Kanna of the Northern Water Tribe knows her duty to her family, and knows what is expected of her. She is very young, but she understands duty, and she understands how important it is that she behaves, and makes her parents happy with her.
She is young, only a little girl, if you can believe that, but Kanna already knows or is learning how to do a lot of things. She goes to school with the other children to learn how to do math and read nautical maps and practice her reading and writing. From her mother, Kanna learns how to sew and weave, how to make dye and make medicine and dress wounds, despite the fact that she is not a waterbender.
On top of that, Kanna is her father's only child. As such, he takes her out of the city on his hunting trips with his friends, teaching her how to trap animals and skin them. It's embarrassing. Her dad's friends laugh and tease him that he's trying to change his daughter into the son he's always wanted with whale blood. Nakem and his son, Pakku, a waterbender Kanna's age, often go on these hunting trips; the latter stares at her with naked amazement when he watches Kanna skin an arctic fox marten or gut a fish without complaint. Worst of all is the girls in her class, who tell her to be careful lest she grow a beard instead of breasts when she gets older.
But her dad seems proud of her. Kataro claps his daughter's shoulder when they get home, congratulating her on a job well done. In the same breath, he apologizes to her, furrows digging into his brow the way fissures appear in ice.
"I'm sorry, Kanna. I know I shouldn't make you do this; you probably want to stay with Mom, don't you? If you ever get a baby brother, I won't make you come with us anymore."
"It's no problem, Dad," Kanna reassures him with a smile. "Really." She knows her duty.
"Are you going to be following us all the way home?" Yugoda calls behind them, sounding just as amused as she is irritated.
Kanna and Yugoda have, on their journeys home from their shared lessons, become aware over the past week or so that there is someone following them on the way home, trying not to be spotted. They are, of course, both fully aware of who's been following them. He's not exactly a master of stealth, is Pakku, and Kanna has on more than one occasion turned around to see a head of black hair and a boy's face, with light blue eyes and a thin mouth, peeking out from an alleyway.
The two girls stop, lowering the hoods of their parkas, and the bitter wind immediately starts to whip their brown braids back and forth. "Why don't you just come walk with us, Pakku?" Kanna calls into a nearby alley; she can see an unusually large lump sitting between two empty crates. "That way you won't have to skulk after us the whole time."
"I'm not skulking!" comes an indignant cry; beside her, Yugoda giggles, eyes sparkling. "I'm practicing my stealth!"
"Is that why we could hear you coming a mile away?" Yugoda prods, grinning. "Did you trip over those cans earlier to warn us you were coming?"
Pakku emerges from the alley with a dark scowl affixed to his face, but when Kanna smiles and waves him over, his stormy expression subsides and he runs to catch up with the two girls. "Guess I'm your escort," he mumbles, staring down at his feet.
Kanna stares at him. "That's silly!" she exclaims. "We don't need an escort just to get home from school. You don't have to make up excuses to come walk with us."
But when she tries to get him to look at her and agree, the boy just blushes and ducks his head. Oh well; if Pakku wants to be weird, Kanna will just let him be weird. She looks ahead, and lapses into silence as she is taught is fitting; Mom's always saying that young girls shouldn't talk too much unless there's something important they need to say.
Yugoda never got that lesson, it seems, because after just a few moments, she looks over Kanna's head at Pakku and asks, "What does Master Sunesh teach you when you go to learn waterbending from him?"
Ah, waterbending. Something Kanna absolutely can not do and can not learn. As much as watching a waterbender at their work fascinates her, she tends to care little about the finer workings of things she can not do. Consequently, Kanna barely hears the ensuing 'discussion.'
"It's a secret," Pakku tells Yugoda smugly.
Her blue eyes widen indignantly. "A secret? What do you mean, a secret? Everyone knows the girls learn healing from Master Mikal. Why can't I know what you're doing?"
"Because girls aren't allowed to do what we're doing, that's why."
Yugoda frowns curiously. "Would you learn healing, if you were allowed?"
Pakku shakes his head vigorously. "No way!"
They're still having this argument by the time their path leads them back to Kanna's house. She looks at her friends quizzically. Deciding that they won't notice, Kanna slips back into her house without bidding either of them goodbye.
Merchants from the Earth Kingdom visit the Northern Water Tribe often enough, selling their wares and trading stories with the Water Tribesmen. Kanna always makes excuses to go to the market square when she knows there will be foreign merchants present, but today is the first day that she has ever been allowed to stay long enough to listen to the merchants' stories.
"Stay right here!" Irit tells her daughter sternly. "I mean it, Kanna! I'll come find you after I'm done with the apothecary."
Kanna nods her head eagerly. She is enthusiastic about the prospect of hearing new stories instead of the same old ones over and over again, the stories her father and his friends exchange again and again in the neighborhood longhouse. She's enthusiastic enough not to remark to her mother that at her age, at ten and a half, nearly eleven, she's old enough to be out and about in the market square by herself, for fear of Irit changing her mind and not letting her stay and listen to the Earth Kingdom merchant's tales. "I'll stay here, Mom," Kanna assures her, eyes bright. "Right here."
Irit smiles and kisses her cheek. "Alright, sweetheart. Have fun. Be good. Don't interrupt the man while he's talking."
"I won't, Mom."
Kanna watches as her mother disappears into the milling crowd, lost in a sea of blue parkas. Irit's step is somewhat faltering these days. She's miscarried for the third time since having Kanna, and finally given in to Kataro's urgings to seek the counsel of the healers. Kanna does not know what they've told her mother, what they've determined. Irit would not say, and Yugoda, though her master was the one who examined Kanna's mother, does not know anything to tell Kanna. All Kanna knows is that Irit was given a list of herbal concoctions to pick up from the apothecary.
The merchant from the Earth Kingdom is a tall, svelte man named Zhi. He sits close to the fire in the little house he is renting during his stay. Everything about him seems exotic, from his fair skin and vivid green eyes, to his thin (too thin; Kanna wonders if he knew exactly how cold it would be here before he came) green and brown robes, to the way he smells not of ice and snow and salt, but of what Kanna knows only through others to be loam and cooking spices such as cumin and turmeric.
Zhi shivers by the fire, saying not a word until his teeth have stopped chattering and his hands look pinkish again instead of faintly blue-tinged. He smiles kindly at the small crowd that has congregated around him; Kanna herself feels mortification to realize that she is probably the oldest in this 'crowd', but her curiosity keeps her exactly where she is. "Alright, children. What stories do you wish to hear of Zhi of the Earth Kingdom?"
For a moment, there's silence. The youngest of the children here are young indeed, but good manners have been ingrained in them since their earliest years, and most of them will not risk talking over each other in front of a guest, nor when they are a guest in someone else's home.
Then, a tiny boy with huge blue eyes raises his hand and asks, "Are you an earthbender?"
Zhi laughs. "That's always a popular one. No, my boy, I am not. I do know plenty of earthbenders, however."
"Ooh, ooh!" another boy squeals. "Is it true that earthbenders can move entire mountains?"
This gets another laugh from Zhi. "Most earthbenders, on their own, can not move a mountain. An army of earthbenders, perhaps, could make a mountain shake and tumble and fall, but I have never met an earthbender who can do that by themselves."
"Where did earthbenders learn to earthbend?" a girl of around eight asks, her eyes as round as coins. "We learned to waterbend from Tui."
Zhi's eyebrows shoot up. "Tui, little one?"
Kanna smiles slightly, despite herself. So Zhi does not know the story of Tui and La?
The girl nods knowledgeably. "My Mama told me the story," she says proudly. "Tui and La are two spirits, push and pull, in a never-ending dance with one another. Tui is the moon; she gives La, the ocean, her tides, and La is forever pulling away from her. Tui was the first waterbender; our ancestors watched the way she pushed and pulled at La and copied her."
"That's a very interesting story, little one." Kanna can't help but be a little disappointed at Zhi's lack of reaction to the story; she was interested in seeing how an outsider would react to the waterbenders' story of how they learned their craft. "We of the Earth Kingdom believe that the earthbenders first learned how to bend the earth around them by watching the badgermoles. Have any of you ever seen a badgermole?"
They all shake their heads, Kanna included. "Well, a badgermole is a giant animal that lives underground. It is blind, and it moves throughout the rock and soil of the earth using earthbending. It…"
Zhi is plied with questions with questions about earthbending and the sorts of things he sells and the sorts of people he's met on the road. It's exactly what Kanna expected the younger kids to ask him, and she is content to stay silent, and listen. He has many interesting stories, regaling the younger children with tales of pirates and the mystery of crates full of items whose nature he doesn't know. They meander into the story of Oma and Shu, the first human earthbenders, and Kanna isn't as engrossed in such a story as she used to be, or as people would expect her to be. Kanna lets them talk, starting to feel a vague sense of emptiness curl up in her stomach.
"Well, what of you, young lady?" Kanna looks up, startled, when she realizes that Zhi is looking directly at her. "You have been very quiet all this time." He smile encouragingly at her. "Do you not have any questions for me?"
Kanna blinks in surprise, not having expected to be directly addressed by the merchant. She wavers. There is only one question Kanna wishes to ask, and she isn't sure how it will be received. She isn't sure if it will even be answered, or simply leave her disappointed. Eventually, her curiosity overwhelms her, and any fear of being made to seem stupid. "Well…" She runs her fingers over her ankles self-consciously. "What is the Earth Kingdom like?" she asks shyly.
Far from finding this a lackluster question, Zhi's green eyes light up to hear it. He strokes his sparse beard and nods thoughtfully. "I was wondering if anyone would want to know about that. What do you wish to know, young lady?"
"Anything that you can tell me."
Zhi the merchant possesses a deep love for his homeland; that love comes across with stark clarity in the pictures he paints of his far-away home. He becomes more than a merchant; now, Zhi is a magician of sorts, and his magic is in the words he weaves. Though they still sit by the fire in his rented home, Zhi goes home in those moments, and Kanna goes with him, and sees a previously unknown world open up before her eyes, like a clam revealing a pearl.
The great forests of the Earth Kingdom spring up before her, trees stretching high and far and out of sight. Great showy blossoms, roses and hydrangeas and poppies, in full, riotous bloom, unfurl their petals in the sun, perfuming the air. Kanna has never been far enough away from the city to see the arctic forests further south; she knows of trees only through the timber brought back to the harbors to make their ships. She knows of flowers, but only as the small, hardy blossoms used in cooking and incense. When Zhi speaks of the forests, she is there. She hears the damp crunch of fallen leaves being trod upon. She sees an explosion of vibrant reds and greens and browns and yellows. She smells forest flowers and loam and crisp, clear pine.
Then, she goes to the deserts. Feels the brutal heat, more searing than any she has ever known, burning and cracking her brown skin open. Stands atop a dune, and in every direction sees nothing but sand. A wind as strong and harsh as the winds of the north rises up to meet her, and Kanna has to spit gritty sand out of her mouth and brush it out of her hair, blink it out of her eyelashes.
Next, the great walled city of Ba Sing Se materializes out of the ether. Kanna stands at the outermost walls, looking on massive walls of stone that seem to rise up into the clouds, taller than the tallest of trees. An earthbender comes and opens up a narrow gap in the wall, and the caravan passes through. Kanna sees rice terraces and plots for growing barley and millet, cereal grains her family has eaten sometimes. Orchards full of peach and apple and apricot trees dot the walled landscape. Vineyards wind their way along the agrarian zone. Then, the next wall is opened, and Kanna leans out the window of her train car and gasps. Everywhere she looks, in every direction, there is the city and nothing but. The air is full of the sounds of baying, bleating animals, laughing children, the blacksmith's hammer clanging on metal. There are more people here than Kanna ever thought there could be alive in the world.
Other images come to her. On an island, young women in armor and war paint practice graceful katas, and the metal fans in their hands gleam in the sun. Kanna stands atop a hill, and looks at a sea of rolling hills, a sea of new, sweet grass. She sits in the sultry summer evening, full of fireflies.
When Zhi says to them that he has no more tales to tell, Kanna goes back out into the world feeling colder than she ever has.
"You are very lucky that I'm your friend," Kanna mutters to Yugoda in an undertone, looking dubiously at the three younger girls gathered around them.
Yugoda shrugs apologetically. "They need hands-on experience. I promise I won't let them make it any worse."
Sometimes, Kanna should just be more careful when she's helping her mom do the cooking, but today, she wasn't, and as a result, she's ended up with a long cut on her left forearm and, thanks to Yugoda's begging, the test subject of her friend's 'students.' Yugoda has in recent months graduated from the position of Master Mikal's student to becoming her apprentice specifically, and as such has taken on more responsibilities, such as supervising some of the younger students when Master Mikal herself is away.
Yugoda beckons Lita, who is at nine the oldest of the three girls, forward. "Now, Lita, like I've shown you." Lita smiles nervously at Kanna, who, for the sake of the girl who's about to try and heal the cut on her arm, smiles back. Lita draws a wavering orb of water out of the bowl at their side, and holds the water over Kanna's arm. It glows for just a moment, bright silver-blue, but the water loses its glow after the moment is done, and Lita lets it fall back into the bowl dejectedly.
"That's alright, Lita," Yugoda says kindly. "I don't expect anyone to get it right on their first try. Practicing on a puppet is very different from practicing on a human being. Natana, Jina, do either of you want to try?"
The girls shake their head no, and in the confines of her mind where no one can hear, Kanna breathes a sigh of relief. Yugoda really is very lucky that Kanna's her friend; Kanna doesn't think she'd put up with letting little girls experiment on her arm otherwise. And even if Yugoda is her friend, the idea still gives her chills.
Yugoda sighs and motions for them to file out of the building where Master Mikal holds her healing lessons. "Oh well," she murmurs, taking up the water herself and healing the cut on Kanna's arm easily. "Good as new."
"Yes, I see." Kanna examines her arm, now free of any wound and just dotted with dried blood. "Thank you, Yugoda," she thanks her friend, gratefully rolling down her sleeve. There's no need to hold on to any irritation against her friend, she tells herself; Yugoda's pupils weren't able to do any damage.
Her friend goes to packing up the props for the healing lessons; another one of her responsibilities, now that she's Master Mikal's apprentice. "Did you hear that the council's trying to raise the minimum age at which girls can start to learn healing?" Kanna can practically hear the outrage bubbling in Yugoda's voice.
"Hmm… No, I haven't." Kanna doesn't see why she would. Something involving waterbending isn't something that involves her. But at the same time that thought crosses her mind, Kanna is struck by two things: a twinge of guilt that she didn't know about something that affects her friend, and a spike of curiosity about something she didn't know.
"It's ridiculous. They're trying to raise the minimum age to ten. Do you remember how old I was when I started to learn?"
"Seven, Yugoda." Kanna goes to help Yugoda take down a few charts, despite the fact that she's shorter than her and can't reach the top pegs any more easily than Yugoda.
"Yes, seven. You have to start as young as you can, or the lessons just won't stick with you." Yugoda puffs her cheeks out, something she does when she's angry or upset. "None of the men on the council are healers; none of them will learn. Master Mikal's trying to explain why it's not a good idea to start later, but none of them will listen."
Kanna can hear the rebuke hidden in her friend's words, and for one moment, she herself wants to say it aloud: Why should someone who has no idea what they're dealing with think that they have the right to decide how the healers do what they do? But the moment those words really form in her mind, Kanna recognizes the danger of them, the ingratitude, the disobedience, and she shelves it.
"Yugoda… I've been wondering about something."
"What is it, Kanna?" Yugoda asks, back to her normal pleasantness. It's as though the anger she felt before has rolled out of her the way flotsam and jetsam rolls out of the sea, onto the shore. No trace of the storm clouds gathering on her face just a minute prior remains.
Kanna leans against the wall, staring out of the window on the streets beyond. A vague, wistful smile plays on her lips. "Do you ever think about traveling?" she poses to her friend, her voice very soft. The image of rolling green hills full of grass becomes so real that, briefly, she can imagine leaning down and actually feeling grass in her fingers, running her hands over the green shoots. What would that feel like? What would grass feel like, in her hands? Would it be smooth and slippery? Rough and dry? Coarse, scratchy, a little of all?
Yugoda shakes her head. "No, I can't say that I have."
"Oh." Kanna feels her face fall; the image of grass shrivels to nothing in her mind. "Oh. Any reason why?"
All her friend can do is stare at her, wide blue eyes full of incomprehension. "No, there's no reason, Kanna. Why would I ever want to go traveling?"
About the third time Pakku tries to catch a fish with waterbending, fails, and leaves them both splattered with seawater before sheepishly bending it away, Kanna mumbles, "I though water was supposed to be patient."
"I'm not water," Pakku responds shortly, before seeming to think better of these attempts and lowering his fishing line back down the hole in the ice.
Pakku likes to practice his waterbending when they're out fishing, especially when their dads and the other men have gone off to check the traps. Kanna can't lie and say she doesn't enjoy these times herself—the men, sans her dad, have been giving her really odd looks lately, as though she's not welcome with them anymore—but Pakku might want to cut it out. He's talented, Kanna will give him that, but the summer solstice is close at hand. They've even been getting midnight sun. Waterbenders are weaker in the time of the sun's dominance, and Pakku is no exception.
"Yes, I noticed you aren't water," Kanna observes dryly, pulling her line back up to see if she needs more bait after the latest failure. "You've got a bit too much skin for that. And a bit too many bones."
"Just wait," he mutters, glaring down into the hole in the ice. "I'll catch one."
Kanna cracks a smile at his certainty, knowing just how likely—or rather, unlikely—it is that Pakku will be catching anything today with waterbending, but doesn't comment. It'll just get him mad, and whatever fish are still left will be scared away by the subsequent display.
They sit in silence with their fishing lines, waiting for the men to come back, and personally, Kanna hopes they've caught something, so the hunting party won't have to linger outside the city walls any longer. There's been talk of Fire Nation raids, and the men really have been giving her these strange looks lately. They look at her as though something has happened and she's no longer welcome, that she doesn't measure up, that they're only tolerating her for Kataro's sake. Pakku hasn't started looking at her like that yet, and Kanna hopes he won't, but the whole situation leaves her a touch on-edge.
As she sits there, the howling of the wind grows faint and distant. Kanna is sitting on a forest floor, running her hand over fallen leaves instead of snow. She looks to a fallen tree nearby, sees bright red toadstools and other fungi growing on the rotting wood. She sees a patch of sunlit ground carpeted with violets, and tries to imagine what their scent would be.
"Do you ever want to go somewhere else?" she asks quietly, wishing she wasn't sitting in snow by a hole in the ice.
Pakku looks at her, brow furrowed, as though he's not sure what she's asking. "What do you mean?" There's just the slightest hint of caution in his voice, like this is some sort of trap, and it's all Kanna can do not to bristle at the implication.
"Do you ever… I don't know, do you ever want to see what the rest of the world is like?"
He's still looking at her out of veiled blue eyes, black hair falling over his face. "Go see the world, you mean? Our sister tribe or the Earth Kingdom, or the abandoned Air Temples?" Pakku doesn't mention the Fire Nation, and Kanna is unsurprised. She doubts that even the most intrepid of Water Nation travelers could get into the Fire Nation and live to tell the tale.
Kanna nods. "Yes, that's what I mean."
She's seen him looking south, sometimes, when Pakku thinks that no one is looking at him. There is a certain expression in his eyes—not quite that of longing, not like what Kanna feels, but the same expression of restlessness, of feeling confined. Yugoda is content to stay behind the city walls for the rest of her days. Kanna is not, and the longer time wears on, the more she thinks that Pakku isn't, either.
"Sometimes," Pakku says slowly, shifting his weight and tugging on his fishing line. Looking anywhere but at her face. "I think everyone does. But I know my duty." His voice hardens, the telltale signal of trying to convince himself of it too. "I have to stay here."
And you know your duty as well, don't you, Kanna? He doesn't say that, but Kanna can hear the words behind his mouth. A wave of relief washes over her when Pakku seems uneager to say anything more, and keeps his silence.
Pakku knows his duty. His duty is to study from Master Sunesh until he too can be called a master waterbender. He is to become waterbender and hunter and warrior, strong and hardy enough to provide for a family and defend his home. His duty keeps him bound to this place.
Kanna knows her duty. Her duty is to learn as much as she can from her mother and the other women of her family, now that her lessons at school are over, learn how to cook and sew and weave, make dye and dress wounds. She will get married, eventually, and have children, so she must learn from the women of her family how to be a good wife, a good mother. Her duty keeps her bound to this place.
Her mind soars high and far away, refusing to let go of the image of green places.
Kanna is not used to having to share her room, let alone her bed, with anyone. She likes having plenty of room to stretch out, thank you very much. But among the latest caravan of Earth Kingdom merchants, there came a man who is an old friend of Kataro's, so Kanna's father has opened his home to the man—and his daughter.
Min is the name of the girl lying in the bed next to Kanna. She is a few years older than her, tall and slender with gray-green eyes and hair so light a brown that under the sun it almost looks red. She is much more talkative in the company of grown men than Kanna is used to a girl or woman of any age being. Lying next to her, Kanna's nostrils are full of the scents of mint and rosemary.
But Kanna is not the only one lying awake. Min tosses and turns on the bed, finally sitting up and groaning, running her hand through her hair. She catches Kanna's eye and protests, "How can anyone sleep with the sun still in the sky?"
By that, Kanna assumes Min is referring to the midnight sun of the summer solstice. "I suppose you have to live here for a very long time before you get used to it. The summer solstice is coming up soon; after that, we will turn back towards the moon, and the days will grow shorter."
"I certainly hope so." Min lies back down and pulls the fur coverlet nearly up to her chin, shivering. "It doesn't feel like summer," she murmurs, staring up at the ceiling. "Where I came from, we have winters warmer than this." Even with some of the knowledge of foreign lands that has been imparted on her, Kanna has a difficult time imagining that. Min's lips curl upwards in a smile of reminiscence. "If I was home right now, we'd be getting ready for the solstice festival."
"We have a summer solstice festival here, too, you know," Kanna points out. "It's a lot of fun."
Min shakes her head. "It's not the same. I'm homesick, I suppose. But if I was home, my grandmother would send me to the next town, five miles over, for the beekeeper's honey, so she could make her honey and cinnamon cakes for the family and my friends."
"That sounds wonderful." Kanna, who has never tasted cinnamon or honey, and can only imagine what a honey and cinnamon cake would taste like, really has no frame of reference for how good they are. Her heart aches at the idea of all these foods and meals that she has never tasted, never tried, all the things she's never seen. Then, Kanna realizes that there's something about Min's story that's strange. "Wait… Min, when you said that your grandmother would send you to the next town, did you mean by yourself?"
The Earth Kingdom girl's brow furrows. "Well, yes. That's my 'job' for the summer solstice; everybody else has their jobs."
"So you can travel that far, five miles, you said, by yourself? And you don't have to have one of the men of your family with you?"
Min nods, still looking as though she doesn't quite understand what Kanna is getting at. "No, I don't have to have any of my men-folk with me, though with the Fire Nation attacks, I wouldn't advise traveling that far by yourself to start with. I mean, I can take care of myself—" at this, she smiles secretively "—but it's still better to have a traveling companion. I usually go with a couple of the other girls from the town; they have business in the town I'm going to at that time of year as well."
Kanna remembers what she's been told. She's never been more than a couple of miles away from the city she was born in, but she's always been told not to leave the city by herself. She can go anywhere she wants within the city on her own, but if she wanders outside the walls (and she only ever has on hunting trips), she must have her father, or her grandfather (her maternal grandfather passed a few years ago), or one of her uncles or male cousins with her. Kanna is not allowed to wander the tundra alone. Nor is her mother, nor her aunts, female cousins, or her grandmothers. But it's different in the Earth Kingdom?
She nearly jumps when she feels a thin, callused hand resting on her shoulder. "Kanna?" Min's tone is nearly apologetic. "Are you alright? I'm not keeping up with all of this, am I?"
"No, no," Kanna says abstractedly, staring at her temporary bedmate with new eyes. "Erm, Min… What about earthbending?" Any lack of curiosity she has about bending evaporates in light of the possibility that women earthbenders might not be restricted as women waterbenders are. And just what else is different about the ways women live their lives in other lands?
"Well, you'll have to be more specific, Kanna. What do you want to know about earthbending?"
The younger girl brushes a lock of her coarse, wiry brown hair out of her face. "In the Northern Water Tribe, women and girls who are waterbenders are only taught how to heal. They aren't allowed to use their waterbending for anything else, unless it's in the defense of their own life or someone else's. Is that how it is for earthbenders as well?"
Min looks at her as though she's grown a second head. "Goodness no!" she exclaims, clearly struggling with keeping her voice low so that none of the others in the house will hear. "For one thing, there's no known way to heal wounds using earthbending. For another, women are taught just as much as men; there's a war going on, after all. You may not feel the Fire Nation's flames this far north yet, but we've already felt them in the Earth Kingdom. I'm an earthbender like my brothers, and I learned the same things that they did."
"You're an earthbender?" Kanna nearly gasps, looking at Min with newfound wonder. She has in the space of just a few minutes gone from disinterest regarding bending to curiosity to downright enthusiasm. For some reason, this transition isn't nearly as choppy as she'd expected it to be.
"That's right. Do you want me to do a demonstration?"
"Alright, then I'll need something made of rock or stone. Do you have something like that here?"
Kanna knows just the thing. Before she was born, her father traveled for a while, trying to build up contacts in the Earth Kingdom; that was how he met Min's father. He brought back two mirrors made of highly polished obsidian, a large one and a smaller hand mirror. The large mirror he'd given to Irit, and the hand mirror they saved for their first daughter. Real glass mirrors are difficult to come by in the Northern Water Tribe, and when they can be found are prohibitively expensive. But Kanna can see her reflection perfectly in her hand mirror, and she knows obsidian to be stone, so surely this will be perfect for Min's demonstration.
Indeed, Min makes the mirror fly around the room with a few swift movements of her arm, before coming back to rest in the palms of Kanna's hands. Min rests her hands upon her knees and smiles. "How's that?"
"That's incredible," Kanna whispers, staring down at her amazed reflection in the mirror.
But where she, by all rights, should feel joy at watching a display of earthbending for the first time, especially with her sudden feelings of genuine interest in the art, Kanna instead feels only emptiness. "So." Her voice is barely audible as she speaks. "The women of your land learn earthbending, and learn the same techniques as the men. You're allowed to travel where you please, without first seeking your father's permission, and without escort."
The earthbender from far to the south nods, huddling beneath the covers. "That's right." Her eyes go hard, like chips of ice, or perhaps more appropriately, like rock. "We believe that to withhold teachings from an earthbending student, for any reason, is to cripple them. There is no excuse, no justification. Not age, not rank, not wealth…" She pauses, and stares direction into Kanna's eyes. "…And not sex.
"And yes, we go where we please, within reason, but once you are a woman grown, your father can no longer simply tell you to 'stay here' and expect you to stay there. You might, out of respect for him, but he can not force you. If a woman says that she plans on traveling to the next town over, her honor is not called into question. She…" Min smirks slightly, her lips curling sinuously. "…She is trusted to behave herself. The Earth Kingdom doesn't treat grown women like they're still children."
Kanna thinks about her own life. Obedient in all things, and expected to remain so until the end of her days. To father, to husband, to son. Maybe even to grandson. Always staying behind the walls of the city, unless she can find someone among the men-folk of her family who will both approve of her decision to venture beyond, and accompany her. Not free to go where she wishes. And waterbenders, restricted to healing only.
And herself, staring down this sort of life.
"Tell me more."
They're having the argument again.
Well, it's more that Yugoda is having the argument with Pakku on the behalf of one of her 'students'. Kilita is a very talented waterbender, she says, and her talents are wasted learning nothing but healing. Surely an exception could be made? No, Pakku argues; girls and women learning healing only. That's how it's done, how it's always been done, and how it will continue to be done in the future.
Kanna is forgotten in the midst of their increasingly heated words, and grateful to be. This is the last sort of argument that she wants to get into, has always been, but now she's seeing it with new eyes, and she wishes she could deafen herself as well as be forgotten.
She's being shaken on the shoulder, and when Kanna looks to her right, Yugoda's brow furrows and Pakku lets his arm fall back to his side. "Kanna… We're here," the latter says a touch awkwardly.
Sure enough, Kanna refocuses her attention on her surroundings and sees her house right in front of them, Yugoda's two houses down, and Pakku's another three. How long have they been walking? How long have Yugoda and Pakku been having their argument, and how long has Kanna been trying to deafen herself to their words, so effectively that she hasn't even noticed where her feet are taking her?
"Kanna, are you alright?" Pakku smiles, bright and nervous, as though he's expecting her to faint or collapse or maybe even drop dead right there, on account of slightly strange behavior, but at the same time seems to hope that she'll do more than just nod and disappear into her home.
The sight of his smile makes her stomach swoop steeply as it often does these days, but Kanna (with some difficulty) shelves the feeling and looks at him frankly. "Pakku, can you tell me why you think women waterbenders should only healing?"
Oddly enough, he doesn't bristle when she's the one asking it, the way he does when Yugoda protests. Kanna doesn't know if that's because she's not asking the question in nearly so confrontational a tone as is Yugoda, or if it's on account of some other reason. "It's… just the way it's done, Kanna," he explains, shrugging. "Men become warriors, and women become healers. That's how it's always been."
Kanna doesn't respond, and forces a smile onto her face as she waves goodbye to her friends. For some reason, she had hoped that he might give a different answer. For some reason, she had even hoped that he might realize the holes in the logic of this system, the system that denies training in martial arts to women and denies training in healing to men. It's not a sensible system.
"We believe that to withhold teachings from an earthbending student, for any reason, is to cripple them. There is no excuse, no justification. Not age, not rank, not wealth, and not sex."
Should it not be the same for waterbending? Kanna imagines a woman waterbender being attacked by a Fire Nation soldier. She knows that a woman is allowed to defend herself if her own life is at risk, but with no combat training and sheltered by a life behind walls, a woman waterbender would stand no chance against a trained soldier. She'd be killed where she stood. Before, Kanna accepted that as a fact of life, used it as a rationale for why women shouldn't go out alone, on top of the fact that it's just not something women of good judgment and virtue do. Now, she knows better, knowing that there are other ways, and sees it as an injustice instead, cruel and unnecessary.
And should it not be so that the men should learn healing as well? Kanna knows that most of the warriors know how to dress wounds, staunch bleeding, stitch up long gashes and things such as that. But having listened to Yugoda, she knows that a healer's quick intervention can mean the difference between life and death. It is cruel and impractical not to teach women to fight, and just as cruel and impractical not to teach men to heal.
But Pakku doesn't see that. Kanna's not sure that even Yugoda sees it. They see it as a fact of life. Yugoda is explicitly terming Kilita as an exception to the rule; Pakku is saying that there are no exceptions to be made. Neither of them gets it. Kanna wishes they did.
Kanna can't sleep.
The skies are no longer lit up when she lays down to sleep; they are steadily growing darker. The summer solstice has come and gone, and now the Northern Water Tribe awaits the winter solstice instead, the time of the moon's dominance and a waterbender's time of greatest strength. In truth, the winter solstice is celebrated more grandly than the summer solstice, and already Kanna's family has been making preparations.
They've been making preparations of another sort as well. Irit has gotten with child again, and her health is much better for this pregnancy than it has been for any of the others Kanna can remember. Her belly has begun to swell and she has not miscarried or hemorrhaged nor shown any signs of doing so. Kanna makes frequent prayers to Tui and La that her mother will deliver a living child, knowing how badly Irit wishes for a child, and how badly Kataro wishes for a son.
These things keep her awake, standing by the narrow window in spite of the cold and pushing the hide covering back just far enough to see the street below. The phantom image of her mother screaming and writhing on the ground, thighs covered in blood, blood pooling beneath her prone body, that keeps Kanna awake. It's not all of it, though.
She holds her obsidian hand mirror in the palm of her hands, and stares down on her reflection. Kanna tries smiling. She often practices her smiles in the face of this mirror, but lately, they reach her eyes no longer. Kanna looks past her reflection, and sees green fields of grass rippling like the waves of the ocean. Her heart is here no longer. It rests in other places, and is waiting for her body to follow. Kanna knows her duty, knows that she must stay here, but it's hard, sometimes. It's hard, and it keeps getting harder.
In the Northern Water Tribe, one learns to capitalize on the brief hours of daylight in the winter months. It's not unusual to find someone doing six hours' worth of work in two. The waterbending students and apprentices, and the ones who train them, are the only ones who keep to their schedules; in fact, they expand their training in the winter months, glorying in the increased strength given to them by the approaching winter solstice. Kanna hasn't seen Yugoda in ages; she's been teaching her 'students' for twice as long a day, lately.
Herself, Kanna is also trying to get as much work done as she can while the sun's up. Her mother is currently indisposed, and while her aunts have come over to help with the cooking and Irit's care, Kanna has taken on her mother's sewing. So there she is, sitting by the door and the fire, wondering how her father can get so many tears in his trousers at once, and frankly wondering the same about her mother, her aunts and herself.
She blinks irritably at the weak winter sun as someone pushes back the covering over the door. When she realizes who it is, she smiles slightly. "I'm happy to see you, Pakku, but I think it's considered traditional to ask before coming into someone's home."
As he's not technically inside her family's home, not yet, Pakku hovers in the doorway, and the wind creeps in at his sides. He is shivering slightly, and trying to hide it, standing straight and tall—taller than Kanna, in fact, by about a head, something she first noticed last week and startled her to no end. Kanna's father doesn't bring her on his hunting trips anymore, and as a result, she doesn't see Pakku as often as she used to. "May I come in, then?"
Her smile widens as she waves him over. Pakku needs no greater encouragement than that; he barely stops to pin the covering over the door back down before sitting down at her side by the fire in the stove. He pulls his gloves off of his stiff hands and holds them up near the flames, watching as pallid flesh steadily returns to its natural color.
"I thought you still had another couple of hours left of practice," Kanna observes, shooting a meaningful look at the sunlight slipping in through the cracks between the hide covering and the door. "Are you just skipping the rest, then?" she asks with a grin.
"No!" Pakku says quickly.
"You don't sound sure," she replies in a sing-song voice, setting needle and thread down in her lap and grinning at the sight of his flustered face.
"You don't normally act like this, you know that? Master Sunesh had to go take care of something; he let us off early today. That's all, Kanna."
No, she doesn't normally act like this, but Kanna feels the need, all of a sudden. She's in a good mood, you see, and this is how she's chosen to express it. "If you say so." She shoots an inquisitive look at her friend. "Whatever Master Sunesh got called away to deal with must have been important. From what you keep telling me, he's a hard taskmaster."
"Something family-related," Pakku mutters, blowing on his hands—apparently the fire isn't doing its work fast enough for his liking. "He wouldn't say anything more than that." He stares into the flames, an oddly indecisive look on his face. He draws a deep breath. "Kanna, I wanted to know if—"
A thin, high wail peals from upstairs, rising and falling like Tui's influence on La's waters.
Pakku stares sharply up towards the second floor of the house; whatever he was going to say is left quite thoroughly forgotten by the both of them. "Your mother's had her baby?" The whole neighborhood knows of Irit's difficult pregnancies, her multiple miscarriages, and the whole neighborhood knows of this last one, the one that has seemed to be going well, but has left Irit and her entire family holding their breath, waiting. She knows where that astonishment of his has come from; very few in the neighborhood believed that, even if Irit managed to carry this child to term, she would be left with anything but a stillbirth.
Kanna's smile widens. "That's right. Yesterday evening." The midwife had come, Irit's mother and mother-in-law had come, and Kanna, inexperienced and panicking, had been shooed out of the room along with her father and uncles and grandfather. They had waited downstairs tensely, barely saying a word to each other. "Do… Do you want to see?"
The question catches him off-guard. After a long moment, Pakku nods slowly. "Sure."
"Wait here. I'll go ask Mom if it's okay."
Kanna sets her needle, thread, and the trousers she'd had in her lap over to one side, and heads up the stairs, bound for her parents' bedroom. Her Aunt Inala hovers outside the door, and stops her when Kanna tries to go inside. "Your mother's resting, Kanna," she cautions her niece. "Don't wake her."
"Pakku's here, Aunt Inala. He wants to see the baby."
Aunt Inala raises one eyebrow. "Your friend? Well, I suppose that's alright, if only for a few—" She stops herself, and narrows her eyes. "He hasn't been sick lately, has he?"
Kanna knows the reasoning behind her aunt's caution, and shakes her head without protest. It would be horrible if, after all the trouble her mother had to have this child, yet another death struck the family. "No, Auntie, he hasn't. He's the picture of health."
The older woman's posture relaxes slightly. "Alright, then. Just for a few minutes." She slips into Kataro and Irit's bedroom, and comes out with a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms, which she carefully passes over to Kanna. Aunt Inala then goes back into her sister-in-law's room, whispering "Please be quiet. Tell that to your friend as well."
Smiling, Kanna nods, and waves down the stairs for Pakku to come up. He gapes unabashedly at the half-sleeping child she's holding, and that wide-eyed, flabbergasted expression he's wearing might make her laugh if her mother wasn't trying to sleep in the next room. Kanna has never really seen Pakku with a baby before, but this surely can't be the first time he's ever seen a baby. Kanna really doesn't know what the big deal is, or why men seem to get so nervous and quiet around babies. Maybe it has to do with him always having been an only child, and that his only cousins are all older than him.
"Erm, what did your parents name… Him, her, it?" he asks helplessly.
"Her, Pakku. This is my baby sister. Mom and Dad named her Nissi."
She's not even had a day to get used to it. At fifteen and a half, Kanna is a big sister to a currently-sleeping, but often screaming baby named Nissi. The midwife and both of Kanna's grandmothers agree that Nissi's truly impressive lung capacity is a good sign. Master Mikal has been by as well, to check up on Irit and the baby, and she agrees with them: Nissi is healthy, and as long as she remains healthy, she should thrive and live to adulthood. Kataro and Irit were both overjoyed to be given such a verdict.
Kanna has a baby sister now, and it barely seems real to her at all. Everyone was so hopeful during Irit's latest pregnancy, but they were all holding their breath too, and Kanna was no exception. She was half-expecting her mother to have another miscarriage, or another stillbirth, but here she is, holding a living baby in her arms. Kanna never really expected that.
"…" Pakku seems to struggle with himself for a moment, before sheepishly requesting, "May I hold her?"
Kanna hands Nissi over to him, and Pakku takes the baby in his arms as though he's being given a thousand-year-old earthenware pot to hold instead of a breathing, flesh-and-blood creature. All the same, he mimics the way Kanna was holding her, giving support to the head, without having to be told. "I suppose your father was disappointed," he murmurs, staring at Nissi with an unreadable look on his face.
Disappointed that she wasn't the son Kataro had been waiting for, does he mean? Kanna grits her teeth behind her closed mouth. Yes, she supposes Pakku does mean that. She could hear the men of her family muttering as much to themselves after the midwife had come downstairs to announce the birth and Kataro had gone shooting upstairs to see his newborn child. 'He still has no heir,' they muttered. 'Irit has not given him a son, and let's face it, at her age, and after all the miscarriages and stillbirths she's had, she's not likely to give him another child at all.'
Kanna can't say for sure if that was what they were saying after one of her mother's stillbirths or miscarriages, or after she herself was born. Obviously, at her own birth or the one miscarriage Irit had before Kanna was born, Kanna wouldn't have been around or wouldn't have been cognizant of such words. And perhaps, after the miscarriages or stillbirths that happened after Kanna was born, they were polite enough and mindful enough of Irit and Kataro's suffering not to say such things aloud.
But they've said it now, and Kanna has heard them. Is a girl-child really weighed of less worth and value than a boy? The idea makes her blood boil, but it also chills her. What is her life worth, then? Would her father have been happier if Nissi had been born a boy? Would he have been happier if she had been born a boy? What does he think, now that he has two daughters, and it doesn't seem likely that he will ever have a son?
She wants to say something in response to Pakku's observation, and if she ever did manage to say something, it probably wouldn't have been pleasant. But before she can even open her mouth, Pakku half-whispers, "But you know, she's really very beautiful."
His face goes remarkably soft as he looks at the newborn, and at such a sight, Kanna softens as well. "If… If you say so," she remarks dubiously. "One baby is much like another, if you ask me."
Pakku really is easy enough to get along with when he isn't making comments on how Kataro must have been disappointed not to have been given a son, when he isn't making remarkably offhand comments about the differences between men and women waterbenders. Very easy, truth be told, and Kanna supposes that's what makes her so frustrated when he does talk that way.
It frustrates her more when he talks that way than when it's other people. It hurts more, too. Kanna isn't sure how to make him understand, and is afraid to try for fear of failure or rejection. She wishes she could just find some way to peel open her mind, and give him a good look at how much it hurts her, how much it frustrates her. The most she can do is tell herself that he isn't saying any of it out of malice, that he means no harm by it. Kanna's still left with a bitter taste in her mouth, but at least it's something. What exactly it is, she's not sure.
Kanna turns sixteen in the spring. Like so many other young women and men of such an age, her parents arrange a marriage for her.
It's something of an informal custom for concerned parents in the Northern Water Tribe to arrange for their children to be wed to one of their friends. Spontaneous love matches are a rare thing at the North Pole; arranged marriages are instead the norm, for both daughters and sons. But many parents don't want to give their daughter or son away to a stranger, someone their child barely knows. A divorce is an extremely difficult thing to come by in the North Pole as well. What if they don't get along? Thus, many parents agree that marrying their child off to a childhood friend is the way to go. At least this is someone their child already knows and gets along with very well. There's at least hope that they'll be happy together as husband and wife.
Kanna rather expected something like this to happen. That doesn't mean she's completely ready for it when it comes.
Pakku is no great shakes at carving. Kanna knows that. She would whittle away at wood or stone as a child with ease, do it for fun, but he could never make it come out the way he wanted it to. When he tried to carve the face of a polar-dog into a piece of driftwood they found floating on the open water during a hunting trip, all that came out was a mass of squiggles that couldn't really be called anything.
The betrothal necklace he presents her is different. Kanna knows the customs, knows the traditions, knows that Pakku carved the stone on the necklace by himself, without help. It's beautiful, delicately carved, and Kanna can only imagine how long he must have spent to produce such an image on the blue stone.
She looks at it, and feels empty. Completely and utterly empty. She looks at the betrothal necklace Pakku offers to her and knows that if she accepts, she will never be able to leave. She will never see any more of the world than the city she was born in and the ice sheets a few miles beyond it. She will stay behind walls, with all chance for freedom gone beyond where she can reach, wed to someone who hurts her without realizing it.
But Kanna knows that neither of them have any choice in this at all, her especially—having the prospective groom ask for the bride's hand in marriage is nothing more than a formality, and they both know it. The stone on the necklace is beautiful, obviously carved with painstaking effort. Pakku looks happier than she thinks she's ever seen him, and Kanna knows her duty, to her tribe and to her family.
So she tells herself that she's happy too, and accepts.
And she tries to be happy, Kanna does. She knows her duty to her family, and while no one can force happiness, Kanna knows that she should at least make an effort to be happy with the lot she's been given. She owes Pakku, her family and her tribe that much.
Her friends congratulate her. Yugoda congratulates her, looking so happy that Kanna can barely believe that this is the same person who used to regularly have arguments with Pakku about what girls learning waterbending should and shouldn't be taught. Kanna accepts the embrace of her betrothed—it's considered meet to give young men and women engaged to be married plenty of 'space'. It's not hard, that part. Pakku loves her, that much is painfully obvious, and Kanna suspects that she loves him as well.
This isn't the life she wanted.
This isn't the life she thought she'd have.
Kanna sits up in the short night hours of the approaching summer solstice, staring into her obsidian hand mirror. She smiles. The expression of her mouth and jaw is perfect. It's just what a smile should be—friendly, inviting, unconcerned. Her eyes are unsmiling. Her eyes are heavy, empty. Where once they were a brilliant, dazzling blue, now they are darkened with shadow, and dull. No one else has noticed, absolutely noticed, but when Kanna looks at her face in the mirror, it's all she can see. Her eyes tell a tale that no one can see.
Behind her reflection, she can still see the phantom image of green fields, rich forests, the great walls of Ba Sing Se. They have grown faint, nearly out of reach, and moving further away with each day that brings her closer to her wedding.
I have to leave.
The thought comes to her so starkly, that despite the words never leaving her mouth, Kanna can hear them reverberating in her room. "I have to leave," she tries saying aloud, and the words weigh on her tongue even after she's given them to the air.
She has to leave, if she ever wants to be free.
Now that the idea has taken root, Kanna knows that it will never leave her. If she doesn't leave, she'll regret it for the rest of her life. She will never be happy, living this sort of life. She knows that. Happiness here has slipped out of her reach, and she has to go seeking it elsewhere.
If I go, I will never be able to come back.
The words in that thought echo as well, and Kanna doesn't need to repeat them aloud to be aware of their weight. In the Northern Water Tribe, a woman who flees her marriage would be well-advised never to return to the place of her birth, and never be seen by anyone of that place again. She won't be able to come back if things get tough. She will bring shame upon her family, and greater shame upon herself. In the past, Kanna used to look down on those women, just as everyone else does. But now, knowing what she does, she sympathizes, even empathizes with them. Kanna understands all too well what might drive a woman to run away.
She loves her parents, her grandparents, her aunts, and uncles and cousins. In the seven months since she was born, Kanna has grown to love Nissi. She loves Yugoda. Pakku loves her, and she thinks she loves him. If she leaves, she will never be able to come back. She will never see her parents, her grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. She will never see Pakku or Yugoda again. She will never see Nissi again, and Nissi will ever know her—the most little Nissi will know of her big sister is that she ran away from the boy she was supposed to marry, and brought shame upon their family, and damaged her own chances of being happy here. She will give them all hurt and grief.
But there's another world beyond this one, a whole wide world where Kanna is free to go where she wants, do as her heart bids her. A world where no one will hold her to her duty to her family, just because that 'how it's always been done.' Surely that is worth every ounce of pain it will bring to Kanna and the people she loves.
She starts to pack a light bag. She'll be leaving under her own power, and doesn't need to pack more than she can comfortably carry. Kanna gathers every bit of money she owns—which isn't much; her parents control the purse strings, and Kanna can't bring herself to steal from them—into a pouch and ties it around her belt. Though it's been nearly a year and a half since her father let her accompany her on hunting trips, Kanna still knows how to fish, how to hunt, how to set traps and forage. She'll pick up food on the way.
The hand mirror… Kanna goes to the small nursery where her sister sleeps on her way out. The hand mirror is perfectly round, with no sharp edges. It's too large for Nissi to swallow. If she leaves it in the bassinet, Nissi won't hurt herself with it. Kanna lays the black mirror by Nissi's head. Keep it. I want you to have something of me. Perhaps you will see my face in the mirror, as I have seen foreign lands. Some fancy to dream of. She strokes Nissi's downy hair; her sister does not stir.
As for the betrothal necklace, Kanna rests her hand upon the stone, and decides to keep it. Perhaps it is only a symbol of a life that shackles and constrains her, but the idea that she can choose to keep it, rather than be forced to have it, is enough to convince her to hang on to it, for the rest of her life, if need be. I think I do love you. But this isn't what I wanted. This isn't the life I thought I'd have.
The guard is lax at this time of year; going so long without the moon in ascension over the sun weakens waterbenders, makes them sluggish in comparison to what they are at the winter solstice. She is careful, and silent. She steals out of the city like a thief, and for a moment, she feels shame.
But Kanna leaves the walls behind her, nonetheless. Beyond them, the world opens up before her.