The young woman eyed the hands on her lap for quite a while. She had drifted in and out of thought, unable to comprehend- or choosing not to- the proposal the council was forcing upon her. In times like these, she wishes she could disappear. An urge to stand up and make a run for it whirled in her mind like an angry waterspout.
La damn it, that title made her cringe. Especially in this moment.
Slowly shifting her eyes, Katara looked up at the group of five elderly men as they awaited her attention. She had obviously missed most of the conversation. She was sitting on her legs, hands in lap, waiting patiently for what the men have concluded.
“Yes?” she replied loud and clear; although, inside, she was quite intimidated by these men. They looked at her with stony, icy glares, as though her presence in this room was a nuisance, as they sat behind a finely crafted table on lush pillows.
The youngest of the councilmen, Qopuk, extended a hand out in gesture and cleared his throat before speaking. “We understand that the circumstances are quite frightening. The events taking place over the last seven years have definitely set fear within the hearts of all of us. With the Avatar dead and the Earth Kingdom in unrest, we have to make decisions that require sacrifices on everyone’s part.”
The princess nodded her head, casting her eyes back down quickly when the eldest councilman frowned deeply at her. She was a woman after all. Disrespect was something easily punishable.
“Anything you ask of me, I will do for my people.” Katara said softly. The words were ashes in her mouth and she wanted nothing more than to spit at their feet.
“That is lovely to hear, Princess,” Ujurak, a man of his late fifties and receding hairline, smirked at her. “The status of Chief Hakoda’s whereabouts have been unknown coming on three years now. It is dire that we select a replacement for our own protection.”
Katara restrained a contorted face of anger. This was not what she expected when summoned to the Great Hall of the Council of Five. So, they were dismissing her father? How dare they?!
“May...may I be so bold as to ask why?” she blinked, inhaling deeply to suppress the tears pooling in her eyes.
“This should not come as a shock to you.” Another councilman, Tulok, responded. “With your father and brother missing, there is no one leading this tribe. Your father had summoned us from the North to aid in protecting you and yours. He had trusted us to make the right decisions when needed, therefore, we will do what’s necessary. Your father’s plan to join in helping the Earth Kingdom settle their conflictions was, and still is, preposterous. With the Avatar gone, never to be reincarnated, and the Earth King assassinated by his own people, what could we possibly expect? Aside from disease and carnage?” He shook his head in disbelief.
The insult to her father hit her like a flaming arrow. The burning in her chest ignited and Katara felt as though she would choke to death on it. She would gladly welcome it if it meant relief from this nightmare. But she still had Gran Gran to take care of. Sorrow wasn’t something she was willing to bring upon her grandmother.
“In an effort to solidify this leaderless tribe, Chief Arnook of the Northern Water Tribe has nominated his sister’s son as the new chief replacing Hakoda.”
“And what is your decision?” she asked.
“Oh, we have wholeheartedly agreed. Tonrar has been selected as the new Chief of the Southern Water Tribe from this day forward. We had previously sent word months ago, urging him to report to his position as Chief immediately. He and his wives should be here within a week’s time.” Nattiq, another councilman, stated.
After all her father had done, how could they dismiss him so easily? As soon as this Tonrar arrived, her and her grandmother would be forced to leave the palace. They would at least be given a home in exchange for work but with Gran Gran’s heart condition, Katara couldn’t just leave her for long periods at a time alone. But what else could she do? The council’s word was law. She was just a princess in name, nothing more. She was lucky they were being this kind to her considering the severance her great-grandfather had established from the Northern Water Tribe one hundred years ago.
“I understand.” Katara bowed low. “What must be done for the tribe is of utmost importance.” The waterbender wanted nothing more than to run to her grandmother’s room and break down.
“Why, hold on there, dear.” Qopuk chuckled. “We have summoned you here for a reason. We have not overlooked your father’s leadership and the things he had provided for us despite our lineage from the North. With that, we have come to a compromise with Chief Arnook to repay your father in exchange for his nephew’s position as chief. We want the blood of Hakoda to still run strong within the future leaders of this tribe. So, his Majesty of the North has agreed that you will marry Tonrar as soon as he arrives, and as trade, your first born son will inherit rights to the throne.”
Katara’s head jerked up, snapping at every face of the council. Marriage?
“We believe this is a great honor bestowed on both sides.” Suluk, the eldest, commented. “Do you accept these terms, Katara, Princess of the Southern Water Tribe?”
Honor was the last word Katara would use to describe this situation. But her grandmother needed to be here, where she could receive around the clock care. Sokka and her father were gone. Lost or dead, it didn’t matter at this point. As much as she hated to admit it, survival was of importance. The waterbender would just have to accept the inevitable.
“I-I accept.” She replied meekly.
“Remember, young Princess, this union will change this tribe for the better. It is with Northern Blood, that the tribes were able to flourish. The things you hold here, from the riches to the finery, were all due to the help the North has provided. Keep that in mind every day you attend to your husband.”
If only she had the ability to freeze the blood in their veins, Katara would gladly watch as they took their last breath.
The jog she made to Gran Gran’s room was long and suffocating. Her cheeks heated in anger and her eyes burned red. Her guts felt as though they were churning in her stomach and Katara did her best to hold back the vomit surfacing at her throat. She gulped it down, leaving a bad taste of copper in her mouth.
Quickly gathering her composure once she arrived at her grandmother’s bedroom, Katara sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her hand before turning the doorknob.
The small creek of the door cut through the silent room. A faint hint of sunlight peeked through the double curtains, leaving a reflection on the floor. The smell of medicine lingered in the air, a scent that would turn a lot of people away. It was something the waterbender grew accustomed over the years.
Settling her eyes on the silhouette sitting in a rocking chair, Katara carefully approached the figure, gently placing a hand on a thigh, she kneeled, brushing strays of grays out of her grandmother’s face.
“Gran Gran, why are you sitting in the dark?”
Katara received a raspy hum, the soothing sound of Gran Gran’s voice eased her aching heart. “Those damn nurses closed the curtains, insisting I take a nap.”
“So why are you not in bed?”
“I couldn’t find the matches. Those witches most likely hid them.”
“Gran Gran, that’s not nice to say about your healers. You need to rest more often.”
Kanna rubbed the hand on her thigh before squeezing it in a tight hold. “I’m not a toddler, child, I don’t need to nap. I’ll sleep all I want when I’m dead.”
Katara sighed, standing up to retrieve the matches she had the nurse’s hide for her when she wasn’t there. “Don’t say that, Gran Gran.” She lit a match to several candles.
The elderly woman watched as her granddaughter lit the room, her ice blue eyes squinting. “I hold no misgivings from my statement. I see no point in living if I’m stuck in this room until my last days. I want to go fishing, I want to eat tons of sugar candy and I want to dance with a handsome stranger!”
The waterbender laughed, happy that Gran Gran was more chipper these days. The last several weeks had been frightening. She had been comatose and Katara was afraid she had lost her. “When you’re better, Gran Gran, I’ll get you all the sugar candy you want.”
“I know I’m unable to make it outside of the palace but what about my dance?” Kanna chuckled.
“Well, I can’t promise you a handsome man at the moment, but would your granddaughter do?”
“Well what are you waiting for, child, help me out of this chair.”
Katara cocked her head. “You need to go to the restroom, Gran Gran?”
Kanna shook her head, waving Katara over with both hands. “No, no. I want to dance. Now.”
The waterbender looked around the room. “But there’s no music.”
“We can play it in our heads. Come. Dance with me.”
Katara helped her grandmother out of the rocking chair, holding her steady when the elderly woman began to waver.
“That’s better.” Kanna commented when she stretched her back with a loud crack.
Katara chuckled, wrapping her arms under Kanna’s as her grandmother clung tight to her shoulders. They swayed back and forth, Gran Gran humming a song of their people. Katara recalled when her grandmother was a throat singer. As a child she adored watching her perform during ceremonies and festivals. Hakoda would claim that his mother was the best throat singer of both Water Tribes, no doubt.
It was comforting. The peaceful hum of Kanna’s voice always put her in a state of calm, especially when she was overwhelmed. Katara rubbed her back, humming along with her. This was her favorite song. It was one that lulled her to sleep as a child.
Katara bit her lip, thinking about the encounter that took place only an hour ago with the tribe’s. She would have to tell Gran Gran about what was to come. Her visits will be less frequent once she married since attending to a husband came first next to children. The idea broke her heart. The days with Kanna were her most uplifting.
“Uh, I-I have good news.”
“Really? What is it, dear?” Kanna stopped her swaying to look at her granddaughter, expression eager.
Katara forced a smile. “I am to be married.”
The elderly woman’s eyes sparkled. “This is not good news, this is wonderful news! A husband? This is indeed a time for celebration. Oh, I can see my future great-grandchildren now.” She cupped Katara’s cheek. “Your father would be so proud of you, my yuka .”
Katara placed a hand over hers. “I know he would be.” She knew it was best to ignore the major details. Nothing would stop Kanna from going after the council if she found out that they overturned Hakoda as chief. It was best for her to think she selected a husband of her own feel will.
“Well describe him, I want to know what he’s like!”
“Uh, he is Chief Arnook’s nephew from the North Pole. His name is Tonrar.”
Kanna smiled, then frowned when she did not continue. “That’s it? Have you even seen the young man’s face?”
Katara shook her head hesitantly. “No…but he is strong, I hear, and handsome. He will arrive with his other wives very soon.”
Kanna’s face turned to stone. Her wrinkled hand stilled its caress on Katara’s cheek. “I wouldn’t have taken you for accepting a man with other wives, especially since it is uncommon in the Southern Water Tribe. Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Of course. It is time I marry and do my part to provide children for this tribe. Tonrar is a great man. I promise, I will be happy.”
Her grandmother’s expressio n contorted in concern, though Kanna sighed heavily, she gently patted Katara’s cheek. “If this is what you choose, I will support you.”
“Thank you, Gran Gran.”
Gold eyes scanned the sky painted twilight. A white streak crossed the horizon like a deep cut. These were the nights he enjoyed the most when he was able to escape to the island’s beaches. His long hair wisped in the air as a warm breeze passed by. Waves roared a gentle sound as they passed his feet, his posture relaxed.
The news of Ozai’s illness reached him earlier that morning. As much as he could care less about his father’s wellbeing, Zuko knew it would lead to something more horrific. His uncle, Fire Lord Iroh, had informed him that they were fighting to keep Ozai alive, though he knew his father cared little for living if it meant bringing down the one person he despised the most.
Smoke released from his nostrils. What was he to do now?
“Why there you are, love.”
Zuko turned in time to see the smiling face of his mother. She walked across the sand barefoot, the train of her elegant dress held in her hand. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear when the wind unraveled it from her topknot. Ursa placed a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, following his line of sight when he turned his head back towards the sinking sun.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Ursa commented. “This is why I love this island so much.”
Zuko scoffed, crossing his arms but allowed his mother’s hand to stay on his shoulder. “You seem unfazed.”
She hummed, wrapping an arm around his waist and rested her head on his arm. “This is something we both knew would happen someday. I’ve accepted it a long time ago.”
Zuko muscles tensed in response. How could she say that? “And you’re okay with this?”
Ursa closed her eyes. “More so than I expected.”
Zuko jerked away, unable to stand hearing another word. The idea that his mother was the least bit accepting of the outcome of this situation sickened him. This was not right.
“Zuko…” Ursa sighed, clasping her hands together. “If I did not choose this path, I would not have had you or your sister.”
His brows knitted. He was still unable to look at her. Zuko wasn’t unaware of that fact but he was still distraught. Since he was a child he had witnessed many things. War, starvation, genocide. The Avatar was the last thing in this world that would have prevented such things, but he was gone. Killed in the Avatar state by a bunch of earthbenders when trying to make peace with Long Feng, head of the Dai Li, after the man had ordered the assassination of the Earth King. The people rebelled, tearing down the walls of Ba Sing Se along with Long Feng’s life, and now the Earth Kingdom’s stronghold had shattered into broken systems and unrest.
The Air Nomads had disappeared since the Avatar’s death. The Southern Water Tribe had sent aid while the North remained neutral. As for the Fire Nation, they did nothing, secluding themselves from the rest of the world and closing off trades with the other nations.
It was with the advice of his mother that Fire Lord Iroh not involve the country in war, and Zuko couldn’t agree more.
His mother and him were the last royal descendants of their clan. It was their duty to protect the country they loved dearly. If this was the last remaining country on this Earth, then so be it. Dragons were already a dying breed and couldn’t afford involving themselves in foreign issues.
“Any news on the status of his condition? Is-“ Ursa stopped, pursing her lips and looking away.
Zuko couldn’t avoid her for long. Ozai was an evil man but her bondmate nonetheless. She had not seen her husband since Zuko and Azula were taken away as children. He unconsciously reached for the horrific scar on the left side of his face. The memory of that day still chilled him.
“The disease he carries is slow but painful. He was transferred from his prison cell to a private room where he is currently bedridden. The healers are doing what they can.”
Ursa smiled smally, brushing away a stray tear. “That’s good…” She walked closer to the shore, allowing her feet to sink in the water. “I don’t regret it, you know,” she called out over the wind. “As much as I hate to admit it, I loved your father. Still do.” She laughed sadly. “When I heard he had hurt you- there’s so much I wish I could’ve changed. If I had taken you and Azula with me sooner…”
Zuko hugged his mother, squeezing tight the one woman who gave him everything. “You wanted us to choose, I understand that. This scar is a reminder that I have to stay strong, with or without you. I will not allow the flaws of humans to impair my judgement. I will protect the Fire Nation.”
Ursa returned the hug, trembling in her son’s arms. “I know you will, love.”
They both parted when Chan, a servant, had arrived, giving a traditional Fire Nation bow. “I apologize, Queen Ursa, Prince Zuko, but Lady Ila has requested your presence in the rose gardens.”
Zuko growled as his mother covered her mouth in an amused chuckle. “Looks as though your fiancé is seeking your attention. Go. You do not need to stand out here sulking any longer.”
“And what of you, mother?”
Ursa turned back to the ocean. The sun finally set and moon crescent in the sky. “I could use a bit of sulking myself.”