In the Southern Water Tribe, the term ladylike simply meant having good manners and showing respect to elders. There were designated chores for boys and girls, but she had rarely been scolded for playing warrior with Sokka or going penguin sledding.
It was different here. The people had a clear perceptions about what girls and boys should do, and they objected when their views were dismissed.
Katara pouted at her clumsy needlework before glancing at Yue. The princess was focused on her own design. Katara angled her neck to get a better look. It was a labyrinth of colors, and it blended seamlessly into an image that showed a dance between two fish.
For the first year that Katara lived in the Northern Water Tribe, her life changed drastically. She had been unable to spend as much time with Sokka, and she was taught ladylike chores and manners. Instead of her improvised waterbending practice, she had healing lessons with Yugoda and formal schooling for the first time in her life. Katara also had new obligations as lady-in-waiting to Princess Yue. She had excelled at healing and preformed well in her academics. She was also above average in many areas associated with being a lady-in-waiting.
Katara winced as she pricked her finger. What she was not at all good at was embroidery.
Northern Water Tribe ladies were expected to embroider sophisticated designs that represented the heritage and principle values of their tribe. Four years after arriving in the Northern Water Tribe, Katara’s embroidery was still hopeless. As a lady-in-waiting, she was expected to practice every day with several of the other ladies of high standing, including Princess Yue and the princess’ mother, Lady Lokoa. She just happened to learn more about healing pricks than she did about the irritating intricacies of needlework.
Today was no exception.
“Ouch!” whined Katara as she pricked herself again. She dropped her work to her lap and dunked her swollen thumb into the water dish she kept nearby when she was sewing. The prick healed with hardly any effort.
“Was that a bad one?” asked Yue with a small smile.
Katara smirked back, but before she could answer, a boy ran in through the door curtains and skidded to a stop in front of Lady Lokoa.
“They’re back!” he shouted. Then, remembering himself, he stood up straight and gave a small bow. “Message from the sentries, Lady Lokoa.”
Katara exchanged a look with Yue, and her heart quickened. It was a week early, but maybe if the wind had been good...
“Who’s back, young man?” asked Lady Lokoa, putting down her embroidery and rising from the rug. There was a tightness in her voice, and Katara was certain that their thoughts were identical.
Katara was on her feet and out of the room before she had time to think. In the back of her mind, she noticed that some of the other ladies were following, but they were far behind, and were moving at a more appropriate pace. Katara grinned, though she knew she would be scolded for her abrupt actions later. She flew past the palace guards and was out of the gate, running down the city’s central street before she even thought of waiting for Yue and her private gondola.
When she arrived at the docks a quarter hour later, she was exhausted, but she felt a swell of pride when she saw that Yue’s gondola was still far in the distance. When the great gates to the harbor opened, she was there to see the first warship glide into port. It was Chief Arnook’s ship, and his family’s totem flag flew from the central mast. A small crowd, mostly composed of dock workers, had already gathered, and their excited victory chants were drawing people out of the surrounding homes and warehouses to join them.
Katara plunged into the sea of adults and pushed her way through. She didn’t see the second ship enter the city -- she couldn’t see anything other than the backs of the people in front of her -- but she heard the roar surge and felt her heart leap.
That would be the chief’s second-in-command’s ship -- her father’s ship.
It had been a little over a year since her father left with Chief Arnook and the other Water Tribe warriors. They had allied with Earth Kingdom armies in an effort to liberate territories that had been occupied by the Fire Nation. Their combined forces had done more than that. They had managed to push into the outer islands of the Fire Nation itself.
With one final nudge, Katara broke through to the front of the crowd. Hakoda was helping to lower the mainsail on his ship. His back was to the crowd, but Katara instantly recognized his unmistakable posture.
“Dad!” she yelled. Her voice was swallowed up in the noise of the crowd. She tried again, louder, but it didn’t do any good. She was about to try and waterbend herself a bridge when Bato turned around and spotted her. Katara beamed and waved her arms frantically. Bato grinned and tugged on Hakoda’s shoulder. Seeing her father’s face sent a wave of joy through Katara, and she was unable to contain a very unladylike whoop.
Hakoda glanced back at the mainsail, but Bato slapped him on the back, said something Katara couldn’t hear, and gave him a friendly shove toward the newly lowered gangplank. Katara pushed her way along the waist-high barrier that separated the street from the frigid water. Before she was halfway to the gap that allowed access to the dock, the crowd parted in front of her to let Hakoda through. She ran into his arms, and he picked her up and spun her around like he had when she was a little girl.
“I missed you so much,” he said when he had put her down. “Spirits, you’ve grown. You’re practically a woman now, Katara.”
Katara nearly rolled her eyes -- she hoped he was exaggerating -- and continued to beam up at him. “I missed you too, Dad.”
A renewed cheer from the crowd went up as Chief Arnook crossed the ramp from his ship to the main docks. Katara turned to watch as Lady Lokoa and Princess Yue greeted the Chief with formal bows. The Chief bowed back, accepting their greeting, and then pulled his wife and daughter into a tight embrace. After releasing his family, Arnook glanced back towards the ships and then to the crowd. He caught Hakoda’s eye and motioned for his second-in-command to come. Katara walked hand-in-hand with her father to join the royal family.
“My brothers and sisters!” called out Chief Arnook. Silence fell instantly on the gathering crowd. “My brothers and sisters,” he repeated, raising his hands, “we have returned victorious! Our brave warriors, along with our allies in the Earth Kingdom, have driven back the Fire Nation! We have helped our Earth Kingdom allies to restore their rightful sovereignty over their lands! We have freed thousands of our Earth Kingdom brothers from Fire Lord Ozai, and now we hold seven Fire Nation islands of our own! We have driven them back, and we will continue to drive them back, until this world is once again at peace for ourselves and for our children!” Arnook slowly lowered his hands. “This victory did not come without cost,” he said gravely. “Many brave and good men fell to the armies of the Fire Nation, and we will mourn their loss. Tonight we will recognize the brave warriors among us, but we will also remember the many who sacrificed their lives so that we could drink to our victory. We will also drink to our allies!” He nodded towards several men beside him who were dressed in Earth Kingdom clothing. “We will celebrate with our guests, and we will pledge our continued allegiance to each other. Now join me, brothers and sisters, in my own home tonight. Spread the word: Tonight the palace is open to all!”
A cheer rose from the crowd once more, and Katara was about to join in, but Lady Lokoa gave her a gently chiding look, and she simply smiled wide once more.
The palace was in a frenzy by the time Sokka was released from training. News of the fleet’s early return had spread quickly from the palace to the barracks, but Sergeant Bokta insisted that they finish their set of exercises. It had taken forever. Then he’d had to race through the streets before he managed to track down a member of his father’s crew, who had told him Hakoda was meeting with Chief Arnook in the palace. He’d tried to find someone who knew where exactly in the palace they were meeting, but everyone seemed too busy to be bothered. Almost two hours after his training had finished, his excitement from hearing of the fleet’s return had disappeared as he found himself walking down the same palace hallway for the fourth time with a childish scowl on his face.
“Sokka!” called out a voice from behind him. Sokka turned to see Princess Yue, who was trailed by his sister, walking towards him, and his mood brightened instantly.
“Princess Yue! Hi, uh, Your Highness,” said Sokka sheepishly. He thought Yue’s smile might have widened a little, and he could feel a blush starting in his ears. Yue, who was a year older than Sokka, had always been polite and kind to him. Since his most recent growth spurt, though, he swore that she was starting to sneak glances of him, like he had been sneaking looks at her for the past two years.
Sokka bowed slightly when she reached him and, in a moment of either incredible bravery or incredible stupidity, grabbed her right hand and kissed her knuckles. The blush spread right down to his toes, but it was worth it for Yue’s giggle and the twinkle in her eyes. The moment was ruined by Katara’s quiet snicker, and he glared at her.
“Dad’s with Chief Arnook and the Earth Kingdom people in the Chief’s studyroom,” said Katara, who was still grinning. “They probably won’t come out until it’s time for the feast, but Lady Lokoa says we can sit at the high table with them tonight, since it’s a homecoming celebration.”
“Right,” said Sokka curtly. He was still annoyed at his sister, and if the Princess hadn’t been there, he would have been tempted to stick out his tongue at her. But now that he knew that he wouldn’t see his father until that night, he was at loose ends. “Uh, Princess, if you’re not busy, would you like to do an...ah, activity together?”
“That’s sweet of you, Sokka, but we have to set up the decorations with my my mother,” said Yue. “Actually, do you think you could help us with something?”
“Sure. What do you need?” asked Sokka eagerly.
“The big brass dish from the kitchen storeroom,” said Katara as she pointed over her shoulder towards the kitchen. “We also need to get the fancy stew bowls, so it would save us a trip if you’d get that the dish for us.”
“Sure thing, Princess Yue,” said Sokka.
Katara rolled her eyes.
The kitchen had no ceiling, and it was also the only area in the palace with a stone floor. The walls were placed a fair distance from the ovens and fire-pits which littered the center of the room. Usually, a waterbender had to reinforce the walls once a week to reverse the effects of the melting, but right now one of Master Pakku’s younger students was rushing from one melting spot to another in attempt to fix the damage that was being caused by all the ovens burning at once. Yue, Sokka, and Katara wove their way through the bustle of cooks and commandeered servants from other parts of the palace, before they were finally able to make their way to the storage room.
Inside, it was dark, and the ceiling sloped like a cave. The only illumination came from narrow skylights which were placed in rows of two. The shadowy piles of pots, dishes, cured meats and dried vegetation appeared more threatening than they should have.
“The brass dish is in the back,” said Yue, an apologetic note in her voice, and when she motioned in front of herself, Sokka could barely see her hand.
He scowled when Katara stepped on his foot and nodded forward with a small smile. He looked between Yue and his sister and took a deep breath. Sokka absolutely refused to be intimidated by the fact that he was unable to see the back of the storeroom. Yue and Katara wandered off, presumably in search of the fancy bowls, and Sokka set out for the shadowy depths of the room.
Katara hadn’t been kidding when she said the dish was large. He was certain that if he tilted the shallow dish on its side, it would have reached his waist. He muttered something about annoying little sisters, then bent his knees in order to get a good grip on the dish.
A shadow moved on his left side, and there was a quite moaning noise. Sokka bit back a yelp and glared into the darkness.
“I know that was you, Katara!” he growled to his left.
There was no reply.
“Katara!” he shouted into the shadows.
“What?!” The shouted reply came from the opposite direction. Sokka looked back and forth between the direction the first noise and the direction where he heard Katara, then grabbed the lip of the dish and dragged it back to the entrance as fast as he could.
When Yue and Katara emerged from the shadows a couple minutes later, each carrying a large stack of silver-plated bowls, Sokka was still panting and glaring angrily into the depths of the storeroom.
“Are you okay, Sokka?” asked Katara.
“There’s something back there,” he accused.
“What do you mean?” asked Yue.
“I don’t know,” said Sokka. “Something moved back there, and it made a sound like...I don’t know what.”
“Must be a arctic foxseal,” offered Katara with a small shrug.
“Oh,” said Sokka. “Yeah, an animal. I knew that.” He refused to look back as he followed Yue and Katara out of the room and into the warmth of the kitchens.
That night, the great hall of the palace was filled with warriors and their families, and the sound of even larger masses celebrating in the courtyard outside shook the ground. The brass dish had been filled with dried Earth Kingdom flowers and placed in the center of the high table for the feast. Sokka, who was seated between his father and Master Pakku at the one end of the table, could clearly see the scuff marks where he had dragged it across the kitchen floor. The Earth Kingdom guests were seated in the middle of the table with the chief, and Princess Yue, Lady Lokoa, and Katara occupied the end opposite of Sokka. Snatches of war stories drifted up to the high table, but Hakoda only wanted to talk about what Sokka’s year had been like. He refused to speak of the battles, and Sokka’s repeated questions had eventually earned him a tired look and a promise to talk about it ‘when you’re older.’
“Tell them about the ghost town, sir!” shouted one of the soldiers, standing and taking a few steps toward the high table.
“Ghost town?” asked Sokka with wide eyes.
“When you’re older,” repeated Hakoda with a smile and shook his head at the soldier, who returned to his table with an exasperated look. At that point, a platter of steaming caribou-moose meat was brought in, and Sokka immediately had more important things to think about.
As the meal drew to a close, Chief Arnook stood, a flagon of walrus-skin ice wine raised in one hand.
“It is with great joy that we gather here tonight,” he said. The curvature of the walls funnelled his voice so it carried out over the crowd. They quieted, and raised their glasses in imitation of the chief. “We have been victorious, and though we mourn our lost brothers, we know they have not died in vain. A toast to the fallen: may they find peace.” He drank, and the crowd followed him. He then turned to face the leader of the Earth Kingdom delegation. He was a tall man with a goatee and long mustache, and the front half of his head was shaved. “And we drink to our allies,” Chief Arnook said, raising his cup again. “To the Earth Kingdom, represented here by Grand Secretariat Long Feng, and to those few brave men of the Fire Nation who joined us in our righteous fight.”
Sokka knew that last part referred to Jeong-Jeong the Deserter, a former Fire Nation admiral who had joined the Water Tribe and Earth Kingdom Alliance.
Sokka frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. He didn’t believe that anyone from the Fire Nation would ever join them. Jeong-Jeong couldn’t be trusted. He was probably had some scheme going to get power for himself.
“And now,” the chief said, “let us recognize the bravest among us. Hakoda, stand.”
There must have been a prearranged signal, because as Hakoda stood, a man entered the room from one of the side doors, carrying an elegantly ornamented Fire Nation sword. The chief took it and held it out toward his second-in-command. “Your leadership, bravery and cleverness saved many lives during our campaign, and won many battles. This sword belonged to Commander Zhao, who we were able to defeat quickly and thoroughly due to your strategies. Take it as a token of gratitude for the service you have performed.”
The gathered soldiers broke into cheers, and Sokka did his best to be louder than all of them combined. He took little note of the grim set of his father’s face.
There were other gifts presented to soldiers and officers. A gold-plated ceremonial helmet was given to the Earth Kingdom delegation. It was intended to be a personal expression of gratitude from the Water Tribe Chief. When Arnook gave a jeweled necklace to Lady Lokoa to thank her for taking over many of his duties in his absence, Sokka thought he was done. Some of the soldiers turned back to their plates, but then Chief Arnook spoke again.
“I have a final gift,” he said. “For my daughter, Princess Yue, something I have no doubt the Fire Lord mourns more than any of the islands we took from him.”
That caught Sokka’s attention. He leaned forwards in his seat with a slightly skeptical expression and to get a closer look at what Arnook thought the Fire Lord cared about more than his territory. He was almost certain that there was no object that valuable. The door flaps opened, and he saw that he was right: It wasn’t a thing they brought in. It was a person.