Nights in Egypt
Chapter Twenty-Four: First Blood
I'll take care of it, he had said. Said it so quickly he had not given himself a chance to doubt, a chance to jump to her aid, a chance to make himself useful to her. He had not even thought: he was sending himself to find, collect, and bury one of the few people he held dear to him. His beloved cousin whom he was so close to and shared everything with.
Why would he bend so easily to Katara's will?
She had not even asked him, but she knew as well as he their only other option was to let the body be found and send the palace into another bout of panic. And that would not do, they were running on thin ice. They needed to make their move on the King now, and soon.
Now that she's injured, we'll have to wait longer. He mourned the thought, but wasn't as upset about the loss of time as he ought to be. He feared more for Katara.
Katara. Katara. Lu Ten.
The chilling, forbidden thoughts raced through his mind—the dark side in all of them, the bloody wars fought while his people idly fretted over Sunday brunches, and Katara's story. Mainly, Katara's story. Everything. Every complex piece of her life she'd painted for him in his mind—the grace of her people and then the bloody downfall. And then there was Lu Ten—
"I don't believe it," he said aloud and the words echoed in his ear, ricocheting back with a powerful roar that formed into a hand clutching tightly at his chest.
It was so hard to . . . he could not imagine—he would not imagine—Lu Ten who had been like a brother to him . . . doing something so, so, vile—horrifying, despicable, there were no words to describe this—to a woman. Not even a woman, a girl, a child! She was only a few years younger than Zuko! An exact year from Azula! How could he? How dare he?
His mind raced with thoughts that were mangled and bloody in the air like a thousand swinging corpses, lynched up and left to rot. He decided all at once that if Katara had not finished the job on Lu Ten, he would himself.
He turned into the garden, finding the shadowy pathway he had walked a thousand times before while he clenched and unclenched his fists, stemming the tiny fires that sparked against his fingertips in the darkness.
Calm, he thought to himself. Calm. The telltale glimmer of water under moonlight caught his gaze and fire roared in his palms, nipping, and then consuming the gold silk sleeves of his dressing robes, catching the glint of his silvery gold, armor chest plate.
Kill him and show no mercy. Burn him to a crisp. Lock his ashes away, do not let them filter through the wind.
All of a sudden, the Prince stopped short.
The flames quelled against his skin and the cool night wafted against his heat, sending an array of leaves from the branches into the air around him.
Zuko stared at the pond before him—fringed with ice at the edge where the water lapped at the frosty green grass—and stared into the dark abyss that reflected a half moon. There was no body to be found.
The Prince lingered in the corridor of the royal guest wing—a broad hall filled lavishing decorated suites for those whom the royal family wished to impress with the finest (or second finest) silks, woods, art and furniture. Guests were the coming and going sort, and although his cousin was the prince of first blood, his uncle's decision to forfeit his throne made Lu Ten no better than one of the royal's guests with few special benefits. Therefore, he had a pertinent residency apartment, dressed with his belongings and maps and novelties from his travels.
All around him his private guard was tearing up for signs of life and he was staring at the top drawer of his cousin's bureau.
A single guard stepped towards it, meaning to open it—never go in there, Lu Ten said withdrawn brows and a commanding voice that moved militias of men—and Zuko shoved the guard away with a forceful hand and a glare.
This was his. Only he would see what Lu Ten was hiding in here.
He waited as his guard nominated the room was clear and began to move further into the apartment before he even thought of opening it.
Come on, he dared himself.
He had, since he was young, always wondered what Lu Ten held inside this tiny drawer. Maps? Jewels? Toys from childhood? But he had respected his cousin enough never to invade what little privacy they, as royal children, were allowed.
He felt he had the right to know now.
His fingers wrapped around the crystal handle and yanked the drawer open before he could talk himself out of it. Peering inside he found a mess of cloth that he disentangled and tossed aside on the floor. Dressing robes, dressing robes, undergarments, silk fabric, and single canvas slipper with knotted laces—hardly the things of secrecy.
Zuko scratched at the bureau for a false bottom. Nothing.
He moved to open the drawer wider to check the back, but it caught on something. He moved the drawer reflexively back and forth and stuck his hand inside, feeling along the top until his fingers brushed against something soft and warm, like animal fur. At first, he felt the reflex to pull his hand away, but then realized that it wasn't alive; his fingers wrapped around it, prying it from the corner with his nails until it fell into his hand.
It was a satchel, a tiny one that would carry something like small stones or jewelry. As he felt before it was furry too. It was of no animal that lived in Egypt since saber-tooth rats tended to be much too sinewy to make anything out of their meager hides. His fingers felt along the draw strings of the bag, touching the blue painted, bone and tooth beads. It's from Katara's land.
Without another moment's hesitation, the Prince tore at the draw strings and reached inside, pulling out a silk wrapped trinket.
There, wrapped in moth eaten silk, rested a choker necklace. The jewel on the choker was blue, carved with a delicate design of waves intertwining with a full belly moon. The rest of the design was indiscreet markings that wrote out words to a language the Prince did not understand and additional detailing etched into the waves and moon.
He touched it—feeling the cool stone and every ridge carved from the maker and the rough fabric of the choker. His thumb traced over his forefinger, chipping off a crust of something brown—dried blood.
"What are you doing?"
Zuko shoved the necklace into his robe pocket before whirling around expecting to find a very angry and confused and half-dead Lu Ten, when really it was his very angry and confused and more so alive father—and all the nobles.
He was standing oddly tall, proud and pampered as ever, he looked like the man he'd grown up seeing his entire life—abnormally pressed with a godly aura around him. The same aura his sister tried to replicate. He was smiling but there was no warmth to it.
"My Son," Ozai's voice was bowstring taunt, ready to snap at any moment. The formality and vocal recognition of which he was to him always made the Pharaoh tense.
"Father," Zuko said, doing his best to collect himself. "Lu Ten has gone missing."
"Missing?" the King said skeptically, raising a brow towards the rooms around them, looking like they'd just been plundered by the King's Guard themselves. "And you have taken it upon yourself to search for him in his dressing tables . . . are you sure you are not confusing 'missing' with 'hide-and-seek'?"
The nobles laughed and Zuko flared.
"He's missing," he repeated. "I was searching for clues as to where he may be."
"Perhaps your cousin is abed in another room? Oh, my Son, have you not know of the liaisons of the court? You're such a sheltered boy. I thought we had this talk long ago." A few more chuckles sounded behind him and Zuko's teeth gridded. He resisted the urge to tell his father that it was Lu Ten who injured Katara last night, not a rove guard. Perhaps then he'd have the resources to find his cousin and maim him.
"I would not search if I did not think it serious, my lord." He said, keeping his voice perfectly even and smooth as silk, something he learnt from his days in court.
"It matters not what you think since you obviously lack conviction from right and wrong—like the child you are." He spat and all playfulness from his voice was gone.
"You are right, I'm sorry, my King," he said, swallowing his pride and the fire in his voice and wanted to cut his tongue out right then and there.
That's when he remembers the party from last night. It felt so long ago, years away. Long gone from his mother's now catatonic state and Katara's ruined one.
He had to get away from Ozai, fast.
"Your mother pleaded with me to give you a chance," Ozai drawled, ignoring him and the nobles began to shuffle back from the room with a wave of his hand. "I left you in charge of the banquet last night. You're Uncle Jeor said you showed great diplomacy and conviction along with a gently raised hand here and there—old sot said you reminded him of your mother. However, it seemed that my teachings shown through, with our common goals. I would praise you, but—" The Pharaoh's smile turned down at the corners. "You left the banquet early, and after Mistress Katara no less."
"Well, my son," The door closed slowly behind Ozai; signaling that they were, completely, alone. "If Lu Ten has been disposed of for the moment, I do not think he will mind me exercising my abilities—doctor's orders, I'm sure you understand."
Twin flames surged in the Pharaoh's palms and Zuko took a step back.
The Prince was used to burns, they marred his flesh and became one with him, melding into his skin like tattoos he never wanted and scars that bleed with color and make his skin too sensitive and too taunt. Breathe, just breathe, as he laid there bleeding into the flagstone floor he forced his lungs to take in air.
The new burns spanned across his chest over his heart and stomach. The deepest of them was bleeding a diagonal slash across his abdomen—wound given from a blade of fire.
Move, move, you have to move. Get up.
Days could have passed before his eyes and he would not have known.
His wounds stopped bleeding hours later, crusting blood across his stomach and his skin was shiny from the burns, but he was healing quickly enough—had he not been a Firebender things would have been much worse. His skin pulled and bled and he pulled his burned clothes around himself, ambling his way through the halls trailing blood and half aware of where he was going.
"My lord?" He glanced up, catching the gaze of the healer from the infirmary and sighed. "My lord, you are injured . . . come over here, away from the girl."
He glanced around finding Katara's pain stricken face as she slept with her wounds bandaged and bleeding still. They said Waterbenders bleed like the water they bended, quick and perfuse. In older times, his great-great-grandfather had a slew of Waterbenders brought to him and had skewered them on pyres and watched their watery blood fill fountains.
He sat on a cot, taking medicine and allowing himself to be bandaged while the physician prattled on about the new medicine he created for burns, how it enhanced the Firebender's chi and allowed the be become less susceptible to their wounds from their own element.
"Have you given it to her?" He asked.
"Well, my lord—"
"She's still bleeding." He murmured.
"She's alright, my lord, we will do everything in our power—" Calling what he had left of his strength, the Prince lunged upward and shoved him against the wall beside the bed, knocking over the side table and sending the tools and bandages across the floor.
"Why . . . aren't you doing . . . everything you can already?" he asked in heaved breaths, fire sparking to his fingertips.
"She refuses all our treatments, m-my lord." The physician's eyes were wide and wary, flickering between the flames and his face as if not sure which was more menacing.
"Why?" He hissed.
"She-she says she deserves it, my lord."
But she doesn't.
With his estrange cousin possibly alive and still at large, he had around the clock guards placed at the infirmary doors and stayed to guard the secret passage way himself. Meanwhile, he played with the necklace he found in Lu Ten's bureau drawer, touching the cool stone and the carvings, staring at the engraved words and trying to interoperate the meanings of the symbols.
Who had it belonged to? Katara?
Had Lu Ten kept it as a memorabilia of her?
He stared at her and tried to imagine the necklace new, her wearing it and smiling, but the image seemed too far off to comprehend.
Katara, he watched her sleep for the passing hours trying to think of someway to help her, to save her. If she refused all Fire Nation treatments then she may respond to one from her own lands, or somewhere farther.
There was one whom he could call on.
Nights in the deserts are always cold and, far from civilization, darkness reigns supreme but there is one assemblage of people who thrive in this cold darkness. They are called the roma, more commonly known as gypsies—and they do tend to take offense to the term—and for their trade of being able to rob someone dead, blind, and worse with a twist of their wrist. They're a nomadic sort of people, and very difficult to find in their adapted harsh environments.
The Prince had seen them only once in his life, sitting aboard his uncle's privately owned ship after his 'betrayal' to his father; the left side of his face was burned and bleeding, he often wore a cloak hiding his shame now. When the boat docked in the southern ring of the capitol, Zuko was taken to the outskirts of the city, his uncle led him and a single guard across the sandy environs like he was following a map inside his head, knowing where to step and turn until a collection of colorful tents and wagons began to dot their horizon.
Walking through the camp, he felt an odd sense of peace in their ranks—such was their nature as thieves, he suspected, drawing people into false senses of security—but some watched him warily as if he were a threat. Pulling their children aside and cowering back when they met his yellow eyes.
"The roma are proud people, they fault no one," his uncle had said and they passed a tent where a small family sat outside. There was a couple so obviously from the Lands of Earth, with dark hair and fine, smooth skin, but the beauty of it was marred with ugly burn marks the splattered across their delicate skin from their faces to their ankles. A little girl sat at their feet, dark-haired, pale, and staring on with wide unseeing eyes. "But the lands in which they come from fault them."
Zuko shivered as they passed.
"It's been a long time, old man," his uncle was greeted with a snide, smiling woman with silver eyes. She lived in a wagon at the center of the camp, surrounded by rove looking youths with weapons and elderly with the same pale-eyed, dark-haired features as she.
Hama was a healer, the best in the entire nation, and she could do nothing to take away fully Zuko's burn—only to lessen it. "It will be a scar, an ugly reminder." She had said once she finished; the bleeding and damaged tissue gone, his eye was fuzzy at first but now clear as day. "It's as if it were meant to be there," She said in her unnervingly serene voice.
His uncle was the one who thanked her.
"So, she is ours to call upon?" Zuko had asked on the way home.
"She's not your slave Zuko," Iroh quipped, making the young prince jump. The sharpness of his voice was direct, clean and cut like a razor, imbedding the lesson into his mind. "Lady Hama is a free woman of this nation. Who she is—she is like a spirit, a source of guidance. She will heal whomever is injured if she so chooses that would plea is clear enough to be heard."
With these thoughts in mind, the Prince pressed his quill to his paper and hoped he sounded urgent enough.
A boy slunk out from the darkness, shadows clinging to his black attire. Hee tossed his hood back in one fluid motion, his eyes were dark as well; and the only feature Zuko could see beyond the cloth covering the lower half of his mouth. The gypsy boy met his gaze and squared his shoulders, sizing up the Prince as if he already was a threat.
Zuko was unimpressed.
"Is Hama with you?" Zuko asked and the boy's jaw tensed beneath the covering.
"Lady Hama is approaching," he muttered and stepped aside for the gypsy queen to pass him in an obvious show of respect. Per usual, Hama made her origins desecrate in her wardrobe. The shades of skirts mixed between red and blue, creating a regal violet, the detailing of flames here's went into her clothes that, when looked the right way, we're truly wave patterns. Her hair was silvery grey, knotted into a hasty topknot with a collection of beads dangling from the ends of her tasseled braids and delicate combs stuck into the knot like a crown.
Her cat-like silvery blue eyes met his and not for the first time Zuko wondered what she looked like young and beautiful.
"Hama," Zuko nodded, but not too low, he didn't want to deal with Hama's bantering this evening. "Your reputation precedes you, you're right on time."
Hama's lips turn down into the furrows. "I made a deal with a young prince once, for my gifts I am allowed to live freely and that's all I require—at the moment, of course," She said almost to herself and her eyes fall to Zuko's torso. "My, my, by your letter you made it sound so urgent." She teased and her gaze flickered back to his scarred face. "Or is your 'mark of shame' bothering you again?"
"I did not call you here for me," he said sternly and tried not to lash out. "Come along."
The gypsy boy took a step forward and Zuko halted. "No guards."
"Then your intended patient shall die." The boy cut in, hand reaching for his back where two hook-like weapons criss-crossed against his shoulders and makeshift armor.
Hama's bony hand lashed out, wrapping in a vice around the boy's wrist and halting him from drawing his weapon. "Do not try to out best me, Jetediah," she said frostily and sparks of ice crept at the cuff of his sleeve. He yanked his arm away. "I am more powerful than you here, the moon is filling."
The Prince spared a glance towards the moon to see the Hama was correct—waxing moon, with a diluted milky halo circling it's nearly circular form.
"Yes, my apologizes," he muttered while holding his arm close to him like a wounded animal. He gripped at his injured wrist in his free one, trying to warm it. The silk green of the armguards he wore stood out starkly against the black night.
"Do not worry; she will be back when the job is finished." Zuko tore his gaze away and continued towards the back door of the kitchens. "Come, this way."
Hama stepped in line with him, her heavy body and tiny feet creating little to no sound against the flagstone floors.
As he suspected, Hama had antagonized him throughout the process of healing Katara's back. The entirety of the session revolved around how Katara got the wounds, where she was from, why she was here and the time he set her skirt on fire when he was twelve and she'd just healed him—she hated him on sight anyway, there was no loss of love.
Zuko watched Hama work, healing and gently petting and cooing to Katara whilst she slept.
In Hama's eyes, Katara was a precious gem—never to be worn, touched, or shown. And she had even had the braveries to demand that Katara be sent to the Fire Nation colony where she could be with her own people. He'd snarled at that.
When she's home, she'll be much happier. He'd thought, not thinking twice to it and having his mind all made up on the subject.
Hama was leaning close to Katara, smoothing her shoulder and whispering to her—unkind things about him probably. "Out!" he yelled and the Waterbender smirked at him, and pastied towards the door.
"And the best of luck two you too," she murmured and was gone into the night. "Until next time . . ."
Her eyes are bright against the darkness of her skin, shining with their own ethereal light in the shadowy infirmary. Once she opened them, he caught his breath counting the colors. Mesmerized as he was before when they first met. "How are your injuries?" he asked gently.
She blinked a few times; face scrunching in confusion before her eyes settled on him. She took a low, labored breath. "I don't know, you tell me."
"Nearly gone," He inspected the burns on her back critically. "Hama has done well."
"Who was she?" Katara asked with a sudden desperation in her voice. Her eyes were wide and suddenly awake now. "Hama, I mean—does Ozai know of her? How'd you find another Waterbender?"
He knew he'd have to explain some time.
"Hama . . . well, it's complicated really. She's under my Uncle's protection, she lives in the Wasteland, but whenever someone of the royal blood may need her at their beckon call, she must appear with the moon and go with the sun, as the story goes."
Katara's eyes narrowed. "She's a spirit?"
I would have her exorcised then. He thought wryly.
"No, she's a crone. An old one that needs to die, but she has her uses. Just, no one in the capitol can know that she still lives."
"Alright . . ." Katara leant back and touched the skin of her back, smooth beneath her fingers. Her eyes widened as she craned her neck around to look.
"Hama said you should try walking by midday . . ." Zuko informed.
"How are you?" she asked suddenly and Zuko unconsciously touched the bandages beneath his robe.
"That reassures me not."
"Good thing you have no need to be." He brushed his robes back to stand.
"Tui and La—" Katara reached out, grabbing a fistful of his robe in her hand and pulling him back to her, she struggled to sit up. Pain flashed across her face and her fingers grazed the knife of fire wound slashing across his torso. "What? What happened to you?"
"Katara," he said with as much authority as he could muster. "I do not want you to worry about that. You need to get better—" he paused. "For the King."
There, he thought. Remembering the reason of her being here in the first place helped. She was not here for him, not at all, not truly. She was here to fulfill their agreement. She was to learn bending, lure in his father, kill him, and be shipped back to the lands she originated from. As she should be.
He thought of the truth in Hama's words and the effect of Lu Ten's actions. The Lands of Fire were not safe for her, not at all.
He withdraws into himself, saying what needs to be said and tucking away whatever he want to say. He bids her goodnight and left her behind in the shadowy room.
I will fix all spelling mistakes later, right now though I shall sleep and cuss myself out in the morning. (took me three tries to spell that, see?)
Alright, I am very sorry for the delay but look at it this way: everything after this (mostly) is pre-written! Just a bunch of editing ahead and three updates or more a month because seriously people schools ending soon and I'm about ready to shoot somebody if they look at me the wrong way. And I'm gonna miss the seniors. Not all of them, but most. Mostly most. And I am now working two jobs . . . this shoudl be fun.
Anyways, thank you to akadelilah1996 for cornering me at school and asking me when I'm updating next and making me feel awesome ;D. Read her stories, so far they are very good. And my neighbor Brianne who spent the last three hours with me while I wrote this, playing Zelda and spitballing ideas with me. Thank you both, you are crazy and I love that about you.
And thank all of you for putting up with my moods.
*Zuko I think I might shoot you. What do you guys think?
*This is a basic recap chap from Zuko's pov because a lot happened on his end too. With the necklace and his father and Lu Ten missing.
*Lu Ten's body's missing! AHAHAH!
NEXT TIME ON: Nights of Egypt: Egypt will forever live up to it's reputation of complexity, one mystery after another. The Rebel card shall always change the rules of the game, bringing forth intrigue and a new slew of questions as well as answers.
Review me, tell me if you have a question! Reviews make me update faster! I must have at least ten!