“There you are!”
Zuko nearly faltered, mid-form, but caught himself and used the fumbled momentum to turn his kick into a roll. He bounced back upright with a sweep of his feet, making the split-second decision not to stop his practice.
“Zuko.” He could hear the way his mother stood with her arms crossed. “Why haven’t you dressed yet?”
Still not turning to face her, Zuko shifted from the more aggressive spark katas to a smoother smoke stance. “Still practicing,” he announced shortly, breathing out and sending flames dancing along his knuckles through the forms.
“Zuko,” his mother said again, sharp enough to finally make him stop.
He rolled his shoulders one by one and raked fingers back through his hair to his phoenix plume before glancing back at her. Yep. She was definitely displeased with him. Her mouth pulled into a tight frown, and though her hands were folded into the wide sleeves of her robe, Zuko could easily visualize her fingers drumming against the opposite arm. He turned to face her fully, then dropped his gaze to the ground at her feet.
The edge of her robes shifted a little as she moved, then filled his vision as she walked over to him. “It’s okay to be nervous,” his mother told him gently.
“I’m not nervous,” he denied, even though he knew she could hear it in his voice anyway. Zuko let out a breath. “This has been planned for years. I… can’t be nervous.”
Her hand reached out and lifted his chin so that he was meeting her eyes again. She smiled at him. “That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be nervous. No matter how much you prepare for something, it’s always different when the day arrives. I felt much the same way when I first came to the capital.”
His mother hummed her agreement, her hand moving to tug at his hair with fondness. “I’d only met your father twice before, and only once after my parents accepted the proposal. And I’d never met the rest of the royal family. It was all very imposing.” She tilted her head a bit, her smile turning a bit sly. “So, I’d be willing to bet that our arriving guest will probably be just as nervous as you, if not more.”
Tension didn’t quite leave Zuko at her words, but it eased a little. His mother always knew what it was he needed to hear, even having just celebrated reaching his majority. He was a long way away from the little kid who burrowed into his mother’s lap during a thunderstorm, but Zuko wasn’t sure he’d ever be too old to take his mother’s encouragement to heart.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he tamped down the anxiety still jittering through him. “Well, I suppose I should make her feel as welcome as I can, then.”
“I think that’s a very good plan. Now, will you come inside and clean yourself up?” She made to poke at his side, which he nimbly avoided. “I’m not sure showing up sweaty and half-dressed will make a very good first impression.”
Zuko laughed. “Are you sure? It might make her feel more comfortable if I look sillier than everyone else.” He took a few steps back to her as if to drape himself over her.
She laughed, lifting her hands to keep him from leaning all over her. “Go clean yourself up and get dressed,” she chided him without malice. “You will have plenty of time to be a sweaty mess after the welcoming ceremony.”
Grinning, Zuko stopped and watched her smooth the front of her robes again. Without warning, she reached out and ruffled his hair, rendering it completely unkempt. His hands flew to his hair in protest, and she laughed.
“Zuko, you must do something with your hair. Honestly! It’s not befitting a Prince of the Fire Nation.”
She waved dismissively as she turned and headed back toward the eastern wing of the royal grounds where they lived, and he followed suit soon after. His uncle and cousin, as direct heirs to the throne, lived in the western wing, while his grandfather lived in the main palace proper in the Fire Lord’s official suites. Zuko’s sister constantly complained about having to be relegated to the east, the lesser side, as she called it, but Zuko liked it. He could go out of his balcony every morning with the sunrise and meditate with no interruptions, and he even had a clear view of Lake Hizari.
After he’d cleaned himself, dressed in semi-formal robes, and his hair was retied in a dragon’s knot, Zuko dismissed the lingering servants. He went to his wide balcony and leaned on the rail, looking at the spread of Lake Hizari. The mid-afternoon sun danced gold across the lake’s surface. Would she like it here? he found himself wondering. She was coming from such a long way, everything would probably be very different. Anxiety twisted itself into another knot in his stomach, and he was glad he hadn’t eaten anything that morning.
A soft knock came at his door, followed by a servant’s subdued voice. “My Prince, the ships are approaching the harbor and will be docking soon.”
The words hit him muffled, and after a few seconds of pain, Zuko realized he was gripping the rail so tight his knuckles were leeched white. He very consciously let go, only for his hands to tremble in the air. He felt like he was going to throw up.
All at once, Zuko snapped out of his thoughts and managed to contain a nervously high chuckle. He drew in a deep breath and released it, mustering any shreds of composure that he could. When he finally turned and crossed the room, the servant then led him the long and winding way out to a palanquin, which then took him down through the bustling Harbor City. Zuko normally would like to keep the curtains open to see the city, but that was the last thing on his mind. All too soon, it seemed, the palanquin came to a halt and he was expected to step out. His heart thundered in his ears and he just prayed that he would be able to keep his feet beneath him as he exited, joining his mother and the rest of his family.
This was it.
Before him, three ships bedecked in rich furs and colorful bunting in every shade of blue he could have imagined loomed above them in the harbor. Great, long beams of wood creaked, and the sails flapped in the wind, and Zuko was sure he was going to throw up.
The Water Tribe had officially arrived.
Beyond the wooden walls of her shared cabin, the ship thumped against the docks. She could hear the scuffle of crew’s feet on deck, the clatter of pulleys and riggings, the muffled toll of bells. The ship itself was at peace within the harbor. Without the wind pushing and the currents pulling, a calm had settled, allowing a gentle sway and none of the violent tossing brought by the open sea.
After three long weeks, twenty-one monotonous days, they’d arrived. They’d left behind the cold of the south and found warmer waters in the Fire Nation’s Harbor City.
Katara wished for a blizzard.
Her eyes burned and her reflection blurred in the small mirror of her vanity. The delicate features of her little sister, Takaani, melted together in a blend of fuzzy blue and chocolate skin. She couldn’t see the girl’s slim fingers anymore, but Katara felt as Takaani pinned the last braid into place with practiced care.
“All done,” Takaani said, tracing the woven strands of Katara’s hair to the bun atop her head. Blue and gold beads were interspersed in the braids, and the pattern continued throughout the rest of the wavy locks that fell down Katara’s back. “Two braids for the Tribes.” There was a smile in her voice, a sense of awe for the fairytale it was to watch her sister marry a prince. Katara could only blame herself, as she’d filled the little girl’s head with such dreams. “And one for Zuko.”
Blinking, Katara turned in her seat and pulled Takaani’s fingers from her tresses. She tucked her sister’s hands under her own. “Prince Zuko, miki,” she admonished gently. “Remember his title.”
“Yes, sister. I will.” Takaani nodded with bubbling urgency, then pulled away from Katara with a grin. “I’ve practiced my futsuurei, too,” the twelve-year-old announced, bending at the waist. Her light blue eyes were focused on Katara, awaiting approval, but her head was bowed and her palms rested on her thighs in proper form. “See?”
The tears she’d forced away returned, swelling with pride and love for her sister, with fear and apprehension for herself. Katara’s voice was strained, “You will impress everyone,” and Takaani caught the tension despite Katara’s attempt to hide it. The girl straightened, concern pulling at her brow. Katara recognized the telltale signs and pulled her sister against her breast. “Don’t cry, miki.”
“Only because I’ll be so very far away from you,” Katara whispered. She nuzzled Takaani’s head, striving for an air of calm, even as it became harder and harder to let her sister go. “You’ll have Mama, and Father, too. Hama will help you become a master, like me. And, Sokka will be there, with Sesi. All too soon, you’ll have a niece or a nephew.”
A cleared throat interrupted the moment. Katara released Takaani and looked to the door, finding her mother’s sad smile. “Your brother has managed to place bets with all the crew.”
“Let me guess…” she pretended to ponder, rolling her eyes, “fifty gold pieces it’s a boy?”
Kya’s expression lightened only slightly, and before Katara could protest, her mother shooed Takaani along, “My little snowflake, will you run up and find your father? Stay with him… and count all the gilded rooftops so you can tell Katara and I about them.”
“You promise you’ll listen while we ride in the palanquin?”
“Yes, darling. You can tell us about everything you see.”
Happy with that answer, and thrumming with excitement, Takaani dashed into the galleyway, footsteps pattering away. Her absence left a hole, one Katara felt so strongly her heart had to be missing from her chest, gone with her sister. She stared out the open door, wishing she could run along the wooden planks and laugh at the silly, sloped rooves and dive into the ocean… drown in the ocean.
“Katara, my love,” her mother vied for Katara’s attention, a hard-won battle that only ended when Kya approached the vanity and nudged Katara’s chin. “The crew has lowered the gangway. Everyone’s awaiting your appearance.”
“Is it too late to run?”
She met her mother’s eyes in the mirror, though Katara already knew the answer. It’d been too late for ten years. Since she was eight, since her first trip with her family to the Fire Nation’s capital and her first (and only) meeting with her betrothed, there’d been no chance to out-distance this day. It was coming… and now, it had come. In two weeks, she’d be a married woman, the wife of a man she didn’t know, a princess of a nation that wasn’t her own.
Katara’s gaze fell to the many pins and brushes that scattered her vanity—all of these, all of her belongings, would be left here. She’d be required to embrace the customs of her husband’s home— as her mother tried to calm her nerves with a gentle tone.
“I wish I could empathize with you, Daughter. I knew your father before we married. I loved him. I don’t know what it is to be in your position,” Kya murmured. “But, Katara, you are so strong.”
“Except for when it matters.” She stood to get away from her mother and shook her head. Her hands fisted in her silk garments to hide their tremor. “Except for right now.”
“No one will fault you for being afraid. Prince Zuko… I’d be surprised if he didn’t feel the same. He said as much in his most recent letter to you, didn’t he?“
“From what I could decipher. His knowledge of Aisu-kei isn’t exactly comprehensive.“
"Mmm,” the disapproving sound made Kya’s lips pucker. “Learning our language isn’t his responsibility. How is your An-kadai? Have you been practicing? I know your tutor sent you off with a number of lessons.” Katara shrugged, prompting her mother to scold her. “You’ll have to master it sooner or later, Katara. It’s of the utmost importance that you communicate with and serve your husband. Your father will not be pleased if this match turns out poorly."
“I’m not— my father—” Katara stammered in frustration, just barely holding her tongue. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair, being sent away, being left behind. But such was her duty, no matter her thoughts on it.
She relinquished her bottom lip, then inspected her appearance for a final time. The braids winding ‘round her head framed her face well; the blush and kohl she’d applied made her eyes appear bright. The rich, royal blue silk wrapping her frame brought out lovely hues in her skin tone, which served to complement the simple, gold choker around her neck.
Katara fingered the jewelry. Would her husband replace it? Would she wear something more intricate? She wasn’t sure of the customs to mark a married woman in this land, but whatever such customs were, she’d embrace them.
Leaving her quarters, Katara climbed the steps to the top deck with shaky legs. Her mother provided some support, holding her hand until Takaani bounded to her, taking the other. Katara offered a hint of a smile. It quickly vanished when she joined her father, brother, and sister-in-law. They waited patiently in the center of the deck, all dressed in formal blues.
Kya slipped into place beside Hakoda, her arm threaded through his. They led the small procession, followed closely by Sokka and Sesi, who took to the gangway with Katara and Takaani—the unmarried women, and therefore, the lowliest of the family—on their heels. Katara didn’t drop her little sister’s hand until her feet hit the dock.
Don’t fall, she repeated, her tutor’s nasally tone echoing as she walked. Move slowly. Perform your futsuurei with Takaani, after your father and mother, and brother and sister. Speak clearly. Katara pulled her eyes up from the wooden planks, moving along the docks towards a half-moon of palanquins, and the royals who’d ridden in them.
She looked, as quickly as she could while her father greeted the Fire Nation’s head family, for the man she was meant to marry—
Sokka and Sesi bowed, prompting Takaani’s futsuurei. The girl was nearly seamless; then again, she didn’t understand the gravity of Katara’s position. She wouldn’t until it was her turn to marry. A smile adorned her plump cheeks. Takaani joined Hakoda and Kya to the right of Katara, leaving an unhindered view.
—she found him. Prince Zuko.
Red robes draped around him. Strands of jet-black hair fell unruly and unwanted to his cheekbones and neck. His face was perfectly aristocratic: a thin, straight nose, high, arched cheekbones, a pretty, plump pout. And his eyes, such stunning golden eyes, watched her with undivided attention as she bent at the waist and cast her gaze down.
“My Prince,” Katara said in near perfect An-kadai. She’d practiced these lines a thousand times. “Such a victory it is that Fire Lord Azulon and my father, Head Chief Hakoda, have allowed me this union. I have been blessed to have shown promise as a wife and mother that I may be matched with you. I pray to Tui and La, I will serve you well, Prince Zuko.”
Hearing An-kadai come from his betrothed was a pleasant surprise, and Zuko couldn’t help the widening of his eyes. He recognized the Water Tribe spirits she named from his tutoring lessons, and the slight accent she had made his native tongue have a musical quality that it didn’t normally.
Her words, however, were a little off-putting, but his heart was pounding so much that he didn’t have the forethought to spare a moment’s rumination on them.
The young woman before him stood in a dress of various blues, with snow-white accents. Beads of gold and blue dotted braids winding through her hair, flashing in the sun. Distantly, Zuko wondered what they were made of. The only things more vibrant than the rich dyes of her robe–which looked similar to many ào dái he was familiar with–were her eyes. They tugged at him like the tide, set as they were against the rich, warm taupe of her skin. When he was ten and wanted absolutely nothing to with girls, their parents forced them to meet and greet one another. She hadn’t known any An-kadai then, nor he any inkling of Aisu-kei, but he remembered how he noticed how blue they were then, too. He tried to imagine seeing them every day, and wasn’t sure he could.
The welcoming ceremony continued on without any regard to Zuko’s internal convolutions.
Katara’s futsuurei was impeccable, and he returned one of his own, being careful to dip slightly lower than he normally would, in keirei. Even though his tutor warned that she may not comprehend the delicate intricacies of ojigi, Zuko wanted her to know that she was honored here. If she was going to be his wife, he would treat her as the equal she was, not some clueless foreigner. He straightened and, feeling eyes on him, risked a glance to the side. His father was looking at him, rather than any of their guests. Zuko felt the pit of his stomach drop and any confidence he might have felt frayed.
“Taokha Katara,” Zuko began. The thought to reply back in Aisu-kei struck him, to show her the same open welcome she had by speaking in his tongue, but the look from his father made him doubt that choice. She spoke An-kadai so flawlessly, he was suddenly sure he would stumble over a word and shame himself and his family, not to mention her and her language as well. So he stuck to his own. “It is with the utmost honor that we welcome you to the Fire Nation. Agni himself smiles upon your arrival, and marks an auspicious beginning to our union. It is my greatest hope that you will be happy here.”
It was only by the grace of his formal etiquette that Zuko managed to maintain a formal façade. Next to her words, his sounded as if they fell short in delivery and elegance, and he knew he’d disappointed his father. That was one of the things he’d always been good at. His eyes fell to the ground.
A small nudge from his mother made him look up again, and he remembered himself. Zuko greeted the rest of her family with proper eshaku, the angle significantly less than the one he’d given Katara. He thanked them for undertaking the long journey and told them that every need or want of theirs would be seen to while they were in the Fire Nation. Then, finally, the brief welcoming was officially over and he could hide back inside his palanquin again on the way back to the palace.
He’d made a fool of himself, he was sure.
The trip back simultaneously felt like it took a hundred years, and still was over far too quickly. Zuko wondered for a brief moment if he could slip out the back of the curtains and hide himself in the city. No. His father would find him, and then his anger would be a terrible thing to face. And, Zuko sighed, it would disappoint his mother. So, he drew himself up and lifted his chin. He would make her proud of him.
When he exited the palanquin, he saw Katara and her family leaving theirs with a little difficulty. After a moment’s confusion, he realized–they must not have palanquins in the south. Of course they didn’t. Palanquins in the snow and ice didn’t make any sense. Watching his betrothed and her family from a mild distance, Zuko wondered what they used instead. Maybe that was something he could ask her sometime.
It was then it struck him–this Water Tribe woman, his betrothed, Katara, she was here to live. With him.
A wave of nausea ran through him.
“Are you well, my Prince?”
A servant’s voice came from his side. Zuko swallowed and schooled his face into a neutral one before straightening his spine and nodding. He didn’t glance over at the servant. “I’m fine, thanks.”
Without waiting a moment longer, he continued on to the palace. He and Katara wouldn’t see one another again until the formal dinner to complete the welcome to the Fire Nation. She and her family were placed in a guest house separate from the palace, and given their own servants. Katara would, of course, have her own personal attendants after their wedding to see to whatever personal needs she might have, but some of Zuko’s family’s were appointed to the rest of her family for the duration of their stay. The guest house was used for all those marrying into the royal family, and was not placed too far from the main building itself, to the southeast still on the grounds proper. If Zuko stood on his balcony and leaned over it a bit, he could see the northern side of where Katara’s family would be staying for the next two weeks.
Though he was not Crown Prince by several steps of succession, Zuko’s wedding was still a royal one, and as such, held weight and pomp of its own. Despite not having any kind of direct hand in the planning of the ceremony or the two week-long celebration surrounding it, Zuko was well acquainted with most of the details of everything. Katara and her family would be given personal attendants each to instruct them and guide them through the ceremonies so that they were reading from the same scroll as he was, so to speak. Back in his rooms, Zuko frowned as he shrugged out of his robe.
So much weight was put on Fire Nation ritual, but he wasn’t marrying a Fire Nation woman, nor was she a commoner. He was sure the Water Tribe had their own traditions for marriages, and especially marriages of station. While he understood that the climate was completely different than her home, surely there could be accommodations made to blend in at least some traditions from the south? They were making this marriage to broker more connection between their two peoples, weren’t they? It would only make sense–and, Zuko thought, be polite–to have traditions from both their heritages used. He made a mental note to bring it up to his mother and the majordomos orchestrating everything.
He left the semi-formal robes he’d worn to welcome her and her family draped across a wide-backed chair, glad to be back in a simple happi and pants again. In the years since the betrothal was agreed upon, Zuko had been given a tutor to teach him the Water Tribe language, Aisu-kei, and of many of their customs and traditions. He’d learned, of course, but there had also been plenty of times he hadn’t paid as much attention as he could have. Until today, a wedding had seemed so… distant. Ten years distant. But, now it was here.
Zuko moved out to stand on his balcony again, feeling suddenly claustrophobic within the walls of his rooms. He leaned out over the rail, looking south and finding the guest house. From here he could clearly see the small forms of people milling about the house, carrying in the bundles of packed cargo Katara’s family had brought. There was a good amount of blue mixed in with the dulled red of the palace servants, and he realized Katara had brought her own entourage with her. The air plucked gently at the loose folds of his clothing and ends of his long hair. His mother had assured him he would have so much to do during the two weeks leading up to the actual ceremony that he wouldn’t have time to be worried, but here he was, finding time anyway. His stomach had never really untied itself from the knots it’d been in earlier, and he only felt more form.
How was he going to survive dinner tonight facing his betrothed for only the second time in their lives, let alone get ready to embark upon marrying her?
The home was… ostentatious.
There was no other way to describe it. Two servants led the family through heavy, double doors into an airy foyer dressed in reds and maroons, crowned by a gold leaf ceiling, and after a momentary shock, ostentatious jumped to the tip her tongue. Who needed this?
It wasn’t that she’d lived devoid of wealth. The South had aplenty; Aput, especially. Hundreds—no, thousands— came to the capital city from all over the world, bringing fine goods in exchange for expensive furs and handcrafted weapons, or the oil that fueled the Fire Nation’s ships. The guests were always treated with respect deserving of their status, given fur-lined bungalows with glowing hearths and feather-stuffed pillows, but even the finest of accommodations held nothing to this.
Pulling her gaze from the delicate dragons gracing the wood overhead, Katara wondered at her new husband, at her new home and his family’s obvious wealth. Would her quarters be like this? Was this display simply for her family’s purposed? Or would she be shown by her husband to something more plain? Something more indicative of her duty to him?
A hundred things drew her attention— from the dark floors that glistened with her reflection and furniture polished to a sheen, to the bamboo window shades with linen curtains fluttering in the breeze. Intricate paintings of landscapes and fancy paper took up wall space, showcasing Ba Sing Se and a dozen other cities she’d never seen. Flowers spilled from vases, giving the home a sweet perfume. And, ornate sconces lit every space untouched by the sun.
Tui and La, there was an overabundance of sun. It cast everything in a warm hue, highlighting the gold that wove through the sofa pillows and the many colors of the oriental rugs. It almost felt… happy, and that was all that mattered to her, not this opulence or her possible lack thereof. She only wanted happiness. And friendship. Maybe a child or two, but not for some time, if she had her way about such things. Thought, Katara knew, realistically, she’d be expected to heed her husband’s wishes.
Wandering away from the chatter of her family, Katara found a room that appeared dedicated to her. During the more recent years of their engagement, Prince Zuko had written to her occasionally, but more often, he sent her trunks filled with gifts. There’d be books, gowns, silks and threads for her own creative pursuits. Sometimes, he’d include local treats, like little paper sacks filled with these horrid, spicy flakes. Katara noticed a similar bag on the bed, set beside a pink áo dài and a red tube skirt, with its matching halter top.
She fingered the casual garment, then held the top up to her body and studied herself in a floor-length mirror. It would hardly cover her breasts, much less her stomach and arms. Was this the fashion?
“You can’t wear that to dinner.” A little giggle interrupted her thoughts, and Katara spied Takaani with her head poking through the door.
“I can’t? Why not?”
Takaani’s face broke into a wide grin and she skipped into Katara’s room. “Father will have a heart attack! And, Zuko will have an even more difficult time looking away from you. He certainly couldn’t stop staring when you greeted him.”
“Prince Zuko,” Katara corrected, though she couldn’t hide her blush.
“Prince Dreamy.” Takaani fell onto the bed with a light huff. Her eyes glazed over as she looked at the ceiling. “I have never seen a prettier man.”
“Miki, you’re hardly twelve.”
“And you’re lucky for it! Otherwise, I would ask Father to marry the Prince.”
Laughing quietly, Katara tossed aside the flimsy top and lay down beside her sister. She was grateful for the little girl’s naivete, as it kept the heaviness she felt on the ship at bay. She prayed that she’d be allowed to write Takaani—her father had implied that any connection to her former life was not her right—and then rolled to her side and combed her sister’s hair. Would this be the last time she could do this? Would the next time she found someone in bed beside her be when she lay with her husband? Would he comb her hair when the act was through? Or would he dismiss her to her own bedroom? She supposed she’d have her answer, in only three nights’ time.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Katara suggested, wanting to be rid of her thoughts. “It’s rumored the palace has a hundred gardens. Maybe one has a pond and we can practice your waterbending.”
After changing from her formal garments, and caving to Takaani’s pleas to try on the red skirt and coordinating top, the sisters slipped from the guest home unnoticed and set across the grounds. Katara felt self-conscious at first, dressed so brazenly, but the casual style of her clothing matched Takaani’s shift, and she found the beautiful color made her skin look rich. Plus, the servants milling about with various wedding preparations and assignments paid her no mind. She fit right in, aside from her bright, blue eyes and permanently awed expression.
And, the stories proved true. The grounds were beautiful. They spent an hour weaving among hedges and walking barefoot over the softest spreads of grass, and eventually, the pair found themselves on the eastern side of the palace, beneath a balcony that overlooked a large pond and a weeping willow tree. Turtleducks squawked as they approached. Takaani pouted that they had no bread to feed the animals, but Katara reminded her of their waterbending lesson, and the twelve-year-old chippered up.
It took a few corrections, but within a quarter hour, Takaani had her stance perfect. Katara prodded her sister in the side once more, checking her balance, then drew water from the pond and pushed it towards her sister.
They focused on the methodical push and pull mostly. In Katara’s opinion, and that of Master Hama, it was the most important aspect. If one understood how water moved, one could do anything with it. Maybe that was what made Katara such a natural, her ability to listen first, act second. She took to waterbending like a prodigy, then learned the arts of healing and bloodbending before the age of sixteen. Hama deemed Katara her pride and joy; Katara now hoped Hama would be pleased with Takaani.
With that thought, the sisters released their forms and sat by the water. The shade was comfortable, and a cool cross-breeze licked the sweat from their skin. Katara entertained her sister by making shapes with the water. Coy fish. Dragons. Flowers that crystallized with ice. As much as she loved fighting, Katara enjoyed the finer aspects of her bending, too. She told Takaani the names in An-kadai for different flowers she made. Jasmine. Lavender. Cherry Blossoms.
When it was time to walk back to her home for the next two days, Katara picked one of the real blossoms and tucked it behind her ear, offering another to Takaani.
Fortunately, the pink cherry blossom went unnoticed—or unminded-–by her father. Her mother said it looked lovely, as did Takaani, who’d pinned the blossom into Katara’s hair. And, while it wasn’t exactly traditional, the delicate petals matched the áo dài given to her by Prince Zuko and Katara thought it was a subtle nod to her appreciation for his gifts and his land.
Like herself, Katara’s family had donned garments more suitable to the Fire Nation’s climate. The humidity and heat lended to breathable fabrics, and Katara was remarkably pleased by how much more comfortable the pink áo dài was, compared to the dress she wore when she met the Prince. It fluttered in the gentle wind and wasn’t stuck to her skin when a servant led them through the palace, out to a private veranda.
It took all of second for Katara’s heart to thud right out of her chest.
The Royal family awaited them, positioned on cushions before a spread of delicacies and imported wine. Though none looked impatient, it was no less intimidating. Up from the table’s far end, Katara recognized the girl who must be Princess Azula, seated next to Prince Zuko. Beside him, sat his mother, Lady Ursa, followed by Prince Ozai—Katara shivered when she met his eye—then, Prince Iroh and his son, Lu Ten. At the table’s head, Fire Lord Azulon posed a dominating presence, and as Katara’s family were shown to their places, he greeted them formally.
“Welcome, Head Chieftain, Lady Kya. Such an honor it is to be graced by your presence… and meet the lovely young woman meant for my grandson.” The Fire Lord paused as Katara settled on her knees, positioned directly across from her betrothed. She met Prince Zuko’s gaze just as Lord Azulon said her name. “Katara.”
If Zuko hadn’t already known her name, he would have completely missed his grandfather’s announcing it. Usually one to pay careful attention to whatever his elder said, to better try and please his own father, it fell to a distance collision of syllables as he found himself transfixed. She sat directly across from him, and had exchanged her heavier Water Tribe clothes, for a sinh his mother had suggested he had sent to her rooms as a gift. Her advice had been excellent, because Katara looked lovely in it, and for the first time, he felt something strange catch in his throat.
He’d seen pretty Fire Nation girls before, of course, but there was something different about her. He didn’t think it was her eyes; though their blue was startlingly clear, he’d seen plenty of pretty Water Tribe girls, too. The families of Northern dignitaries often accompanied them, and he’d been called on to entertain a good number of them as part of his duties as a Prince.
Was it the way the pink of the flower complimented her dress and brought out russet warmth in her cheeks? Was it how surprisingly good the red of her sabai looked on her? Was it—
His mother’s nudge cut through his thoughts, and he tore his gaze away from Katara, feeling heat flood his cheeks. Despite his embarrassment, Zuko mustered a small smile for her, even though he didn’t really feel it. All this was too overwhelming, all at once. He’d been warned by his mother to expect this, but even so he wasn’t truly prepared. It was all he could do to find his voice to speak.
“I—would like to humbly offer a bowl of dragon sake,” Zuko said, remembering what was expected of him to do. He picked up a porcelain flask decorated with gold and copper designs that flashed in the torchlight.
Holding a folded cloth just below the spout, he poured a few ounces of liquid into a bowl similarly decorated. Once he finished and set the flask and cloth aside, Zuko picked up the bowl of sake and held it out to Katara, unable to meet her eyes. He looked at a spot just below the bowl in the air.
It wasn’t a lot of sake, since it was more symbolic than anything else. It was strange, Zuko suddenly thought as he waited for her to take the bowl from him, just how many of their traditions involved water or liquid of some kind. Was because water was such the opposite of fire, that his ancestors had wanted to show respect for such an opposing element? He wondered if the Water Tribe’s traditions involved fire in some way.
After what felt like a small eternity, he felt the weight of the bowl shift in his hands, before being hesitantly removed. Zuko found the courage then to look up at her, and watched her peer into the bowl for several moments, as if unsure what she was supposed to do with it.
Even though he knew it was an archaic ritual, symbolizing his ability to provide comfort—-what the sake represented—-to his intended wife, Zuko’s breath got caught somewhere in his throat. If she didn’t drink from the bowl, could the marriage go forward? That would mean she rejected the comfort he offered, and would therefore reject the marriage, for what was a marriage if not the warmth of comfort between two people?
At least, that’s what his mother had always told him it should be, even if he didn’t see it much between her and his father. Privately, he sometimes wondered if she had wanted to wed his father, or if she had been hoping for someone else to offer her a bowl of sake.
They were silly thoughts, of course. Katara was already here, the contract already agreed upon between their two nations. Her drinking or not drinking from a bowl of sake wouldn’t break the arrangement. He didn’t think so, anyway.
Still, something in him wanted her to drink it, wanted her to accept it. If they had both been commoners, and she rejected his bowl, she would reject him. Since they were royalty, such a simple act probably wouldn’t stop the marriage from happening, but he didn’t want her to reject him. He didn’t want to have a marriage like he feared his parents did behind closed doors.
Finally, though, she lifted the bowl to her lips and drank from it. It wasn’t very alcoholic, and so she drank a sip smoothly, without even a hiccup of a cough. Something in Zuko’s chest released a little tension.
The dinner was then able to proceed as she set the bowl down on the lacquered table between them. Servants came and brought a variety of dishes: fish curries, roasted duck (a favorite of his uncle’s), tangy fruit dishes, spiced vegetable platters, and savory dumplings. Chilled plum wine was set before all of them, and a pot of jasmine tea was nestled in a place of honor nearby his uncle and cousin. Another set of servants brought out more torch poles and lifted up the back end of the silk tarp they all sat beneath, exposing the exquisite view beyond.
Though it had been hinted at through the silk, a large pond was now visible to the dinner party. It was ringed by deep green gardens, rhododendrons blooming pink and white, and jade trees Stone spirit houses dotted the top of the water, each with a different color flame in the alcove, giving the water a bright, somewhat ethereal, glow. Large koi swam beneath lily pads and lotus flowers, their sinuous bodies barely visible shadows in the dimming light.
Zuko watched the fish swim for a few moments before returning his attention back to the table, now filled with steaming food.
“We hope this feast shows our gratitude and welcome to our new extended family,” Iroh said, his wide smile falling on the Water Tribe family seated across from them. “But save some room—-there’s going to be dessert after this!”
Lu Ten rolled his eyes next to his father, but smiled all the same. Zuko glanced from them to his own family, and only his mother was smiling. He let his eyes fall to the plate a servant set down before him. A quiet clacking of chopsticks to his left told him that his grandfather had started to fill his plate, and so everyone else could follow suit.
As he plucked various different vegetables and bowls of rice and fish curry, he watched the family of his bride-to-be. They had picked up on the hint that whatever everyone had been waiting for had passed, and so cautiously filled their plates as well. As a whole, they seemed to shy away from the deeper red-colored dishes, possibly assuming they were very spicy, Zuko thought. There were so many Fire Nation dishes here, which he wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, except that it made him think again that nearly every single tradition their marriage was following was all Fire Nation. He definitely wanted to talk to his mother about changing that. If Katara could come all the way here, to an entirely different land with an entirely different language, and marry him and observe all his customs, surely they could show the same respect in return.
He cleared his throat softly, more so that his voice wouldn’t crack rather than to try and gain anyone’s attention.
“You should try the roast duck,” he blurted to Katara. She blinked blue eyes at him. “It’s… it’s really good. And an Earth Kingdom dish. One of the chefs is from there, ever since Uncle really took a liking to the food and brought her back from Ba Sing Se. So, it’s not… really spicy.”
Realizing all at once that he was babbling, he took a dumpling from nearby to occupy his hand and eyes. There was a pile of food on his plate by now, though his stomach was doing enough flips that he wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to eat any of it.
Mortified at himself for speaking so plainly and out of turn, Zuko kept his gaze firmly on the bowl of rice in front of him.
His mother saved him. “At least it’s not a turtleduck,” she said lightly, nudging him with a subtle shift of her elbow.
Zuko chuckled despite himself. He looked up again to see Katara watching him carefully. She reached out and gently tugged off a strip of the roast duck, as he’d suggested, and added it to the modest foods on her plate. Even such a small motion was performed with a grace most Fire Nation noble girls couldn’t master. She was a waterbender, he reminded himself, remembering the katas he watched her and her sister move through by the turtleduck pond beneath his balcony. And, she appeared to be a very good one, at that. He suddenly wondered if she’d want to spar with him sometime. The prospect of marriage to another bender grew a little more appealing to him. Maybe he could find a time to ask her about it.
For now, the idea building warmth in him like a slow flame growing, Zuko offered her a small smile from across the table.
It took her too long to sort through his intentions—the bowl of sake held out in his hands; then, his words. These traditions were foreign to her, the language unfamiliar. While she could translate slowly in her head, Katara was leagues away from the level of fluency this marriage would require.
As soon as he smiled, Katara ducked her head, shame staining her cheeks.
She would be a disappointment to him. It almost felt predestined. By any standards, the Prince was beautiful. He was tall and lean; she could sense quiet power and strength in him. His heartbeat was steady, slow, further hinting at his peak condition and the muscle tone that was accentuated by his tailored clothes. The delicate threading in color matched his eyes, matched the ornaments in his ink-black hair. The honeyed gold was stunning, made more so by pale skin and red lips.
And, she was dark, curvy, short compared to his sister and mother— a foreigner, a stranger. After just two more nights of wine and dining, she’d be his wife, his lover. She’d be blessed to bring forth children for him, brought to his rooms, and integrated into his life.
If only she could share her own traditions with him. Katara wondered if he’d like any of them: the giving of the stone, like the penguins from home; the perfumed bath before coming together in the marriage bed, to cleanse any history from their bodies and soul.
But, her father had strictly forbade such talk. She belonged to the Prince; she must act like it.
Still, Katara knew to thank him for the recommendation of roast duck; she’d been warily picking around the food on her plate, avoiding dishes she suspected to be overly spiced. The sweet, savory meat was delicious, and well-seasoned.
Politely wiping her lips of any grease, Katara flashed a demure smile and wrapped her tongue around the needed words in An-kadai. “Your taste in food is excellent, my Prince.” If he’d heard it, Sokka would’ve been proud of her pun. “I hope I may learn to prepare such delicious meals for you.”
As she smiled, Katara felt her father’s eyes on her. She glanced his way, unsure what she read in his expression—had she done something? said something?
Her thoughts skipped over the brief interaction with Prince Zuko. Quickly, Katara recognized how presumptive her words had been, but she knew better than to correct herself. It’d only draw more attention to her erroneous actions, risking the disapproval of her betrothed.
Fortunately, her father was quick to smooth over her bold tongue. “While my daughter may be outspoken, she is an excellent cook. Although,” he hummed bemusedly, “I imagine there will no need for her in the kitchens as you have a whole host of staff.”
Lovely, Katara though. So, she was an idiot on top of being loud.
Fighting the urge to huff, she pulled her attention from the conversation that followed and focused on her food.
Two more nights ‘til she was the Prince’s wife. Two more weeks ‘til her family departed. She’d miss Takaani, so much, but at least her father would be gone. The only man she’d have to answer to was Zuko… and hopefully, only on the nights he wanted her in his bed. Aside from that, she’d be left alone.
Zuko’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. She could cook? His immediate thought was to ask her a flurry of questions—how was it she came to learn? Did she not have her own servants to prepare her meals back at the South Pole? Were things so very different there? Could she teach him something she knew how to cook? He imagined the food tasted completely different, though he’d never had Southern Water Tribe cuisine before. Was it similar at all to Northern Water Tribe cuisine? All at once he wished they had a mixed setting of food. More and more, he wanted to know empirically about her culture, about her life before coming to the Fire Nation. Reading about it in a series of scrolls and listening to a cultural teacher drone on about it was one thing, but he’d never experienced any of it.
But, catching the way her jaw tightened at her father’s words, he began to suspect tension between them, so Zuko said nothing. Well, he thought bitterly, at least that was something they would be able to have in common. The idea of Katara’s father watching silently as she tripped or fumbled, whether literally or metaphorically, before he stepped in with some scathing remark that only made her mistakes burn all the worse made a flame of anger flare up within Zuko.
Before he could think better of himself, he gave Katara’s father his best-practiced royal smile, the motion devoid of any emotion but impeccable in form.
“If the lady would like to cook sometimes,” Zuko said politely, his tone indicating nothing more than light and idle talk, as if he were discussing the warmth of the night or the flavor of the roast duck, “then I will certainly make sure accommodations are made for her. Perhaps she can help our chefs learn a few traditional dishes.”
As soon as he said those words, though he did mean them, he regretted it. He felt his father’s eyes snap over to him, and when he looked, he caught the slight narrowing they did, the barest hint of a frown crease Ozai’s mouth. He’d spoken out of turn—nevermind that it was Zuko’s betrothal dinner. Keep your head down and you’ll be okay, an old mantra warned in his mind. Yet, he couldn’t show to the guests that he was not to be taken seriously. Zuko didn’t lower his eyes or his chin, though the tightening in his chest wanted him very much to do just that.
Surprisingly, it was his uncle that came to his rescue.
“Yes!” Iroh exclaimed. “It has been some time since I last had Five Flavor Soup, and it would be a welcome addition to our menu.”
There were times when Iroh had stepped in, seemingly innocuously, just like that to diffuse a potential tense situation between Zuko and his father. Zuko wasn’t sure if Iroh was aware of it, or if he simply had remarkably good timing. Whatever the case, as with the other times, Zuko was glad for his uncle’s intervention once again. And, there was the added bonus that it also served to bolster what Zuko himself had been trying to do: interrupt the tense situation between his betrothed and her own father. Zuko couldn’t help it—his gaze flicked over to Katara, wondering what her reaction would be.
“I love Five Flavor Soup,” Katara said. She couldn’t help it, even under the weight of her father’s judgmental gaze. “My grandmother handed down a recipe to me that’s generations old. She’d be thrilled to know I shared it with a Prince of the Fire Nation.” The old man was friendly, genuine. His excitement leaked into his words and only fanned the tiny spark placed behind her ribs my the Prince.
Would Prince Zuko really like to taste her cooking? Would she… would be allowed to carry on remnants of home?
Her chest warmed with new hope, making her smile. Then, blush, when Katara looked across the long table and caught his eye. She quickly looked down, fighting the color pink as it spread all the way across her cheeks.
Prince Zuko was, as Takaani put so eloquently, dreamy.
And now, there was this slightly more tangible wish for a life of partnership. They could begin in the kitchen, with her teaching him traditional recipes. They could move on to the sparring field, with her showing him her abilities. They could—
Takaani’s elbow found her ribs, making Katara start and look down her nose at her sister. The little girl was, of course, smiling with knowing pride.
“I told you,” she said.
Katara slipped easily into Aisu-kei, laughing slightly. “Told me what?”
“He can’t stop staring at you.”
“Shut up, miki. He’ll hear you,” Katara hissed, elbowing Takaani back as her eyes flicked up.
Sure enough, the Prince was still watching her, but only long enough to see another blush cover her cheeks. Finally–-spirits—his attention averted to something his mother was saying—Katara was too flustered to pick out the words—and the conversation moved on to other things: wedding preparations and the days celebration that would follow Katara and Zuko’s ceremony.
She ignored a majority of it, as all of it left a stone in the pit of her stomach, making it near impossible to do anything other than play with her food and, when she wasn’t doing that, finger the gold choker around her neck. If her grandmother were here, she’d swat Katara for fidgeting.
Eventually, to her great relief, the dinner appeared to wrap itself up. The men were dizzy with wine, particularly Iroh, who boasted good spirits and a full belly. He sent a small round of cheers around the table with a well-placed joke, then toasted to the couple’s future happiness.
Following, Lady Ursa placed her napkin beside her plate, then put her hand over Prince Zuko’s on the table.
“Perhaps you could take your betrothed for a walk around the grounds, my son?” The woman turned a smile to Katara, extending the invitation to her as well. “We have a lovely array of gardens, and it may help you familiarize yourself with the palace.”
Her stomach leapt into her throat, a part of her excited by the prospect, the other nervous, but Katara ultimately deferred to her father.
He was eyeing Ursa carefully, until Kya nudged him. “Communication and friendship are important to a successful marriage. You and I would not be so well off had we not been allowed to court prior, my love.”
“True…” Hakoda inclined his head. “Do you wish to go, Daughter?”
Sharp blue pinned Katara; she had the faintest sense that he was testing her, showing off how well-trained she was to handle even the slightest pressure. To accept, in an over eager manner, would show ill-restraint and imply a loose nature. To refuse would obviously disgrace the Prince and his mother.
Taking a moment, Katara glanced across the table, then nodded. “I would enjoy the opportunity to see the palace grounds, Father.”
“Very well.” Surprisingly, he seemed satisfied with that. “So long as you accompany them, Lady Ursa. I will not have Katara taint her carefully guarded reputation.”
The smile Lady Ursa bestowed on Katara’s father was beatific, and precisely fitting for a lady of the Royal House. “We share a similar disposition about the sanctity of a wedding bed’s tradition,” she told the Southern Water Tribe Chief. “Your daughter is in safe hands with me, and,” the pause here was deliberate, “with my son.”
Zuko, for his part, hadn’t heard much after I would enjoy an opportunity to see the palace grounds. Talking with her with everyone all around was one thing, but to go for a walk with her, (nearly) alone—that was an entirely different matter.
What would they talk about? She seemed fluent enough in his tongue, should he try and speak to her in hers? He wanted to, but he was sure he would say something wrong, or enunciate incorrectly and give a whole other meaning to a phrase than he intended (that was a big problem with many of the Earth Kingdom languages and dialects—so much relied on inflection). He should have practiced it more.
Before he knew it, he was dragged out of his spiraling thoughts as his mother touched his arm, indicating he should stand with her. Somehow, through the grace of ingrained etiquette, Zuko managed to get to his feet quickly and without seeming like he was scrambling. Ursa beckoned with a smile for Katara to join them. Zuko bowed to her father in a show of respect.
His mother motioned subtly for him to take the lead, so he reached out and lightly—so lightly, he was afraid he might do something wrong that would insult her or her people—took Katara’s elbow. Trying not to tremble and to keep his breathing even, he guided her out the opened back of the pavilion, down a burnished set of cedar stairs that took them down to a walkway. His mother trailed a few steps behind them, though the further they got away from the dinner party, the more space she allowed them.
The path forked after a short while, the right leading back toward the palace, and the other to a bridge that arched gracefully over the pond itself. Zuko took them that way, knowing it would lead back toward many of the private walled gardens most of the public didn’t ever see. Once they were on the right path, he withdrew his hand from her elbow, not wanting to linger and upset her, or give the indication that he might do anything to sully the traditions of reputation. Had she been a Fire Nation lady, she would have had a carefully boxed flower blossom to hand over to him before the wedding, but Zuko wasn’t sure if there was anything similar in the Southern Tribe. Not that he could ask her; he was pretty sure that would definitely be a breach of decorum.
He was so lost in thought that Zuko didn’t realize until it was almost too late that they were nearly halfway across the bridge. When he stopped, he also noticed that his mother was taking her time in meandering along the walkway, several steps behind them. Suddenly acutely aware that he and Katara were, for all intents and purposes, alone for the next few minutes or so, Zuko turned and looked out over the water.
It was dark and shimmering in the night, the moon reflected as a graceful rippling curve to the right of where they stood. Little spots of varied colors danced on the surface as well, the fires from the spirit houses almost acting as overly-defined stars in harmony to the moon. He should say something to her, Zuko thought, but his throat went dry, and everything that came to mind sounded silly.
“I… hope you enjoyed dinner?” he finally settled on, his voice just a few notches above a nervous rasp. Like that. That was a silly thing to say to her. Why not ask if her journey was pleasant, or if she was finding the accommodations to her liking, or—even better—if she needed or wanted for anything? Inwardly, Zuko groaned. He hadn’t even seen her face to face for a day, and already he was putting his foot in his mouth. Maybe he could still salvage it.
“And, also, that everything in the guest house is to your liking. If there’s anything you need—or that you want—let one of the servants know, and they’ll get it for you.” There. That was a little better, a little more like a good host should be. Spirits, he was terribly awkward.
The gardens were truly beautiful, even more so in the gilded moonlight. It sparkled off the scattered ponds and made the stream glisten. It caught dew on flowers, made the white lilies stand out in the near dark. With so much to study around her, Katara didn’t notice the extended silence between herself and her betrothed, until he stopped halfway across a bridge and leaned on the rail.
He asked her something.
She blinked, slowly pulling from her thoughts, filtering through her nerves to find a coherent answer.
“The dinner was lovely,” Katara said, flashing a modest smile. “I especially enjoyed the roast duck. I’m happy with my room, as well.” She lifted her arms marginally, gesturing to the gown he’d left on her bed. “And you have excellent taste, my Prince.”
Unlike him, her posture remained formal as she conversed. Katara kept her back to the water, her attention astutely on him. Folding her hands in front of her legs, she hoped she posed as the perfect lady. Like his mother.
Stealing a glance in Lady Ursa’s direction, a tremor of self-awareness ran through her. She wasn’t as tall, wasn’t as graceful— La knew, Katara wouldn’t have the same luck flashing a radiant smile at a man to get something she desired. And, that stood without mentioned her lacking knowledge of An-kadai.
Fidgeting ever so slightly, she searched from something—anything—to fill the quiet. She settled, eventually, on some of the simpler phrases; her tutor often required she tell personal stories to grasp words and pronunciation.
“Do you like walking in the gardens?” Katara asked, a tilt to her head. “When I was younger, my grandfather kept a greenhouse— it was the closet we could ever come to such greenery in the South Pole. I used to spend most of my time there.”
Zuko’s face lit up listening to her. He was starting to grow concerned that she wouldn’t want to open up at all—perhaps a silly notion, considering she’d only just arrived and they hadn’t had any time together. Still, he feared that since this was a purely political marriage that she might not want anything to do with him beyond perfunctory duties. If that’s what it turned out to be, he would live with that; he had no real other choice. But… Zuko wanted her to like him, and he wanted to like her, too.
Thankfully, his mother had always made the best suggestions, and this one was no different. It was the perfect solution of getting them away from the pressures of their fathers (if Zuko had read that situation correctly, and he thought he had), but still operate under propriety. If he shifted his gaze beyond Katara, he could see his mother making her slow, meandering way up to where they stood on the bridge. She would never break her promise to Katara’s father to keep an eye on them—and, he suspected, she wanted just as much to make sure they had a chaperone—but she still allowed them time to start to get to know one another.
“I love the gardens,” he told her, watching her intently. He’d never paid much attention to other Water Tribe visitors in Caldera City, but Zuko was struck now by the small differences in the way she moved and held herself. It wasn’t something he felt he could even begin to describe, but there was a definite difference. He wondered if it came more from her life growing up in the South Pole, or from her waterbending.
That reminded him. “We’ve actually got a waterways system here you might like. All the major gardens have at least one pond, and they’re all interconnected by smaller streams fed by this lake, all flowing into one another.” Though he’d started out enthusiastically, his tone diminished into shyness as he continued. “Maybe… you’d like to see them? The flow of water is something important… right? I mean, to a waterbender?”
Her eyes betrayed her panic, widening as her breath caught. “How do you—?”
Of course. The gardens. He must’ve seen her teaching Takaani. He must’ve watched a while, too, to have overhead the conversation about listening to the water’s natural push and pull.
The one thing she was told not to do… she’d broken her father’s rule, and been spotted by her betrothed, nonetheless.
It was an effort to keep her composure. Her insides lined with hot, liquid fear. Would he tell her father? Would he call off their engagement? All it took was one stupid move, and Katara may have ruined everything.
“I was only trying to help my sister,” she blurted, looking at the prince now with wide, terrified eyes. “She- she’ll have a master, back at home, but… I fear their personalities may clash. Takaani is sweet, but naive. I wanted her to leave with some final tips, for bending and navigating Master Hama’s lessons.”
Managing to pull her eyes from his, Katara turned in the same direction, facing the water. She hoped she’d look at ease; she had to be failing miserable. Wasfailing miserable. At all of this.
She buried her shaking hands deep within her wide sleeves. “It won’t happen again,” Katara promised. “I know I’m a guest here. I won’t push the boundaries of my welcome.”
At first, Zuko simply stared at her. She acted as if he’d caught her with her hands full of candied orangepeach blossoms and was about to admonish her for it. Several beats of silence passed between them before Zuko found his voice again.
“I–I didn’t mean it like that,” he said. Only I could make her waterbending come out like an insult. Was there something in Tribe custom against wedded women waterbending? He didn’t know and frantically tried to rake his memory for anything. “It’s not a bad thing here,” he tried to explain, “in the Fire Nation. Bending, I mean. And, the gardens aren’t sacred or anything; you can use the water here.”
Agni, he was doing an awful job of trying to fix his mistake. It didn’t help that he wasn’t sure why she’d balked at his mention. Was it because of some Water Tribe custom? Was it because she thought the gardens were a sacred place? Was it because she was in an unfamiliar land and thought her waterbending would insult him?
All his ideas of practicing with her seemed ridiculous now. What if she didn’t want to? How could he tell her he wanted to learn more about her, that he didn’t want her to leave all her customs at the door when they married? What if… what if she didn’t want to share that part of her with him?
Zuko’s chest tightened, and his stomach twisted. The roast duck might have been cooked to perfection, but duck was a greasy, rich meat, and it now sat unpleasantly in him. He swallowed, let out a warm breath, tried to release some of the tension with a quick dash of fire meditation technique.
Slowly, he reached out for her hand, but stopped short of touching her. He didn’t know if they were there yet.
“Kiinuk,” he said in halting, though correct Aisu-kei, “Wō kaujimak zhe bushi nauk ipvit tian’ommak, zhishi…” Please. I know this is not where you were born, but… He gave her a small, hopeful smile, then switched to his native tongue. “I hope that with time it will become home for you, too.”
The sound of her native tongue echoed in her ears, and Katara remained almost frozen, staring up at Prince Zuko with wide, blue and parted lips.
She hadn’t expected that. At all.
In fact, Katara fully expected to spend her entire life without Aisu-kei spoken by her or those around her ever again. Hearing it from her betrothed’s own lips, complete with his endearing accent and halting ticks, warmed her to him instantly.
“I will make it my home,” she said boldly, keeping to the language of her land. If he grasped her words, the better. If he did not, this would be her own private promise spoken over their marriage, but it resonated in her soul all the same.
“My people are a people of change. We adapt. We grow. We make our home wherever we are, wherever our family plants, and you are my family, now.”
Katara met the Prince’s gaze with determination in her own, color touching her cheeks. It was likely presumptuous and out of order for her to speak so freely, but she swallowed what remained of her fear and switched to his native tongue.
“Chief Hakoda made it clear that I am to abide by your laws and your customs, my Prince, and I will do so gladly,” Katara informed him. “Do not worry you will upset me by forbidding or allowing certain practices. You are to be my husband. I will shape myself to you as a river does to the earth.”
He only caught the first few words of what she said—I will make it home—and then Katara spoke too quickly for him to keep up. He caught a few words, adapt, grow, family, but it wasn’t quite enough for Zuko to grasp the gist of what she was trying to say. Adamantly, he wished he’d been more attentive in his lessons.
But, then color darkened her cheeks, clear even in the dim light of the moon and sporadic torches along the bridge. All at once, Zuko felt his heart pound in his chest, the simple blushing somehow solidifying the fact that she was here. The marriage that had been only discussed for just about a decade was now going to happen over the next few days. He couldn’t tell if he was excited or anxious, but either way he hoped it didn’t show on his face. Azula was forever making fun of him for wearing all his emotions on his sleeve; she always seemed able to know what he was thinking. A wave of worry swept through his stomach, nearly upsetting the rich roast duck he’d eaten. With his kind of luck, his betrothed would have the same uncanny ability to see right through him that Azula did.
For now, he did his best to push those thoughts away. Maybe she wasn’t—she’d already proven to not be as callus as his sister, in his opinion. He hesitantly allowed himself to hope for the best.
Then she mentioned her father, and he pressed his lips into a line before catching himself. The last thing Zuko wanted was for his future wife to be obediently in the background. None of the women in his family were like that, and he didn’t want Katara to be, either. Especially if he read Hakoda’s influence correctly.
Instead of saying anything about that, however, he hummed for a moment, just a soft noise in his throat. “The way I know it,” he said mildly, “it’s the river that shapes the earth. Not the other way around.”
By that time, his mother could dawdle no longer, and finally joined them on the bridge.
“The moon is so lovely on the water, isn’t it?” she asked them as she came up, giving them both plenty of time to finish up whatever conversation they were having before.
He watched Katara glance back at his mother, and resolved to learn her language more completely. The way her face lit up as soon as he spoke it was something he very much wanted to do again.