Okay. Where to start?
So, this is still the same story, pretty much. Same storyline, same characters, same events. I just patched up some rough spots, added some interaction, and fixed grammar and spelling a bit. Let me know if I've changed it too much, my dears.
I also mushed together the first three chapters in here, so expect less alerts throughout posting. There will only be about six chapters instead of 19, this time.
Thanks, and I hope you like.
Disclaimer: Not mine.
I couldn't believe it. I still can't, really.
Katara of the Southern Water Tribe (formally called),
Was going to marry a tyrant.
At least, that's what everyone called the adored Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. The whole sham wedding was for peace. It was for the good of the nations, my dad said. You'll be happy.
I still heard the hesitation in his words. My dad wasn't a good liar. I watched him sigh, and tap his fingers against his knee, and glance away every time I brought up that one delicate subject. He knew I would be the opposite of happy. He just didn't want to admit that he was sending me away like a package on Winter Solstice. In the days before I left, his smiles were strained and his eyes were hard. Sometimes my only thoughts were: was he even sad that I was leaving?
But then I always shook my head. Of course he was.
A warm breeze ripped me out of my memories. I was there. It had taken long enough, but I was there—an array of strange, drooping trees and calling birds suited the humid air that soaked into my skin. It was exotic enough. I might have even thought it beautiful, for a minute. But everything was red and green and brown and my awe dwindled away. I thought, I shouldn't be here.
(So I wasn't. Not mentally, anyway.)
When the guard named Jee (whose constant kindness I had politely ignored) guided me down the decks to the ramp, I offered him a grateful smile and followed the two guards ahead of me. There were not very many fishermen around, that day. The docks were deserted save a few shirtless men fixing their nets, and as soon as they noticed us they lifted up their heads and squinted at me.
I distracted myself by looking around curiously, and I got off of the ship that had brought me to meet my fortune. I wished the goodbyes had been longer. I wished I had a little more time to stay home. I still wish I didn't have to be the one to leave.
I'd been through a lot already, from the death of my mother to becoming the mother of the family, to little breakdowns of my own and then comforting my father in the days after mom's death. Some might call me plucky. Some might call me strong, like my Gran-Gran always did, just before she pinched my cheek. But I'm sure, the moment I stepped onto Fire Nation shores, I was genuinely neither. I felt like letting myself cry. Letting myself look weak in front of those horrible people. I didn't, though. I maintained my composure and kept my head held high, and I was ready to be escorted to the palace.
"Is this her?" I heard a sharp, feminine voice say. Something about that voice made me suck in a breath. Of course, I always did that when I was surprised, in case something wanted to strangle me—so I'd have a little bit of air left, maybe. That's what I made of it anyway.
"Yes, Princess Azula," a guard said, voice void of emotion. I wondered what he looked like, or if his face matched the boredom of his tone. I looked at 'Princess Azula' and found myself unable to look away. She was quietly intimidating, made of angles and a curving mouth and perfect touches, and right away I could say that she'd not laughed a day in her life.
Then there was another voice, but I was too intent on Azula to notice her right away.
"Oh, I want to see, Azula! She's pretty, right? Isn't she from the Southern Tribe?"
A brown-haired girl came up behind Azula, dressed in a bright pink acrobat's outfit. She gazed at me for a moment and finally nodded. "We need to go shopping with her," she said, beaming in my direction. I mentally smiled.
She was kind of… airheaded.
"Yes, Ty Lee," Azula said. "The… Southern Water Tribe." The words coming from her mouth sounded as if she were speaking of disease.
"Cool!" Ty Lee said, and then giggled at her own pun. Then she turned to her left, signaling another I couldn't see. "What do you think, Mai?"
A dreary, bored-looking girl dressed in black appeared. Her hair was done up in two dark buns and the rest was left tumbling down her shoulders—I'd tried that hairstyle when I was six, but it hadn't worked out so well. At first I had been proud, seeing as half the Tribe complimented me on it, but my brother Sokka broke the truth to me: I looked like a penguin had sucked on my head. While I was remembering this, Mai was searching me with her pale grey eyes. I shivered suddenly under her stare, if not from anxiety then from discomfort. She crossed her arms and looked away.
"Whatever," she muttered, and I blinked in an offhand manner.
Mai was pretty, I observed—but, unlike Azula, it seemed like she wasn't used to being told so. She just looked so completely, utterly tired that I wanted to say something cheerful. But I shook my head and cleared my thoughts.
"I'm Katara," I told them without confidence—I hadn't expected the reception to be quite like this—and they nodded lightly. The hot weather here was getting to me already. I fanned my face.
"Oh yes, she'll love Zuzu," Azula said—almost to herself, not quite looking at Ty Lee. "Since he's weak and base and all that. I'm sure she's used to it. She'll be quite pleased, won't she?" Then she grimaced (which I found later had been her attempt at smiling) and when it faded, motioned for me to follow her as she and her companions began walking on a zigzag dirt path lined with cherry-plum trees in bloom. Ty Lee chatted happily beside me, but I was too immersed in my own questions to pay attention.
Somewhere inside, I could hear Sokka laughing at me.
"We're here!" Ty Lee sang as I'd just gotten to staring at my feet, and I looked up, seeing a huge black gate looming over me. It was a tough-looking gate, too. I stared boldly at it and glanced back over at the threesome, clustered together in a tight bunch. Thanks to the heat, this drew an arrogant, dreamy smirk out of me. (Were they afraid of little old me, the finest and only waterbender in her Tribe? Ha, ha.)
Or… I wondered, did they even know that I was one?
Azula cleared her throat and glared at me—spirits forbid she heard my thoughts—waking the unmasked guard who had fallen asleep at his post, which was under a rather comfortable-looking tree. He nearly fell over, but caught himself before he did.
"Wh-what? Oh. Uh… Princess Azula, I apologize…" he rubbed his eyes; then bowed hastily and stood up straight, swallowing. I would've said this had happened before—the guard looked afraid, but his concern was not palpable.
"Just open the gate, half-wit," Azula said in monotone, and he nodded.
"Yes, Princess," he said obediently and pulled a lever to his left. Slowly, the gate opened, revealing a crowd of gawking people, dressed in red silk and muslin. No white anywhere—which was a cheerful color back home—but I only briefly wondered why. I frowned, and twisted my hands in my mother's blue-and-white shenyi. The people weren't moving… they were just standing there, silent, and I could have imagined a sign that read 'Unoccupied' on their foreheads.
"Why are they just standing there?" I leaned over and whispered to Ty Lee, who turned to me and smiled.
"They're waiting for us to say something," she said, and played with her long braid. I nodded. Azula let out a throaty sigh and waved. If I was Sokka I'd have defined the crowd as cheering themselves stupid, after she acknowledged them, and I followed her and Mai as they went through. Several guards cleared a path through the ocean of people and we walked by, careful not to get too close to the particularly foamy ones.
We made our way through the enormous courtyard until we finally came upon another gate. Luckily, this guard was awake and repeated the first guard's action before Azula became Princess Azula again. When I saw the garden that was slowly revealed—ponds and lilies and trees wherever I could see, it finally dawned on me: I was going to spend the rest of my life here. The reality of it, that I wasn't going home, I was never going to see my family again, hit me so hard that I stopped, and I didn't brush my hair away from my face when a wind crept by.
"Are you okay, Katara?" Ty Lee put her hand on my shoulder, lightly, as if I'd shake it off.
"Yeah, I'm okay," I reassured her. I tried to smile. She seemed to be convinced and returned it with more vigor.
"That's good," she said. Then, in a quieter voice, she whispered, "You know, I think we'll be great friends."
Come to think of it, I hadn't had very many friends in my life. The thought of having at least one companion while I was here thrilled me, even though it had to be here in the first place.
With that, I walked through the gate and took a deep breath, not releasing it until the doors were closed and lock had slid shut.
"No, no, you don't understand, Lady Katara! You must put this on!"
These words echoed between the walls and the ground, the ceilings and the servants passing by, the only things I could hear beyond my own breath.
(A servant girl had been chasing me around with a corset for the past ten minutes, and I was furiously trying to lose her. To be frank, I knew not once in a hundred years would I ever wear one of those uncomfortable whale-bone traps.)
It'd only been an hour since I came here and moved into my temporary chambers. Now I had to put myself through this unique type of physical misery I'd only ever read about. The royal life here was a lot different than in the North or South Poles; apparently, the hotter the climate, the more your waist needed to be restricted, to release body heat. And vice versa.
"I'm not going to wear it!" I persisted, trying my best to be polite, clutching my skirts and running through the open-air hallway that led from the east wing to the west wing of the palace. Breathing hard, the poor girl tried to catch up with me, but I was too fast. Running away from rogue smelly sea bears (Sokka) back home had built up my speed and endurance. I looked behind me and saw her trudging form, feeling the tiniest bit guilty but not slowing my speed. That was when I turned a corner—and ran right into a person.
"Oof!" was their response. They grabbed my shoulders to keep upright. But it didn't work—they were heavier than me, unfortunately—and we both toppled backward. I shrieked, holding my hands out as I waited for the hard ground to connect with my head, but I never got the chance to feel it.
Instead, I landed on something soft.
I opened my eyes and looked down at the thing—no, wait, it was a man!—under me. I blushed furiously and jumped up, trying anything possible to think of an excuse.
"I- I was—" I stammered, backing away slowly as the man got up and huffed.
"There you are, Miss! Please just cooperate! I don't want to…" the corset girl came into view, hands on hips. She paled as she looked at the person getting up, and practically fell on the floor in a kowtow. "I—oh! I apologize, Prince Zuko! I didn't know you were here!"
Wait a minute, I thought. This isn't good.
I felt my heart leap up to my throat and made a dry sound before swallowing. I had just run into…
Crown Prince Zuko of the Evil Dirty Fire Nation looked straight at me and tried to run a hand through his hair before glancing down at the girl.
"You're dismissed," he said impatiently and waved another hand. He didn't seem that mean (or base) to me… just tired, really. Exhausted. The servant girl scrambled to her feet and bowed away.
Then, Zuko looked back over in my direction and raised an eyebrow. "Who are you?" he asked snappishly as the servant girl disappeared. "You don't look like a servant. And I already told my father that I have no interest in concubines."
I narrowed my eyes and erased my former impression of him. So that's what he thought I was, hmm. A concubine?
"I'm Katara, actually," I said matter-of-factly, folding my arms over my chest. "Your fiancé?"
He blinked. A strange expression crossed his face.
"Oh," was all he said. I ignored the disappointment in his voice. (It wasn't as if I wanted to be married to him, either!)
There were a few moments of silence before Zuko rubbed his neck and sighed. "So, um, did you… meet everyone?" he choked, probably trying to avoid the subject of marriage. I shrugged off the urge to fight.
"Everyone except the Fire Lord, I guess," I said, twirling a lock of my hair nervously. (Was I really getting girly around him?) Then I dropped my hand and he sighed, a thing Sokka did whenever he was trying to get out of a father-son talk, but it was past that. "So, when are we getting married?" I had to know so I asked, lowering my voice near the end of the sentence. My breath almost caught. I hadn't pictured talking to the person I'd be marrying like this; it was awkward and weird and I still had a crush on a boy named Hakkak back home.
"Um… next week, I think."
I stared at him for a while.
"You think?" I echoed. "Aren't you supposed to know?"
The side of his face that wasn't scarred pinked significantly. (I hadn't really paid attention until now—the left side of his face was an angry red, and that eye was stuck into a squint. I almost asked what happened to him, but I thought maybe that wouldn't be such a good idea. I closed my mouth instead.)
"Well, yeah," he said, rubbing the back of his head. This made more of his hair fall out of the barely-in-place topknot on his head. "But… I'm not exactly on the best of terms with my father. Or anyone, really. Not anymore."
Oh. Maybe that explains the scar.
"Oh. I'm… I'm sorry," I said quietly. I turned and cleared my throat lightly. "Well, I'll see you later, then, I guess," I said, desperately wanting to get back to my room.
"Yeah… yeah," he nodded shallowly and coughed. "At dinner."
I took that as permission to go, and began walking away, only looking back once to see him staring at me. I gave him the best Look I could muster and he averted his gaze. Then, I smiled to myself and walked to my room, wondering how I could hide from the girl who insisted on putting a corset on me.
As soon as the guard outside my rooms nodded to me, I slid open the doors and jerked out my topknot. I knew it would pull out all my hair one day—I wasn't… bald, yet, but I was feeling very old. In the mirror on my wall, I saw my eyes. They were sunken. My scar looked faded. And I had a dark circle under my right eye. I'd gotten precisely three hours of sleep last night… and the night before… and the night before…
I'd actually seen that girl, Katara, for the first time looking like this. Stupid. And instead of meeting her the proper way, which I'd been planning to do, she knocked me over and that was that. I was tired. So I snapped. But…
…She had talked back to me.
How many people had done that in my life?
Azula had done it, and so had my first governess. That was actually how my first governess had gotten dismissed. Looking back, it was a harsh reason to be relieved, but my mother hated her anyway. She hated all of the nannies that my father hired. I never cared why.
I was a spoiled little brat. While mother was still here.
But I wasn't anymore; I was eighteen and getting married in… a week, I thought. I was a year older than my father when he'd gotten married, but we'd been struggling with a treaty and the Water Tribes only accepted it about a month before this. I was disgusted when I heard I was the one to get engaged. So was Mai. But my father told me to 'get rid of her' so I broke it off between us. Mai seemed fine with it, then.
But Mai isn't fine with anything.
She wouldn't talk to me, no matter how hard I tried to fix things. It ended up being a nasty breakup that Ty Lee was always warning everyone about—"Don't get attached, don't kiss, don't hug, or you'll regret it. Marry an ugly, mean person. You won't feel as bad when they cheat on you."
I'd never met her parents and hoped I never would.
As I looked back to my door and put my face in my hands, I decided not to think about it anymore.
(That's how I dealt with most of my problems.)
The mat I sat on in the dining hall was soft and new. I hummed myself into distraction—it didn't help that people, people everywhere, were staring at me like a piece of meat. They talked. They whispered. Some girls in a little group laughed to themselves, stopping to glance at me. My grip tightened on my skirt, and I gasped for a breath, abandoning one leg to press a hand against my stomach.
Somehow the girl with a corset had managed to surprise me. It wasn't pleasant. But she was in tears, and, as many people know, to fight a crazy woman means pain. At that point I knew she was. Her hair, before done up in a braid, had fallen out. Her uniform was bunched around the legs. She was breathing hard, and when she told me to hold still I had no choice.
I regretted it a little. I could scarcely breathe, let alone talk, and every person in the room wanted to speak with me. (It was more like speaking at me, really. The red headdress of a betrothed girl I wore hid nearly my entire face, and I kept my gaze downward as the corset girl had told me to.) The ones with the most jewelry were the worst. They would cluck away about how their rich husbands had rich parents and they had a rich house and rich clothes and a rich sparrowkeet and rich money. It mentally hurt as much as when my mom used to sew up accidental gashes in my leg; then, I was used to that. I was okay for a while. I tried to subtly show them I was uninterested by staying silent, or sighing, or playing with my chopsticks. But they talked, they talked and talked and now I was a bundle of nerves.
I hadn't been nervous on or off the ship. I hadn't been nervous in front of Zuko. I hadn't been nervous when faced with a lifetime of marriage to someone I didn't know—those moments were more like dreams, and I hadn't woken up before then.
But now, as one old woman advised me about the marriage bed, I finally realized that this day had been far too real.
"Oh, dear, you needn't worry about the first time with Fire Nation royalty—especially if you just close your eyes and think of home," she said, waving her feathered fan once in a while. "Why, my fourth lover Lord Goong was the best I'd been with, you know. Every now and then, before we were married, we would sneak away to the outskirts of town to an old shack. The best times of my life were spent there." She sighed wistfully after that. I wasn't happy that I knew what she was talking about. And though I thanked her, I began to feel lightheaded. She was old, for pity's sake.
Then I took a slower breath and combed through my thoughts. As soon as the woman left, my mind turned in the direction of my marriage. I'd chosen to blank out before. I hadn't heard much of what she said. But it was coming back—close your eyes and think of home—and if anyone tried to approach me after that, I was too busy hiding my blushing face in the curtain-like tassels of my headdress.
I'd completely forgottenabout the need for an heir. Eventually, that would have to happen. Prince Zuko was good-looking, but I didn't have that inclination. At least I had some time before he became Fire Lord, right? So I had nothing to worry about.
It was some time later, when several voices rose, that I finally gained the strength to look up through my red tassels. At once, I turned red once more and wished I hadn't.
Zuko had finally walked in. He wore a newer-looking robe than before; his face was still haggard but he seemed delighted when people crowded around him, asking questions.
When he sat on his knees beside me and moved around a bit to make himself comfortable, I watched his hands from the bottom of my headdress. They clenched and unclenched. It was interesting enough to see, I guess. But I was too nervous at the time to do anything else.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence between us, I saw another pair of legs walking toward me. The legs, as always, belonged to a body. And the body belonged to a head. When the head spoke, it was not to me.
"Prince Zuko," said a deep voice. It sounded proud. Zuko shifted, and his hands moved to his sides.
I stayed perfectly still, pretending to be meek and timid like my Gran-Gran advised. The Fire Nation royalty was obsessed with jingoism when it came to foreigners and women, she told me. It was better not to speak at all than to be turned out, which would ruin the fragile peace I'd brought with me when I came.
Zuko and his uncle—whom I presumed was the Fire Lord's brother—talked for a long time, and I did my best to keep from eavesdropping. It was difficult. Especially when Zuko's uncle complimented me and I had no idea what to do. But he laughed it off, anyway. He patted Zuko's shoulder and wished us a happy marriage. He said he wanted grandnieces and grandnephews and then he laughed again. I began to twitch.
After Zuko's rather blunt uncle was finished, dinner was served and he walked leisurely to his seat by the head of the table. What was once a forthcoming, lively room turned into a silent one when the Fire Lord, dressed lavishly and accompanied by a couple of guards, floated in. Everyone murmured their respects, but I just bowed my head once more since I didn't know what to say. When the Fire Lord sat, he looked around the table and his gaze rested intently on me. I knew he could somehow see the blue of my eyes through the gap with which I was looking at him, but I couldn't look away.
The Fire Lord's golden eyes practically burned with reproach; he glared at me until there was nothing left to glare at. Finally, his eyes moved on and I released a large breath that I hadn't realized I was holding in. I must have been purple.
Some of the Fire Lord's hair was done in an elaborate topknot, I noticed as he glanced around, and the rest was hanging loosely down his back. He had the blackest, sleekest hair I had ever seen, and his face was made of the same angles as Zuko's. A guard leaned down and whispered in his ear. His gaze brushed over me once more. He looked disgusted. I very nearly ripped off the headdress and stared right back.
He cleared his throat when the guard was finished talking, and a gong sounded. Fifty or more servants filed into the room, bowed, and proceeded to place plates piled high with food in front of us. I shrunk back at the enormous white-tailed salmon bass in front of me. How did fish even get that big? Must have had something to do with the climate, I thought.
Soon, people were chatting eagerly again, small spots of talk interspersed with crunching noises, and immediately I felt alone. Ty Lee wasn't anywhere to be seen, and neither were Mai or Azula. It was very strange, I thought. But I jumped when a finger poked a sensitive spot on my side.
"Hey! Aren't you eating, Sweetness?"
I looked over on my right to see a girl of about fourteen stuffing her face with food.
She's so tiny, I mused.
"My name isn't Sweetness," I said, pursing my lips where no one could see them. "It's Katara."
She finally looked up past her long, black bangs, and I saw that her eyes were a milky-green color. Blind. She smiled broadly and jabbed me again, making me giggle involuntarily, before announcing, "And I'm Toph. The best earthbender in the world. Just for future reference."
And I was back in dreamland. I was having an extravagant dinner in a bright room and talking to a nice girl, my mind rationalized, so why not have fun? I poked her in the side, too. She looked shocked and thus began our small poke-war. It ended badly. By badly I mean I hit my plate with my elbow and a fish eye flew across the table. I never found out where it landed, but one of the gossiping girls I'd noticed shrieked indignantly.
After that I finally got the courage to speak to Zuko, but one word came out of my mouth before he put down his chopsticks and said:
"Don't talk to me."
Needless to say my bravado was deflated. But instead of saying so, I turned my head back to my plate. I wished I could have slumped when I looked back at Toph. It would have conveyed my embarrassment. But the corset shaped my spine the right way and gave me another reason to hate it passionately.
"That was pitiful," Toph said conversationally, picking at her fish. "Everyone knows you're not supposed to talk to him yet."
My blush faded a little, replaced with curiosity. I blinked.
"No. You're not married. He's not even supposed to know what you look like. It might be different in the wastelands, Sweetness, but that's how it is here. At least they don't require you to have bound feet anymore." Toph poked at her rice bowl before picking it up and eating again.
I waited for her to finish, then asked quietly, "Bound feet?"
"Oh, yeah," Toph said, and wiped her mouth on her crimson daxiushan's sleeve. "Only did it little kids, though, because the tinier the foot, the more marriageable you were. They take your toes, and bend them under so they get as close to your heel as possible. Wrap them in cloth to keep them that way and after a while of walking like that, the bones break. My mom had to be tied to a chair while hers were getting done, because she kept unraveling the bindings. Hurts a lot, she said. But they outlawed it everywhere about twenty years ago."
It sounded horrible. And it ruined my appetite. Toph, though not sounding forceful about it, went on talking about infection and how the bones eventually came through the skin, perfume to cover the smell and special tiny shoes.
"All their weight was eventually put on their big toes," she said, took a drink of tea from her cup, and sighed. "Well. Now you know something disgusting about the Earth and Fire Nations. Anything gross about the Water Tribes?"
I had to think about this. Living there my whole life, nothing seemed out of place. I picked the one thing my Tribe did that I never opted to do.
"Our warriors eat the raw hearts of animals they hunt." I said this thoughtfully, knowing they did it nowhere else in the world (but I hadn't ever been to the Northern Tribe, so I couldn't say the same for them). Toph laughed.
My response came instantly. "To honor them."
I'd been taught that to kill an animal was to release its spirit from a mortal bind. To bless it, and acknowledge its death, was to grant it a safe journey to the afterlife. The warriors ate the hearts so that the spirits had nothing earthly to cling to, allowing them peace and not keeping them in one place. It was noble, I knew. But I could never bring myself to kill an animal. I just dealt with them after they had died.
Toph's body language told me she was confused. But she shrugged, said 'okay,' and drank the rest of her tea, her hands hovering over an empty plate; legs folded under her and back perfectly straight. I knew she was through talking, and now she was waiting for the next course. One look under my headdress showed me that Zuko was doing the same. But he was slightly inclined toward me, and I bit my lip to hide a smirk. I heard him clear his throat. He said a single word. I was prepared.
"…Don't talk to me."
And there you have it. (I want to commemorate my friend Zuzubirds for going over this with me, cuz I was completely lost at where to begin. Thanks, dear!)
And thanks to all you who reviewed before, and added this story to your favorites and alerts. ;)