As soon as Zuko had finished presented baby Roku to his people and left the balcony to go back inside the palace, Aang had zipped straight to his permanent guest suite, put on his Fire Nation hat and clothes, and gone out to mingle with the populace disguised as an ordinary teenager. Not for the purpose of grabbing more of those tasty little lion-turtle cakes (though he'd certainly had more while he was out there,) but to overhear what people were really saying about Zuko and his son after the ceremony, when they thought no one was paying attention to them anymore.
While Zuko and everybody else had been traveling by yacht to the Fire Nation, Aang had visited two of the soon-to-be-former Fire Nation colonies with the happy news that the treaty had finally been signed, and everyone who wanted to stay in their homes when the Earth Kingdom took over the land would be allowed to do so, as Earth Kingdom citizens. He'd also conveyed the sad news about what had happened to Mai; official notices of her death had been sent out weeks ago, but given that she'd died in Ba Sing Se, he wanted to make sure everyone knew that what had happened hadn't been the Earth Kingdom's fault at all, and Kuei and Song had actually done everything they could to help.
Both times, the colonial governors had quietly accepted all the news he had to give them… until he'd told them that there should be no concerns about the rules of succession for Zuko's son, at least over baby Roku having been born on foreign soil, because it had become Fire Nation soil when Zuko had 'conquered' a room in the Earth King's palace just before his birth. Then they'd gotten upset, even if they'd tried to hide it at first.
In Yu Dao, he'd told the colonial governor the news over dinner with the man's family, and the man's teenaged daughter had been so mad she'd jumped up and started shouting, even when her mother had been hissing for her to sit down and quit making a spectacle of herself. "So he'll fight the Earth Kingdom for his son's sake, but he won't fight for us, his loyal citizens?! He doesn't deserve our loyalty!"
"But he did fight for you all!" Aang had insisted. "If he hadn't, you wouldn't even have your homes anymore; there are a lot of people in the Earth Kingdom who just want you all to go back to the Fire Nation and leave the land to them!" He should know; he'd broken up a lot of riots and not-so-peaceful protests in the past year and a half, and more than half of them had been started by Earth Kingdom people demanding that the Fire Nation colonists be driven out immediately, no matter what their king said. Some had even wanted the colonists physically pushed out to sea, without a ship under them.
The governor and his wife had gotten their daughter to sit down and be quiet, but the rest of the meal had been ruined and Aang had made his goodbyes as soon as he could afterwards. Now as he wandered the streets of the city's capital, he kept his ears open for more grumblings of discontent and unhappiness with Zuko… But everybody he walked past seemed to be just happy that Roku was alive and thriving, despite being born so early. That was a relief; Zuko really didn't need anyone starting riots right outside his gates again. Especially when he was so overprotective of Roku right now; there was no telling how he might react!
Aang decided that when he left tomorrow to finish making his rounds of the colonies, he'd tell people that instead of having 'conquered' it, Fire Lord Zuko had just gratefully accepted the Earth King's gift of the room as Fire Nation territory for his son. That was really what had happened anyway; the arm-wrestling had mostly been for show. And maybe if he emphasized Kuei's generosity more, the colonists would start thinking that being ruled by the Earth King instead of the Fire Lord wouldn't be so bad after all.
The day after his return to the Fire Nation, Zuko held his first council meeting in over six weeks. The meeting started with the council members expressing their personal condolences on the loss of Fire Lady Mai, and their congratulations on the Fire Lord having sired a healthy son; Zuko gravely thanked them for both before calling the meeting to order, with his uncle Iroh seated in a place of honor by his side.
It was clear that several council members were affected by the presence of the Dragon of the West, who had once been the crown prince and heir to the throne under Fire Lord Azulon, as well as a mighty general in the Fire Nation Army. Some council members seemed wary and intimidated by him, some almost hostile, but others were openly pleased and even relieved by his presence. Sometime during the session, one advisor made the mistake of addressing question about a policy change directly to Iroh, instead of to Zuko…
He did not make that mistake again. Zuko and Iroh together made it very clear that despite his recent personal tragedy, Zuko was still the Fire Lord and firmly in charge. Iroh was there to support and advise his nephew, providing his unique and valuable perspective on Fire Nation relations with the Earth Kingdom, nothing more.
While the council meeting was still going on, Aang kissed Katara goodbye before leaping up onto Appa and taking the reins with a cheery "Yip yip!" The sky bison and rider soared away to the east and the colonies; Katara waved until they were out of sight, then returned to the nursery where Roku was sleeping under Suki's watchful eye.
Just a few minutes after taking over Roku-minding from Suki, Katara responded to a knock on the door to see Kumo, the palace majordomo, standing there with four women lined up behind him. Katara thought she recognized one of them, a petite and elderly woman with care-worn features, from yesterday; she'd glimpsed Iroh personally escorting her, while patting her hand and talking to her in low comforting tones, to the stone-floored room where the Dai Li were interviewing all the servants who'd been hired in the past year.
The elderly woman bowed, somewhat slowly and stiffly, as Kumo introduced her first out of the four. "Lady Katara, this is Yukiko, who was once nanny to Fire Lord Zuko when he was a child; she will be working with you in minding the infant prince. Yukiko, meet your superior in the nursery, Lady Katara of the Southern Water Tribe."
"I'm pleased to meet you!" Katara said warmly, to counter that snobbish-sounding word 'superior' and the nervous look in the elderly woman's eyes. Yukiko bowed and responded in kind, though her voice quavered a little; Katara couldn't decide if it was from age or fear.
Then Kumo introduced the other three women, all of whom were only a few years older than Katara and were looking at her with politely-disguised curiosity instead of nervousness. "This is Koemi, who will be your personal maid for dressing and toiletry. Chiyo and Misa will be your house maids, for cleaning your room and the nursery; Misa is also trained to assist Koemi in personal services as required." As Kumo gestured to them in turn, all three women bowed to her and murmured greetings. "All of them have passed the Dai Li's interviews, and so can begin serving you now."
Katara kept the smile on her face, though she could feel it straining to become a look of bewilderment. When she'd stayed in the palace before, in the first few weeks after the war had been won, she and Suki had together been assigned a housemaid for keeping their adjoining rooms clean and thought that a nice luxury indeed. After the last year spent tidying up after a steadily increasing band of children and teenagers, having someone tidy up after Katara instead had been an utter delight! But really, just that one maid—Namiko, if Katara remembered her name right—had been enough for both of them. But now Katara was going to have four servants underfoot, assigned just to her?
Assigned to her and Roku, Katara reminded herself, and Roku was Fire Nation royalty. All royal children were probably assigned multiple servants instead of just one wet-nurse to do everything; Katara had noticed before that Zuko was usually surrounded by servants (unless he specifically told them to leave him alone), each one with a different and specific job to do for him. It was more likely that Yukiko, Chiyo and Misa were really there for Roku instead of for her, but Kumo had introduced them as her servants because she'd be the one talking to them on Roku's behalf.
After the introductions, Kumo bowed and departed, leaving Katara staring at all the servants she'd suddenly acquired and wondering what to do next. But luckily, the servants themselves seemed to know just what to do; Chiyo and Misa started bustling about the nursery and straightening things up, while Koemi excused herself through the doorway to Katara's room with a murmur that with milady's permission, she would familiarize herself with Katara's wardrobe in order to better assist with personal services whenever milady so desired.
Yukiko approached the crib, with a timid backwards glance at Katara, but was instantly and clearly captivated by her first sight of the baby lying within. "Ohh, aren't you an adorable little one," she crooned, her voice so warm and grandmotherly that for a bare instant Katara thought her own Gran-Gran was somehow there looking through Yukiko's eyes.
Katara sidled up next to her and joined her in gazing at the sleeping baby. "He sure is," she agreed softly. "Did Zuko look like him when he was a baby?"
"Oh, yes, he-" and then Yukiko seemed to catch herself, her expression turning timid and wary again. "I would say that there is some family resemblance, milady," as she looked at Katara out of the corner of her eye. "But General Iroh did not tell me that Fire Lord Zuko has granted permission to speak of his childhood days, and I would not dare to presume."
Ojia at her most timid hadn't been like this, Katara thought with unease curdling her stomach. It reminded her of the days right after Sozin's Comet, when nearly every Fire Nation native she'd seen had either glared at her, a 'foreign barbarian,' in hatred or tried to hide from her in fear. By the time she'd visited again for Zuko's wedding to Mai, people's attitudes had improved a lot and some citizens had even smiled at her, but now… What was Yukiko so scared of? Of Zuko, the former 'traitor prince' who was now her sovereign ruler, or of Katara, the fearsome master waterbender who had defeated Princess Azula? And how had she passed the Dai Li's interviews and been judged 'safe to employ in the nursery' if she had so much fear of either one of them?
At dinnertime that evening, Iroh joined Sokka, Suki and Katara in the grand dining hall but said with regret that he could not pry Zuko away from his desk; the Fire Lord had come home to an office stacked shoulder-high with paperwork all demanding his royal attention, and declared that he hadn't made enough headway yet to give himself a break.
Carrying Roku in his baby sling, Katara grimaced at the news; she hadn't seen Zuko since early that morning, when he'd stopped by the nursery before breakfast to give his son a quick kiss and cuddle before hurrying off to a council meeting. She hadn't seen him at lunchtime, and by skipping dinner, Zuko was missing out on another opportunity to be with his son; she hoped he didn't make a habit of this.
The dinner menu that night included stewed sea prunes, to Sokka and Katara's delight, though Suki greeted them with a more rueful smile. Iroh politely tried a sample at Katara's urging, paused, and then said with a smile that he was well acquainted with Sokka's prodigious appetite, and he wouldn't dream of depriving a growing warrior of his favorite food.
"Well, my absolute favorite food is blubbered seal jerky," Sokka said after due consideration, "but I appreciate the sentiment!" as he gestured for the servant who was gingerly carrying the bowl of sea prunes at arm's length to bring it back in his direction.
After dinner, Iroh accompanied Katara and the others back to the nursery. Katara murmured to Sokka that they needed some space for talking, and he nodded to her before giving Suki a meaningful glance. Changing their walking paces, the two warriors casually got between Katara and their retinue of servants while 'accidentally' nudging Iroh closer to her. Not at all oblivious to the maneuvering, Iroh raised a bushy eyebrow to Katara in silent question, inclining his head to her in unspoken encouragement to speak her mind. She said in a near-whisper, "About Yukiko… I know Roku's safe around her, or she'd have never made it past the interviews, but she seems so scared to be here; do you know why? Did something happen to her?"
Iroh frowned as he admitted, "I do not know for certain. She was nanny to Lu Ten when he was a child, and did so well for him that I recommended her to Ursa when she was pregnant with Zuko. Yukiko was a nanny to Zuko, and to Azula was well, for nearly seven years; I do not recall Ursa ever voicing any complaints about her. But something happened a few weeks after I left for the campaign against Ba Sing Se, and she was dismissed from service. Ursa did not say why, in the letter she sent that mentioned her leaving; only that Zuko missed her and she was having some difficulty distracting him from asking about her."
"I saw you escorting her to the Dai Li's interviewing room; did she say anything unusual while you were bringing her up to the palace?" Katara asked quietly.
"Actually, I just escorted her from the servants' quarters, where Kumo had already settled her. Even before Ojia's abrupt departure, I'd sent a message to the majordomo asking if he could find her and see if she was still in good health, ready and willing to return to service." Iroh's eyes unfocused for a moment as he looked into his memories. "Kumo's return letter said that he'd found her living in the city's poorest quarter, destitute and desperate… but even in such a reduced state, helping another beggar-woman care for her toddler who'd fallen ill. And when Kumo relayed my offer to return to service in the palace, Yukiko actually dared to demand of him her first week's wages in advance, which she then spent at an apothecary to get medicine for the young mother's boy."
Katara smiled at the anecdote, proof that Yukiko did indeed have spirit, and a deep well of compassion for children. But that didn't explain what the old woman was so afraid of… Well, she'd just have to be patient and gain the elderly nanny's trust, and wait for Yukiko herself to explain.
Late that evening, after little Roku had been fed and put to bed, Katara left the baby in Yukiko's care while she went to talk to her brother, whose shift guarding the nursery had ended an hour ago. She beckoned Suki along, and the Kyoshi warrior followed her to Sokka's new and luxurious suite.
Sokka and Katara got into an argument of some sort behind closed doors; no one else except Suki knew the details, and when she added her voice to Katara's side of the discussion, Sokka finally threw his hands in the air and gave in, looking decidedly upset. He went to Zuko's office afterwards, found the Fire Lord behind the towering stacks of paperwork and said only, "Suki and I need fifty gold pieces, a full day off tomorrow for shopping, and no questions asked. Seriously, do not ask what's going on; all I can tell you is that it's something for Katara."
Zuko blinked at him a couple times, then shrugged and gave him a note for Kumo ordering the disbursement of fifty gold pieces, some of which Sokka exchanged with the majordomo for silver and copper pieces. And right after breakfast the next morning, Sokka headed into the city's markets with Suki at his side, his expression almost as grim and reluctant as if he was heading off to war… or his own execution.
Zuko had missed breakfast with his friends and family that morning as well, already embroiled in a tight schedule of meetings and appointments that had started at dawn. But in the late morning, he took a break from his schedule and told his majordomo and advisors to consider him unavailable for the next hour. Kumo bowed acceptance; one of his advisors started to protest, but subsided after only one irritated glare from his sovereign ruler.
Zuko strode into the nursery and was pleased to see that his son was awake; Katara had him on her lap and was showing him a board-book of pictures, naming common objects for him. "Hello again, precious boy," Zuko crooned as he picked Roku up and cradled him in his arms. Then he said to Katara with a smile, "Come with me, and bring a baby blanket; I want to show you both something."
Trailed by the bodyguards, Zuko led Katara a short ways through the palace, to a door that opened out to a private garden; one with trees, flowering shrubs, a small ornate gazebo and a fair-sized pond. "Ohh, how lovely!" Katara exclaimed happily as she looked around. "This is even more beautiful than the courtyard with the fountain that you showed us before."
"That one is for guests and formal events. This garden is private, for the royal family only, but as far as I'm concerned you're family now," Zuko said as he strode onto the grass with his son in his arms, cradling Roku so the baby was facing outwards. "You, Sokka and Suki are welcome to come here whenever you like… Look around, Roku. This was my favorite place to be, when I was a little boy. My mother—your grandmother—and I spent a lot of time here; talking, playing games like hide and seek in the bushes, feeding the turtle-ducks… See them, swimming in the pond? Those are turtle-ducks. When you're old enough, you'll be able to feed them too."
"They're so cute!" Katara cooed as she walked over to the pond, eyeing the small creatures with cream-yellow plumage, soft-looking bills and green shells on their backs; there was one large one and six little ones swimming about the pond. "Ohh, it's a mother and her babies!"
The mother had just laid her eggs when I left for the treaty signing in Ba Sing Se; they probably hatched the week before we—uh, Katara, you shouldn't…"
But Katara wasn't paying attention to Zuko just then; she was murmuring, "So darling," as she used a little waterbending to scoop the closest baby turtle-duck out of the water and bring it up to her face level. The baby turtle-duck quacked frantically, but she said reassuringly as she cupped it and stroked its tiny head, "Sshh, I won't hurt you, little one; I onlyyyowch!" she shouted as her ankle came under a sudden and painful assault. She looked down to see the mother turtle-duck hissing as it struck at her again, jabbing her ankle with that not-so-soft-after-all bill while beating at her with its stubby flippered forelimbs.
"Don't hurt her!" Zuko almost shouted as he started to run towards her, then reconsidered and drew back with Roku cradled protectively in his arms. "Don't hurt her! Katara, put the baby back in the water!"
In her surprise she nearly flung the baby turtle-duck back into the water; it splashed in while quacking up a tiny storm, then quickly righted itself, while the mother just redoubled her efforts to drive Katara away from the pond.
"Here, milady, let me," an imperial guard said hurriedly as he trotted over to them. He crouched down and pried the mother turtle-duck away from her, handling the creature firmly but with great care. "Easy there, little mother! Your baby's safe; now go check on him," the guardsman said as he tossed the turtle-duck into the pond, to land with furious quacks right next to where the babies were swimming. After settling back into the water, the mother turtle-duck gave one last hiss and evil glare at Katara, then quacked sharply and all the babies fell into line behind her as she swam away.
"Thank you, Taro," Zuko said with relief; the guardsman responded with a deep bow and a murmur that it was his honor to serve.
"I thought they were tame!" Katara said with outrage as she massaged her sore ankle, pulling a little water from the pond for healing the bruises already forming. "Like the guinea-pigeons at the Earth King's palace!"
"They are tame, but she's a mother, and you're a stranger to her; she saw a stranger grabbing one of her babies, so of course she attacked!" Zuko said indignantly. "That's what mothers do!"
"You're right; I'm sorry," Katara said with chagrin. She gazed after the turtle-ducks with regret. "I… it sounds silly, but I wish I could apologize to her."
"Bring some bread crusts with you next time you come out here," Zuko suggested. "And be patient; the first few times, just toss the bread onto the water, and don't do any bending or make any moves that could be interpreted as an attack. It takes time to gain their trust, particularly after bad first impressions," as he gave a rueful grin, the look in his eyes suggesting he was thinking of more than just turtle-ducks, "but it's worth it."
Then Zuko led her back into and through the palace, to emerge from another door into a large oval-shaped arena, with high stone walls and the ground covered with sand. "This is a firebending training area," he explained. "There are two on the palace grounds; this one facing the sunrise and another one facing the sunset. And now this one is a multi-bending area!" He pointed to various features as he continued, "I had those piles of rocks brought in for the Dai Li to practice with, and see those four giant urns, two at each end? They're all filled with water; that's about a thousand gallons' worth for you to use when you practice. I know you'd prefer a running water source," as he gave her an apologetic glance, "but the royal engineers aren't here right now; I sent them to deal with a crumbling dam on Denchi Island. But when they get back, they can start designing-"
"What you have here is just fine, Zuko," Katara interrupted him with a warm and comforting squeeze on his forearm. "It's better practice for me to use a finite source of water anyway; I can't always count on finding the bad guys next to a lake or stream." She almost asked if he wanted to spar right then and there; she missed the sparring sessions they used to have while hiding on Ember Island during the last weeks of the war. But he was still wearing his royal robes, and they had Roku with them; sparring would have to wait for another day.
When they returned to the nursery, Yukiko was back inside the suite, having stepped out to get a fresh stack of diapers when Zuko had arrived earlier. The nanny bowed deeply to the Fire Lord when he came in, but Zuko stopped in his tracks at the sight of her, his expression becoming a mix of curiosity… and wariness, even though he towered over the petite and elderly woman. "You would be Yukiko, the old family servant that my uncle sought out, to assist Katara in minding Roku?" as he clasped his infant son just a little closer to his chest, as he did at the sight of any stranger.
"I am, my lord," Yukiko said simply, bowing again.
"You don't recognize her, Zuko?" Katara asked with more than a trace of disappointment.
Zuko gave both Katara and Yukiko a look of apology as he mumbled sheepishly, "There were a lot of servants in the palace back then."
Probably even more servants than there were right now, given that the royal family had been much larger when Zuko had been a boy. But still, Katara thought Zuko should have recognized a servant who'd taken care of him for the first six years of his life! Then an idea struck her, and she said casually, "Zuko, have you tried out the rocking chair yet?"
The rocking chair was still a novelty to Katara; she'd never seen one before her visit to the Earth King's palace, where one had been installed in the Earth Prince's nursery. Queen Song had said it had been a gift from the Mechanist to celebrate Prince Qingshan's birth, an invention to make it easier to rock children to sleep when they were fussy. (Sokka had commented that it had been an improvement on the first version that he'd seen when they'd visited the Northern Air Temple during the war; the first version had rocked in a side-to-side motion, but people kept unbalancing and tipping out of it during testing.) Iroh had tried out the rocking chair during their stay in the palace, and become so enamored of it that he'd commissioned two Ba Sing Se furniture makers to make another one just like it for Roku's nursery in the Fire Nation. The craftsmen had finished it two days before their departure, and it had traveled to the Fire Nation in the small cargo hold of Zuko's yacht.
Katara had gingerly tried out the rocking chair for the first time yesterday, and found that the rocking motion was indeed quite soothing after she got used to it. At her suggestion now, Zuko hesitated while giving the unusual chair a wary glance, but handed Roku over to her and, moving slowly and carefully, sat down in the chair and gave it a few trial pushes with his feet. After several seconds of gentle rocking back and forth, his doubtful frown relaxed into a not-quite-smile as he commented, "It's a little like being at sea, when the waves rock the boat."
Once he was completely relaxed, Katara stepped up and handed over the baby… but instead of handing him to Zuko, whose arms were already reaching up for him, she handed Roku over to Yukiko who'd been silently standing by. Yukiko looked startled, but automatically accepted the baby being handed to her, and just as automatically smiled down at little Roku in his blanket.
Now that Zuko was looking up at Yukiko from his seated position, and she was smiling… He gave a shocked gasp of recognition and blurted out, "Nan'Yeeko!"
Yukiko gave a start of surprise, but directed a timid smile at her sovereign as she commented, "That is what you called me as a child, my lord."
"I remember you now," Zuko said with a nostalgic smile. "You and Nan'Keiko; one of you was always in here with…" his voice trailed off as he began to look embarrassed; then he asked sheepishly, "Did I get her name wrong too?"
Yukiko's smile became indulgent. "No, she was indeed named Keiko. But I never minded the mispronunciation, my lord; it's quite common for children to make such mistakes."
Now that she knew Zuko had some good memories of Yukiko from his childhood, Katara saw her opportunity and grabbed for it with inner glee. "Zuko, would you give Yukiko permission to tell me about what life in this nursery was like when you were a child? Without your direct permission, she's afraid to even say whether or not you looked like Roku when you were a baby."
Zuko frowned again, started to refuse… and then gave a deep sigh as he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "If I say 'no', you're just going to start pestering Uncle Iroh for stories of my childhood, aren't you?"
"Yup!" Katara admitted cheerfully.
"And Uncle Iroh not only knows no shame, he loves to exaggerate when he can get away with it. So…" He looked up at Yukiko imploringly. "You can talk about me and Azula when we were kids, but nothing too embarrassing, okay? No stories that you wouldn't want people hearing about you instead."
"As you wish, my lord," Yukiko said with another bow, and another small smile dancing on her lips.
Just before dinner, Katara went to the guards' living quarters to give the guard captain Hoshi another water-healing session, speeding up the remaining healing process for the bones he'd broken in an assassination attempt nearly two months ago. Hoshi started to protest all the special treatment he was getting, but Katara told him bluntly to not be an idiot; the sooner he was fully healed, the sooner he could resume his full duties as Captain of the Imperial Guard, and the safer Fire Lord Zuko would be. Hoshi shut up and let Katara do her work.
While Katara was busy with water-healing, Sokka and Suki came back from a full day of shopping, with sacks full of the oddest things; waterskins by the dozen, a bundle of hollow reeds, supple willow branches, several small jars of tree resin, and a stack of cow-pig hides that had been tanned to the finest leather.
Sokka took everything into his suite, and for the next few days whenever he was finished with his guard duties he'd disappear in there, shoo out the servants that had been assigned to him and lock the door, only opening it for Suki.
The next morning while changing Roku's diaper, Yukiko took off the soiled garment but didn't get the clean one in place as a shield quite fast enough, and in perfect innocence, the second he was exposed to the air Roku let fly. Katara stepped though the passageway between her room and the nursery just in time to hear Yukiko's exclamation of dismay, and looked up to see the line of wetness now streaking right up the elder nanny's tunic.
"Roku, you naughty boy!" she said with a suppressed giggle, as she hurried to the changing table. Sokka was right; it was funny when it happened to somebody else for a change! "He's done that to me at least three times," she confided in an attempt to console Yukiko.
"It's all part of raising a male child," Yukiko said with a wry expression as she continued changing the baby's diaper despite what had just happened. "Every baby boy I've ever diapered has managed to score on me at least once… and yes, that includes the Fire Lord when he was a babe. Though his elder cousin, Lu Ten, was far worse; that boy seemed able to sense whenever I was wearing new clothes, and positively delighted in gracing them with his royal emissions…"
Katara grinned, delighted not so much with the anecdote of royal baby antics, but with the easy way Yukiko was talking to her, as an equal. It seemed that so long as the elderly woman was preoccupied with a task, she lost all her timidity around Katara. If only she could keep that self-confidence when there was nothing going on…
After Roku was changed and put back in his crib, Katara gathered a globe of water from the basin she always kept filled on a shelf and offered, "Here, take your tunic off and I can wash the pee out of it right now. Don't worry, I can dry it with waterbending too; that's just a matter of bending the water away again."
But Yukiko hesitated, blushing and almost cringing away. "I wouldn't want to bother you; I can simply go change in the servant quarters…"
"It's no bother, really!" Katara insisted. "And if it's your modesty you're concerned about, the only boy in the room is Roku, and he'll never remember it when he's older. Come on, I could use the bending practice," she wheedled, though really she just wanted an excuse to be helpful to Yukiko, in hopes of earning her trust more quickly.
Yukiko finally gave in and took her tunic off, though instead of turning away in shyness she kept facing Katara the whole while. She handed the tunic over and then quickly backed up a step, perhaps to give Katara more space to work in.
Katara held up the tunic with one hand and did her bending with the other, sending water over and through the fabric again and again to wash all traces of urine away, as well as all the other minor stains and odors that people get when minding infants. It took less than a minute to get the tunic completely clean, and just a few seconds more for Katara to bend the water out of the tunic to get it completely dry. But just as she was finishing up, Roku let out a wail of distress from his crib.
Both women automatically turned towards the crib, responding to the baby's cry, but Yukiko was a few steps closer. She reached the crib ahead of Katara—who gasped sharply at what the view before her:
Yukiko's back was a mass of scars. Cruel streaks of faded red that crisscrossed her back from shoulders to waist, disappearing under the strip of her breast bindings to emerge on the other side. "Mighty La, who did this to you?!" Katara almost shrieked in outrage.
Shrieking in outrage tends to get an adverse reaction when there are guards on the other side of the door. Taro the palace guardsman and Huong the Dai Li agent together almost burst the door open and charged inside, demanding to know what was wrong.
Yukiko had been about to pick Roku up, to see what was wrong with him, but when the door burst open she instinctively spun around to face it, keeping between the intruders and the infant. But that left her standing there almost naked from the waist up; Yukiko blushed deep red while crossing her arms in front of her chest and muttered… something that Katara hoped she hadn't heard right, because you're not supposed to use language like that around babies!
Blushing at least as red as Yukiko and babbling a mile a minute in her embarrassment, Katara assured the guards that the baby was safe and they could go back outside, right now please, while she and Yukiko saw to Roku. Politely averting their eyes from Yukiko's state of undress, the guards bowed and left almost as quickly as they came.
Yukiko grabbed her tunic when Katara blushingly proffered it, and put it back on without another word while Katara saw to Roku. The baby's wail of distress was apparently from having soiled another diaper, less than ten minutes after they'd put a fresh one on him; instead of pee, now they had a load of runny and smelly poop to deal with. Katara changed him this time, and after he was cleaned up and calmed down again, she rested him on her shoulder while she turned to face Yukiko.
She'd been thinking furiously while changing Roku's diaper, and now she wanted her suspicions confirmed. She asked quietly, "That happened the last time you were employed here, didn't it?"
She didn't need to clarify what 'that' was. Yukiko jerkily nodded in response.
"Do… would you like to talk about it?"
Yukiko sharply shook her head.
Then they heard a knock on the door, and Agent Huong's voice: "Ladies, may I come in?" Katara gave permission, and the Dai Li agent entered with a grave expression.
He bowed to the elderly nanny, a bow of respect deeper than one normally gave a servant, before asking quietly, "She saw your back?"
Yukiko turned her head away, but that was answer enough. "I saw," Katara grimly confirmed. "Huong, do you know how that happened?"
"I do; a large part of her interview concerned her prior employment here. And after the interview, I spoke with Kumo and other servants who were on the staff at the time, to learn more of what happened than Yukiko herself knew. Miss Yukiko, I remember how difficult it was for you to speak of that incident… and I believe Lady Katara has information you need to hear. Permission to speak on your behalf?"
Yukiko was visibly reluctant, but finally gave permission in a near-whisper. Huong turned to Katara and said, "Twelve years ago, two weeks after her fourth birthday, Princess Azula began firebending. That's a very early age for bending; most children don't begin showing bending talent until they're five or six. The princess was a firebending prodigy, but as a four-year-old, she lacked the self-control of older children. And just a week after she began bending, she got into a sibling squabble with her brother, then-Prince Zuko... and threw a tiny fireball at his head."
Katara gasped sharply, but Huong continued, "He ducked in time, and came to no harm. But the incident happened in this very room, with the nannies Yukiko and Keiko both present. Yukiko scolded the princess for firebending at her brother, whose bending had not emerged yet. And she spanked her firebending hand for emphasis," as he demonstrated with a slap on the back of his own left hand, the sort that parents often administer to children who are misbehaving. "With that the nannies thought the incident over, and soon afterwards Prince Zuko's tutor came and took him to his beginning calligraphy lessons. But a short while later, the former Prince Ozai visited the nursery to take his daughter out for another beginner's lesson in firebending. And when Princess Azula saw her father, she cried that Yukiko had struck her."
"Ohh, Great Tui," Katara groaned, her stomach sinking; after learning just how Zuko had become so scarred, she was all too sure now where this was leading.
"Both the nannies tried to explain, but Ozai refused to listen to the servants he considered so far beneath him… or perhaps, given his actions years later, he simply didn't care that the firebending prodigy he favored, had nearly burned another offspring who had still not proven himself a firebender worthy of the royal line," Huong grimly speculated. "Either way, Ozai declared that no matter why she'd done it, Yukiko had struck someone of royal blood, and her life was forfeit for it."
Ignoring the involuntary gasp of horror that hissed from between Katara's teeth, the Dai Li agent continued, "He dragged her out to the nearest courtyard, ignoring her pleas for mercy and the horrified looks from every servant they passed along the way. He threw her to the ground of the courtyard, formed whips of fire with his bending, and began lashing her with them. He scored seven lashes on her back, and he would probably have killed her outright, if his wife hadn't come out into the courtyard to stop him; Keiko had run to Lady Ursa for help while Yukiko was still being dragged outside.
"Lady Ursa pointed out to Ozai that his father the Fire Lord and his older brother the Crown Prince had both recommended Yukiko's hire as their nanny, and if he killed a servant they both appreciated he'd have to answer to them for it… but they would probably say nothing if he just dismissed her for not meeting his personal standards. Then Ozai turned away from Yukiko, who'd already been terribly burned, and told the servants nearby to 'toss that trash outside the gates. And never speak of her again, or of what happened today, if you value your own lives and employment!' Given what Ozai had just demonstrated in front of far too many of them, they had no choice but to obey. Yukiko was carried outside the palace and left just on the other side of the palace gates, with no medical care for her injuries until a sympathetic guardsman could discreetly arrange for two delivery boys, who had just brought fresh produce to the palace, to take her in their cart to the nearest hospital."
Huong paused to give a heavy sigh, looking somewhat ill. "And by all reports, little Princess Azula had followed her father and Yukiko to the courtyard, and she saw the whole thing. One witness told me she was smiling, but another said she just looked fascinated, like a child might if she didn't really understand what was going on. But either way, she saw the whole affair, and showed no remorse over it."
"Somehow, I'm not surprised," Katara said with a shake of her head. She wondered exactly what lessons Azula had learned that day: that her family had the right to be cruel to anybody they didn't like? That her firebending was more important than her brother's wellbeing? …Probably both, she decided, before turning to Yukiko where the nanny stood with downcast eyes. "No wonder you've been so scared these last few days; I'm honestly surprised you returned here at all, after being treated so horribly before!"
After a short but painful silence, Yukiko admitted with a sigh, "I was desperate. After what had happened, even after I healed enough to walk and serve again, no noble family would hire me. I spent the next decade in…" Her voice trailed off; then she shook her head before saying, "The majordomo swore to me that Fire Lord Zuko is very different from his father, and he promised me enough money to help another family in desperate need, so I decided to take a chance."
Katara took Yukiko's hands and clasped them in hers, staring into the other woman's eyes as she said earnestly, "Kumo is right, Zuko is nothing like his father. Yes, he has a temper sometimes, but he genuinely cares about people; he'd never, ever do something like that to you! Even if you have to slap Roku's hands someday, as a lesson to not hurt others; I'm sure Zuko gets that sometimes little children don't understand consequences for other people, but they do understand 'if I do that, my hand will sting later, so I'd better not do that again'. And he's told me himself he wants to raise Roku to be a good man, responsible and caring, the way a future Fire Lord should be."
Huong spoke up again with, "Lady Katara speaks as Fire Lord Zuko's personal friend, Miss Yukiko, but I speak as a long-time veteran of the City Guard of Ba Sing Se, as well as an agent of the New Dai Li. I've seen a lot of bad men over the last two decades, and a lot of good men as well. And I can assure you, Fire Lord Zuko is indeed not the type of man who would ever hurt you like that." He paused a beat before admitting with a wry expression, "Assuming you never actually hurt the baby, that is; if you ever leave so much as a bruise on him, you'd better have your bags packed. But the worst this Fire Lord would ever do is dismiss you from service again; there will be no fire-whips involved."
Yukiko gave them a tiny smile and words of thanks; Katara could see that there was still some doubt lingering in her eyes, but hopefully more time would erase those doubts. She asked, "Huong, who among the Dai Li knows Yukiko's story?"
"Just Phan and I, milady, since we did her interview; we haven't had any reason to tell Renshu and Gouliang yet."
"Okay. Since Zuko didn't start apologizing the moment he recognized you, Yukiko, I'm sure he was never told just what had happened to you, only that you left unexpectedly."
"Which is just what your fellow nanny Keiko did less than two weeks afterwards," Huong interjected. "Kumo said she'd told him she was too frightened to stay in the nursery even a day longer, not when she knew that all it would take would be one false accusation from Azula, to have the same or worse fate befall her. Kumo tried to keep in touch, but lost track of her after she moved to the colonies."
"I don't blame her a bit," Katara said with an emphatic nod. "Anyway, what happened clearly wasn't Zuko's fault at all, but if I know him—and I do—if he ever did find out, he'd feel horribly guilty anyway. So can we keep this just between us, unless something happens and he really does need to know?" And to that, both Yukiko and Huong nodded agreement.
Much later that morning, Katara left the nursery and Roku in Yukiko's hands, while she went to the garden and turtle-duck pond with a small loaf of bread in her hand. She was a little nonplussed at how quickly the bread had appeared, after she'd murmured within the maid Koemi's hearing that she'd like to try making friends with the turtle-ducks and what Zuko had recommended for doing so, but she'd accepted the bread with thanks and told little Roku that she'd be back in plenty of time for his next feeding.
She arrived at the pond's edge with the bread, broke it into many small pieces and carefully scattered the pieces over the water, dropping some of them in close to where she was standing and several of them much further out, nearer to where the mother turtle-duck was swimming with her brood. But the mother only glared and hissed at her, the intruder who had tried to take one of her babies before, and did her best to herd her turtle-ducklings away from the perceived threat.
Katara wished she wasn't reminded so much of the Western Air Temple just then. It was probably due to the serenity of the garden, much like the temple had been serene…
A little sad over her failure to make amends easily, Katara left the garden and pond to the turtle-ducks and went back inside the palace. But before she went back to the nursery, she decided to pay a brief visit on Zuko at work, and see if she couldn't persuade him to come to dinner that night. She left the family residential wing, asking directions of a handy guard, and headed for the wing where Zuko kept his private office.
Thirty minutes later, she stopped and asked directions of another guard, when she found herself utterly lost in the labyrinth of corridors that made up so much of the palace. It was partly her own fault; she should have told the first guard who'd given her directions that she had never been to Mount Shirotoa, so she wouldn't recognize a painting of it from all the other landscape paintings hanging on the walls, as a sign of where to turn left again.
By now a little upset and more than a little annoyed, she'd nearly reached the office when she saw the door open and one of Zuko's ministers—Orsino, if she remembered his name correctly; he'd given a welcoming speech when their ship had docked a few days ago—came out and started walking in her direction. He frowned at the sight of her and asked bluntly, "What are you doing here?" Then his eyes widened and he asked with a note of alarm, "Has something happened to the infant prince?"
"No, little Roku is fine," Katara said reassuringly. "I just came to see Fire Lord Zuko about a personal matter, if he can spare the time."
Orsino's frown grew deeper, clearly disapproving and haughty. "The Fire Lord is busy with affairs of the nation, girl; he has no time for your petty problems. Now return to your duties!"
That was exactly the wrong tone to take with Katara just then, after all the minor but accumulating frustrations she'd just experienced. "Excuse me?!" She all but snarled, staring Orsino down—and noticing, just beyond him, one of the palace guards outside Zuko's office door turning and tapping rapidly on it.
Unfortunately, Katara's self-patented Raised Eyebrow of Doom seemed to have no effect on Minister Orsino, beyond inspiring him to stand even taller so he could look down his nose at her. "Return to the nursery. To look after the infant prince," Orsino said slowly, as if she were an idiot who hadn't understood the first time. Behind him, the guard—Katara thought she recognized him as Botan, one of the guards who'd accompanied Zuko to Ba Sing Se—silently opened the office door and went inside. "You are the baby's wet-nurse, are you not? At least until someone more suitable can be found?"
"More suitable?!" Katara's fingers twitched towards her waterskin… but she wrestled down her temper, aware of how close by Zuko was and just how jumpy he'd been lately—and with good reason, considering all the assassination attempts he'd faced in the last year. If he heard the sounds of a fight outside his door, he'd probably come out with fists blazing, ready to fry first and ask questions later. She didn't want to do that to her friend, after everything he'd been through lately. She abruptly turned around, deciding it would be best if she just went right back to the nursery… assuming she could find it from where she was now, anyway. Botan would tell Zuko that she'd been by, so hopefully he would stop by the nursery later to see her and find out what she wanted to talk about.
But while she'd been fighting down the urge to waterbend a snotty minister clear into next week, Orsino had still been talking in his supercilious tone. "Yes, more suitable. At least someone of our own nation, instead of a foreign barbarian! Someone with—don't turn away while I'm talking to you, you ignorant peasant! The nursery should be staffed with people possessing far better manners; someone who at least knows how to act around their betters-"
"Unlike you!" someone snarled, as the corridor suddenly grew hotter.
Katara had been walking slowly but steadily away, holding her head high and holding onto her temper with both hands while Orsino kept raising his voice in his diatribe; now she spun around in surprise to see Zuko standing directly behind the minister, with fire blazing around his clenched fists and smoke hissing from between his bared teeth.
Minister Orsino also spun around, saw that his Fire Lord was clearly furious and all but dove for the floor, falling in a full kowtow. "My lord! My lord, I meant no disrespect to you!" as his formerly haughty voice began trembling with fear.
The Fire Lord drew himself to his full height, stared down at the man quivering at his feet and then intoned with a sharp gesture, "Guards. Take the former minister Orsino to his home. He will never again be allowed within the palace gates!" All four guards present swarmed around Orsino in his kowtow, grabbing and lifting him by his arms and legs. Zuko added as they began carrying him spread-eagled away from the office, "And coordinate with the city guard to place a watch around his home; he is under house arrest until I decide what else is to be done with him!"
"My lord!" Orsino wailed desperately, but Zuko just turned his back on the spectacle and brusquely gestured for Katara to accompany him into his office.
Once they were behind closed doors, Katara said quietly, "Thank you for standing up for me, Zuko, but you didn't need to go quite that far…"
"It wasn't just for your sake," Zuko groaned tiredly as he threw himself back in his office chair, exhaling a few last wisps of smoke. "To tell the truth, I was glad to have an excuse to throw him out; now that he's been removed from his post, he can't keep covering his tracks, and I should have an easier time proving that he embezzled the funds we're missing from some of our administrative programs. But what he said to you was just…" He took a deep breath, then exhaled another puff of irritated smoke as he declared, "This calls for another council meeting."
Word spread rapidly through the capital city that Minister Orsino had been abruptly removed from his post and placed under house arrest, and that the Fire Lord had called for a full council meeting tomorrow—no, not just a council meeting but a full court assembly at high noon, with not just the grand council members but nearly every noble currently present on Capital Island summoned to attend.
Full court assemblies were rare indeed; most royal proclamations were made to either just the grand council in their usual meeting chamber, or on the public viewing balcony in front of the entire populace. Only three full court assemblies had been called in the last three years; Fire Lord Ozai had called for one in the last year of his reign, to announce the surrender of Ba Sing Se to Fire Nation forces and that his daughter Princess Azula would soon be returning home in triumph. He'd added almost as an afterthought that Prince Zuko's banishment was over and he would be returning as well.
Fire Lord Zuko had called for two full court assemblies so far in his reign; the expected one immediately after his coronation, so each noble could ceremonially offer the usual oath of loyalty to his reign, and another one six months later to announce to the nobility his official engagement to Lady Mai. Full court assemblies tended to be the venue for announcing good news for the nation, but not always. Fire Lord Azulon had once called for a full court assembly to announce the arrests of seven noble families, for conspiracy against the throne—and then had every single one of them executed in front of that same assembly. Everyone had gone home in silence after that terrible day, many spectators with their elegant court-formal robes ruined by spatters of blood and ashes.
Speculation ran rampant as to exactly what Lord Orsino had done or what had been done to him that was momentous enough to warrant a full assembly of the court. Nobody knew for sure, although a few council members assumed wise expressions and stated that Orsino had probably been exposed as an embezzler, just as they'd suspected; they would have stepped forward and made the accusations themselves, but of course they'd still been quietly and diligently gathering evidence first. (Responses to those claims tended to be along the lines of 'Suuure you were.')
At noon the next day, dozens of elegantly dressed nobles quietly filed into the grand council chamber, some of them for the first time in years since they were not members of the Fire Lord's grand council, and were discreetly directed to seat themselves on cushions that servants had placed along the sides and back of the chamber. Once those nobles were all seated, the imperial council members solemnly filed into the grand council chamber and took their accustomed places on cushions much closer to the Fire Throne, and awaited the Fire Lord's entrance.
But before their monarch came into the room, three other people who were not council members or even Fire Nation nobility came in; two Water Tribe people and a Kyoshi Warrior. The three silently filed inside and took seats on three cushions that had been lined up several feet in front of the Fire Throne, but they were facing the wrong way—towards the council members, instead of towards the throne. Council member Lord Hujo was trying to politely correct them when the former General Iroh walked in to take a seat just forward and to the right of the throne, the place for honored family members, and the banks of low flames to either side of the throne suddenly flared high; the sign that the Fire Lord was about to enter the chamber.
Their sovereign ruler strode in as all the nobles prostrated themselves in greeting (though the three intruders only bowed, the ignorant fools) and took his seat on the Fire Throne. His voice pitched to carry throughout the chamber, the Fire Lord informed everyone that Lord Orsino had been removed from his post as Minister of Industry, for two reasons. The first and gravest reason was that he had embezzled from imperial funds, lining his own pockets at the expense of every taxpayer in the Fire Nation. (The utter scoundrel! May he rot in the Tower Prison!) But the second reason, which the Fire Lord had taken personal offense to, was that Orsino had offered grave insult to Lady Katara. (Who? The Water Tribe girl sitting up there? But she was just—)
"Listen well!" the Fire Lord boomed out, his expression implacable, and all the whispering in the council chamber instantly died to silence. "Sokka and Katara are the son and daughter of the High Chieftain of the Southern Water Tribe. They are nobility in their nation. Suki is not of noble birth, but she earned by merit the position of Leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, highly skilled and respected warriors in the Earth Kingdom. She is the equivalent to a captain in our military, which is also a high honor.
"By birth and by abilities, these people merit being treated as dignitaries when they are in our country. And further, they are associates and assistants to the Avatar, the one who maintains balance between the elements and the nations; that great responsibility grants them even higher status. And finally, each of them has saved your Fire Lord's life at least once, and additionally assisted in saving the life of my son and heir; that bestows upon them the highest favor the Fire Nation can offer! They will be treated not just as nobility while here, but the highest ranking nobility; as kin to the Fire Lord! Anyone who fails to do so, is. Not. Welcome. In. This. Court. …Is. That. Clear?!" as the flames around the Fire Throne suddenly roared up to the ceiling.
Every last noble in the court immediately fell into a kowtow, pressing their foreheads to the floor while shouting, "Yes, your majesty!" "Clear as sunlight, Fire Lord!" and similar sentiments. And several of them went so far as to proclaim while still face-down on the floor, "All honor to Lord Sokka, Lady Suki and Lady Katara!"
Sokka, Suki and Katara just stared at all the nobles kowtowing while hailing their names, struck speechless. Satisfied with the court's collective response, the Fire Lord dismissed the assembly. And as soon as the last Fire Nation noble had filed out of the chamber, the flames around the Fire Throne died down and the Fire Lord stepped off the dais with a sigh, becoming their friend Zuko again.
"That should take care of any future insults. But if anyone persists in slighting you, let me know right away. Future offenders will be either too full of hate to stop, or too stupid to understand. And in either case they're probably doing something else besides insulting you, that needs to be investigated and stopped before people get hurt," Zuko said as he took off his ceremonial mantle of office and handed it to a waiting attendant.
"It may indeed be wise to keep an eye on such people," Iroh rumbled gravely, stroking his beard. "The greatest crimes in our nation's history were usually preceded by smaller offenses that went unchecked."
"Okay, but… does that mean they're going to start kowtowing to us now? Because even back home, nobody does that… and honestly, it's kind-of disturbing," Katara said, still feeling a little ill at ease.
"Oh, I dunno; a guy could get used to it!" Sokka grinned. "I could just-"
Zuko raised a finger in admonition. "Don't push it. Seriously; if they start bowing to you or even kowtowing, accept it graciously, but otherwise be satisfied with them just not talking down to you anymore. I've had enough trouble already with old codgers from my father's court grumbling about 'foreign influence'; if you try lording it over them, they'll be so outraged they'll probably attempt another coup!"
"Spoilsport," Sokka pouted, before turning serious. "The last thing we want, is to cause more trouble for you. No lording over anyone, promise." Then he got a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Still… how do you feel now, Lady Katara?"
Katara grinned. "Oh, I don't know; I still just feel like myself. A 'Water Tribe peasant'; wasn't that how it went?" as she turned to Zuko.
"A filthy Water Tribe peasant," Sokka added. "Mustn't forget the filthy part."
Zuko flushed dark red, while his uncle chuckled at his discomfiture. "Oh come on; that was years ago! I didn't really know you back then! And I was hunting the Avatar! I was…"
Sokka said helpfully, "You were a jerkbender."
Zuko sighed and admitted, "I was a jerkbender."
"And now you're our favorite jerkbender," as Sokka gave him a friendly punch on the arm. "So now that that's settled, how 'bout we get something to eat?"
Zuko tried to protest that he had more work to do, but Iroh took firm hold of his shoulders and physically steered him towards the great dining hall instead of his office. "Now, nephew, you just announced to your entire court that these fine young people are part of your family. Do you want word getting out through the servants that you're refusing to sit down to meals with them? Think how that would sound to all the gossip-mongers…"
Lunch was excellent, with plenty of stewed sea prunes for Katara and Sokka, and dishes of fire flakes that Zuko sprinkled on just about everything he ate. Sokka urged Zuko to try the sea prunes; he looked at them doubtfully and said he'd do it only if they were mixed with fire flakes, and Sokka tried them that way as well. A servant hurriedly complied, and two identical bowls were put in front of Sokka and Zuko. They both simultaneously took a spoonful, put it in their mouths—and nearly spat it out in disgust a second later. Iroh just chuckled again and gestured to the servants for more tea, so they could both rinse the taste out.
After lunch Katara returned to the nursery, passing Hoshi on her way out of the dining room. She smiled and nodded to him, while he gave her a really deep bow in return; she decided that probably his way of expressing silently gratitude to her for healing his leg, so he could return to full duties nearly a month earlier than normal.
But as she continued to the nursery, she noted with some surprise that all the servants she passed along the way seemed to be bowing deeper to her than they did yesterday. Was it because of Zuko's proclamation? She'd thought that was only for the nobles' sake, to prevent any more of them insulting her like Orsino had.
When she arrived at the nursery she found that while the guards who'd been left there to keep Roku safe were also bowing deeper than before, Yukiko's behavior towards her was unchanged, and the Dai Li agents' attitudes hadn't changed at all, which was a bit of a relief. She gave Roku a feeding and changing, and was sitting with him in the rocker softly humming a lullaby when they heard a tapping at the door, and Agent Phan saying somewhat uncertainly, "Lady Katara, the majordomo is here to see you."
She opened the door, to find Kumo standing out there with two more servant women, all of them bowing at the sight of her—and even Kumo was bowing lower to her than before! And when he straightened up from his bow, he gestured to the two servants with him as he said almost cheerfully, "Lady Katara, as befits your new status…"
Two days later, Katara went hunting for Zuko again, this time with a map of the palace layout that Hoshi had helpfully provided for her. She found Zuko in his office, reading over some official documents from the colonies; she marched inside and asked in utter exasperation, "Zuko, the 'nobility treatment'… how do you turn it off?!"
Zuko blinked up at her from the parchment he was reading. "What?"
"All this… this pampering! It's fine once in a while, but it just doesn't stop! There are servants underfoot everywhere I go; they won't let me do hardly anything myself anymore! And since you told all the nobles in court to treat us with respect, it's gotten even worse; they just will not leave me alone! I had to chase one girl out of the bathroom, just so I could wipe my own-" and she stopped, blushing red.
Zuko blushed too. "Ah. Well, um, let me finish what I'm doing right now, and we'll talk to the majordomo; he'll explain the situation to the rest of the staff. They'll need to understand that the problem is with you, not them," he muttered absently as he turned back to the papers on his desk.
And abruptly found his chin grabbed and his face turned, to look an angry Katara right in the eyes as she said dangerously, "What did you just say? I'm the problem?"
"I didn't mean it like that!" he protested. "I just… Look, do you really want to see someone committing suicide over this?"
"Suicide?" Katara let go of his chin and backed off a pace, staring at him. "Why…"
Zuko pushed the papers away and sighed. "The problem is really with my father, and previous Fire Lords. Traditionally, a royal family member doesn't lift a finger to do anything menial, even for personal hygiene; instead, there's a servant waiting and happy to do it for them. Royals have all demanded perfection in not just their offspring, but their servants too. And any servant who didn't perform up to standards was dismissed. For the servant class, to serve the house of the Fire Lord is considered the highest honor. To be dismissed, told you're not good enough… It's a serious dishonor, and some of them have quite seriously committed suicide over it. There's a grove in the nearest public park that I haven't walked through since I was seven, because that's where they found the body of my father's valet, after he was dismissed for failing to notice and iron a wrinkle out of one of Ozai's robes."
Katara gaped at him. "…He missed one wrinkle, and… Ocean save you all; your people are insane!"
"Not insane!" Zuko snapped back. "If you want to talk insane, let's talk about people being pushed off ice floes to drown when nobody's looking—and everyone else being okay with that! Those people are pushed off the ice why, exactly?"
Katara ground her teeth together, so angry that for a moment she couldn't speak. Zuko had just stomped on one of the sorest points of living in either the Northern or Southern Water Tribe. There were weeks in the summer that had continual daylight, with the sun never setting, and weeks in the winter of utter darkness, when the sun was never seen at all. After countless generations of living there and adapting to the climate, Midnight Sun Madness and Midwinter Madness were uncommon, but when someone succumbed… it was bad. In the past, whole families had been slaughtered, when the madness went undetected until too late.
While the Northern Water Tribe was much better off, the Southern Water Tribe just never had the resources to spare for maintaining a jail and prisoners gone mad. If someone started showing the symptoms, and didn't respond to treatment… the safest thing for the community was to simply, quietly and permanently dispose of them. It was a brutal truth that nobody talked about if they could avoid it; how had Zuko learned of it?
Then Zuko sighed. "Sorry; I know that's a sore point, and I shouldn't have lashed out at you and your culture like that. And no, I don't think it makes sense either, for anyone to commit suicide over a stupid wrinkled robe. But that's why this has to be dealt with carefully. The majordomo can reassign your servants to other duties, and explain to them that it's not that their service isn't up to standards; it's just that your culture's customs demand that you do everything yourself."
"Wellll… not everything," Katara admitted. "Believe me, I'm more than happy to let someone else do the laundry!"
Zuko snickered. "You had enough of that back when we were staying in the Western Air Temple, huh?"
"More than enough! That just put a cap on years of Sokka expecting me to do his laundry for him. When every other boy in our party started asking me too…!"
Zuko raised a finger to correct her. "I never did. Not even once did I ask you to do my laundry."
"That's true; you always washed them yourself," Katara admitted. "Though I kept waiting for you to ask." She looked away with an embarrassed smile. "I was so sure that someday you'd slip up, and start acting like a stuck-up royal brat again, expecting people to serve you; then I would have…"
Zuko grinned, enjoying her discomfiture. "Let me guess; you'd have 'accidentally' dropped all my laundry over the side of the temple. Just like you kept 'accidentally' serving me the burnt scrapings from the bottom of the cooking pot."
She gave him a look of rueful apology. "I was so horribly mean to you…"
He shrugged it off. "And for the whole chase from South Pole to North Pole, I was pretty mean to you. It's done, forgiven, and best forgotten. Anyway, give me a few more minutes, and I'll be done with this paperwork; then we can talk to the majordomo."
"Speaking of paper, do you have any to spare?" Katara asked him. "I think it'd be easier on everyone if I just made a list of things that I'd rather do for myself, and things I don't mind having servants do instead."
"Good idea." He passed her a sheet of parchment and a spare writing brush, pushed his ink stick and ink stone over to where she could reach them too, then scooted over to give her a corner of his desk for writing on while he kept reviewing documents.
Katara stared at shallow stone bowl with a an intricately carved lid that Zuko used for an ink stone, in surprised recognition well-flavored with dismay. "Zuko… is this the wedding present I gave you and Mai?"
"Recognized it, eh?" as Zuko glanced up with a smile. "I started using it right after we got back from our honeymoon. I told Mai that was a perfect example of your thoughtfulness, giving us something that was not just pretty, but practical too! "
For an instant Katara felt like telling him, very loudly, that it was not an ink stone! She'd sent them a fertility bowl, the finest she could find in the Northern Water Tribe! Mai was supposed to have filled the bowl with water, covered it while walking in a circle and reciting the names of her four most fertile maternal ancestors, and then opened and drank every last drop from it to get her ancestors' blessings of fertility for their marriage! For Zuko, not Mai, to use it-and as a common tool for grinding ink sticks into liquid ink…
But she'd never actually told them what it was for, had she? She'd meant to tell the happy couple when they unwrapped the gift in front of her, but it hadn't happened that way. Her gift had ended up on a table piled high with gifts from other guests and well-wishers, and she'd been told later by Iroh that by Fire Nation tradition, the couple would open all their wedding gifts in private. So when they opened it and saw only a shallow stone bowl with a matching lid…
Which did, by the looks of it, make a suitable ink stone. And since Zuko had admitted back in Ba Sing Se that Mai had already been three weeks pregnant by the time they'd married, the fertility blessing hadn't been needed anyway… Katara forced a smile on her face as she said, "I'm glad you like it!"
She took the lid off and wet the offered brush in the ink inside, reflecting ruefully that if she'd told them what it was really for, Zuko would probably just have been embarrassed instead of happy with her gift. Just this once, it wasn't really the thought behind the gift that counted most… She wondered what had happened to the wedding present Sokka and Suki had sent them from the Southern Water Tribe—Sokka had told her privately and proudly that he'd given them the finest ulu knife anyone in the tribe had ever seen—and decided not to ask.
Returning to the reason she was there in the first place, Katara began making two lists of everyday chores and personal tasks, one for things she'd rather do herself and one for delegating to others. After a few minutes, she paused and looked up to ask curiously, "Do you really have servants waiting in your own bathroom to-"
He snorted without looking up. "No; there are some things that I decided very early in life, I didn't need or want servants for." He switched to a higher-pitched, boyish voice as he declared, "I can do it all by myself!" They both chuckled softly, and let a comfortable silence settle between them.
By the next day, Katara's retinue of servants had been reduced to just Yukiko, whom she considered more a partner in minding Roku than a servant, and the housemaids Chiyo and Misa. She really only needed one housemaid for the two rooms, but kept both on so they could trade off the task of washing all of Roku's stinky diapers.
Feeling a little guilty, Katara had explained to a disconsolate Koemi that the personal maid had done an excellent job, really, but she'd felt like she was shunning her own culture's customs by accepting so much personal assistance. Actually, she'd just felt like she was being treated like a spoiled or helpless child instead of a grown and capable woman, but she figured Zuko was right in that they would accept an explanation of 'Water Tribe ways are different' more easily.
The day after that, Zuko noticed that Sokka's left arm just below his bicep was riddled with small circular bruises. "What happened there?" as he pointed to them.
Sokka looked at where he was pointing, opened his mouth, then paused a long time before shaking his head. "It would take too long to explain. Just ignore 'em, okay?"
Naturally, that only made Zuko look closer at them. "They look like… hickeys? Suki gets a little too enthusiastic sometimes, huh?"
"Gaaah!" as Sokka grabbed at his wolftail. "No, she—okay, she does sometimes but those aren't from her, they're—look just drop it, okay?"
Ten days after the return to the Fire Nation, Zuko stopped into the nursery that afternoon still wearing his ceremonial robes, with heavy circles under his eyes, and sounding almost as peevish as Roku, who had just been fed but was now refusing to burp. "Come on, sweet little star; you don't want that air to stay in your tummy, do you? It'll make you sorry later. Come on, give your Auntie Katara a nice big burp," she coaxed as she rubbed the infant's back.
"Here, let me try," Zuko offered, holding his arms out. Katara shrugged and smiled, and carefully transferred Roku into his arms. Zuko put the baby up against his shoulder, while Katara took the burping rag off her own shoulder. "I just rub his back now, right?"
"Yes, but you'll want to put this-"
"… this cloth over your shoulder first, to protect your robes," Katara said wryly, still holding the cloth out to him. "Oops…" She went around for a look at the spit-up now dribbling down the back of his ceremonial robes, dabbing at the expensive silk with the burping rag as she said with a confidence she didn't feel, "It'll wash out."
Zuko sighed as he shook his head. "This is actually the most pleasant surprise I've had today. I've had to put a food quarantine on Denchi Island, to keep their tato-choke blight from spreading to the other islands. And House Toromi is challenging House Mio for a plot of land on Hokkano Island; it'll take some maneuvering to keep them from dragging other clans into their squabble, without shaming anybody."
He sat down in the nearby rocking chair while complaining about the day he'd had, still holding Roku to his chest. Once they were both settled, he began slowly rocking and crooning. "Leaves from the vine, falling so slow …"
Katara eyed him in amusement. "I'll have to teach you another song, someday."
"Roku likes this one," he murmured. "Don't you, little man? It's your favorite." Roku's tiny yawn as he nestled in his father's robes seemed to indicate agreement. "Leaves from the vine, falling so slow. Like fragile, tiny shells, drifting in the foam… Little soldier boy, come marching home…Brave soljerbuuu… zzzz…"
Katara shook her head, still smiling. Zuko had actually fallen asleep before Roku, in mid-verse… but now the baby began giving out tiny infant snores. Father and son were fast asleep.
She carefully wedged a couple of small pillows in place to keep Roku from slipping and falling if Zuko should lose his grip in his sleep, then whispered to the nanny Yukiko, "You should let the majordomo know that the Fire Lord is in here, but he isn't to be disturbed for anything less than disaster."
"Er… what sort of disaster?" the elderly nanny asked.
Katara rolled her eyes. "Oh, something like the sun falling out of the sky and turning the entire South Sea to boiling steam; that would be important enough. Otherwise, everyone should just leave him be."
"Yes, milady. Pardon my asking, but this has never happened before," Yukiko said quietly as she turned towards the door.
"What, never?" Katara whispered in surprise. "None of the royals ever took naps with their children, any time in the eight years you minded Prince Lu Ten and the six years you took care of Zuko?"
"I didn't say that; Lady Ursa occasionally napped with her children, especially in the first few months after birthing them. But Lady Ursa had few responsibilities beyond her family, and no one needed to be alerted as to where she was. When General Iroh was the Crown Prince and his son but a baby, he did indeed visit the nursery, but he always came to play toy soldiers and other games with little Lu Ten, and they both stayed wide awake for that. Fire Lord Azulon visited only once or twice during the children's infancies; he preferred to stay away from the nursery until his grandchildren were old enough to talk and be understood. And the former Prince Ozai… he stopped in here occasionally to see his children when they were babies, but I don't recall him ever sitting down to hold them or play with them for any length of time. And he certainly never fell asleep in here."
After Yukiko left, Katara sat down in another chair, just watching Zuko sleep with his son in his arms. The late afternoon sunlight streamed in a window, casting a warm golden glow on the rocking chair as if Agni was bestowing a blessing on them both. She murmured, "Ozai never knew what he was missing."
Sokka peeked inside after Yukiko left, and grinned when he saw Zuko asleep in the rocker. He whispered, "Awww, isn't that cute? We should get a portrait painter in here."
An official portrait of Fire Lord Zuko, asleep on the job and with spit-up on his ceremonial robes. Sure, that would be well received by the populace, Katara thought wryly.
Sometime after Yukiko returned from informing the majordomo, Iroh came quietly into the nursery, with worry lines creasing his already wrinkled forehead… worry lines that eased as he saw Zuko sleeping with Roku and smiled with mixed relief and amusement. "He sorely needed this rest," Iroh confided. "I have been worrying about him lately, as he's been looking more exhausted with each passing day, no matter that he says everything is fine now…"
"I think Zuko's idea of 'fine' is very different from what other people would consider 'fine'," Katara muttered. "These days, it might mean only 'no one's tried to kill me in the last thirty minutes'…"
Iroh sighed heavily. "Sadly, you might be right about that."
The father and son's idyllic repose was broken less than an hour after it began, just as Suki arrived to begin her shift of guard duty. Roku wet his diaper in his sleep, and then woke up and began demanding that someone do something about his soggy butt. Zuko blinked awake to the baby's noisemaking, as Katara gently picked Roku up and carried him to the changing table before he could begin really wailing.
Suki and Sokka had stepped into the nursery to administer a pair of forehead-kisses on the baby, an endearing habit they'd created for when one's guard duty shift ended while the other's began, and so they arrived in time to hear Iroh good-naturedly chiding his nephew for falling asleep in the nursery when he had a perfectly good bedroom of his own nearby. "With all the long hours of work you've been putting in, it does seem as if you've been avoiding it lately…"
Zuko admitted with a sigh, "I sort-of have. I just can't sleep there," as he drooped over in the rocking chair, his head hanging low. "Not in my own bed."
"Why not?" Suki asked.
"Because… because Mai's not there. Every time I roll over, I still expect her to be there, and…" Zuko sighed again, running a hand through his hair. "I know it's been over a month now, and I should be used to sleeping alone again, but…"
"And you probably did get used to it, back in Ba Sing Se. But now you're here, back in the bed that you and she shared… and probably surrounded by whatever decorating she did, too, once she became the Fire Lady. There are just too many reminders of her, aren't there?" Katara said sadly.
"…Yes. But I don't want to ever forget her!" Zuko said fiercely, sitting up to glare at them, as if someone had just suggested it. "I can't just—just pack away all her things and pretend she never existed; I…" as his head hung low again.
"No one wants to make you forget Mai. Only the most heartless of people would ever even suggest that," Iroh said firmly.
"Utterly heartless," Katara agreed. "But packing away her things… that's something we did in the Southern Water Tribe, when someone lost a husband, wife or child. Leaving everything exactly the way it was before the loved one died, just isn't healthy for the soul. Some folks say that doing so even makes it hard for the spirit of the loved one to move on. I don't know about that, but I do know that it makes the pain of grief last a lot longer; makes it harder for those still living to move on. But sorting and packing, deciding what to keep out as sweet reminders of her and what to give away… that should never be done alone. Come on," as she put Roku in his carrying sling, then firmly tugged on Zuko's arm. "You're going to tell me and your uncle about everything in your rooms that reminds you of Mai; share your memories of her with us."
Either because he knew she was right or because he was just too tired, Zuko made only a token protest before they left the nursery and went down the hall to his private suite. Sokka and Suki followed them out the door, but Sokka lingered behind in the hallway as he asked uneasily, "Do you want us to help?"
"Yes, but not in the sorting and packing," Katara said firmly. "Would you please tell Kumo that we need some boxes for putting things in? And packing materials for fragile things. Then, Sokka, you and Suki can help us best by doing something you love: going shopping!"
Katara had been inside Zuko's old bedroom before his coronation, when he'd still been dizzy and weak after being shot with lightning, but she'd never set foot inside the suite of rooms designated for the Fire Lord. The bedroom Prince Zuko had slept in had been a curious combination of Decadent and Spartan; the bed had been a massive and ornately carved four-post affair with heavy silk draperies and sheets, but there had been almost no other furnishings inside the room except for a huge golden urn sitting in a corner. After a few days of having her own retinue, Katara thought she understood the reason for the lack of other furniture; it was so the masses of servants that were always hovering around the royal family wouldn't be banging into or tripping over anything.
The Fire Lord's bedroom was easily half again as large as Zuko's old bedroom, and contained more furnishings (though there was still plenty of space left over for attentive servants to mill around in.) The bed was even bigger, too; all of Team Avatar could have slept on it without jostling each other in their sleep. But the color scheme was even gloomier, in her opinion: Prince Zuko's bedroom had been done in brown and red with gold accents, but Fire Lord's bedroom had far too much black. Black silk sheets on the bed, black silk drapes around the bed, and the giant carpet covering much of the floor had the red flame symbol on a black background. There was even a plain black sheet covering a large section of the wall across from the bed.
And even though this bedroom had not just a giant bed but a large dresser, two nightstands and an ornately carved table with two chairs, it had little else in the way of decoration… at least not the sort of things that Katara thought of as decorations. A pair of crossed Dao swords were displayed on the wall to one side of the bed. On the other side, a shallow display case held the biggest private collection of daggers, senbon and shuriken Katara had ever seen, all of them gleaming bright silver in the light from the wall sconces.
Lots of black, and lots of sharp pointy objects, Katara thought dryly to herself. No wonder Zuko is reminded of Mai so much whenever he's in here…
But there were a few non-weapon decorations in the room: A wall-mounted display of a single dried fire lily. A large ink portrait of Zuko and Mai hanging on the opposite wall, with Zuko still wearing his prince's headpiece instead of the Fire Lord's crown. Two smaller portraits, standing in frames on the long dresser; one of Iroh, and one of a woman that Katara recognized from portraits at the Ember Island vacation home: Lady Ursa, Zuko's mother. The dresser also displayed a stone sculpture of a dragon, that Katara recognized as Toph's wedding gift to Zuko and Mai. At least that wasn't mistaken and misused, she thought wryly, thinking of the 'ink stone' in Zuko's office.
Zuko stood in the center of the room, looking with almost despairing eyes at his surroundings as he asked, "Where do we start?"
"Perhaps we should start with this," Iroh suggested as he went over to the plain black sheet hanging on the wall. "I admit I'm quite curious about it; why display something so very plain? And it's not even silk; just common cotton," as he grasped the edge of the material, rubbing it between his fingers. "What memories does this—eh?" as he went from looking at the cloth in his hand to looking at the wall behind it.
"Actually, we just replaced the sheet about once a week," Zuko mumbled, looking at the floor… and blushing; Katara noticed curiously that a blush was definitely beginning to bloom on his cheeks.
Iroh pulled the cloth hanging away from the wall with a sweeping gesture, to reveal dozens of pock marks in the wooden paneling; that section of the wall was positively riddled with them. "Ah, I see. Mai liked to keep in practice?" he asked dryly.
"Um, yeah." Zuko was now blushing furiously.
"And you replaced the hanging whenever it became too tattered to stay up, I take it," as Iroh lightly fingered a few of the holes, and then peered closely at them. "Bits of red silk embedded in with the black?" Then he turned and smiled a very sly smile at Zuko, who was now completely red from neck to hairline and looking everywhere but at his uncle or at Katara. Katara's stomach lurched a bit as she realized that Zuko wore a lot of red silk, and put two and two together. …Oh. Oh, dear…
Just then Kumo entered the room with a bow, and with two servants carrying boxes and packing materials. Zuko almost pounced on the majordomo, in his eagerness to not respond to his uncle's far-too-knowing grin. "Kumo! I've decided that you can finally replace that section of paneling. Right now, if it can be done today!"
"Of course, your majesty," Kumo said without even blinking. "Perhaps you would like to have dinner in the grand dining hall while waiting for the carpenters to finish their work?"
Zuko agreed that was a good idea, and they all went to dinner, but first Katara pulled Kumo aside and asked quietly, "What color were the bedsheets and curtains before Zuko got married?"
"Bright red, milady," Kumo told her, with what looked like relief glimmering deep in his aged eyes. He might well have been the one who had suggested to Zuko earlier that Mai's things should be packed away, but Zuko had taken it the wrong way at the time. "Shall I have the bed remade in those colors?"
"Yes, please. Immediately," Katara said firmly, deciding that she'd tell Zuko about that bit of redecorating after the fact, while they were eating dinner.
Zuko was dismayed and upset that Katara had ordered his bedsheets changed without telling him, but Iroh pointed out that their goal tonight was to make it possible for him to sleep comfortably in his own bed again, and if Katara had not done it then he would have.
After dinner Katara detoured to the nursery to feed Roku and put him to bed, leaving him in Yukiko's tender care while she went back to Zuko's suite. She came in while he and his uncle were going through the display case of Mai's weaponry; Zuko was quietly pointing out which ones had been gifts from him, and the occasions that they'd been given. A pair of daggers had been given for their first date after his coronation; a brace of senbon had been given to her along with the traditional fancy hair comb when he'd proposed. He'd commissioned a set of personalized shuriken for her after she'd told him she was pregnant…
"You always gave her weapons for presents?" Katara asked incredulously. Yes, weapons were practical gifts and anyone from the Southern Water Tribe would consider a quality knife to be a good present indeed, but there were plenty of other practical gifts for giving, such as good thick furs for sleeping under or a new kayak. Not that Mai would have appreciated either of those, but…
Zuko just shrugged in response. "She didn't like fancy seashells or most flowers, and she had to be in a certain mood before she even accepted panda lilies. Fruit tarts with rose petals were good, but if I had them made for her too often, she asked me if I was trying to make her fat."
"She didn't even like fire lilies? But isn't that a fire lily?" Katara asked as she pointed to the carefully preserved one mounted on the wall.
Zuko smiled nostalgically at the sight of it. "I had that one preserved specially. She wore that in her hair on our wedding day, just for me…"
"And because it's traditional for weddings," Iroh added absently, still looking over the collection of weaponry. "Nephew, while you may of course keep a few of these for the memories, would you like some of the rest to be set aside for Roku, in case he shows an interest in throwing weapons when he's older?"
Zuko nodded, and proceeded to carefully consider each weapon, before setting aside the matched pair of daggers and a row of senbon for him to keep in a much smaller display. Another set of daggers as well as the set of personalized throwing stars were packed in a box for presenting to Roku, when he came of age for learning weapons. Katara suggested that the rest could be auctioned off at a fundraising event for a charity, such as the war orphans' education fund; weapons that had once been used by the Fire Lady would surely go for huge sums among the nobility.
The palace carpenters had done amazing work in just the two hours they'd been at dinner; the black hanging sheet and blade-riddled section of paneling were both gone and the wall looked as though no damage had ever occurred to it. And with the bed remade in bright red silk, here was little black left except for the large carpet; the whole room looked much brighter. Once they had sorted through all the weapons Mai had kept on the wall, Zuko and Iroh carefully took down the display case they had been in, leaving another section of wall bare.
While the royals had been dealing with the weapons, Kumo had been quietly directing servants to pack away all the clothing Mai had kept in the dresser and in the suite's walk-in closet. A few articles of clothing were designated royal heirlooms, to be carefully preserved in the palace vault until Roku came of age for marriage. The packing away of weapons and clothes was completed just about the time someone knocked vigorously on the bedroom door.
"We're back!" Sokka said cheerfully as he and Suki came into the room. "And look what we got for redecorating!" as he opened the door wider, ushering in a train of servants all carrying objects that they proceeded to lay out in rows on every available horizontal surface for display.
Sokka and Suki had gone with a knowledgeable servant to an artists and craftsmen's market that was reportedly less a mile downhill from the palace, with a hundred gold pieces from the expense account that had been set up for them soon after they'd arrived. The Dai Li agents were each getting paid a straight salary (and a hefty one at that, paid by the Earth King and Fire Lord together,) but Suki, Sokka and Katara had come to the Fire Nation to guard and nurture Zuko's son out of friendship and loyalty, and to set a monetary value on that would have been demeaning. But the fact was, even with the palace providing food and shelter for them they had expenses too, and would need money sometimes. So Iroh had suggested that a collective expense account be set up for them in the palace's budget, an account that they could draw pocket money from as needed. They were also given written vouchers that they could show to any vendor, which promised royal repayment for anything that cost more than what they had on hand.
Katara had asked Sokka and Suki to take a hundred gold pieces and come back with what they could find in three hours, figuring that they could find a few quality pieces of art in that time. But Sokka had clearly decided to go for quantity instead of quality. There were dozens of ceramic figures, of everything from a laughing cow-pig to a dragon with garnet eyes, to a tiny Aang sitting in lotus position, to a colorful handstanding acrobat with an hourglass embedded in his torso. There were several paintings as well, with subjects ranging from landscape scenes to portraits of children with impossibly huge eyes, to a tiger-dillo rolling through a flaming hoop. And some metal sculptures, too; a few of them were skilled renditions of people or animals and instantly recognizable as quality art, while others… Katara looked at one piece and wondered if the artist had suffered a sneezing fit while trying to weld together a miniature hippo-cow. Or maybe it was supposed to be a camelephant?
No more than two of any figures or paintings were done in the same style, but the entire collection did have a style, that could be summed up in one word: tacky. Suki caught Katara's eye and gave a little helpless shrug, as if to say she'd tried to select more tasteful objects but…
Zuko stared at the large spread of knickknacks in visible dismay. Katara could tell exactly what he was thinking: Nearly half this stuff is hideous, and the other half is ludicrous! Do they really expect me to put all this junk on display? And then actually sleep in the same room with it all?!
"Now we don't expect you to use all this stuff in redecorating, or even half of it," Katara said firmly. "But you are expected to pick at least three things, to put on the walls or on the furniture; something new to look at." Something to fill the empty spaces, so he wouldn't be reminded of what had been taken down or packed away. "Sokka can put the rest in his room, or we'll find other appropriate places for them… like in your uncle's chambers," she suggested wryly, eyeing the avid gleam in Iroh's eyes as he looked over some of the knickknacks.
Zuko looked over the collection carefully, and finally chose four items altogether: a gleaming yellow ceramic figure of turtle-duck mother preening one of her ducklings, a painting of a ship silhouetted against a sunset at sea, another painting of two dragons dancing in flight, and a bronze sculpture of a dragon with a tiny rider on its back. While he was choosing what to keep, Kumo somehow magically produced a much smaller weapons display case, for mounting the remaining pair of daggers and brace of senbon in.
Then Zuko found the best places for his new decorations, while servants carried everything else out of the room (with Iroh discreetly directing the servants to send about a dozen of the items to his own suite.) When he was finished the room still held several reminders of Mai, but overall it looked quite different; enough that he would hopefully not be overwhelmed with memories of her whenever he stepped inside. Everyone wished the Fire Lord a good night's sleep, and left him to the care of his valets.
Two days later, Sokka took a box with a lid from his room to the nursery, and handed it to Katara. Zuko was in there playing with his son, tickling Roku and pretending to nibble on teeny little fingers and toes, and he looked up in curiosity as Katara thanked her brother, took the box and disappeared into her bedroom just off the nursery without a word. Zuko looked inquiringly at Sokka, but the Water Tribesman pretended not to notice and distracted him by talking about how much Roku had grown in just six weeks. Then Sokka regaled him with a few pointless but mildly amusing anecdotes about what he'd seen and heard while he'd been shopping for knickknacks the other day, while glancing nervously at the doorway to Katara's room from time to time.
Twenty minutes later Katara came out of the bedroom with the box and a grimace. "The first one didn't work at all, the second one leaked and the third one fell apart in less than a minute." She offered the box back to Sokka as she added, "You're getting close, though; the third one might have worked if it had been sturdier."
"What are you talking about?" Zuko had to ask.
"Ohhh, no; I'm not gonna even try to explain!" Sokka said, frantically waving his hands. "Katara can explain it to you if she wants to, AFTER I leave the room!" and with that, he grabbed the box and almost ran out of the nursery with it.
Zuko looked inquiringly at Katara, but she blushed slightly as she shook her head. "It's just an idea I had, and I don't want to talk about it until we can actually make it work. Okay?"
He was afire with curiosity, but he had to respect his friend's wishes; he nodded, "Okay," and said no more about it.
The next day was one of no meetings or appointments for the Fire Lord—save one, which only a very few people knew about.
When he came into the nursery to give his son a good morning kiss and cuddle for a few minutes, Katara could see the tension in his frame and asked him, "What's wrong?" He just shook his head in response, but she persisted, "You're really not happy about something… is your uncle all right? Did the guards—was there another assassination attempt last night?!" as she reached with her bending and pulled a globe of water out of the nearby basin, subconsciously preparing for combat.
"No, nothing happened!" Zuko hastily reassured her. "Everything's fine!"
She just gave him a narrow-eyed stare in return. "Zuko, you told us all 'everything's fine' for at least six months and seventeen attempts on your life; none of us are buying it anymore! And if you don't tell me what's got you so upset right now," as the globe of water above her hand started growing tendrils, "I'm going to freeze you to the nearest wall and keep you there till you 'fess up!"
His eyes widened and he backed up a pace for an instant, before leaning forward aggressively in response to her challenge… but an instant after his fists started smoldering, he shook his head at himself and stepped back again. "You're right, I'm sorry. I shouldn't keep secrets from you guys any longer. But you can't do anything to help this time… I'm going to visit Azula today."
All the air went out of Katara's lungs, as her globe of water fell apart and splashed onto the nursery rug. "…Oh."
"She's being kept in an institute on another island; I visit her once a month. I missed last month's visit because we had to wait in Ba Sing Se until Roku was old enough to travel. This time…" He paused to take a deep breath, and his voice cracked ever-so-slightly as he continued, "Now I have to tell her that Mai is dead. Mai was her closest friend, or at least the closest Azula would ever let anyone come to being a friend, once…"
She laid her hand on his arm in sympathy and comfort as she asked, "Would you like me to come with-" Then she stopped herself, her expression turning rueful. "No, sorry, I can't; Roku still needs to be fed every few hours, and I'm sure you don't want to bring him along this time."
"Absolutely not," Zuko said without hesitation. "The institution she's being held in is no place for babies."
"I still don't think you should go to see her alone, though," Katara fretted. "Maybe Sokka…"
Zuko shrugged a little. "I go there alone most times; Mai only went once, before we were married. She's drugged and restrained, Katara; she can't hurt me."
She gave him a knowing look as she said softly, "Not physically…"
Zuko refused to meet her eyes. "Yeah. Not physically." After an uncomfortable pause, he cleared his throat and said, "Anyway, I should be back by sunset."
He opened the door to leave—and stopped in his tracks when they both saw Uncle Iroh standing outside the nursery, dressed for traveling. Iroh said simply, "Ready to go, nephew?"
"Uncle? W-What are you-" Zuko stuttered, his good eye wide.
"You should know better by now than to try to keep secrets from me," Iroh said matter-of-factly. "And she is not just your sister; she is my niece. A relationship I neglected in the past," as his own gaze dropped to the floor for a moment, before looking up again. "Now, shall we go? Kumo has the palanquin ready for us."
"And the Dai Li are ready to accompany you, sirs," Agent Huong as he stepped up behind Iroh, to the older gentleman's slight startlement, and bowed.
Zuko gave Huong a startled look as he said, "I thought today was your scheduled day off? Hoshi showed me the roster two days ago."
"I traded days with Agent Renshu, sir, when we found out about this voyage. Renshu would burden rather than protect your party if his seasickness came back, and I can find the bar they were talking about some other day; I doubt it's going anywhere."
Zuko just looked frustrated instead of appreciative of Huong's minor sacrifice. "I prefer to not have any company on these trips! I've been making them alone since just after the war ended, and nothing's ever happened on any trip!"
"You've been making them alone, and on a regular basis, my lord. It's become part of your schedule," Hoshi said as he stepped up beside Huong and bowed low, and then straightened up to give his sovereign lord a downright challenging stare. "I seem to remember getting this," as he tapped the jagged scar running across his face, "when somebody else figured out your schedule…"
Zuko flinched guiltily, as Hoshi must have known he would, and accepted his increased entourage without any further protest. Katara gave a small wry smile as the party headed for the palace gates; it seemed Hoshi had also figured out the secret to dealing with his monarch when the Fire Lord was feeling obstinate. A little guilt trip could make Zuko go a long way…
The two royals and their guards left the palace just after dawn, and came back an hour before sunset. When they came back, Iroh retired to his chambers while Zuko went to the firebending arena on the west side of the palace, and proceeded to unleash massive gouts of fire on scorched stone targets, on even thicker stone walls and on nothing but thin air.
When she'd heard they returned and what Zuko was doing now, Katara put Roku in his sling and went to the firebending arena—but Sokka stopped her at the doorway to the arena, his face grim. "Now's not the time, Katara. Go back to the nursery."
"Sokka, what are you—he would never hurt Roku!" Katara protested, aghast that Sokka would even consider the idea.
"No, he wouldn't. But I'm dead certain he doesn't want Roku to see him like this, either. Just wait until he's gotten it out of his system, okay? He'll come to the nursery when he's ready."
Instead of returning to the nursery, Katara stopped by Iroh's suite of rooms to ask him what had happened during the visit to Azula. She found him sitting at a low table with a teapot and a cup of tea, staring silently down into the teacup cradled in his hands. But though she could sense the liquid in the cup and the teapot, she couldn't see any wisps of steam rising from either… he'd let the tea go cold?!
When she asked him what was wrong and what had happened earlier, Iroh only said quietly, "I would prefer not to talk about it today, dear Katara. Perhaps some other time…"
Now both frustrated and more worried than ever, Katara went back to the nursery, but only long enough to drop off Roku with Yukiko and change into bending clothes. Then she went to the east-side firebending grounds that Zuko had turned into a multi-bending arena, raised her arms and just cut loose with every drop of water in the four giant urns.
Thirty minutes of hard bending later, every square inch of the arena's walls and floor was either slick with water or covered with ice, and the stone walls had several deep pock marks on them from ice spears thrown with all her might. She looked at what she'd done, compared it to what Zuko was doing right then and thought to herself that for all the ways that they were complete opposites, in other ways she and Zuko were really too much alike.
Having worked her frustration out of her system, she took another fifteen minutes to conscientiously pick up every last drop of water, wring the dirt and sand out until it was sparkling clean again, and then bend it all back into the giant urns. When she returned to the nursery, the Dai Li agent Phan cleared his throat before saying quietly, "Word has been passed through the servants that the Fire Lord is no longer on the bending grounds, and can be found in the garden with the turtle-duck pond."
She thanked Phan for the information, then changed back into regular clothes, got a loaf of bread from the palace kitchen, and went out to the garden with the pond. She found Zuko sitting there by the pond's edge, tossing small bits of bread into the water for the turtle-ducks. She said nothing, just sat down next to him and began breaking her loaf of bread into tiny pieces as well.
She'd been coming out to the pond every day since Zuko had showed it to her, and every time she scattered bits of bread on the water and hoped the mother turtle-duck would accept her peace offering. For the last two days, the mother had let her ducklings come close enough to eat the bread tossed out to them, though she quacked urgently if any of them got within arm's reach and gave Katara a positively vicious glare, promising all the pain her little avian body could deliver if the human dared reach for one of her babies again.
She and Zuko fed the ducklings in silence for awhile, while she waited to see what he would say. They'd almost run out of bread to toss when Zuko said abruptly, "Sometimes when I go to see her, Azula doesn't even realize I'm there; it's like she's stuck inside her own head. I think she has this—this fantasy where she's the Fire Lord instead of me, and she's winning or already won the war; she talks to people who aren't there, old generals and the like. I can stand right in front of her and talk to her, but if she hears me at all, she thinks I'm somebody else, like our mother… The staff there says those are her 'bad days'."
"And what are her 'good days' like?" Katara asked quietly.
"Those are even worse, in a way. Sometimes when I visit she knows it's me, and she knows she's in an institution, and she…" Zuko shook his head. "When she's not threatening to kill me in some typically nasty fashion, she's demanding to know why I haven't killed her yet. Saying that she'd rather be dead, than…"
"Ouch," Katara winced in sympathy. After a brief and pained silence, she asked softly, "Was today a 'good day' or 'bad day'? How did she take the news about Mai?"
"It started out as a good day, for her; she laughed." Zuko's hands clenched into fists, one of them crushing and toasting the bread for the turtle-ducks. "She laughed, and said it was about time Mai had been betrayed by someone close to her… And then when she was done laughing, she started crying. And then she started screaming at me, saying it was all my fault, that—uhff!" he grunted, because Katara had nearly tackled him from the side.
The turtle-duck mother began quacking in alarm at the sudden commotion, but Katara paid her no mind while hugging Zuko for all she was worth. She hissed in his good ear, "It was not your fault! Don't you ever let yourself think that, Zuko! It's the fault of that cursed nurse, and whoever paid her to betray you!"
"I know that," Zuko said with a heavy sigh. "But Azula still blames me… not just for Mai's death, but for Mai and Ty Lee turning against her at the Boiling Rock. She screamed about how I took everyone away from her, even our mother…"
Katara gave him another fierce hug, holding on until some of the tension slowly left his body. After letting go to sit beside him again, she asked softly, "Did you tell her about Roku?"
Zuko shook his head. "I… I'm not ready for that yet. My guts tie themselves into knots just thinking about how she might react."
"Probably not well," Katara quietly agreed, remembering how the princess had sobbed and howled like a wild animal after her defeat at the Agni Kai.
Zuko picked up the bread he'd dropped earlier when she'd tackle-hugged him, and began feeding the turtle-ducks again. "Anyway, right about that time Uncle asked me to leave and let him talk to her alone, and I'm ashamed to say I was glad to leave him to it. I have no idea what they said after I left, but Uncle came out twenty minutes later looking awful. And he didn't even drink any tea on the long trip back," he added with definite worry in his voice.
"I saw him in his rooms earlier, and he had poured some tea then," Katara said to reassure him. She didn't add that Iroh had actually let the tea go cold in his hands; hopefully Zuko's uncle would also regain his spirits by the next morning.
Three days later, Katara left the nursery during one of Roku's naps to track down the palace majordomo, and had a private meeting with him and with the Dai Li squad leader Huong. When the meeting was over and everyone was in agreement on the plan, Huong stood up and said, "I can get the storeroom set up today, right under the nursery. How about locating the trapdoor under the daybed?"
"That's easy enough to move," Katara agreed. "I'll take Yukiko and Roku out to the garden with the turtle-duck pond while you're working. Thank you, Huong."
"My pleasure, Lady Katara. And my honor to assist," as he bowed to her. "You're a wise young woman, and brave as any warrior."
"Indeed," the majordomo Kumo said as he bowed deeply to her. "There can be no doubt whatsoever that the Fire Lord's child and heir is in the best possible hands."
Six days later, Zuko got stuck in a meeting that dragged on and on and on; just when he thought they'd resolved the issue of how to deal with the minor crisis caused by DenchiIsland's tato-choke blight, someone brought up another problem with the proposed plan and they had to all sit back down to iron out the latest wrinkle. Finally he stood up and snarled, "Don't try to beat this issue to death with details! We've got a solid and workable plan, and I expect you to implement it starting right now! Any further complications will be dealt with as they appear. This meeting is adjourned," as he strode out, not bothering to wait for them to leave through the other door. If anyone was foolish enough to try to follow him for the purpose of babbling about another detail, well, that's what the guards were for.
He stalked to the nursery in a foul mood, having missed dinner with his family and friends due to the blithering idiots on his council. And he'd probably missed his chance to see Roku awake, too; Katara was trying to keep him on a regular schedule for sleeping and feeding, saying that babies needed that regularity, and he was sure it was well past Roku's bedtime now. But it would help his mood just to watch his son sleep peacefully for a while, and Katara probably wasn't in bed yet… probably. But even if she was, he'd at least have some time with his son.
He nodded to Suki and the other guards on duty at the nursery door before going in; Suki paused as if she wanted to tell him something, but then thought better of it and just opened the door for him.
He went through the door and was immediately on full alert; something was wrong! The day bed was shoved out of place, and there was no sign of Katara—
But when he checked the crib, Roku was sleeping peacefully in it. Whew.
There was some kind of contraption on the daybed, made of leather and metal and other bits; he poked at it curiously, then looked past it. The daybed's displacement revealed a trapdoor set into the marble floor, one that he hadn't known was there, and it was open—what was going on?!
He crouched next to the trapdoor and peered down inside. There was a ladder leading down ten feet to a tunnel—a very cold tunnel; he could feel the chill from where he was. Stirring his breath of fire to warm himself, he started to set foot on the ladder—and then Katara came into view in the tunnel, carrying a candle lamp. "Zuko! You startled me," she said with a puff of fog when she looked up and saw him at the entrance.
"Katara, what is all this?" he asked her.
"Putting emergency measures in place for later," she said as she beckoned for him to come down. "I was going to tell you about this anyway, after I filled another row; it would be easier to explain if I showed you."
He came down the ladder, his official robes threatening to tangle his feet and his breath misting in the chill air. Katara ushered him into an underground storage room with row upon row of stone shelves built into the walls; the work of one of the earthbending Dai Li, he had no doubt. Large blocks of ice were set on the floor, keeping the entire chamber at a freezing temperature. One shelf on the far wall had a short row of small glass bottles at the very top, but other than that the chamber was empty. "What's in the bottles?" he asked as he pointed to them.
"Milk for Roku, in case anything happens to me," Katara said quietly.
"What?!" as he stared at her.
"When I turned myself into a wet-nurse, I gave myself… more milk-producing ability than it turned out Roku actually needs," she explained, her cheeks stained red with a blush even in the ice-cold chamber. "And I decided a few weeks ago that it would be a good idea to put that extra milk aside for an emergency. I made sure breast milk can be frozen and unfrozen and still be good for the baby, and then I asked Sokka to put his talent for inventing to work. He made a device for me, it's a sort of a pump, and I use it to, um, suck the extra milk out and put it into a bottle after Roku has had his fill."
"That must be what he was so freaked out about a while back," Zuko remembered with a wry grin. "Asking a guy to invent something like that for his sister… Well, there's proof that he loves you; he actually put his mad genius to work and made it for you, instead of running screaming for the harbor."
"Yeah; I couldn't ask for a better brother," she agreed with a smile. "Once Sokka came up with a pump that worked, I asked Huong to make this storage chamber. Sokka, Suki and the Dai Li guys know about it, and so does your majordomo Kumo; you and Toph were sure we could trust him with anything, and I thought it would be rather rude to make modifications to the palace without letting him know. But other than you now, no one else knows; this should be kept secret until someone really needs to know about it," as she gestured for them to leave the chamber.
Once they had both exited via the trapdoor, Katara said as she closed it, "There's about three days' worth of milk down there now, and I add to it every day. I want to put at least two full months' worth of milk in cold storage; that way if there's another assassination attempt that misses Roku but gets me, there'll be no panic over finding another wet-nurse for Roku fast before he starves. You'll have time to do interviews and everything it takes to find someone you know you can trust." She laid a small rug over the trapdoor as she continued, "Once the milk is warmed up to body temperature, anyone will be able to feed Roku, not just a wet-nurse. Suki already practiced with a cup of milk, and she eventually got Roku to drink from the cup. Sokka totally pig-chickened out at the thought of handling milk that came from me, but if worst came to worst I know he could do it."
He stared at her. "I… I don't know what to say. Making plans for Roku in case you get killed…" He abruptly bowed low to her. "Thank you. Thank you, for… for being you, Katara."
He could hear the embarrassment in her voice as she said, "Hey, it's… well, who else could be me? Now come on, help me push the daybed back in place to hide the trapdoor."
After they pushed the daybed back in place, he poked again at the contraption on the bed, more gingerly than before as he tried to figure out how it was supposed to be used. "So this is Sokka's device, huh?"
"That's it; it still needs to be cleaned before I put it away."
"It looks… painful."
She grimaced. "It's definitely uncomfortable, but it gets the job done. You'll understand if I don't demonstrate for you."
"Perish the thought!" as he waved away the idea. "But can I ask a personal and, um, possibly silly question?" She gave a shrug of assent, so he went on, "You can waterbend basically any liquid that's got water in it, right? Why don't you just, um, milk-bend it out and into a bottle? Does that hurt worse?"
She gaped open-mouthed at him for a few seconds before bursting into embarrassed laughter. "Would you believe, I never even thought of that! I'll have to try that next time. Thanks for the idea. Oh, sweetie, did we wake you?" she said as she looked towards the crib, and the little baby noises they could hear coming from it.
Zuko got to pick up and hold his son after all, crooning his favorite lullaby to him until he fell back asleep. Katara cleaned the device while he spent time with his son, and then put it away with a rueful smile. "Sokka's going to be furious with me, if it turns out I can do it easier with 'milk-bending' and I put him to all that trouble for nothing."
"Maybe not for nothing," he murmured, stroking his son's fine hair. "I bet that device could come in handy for lots of new mothers. If they could take out breast-milk and store it ahead of time, they could leave their children at home with caretakers while they go to town for supplies or even go to work in factories and businesses, without worrying about their babies getting hungry while they're gone. Sokka just might have created our next exportable product… I'll have to set up a meeting between him and a manufacturer to discuss making more of them. If he can get even moderately wealthy from his invention, he'll be thanking you for not thinking of milk-bending first."
Katara gave him a wondering look, then grinned. "You really do think of everything."
"I'm the Fire Lord; it's my job to think of everything," he said as he gently put his son back in his crib, and leaned in to kiss his cheek. "Good night, son; sleep well…"
Somewhere far, far away from the capital island:
"Report." The speaker's tone was almost nonchalant; he was used to being obeyed.
A helmet dimly gleamed in the torchlight as the other person in the room bowed and spoke. "The Dai Li in the capital have taken the bait."
"The trap has not yet sprung, sir. But it will; patience in these matters is advised."
The first speaker scowled. "You advise waiting… but I have already waited far too long! Force the trap to spring; it should be easy enough. All it will take are a few words in the right ears…"
The helmeted man listened with patience to the details of the first speaker's plan, and then bowed again. "It will be done."
TO BE CONTINUED…