The Fire Lord's Bride
Part One: Mask
Zuko nodded politely. He was not paying any attention to what the young noble woman was saying, but feigned attention while he considered what to do about the enormous budget deficit and the high demand of supplies he could not afford.
"Ah, Fire Lord, we are honored by your illustrious presence," a woman said, drawing his attention. Her hair was graying, but she was still an attractive woman, with dark hair and eyes. She set her hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "My daughter, I know, is overcome by your presence."
If she were truly overcome, he thought, she would not have been nattering on as she had been. Still, it was better than awkward silence; that he would feel obligated to fill. "And I am pleased that you and your daughter, along with the rest of my subjects, could attend the gala tonight." His tone was indifferent. He was indifferent. He did not want to be here. He wanted to be back in his office, working.
He pretended he did not care when the girl politely invented an excuse to leave and led her mother away. He did not like purposefully driving away his people, did not enjoy alienating them, but it could not be helped. Zasha, the girl he had been speaking too, was an inappropriate choice for the next Fire Lady. She enjoyed luxury and gossip too much to fulfill her obligations if she were his wife, so Zuko had spoken a few cold, uncaring words to convince her he would be a cold, uncaring husband. That was all she needed; despite her mind being wasted on gossip, she was intelligent, and she could take the hint.
He didn't watch them walk away—that might be misconstrued as caring, and he could not afford that. Instead, he took a sip from his wineglass—he'd been sipping from it all night, careful not to overindulge—and looked around. He missed Mai.
Her boredom and callousness were all elements of a clever guise she was woven for herself to fit into Fire Nation politics. In his father's reign, allies were always future enemies, so no one could really get close to anyone else, not even family, for fear of betrayal. But there was an old saying about that. 'If you would rise to the top, you would rise alone' and the other, often unspoken half, was 'and if you would fall, you would fall alone'. Mai learned that lesson well, certainly long before Zuko himself.
But she was too close. Too close to Azula, too close to Ozai. Azula was her childhood friend, and Ozai had granted the task of governing Omashu to Mai's family. It was drawing unwanted attention. There were dark rumors, whispered by idle servants, that Azula was controlling Mai, who was in turn controlling Zuko, or that Ozai still had a firm grip of Mai's family, and was controlling both of them. To make matters worse, many still remembered some of her ignoble actions while helping Azula. Zuko's crimes were forgiven after his work to overthrow his father and sister, and Ty Lee's were forgotten after a few whimsical smiles; Mai's were neither forgiven nor forgotten.
His council had not expressly forbade his relationship with Mai, but they had strongly advised against it. Zuko spoke with Mai and both agreed to part for one year. If, in that time, either could find someone else, then that would be the end of it. If, after the year was up, neither could move on, they would begin their courtship again, regardless of what the council wanted. That had been seven months ago, and Zuko was still unable to attach himself to anyone. Only five months, he reminded himself, and he could be with Mai again.
"I swear, if one more person makes a crack about tearbending, I'm going to rip off their face and wear it as a mask."
Zuko did not bother to hide his grin, his façade of aloofness shattering for the first time in seven months. "Isn't that a bit extreme?" He asked, turning to face the speaker.
Katara looked up at him. She was frowning, but her eyes belied her amusement. "You haven't heard what they've been saying." Her voice took on a high, squeaky quality. "'Oh, that's so sad, I could just tearbend,' or 'I would tearbend if the Fire Lord would just look at me'." She looked at him blandly. "And that's just in the time it took me to walk over here. Since I was only about twenty feet away…" she trailed off with a pointed look.
Zuko raised his hands in surrender. "I get your point," he smirked. He lowered his hands, clasping them behind his back out of habit. "So what brings you to the Fire Nation? When did you arrive?" He started to walk the length of the ballroom, his movements rigid.
Katara raised a brow, easily matching his pace. "About twenty minutes before this little party of yours started—Aang, Toph and I cleaned up a bit and invited ourselves. Well, Aang invited us. Your guards were tripping over themselves to let the Avatar and his companions in. And since when do I need a reason to visit? And what's with the formality all of a sudden, hm?"
"You never need a reason," he assured her. "And the formality, well, it's a bit of a habit now."
"Yes, I've heard formality can be habit forming—rather like bachelorhood. I would have though that you and Mai would be married by now, or at least betrothed."
"Betrothed? Who says betrothed anymore?"
"The people of the Water Tribe, and don't try and change the subject."
With a small sigh, Zuko explained the situation. "So I have another five months," he said, raising his in acknowledgment of a councilman passing by.
"You'd better be careful," Katara warned. "If the council doesn't think you're actually trying, they may cry foul, and you may end up prolonging your separation."
"I can ignore them, if it comes to that," he replied glibly.
"Perhaps, but then you'll have to deal with their whining, and nothing will be accomplished in your meetings. What will you do then?"
Zuko frowned, and looked away. He cleared his throat. "So how have you been?"
"Busy," she replied, accepting the topic change. "I've been traveling with Aang and Toph off and on for some time now. I spend time with my Tribe, repairing the village and such, but I also spend a lot of time in the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation too."
"Oh?" He asked, interest piqued. "And what do you do?"
"A variety of things," she replied dismissively. "I carry letters, sometimes," she raised her glass to hide her lips, "for the Order of the White Lotus." She took a drink and lowered her glass casually, as though nothing unusual was said. "They know I'll keep any messages safe, and I know almost all of the members anyway."
"Then you've seen Uncle quite often."
"If you see him so often, why didn't you know about my situation?"
Katara sighed. "We did talk about it, but all I knew was that you were being pressured to marry. I didn't know you were being pressured to marry anyone but Mai."
Zuko nodded. "So you're a messenger hawk, a pretty one," he quickly amended at her sharp look. "Much prettier than a hawk, actually." He coughed. "What else do you do on your travels?"
"I've written a few of Aang's speeches," she admitted. "He's getting better, though, I think he's growing up. He still tries to ride dangerous creatures, of course, but he's getting better at talking with people in large groups. Other than that, I've been chatting with politicians about various projects concerning the balance of the nations, but mainly working on my Bending. Since you released the remaining Southern Waterbenders from prison, I've been learning my native Bending style. I even stopped off at the Foggy Swamp for a few weeks to pick up the basics of that form."
"Three styles? Have you mastered them?"
"Northern and Southern, yes, but I'm not sure about Foggy Swamp. I've got a good handle on Plantbending though."
"What about you're other skill, the one you used on that Southern Raider—"
"I don't use it and I don't talk about it," she interrupted firmly, then took a drink. "It's not exactly something I'm proud of, you know."
Zuko nodded. "But it can be used for good, like any other ability. Are you saying you never saved a life using it?" He felt ridiculous, speaking so obtusely, but he could sense that Katara was uncomfortable even hearing 'Bloodbending' so he graciously worked his way around saying the actual word.
"I have, Aang and Sokka both, but their lives would not have been in danger in the first place if that particular skill did not exist."
Zuko frowned and spoke, barely moving his lips. "I knew you had to learn it somewhere, but I'd always sort of hoped you'd discovered it yourself. I don't like the idea of someone running about who can Bend people." He shuddered.
"She's dead, now, executed, but even if she were alive, it wouldn't matter. She couldn't beat me. My Bending is more powerful. She needs the full moon; I do not."
"That's a little frightening, Katara."
"I'm a frightening person."
"Well, you can't tell by looking at you," he offered.
"Everyone wears a mask," she replied candidly.
"True," he agreed. "But masks serve a purpose. They can be used to do a lot of good."
"They can also be used to cause a lot of damage—that's another double-edged sword."
Zuko privately marveled at the interesting turn this debate had taken—normally Katara was staunchly on the sweeter side of things, while he was on the bitter edge. He began to comment when a polite cough drew their attention and stopped their trek around the room.
"Ah, Mighty Fire Lord Zuko," Lao, one of his councilmen said genially. The other man gently nudged forward a young woman who bore a startling resemblance to Mai. This girl was shorter, though, and her expression, instead of appearing bored, was more vapid. "May I present to you my daughter, Azana."
"Councilman Lao, Lady Azana, may I introduce to you Master Waterbender Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. You may recall that she was the Waterbending Master of the Avatar himself. I'm sure word of her talent has spread far and wide. I can assure you that the level of her ability has not been exaggerated."
Councilman Lao cleared his throat. "Yes, word of Master Katara's skill is world renowned." He smiled tightly. "My daughter is not a Bender, but she has her own merits. She is a talented musician, your Lordship, and—"
"It is a tradition that all Fire Nation Nobility learn music. I play an instrument myself," he said to Katara.
"Ah. In the Southern Water Tribe, the men learn to play the tautirut while the women learn to play flutes. Typically, of course. There are other instruments, but those are preferred."
"Do you sing?" Councilman Lao asked. "Azana sings beautifully, in addition to playing several instruments."
Katara laughed lightly, playing the Councilman's game. Or at least, Zuko thought she was playing. She might just be making conversation; one could never tell with her. "Everyone in the Water Tribes, North and South, sings," came the easy reply. "We don't always sing well, but since we all sing together, no one really knows how good or bad an individual is. People of water have always favored unity."
Zuko smiled; Katara was definitely playing the game. That last remark was perfectly fine in context of what she was saying, but it was also a subtle jab at the nature of Fire Nation politics. It was moments like that where he realized he'd missed her terribly while she'd been away. He did wonder how she became so politically savvy, but that was a question for another time.
Zuko engaged her about the differences in music between the Water Tribes and the Fire Nation, to the exclusion of Councilman Lao and Azana.
"Was that really necessary?" Katara asked when the other pair had finally made their excuses and wandered off.
"Yes, it really was. Councilman Lao had been trying to force his daughter on me since the beginning of this. It was his idea that I separate from Mai and marry someone else. Obviously he wants to raise his status through his daughter, and since she looks like Mai, well, you get the idea."
"I still say you need to be careful, Zuko. Your council is going to get tired of your behavior eventually, and they may decide to start setting you up on dates themselves if you keep pushing them like this."
"I will," he assured her. She did not look the least bit mollified, but nodded. "So, is Sokka bad at singing?"
"Actually, no. He's very good, much better than I am. Don't tell him that though, you know how smug he can get when he thinks he's good at something."
Katara went on the tell funny stories at Sokka's expense, and Zuko occasionally chimed in with humorous tales of his uncle's antics. Many of Zuko's stories were heavily censored, considering Iroh was involved, but they had a good laugh together. They artfully ignored the looks and whispers, choosing to walk and talk. It was nice to catch up with each other, and Katara's presence kept most of the available girls seeking marriage with their Fire Lord at bay.
Later that night, when Zuko retreated to his royal chambers and Katara left for her own quarters—Zuko had been sure that all of his friends had their own sets of room in his palace for whenever they came. He stretched slowly, taking deep breaths. His body limber and his mind awake, he retrieved a mask, one that he had painstakingly carved to resemble the mask he had long since disposed of in Ba sing Se. He had many problems weighing on his mind, not the least of which was the crime rate in his city. If these people refused to be respectful of their Fire Lord, perhaps they could be cowed into obedience by the Blue Spirit.
Dressing in black and securing the mask and swords, he slipped out of his palace. There was work to be done.
A/N: First Zutara story ever, and all seven parts will be based on the prompts for Zutara Week 2011. I would greatly appreciate constructive criticism please. I'm not sure I have kept everyone in character, or that the plot is interesting enough to keep anyone interested. All feedback is much appreciated!
Frumious Bandersnatch, hereafter Bandy.