The windowsill was cold. Winter had made one final push and extended its life now into almost mid-spring. The glass was cold against Katara’s fingers as she idly traced designs in the fog formed by her breath. Her head rested on the window as she stared out at the icy blues and whites of the winter she would miss so much. She hadn’t traveled much, but every time she did venture beyond their borders, she missed the cold and the quiet. She belonged to the cold, taking comfort in its presence and tranquility. She sighed softly and shifted her gaze to the grey sky. It was her birthday, but she had spent the majority of the day in isolation, hiding from the questions she knew her father and brother would ask her if they had the chance. Twelve years ago, her father had made a promise to the King of Huo in order to secure an alliance with him. That promise was finally being acted upon, now that Katara was seventeen and of marrying age. The Crown Prince of Huo would be arriving at their castle in the next few hours so that she could finally meet him. Get to know him. And then, in a few days, they would both head back to the Huo Kingdom and she would have to figure out a way to be strong enough to marry him, live a life with him, and eventually bear his children. A shudder ran down her spine at the thought. What would their children be like? Would he expect a whole herd or be content with just one or two? Of course, she loved children… but too many made for a nuisance rather than a blessing. On a similar note, would he expect her to be a complacent housewife and not be involved in the running of their kingdom and keeping the alliance safe? She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Surely, it would be alright. He would get to know her just as she would get to know him and they would come to an agreement. Hopefully.
There was a knock at the door that startled Katara out of her thoughts. Quickly she composed herself and stood up, brushing off her dress as she made her way to the door. A young girl, her handmaiden, stood there, cheeks flushed as though she had been running.
“Princess Katara.” She curtsied, bowing her head respectfully. “Your father sent me to retrieve you. The Huo prince is arriving.”
Katara’s heart skipped a beat at the news, and she took a deep breath. “Thank you, Nakia. Please, would you tidy my room while I am gone?” She smiled at the girl and started off down the hallway without waiting to hear the “Of course, princess,” reply from her.
Chewing the inside of her cheek, Katara made her way down from her bed chambers towards the courtyard where she knew her father and brother would be waiting for the prince to arrive. She paused before proceeding outside to collect herself once more. She took another deep breath, brushed her hair out of her face, and smoothed the creases in her dress. Nodding to the door guard to open the door, she stepped outside, composed and gliding across the ground as princesses should. Her father and Sokka were already there, as she had expected, and she took her place to the left of the king, noticing for the first time the carriage approaching them through the gate. The carriage was drawn by two black horses that stook out starkly against the white-grey snow. The carriage was a deep, blood orange color emblazoned with the Huo Crest. And within that carriage was the Prince of Huo, drawing ever closer to her.
The sound of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones rung in her ears, reaching an almost deafening level when suddenly the carriage stopped, its door facing the three of them standing on the step outside the castle. The driver clambered down from his seat and opened the door, lowering his head in respect.
Katara caught her breath as a figure began to step out of the carriage. He was dressed in a blood red robe with the Huo Crest embroidered in gold thread. His hair was as pitch black as the two horses that had drawn the carriage. As he settled his feet on the ground and straightened up, revealing a strong, well-built figure, Katara couldn’t help but let out a small gasp of surprise at the sight of his face. She had spent years imagining what he would look like. Would he be handsome? Ugly? Average? But none of her daydreams could have prepared her for his face. He had pale skin that contrasted with his dark hair and angular features that weren’t at all unattractive. But that was all fairly normal. What really got Katara’s attention was the twisted, red, ravaged skin across the left side of his face, surrounding his left eye and extending all the way to his ear.
As he stepped towards them, Katara realized that her face had betrayed her surprise, and quickly recomposed herself, hoping that he had not noticed her reaction. As he approached, he bowed his head respectfully. “King Hakoda, it is a pleasure to see you again.” He lifted his head and nodded at Sokka. “Prince Sokka.” Then he shifted his attention to Katara, his eyes studying her, taking in everything about her in just a few seconds. Katara felt exposed beneath his gaze and shifted slightly. She blinked slowly to compensate for her unease. “Princess Katara,” he said, bowing his head ever so slightly. “It is an honor and a pleasure to finally meet you. You are far lovelier than my father described.”
Swallowing with a bit of difficulty, Katara nodded at him. “It is lovely to meet you too, Prince Zuko. I have been looking forward to this moment for a long time.”
Prince Zuko smiled. It seemed like a mixture of polite and genuine, and his eyes still surveyed her with interest. As Katara met his gaze, she realized that his eyes were gold, a detail she had failed to notice before. Gold and burning through the winter air to rest upon her.
“Come, Prince Zuko. You must be weary and cold from your journey. We have prepared a room for you. A feast to celebrate your arrival and Katara’s birthday is being cooked as we speak. I am sure you would like to rest from your travels before we eat.” Hakoda smiled at the prince and gestured him inside. “I will have my servants bring in your belongings.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. A bath of hot water would be greatly appreciated, if you can spare it.” Prince Zuko replied, stepping up towards the door, followed by Hakoda, Sokka, and Katara.
“Of course we can spare it, Prince Zuko. Our kingdom is flourishing and we have plenty of supplies to heat a bath.” The words slipped from Katara’s mouth before she could stop them. His comment had just seemed so condescending, and she would not stand for her people to be put down by a boy who was barely older than Sokka and had barely spent five minutes in their home. At her father’s quick glare, however, she shut her mouth and looked down at her feet.
Prince Zuko merely nodded at her. “Of course, princess. I meant no disrespect, only wish to not be an inconvenience to you and your people.”
Katara bit her tongue and met his gaze coolly. “Of course.”
An uncomfortable few seconds of silence followed before Hakoda broke it by gesturing to one of the servants passing by. “Meeko, would you mind showing Prince Zuko to his room and running him a hot bath before the feast?”
Meeko nodded. “Of course, Your Majesty.” He shifted his attention to Prince Zuko, and Katara caught the flash of surprise and horror in his eyes as he saw his face. “T-this way, Your Highness.”
The three of them watched as Meeko led the prince down the corridor and disappeared around the corner. Katara turned her head to meet Sokka’s eye. Sokka was looking at her with his familiar twinkle.
“Sis, I must say… His desire to meet you must have been burning.” He grinned, ignoring the glare from his father as Katara covered her snorting laugh with her hand.
“Children,” Hakoda growled softly, a warning sign that they should behave. “He is a guest in our kingdom, and Katara’s future husband. We should treat him with respect.”
“Treating him with burn cream would probably help more,” Sokka burst out, unable to stop himself.
Katara laughed harder and shook her head, grateful for her brother and his terrible jokes. She felt some of the weight on her shoulders lift. She may have to marry Zuko and leave her family, but she knew she could always count on Sokka to have her back if she needed him.
“Sokka, that’s enough.” Hakoda growled again, louder this time, and both of them knew it was best to listen to him and stop. “You two should go and prepare yourselves for the feast. Remember, the whole court will be there in addition to Prince Zuko. Make sure you are on your best behavior.”
“Yes, father,” Sokka and Katara mumbled in unison. They exchanged one final glance before splitting off and heading towards their bed chambers to change and prepare themselves for the feast.
Katara entered her room to find Nakia had tidied it well. The bed was made, and the undergarments that Katara had carelessly left on the floor had been taken away for cleaning. As she sunk down onto the edge of the bed, she realized how much she would miss being here. She looked around the room, taking in everything that was already so familiar. The pale grey walls, the dresser, mirror, the soft bed… In just a few days, she would be leaving this place forever. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she shifted her gaze to the three gowns that Hakoda had had made for her. One was for tonight, the feast, and it was the same shade of blue as her eyes, with miniature versions of their crest sewn into the fabric with white thread to almost resemble snowflakes. It was beautiful, and she already knew that it would fit her curves perfectly. With a sigh, she stood and made her way over to it, slipping out of her current dress and into the new one. She was immensely grateful that the dresses had been designed so she could dress herself without any help. It always made her feel uncomfortable asking a servant to help get dressed when she was a perfectly capable adult.
About an hour later, just as Katara was finishing pinning her hair in her favorite style, reminiscent of how her mother had done her hair, there was a knock at her door. She stood and looked herself over in the mirror, appreciating the contrast of the blue and white dress against her mocha-colored skin. Nodding in satisfaction, she hurried over to the door and opened it. Expecting Nakia to be outside her door, she was taken aback when the still-unfamiliar yet instantly recognizable face of Prince Zuko greeted her. He was dressed in a more formal version of the robe he had worn previously, his hair swept neatly into a small bun; Katara had seen the same hairstyle worn by his father all those years previously when he had visited to arrange the alliance.
He smiled at her, his eyes burning into her just as they had when he had first stepped out of the carriage and seen her. He was silent for a moment as he took in her dress, her hair, everything. “You look absolutely beautiful, Princess Katara,” he finally said, softly. “Will you do me the honor of allowing me to escort you to the feast?”
Katara hesitated. She had never been escorted by anyone other than Sokka or her father anywhere, and certainly not to a feast in her own home. But standing before her was her future husband, and from what she could tell, he was trying to be polite and respectful to her, and she wasn’t about to be rude for no reason.
She extended her arm to him. “Of course, Prince Zuko. It would be my pleasure.”
He smiled a little wider at her and created a loop in his left arm for her to wrap hers through. A slight shiver ran through her body as she touched him for the first time. The nerves that had mostly gone away came back tenfold, and she felt her face getting warm.
Zuko seemed not to notice, but walked casually and confidently through the halls of the castle towards the dining hall. How he knew where to go was a mystery to Katara. “Oh, by the way, I prefer to be called just Zuko. I get enough of the whole prince thing from everyone else.”
Katara glanced at him. He was looking sideways and down at her, and for the first time she became aware of how small she was compared to him. Despite herself, she couldn’t resist making a joke to try to relax the atmosphere. “In that case, Just-Zuko, please call me Katara.”
He let out a soft chuckle and returned his gaze to the direction they were walking. “Very funny, Katara. But I’ll let you know, humor is not tolerated in the Huo Kingdom.”
For a split second, she almost believed him, but then she caught sight of the slight smirk on his face and rolled her eyes. “Ah, yes, the time-honored tradition of being stuck-up jerks. I forgot that was still practiced in your kingdom.”
He nodded, suddenly more somber than before. “By some, yes.” He paused, then looked at her for a moment, as though he wanted to say something, then returned to looking straight ahead.
Puzzled, Katara remained silent, wondering what exactly he meant by his sudden change in mood. Before she could come up with a change of subject to lighten the mood, however, they arrived at the dining hall. Hakoda, Sokka, and Sokka’s betrothed, Suki, were waiting for them just outside the door that would lead them to the head table. Sokka nodded and smiled at Katara. At their arrival, the servant waiting with them entered the dining hall and made his way to the center. The guests at the feast all quieted as the servant stopped and turned to face them.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I present the King of Shui, His Majesty King Hakoda!”
As he was speaking, Hakoda left the group of them and walked into the hall to stand behind his seat at the center of the head table.
“His Royal Highness Prince Sokka and his betrothed, Lady Suki.”
Sokka gently escorted Suki to the head table so that he sat to the right of his father, and Suki to the right of himself.
“And Her Highness Princess Katara, escorted by her betrothed, the Prince of Huo, His Royal Highness Prince Zuko!”
Katara allowed herself to be led by Zuko into the dining hall, a polite smile planted on her face. Such formal events where she was expected to behave like a perfect princess had never been something she enjoyed. As she scanned the crowd of people in the hall this time, though, she was met with expressions of shock and horror as they all stared, some of them open-mouthed, at Zuko. Her stomach sank as she realized Zuko probably had to deal with situations like this regularly, and she felt guilty that she had allowed herself to slip earlier when she had first seen him.
“Please, everyone, be seated and enjoy the meal.” Hakoda announced before promptly taking his seat. Everyone followed suit, conversation immediately breaking out between members of the court and the other guests that were present. Some of them were whispered and secretive, and Katara felt her stomach sink lower as she guessed they were talking about Zuko.
“Don’t worry about it,” the voice, whispered and low, huskier than usual, made Katara start and turn pink. She turned to look at Zuko, who just shrugged. “It happens all the time. I’m used to it.”
Katara didn’t have a response that wasn’t hypocritical to how she had acted earlier, so she just focused her attention on the food in front of her. It was a mix of their traditional Shui foods, including her favorite dishes, as well as some red meat and traditional Huo foods for Zuko’s benefit. With a pang, Katara realized just how much she would miss the seafood her people made so well. It would be difficult to get seafood in Huo, and by the time it arrived, it certainly wouldn’t be fresh.
“Happy birthday, by the way.” The soft whisper of Zuko’s voice came again. She could feel his breath on her skin, sending a hot tingle down her spine.
She swallowed her bite of shellfish. “Thank you.”
Near the end of the meal, as people were sitting back in their chairs with rounded bellies and belts near bursting, Hakoda stood up. The room steadily became silent as people noticed, and he waited patiently for everyone to be listening before proceeding. “My good people, members of the court, friends, family, honored guests… As you all know, today is my daughter Katara’s seventeenth birthday. She is now of marrying age, and, fulfilling a promise I made many years ago, will be leaving tomorrow for the Huo Kingdom with her betrothed, Prince Zuko. So tonight, I ask for everyone to enjoy the festivities and to wish them well on their journey and life together.”
Katara blinked in surprise. Tomorrow? She had expected a few days. Hakoda had told her it would be a few days. As everyone stood and made their way to the ballroom, where the musicians were already playing a traditional celebratory song, Katara looked at her father. “Tomorrow?” She asked, her eyes searching his for some kind of answer. Maybe he wanted to be rid of her, to ship her off and be done with the whole promised betrothal. Perhaps he disliked Zuko and wanted him gone and her with him since he very well couldn’t break the alliance.
Her father sighed and looked down at her with a genuine sadness. “I’m sorry, Katara. There’s a storm coming in that could keep us locked down for up to a month. Prince Zuko and I discussed it briefly and decided it was best if you two left for Huo immediately to avoid the storm. Besides, it’ll give you more time to adjust to Huo and your new role before the wedding.”
She swallowed back tears and looked down. “This is all just happening so fast.”
Strong arms wrapped around her and she buried her face in her father’s chest, feeling some of the tears she had fought back slide down her cheeks. “I know, Katara. I’m going to miss you so much, but I know that you are strong and capable of anything. You’ll be a good queen to the people of Huo, and you’ll be a good wife to Prince Zuko.” He held her out at arm’s length and wiped off her cheeks. “Now go, enjoy your party. Dance with Sokka. Say your goodbyes. Your mother would be so proud of you.”
Instinctively she touched her necklace, nodded, sniffed, and stood up, taking a few deep breaths to compose herself. Zuko had moved a respectful distance away, and was studying a pillar with the intense interest of someone who didn’t want to pry into a personal moment happening nearby. He must have sensed her eyes on him, though, because he glanced up at her and then moved over to her.
Bowing, he extended his hand. “Will you do me the honor of allowing me to have this dance?”
With a slightly forced smile, Katara curtsied back and took his hand. “It would be my pleasure.”
He stood, smiled softly at her, and led her towards the ballroom as the music from the first song faded away. The crowd parted to allow them space, and the musicians struck up one of the softer, slower-paced songs. A slow dance song. Gently, as though nervous he would hurt her, Zuko placed one of his hands on Katara’s hip and grasped her hand in the other.
His skin was warm to the touch, and Katara shivered slightly as the warmth poured from his hand into hers. Skin on skin. Their eyes locked, and she felt herself moving, her feet shifting and lightly dancing across the floor, but her eyes never left his. The world around her faded. All that remained was her emotions and Zuko. The hurt she felt at having to leave her home wasn’t going to go away for a long time, she knew, but somehow Zuko’s presence was comforting. She didn’t feel quite as lost as she had expected and imagined. There was something about him that made her feel safe, and she hoped that it wasn’t just a facade put on for her her father and brother’s sakes.
As the song faded, Katara was snapped back to reality when Sokka appeared by her side. He coughed, getting Zuko’s attention. “Excuse me, but may I have the next dance?” He was looking at Zuko, as was custom, but he threw in a sideways wink at Katara.
“Ah, yes, of course.” Zuko released Katara and backed away respectfully. Katara felt cold without his touch, but smiled up at her brother, trying not to think about how this would be the last time she would get to spend real time with him.
Sokka took Zuko’s position, and off they danced into the crowd, both grinning at each other. “He seems nice.” Sokka said suddenly, prompting a slight frown from Katara.
“Yeah… I hope so.” She mumbled, glancing over at Zuko, who had politely asked Suki to dance and was now leading her around the dance floor, graceful and elegant.
“You’ll be okay, Katara. Dad and I both know that you are beyond strong enough to make this into a good thing. We’ll miss you. A lot. But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit or anything. You’ll work your magic in Huo and be a wonderful queen.”
Sokka was rarely serious, so when he was, Katara listened to him. This was one of those times, and she nodded somberly. No more words were needed. When the song ended, Sokka pulled her close and hugged her, squeezing her so tight she could barely breathe. Katara, in turn, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed back.
A few more hours passed, with various nobles and friends of Hakoda’s requesting to dance one last time with the princess. Zuko was respectful of this and kept his distance, instead asking various ladies to dance. By the time the night was drawing to a close, Katara was exhausted from the number of dances and conversations with people. Even so, she held her head high and walked up to the musicians, requesting them to stop for a moment.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced, looking around at the crowd of people she’d probably never see again. “I want to thank you all for being here today to greet Prince Zuko and to celebrate my birthday. I’ve spent seventeen years here in Shui, and as much as I hate to leave it. To leave you. My place is elsewhere now. My people, you will always hold a special place in my heart. I will always be one of you. Tomorrow, I leave you. But just as my mother has never truly left me,” she paused, closing her eyes and touching her necklace for a moment, “I will never truly leave you either.” She opened her eyes again and smiled out at the crowd. “Thank you all for being such wonderful people. Goodnight.”
She made her way quickly through the crowd to the doors, waiting until she was just out of sight before breaking into a run. Tears stung her cheeks as she fled to her room, slamming the door shut behind her before anyone could follow her. Slumping against the door, she let herself slide to the floor, clutching at her mother’s necklace and letting out silent sobs. Would her mother be proud of her for fleeing her party and sobbing on her bedroom floor? No, probably not. Kya had been a strong woman, never once showing weakness even when staring death in the face. With a deep, shuddering breath, Katara stopped herself from crying and opened her eyes. Furiously wiping away the wetness from her cheeks, she looked around the room. It was barren. Her personal items had been packed away into boxes during the feast, ready to be picked up and shipped off along with her the next morning.
Exhausted, both mentally and physically, Katara stood, slipped off her dress, and made her way to her bed. She sank into it and within a few moments, she had slipped off into a restless, dream-filled sleep.