twisting her hands behind her back and tying them roughly. "Don't try to turn this around," he growled as he dragged her off the bed.
She held her ground, and looked at him with heavy-lidded eyes. "What, Zuko," she asked. "Isn't this what you wanted? Didn't you want to hear me say exactly that?"
He pulled her sharply, and shouldered open the huge, double metal doors that led to his antechamber. His entire council stood before her, their voices hushed as they waited for him to speak.
"Councilmen," he started, his voice booming, his hand digging into her arm. "I have brought you the traitor!"
SIX MONTHS EARLIER
As the sun burst over the horizon, it decanted out all of its light in a fiery display of deep crimsons and golden yellows that poured over the arid land. Smoldering shadows cast glances towards the cerulean sky as they were born in the dim autumn dawn. A desperate wind would blow across the arid desert land, briefly cooling the patrons that called its empty graces home. The dry land cried out for water, but the shimmering mirages already appearing in the distance offered no hope for the relief of the drought that gripped the desert land.
Those feelings echoed in the young woman who stood in the midst of the caravan, her neck and hands chained together, sweat glistening on her skin. Her long mahogany hair was tied neatly into a long plait down her back, and her blue eyes narrowed against the already harsh desert sun.
The stifling heat made her long for the cooling sea breezes of Samos, her… Home? she thought, somewhat bitterly. A home was where you felt safe, wanted, protected. Katara's failed on all three qualifications. Every time she closed her eyes, she could still see the past.
Memories flashed through her mind.
Her brother, dead, blood seeping out of a gash on his side.
Flames burning around her.
Her screams as she tried to save her family.
The people of her village…. Dead. Bandits lounging around the carnage, laughing and joking at the poor fishermen who couldn't put up a fight.
The smell of smoke and the sounds of her coughing as she dragged her way out of family's burning tent.
The feel of hands roughly grabbing her.
"What have we here? A girlie? I bet you'd fetch a pretty price on the market!"
"Please! Somebody help!"
"No one can here you, girl! They're all dead! And its by our mercy that you're left alive! Should we try her now? Or leave her for the market?"
"No! Kill me, please!"
Their laughter. Her screams.
She woke from her reverie by a sharp tug on the chains at her collar. She looked up at the old man on the white Arabian beside her, and saw his frown. "Thinking about the past again?"
Before she could answer, he continued "You don't have time for that now. I don't know what made me buy you. But better me than some of those other men who were drooling over you. The prince has all the women he could possibly need. You just looked so lost there, so…out of place. But now you don't have a past. You don't even have the much of a future. You only have a present."
The insight from his words astounded Katara. In the short time that she had known the man who introduced himself only as Iroh, he had given her so much wisdom she wondered if he was a magi. "Ready?" he called out to the rest of the caravan. Affirmative answers wafted over the still desert air, and the caravan started its trek across the desert, towards a great walled city in the distance.
"You'll like Edessa," Iroh mused as his camel plodded over the sand. "It's an oasis city, with lots of fountains and foliage. I've lived there my whole life, and I've never seen a better city," he cackled. Katara had grown used to the old man's dribbles on the long trip back from Constantinople. It seemed like he never shut up. But, he had been kind to her since he bought her off of the bandits.
"You looking, old man? Or are you going to buy?"
"Where did you find her?"
"Some pathetic fishing village. She's pure. Never been touched. You want her?"
So far he hadn't touched her, but only talked about his city, his favorite tea, a game he called Pai Sho, and his prince. Over time Katara learned that it was he who would be her ultimate master. Funny, she thought. When father and I used to sit and wonder who I would be when I grew up all those years ago, the words "harem whore" hadn't even crossed our minds.
And here she was. On her way to be a slave for a man she had never met. On her way to live in his harem, and hope that he would never ever notice her, and she could live her life in solitude.
"You'll like the girls in the harem too," he continued. "They're nice enough women. Ever since the prince took the throne a year ago though there's been a bit of a fight amongst them to become the new kadin, but its settled down some."
Katara had no desire to become the favorite, the kadin. She merely wanted to melt into the background.
"I know what you're thinking," Iroh said, the words wheezing out of his frail body. "You just want to be left alone." Katara felt like he had just taken a look into her soul for what seemed like the fiftieth time since she met him. He chuckled. "I'm pretty sharp for an old man, miss. Pretty sharp indeed…. Well, hopefully you'll be left alone, but I never know for sure. Usually the admittance of a new girl into the harem is made fairly public among the court."
Great. So much for that idea.
"But don't you worry," he repeated. "You'll be taken care of. Your eyes… so old for one so young. Life must have been hard for you so far. It's about to get easier. I promise."
From his perch in the shaded courtyard of the palace, the last thing Zuko expected to see was his frail uncle leading a young woman towards his harem. His golden eyes squinted against the sunlight that streamed through the marble archways. The sight was comical almost in its contradictions: Iroh stooped over and standing a good foot below her, and the girl's head bowed, her hands clasped in front of her as she put one foot in front of the other, blindly walking to her destination and obviously not caring where it was.
Curious, he thought. So very curious. Intrigued, he pushed his way up from the cushions that lined his seat, only to have a delicate hand wrap around his wrist. "You're leaving, my prince?" a voice cooed. He looked down into a pair of simpering brown eyes. "Why so soon? We've barely just begun to relax…"
"I'll be right back Ty Lee," he said sternly, untangling himself. "I need to talk to my uncle."
Ty Lee's disappointment was clear on her face. In the short time that he rose to the throne, the battles going on in the harem were the least of his worries. He was half-sick of all of their conniving games, and in truth he had yet to pursue relationships with any of them. He liked Ty Lee for her simplicity. She played no complicated games, and seemed genuinely to only care about spending time with him. She reminded him of a child or younger sister more than a consort.
He crossed the courtyard, closing the distance to his uncle and the girl with long, purposeful strides. Before he reached her; however, one of his uncle's cronies called out, "Hey Iroh! You go to Constantinople to go get supplies and come back with a woman?"
Iroh guffawed, and turned around to face the man who had spoken them. The girl turned around too, and for the first time Zuko saw her face. He stopped.
Her azure eyes locked with his. They seemed to shift and change, multifaceted like a rare stone, thickly fringed with sooty black eyelashes. Her high cheekbones and darkly tanned skin only seemed to make those magnificent eyes more exotic, make her look more beautiful.
His golden eyes burned with desire, and his hands clenched into fists. Exquisite, he thought, his heart pounding heavily.
A long, silken lock of chocolate hair caressed her cheek, making him want to touch her as the wind did. Brushing, lightly intimate… What is wrong with me? He suddenly thought savagely, trying to tear his gaze away.
Frowning he looked at the girl again, and felt his heart clench with sudden longing. She was… ravishing. Delicate. Ethereal in her beauty. So lovely, and yet so forlorn looking. The sad, down-turned line of her mouth made him want to kiss her until it turned into a smile. Her lovely, sapphire-radiant eyes that shimmered with emotions too numerous to name made him want to wrap his arms around her and stare into those deep pools of blue. Her divine, fragile hands made him want to wrap them around his neck in a lover's caress. Her small, perfect nose made him want to—
"Ah, Prince Zuko, would you like to meet the newest addition to the harem?" His uncles voice shattered his thoughts.
Those azure eyes stared at him again, a quizzical expression playing across her brow.
He stood there, looking back into hers. This woman is dangerous, Zuko.
"Prince Zuko?" Iroh called again.
Zuko slowly backed away. And, like a coward, he turned around and fled.
Mina34: I know what you're thinking. And don't worry, dear reader, you haven't gone insane! Yes, I did post this earlier, but I looked back over what I posted on the site and was a little embarrassed by a lot of the errors, and also realized that there was no need for the story to be rated M. Whoopsies! So, i tweaked a few things here and there... et voila! Edited chapter I am happy with. I promise I won't do something like this again, sorry for the confuzzleness!
But anyway, please please PLEASE review my story, any criticism or questions or anything are TOTALLY welcome, and it inspires me to here from people who like what I'm writing! I'm done with school, so the next chapter should be out of by the end of the week, if not sooner.
(--pokes reader-chan--) Shouldn't you be reviewing? Hmm?