Katara will always remember it this way: Sokka is dripping wet. She’s laughing so hard she can’t even concentrate on keeping her pee in her bladder. She has to retie the boat at least five times. As they start to reenter the village she finally gives in and starts bending the water out of her brother’s clothes.
A shadow falls over them.
The ship is larger than the one farther out to the west. It’s the biggest ship Katara has ever seen. Her breath stills and she can hear her own heartbeat in her ears. Stupid. She’d been too distracted to notice that the entire village was empty and quiet. She bends the rest of the water off of Sokka in one swift motion and pushes him toward the village.
“Go make sure Gran-Gran is safe.”
For once he listens to her. She steps lightly into a stance, feels the ice meld to her feet. Defiantly, she pulls herself to her full height. She’s a day short of her fourteenth birthday, but she’s the only line of defense the village has. The hull of the ship opens up, expelling dust. A score of red helmets marches out, surrounding her. Katara fights back tears. It’s the only fighting she’ll be doing today. There’s only one way this will end.
Two flags emerge from the hull, bright red. They are splashed with the insignia of the fire nation. Two men in armor follow them out. They are both wearing heavy armor, more intricately designed than the red soldiers. The taller, leaner one has decorations of gold across his chest. His hair is tied up into a messy topknot. An angry red scar mars half of his face.
“I am Prince Zuko,” he announces. “I’ve come for the water bender.”
Katara knew this day would come.
She thought of the others. Of Master Pakku.
Protect the village. That’s what she’d been trained to do. But she was the only one left. There was only one thing she could do to protect them now.
“I’m here,” she said.
To her satisfaction the prince actually seemed shocked.
“It’s you? You’re the last one?”
Swift as a rip current she whipped the snow around her into liquid. The red soldiers fell through. She froze them to their necks.
The prince held up his hand. The flags snapped. Just inside the ship Katara heard the scrambling of weaponry. Slowly, she manipulated the ice until it spat each soldier back out whole.
“I’m taking you prisoner,” the prince said calmly. Too calmly. “You understand what will happen to this village if you don’t come quietly, don’t you?”
She allowed herself once last glance. Sokka was holding Gran-Gran back. She could see all of the village women holding their babies, partially hidden from view.
“I’ll come quietly,” she promised.
The village screamed their protest. Katara turned her back on them. For them.
A pair of rough iron shackles were places on her wrists and ankles and she entered the darkness of the ship. As it shuddered closed, the fear took over and the urine she’d been holding in finally trickled down her pant legs into her boots, but she held back the tears until she was locked in a cell.
When she woke up she felt exhausted. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It could have been hours. It could have been days. Her dreams had been empty. She remembered waking up, gasping and dry heaving. Each time she’d managed to fall back asleep, but she’d had nothing to mark the passage of time between those hours. She felt heavy now, and outside of herself. The cell was made of wood. Near the door was a small bucket of water, a sponge, and a change of clothes. She moved toward the water. Her limbs were weak.
It was barely enough to soak the sponge.
She took a few drinks before scrubbing her face and using the sponge to wipe her body free of dust, sweat, and dried urine. The clothes were pale blue. A pair of pants and a tunic. Not long after she had changed a soldier appeared at the door. The small opening at the top showed only the eye visor of his helmet.
“A meal has been prepared for you, Master Waterbender,” he said.
Katara barely had time to wonder at why she, a prisoner, was being addressed so formally. The door opened. The shackles were secured around her wrist and ankles again. She followed the soldier down the narrow hallway. All around, the ship was alive with noise. Despite her fear, Katara couldn’t help but feel a sense of adventure. She’d never been on a ship. When she was younger, Sokka had dared her to get as close as possible to the old war monument outside the village. Inevitably they would have found the courage to sneak aboard. She caught herself formulating questions to ask the soldier, questions Sokka was burning to ask but would never get to.
The dining room was not much larger than her cell, but it was well lit. At the end of the table sat a young girl, her dark hair done up in an elegant bun, contrasting starkly with the rough tunic she wore and her relaxed attitude.
“Sifu Toph,” Katara’s escort bowed deeply.
The girl waved a hand distractedly. “Whatever. You have my permission to go.”
The soldier closed the heavy door behind him. Katara didn’t hear a lock slide into place. For the hundredth time, she had to force herself to act like a compliant prisoner and not try to escape.
“Have a seat. The food’s not bad.” The younger girl was already starting in on her meal. There was fish, and some long grained rice. Apples. Bread. Cautiously she sat down and started picking at things that looked familiar to her. Odds were she was being taken to a maximum security prison. She might never get to eat like this again.
“What’s your name?” her dinner companion asked. “They told me we were going to go find the last waterbender in the South. Is that you?”
“Hm.” The smaller girl picked at her teeth with a fish bone. “Do you know why you’re here, Katara?”
“Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation came to my village to take me prisoner. I’m probably going to be tortured until they realize I don’t know any secrets about the Northern Tribe’s army and then put away in a maximum security prison for waterbenders.” I’ll never see my family again. “What’s your name? Why are you here?”
“Toph Beifong, of the fabulously wealthy Beifong family. I’m here for the same reason you are, Katara. I’m here to train the Avatar.”
The ship rocked. The water in Katara’s glass swayed. An apple rolled off the table.
“The Avatar is gone,” she heard herself say. Her voice sounded very far away.
“False,” Toph reached across the table for a dish of something Katara didn’t recognize.
“Sozin had the Air nomad race wiped out. Complete genocide.”
“Undeniably. And sad.”
“And the water tribes never reported a new Avatar.”
“You sure about that?”
“And – and –“
“It’s been a hundred years since the last Avatar was around,” Toph explained. “Who really knows what happened? All I know is the currentAvatar is very much alive and doing pretty well mastering Earthbending.” She poured herself more water.
Katara reached out and froze it as it fell from the pitcher into her glass.
“You’ve seen the Avatar.”
Toph pushed her messy fringe out of her eyes. They were milky green, void of light. “I’m not seeing much of anything these days, Ice Queen. But I’m training him. He’s can bend more than one element, so I’d say he’s the real deal. He needs to master water, though. That’s why you’re here.”
“What does Prince Zuko have to do with this?”
“He’ll explain to you after dinner. Oh, look! Dinner’s over! Come on, he’s expecting us.”
Toph opened the door and disappeared down the hallway. It took a while for Katara to catch up, between the shackles around her ankles and still needing to process what was happening, but when she did she caught the other girl halfway through a sentence, as though Toph had been talking the whole time and expecting that she’d been listening.
“ – takes some time getting used to, but it’s not so bad. You just get as far from the noise as possible and you’re there!”
They stopped in front of a large metal door with the Fire Nation emblem on it. Toph knocked. A soldier – perhaps the same one that had escorted Katara earlier – opened. “Sifu Toph and Master Katara to see his Sparkiness,” Toph drawled in what Katara supposed was an impression of a sophisticated lady.
The door opened wider.
The room was much larger than the dining room. It was ten times bigger than Katara’s igloo back home. The prince sat at the far end, bent over a low table covered in scrolls. An elderly gentleman stood with him, sipping a cup of steaming tea. He frowned when he saw the girls.
“Zuko, why is she still in chains?”
“It’s just until after the interrogation, uncle,” the prince explained.
Katara felt her blood run cold. An interrogation. She looked to Toph, expecting evidence of betrayal, but the blind girl was busy bending a large slab of stone to the middle of the room.
“Stand on this,” she instructed.
The prince stepped away from the table. “You, too, Sifu.” Toph stepped onto it, wiggling her toes. “Toph is a master earthbender. She is also skilled in the art of lie detection,” the prince explained. “I’m going to ask you some questions. While you are standing on the earth, she’ll be able to tell me if you’re being honest.”
Katara stepped onto it, facing the younger girl.
“Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Toph instructed. “It’s important that you answer only‘yes’ or ‘no’, even if you’re only answering what you believeto be true.” She tilted her head. “Do you understand?”
Toph grinned. “Good.”
“I’ll start by asking you something I know is true and something you know is a lie to gauge your response,” the prince began. “Is your name Katara?”
“Are you loyal to the Fire Nation?”
“No.” Hot tears sprung up and Katara ground her teeth, hating that she lost control so easily.
She waited for punishment, but nothing came. The stone didn’t rise up and crush her.
“Were you trained by Pakku of the Northern Water Tribe?”
“Have you achieved a level of mastery in waterbending?” It’s important that you answer… even if you’re only answering what you believeto be true. Did Katara believe she’d reached a level of mastery? She thought back to the day she defeated Master Pakku in combat.
“Yes,” she said firmly.
There was a much longer pause between that question and the next.
“Were the Avatar alive, would you help him end the war and restore balance to our nations?”
Katara felt as though the eyes of everyone in the room were on her.
Toph smiled. “Hold out your hands.”
Katara lifted them out in front of her. There was water in the room. The tea kettle. The chains fell open and thudded onto the stone. The chains at her feet fell away as well. She blinked.
“I can also bend metal,” Toph explained.
Katara lost her concentration. The tea kettle shattered. Every soldier in the room shifted into a battle stance.
“At ease,” the prince commanded. Reluctantly, they straightened.
“Can I ask youa question?” Katara stepped down from the stone platform.
“Were the Avatar alive, would youhelp him end the war and restore balance to our nations?”
The prince stared at her for a long moment. His eyes were such a light hazel they were almost gold, especially in the flickering firelight. The scar on his face was scabbed over, red and purple and black around his eyelid. It was an old scar, and the prince wasn’t’ much older than herself.
“Yes,” he said finally.