“There were witnesses to the Agni Kai,” the woman repeats. She’s not terribly old, though the glasses over her eyes and the smattering of ashy grey in her hair makes her look it. Katara thinks she’s trying to be kind about whatever new madness this is. “The challenge was for the throne, and Pr—Zuko lost. Princess Azula then challenged you, and you won. Is that inaccurate?”
“Well, not exactly,” Katara says. She’s not sure how to explain what happened. One moment everything was fine and then lightning was rushing at her and Zuko was—
The heat. The blue. The lightning the crackle, the smell of burning flesh. Watching Zuko fall, seeing the fire swirl, twisting angry.
Watching Zuko fall and she reaches out, reaching, reaching—
“Breathe,” the woman says, hands on Katara’s shoulders. “You’re safe now. It’s okay. Princess Azula has been detained. I’m merely here to confirm the outcome of the Agni Kai.”
Katara breathes out in a shudder. She takes a step back, pulling away from the woman. “Okay. Okay. Yes, I’m the one who defeated Azula. She attacked me, and Zuko intercepted but something went wrong and he was down so I finished the fight.”
The woman nods. “My name is An-Qi. Send for me as soon as Zuko is awake. I’ll try to keep the Sages away until then.”
“Wait, what’s going on?”
An-Qi looks at her with pity. Not a good sign, that is. Katara regrets leaving the room behind her when the polite knock came earlier. The palace is an imposing place, both inside and out, and worse now that night has fallen on a world still faintly smelling like ash.
She watches as An-Qi excuses herself, turning away and disappearing into the depths of the palace. Katara thinks this is the kind of day she’s going to remember for the rest of her life. The comet burning through the sky, the Agni Kai, the lightning, and now this. The secrecy and silence. The shadows and the stars.
But they’ve won this battle. That, at the least, is a comfort.
Fifteen years An-Qi has worked for the imperial family. She quietly believes this is why the assorted historians and Sages sent her to deal with their new monarch; she's seen the most tumultuous years this kingdom has faced in living memory with and come out of it calm and collected. Which is how, despite having zero real experience in doing this sort of thing, she finds herself on the morning after the comet with a tray of breakfast for the two children hiding in the palace one of them now owns.
She did prepare the food herself, of course. There’s no use risking someone assassinating their new leader before the coronation. With any luck, Zuko will be awake and she’ll be able to explain the Sages’ ruling.
But, of course, life rarely goes that simply.
The tray clatters to the ground. Porcelain teapot: shattered. Breakfast: ruined.
“What’s going on?” An-Qi is halfway to Katara before the words are out. The girl is struggling under the weight of an unconscious Zuko, who looks a bit worse for wear. An-Qi moves to his other side, helping to hold him up. Feverish, trouble breathing, and she can see the burn scar on his chest. “Oh, don’t tell me he was hit with that bolt.”
“Yes, he was,” Katara says. “I need to get him to water. Something’s wrong.”
“He should be dead!”
An-Qi sighs. “Take him to the Dragon,” she tells Katara. “To the left.”
A series of instructions later, and An-Qi watches Katara pulls the ailing firebender into the river. It’s a careful set up, with Zuko’s head on Katara’s shoulder to keep him above water. The River Dragon glitters blue, where it runs through the stone-tiled channels in the palace. But what she’s seeing is unlike anything. The water directly around the pair turns bright as the moon, pale and swirling.
She’d heard, of course, that truly powerful waterbenders could do this sort of thing. There’s all sorts of treatises on bending and cultural histories tucked away in places were the war could not reach them. An-Qi knows them all. The North apparently trains all their gifted daughters solely in the healing arts, while only training their sons in war, but of them all only one waterbender a generation is ever able to truly excel.
And here is one of those Children of La.
In time the glow fades and there’s a cough or two until Zuko’s eyes blink a few times. And then he’s awake. Katara drops beneath the river and then rises a short distance away, helping him towards the shore. The girl is impressive, certainly. An-Qi has heard the palace doctors mutter darkly about the damage lightning can inflict on the body enough times to know the boy in the water should be dead and gone several times over. And yet here he is, looking like nothing more than the healthy seventeen-year-old he is. It's humbling to know that a girl-child as small and frail as Katara is could hold such power. An-Qi had thought the sheer destructive power of Princess Azula had been a sight to behold, but seeing a girl so similar capable of equal destruction and yet still manage the rarer power of restoration is something else entirely.
There’s a mumbled discussion between the children that she can’t quite make out, save a piece about grabbing my heart from Zuko that sounds particularly painful. An-Qi makes a note to inquire as to the waterbender's full skills at a later point.
“Are you all right, Lady Katara?” An-Qi asks, peering down at her.
“Fine,” she says. “Tired.” Katara pushes herself up until she’s sitting on the edge of the river. She reaches down to push heavy black hair out of Zuko's face. “Hey, you still alive?”
Zuko bats at her hand. “Yeah, I am. Why’s the librarian out here?”
“Imperial Historian,” An-Qi corrects. “I only sometimes work in the library.”
“She helped save you, you idiot,” Katara says. A half-hearted wave crashes over his head. She tilts her head back to peer up at An-Qi, squinting against the morning sun. “You said you wanted to talk to us both, right?”
Katara and Zuko follow as they’re lead deeper into the palace. He, at the least, seems to know where they’re going. Possibly. Katara stays close to him; she had to work the blood to correct his heartbeat, and while everything looks healthy, bloodbending has never been used for such a purpose. She has no idea what might result. It wasn’t designed for medical use.
“You’re staring,” he says, voice low. “Stop that.”
“You should be dead,” she says. “How are you still alive?”
Zuko looks only mildly annoyed. “Lightning redirection. I messed up, but I got most of it out. How long has it been?”
He looks down at the still exposed scar on his chest. It flares out around his heart, a starburst in perfect detail branded on his flesh. “Oh. Healing?”
Katara nods. “You kind of spent most of last night dying, so yeah. She helped me get you to the river and why is there a river in a firebender’s palace?”
“Because it was here before us,” An-Qi answers from ahead of them. “There’s an older story, if you’d like to hear it sometime, but the basic answer is that your friend’s forefathers wanted their palace here and the river was in their way.”
Um,” Katara says. She hadn’t realized they’d gotten louder. “Sorry, but what is going on? Has there been any news from the Earth Kingdom?”
“You are about to eat breakfast,” An-Qi says, showing them into a room. Zuko looks less than happy about this location, but he grudgingly enters first as Katara follows. “Once I go fetch a new tray. And no, there has been no news. Right now we are operating under the assumption that the Fire Nation no longer stands with Ozai. He abdicated for Princess Azula, and now that Princess Azula has lost control of the throne, we preparing for the coronation of the new Fire Lord with the expectation that the war will end then.”
“The Sages,” An-Qi explains. “Princess Azula dismissed everyone during her short reign as Fire Lord. A handful of us escaped notice and so here we are. Now if you will please excuse me.”
An-Qi gives a short bow, and then closes the door between them. Interesting. And a little weird. Katara glances around the room. Zuko’s found a seat at a desk, looking less than pleased about any of this.
The room itself is lovely. While the room they’d been in last night had been dark and red, this one is lighter. Still dark wood, and still red, but broken up by lighter pieces of artwork and actual windows. She moves to look at a painting of a tree branch dotted with pale pink flowers, a strange script written in the top part of the scroll. Airy, that’s what this room is. It’s light and airy, for all the dark here. She can see a garden rolling out beyond the windows to the back of the room, and there’s a blue and white vase of heavy pale blooms between the windows.
And books. So many books, all lined up behind the desk. There’s scrolls tucked in a few boxes closest to the desk and yet more books everywhere.
“It’s a study,” Zuko says. “My father’s. This is where he did most of his work.”
“My father has an iceberg,” she says, and then it settles. Zuko doesn’t often speak of his own father. “Wait, you mean this is your father’s? It’s beautiful in here.”
Zuko shrugs. “I know he’s all fire and doom, but believe it or not he’s also the guy who liked to garden and read poetry.”
“I wish I could say I have heard stranger,” Katara says. She remembers enough, though. The monsters often turn out to be human. Like father, like son. “So you know who An-Qi is?”
“Imperial Historian, librarian, whatever,” he says. “Her family has worked here for ages, mostly as doctors. They’re the ones who,” he trails off, and finally just motions towards his left eye. “They’re the ones who took care of me after this. I normally saw her working in the library. Just didn’t know her name.”
Katara takes a seat across from him. There’s papers scattered about the desk, some in the common language and some in that strange script. “I’ve never seen these markings before,” she says, motioning towards it.
“Traditional Fire Nation,” Zuko explains. “You don’t see it a lot these days, but government.”
“We still use our own language,” she says. She thinks of the lines and dots, the markings along the blankets kept hidden. “The North was horrible. I didn’t understand a word when they stopped using Common.”
“Common is best for conquering and trade.”
“Can you read it?”
“Yes, but I’m not going to.”
The door behind them slides open. Katara’s on her feet, ready to fight, but it’s only An-Qi with a tray of food.
An-Qi, who looks at Zuko with a quelling stare. “My apologies, Lady Katara. I have been meaning to ask about your education. I’ll need to know what subjects we’ll have to cover. If Zuko is unwilling to help with the language, I can find a scribe to work with you.”
“Thank you,” Katara says. For the food. She isn't sure what to make of the education remark. She reaches out to help with the tray, but An-Qi moves it out of the way and sets up breakfast on her own, the papers gathered up and removed from the table before Katara can do anything. “You said Azula sent everyone away?”
An-Qi nods. She picks up the tea pot before Katara can, deftly pouring two cups. “Once every century we go through the Dragonbone Catacombs to archive the imperial treasures and update the records.”
“She doesn’t need to know this,” Zuko interrupts.
Katara has no response to that. They’d been doing so well, not fighting or snipping at each other, and now this. But An-Qi has no such reservations. “Hold your tongue. She has more rights to this information than you.”
Silence settles into the room.
Katara and Zuko exchange a glance. She has no idea what’s happening, and from his expression he—is starting to figure something out. It’s the same expression she saw when he realized how ill-prepared Aang was. That expression, she's learned, never bodes well for anyone.
“Why haven’t you been addressing him by his title?” she asks, looking up at An-Qi. “You’ve been calling Azula princess, but you’ve only been calling Zuko by his name.”
“The Sages have reached a verdict,” An-Qi says. “They’ve taken testimony from all of us and established the facts. I merely need to confirm with Zuko the terms of the Agni Kai.”
His eyes are closed and he’s pinching the bridge of his nose. Katara has a sinking feeling about all of this. It crawls up her spine, up her scalp until every bit of her feels on alert. Something’s wrong. Something is very, very wrong.
“It was for the throne,” Zuko says, finally. “Winner take all.”
An-Qi nods. “And Lady Katara’s role?”
“Except she was within the boundaries of the fight the entire time.”
Zuko sighs. He still won’t look at her. “Yes.”
“And Princess Azula attacked her unprovoked?”
“I provoked her,” Zuko says.
An-Qi shakes her head. “No, not you. Did Lady Katara herself provoke Princess Azula?”
“So Princess Azula decided, independently, to treat Lady Katara as a challenger?”
That sinking feeling is getting worse. Katara watches this back and forth and she wants to disappear into her seat. If only she could turn herself to mist. That would be wonderful right now. Turn into a mist and reform far, far away from here.
“Yes,” Zuko eventually answers.
An-Qi folds her hands in front of her. “At this point you were gravely injured and unable to continue fighting?” another affirmative. “And it was Lady Katara who defeated Princess Azula, after being treated as a challenger independent of you?”
The quiet stretches on, but eventually Zuko nods. “Yes.”
“What are you saying?” Katara says, looking between the two of them.
“You won a battle for the throne,” An-Qi says, gently. “The Sages have agreed. There was an Agni Kai to determine the leader of this nation, and you won.”
An-Qi shakes her head. “Unless those terms were made clear at the beginning, authorizing you to act as champion, then no. From what we’ve heard, Princess Azula was challenged by Zuko and Zuko alone, and when he fell, she opened the challenge to you. You then accepted and defeated her. Thus, you are now the Fire Lord.”