A soft breeze curled in through the linen curtains of Zuko’s room, the feel of it on his face and wrists not enough to stifle the uncomfortable humidity of the Fire Nation summer. Out in the courtyard, the shade offered by the trees provided welcome relief from the sun, but he doubted he would get to enjoy the turtle-duck pond today. A bead of sweat rolled down his spine as attendants bustled around him in their quiet way, fitting the complicated layers of the ceremonial armour that marked his position as crown prince of the greatest nation in the world. Today of all days, it wouldn’t do to appear as anything less.
“Careful with that,” he snapped as one of the servants fumbled with the lacquered, gold-brushed collar that marked the end of his fitting. The servant – an apprentice, probably – bowed low with a mumbled apology as he handed the piece over to more skilled hands.
After several more minutes of fussing, Zuko’s valet pronounced himself happy with the arrangement of his armour and turned to the cherry-wood box kept on the prince’s dresser. The three-pronged, golden headpiece contained within added the final touch to his image.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” chimed a high voice from the doorway. “They’ll be starting any minute. Imagine the scandal if the crown prince turned up late.”
Zuko glanced in his mirror and scowled at his sister, but said nothing. She was already dressed in her armour, less complicated because she wasn’t officially first in line to the throne, and no doubt that was the reason she had chosen to take time out of her day to needle him.
Azula’s smirk widened. “There’s no need to look like that, Zu-Zu. I’m only looking out for my big brother. Not that I know why everyone’s making such a fuss. It’s just another barbarian come to swear loyalty to Father – whatever the word of a filthy pirate is worth.”
“Chief Hakoda isn’t just another small-time clan leader who’s finally realised what’s good for him,” Zuko growled. Clearly the silent treatment wouldn’t work to get rid of her today. “The Southern Water Navy stopped us from landing larger forces in the Earth Kingdom for over eighty years.”
“And now there’s nothing left of it.” She cocked her head, looking him up and down with a critical eye.
The attendants had finished their work and were tidying away the boxes that protected Zuko’s armour when it wasn’t being worn. Zuko ignored them. He squared his shoulders and walked up to his sister and past her, thankful for the growth spurt that had given him a few extra precious inches in height. She might delight in tormenting him, but over the past year he had grown out of being intimidated. He was the crown prince, even if rumour suggested otherwise, and if it came to Agni Kai, he was certain he wouldn’t make a fool of himself like he might once have done.
As they neared the throne room, the prickly silence between the siblings sloughed away. Whatever rivalries existed within palace walls, they could not be shown to outsiders, especially on a day like today, when the Fire Nation’s appearance of power must be absolute. Despite her contempt, Azula knew as well as anyone the reputation of the proud and violent Southern Water Tribe, who had endured a century of warfare and finally only succumbed thanks to the power of Sozin’s Comet. Even then, there had been heavy casualties; the South’s waterbenders had fought like demons to defend their home, and for that alone, more than one admiral had demanded the complete obliteration of the Southern people.
Zuko gave his mother a brief smile as he settled on the red silk cushion at the Fire Lord’s right hand, wondering how grateful the Southerners would be if they knew it was only through Ursa’s gentle persuasion that the whole lot of them had been spared genocide. His shoulders tensed as he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, the rustle of the Fire Lord’s silk robes arranged by attendants into perfect folds around him. With smooth bows, they backed away once their assigned task was completed. Around the room, courtiers who had already been standing for at least an hour bowed to their Fire Lord, and the royal family was ready to receive their prisoners.
The imperial gong struck once and the double doors at the end of the long throne room swung inwards. Although still distant and bent at the waist as tradition demanded, everything about the entering foreigners jarred. Where the furnishings of the room were red and gold, the Southerners garbed themselves in blue and white; where the robes of the guards were lacquered and elegant, they wore soft cloths and fur with armoured coats of bone plates shaped like fish scales; where the Fire Nation people were lithe and pale, they were stockier, with dark faces framed by wild, braided hair.
Zuko glanced sideways and noticed the sneer curling at the corners of Azula’s brown eyes. Let her dismiss them if she wanted, but he noticed the economy in the Southern guardsmen’s movements, their watchful gazes, how they had already taken note of every potential threat to their ruler – even the ones they were not supposed to see. Among the rest of the delegation, there were many older faces, their skin craggy from exposure to polar winds and their eyes narrowed from a lifetime squinting against the brightness of midsummer sun on the snow.
Their stooped, withered appearance gave contrast to the three leading the procession: a young woman, a thin man Zuko took to be Lord Bato, and the chief himself at the centre. Hakoda was tall, with broad shoulders and the manner of a man used to sudden explosions of action. Every inch of him was a warrior, from his calloused hands to his thickly muscled neck, but this savagery was tempered by the kind look of his eyes. Zuko, sitting beside a ruler whose every breath was cruelty, finally understood what might prompt the Southern Water Tribe to choose a nonbender for their leader.
As the delegation approached the final steps to the throne, the Fire Lord’s scribe stepped out of the shadows. His bamboo stylus tapped against the rim of the ink pot as he prepared to take notes on this historical occasion. The Water Tribe kneeled in a fan with the elders at the back flanked by their guards, pressing their heads to the floor to demonstrate their humility.
“Who comes before the throne of the Dragon in supplication?” the scribe demanded in a nasally, officious tone.
There was no herald among the Southern ranks to answer, so the chief, ignoring the nobles tittering behind their fans, answered for himself.
“Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, Former Scourge of the Zhongnan Sea, Former Lord of Summer Sun and Winter Darkness, Former Chief of the… Southern Barbarians, comes on behalf of his people.” The man’s voice rang strongly over the roar of Ozai’s fires, his speech clear even though his accent tripped over the sounds of the Fire Nation’s courtly phrasing.
“Why have you come, Former Chief Hakoda?” wheezed the scribe.
Hakoda didn’t speak immediately. Zuko noticed his fists tighten on the polished floor. “To yield my power to a greater majesty, and to humbly plea Fire Lord Ozai to forgive the… ignorance of my people,” he replied. At his back, several of the elders shifted in discomfort, though not enough for the movement to seem disrespectful. The woman at Hakoda’s side remained motionless, her face carefully neutral.
Ozai watched the party, letting the silence stretch because it was his silence, and his power to break it. He stroked his beard, idling it between his supple fingers as he let the heat of the dais fires climb, the better to make the Southerners sweat. When he finally spoke, it seemed out of boredom more than anything.
“What incentive does the Fire Nation have to do as this southern clan leader asks? To trust the word of those who have in the past defied Us, insulted Us, and rejected out of hand all attempts to extend the hand of friendship?”
One of the Water Tribe guards stood, prompting the nobles around the room to draw back with a collective gasp, but the young man only stepped forward and placed a lumpy hide bundle on the floor at the Fire Lord’s feet. Zuko watched as the guard resumed his place and the firebenders at the sides of the hall relaxed their stances.
Hakoda pulled on the leather ties binding the bundle closed, and unfolded the corners of animal skin to reveal a nestle of primitive-looking artefacts. The whole bundle was decorated with intricately woven, vibrantly dyed strips of hide, and Zuko imagined the musty, well-used odour of the leather.
“The Fire Lord has only my word of honour,” Hakoda said, raising the objects like an offering. The conditions of the South’s surrender had already been finalised. This display was mere formality. “My promise is made on the heirlooms of my lineage. Fire flints, pigment slate, bone seal, and steel blade.”
“The offer is a paltry one,” Ozai replied. “We have no need for such trinkets.” He brought his hands round in a lazy arc and a tongue of flame twisted out of the fire on the dais, hungry as it leapt to the bundle in the Southern Chief’s hands.
Hakoda jumped backwards with a yell. His guards sprang towards him, teeth bared in feral snarls, but he barked an order and they halted, still half-risen, and subsided into their previous positions. Their chief knelt and watched the symbols of his kingship burn.
Silent rage crackled among the elders like lightning, and the even the Fire Nation nobles had fallen silent with shock. Zuko allowed himself a brief look at his father, wondering if Ozai realised how close he had come to snapping the tentative thread of the Southern Tribe’s promise of surrender. The humiliation of the act was a punishment for the unrest the elders had shown before, completely unnecessary and designed to break the last of their spirit. Seeing the taut, blank look on Hakoda’s face, he wondered with a shiver if it hadn’t in fact inspired the opposite.
Ozai spoke again. “We have decided. In return for your oath of loyalty, you shall retain your land and titles. Your people will be spared the consequences of their folly. We accept your offer to begin trade negotiations between our peoples, and hope that it will bring nothing but future prosperity and peace. Master Jinjo.”
The scribe came forward once more, his fingers spattered with ink where he had hurried to record the events of the past few moments. He cleared his throat loudly.
“You will be returned to your homeland upon his Majesty’s own royal yacht, as will the elders of your tribe. An ambassador to the Fire Nation will remain within the city to oversee the instigation of our two people’s shared future. His most magnanimous excellency Fire Lord Ozai also extends a personal invitation to the honoured Lady Katara, and has graciously provided for her a house, stipend, and a contingent of his own personal guard to ensure her safety. It is Fire Lord Ozai’s hope that through such an exchange our two nations might grow into a more amicable relationship.”
For the first time, Zuko turned his gaze on the woman kneeling next to Hakoda. She had to be Katara, Hakoda’s heir, and he was surprised to realise she was about his age, maybe a year or two younger. The firelight lit her skin like dull bronze, playing in her downcast blue eyes. Throughout the meeting, even when his father had destroyed the clan totems, her expression had remained stoic, even serene, a still pond with no reflection. Was it a Water Tribe custom? Even now with the blatant announcement that she would be held hostage for her people’s good behaviour, the only difference he could see was a slight darkening of her cheeks.
“You are very generous, your Majesty,” she said. A ripple of interest washed around the throne room. Her words were stilted, but her pronunciation had been far more elegant than her father’s.
Master Jinjo tapped his stylus against the frame of his writing pad. “This hearing is adjourned. All preparations for Lord Hakoda’s return to the South Pole are in hand. There will be no other business today.”
Etiquette demanded the Southerners leave first. They rose, the elders’ joints creaking in protest, and shuffled backwards so that their backs never faced the Fire Lord. Hakoda’s possessions smouldered in place before the throne.
Zuko watched them through the doors, and then the courtiers. Strain pulled at his upper back from where he’d been holding in the tension of the past half an hour, but a prince was not allowed to slouch in front of his subjects. He willed them to walk faster, to stop pausing to talk behind their fans so that he could stand up, stretch his legs, and go outside for the firebending practice he had scheduled yesterday. He waited for his father to rise and for his mother to follow, then rolled his shoulders and stood, trying to avoid his sister’s eye. Of course it didn’t work.
“So that’s the reason,” Azula chimed, falling into step at his side.
He was going to regret this. “What are you talking about?”
“I wondered why you were taking such care over your appearance this morning, Zu-Zu.”
“Go away, Azula.”
She snickered. “You were staring, Zu-Zu. If the little fish had bothered to pay attention at all, I’m sure she would have been shocked. She might be pretty, I suppose, if she were to wear something civilised, but even you can do better than a scrawny Water Tribe harlot.”
She danced away before Zuko could snap a reply, and he was left standing in one of the many opulent corridors of the royal apartments, surrounded by the trappings of his position, at a loss to explain why his cheeks had suddenly become so warm.