‘We can’t, Toph!’
The earthbender threw her hands into the air. ‘And I’m supposed to be the blind one here!’
Aang stared up at the walls of the Earth King’s palace, his stomach turning with uncertainty. Long Feng had again stymied their attempts to discuss the invasion with the king. He refused to allow Aang, Toph, Momo, and Appa into the palace grounds, let alone an audience chamber. The young Avatar thought of his friends, spread out over the Earth Kingdom, relying on him…
‘I’ve failed again,’ he whispered bleakly.
‘Oh, stow it, Twinkletoes,’ his earthbending teacher said shortly, thumping the wall beside her. ‘We’ve got bigger fish to fry than your confidence.’
He glanced at the girl forlornly. ‘But how can we? Long Feng’s control over this city… he owns everything, Toph! Even the king and the military. And he already said he won’t help us.’
Toph sighed. ‘Aang, we need to look at the bigger picture here.’ She cracked her neck. ‘We’re not going to be able to topple Long Feng’s conspiracy between now and the invasion. Certainly not with enough time to get the Earth King’s armies to the Fire Nation— assuming, of course, we could actually convince the guy to lend us his army.’ She pointed to the south. ‘One crazy tyrant at a time, oh powerful Avatar.’
Aang frowned, turning from the high palace walls. ‘You want to leave?’
‘What did Roku say in your vision?’
‘Yes, jeez. What are you, deaf?’
‘He said I should go to the Eastern Air Temple before the invasion. There’s someone there who can teach me how to control the Avatar State.’
Toph crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Then it’s obvious what our next move should be.’
One crazy tyrant at a time. Could they handle the invasion themselves? Just their friends and allies from the Earth Kingdom? Against the might of the Fire Lord’s forces? Even with the eclipse it would be risky.
Aang turned to Appa. The bison blinked one large, chocolatey eye. ‘What do you think, buddy?’ he asked his old friend softly. Many times, during the struggles Aang had faced, he wished with all his heart that Appa could channel the wisdom of his people. If only Monk Gyatso could speak through the bison; Aang needed someone to tell him what to do. He couldn’t always be expected to make the right decision.
But he did have someone.
Toph had already scrambled up into the saddle, a wicked grin split over her face. ‘Let me put it this way,’ she said sweetly, ‘get on. We’re going.’
Aang didn’t argue.
The uncertainty in his stomach eased somewhat. ‘Right.’
Momo chittered happily in his ear as he guided Appa up through the smog that sagged over Ba Sing Se like a sickness. It felt a little like running, this leaving. But he vowed to himself that he would return. One day, he would come back, he would see the Earth King, and he would set things right.
Ba Sing Se faded to a distant blip on the horizon.
‘Where would you be without me, Twinkletoes?’ Toph called from the saddle where she laid, picking her feet.
‘I don’t know,’ Aang admitted, smiling back at her. ‘I really don’t.’
The humidity of the Swamp woke Katara long before the sunrise did.
The air hung stale and heavy as though there shouldn’t rightly be any room for the Fire Prince and Water Tribe girl to sleep within it. Katara groaned as she rolled over, feeling the sweat on her body like a second, very unwanted skin. Something buzzed up the length of her leg, irritating her further.
Despite the heaviness in the air, her throat was dry as the Si Wong Desert. Water. She needed water.
Someone shifted beside her.
Her eyes shot open as the night before caught up with her.
Zuko blinked at her, his water skin halfway to his mouth. ‘You’re awake.’
She didn’t want her cheeks to colour, but of course they did. ‘Good morning to you too,’ she croaked, licking her dry lips.
The firebender suited the early morning light. It made his scar look mysterious, softer, and his thin frame rounded— less edges and fire. She hadn’t noticed these slight morning changes in his face before. The sleepy, half-closed eyes weren’t sharp and piercing at this hour. There was an understated vulnerability about him, something he usually hid beneath his clothes and the wakefulness of day. Unchecked by his irritability and scowl, Zuko appeared as the boy he was, closer to the man he would be.
He laid back slowly. ‘Thirsty?’
Katara rubbed her eyes, leaning up onto her elbow. ‘Very, thank you.’
The water was as warm and soupy as the air, but at least it was wet. Zuko watched her tip the canteen to her mouth, his gaze flicking to her throat as she swallowed.
The silence was deafening.
‘Much better,’ she sighed, returning the skin to the firebender. She let her fingers brush his and was rewarded by a flush of red up the prince’s cheeks. A heartbeat later, his thumb traced down her palm.
Katara’s cheeks ached under the giddiness of her grin.
‘I tried not to wake you,’ Zuko muttered, discarding the water and turning to face her. ‘You don’t usually wake up properly for at least another hour.’
She chuckled at the ludicrous notion. ‘You should have woken me sooner,’ she admonished gently, wiggling her foot between his ankles.
She’d never seen the prince so wide-eyed, uncertain. ‘I didn’t want to presume…’
Katara shuffled forward and pecked him chastely on the lips. ‘You can presume.’ His hesitant smile had Katara blushing.
Zuko was struggling for words, it seemed. ‘How— err… how, um, long? You know, have you… um…’ Mild panic hardened the openness in his expression. Katara took pity on him.
‘How long have I what?’
He gestured distractedly, with all the suaveness of a desert cactus. ‘You know… wanted to…’ He sighed, dropping his hand in the small space between them. ‘I’m… I’m not very good at this.’ He pointed to his mouth. ‘Talking.’
Katara couldn’t hide her giggles any longer. The boy’s awkward attempts to express himself— as elegant as a koala lamb taking its first shaky steps— was endearingly hilarious. She ducked her head to avoid offending the prince’s prickly pride.
‘You’re laughing at me.’
Katara glanced up in alarm at his tone. ‘No! I was just—!’
His lips were hard, insistent. A delicious reminder of boggy cider lingered on them, smooth and crisp and welcome in the growing heat of the little tent. It occurred to Katara that Zuko didn’t have a problem expressing himself this way, though it made her a lot less coherent.
Heat licked at her face like sunburn. It coiled around her limbs like a great hot-blooded viper weasel. Was the ground smouldering? Had her skin blistered and boiled away to nothing? She gasped when he broke the kiss, lips throbbing as though her pulse sought to extinguish the fire that originated there.
She opened her eyes; she couldn’t remember closing them. ‘I should laugh at you more often.’
Zuko smiled that smile— the one that had sent her heart pounding all those months ago in the foggy mire of the swamp. I know you, it said. I know you more than I did yesterday.
‘A few months ago, a waterbender from the South Pole laughing at me would have made me furious.’ He traced a strand of Katara’s hair over her shoulder.
She returned his grin. ‘A peasant laughing at his royal fieriness? Scandalous!’
His brows drew together. ‘Not as scandalous as the Crown Prince making a waterbender the next Fire Lady.’ Eyes widening, he glanced at her sharply. ‘Sorry, you said you didn’t want to talk about that.’
She studied the seam of space between them. ‘I’m too young to get married,’ she told him, eyes downcast. ‘The betrothal age in the Southern Tribe is sixteen. Besides, you’re only just sixteen yourself. I don’t think it’s something we need to worry about for a long time.’
Zuko was silent for a moment. ‘The children of Fire Nation nobles are sometimes promised from birth.’
Something cold slithered through Katara. ‘Are you—’
The tent waved as though in a high wind. ‘You awake, cousin?’
Katara sat up as though a bolt of electricity had shot through her. ‘Due?’
A vague shadow hovered by the front of the tent. ‘That’s some mighty fine canvas you got there.’
Katara snatched her dress from the ground; what would the swampbenders think if they found her and Zuko in their underclothes, alone, in the tent?!
Due’s head appeared in the entrance. His hair was mussed from sleep, his leaf hat absent. Instead, several small twigs dangled from his shaggy mop.
His smile was mild as an Earth Kingdom autumn. ‘Y’all got a nice lil set up.’
Katara didn’t know her cheeks could flush so red. Not pink. Not even Fire Nation maroon. It was a very specific caught-cuddling-in-underwear-with-the-prince-of-the-Fire-Nation red.
Neither Zuko or Katara seemed able to respond.
Due scratched his head; a trail of ants marched unnoticed from his hairline. ‘The heat gettin’ to you, cousin?’
Katara pulled her dress over her head, shakily. ‘Uh, no, it’s okay.’
‘You got the healin’ touch, don’t you?’ the swampbender asked, kneeling in the entranceway.
‘I learned from Yugoda in the North Pole.’ Her brow creased. ‘Is someone hurt?’
‘Oh, it’s nothin’ worth cryin’ over.’ He blinked, considering. ‘Although, I guess Gin would say different.’
‘Oh, he got a fish hook in his eye.’
Due shrugged. ‘It’s not the first time, but our healer can’t get it out alone.’
The Fire Prince was eyeing the swampbender irritably. ‘Why can’t your healer do it?’
Due shrugged, digging in his ear with a finger. ‘She’s only young. Our Clever Woman died last season, before she could teach Mino all her ways.’
Katara followed Due out of the tent. ‘Where are they?’
‘Out the front of Mammie Ji’s place.’ The swampbender sniffed his wax-coated finger. ‘You want me to show you?’
Katara suddenly understood how Sokka must have felt during their time with the nomads in the Cave of Two Lovers. She was moments away from slapping her palm to her forehead in frustration. ‘Yes.’
Due ambled— ambled— back into the village. Zuko caught up to them as they passed the first huts, dressed in his usual clothes and scowl. Due didn’t seem to notice. He even stopped to greet a friend of his wife’s before Katara reminded him of the boy with the fishhook in his eye.
‘See you later, Mi!’ he drawled, waving a hand lazily as they moved on.
‘Come on by for a bowl of swamp fly later, Due!’
There was surprisingly little panic among the group of tribespeople on Mammie Ji’s front porch. The unfortunate Gin was oddly limp. He reclined against a slowly snoring catgator, his mouth hanging slack. Yun muttered quietly to a much older, squat tribeswoman in a mud-stained sack dress.
The Chieftess nodded to Katara. ‘Cousin.’
‘Hi, Yun. What happened?’
‘Gin was out with the menfolk. Every few days we go searchin’ for folk. It’s easy for outsiders to get lost in these parts.’
Katara pushed away her impatience. ‘But how did he get a fishhook in his eye?’
‘An accident, far as I can tell.’ Yun shrugged and gestured to the thin figure by the unconscious boy’s side. ‘This is Mino, the Clever Woman.’
Katara blanched. The Clever “Woman” was a girl scarcely older than ten. What little hair she had that wasn’t knotted into dreadlocks was braided with corkwood, rocks, and dried vines. A thorn, several inches long and coated in hard amber, pierced the girl’s left ear. Her arms, neck, and face were streaked with swamp mud, pale skin peeking through the dried earth. Unlike the other women in the tribe, she wore a long dress— dirty cream and green patched— that hung down to her ankles. It was made for a much taller person, hitched up at the waist by a leather belt to free her bare feet. The most spectacular array of bone bracelets adorned the girl’s wrists and ankles.
Mino’s bright blue eyes studied Katara closely. ‘Thanks for comin’, cousin.’
Katara tried not to stare at the giant thorn through the girl’s ear. ‘No problem. How can I help?’
The Clever Woman beckoned her closer. ‘Clever Aga, the one before me, never taught me how to fix anythin’ as complicated as the eye; there’s so many parts.’
Katara swallowed, her stomach curdling at the sight before her. The barbed hook had passed through the boy’s eyelid, nicked his eyeball, and emerged again. Thankfully, the wound was shallow and had missed the iris. She may be able to save his sight! His comatose state was concerning, though.
‘Why is he unconscious?’
Yun shifted behind them. ‘He was hollerin’ and writhin’ about. Wasn’t doin’ him no good, so Tho clubbed him over the head to bring him back here.’
Katara dropped her face into her palm; yes, she could certainly empathise with Sokka now. ‘For future reference, head wounds are never a good way to treat an injury.’
Mino leaned over the prostrate Gin. ‘I keep tellin’ ‘em that…’
Katara hid a smile. ‘I think I can help you with this and save his sight. Here’s what we need to do…’
Three hours, another two knocks to Gin’s head from the butt of Tho’s oar, and one bloody fish hook later, Katara directed Mino in bandaging the swampbender’s eye closed. The young Clever Woman had removed the hook one agonisingly slow movement at a time, while Katara followed with her bending. The Water Tribe girl healed any new wounds the jagged hook opened and burned out the infection festering in the wound. Gin would likely have a droopy eye, and the rest of the wound would need to heal in its own time, but the boy would be able to see eventually.
Zuko had been whisked away by Tho and Due at some point to help prepare breakfast for the tribe. The thought of the prince cooking for a tribe of peasants tasted deliciously of irony.
Mino handed Katara a moulded leaf mug. ‘Thanks for your help, cousin.’
‘I’m sure you would have managed fine without me,’ the older girl pointed out, sipping the spiced tea.
‘I don’t think so.’ The Clever Woman’s tired smile fell. ‘Clever Aga never got to teachin’ me anythin’ like this.’
‘Was she unwell?’ Katara asked gently. ‘Due said she passed last year.’
Mino shook her head, her thorn piercing glinting in the low light. ‘Naw, she was just old. She been around since before the war.’
The Water Tribe girl frowned. ‘Why did she wait so long to take on a student?’
‘Oh, she don’t choose her Swamp Daughter,’ Mino remarked, retrieving a small pot of what looked like sludge from the case beside her. ‘The swamp marked me out for her.’
The wild looking girl dipped a finger in the sludge and inscribed a crescent moon over the wrappings on Gin’s eye. ‘That’s what they call the Clever Woman’s student. The swamp marked me. Clever Aga was always tellin’ me how late I was. Late in comin’ to be marked out, late to my lessons, late to learn.’
Katara’s heart squeezed for the quietly-spoken girl beside her. ‘How did the swamp mark you?’
‘Blue eyes like the skies, and death givin’ breath to life.’
‘Is that a poem?’
‘It’s the prophecy from the Banyan Spirit. Ev’ry Clever Woman since Clever Win has had blue eyes and killed their mamas durin’ the birthin’.’
Ice seized Katara’s throat. ‘You’re… you don’t have a mother?’
Mino shrugged and rested a hand on Gin’s forehead, muttering what sounded like a pray under her breath before replying. ‘My birth mama died when I was marked. Then Clever Aga was my mama.’
Katara tried not to see herself in the braids and muddy streaks that made up the young Clever Woman. After all, the girl looked nothing like her except for the eyes. She tried not to see another young, motherless girl with bending she couldn’t quite understand yet. Swamp instead of tundra; hot, heavy air instead of icy winds; cicada frogs droning instead of wolf seals howling.
A responsibility too large for narrow child shoulders slipping over a girl trying to be something she was never prepared for.
‘Mino,’ Katara started, pushing away the threatening tears. ‘I—I don’t know the Swamp Tribe’s traditions or how to be a Clever Woman. But I do know how to bend.’ She thought of ice and fog and swirling whirlpools of water that towered into the sky. ‘All kinds of bending. I can help you; I can teach you how to heal.’
Mino’s mud-streaked lips parted in shock. ‘You will?’
The hunger in the girl’s eyes hardened Katara’s resolve. ‘Zuko and I have to leave soon; there’s something we have to do. But until then I’ll work with you every day! And if you need me, I’ll come back. I’ll come back as soon as I can, I promise.’
Tears welled in those bright, blue eyes. Despite her fierce appearance, Mino’s age shone through. She leaned forward, threading thin, shaking arms around Katara’s neck.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered into the Water Tribe girl’s hair as tears and mud streaked Katara’s neck.
‘You did what?’
‘She’s ten, Zuko! She’s like the High Fire Sage of the Foggy Swamp Tribe, and her adopted mother died before she could learn how to do her job. I’m going to stay to help her.’
The Fire Prince glowered at her. ‘Are you insane?!’ he demanded, throwing his hands into the air. ‘Has the heat fried your brain? What about the eclipse? The invasion?’
Katara fisted her hands, glaring at him. ‘The invasion is still two moons away!’
‘During which we still need to recruit the swampbenders, sneak into the Fire Nation, find the rendezvous point, and meet up with the others!
They stood stubbornly apart, glaring at one another across the mossy clearing on the outskirts of town. Those tribespeople not out hunting or foraging blatantly stared at the bickering pair. While people in the Foggy Swamp Tribe disagreed, they rarely yelled at each other. The locals were enjoying the spectacle.
‘Look!’ Katara grabbed the infuriating firebender and dragged him further from the village. ‘Sailing to the Fire Nation with the swampbenders will be much faster than any navy ship. Waterbenders are way faster! She needs me and we have the time.’
Zuko shook his head slowly, freeing his arm from her stranglehold. ‘You just can’t help yourself, can you?’ he muttered, striding over to a buttressed root.
‘I don’t turn my back on people who need me,’ she reminded him as the words summoned an image from the depth of her memories: crouched over the faintly smoking figure of his uncle; the scent of burning flesh in the air.
His eyes flashed as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the roots. ‘I remember, waterbender.’
‘Then you know why I have to do this.’
‘You should have talked to me.’
She blinked. ‘What?’
‘You should have come and talked to me first.’
‘I don’t need your permission to—’
‘It’s not about permission,’ he said tightly, glaring at her. ‘We’re… We’re a team, right? Teams decide things together.’
Katara’s retort died on her tongue. That was why he was so mad? ‘We… we are a team,’ she affirmed. ‘I’m sorry, I guess I forgot. For a long time now, I’ve kind of kept our group together. Aang, Sokka, Toph; I’ve had to make a lot of decisions.’
His stern expression lingered for barely a heartbeat. ‘It’s okay.’
She smiled hesitantly. ‘I’ll make it up to you.’
Zuko’s brows raised; pink tinged his cheeks. ‘You don’t have to.’
‘I want to.’ She brightened. ‘I know! I’ll see if I can convince Yun to serve possum-chicken instead of bugs tonight. I know you didn’t like them very much.’ A strange smile took over the Fire Prince’s face. ‘What?’
He shook his head quickly. ‘Nothing. That sounds nice.’
Katara took his hand. ‘Come on. I want to introduce you to Mino properly.’