The Painted Lady began visiting the Fire Nation capital six months after an invasion and an eclipse scorched the war from the Four Nations. At first it was mere rumour; small sightings, unimportant victims, easily ignored. But when she stole into General Itsuki’s villa and nailed the assassination commission and a bolt of red fabric above his bound-and-gagged body in the entryway, she began to draw the attention of the nobility.
And the Fire Lord.
‘General Itsuki has been cut down,’ Minister Ping reported with a bow in the Fire Lord’s direction. ‘He is being held by the Royal Guard until the document found in his possession can be verified.’
An awkward silence fell limply over the room.
Calmly— in appearance only, inside he was flames and suspicion— Zuko studied the commission for his death. ‘You’re telling me a spirit discovered the general’s treason, captured the man, and strung him up by his loincloth?’
‘Alleged treason,’ Admiral Hao interjected.
Minister Ping cleared his throat. ‘Ah, we are consulting the Fire Sages and the Royal Archivists for guidance in this matter, Your Majesty.’
Every noble, military man, and advisor stood as Zuko got to his feet. ‘Don’t bother,’ he told the man shortly, rising indignation licking like flames at his insides. ‘I’m sure this is just—'
The council room doors opened with an obnoxious bang. ‘Fire Lord Hotpants!’
Zuko’s cheeks coloured as red as the Royal Guardsman who staggered into the room after the figure in green. ‘My—My apologies, Your Majesty, I tried to stop her!’
‘And I told you it was urgent, flame boy, so cool it,’ the young earth bender commanded, shaking off the man’s grip on her sleeve.
The burn scars that could be seen— along her neck and arms— weren’t nearly as noticeable as the angry pucker of Zuko’s own scar. The skin was shiny, bleached mostly white thanks to Katara’s healing hands, with just the barest blush of pink beneath the faint puckering. Many fifteen-year-old girls would carry such scars with horror; Toph wore them like a badge of honour.
‘Your Fieriness,’ she intoned obsequiously, sweeping downward in a perfect noblewoman’s bow.
Minister Chan stood to stamp her foot in fury. ‘Master Toph, how dare you interrupt His Majesty with such disrespect!’
‘Minister Chan, how dare you accuse the Fire Lord’s personal friend of disrespect!’ Toph fired back, a smirk curling up her cheeks. ‘His Royal Fieriness’s attendant said this meeting was due to finish half an hour ago and that’s how long I’ve been waiting. In case you forgot, you all hired me and my students to renovate those magma caverns under the palace. I’m here to report to my boss so if you don’t mind let me get on with it, or I’ll charge your government double to finish the job.’
Zuko resisted the urge to drop his face into his hands with great difficulty; the sheer quantity of complaints that would crowd his desk by the end of the day... Dammit, Toph.
Chancellor Yao laid a calming hand on Chan’s as the minister’s face purpled with rage.
‘Master Toph,’ Zuko called before the earth bender could continue. ‘As luck would have it, the council was just dispersing when you announced your arrival. If you would accompany me to my office, we’ll conduct our meeting there.’
He could see the earth bender repress the urge to roll her eyes. ‘As you wish.’
‘Do we need to have another talk about Diplomatic Toph and Regular Toph and which situations warrant which one?’ Zuko asked shortly after his attendant closed the office door behind him. ‘Because next time you pull a stunt like that, I’m going to have my guards remove you from the council chambers, diplomatic consequences be damned!’
The earth bender crossed to the other side of the room to recline in his chair, the comfortably padded one behind his overflowing desk. ‘Katara sent me,’ she said simply, eyeing him wickedly. ‘Ooo, I felt your heart stutter then, Sparky. Hear something you like?’
He shot her a dirty look. ‘Thin ice, Toph.’
‘Don’t you want to know what Madame Fussy Britches said?’
Damn her. ‘I’ll see her during the trade negotiations later today. What’s so important it can’t wait till then?’
‘Painted Lady intel,’ Toph said flatly, kicking her bare feet up onto his desk with a solid thunk.
His suspicions confirmed, Zuko paced like a caged moose-lion. ‘I told her to stop that months ago!’
‘Cause Katara does everything you tell her to,’ Toph implied, tapping her dusty big toe against his pressed metal lantern. ‘Besides, she probably didn’t hear you over the corruption and war profiteering of the lords you’re powerless to punish.’
‘It’s too risky, Toph. What if she’s hurt? What if someone finds out it’s the Water Tribe Ambassador running around and stringing up the nobility? Does she want to start another war?’
‘Just one with the people trying to have you killed.’
That gave him pause. ‘That’s not the—it’s just not how things are done in the Fire Nation.’
The earth bender shrugged. ‘Take it up with your girlfriend. I’m just here to tell you about the blasting jelly stored in the catacombs under that butt ugly temple down the road. The fancy people one.’
That froze the Fire Lord even further, in fact it practically turned him to stone. ‘What?’
‘Oh, and the secret meeting in those same catacombs tonight between the suspected top conspirators.’ Toph’s grin was wickedness itself. ‘Katara just wants to spy on them, but I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone? Give them blasting jelly burns to match yours and mine.’
Zuko was granite with shock. ‘She… She wants to do what?’
‘Let her work out the details, Sparky,’ the little earth bender told him with a flippant wave. ‘What I need to know is where can my students and I take those twelve barrels of liquidy explosion now sitting in my room to safely blow them up?’
Horror painted him chalky. ‘You brought… blasting jelly… here?’
She shrugged. ‘I told you it was important.’
The fire bender exploded into action. ‘Taki!’ he shouted, exhaling flames as he turned towards the opening office door.
His attendant dropped into a respectful bow, familiar with this side of the Fire Lord’s temper. ‘How many I be of service, Your Excellency?’
‘Where is Kat— err, the Apprentice Ambassador for the Southern Water Tribe?’
‘I believe her ladyship, Apprentice to the Southern Water Tribe Ambassador, is taking lunch with the Royal Chief Advisor, Prince Iroh, Your Excellency,’ the man replied, glancing nervously at the grinning earth bender in his master’s seat.
Zuko drew himself up, squaring his shoulder. ‘Invite her to join me for tea in my office immediately. Do not take no for an answer, she is to report to this office directly.’ Taki bowed halfway to the ground. ‘And when you see my uncle, ask him to take my place in this afternoon’s negotiations with the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe delegates.’
‘Yes, Your Excellency.’ The man withdrew promptly.
‘Oh, you’re in so much trouble, Sparky,’ Toph chortled from behind him. ‘She is to report to this office directly. You know how much Katara loves being ordered around.’
‘Shut up,’ Zuko snarled, turning back to the earth bender and planting both hands on the desk between them. ‘Now explain to me exactly why you’ve decided to endanger everyone in this palace by bringing blasting jelly into my house, and Katara by encouraging her insane Painted Lady fantasy!’
Toph raised a quizzical brow. ‘Insane fantasy?’ she said in disbelief.
‘This isn’t some game, Toph!’ he snapped, working to keep his voice down. ‘Do you have any idea what will happen if anyone finds out it’s Katara behind the face paint? Do you know what they’ll demand— my enemies in the government, nobility, and the manufacturers guilds? Do you know the penalty for vigilantism, especially in the wake of the Blue Spirit’s crimes against Zhao?’
‘Do you understand what it’s like for your friends to hear about assassins and poisoned food when we’re hundreds of miles away?’ the little earth bender asked sharply, all teasing gone, shut out like the warmth of a hearth behind a closed door. ‘Do you know what it’s like to know exactly who’s plotting your friend’s murder but having to bow and smile and play nice for the sake of politics? You’re not the only one involved in this anymore, Zuko.’
‘Things in the Fire Nation—’
‘Who cares about how the Fire Nation does things,’ she snapped, standing and stalking towards him. ‘I’m not Fire Nation, and neither is Katara or Aang for that matter.’
Zuko blinked, backing up a step at the blind girl’s approach. ‘Aang? What does he have to do with this?’
‘Who do you think told Katara about the first assassination attempt when you were too stupid to?’ She poked him hard enough to bruise. ‘Look I get you had a messed-up childhood and all, but I’m here to tell you waiting around for someone to finally get past your guards and kill you is a dumb move. Yelling at your friends when they see you need help is even dumber. Yelling at Katara for trying to help you is probably your dumbest idea yet, second only to yelling at me. Get used to it, Hotpants, we’re not going anywhere.’
He gaped silently at her, rubbing the sore spot on his chest. ‘Ouch.’
‘There’s more where that came from,’ the earth bender warned, yanking open the door and slamming it behind her.
‘I really fail to see how this is a bad idea.’ She is the furthest thing from contrite, this water bender sent by the spirits to drive him insane. Sent by the Banyan Spirit and now impersonating a beloved spirit of his Nation.
‘Katara.’ He used his firmest tone of voice, the one that silenced squabbles between the military’s generals and the armistice council or, more impressively, those between Sokka and Appa. ‘No.’
He scrunched the Out-Islander’s Petition for the upgraded sewage initiative and wondered when the disease of Sokka’s personality had infected the water bender. ‘Blue Spirit,’ he reminded her in the shorthand that had grown between them over the past two years. ‘Remember?’
She scoffed. Scoffed. ‘The Blue Spirit achieved a lot more than you give him credit for. In fact, the Painted Lady could use some back up tonight. Did Toph tell you? I’m planning on—’
‘No!’ He stood and threw the initiative at the far wall, stomping. ‘Katara, you can’t do this! When I said I wished there was a direct way to confront corruption in the government and figure out who was sending the assassins, it wasn’t an invitation for you to dress up as the patron spirit of justice and risk your life. We’ve talked about this.’
She leaned back against the door of his office and Zuko could have breathed frustrated fire at the nonchalance on her face. ‘Yell a little louder, why don’t you? I think there’s someone in the east wing who didn’t hear you.’
‘Have you been talking to your brother?’
She quirked a brow. ‘What? Why?’
‘Are we done, Fire Lord? I was enjoying the lunch break with your uncle before Taki almost literally dragged me down the hall.’
‘You’re not taking this seriously!’
‘Urg, Zuko, I’m taking it very seriously. I just refuse to talk to you when you speak at me instead of to me!’ She was stern now; iron and steel and he saw the ghost of a crown in the decidedly Fire Nation updo over her shoulder. ‘I’ve only been back in the capital officially for a week and you’ve been treating me like one of your servants or councilmen; ordering me around, telling me what I can and can’t do. Kidnapping me from my lunch with your uncle.’
He’s careful here; Uncle Iroh warned him about these traps, traps a younger Zuko would have barged on into with all the weight of a rampaging kimodo rhino. The old man’s insistence on what he called “the ways of tea and women” talks were starting to pay off in spades.
‘Why do you do it?’ he asked instead, cooling the heat of his temper. ‘Why take it into your own hands?’
The iron in the water bender rusts over and turns to soft beach sand. ‘You know why I do it,’ she said plainly, tilting her head to one side.
He didn’t let the gentleness in her eyes soften him. ‘How long are you going to split your time between teaching and building in the South, diplomacy in the Earth Kingdom, and sneaking into my country to play vigilante?’ he asked bluntly. ‘You’re spreading yourself too thin, Katara. You can’t keep this up forever and at this pace you’ll never—’ He cut himself off hurriedly.
She narrowed her eyes. ‘I’ll never what?’
‘Er, have time to dedicate to your projects back home.’
‘Was that really what you were going to say?’
‘Are you sticking with that answer?’
She drummed her fingers against the deep blue tribal robes over her thigh. ‘You need the freedom that the Painted Lady can offer,’ she told him firmly. ‘She’s not bound by politics and, frankly, gets the job done much more quickly than your ministers ever could. But she could use some help.’ Zuko was wary of the devious sparkle catching light in her eyes. ‘I hear the Blue Spirit is very accomplished at getting into places he shouldn’t.’
‘You can’t be serious.’
‘Think of it this way,’ she suggested, stepping forward to run her thumb over his bottom lip. ‘The sooner the Painted Lady clears Ozai’s loyalists and the war profiteers from the city, the sooner I know you’re safe and can focus on my projects at home.’ She held his gaze with ease; it had been a long time since he’d the power to resist her. ‘At that pace, I might be ready to answer that question you keep asking me.’
She followed her thumb with a brief tease of a kiss, leaning back just as he tried to deepen it. ‘Is this what you’ve been learning during your apprenticeship to Bato? How to get your own way with kisses?’
She may have been dressed in the blues of her people but, with that look in her eyes, she burned with the element of his nation. ‘Oh no, Fire Lord Zuko, that was a diplomatic tactic of my own invention.’
‘Some tactic,’ he muttered, caught by the gleam on her lips. ‘Wear the necklace I carved you.’
Katara grinned and stepped back. ‘Ask me from behind the mask.’
Zuko clicked his tongue as she bowed low and made to leave. ‘Fine. I’ll meet you after dinner,’ he growled, grabbing a handful of her formal Water Tribe robes and pulling her to him. ‘By the fullmoon maple in my private garden.’
She melted into his kiss this time, returning it with just as much enthusiasm. She’d only been in the Fire Nation for a week officially (three unofficially, to disguise her presence in the city coinciding with the Painted Lady’s activities) and very little of that time had been spent together. Though their relationship was known to family and friends, hosting a foreign delegate in his chambers for weeks on end wouldn’t be an act befitting a Fire Lord. Nor would kissing in corridors. Or offices.
They took their moments where they could.
‘I can’t believe you’re actually going along with this,’ Katara sang gleefully as they darted into the courtyard of the Abbey of the Painted Lady. The abbey’s patron spirit was no coincidence. Katara had come across the nunnery upon first starting her mission in the shadows; she needed somewhere discrete to stay when in the city “unofficially.” It was only after Sage Aoi granted her humble quarters in exchange for her help healing the sick that she recognised the Painted Lady, a far cry from the figure that had haunted her second visit to the Foggy Swamp.
Katara traced the pale billowing dress and crimson face markings. ‘This woman,’ she said to Sister Meki, the nun showing her around. ‘Who is she?’
Meki bowed to the icon. ‘She is the Painted Lady, miss, our patron spirit.’
Katara frowned. ‘I’ve seen her before. In a vision.’ In a swamp, whilst looking for your Fire Lord.
‘Indeed, miss? She is one of the patron spirits of women, keeper of women’s knowledge, known to guide her supplicants in matters of justice, love, and destiny.’ The older woman brushed her thumb over the icon. ‘You are blessed to have received a vision of her.’
Zuko, his face hidden behind the mask of the Blue Spirit, slipped through the doorway beside her like a shadow. ‘Compromise,’ he replied shortly, peering back the way they’d come.
Katara was gleefulness itself. ‘It’s been over a year since I’ve seen you do anything other than Fire Lord at people. Don’t tell me it’s not nice to get out into the city and take action,’ she teased, hoisting herself onto the outhouse roof below her bedroom.
The Blue Spirit did not deign to reply, but she saw the lightness in his step, the one missing these days with the weight of his responsibilities, the gridlock of politics, the unease of four assassination attempts in eighteen months. He bent at the knee, offering her his hand. ‘Let me help you up.’
She didn’t question how he’d make the climb; he’d visited her here under the cloak of night enough times to know he could climb through the window unassisted. Smiling beneath the crimson zukin over the lower half of her face, Katara let him boost her up the wall and into the sparse bedroom.
It was exactly the sort of room to be expected of a nun’s abbey; the sliding shoji window was the only source of natural light or extravagance in the humble room. The mud render on the walls was pale, the rice straw mat neatly woven but fraying now with age. The only furniture was a square short-legged table and zabuton in the corner and, beside the bamboo sliding door of the closet, a heavy wooden chest secured with an iron lock.
While the Blue Spirit appeared on the window ledge and stepped into the room, Katara was already kneeling before the chest, drawing water from the pitcher on the table and freezing it in the shape of the lock’s internal mechanism. No permanent key existed for this chest; she took the secrecy of her alter-ego’s identity very seriously.
A finger ghosted down her cheek, pulling the zukin away from her face, and continuing to trace down her neck. ‘No,’ she told the wandering hand sternly, pulling the altered Painted Lady costume from the chest. ‘Wait by the window while I get changed.’
A sigh preceded the hand’s withdrawal from its journey to her waist and Katara pulled the neatly folded bundle open. While the river spirit’s true depiction wore a long white, flowing gown under a broad-brimmed straw hat, Katara had made some adjustments to the spirit’s outfit for her own requirements of stealth and speed. In place of the Lady’s hat was a thick band of deep burgundy, marked with a distinctive crescent moon, that spanned her forehead and held her long hair down and out of her eyes. Over her fitted black shirt and trousers, she donned a light shift in the Painted Lady’s style but with twin splits up the thigh to allow for easy movement. The zukin— red to match the headband— she kept up around her mouth. The rest of her face, shoulders, and chest were crimson stripped in the Painted Lady’s distinctive swirls.
‘Toph told me to tell you that she got rid of the barrels,’ she said to the surly figure behind her. ‘I can’t believe she brought them into the palace knowing what was in them. I should have been more specific when I told her to stash them somewhere no one would find them.’
‘Yes, you should have.’
Katara sketched the last of the crimson swirls over her cheeks and checked her reflection in the mirror under the lid of the chest. ‘Take it up with Toph,’ she muttered, closing the chest and standing. ‘I’m just passing on the message.’
Zuko scowled at her, his mask dangling from his fist, but when she turned to him he melted like ice in the sun. ‘Well? What do you think?’
He turned his glower to the floor, shrugging. ‘You look… The Painted Lady usually has a big hat.’
‘Not if she wants her peripheral vision clear, she doesn’t.’ She grinned at him, adjusting the two hidden water canteens beneath her shift. ‘Come on, Fire Lord. We have conspirators to catch!’
The Dragonbone Catacombs— resting place of all Fire Lords, Zuko’s predecessor excepted— were a cold and unfriendly place despite the many roaring torches mounted in brackets of bone. After they were forced to secret themselves behind a marble dragon statue for the third time, Zuko assured Katara that the Catacombs were usually deserted.
‘I didn’t expect there to be so many people around,’ he breathed as another figure in hood and cloak passed down the long corridor beyond their hiding spot. ‘And none of them Fire Sages.’
‘It’s actually happening,’ she whispered, pressing back against the statue. ‘The meeting. I’m finally going to catch those murderous cowards…’
She shot him a disgusted look. ‘Excuse me?’
‘Technically, they haven’t actually murdered me.’ He raised the blue and white mask to whisper.
‘Do you really want to get into an argument about semantics, right now?’
He dropped the wooden mask back into place. ‘No.’
Once the hallway was empty and silent, two shadows dashed from behind the white dragon and flew down the corridor, sneaking left around the corner in pursuit of the last hooded figure to pass by. The caverns wound deeper into the volcano, downwards, until the walls were hot to the touch and a neat trench to one side of the path ran slowly with bubbling sulphurous water.
When raised voices bounced back down the corridor with the flickering of torchlight, Zuko pulled Katara into one of the decorative alcoves, squeezing in beside a bronze statue of a Fire Lord so old his plaque had worn away with the years.
‘Just around that bend,’ he whispered in her ear, a trickle of sweat itching in his hair, ‘the corridor widens into a cavern called the Dragonbone Shrine. They must be there.’
She nodded, her burgundy forehead bumping against his mask. ‘Is there anywhere to hide?’
He wracked his memory of the ancient room; spiral columns lining the walls, an alter by the far wall, prayers hung on wire suspended between the columns, elaborately painted screens that sectioned—
‘The screens.’ He grinned under the mask. ‘The last time I was here, after my grandfather’s funeral, there were screens painted with his greatest accomplishments all around the room.’
Katara nodded, peering down the corridor as the voices quieted down. ‘You remember the plan? Can you do it?’
The thrill of excitement in the face of danger mixed with the heady pleasure of finally taking action against his enemies made his pulse thunder like a drug in his veins. ‘For you, my lady.’
He took perverse delight in the blush he watched rise above her zukin. ‘Having fun?’ she asked, her blue eyes a hurricane in the flickering light of the corridor. ‘Finally?’
He was having fun. And he’d have more in celebration of their victory later that night. ‘Let’s go.’
They slunk like shadows, hiding in the lower light beneath the torches. The tightening of his nerves kept Zuko’s feet light, his hearing sharp as he first peered then edged around the corner, pressing himself back against the wall as he approached the open archway.
In the centre of the great cave, a group knelt at a low table arguing viciously amongst themselves. With a blow he felt in his stomach, Zuko recognised the loudest of the figures: Admiral Choi Hao, an old friend of his uncle’s, and one of Zuko’s staunchest supporters in his push for reforms of the Fire Nation’s military and navy.
‘That viper-weasel,’ he cursed under his breath; anger and betrayal joined the adrenaline dancing in his veins.
‘If Itsuki talks,’ the hooded figure closest to the masked pair by the door was saying.
‘Why did he keep the execution order after commissioning the deed?’ a woman demanded. ‘What kind of imbecile plays at treason and doesn’t take every precaution to protect himself?!’
‘Our incumbent ruler doesn’t hold with torture,’ Hao said calmly, opening his arms, palms upwards. ‘Itsuki won’t betray us under the threat of mere questions and prison. He will hold his silence and bide his time. In the interim, we have bigger problems to resolve.’
Katara joined Zuko by the entrance to the cavern, flattening herself against the wall. ‘Hao,’ she hissed, too loudly in her fury. ‘That lying worm!’
He nodded once, trying to place the other voices in the room.
‘Stuff the plan,’ she seethed, blue eyes burning brightly. ‘We can take them.’
He ached to. Every muscle in his body was tensed and ready to produce fire so hot, none of them would even think about betraying him ever again. The boy he’d been two years ago would have. But the man he was today stared into fierce blue eyes that had dedicated countless hours slinking through the muck and the mire of these traitors to protect him.
And now he had to calm his fury to protect her.
‘No. Hao might be old, but he’s a skilled fire bender. We need to take them by surprise and carry out the original plan.’ It’s a good plan, he’d told her unwillingly back at the abbey. Not because he hadn’t wanted to praise her cunning or acknowledge her careful work over the last few months— he praised her problem-solving after every summit or council they both sat on. No, he was frightened of encouraging anything to do with the Painted Lady; he couldn’t stomach her putting her safety and reputation on the line for him.
‘Fine. I suppose it would be a waste of a perfectly good plan.’ She flicked her gaze to the cavern. ‘No screens.’
She was right. There was nothing for them to hide behind. ‘That’s going to be a problem.’
‘No, it won’t.’ A smirk stole up into the water bender’s eyes. ‘I’ll improvise. Go.’
With a deep breath— drawn down deep into his belly, stoking his inner fire— Zuko reached across the Dragonbone Shine, past the conspirators, and into the torches lining the far wall. With a stiff grasping movement, half of them went out.
A cloying wave of fog spilled into the cavern and the figures at the table fell uneasily silent.
‘What in the world?’
‘Tohru, light the torches, I can hardly see a thing.’
‘This is bad, Admiral…’
Hao’s voice rose above the confusion. ‘Who was last to arrive? Misaki? Were you followed?’
A woman’s voice, raised in fear. ‘What? No! Of course not.’
At the edges of the room, under the cover of humidity and the low light, a water bender and the Fire Lord stole closer to their quarry through slowly spreading mist. Too late the conspirators thought to make for the corridor; it was blocked by a wall of sheer ice.
‘It’s here! The Painted Lady!’
‘Agni protect us!’
Katara let the mist lick around her ankles but cleared the air between herself and the conspirators. Let them catch sight of her, point and cry, their faces bleached white. Even Hao and General Tohru looked discomposed.
She didn’t blink as she raised a hand, pointing it at them, glowering. ‘Traitors,’ she spat in the rasping tone she reserved to disguise her voice. ‘Thieves and betrayers.’
The marchioness Misaki dropped to her knees in a kow tow. ‘A thousand apologies to your honour, mistress spirit,’ she babbled hysterically.
‘That’s no spirit,’ Hina, the leader of the metalworkers’ guild, shouted, her dark eyes scowling.
‘No, indeed,’ Hao agreed. ‘You are most definitely flesh and bone, are you not, my dear?’
Katara didn’t reply; she only had to keep their attention until Zuko was in position. ‘Why?’ she rasped, drawing the dagger at her waist carefully. ‘What reasons do you have for betraying your country, your Fire Lord, and your people? This is the only chance you have to make your appeal.’ She let the threat hang between them as the fog bellowed and the ice groaned in the heat. ‘Make it count.’
‘I’m afraid we are under no obligation to make such an explanation, young woman,’ Hao said as though they were simply discussing poetry or the Ember Island Players most recent flop. ‘I hope you never find yourself in the position of having to make such an explanation to the real Painted Lady. The spirits do not suffer mortals to wear their likeness.’
Katara had made enough offerings to her patron’s shrine at the abbey to feel safe from such superstition. ‘This is your last chance, Admiral Hao,’ she hissed in her river spirit’s voice. ‘Confess.’
But the sly old man was cocking his head, eyeing her like a puzzle to be solved. ‘You’re not from here, are you, girl?’ He glanced from the mist to the ice at his back, comprehension rising like the sun in his eyes. ‘You’re a water bender.’
She didn’t move, didn’t speak.
Hao took a step forward. ‘Master Katara?’
Marchioness Akane looked aghast. ‘That water peasant from the south?’
‘Quiet,’ Hao chided without looking away from the crimson figure before him. ‘The colours of my people look well on you, Master Katara, but you must know, we can never allow your scarred friend to destroy our proud Nation.’
He likes the sound of his own voice more than Sokka, she thought dryly, spinning the dagger in hand. ‘Is that so, Choi Hao?’ she asked in bored tone.
He pursed his lips at the breach in protocol. ‘You must understand—’
‘That is where you’re wrong, Hao,’ she interrupted smoothly, taking a threatening step forward. ‘You and your friends are the ones who have misunderstood. Azula is dead, Ozai is never, never coming back, and the world is moving away from their legacy faster than you can imagine. You’ve chosen the wrong side, you see,’ she continued in a silken tone. ‘And for the rest of us to move forward, you need to get out of the way.’
Zuko struck like his sister’s lightning, quick and deadly. The pommel of his dao swords knocked the two war industry representatives’ unconscious before anyone noticed him looming out of the mist behind them. Katara used the confusion of his attack to freeze the other five conspirators’ in place, right up to their knees.
After that, it took Zuko mere moments to bind their hands behind their backs.
‘I’m sure you’ve heard of the Blue Spirit,’ she continued as though nothing had happened. Deftly, she pulled the zukin down, feeing her face, to return Hao’s furious glower with a grin. ‘A friend I made in the Earth Kingdom who loves peace as much as I do. He doesn’t talk much, but if you give him reason to, he’s as deadly with those blade as he needs to be.’
Misaki was crying twin streams of tears. ‘You each have two choices in how this night ends,’ Katara told them, pacing closer. ‘The first option, infinitely better for all of you, is the simplest: you shoulder your dishonour, receive a fair trial, and accept the rulings of the court.’ She held up the dagger by its tip, thoughtfully. ‘However, if you would like to invoke your right to the Fire Nation’s seppuku and… take your own life…’ She frowned at this; never would a wrong doing be punished by ritual suicide in the South Pole. ‘Then you have that option also.
‘Your second choice, is less pleasant. While you are correct, Hao, that your Fire Lord does not hold with torture, that is not the practice of the Water Tribes,’ she lied smoothly, flicking the knife into the air to catch it by the hilt. Here, she lowered her voice ominously. ‘And your Fire Lord is not here. Never forget that you are all guilty of plotting against my friend with the intention of resuming a war I fought and bled to finish. If any of you so much as raises a hand to myself or my companion, you won’t live to see another sunrise. We’re a very long way underground here; it would take weeks for someone to find what’s left of you.’
Even Hao, a military man, had paled considerably. Katara nodded approvingly at their good sense to stay silent.
‘Hao, you may decide first.’
The proud old man lifted his chin slowly. ‘I invoke the right to seppuku,’ he said stiffly. ‘Assuming, of course, you understand your responsibility as witness?’
‘You have to,’ Zuko told her bluntly for the third time. ‘It’s Fire Nation custom among the noble and warrior class.’
‘It’s barbaric. And cruel! They should go to trial, like any other person would.’
But the Fire Lord was shaking his head, his expression gravely serious. ‘This isn’t something you can argue away, Katara, whether you like it or not, seppuku is a tradition older than the war. It’s like ice dodging for your people.’
‘You want me to give this knife to a man and watch him open his stomach with it?!’
‘Yes. If any of them choose to, that’s exactly what you should do. I mean, you don’t have to watch if it makes you uncomfortable…’ He trailed off under her scowl.
‘After everything that happened during the invasion, do you really think a little blood will make me swoon?’
He took a deep breath and covered her hand with his. ‘Honour is everything here,’ he explained quietly, loving the indignation in her eyes just as he knew it would need to calm, to balance out into acceptance, for her to play her role. ‘What these people have done, betraying me and their Nation… it brings their entire family into dishonour. Seppuku… removes that. The sacrifice of their life restores their family’s standing— no grudges held against the dishonoured man’s family, no feud for revenge against the Fire Lord. Everyone respects the rights and traditions of the seppuku. Here, it’s as sacred as the law.’
Katara watched the silver haired man just as fiercely as he regarded her. She had met his young daughter, his older son, knew of his wife— people he would leave behind without father and husband. Zuko’s voice bloomed in her memories once again: ‘If he lives, they all follow him into dishonour. Exile, prison, in some cases even execution. Unless he makes this sacrifice.
She nodded to him, her stomach clenching. ‘I understand, Admiral Hao.’
In the end, only the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady emerged from the Dragonbone Catacombs, the latter with tears of crimson paint running like blood down her face. She waited while Zuko slunk into the above ground temple and left the conspirators’ written confession and the Painted Lady’s signature red cloth by the front door, where it— and consequently the bodies in the Catacombs— would soon be found.
With the ghosts of seven people clinging to her elbows, Katara and Zuko returned to the palace directly. Through hidden doors and passages secreted in the narrow spaces behind the rich wooden panelled walls they crept; Zuko knew every trick opening, each hidden walkway that let them move unseen through the palace.
Before long, he was pressing a lick of flame into a sooty keyhole and a waist-high door opened into the Fire Lord’s personal suite.
The fire bender, blue and white mask grinning, waved her forward. ‘After you.’
The sitting room was silent. Empty. Only the candles flickered in their brass wall brackets when the drafty passageway opened. The walls in Zuko’s personal rooms had been painted white upon his coronation: sitting, tea, and bedroom all. Katara had been hosted in both the sitting and tea rooms before, both in her diplomatic role as Bato’s apprentice and privately, and she had revelled in the departure from crimson. It granted the room a lightness and serenity the palace otherwise lacked. But tonight, those pale walls felt charcoal dark.
She didn’t spare the sitting room a glance, making directly for the ornate double doors into the Fire Lord’s bedchamber and wet room beyond.
Discord stirred like a disturbed river bed, somewhere below her lungs.
The door to the wash room— less ornate, but still carved with the long sinuous bodies of dragons— opened on silent hinges and Katara reached with her bending for the water in the deep stone basin under a golden-edge mirror. The water sloshed and sighed, circling her shoulders likes a mother’s embrace. She leaned into the Rising Moon stance and the slosh became a roar as she washed the mess of tears and paint from her face.
And still, eddies of unease circled her spine.
The voice in the doorway jarred her smooth transition into the Midnight Blossom form, splashing half the water onto the cold stone floor. In the light of the fire in Zuko’s palm, the water on the floor was red as blood.
Crimson drops leaked from her tunic. ‘Can I borrow some clean clothes?’ she heard her voice ask; it echoed against the mosaic walls, flat and empty.
‘Of course.’ He disappeared from the mirror over the basin only to reappear a minute later at her side, red silk clutched in hand. He set down the clothes by the basin, crouching before her to gather the wet blood-stained tunic and pull it up over her head. It dropped to the ground with a wet slap, but Zuko was already undoing the ties at her waist, the knots at her throat.
She was still as ice in the tundra, but the breeze low in her gut was slowly building to a gale. ‘I don’t,’ she began, but the words lost their way somewhere around the lump in her throat.
‘I know,’ the fire bender muttered, pulling the stained leggings past her ankles.
‘They all chose it,’ she told the top of his head as he freed her feet from the trousers. ‘Every single one of them. They all have families— some of them are parents and they still… they cut their own…’
Zuko stood, holding her shaking hands out to slip the black wrap shirt down her arms. ‘I know,’ he said simply. ‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry?’ She whispered the word, tested its metal.
He didn’t respond.
‘Are things any better now?’ she pushed, hugging herself tightly when he released her arms.
‘Things are a hundred times better now,’ the fire bender assured her in a careful tone, circling her to work at the knots of her breast band. ‘A good portion of that you have direct responsibility for.’
A sob sucked at the air in her throat. ‘Sure, the world isn’t at war anymore but those people… those people were supposed to be working for the citizens of the Fire Nation, governing for them, making their lives easier. All they did was resist the war ending so they could buy a few more villas on Ember Island and then…’ In her mind’s eye, the seppuku knife slashed through silk and bamboo cotton to bloom crimson flowers on the cold stone floor of the Dragonbone Catacombs. ‘Is this what our lives will be? Hard work that end in an execution?’
Her wrappings loosened and Zuko pulled them up over her head, his hands gentle, slow. ‘Possibly,’ he muttered, the quiet despair in his voice playing like autumn leaves in the air. ‘Half the time I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.’
The words sliced like a knife to the belly; sharp and painfully true. ‘What do you do?’ she whispered, wiping at the tears that wouldn’t stop falling.
He avoided her eye, pulling the soft silk shift down over her head. ‘I write to you if you’re not here, talk to you if you are.’ Embarrassment curdled with vulnerability and bruised between them. ‘Or uncle, he was raised to be Fire Lord and is a better leader than I could ever be.’
Katara’s heart thumped loudly at the dejection— like skin rubbed raw— in Zuko’s eyes. ‘He doesn’t think so,’ she reminded him, stilling his fussing by laying her hand over his chest. ‘Nor do I. Or Sokka, or Suki, or Toph, Aang, Dad, your people…’
He shrugged; he’d believe it in the morning when he had to don a crown of flames and command a nation.
Katara sniffled, leaning into his hand when he wiped at the tears under her eyes. ‘What advice would your uncle give tonight?’
‘Patience. Something to do with patience…’ He sighed, though a ghost of a smile hid in the corner of his mouth. ‘He once told me that change is like watching a sunrise. At first you can’t see the dawn lightening; the landscape still appears dark. But before long you look back to the horizon and can see hills and trees and forest.’ He shrugged self-consciously. ‘I don’t know what it means, really, but—’
Zuko glanced down at her in shock. ‘What?’
‘Shh!’ she insisted, straining for the memory, that distant feeling of having heard those words before rising…
The Swamp’s jungle clears long enough for a gentle breeze to tickle and cool the sweat beading along her arms. She shouldn’t, she should be conserving the water in her canteen, but she takes the time to guzzle water from her canteen. The humidity sips at her energy, licks the sharpness of her strength down to a blunt edge.
She cannot lose hope now. They must be around here somewhere. Sokka. Aang…
‘Uncle thinks you should rest,’ her apparition advises from the opposite side of the small clearing. ‘He’s right, you know? You’re burning out. Why don’t you take a week, visit your grandmother?’
The girl in Water Tribe blues sighs, a bubble of panic making its way out of her chest as laughter. ‘Sure! I’ll just magically find my way out of this stupid swamp, ignore your father’s war, and ride on home as though nothing’s happened!’
The fire bender’s face softens, his hair is long and loose around his jaw. She finds she can’t hold his gaze. ‘When you watch the initial stages of dawn, without a clock or time piece, you may not be able to recognise whether the sky is really lightening for a while. You can still see the stars and the shades of the night darken the landscape. It is that way with any beginning.’ A soft smile spread up his cheeks like the rising dawn. ‘Gradually, it becomes clear to your senses that the light is definitely increasing and as you continue to watch, the world slowly wakes up. Soon, the first rays of sun show. A new day has begun.’ He has crossed the clearing, freezing her in place long enough to place a warm hand on both her shoulders. ‘Your projects will take time, my love, make sure you don’t lose yourself in the process.’
In the distance, she can hear them, her brother and her Avatar. ‘Don’t call me that,’ she whispers, her lower lip trembling.
His head tilts to one side. ‘Call you what?’
‘Love.’ She almost chokes on the word. ‘Your love.’
His fingers raise goose bumps on her neck when he draws back. ‘One day, our love will be all that keeps us going.’ He says it like a promise, a vow. ‘When you have blood on your hands and despair saps my determination, it’s love that—’
Aang bursts into the clearing with a rush of wind and Zuko flickers from view.
‘Katara!’ the monk shouts in relief, sprinting to the ashen water bender’s side. She sobs onto the Avatar’s shoulder and holds her brother tight enough that she won’t feel her own arms shake.
In the Fire Lord’s wet room, Katara curled her fingers into Zuko’s shirt, tugging him closer. ‘You meant now,’ she breathed, looking up excitedly. He looked perplexed to say the least, but he gripped her arms all the same; there was something electric in the water bender that drew him into her mood.
‘I meant what?’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘I think you’re in shock, Katara, come sit down.’
She let him guide her to the crimson coverlet of his bed, but she didn’t stay seated for long. She crawled onto his lap, marvelling at the hand fate had dealt them all those months and years ago in the humidity of the Foggy Swamp. She’d once cursed the visions that had thrown her life’s course into question, fought and resisted them, the choices that had been taken from her. But as she took Zuko’s face between her palms— smooth skin against her right hand, knotted scar against her left— she kissed him and whispered ‘yes’ to a question he’d been asking her for six months now.
He responded immediately with a hand on the base of her spine, pressing her closer.
It roared in her veins, the strength she knew she would spend in service to not only the Fire Nation, but the world; there was no other way, and for the first-time peace settled over the old grievances with her fate.
Zuko broke the kiss first, the gold of his eyes a thin ring, but flaming brighter than fire. ‘Are you sure?’ he whispered, chasing the shiver up her spine with his fingers.
With something like ‘I love you’ on her lips, she responded. ‘It would be my honour.’