Surely the Banyan Spirit knew? If it did, just how much did it know? Did it show Katara those long hours of Zuko’s spectre, reveal to her his opposite nature, because it knew one day that knowledge would save her? Did it know its visions had given her the tools to understand herself? Questions chased questions through her mind, like a dog after so many fleas. She could barely keep the sides of her head from splitting open, the intricacies of her inner landscape spilling messily into the world for all to see.
‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ The Fire Prince hovered around her, fussing constantly. It was almost sweet. Almost.
Slouching dunes towered on either side of them. All day, they’d weaved stealthily between sand dunes, hoping the next town on the coast wasn’t much further ahead. The coastal winds were as harsh as the desert that laid some miles inland. It bit at their flaking lips and it chafed their skin with its gritty touch.
She nodded, not trusting herself to smile. ‘I’m fine.’ Almost.
He stopped, forcing her to slow her heavy steps and turn to face him. ‘You’ve barely said anything all day. Yesterday I couldn’t get you to stop talking. If you want to talk about, you know, you can talk to me, Katara.’
His rough voice made her name sound exotic. Other. She blinked and met his gaze. He was truly alarmed; she was surprised to see it. But of course he would be— how could he know? He hadn’t been there in the Swamp. He didn’t know what his doppelgänger in the mist had known.
She tucked a stray hair behind her ear. ‘Two nights ago, you asked me about the book I was reading.’ She started forward again, waiting for him to drop into step beside her.
‘Your waterbending book?’
‘I lied,’ she said quietly, a light flush staining her cheeks. ‘It’s not about waterbending. It’s about the Foggy Swamp.’
She could hear the frown in his voice. ‘The swamp we’re going to after Kyoshi and Gaoling? To meet up with those waterbenders?’
She nodded. ‘It’s a long story, but the Swamp is a mysterious place. All of us— Sokka, Aang, and me— we all saw visions of people when we were lost there. Aang saw Toph, before we’d met her. Sokka saw his girlfriend who died to become the Moon Spirit.’ She swallowed, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. She chickened out. ‘I—I saw my mother.’
He didn’t say anything, but that sense that had awoken the night before— the tenuous weight that seemed to teeter between them— told her he was listening intently. The midday sun beat down from above; no wonder the firebender seemed so full of energy.
‘I didn’t know it at the time, but my visions in the swamp taught me a lot about myself. About who I am, who I thought I was, what I could become. I only realised last night what it really meant.’ She shrugged, unwilling to tell him more. She wouldn’t have said this much had anyone else been around. With her recent self-insight— her tentative acceptance of her imperfect makeup— she felt that Sokka, Toph, and Aang wouldn’t understand. Especially Aang. He would deny her dark side rather than giving her the easy acceptance Zuko had the night before, his positive outlook overlooking those parts of her she had until recently denied.
‘Your mother must have been a great woman if she gave you that kind of insight into yourself,’ Zuko replied reservedly, drawing her from her musings.
Katara’s fingers brushed the pendant at her throat; despite her half-truth, he was right. ‘She was.’
The Fire Prince hesitated before continuing. ‘What happened to her?’
She turned to him, the old pain lapping at her. It was so worn, this pain, so familiar. Such a different texture to the storm of last night. ‘She was killed,’ the waterbender told him bleakly, gritting her teeth against the tears. ‘During a Fire Nation raid six years ago.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Zuko said softly, and the raw pain in his voice gave her pause.
He swallowed thickly, looking away. ‘I don’t know what happened to her.’ The bitterness and longing sounded as old as her own grief. ‘Chances are she’s probably dead. One day she was just… gone.’
Her heartbeat stuttered and she reached forward to squeeze his shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry, Zuko,’ she whispered, her grief beating in time with her blood. ‘I know how it feels.’
He shrugged, but didn’t move away from her hand. ‘It was a long time ago.’ He fleetingly met her sympathetic gaze. ‘Do you think I might see her, my mother, when we get to the Swamp?’
Katara hoped with all her heart he did. ‘Maybe. The Swamp has a way of showing us what will bring about balance. At least that’s what Avatar Yangchen says anyway.’
Katara nodded and dropped her pack, fishing her drinking water from the pocket. ‘The last Air Nomad Avatar before Aang. She wrote the book on the Foggy Swamp’s Banyan Spirit.’ His bewildered expression coaxed a smile from her. ‘Once you’ve spent more time around Aang, you’ll get used to the spirit stuff.’
He didn’t look convinced. ‘What did this tree spirit thing teach you about balance?’
She nearly choked on her mouthful of water. ‘What?’
He eyed her strangely as she wiped the dribble of water from her chin. ‘You said this book spoke about visions that bring balance, and that your vision helped you understand something. What was it?’
He was closer to the spectre-Zuko than she thought. There, that curiosity in his look. It disconcerted her and sent colour rushing to her cheeks. ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to ask about people’s private visions!’ She slammed the lid on her water and hastily shouldered her bag, trudging ahead, flustered.
She hardly heard his muttered apology as he jogged to catch up. ‘It explains a lot about you,’ he said after a few minutes of tense silence.
She peeked at him, alarmed. ‘Explains what?’
He shrugged, hitching his bag higher. ‘How you’ve changed since I saw you at the North Pole. Whatever you saw has obviously had a profound effect on you. You should talk to Uncle about it. He’s good at helping people learn to know themselves and destiny and all that stuff.’ He waved his hand vaguely.
‘What would he say?’ she asked, jumping lightly over a fallen tree. ‘If he were here.’
The prince thought for a moment before continuing in a terrible impression of the old general. ‘Spirits are like a good haiku; one must learn their rules and, err, rhythms to truly appreciate them.’ He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. ‘I’m not very good at impersonations. I barely understand what Uncle’s saying when he’s around, let alone when he’s not here.’
Katara wanted to laugh, but she was so touched by the firebender’s attempts to help her, she trusted him with a smile instead. ‘You’re better at impressions than you think,’ she said kindly as they came around yet another towering hill of sand. ‘That almost sounds like something your uncle would say.’
Zuko returned her smile tentatively, his golden eyes darting between hers. Unable to hold his curious gaze, she pushed onwards, trudging determinedly through the shifting sand. As the wind died down, and she scanned ahead, the small fishing village swam into view.
Iroh sent out the call.
The White Lotus had a sophisticated, multi-faceted communication channel that connected the three remaining nations. It comprised of a series of mirrors, manned fire pyres, messenger hawks, backroom whispers, symbols etched into communal notice boards, and an irritable but compliant cabbage merchant. Within a day of the Grand Lotus sending out his call, each member had begun their preparations.
Sipping his ginseng tea, Iroh sat in the flower merchant’s back room as Wen, the old man from the cantina, relayed the success of their message.
‘We’ve not yet heard back from those up north in the Water Tribe, but we expect word to arrive soon.’ Wen sipped from his cup. ‘And the other messages you requested— the ones to Prince Zuko, Chief Hakoda, and Avatar Aang— all have been received.’
Iroh crossed his legs before him, enjoying the aroma of the slow-brewed tea. ‘Tell me, Wen, what music do you like? You strike me as a pipa man.’
Wen merely grinned.
The fishing village of Yu Zhe rarely played host to outsiders. The occasional sandbender stopped by to trade in stolen artefacts or lost scraps discovered in the desert, and once in a while distant Fire Navy patrol could be seen gliding past, out to sea. But two teenagers seeking passage south? That was new.
The barman at the town’s only inn introduced them to the few sailors who regularly ventured outside of Chameleon Bay.
‘I don’t care how hard a worker you are, boy,’ one man laughed, appraising the dusty children. He had a rash over the left side of his face. ‘I’m not taking you as far as Kyoshi for a clean deck and a few coppers.’
The prince leaned forward intently. ‘Do any of the ships from the village go to Kyoshi? Whale Tale Island?’
Rash-Face dismissed him with a wave. ‘We’re fishermen, kid. We fish the bay, that’s it.’
‘Hold on, Buzai, what about Jima?’ The fisherman’s friend pointed to the corner of the room where a figure sat alone by a dirty window.
‘The witch?’ Buzai glowered at his companion. ‘Knowing her, she’ll drown them at sea, the old devil.’
The second fisherman leaned towards Katara and Zuko, lowering his voice. ‘Jima’s a fisher and a trader. She makes the long trip south three times a year to barter in Chin, Gaoling, Kyoshi, sometimes even Omashu. But she hasn’t been able to sail these last few weeks, not since her deckhand was lost at sea.’
‘Tossed into the sea, more like it,’ Buzai muttered, drinking deeply from the fourth bottle lined up before him.
Katara glanced at the small figure by the window. ‘Why did you call her a witch?’ she asked the drunken fisherman; the word cut a little too close to home after the events with the sandbenders.
‘Because she’s one old woman who crews a ship almost entirely by herself.’
Buzai’s friend snorted. ‘Old? She’s only two years older than you, you drunk, and you turned forty a month ago!’
Buzai turned up his nose delicately. ‘I’m young at heart.’
Zuko stood and bowed to the two men. ‘Thank you for your help.’
‘No worries, kid. If you ever want passage around Chameleon Bay, come find me. I’ll give you a few weeks’ work on my barge.’
The prince urged Katara before him, a hand to her lower back. ‘Come on.’
They stopped before the fisherwoman’s table, trying to see the face under her hood. ‘Excuse me, are you Jima?’ Katara asked politely; Zuko’s hand lingered a moment longer against her back before he dropped it.
The figure turned and cast her steely gaze over the two of them. ‘Water Tribe,’ the woman— Jima— grunted at Katara. Her lip curled as she studied Zuko. ‘Fire Nation. Unlikely couple.’
Katara dropped into the chair across from the woman with the flyaway white hair. ‘We’re friends,’ she said clearly, holding the sailor’s stare. ‘And we need a ride south, to Kyoshi. We heard you could help us out.’
Jima had well-worn lines around her eyes. They burrowed deep into her skin, whether from laughter or scowling Katara couldn’t tell. But they creased now as the woman regarded them through narrowed eyes. ‘I want to go as far as Gaoling, but I might be persuaded to stop at Kyoshi first. What’s in it for me?’
‘The way we hear it,’ Zuko said tightly, ‘you’d be lucky to find one person to sail south under you. We’re offering both of our help in return for passage to Kyoshi Island.’
Jima sucked her cheek between her teeth, smirking at Zuko. ‘How old are you, kid?’
He raised his chin defiantly. ‘Sixteen.’
‘And your girlfriend?’
He glowered at her, but Katara answered for him. ‘I’m fifteen.’
‘Let me guess, mummy and daddy didn’t approve of this little mixed nation love affair so you’re running away?’
‘Sure,’ Katara answered smoothly. ‘You believe whatever you want. Do we have a deal?’
Jima picked up her shot glass and drained the clear liquid in one gulp. With a beleaguered sigh, she tugged down her hood and fixed them with a hard stare. ‘If I take you to Kyoshi, you have to come with me to Gaoling.’
‘You think those simpletons on Kyoshi will crew my ship back here? I need you to get me to the big smoke, so I can find another pair of workers to get me home.’ A cynical note crept into her voice. ‘Maybe a swampbender and a badgermole.’
Katara laughed; despite the sharpness of the trader’s words, she liked her. ‘Fine, deal. But we’ve got business on Kyoshi to deal with first.’
Jima cracked her neck. ‘How long will it take?’
Zuko leaned forward, palm down on the table. ‘Could be a day, could be a week. That’s for us to decide. But if you breathe one word about a scarred Fire Nation boy or a Water Tribe girl to anyone, I’ll burn down your boat.’
Katara glanced at him in shock; he sounded like the angry prince she’d first met in the South Pole. ‘What my friend here means,’ Katara said tightly, casting the firebender a significant look, ‘is we would prefer it if you kept our identities to yourself.’
Jima shrugged, busy trying to get the bartender’s attention with a poorly-mimed request for another drink. ‘As long as you get me to Gaoling, scar-face. When can you leave?’
Katara slammed her fist down against the heavy tabletop, startling the abrupt woman. ‘Don’t you dare call him that.’
She glanced between the riled Water Tribe girl and the pale-faced Fire Nation boy and wondered, not for the first time, what their story was. ‘Okay, okay. Touchy scar, I take it? Fine. I want to leave at first light.’
Katara didn’t drop her glare. ‘Fine.’
‘What’re your names?’
Zuko cut quickly in. ‘I’m Lee,’ he said tensely; unlike Katara, he didn’t like their new travelling companion at all. ‘This is… Song.’
‘I’m sure it is,’ Jima smirked, taking the shot the barman offered her. ‘Meet me at the last pier to the east by dawn tomorrow morning.’ She threw back her drink and waved her hand at them. ‘Go on, get out of here.’
Zuko scowled at the dismissal but Katara tugged at his tunic. ‘Come on.’ To her surprise, very little force was required to encourage the firebender to back away from their new acquaintance and out onto the street. He followed her willingly.
Yu Zhe was quiet in the sleepy hours after lunch. A few children kicked a ball down the far end of the road, but their game lacked the fervour of play. The warm afternoon laid over the village like a woollen blanket.
Katara turned to her companion. ‘Lee and Song?’ she inquired.
The prince glanced away. ‘Names I heard while travelling through the Earth Kingdom.’
‘Song. I like it.’ It sounded musical, delicate, transfixing. ‘It’s pretty.’
His nose wrinkled. ‘It doesn’t suit you.’
‘I just mean it doesn’t sound as hard as your name.’ She eyed him in disbelief. ‘Strong! I meant strong! Oh, forget it!’ He threw his arms in the air and started down the street, kicking dust in his wake.
It occurred to Katara, as she followed the Fire Prince at a distance, that for the future leader of his nation, he was not terribly good with words.
Word from the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se is slow these days, but the Earth King is not directly involved in the war. All correspondence sent to him either goes unanswered or the recipients question the validity of the responses. I fear it would be foolhardy, even dangerous, to risk engaging the Earth King’s armies. But if you are determined, beware of the Earth King’s advisors and the agents of the Dai Li.
The old general’s words, scrawled so ominously over the parchment in Aang’s pocket, weighed heavily on the young monk. News of corruption in Ba Sing Se was a huge blow to Sokka’s invasion plan. If they were to wade into the mire of high Earth Kingdom politics, it would take careful forethought, delicacy, diplomacy…
‘Twinkle Toes, if you don’t set this flying rug down right now, I’m going to shoot us out of the air with boulders!’
Aang winced and glanced over his shoulder towards Appa’s saddle; his earthbending teacher was keeping up her formidable scowl. ‘But we’re nearly at the outer wall of Ba Sing Se! It’s amazing, Toph! It’s huge, bigger than ten lion-turtles stacked on top of one another!’
‘I don’t care if it’s covered in sparkles and can sing me a lullaby! We’ve been flying all day. I need a break, I need to be able to see.’
Though her words were flippant, her tone brooked no argument. Aang shook out the reins and called on the bison to circle lower. Once all six of Appa’s feet had touched down, Toph tumbled from the saddle and reclined in the dirt with a sigh.
‘Sweet, flightless earth.’
Aang leapt lightly from the saddle, appeasing his sky-bison’s groan with a reassuring pat. ‘Don’t worry, buddy, she’ll get used to it.’
Toph sat up with a sigh. ‘Why couldn’t you have a badgermole as a companion animal? Or an armadillo-horse?’
As she stood and planted her feet on the ground, she gasped.
A slow smile spread wide over the earthbender’s pale face. ‘I can see your wall,’ she said in quiet wonder. ‘We’re not far from it. It’s the most amazing thing built from earth I’ve ever seen!’
Aang laughed eagerly. ‘I told you it was worth it!’ He spied a nearby tree and leapt lightly to the highest branch he could reach. He could just make out the towering grey mass, the uppermost part of which was wreathed in clouds. It really wasn’t far! Another ten minutes on Appa or… he glanced back at the glassy-eyed girl on the ground below; or a couple of hours on foot.
He floated back to the ground gracefully. ‘Hey Toph. Why don’t we walk the rest of the way? It’s a beautiful day and I’m sure there’s tons of cool things for your feet to see! You could give me your feet’s tour of the great wall of Ba Sing Se!’
The blind girl threw back her head and laughed. ‘Sorry, fluff monster,’ she chortled to Appa. ‘We’re traveling Toph-style now!’