Katara arrived to the Fire Nation on a most ominous day. It was so clouded that the sky was almost as dark as night though it was barely early afternoon. She got off the ship hastily and for the first time in a long while she was glad to be off the water. The sea had been much too turbulent to travel and a storm was brewing in the horizon. The atmosphere was full of a foreboding feeling, however she was not sure if it was actually something she had been carrying with herself since she received that messenger hawk.
She was prepared to walk to the palace from the port city but was happily surprised to see Iroh waiting for her with a palanquin and a whole retinue. She smiled to herself and chastised her own stupid notion that she would have to get to the palace by her own means. For Tui and La's sake she had been summoned here, it was to be expected that they would be attentive to her arrival.
She walked down the port approaching the old general who looked a little worse for wear compared to the last time they had shared a cup of tea in his tea shop in Ba Sing Seh. As soon as she was in front of him he bowed with far more respect than she was used to from someone she considered a dear close friend. It was obvious that the situation had left them all at odds with how to go on after it. If Iroh was reacting this way she was suspicious that even her worse imaginations wouldn't be close to the despair that Zuko must be feeling at the moment. This truly was a bad day to be back in the Fire Nation, and an even worse reason had brought her here.
"Master Katara, I'm grateful you have finally arrived. You are very much needed my dear, and I can't come close to express how much." The general spoke with utmost respect and excessive calmness that made her worry even more instead of tranquillising her as he was probably trying to do.
Did he really think she would breathe easy before she saw him? She touched the pocket in the right side of her tunic were the letter he had sent not even a week ago resided. The messenger hawk had arrived that quiet morning and she was happy to have been there to receive it and read it immediately after detaching it from the bird's pouch. She had packed her bags in record time and was waiting for the ship he said was coming for her before it even approached the horizon of Republic City. She could still feel the cold that had taken over her after reading it. In all honesty, it wasn't even necessary for her to take the letter out to recite the text word for word, the spirits knew she had read it over and over on the trip here.
Dear Master Katara:
I write to you with the utmost despair. Tragedy has stricken the house of the Firelord once again and I'm afraid to say that your help will be sorely needed here to surpass this dark moment…
It was written unlike any other missive she had previously received from the Dragon of the West, way more formal than all their gaang was accustomed to. It looked more like an invitation to a peace summit, an international council, any other of their work duties than words from an old friend, someone they consider part of their little made up family. From the very beginning she was taken over by pure dread and started imagining the worst case scenario.
"General Iroh, here I am, as you requested." She answered.
"And I'm so very grateful for it, from the bottom of my heart, my dear." He bowed his head once again but not as pronounced as the first time."Shall we?" He said while pointing to the palanquin so she would get in.
"Iroh, how is..." She started but he cut her short before she could finish.
"My dear, you'll find that for this query no matter how far I extend myself, you won't be satisfied until you see for yourself." He said while holding the curtain of the chaise open so she could get in.
The trip from the Harbor city to Caldera was interminably long. The silence didn't help at all. For someone who could express such desperation in the written word he was carrying himself with great poise. Though, that probably was the result of his royal upbringing. It surely was a thing to not talk about the very private royal affairs that were happening at the moment in such a public place as it was a trip from port to the palace in a palanquin carried by servants and where privacy was only provided by what appeared to be a very flimsy fabric. She was terribly worried so it would have been nice to have anything filling the silence. In the silence she could only think of the sinking feeling that permeated everything around her.
That is why I'm asking you as a friend, of both Zuko and mine, if you could come to the capital city . I'll send a ship immediately after this messenger hawk leaves the palace, with the hope you are able and willing to make the trip to this lands to accompany us for a short season.
All the city was quiet. The servants were somber, the guards even more so than usual, which was saying much talking about Fire Nation guys who preferred to be serious than agreeable. The sky was so very dark, there wasn't many people on the street, either in Harbor city or when they entered Caldera. The few people you could see where looking down and sad, like if the feelings of the sky where being reflected in the citizens of the Fire Nation. Or, maybe, it was the sky reflecting what the people it was looking over were feeling. What a tragedy! How could something like this happen, and now?
Before she could keep going over that line of thought, one she had explored aplenty while on the boat ride here, they arrived to the entrance of the palace. Iroh and her got off from the palanquin and said hi to the servants that were there to receive them. After Iroh gave instructions to take her things to the guest rooms that were already prepared for her, he started walking briskly towards the royal family wing. They walked through unending hallways and doors, a few galleries that gave way to the beautiful gardens inside the palace. They had walked a long distance already when Iroh's voice brought her out of her ruminations.
"I'm so sorry my dear for my cold demeanour at your welcome, but things have been a little chaotic over here. The recent events have called for a reinforcement of security and we are trying to walk with eyes in our back all the time. Desperate times are calling for harsh measures." Iroh began while still walking rapidly to the private quarters of the family.
"Iroh, I don't understand anything. I barely understand what is happening." She said, tired of knowing only half of what had happened, of what was clearly happening still. And angry, she was beginning to get angry that the only thing she wanted to know was not the starting point of Iroh's talk.
"Oh yes, I think I'm right to assume that since you had a hasty departure from the Earth Kingdom were not able to hear the rumors of what has happened over here. That is if any information has been leaked to there, we have tried to control everything that's being said about this as much as possible."
"Iroh, what are you trying to say?" Ideas were beginning to form in her head and none were nicer than what she had been thinking until that very moment.
"As I was saying, things are not really simple at this moment, neither in the Fire Nation nor at the palace. I'm afraid my dear girl that we are most probably infiltrated, that's why you'll find that my letter as my behaviour have been rather odd and not really forthcoming with information." He continued, and kept walking.
It saddens me that your visit will be in this dire situation, notwithstanding,...
The corridors were interminable, there seemed that there was always another door to cross another lush garden, another lounge, another corner, she felt like they were walking inside of an ever twisting maze and they could never reach its center She wondered if it was really like that or her anxiety was making everything more grievous, the Royal Palace had always seemed incredibly large and daunting to her, but this was bordering on the ridiculous, unless Iroh was taking her for a turn on purpose.
She noticed that the amount of servant and guards started to diminish the more they got into the maze, the faces started to turn more and more familiar, people she had seen and been attended by in her previous visits. She even saw a couple of people that had been serving in the Fire Nation palace from before the war was over, she would never forget the faces of the people that helped her after Sozin's comet, of course. And Iroh, ever the mind reader, said to her:
"I see you've noticed that the people working in this area are some of the longest serving people in the palace, they have all been handpicked to serve the Fire Lord on such close quarters, but now the number has decreased only to the most reliable and trustworthy of them. I'm sure you'll find that all of those are in your acquaintance."
"Iroh, please, you just keep worrying me and have said nothing at all about… anything really. What in the spirit's name's going on?"She was on the verge of screaming, she was going to stop right there and then and demand that the Dragon of the West said to her everything that he was crypticly insinuating. She was about to do it when they suddenly turned a corner and the air was invaded by a strong smell. A smell she would always associate with the war, a strong smell of something that had been burnt to the ground. It was not strange, in the Fire Nation, for the smell of fires and ashes to be around but if she was feeling it now, at some distance of wherever it had happened and, if fears were right, almost a week after it was put down this wasn't just a small accidental fire. Then they turned the corner of the hallway they were walking through and everything dawned on her.
In front of her was a huge black spot, it went from the the floor almost to the ceiling. The black stain occupied what used to be one of the private chambers doors. But it couldn't be called a door anymore since half of it was completely burnt and the other one was coming off its hinges, broken down by strength more than by the fire it seemed. She stopped for a moment and stood in front of the eerie sight, the inside only worsening her impressions. The lavish interior was burnt down to ashes, almost completely, the rich tapestries that used to decorate the walls were ripped by fire in the lower half and and filled with soot and black spots in the upper one. There was furniture everywhere, tossed around, as if a fight had taken place in the middle of the inferno that turned every wood piece into the black remains left after a strong blaze. The walls had been licked by feet long fire tongues, from one side of the room there wasn't a single space that had been saved from the fury with which this fire had been thrown. In the middle of the all terrible, terrible scene was the skeleton of a canopy bed, it's size and decorations must have showed the opulence of its owner, however in its current state it only could tell a tale of misery and tragedy.
All in all it was horrible sight to see. She hadn't seen destruction by fire like this since the war ended, at least not in this degree and not in what was considered peaceful soil. While Katara was watching the scene, trying to read into it as much as she could, fearing every conclusion that she was getting from what she saw it finally occurred to her to ask the most obvious question the image answered.
"Iroh… whose bedchamber is this?" Her voice trembled with fear and uncertainty, she didn't want her suppositions to be real.
"This, my dear, were the Fire Lady's private chambers." Iroh said with a grave voice.
...it is my duty to inform you that Lady Mai, Firelady of the Fire Nation has passed away…
"Oh my…" She gasped. The anxiety she had been repressing inside her started coming out in little shakes and trembles all over her body. When she had received the letter she had not imagined that this would be what happened. This was not mere accident or consequence of life. She had been expecting something less serious and dangerous than what appeared to have happened in the palace. The letter that she had read over and over in the trip over had not been open to the dark that was really behind Mai's death. If she had felt like crying before, now it would be an understatement. Her heart that had already been breaking inside of her now was openly bleeding thinking of all the victims in this tragedy, not only Mai, but also those she left behind.
...soon after giving birth to the heir of the crown prematurely, last week.
Those words had confused her, she was led to believe that she had died in the throes of childbirth, not really something as uncommon as one would like to think, even with the technological advances of the Fire Nation. She had come prepared for dealing with a dark side of life but still a tragic part of nature, but everything inside that room spoke of unspeakable violence. The increment in the security, the carefulness that Iroh was issuing regarding the servants, the information that he delivered and where. Something horrible had happened, something beyond what she had previously dared to imagine.
Suddenly it came back to her mind, the real purpose she was here for. And now she wasn't going to let Iroh misguide her about it. She needed answers now and she was not beyond demanding them by force from the Dragon of the West.
"Iroh, take me to Zuko…"
"My dear, Zuko's…" He started but she cut him abruptly.
"Now! Iroh, please, I need to see him."
"Oh my dear, I think that first and foremost, there's someone you need to meet, before really grasping all that is happening right now." He said with a sad look, closing his eyes and trying to take a calming deep breath, though the tension in his shoulders didn't go anywhere.
They kept walking a short way till they reached a new chamber, one she hadn't been into in her previous visits, even though she could recognize that the it was closer to the garden with the turtleduck pond that Zuko seemed to favour so much.
"Please, come in Katara" he said opening the door that was heavily guarded by the Fire Lord private guards. After crossing the threshold he nodded to a woman that was peacefully lounging in a chair inside, keeping watch of a crib that had been placed in the middle of the room, directly in the little light coming through the enormous windows opposite the main entrance. It was a nursery, the royal nursery.
Thanks Agni, the baby is in go d hea lth…
"Dear Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, I'm honoured to present to you, the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation, heir to the throne of Fire Lord Zuko." He approached the crib and lifted a small bundle of red and pink blankets.
Katara approached him carefully until she was beside him and the budle was no longer just blankets but a little face and little hands moving around in his arms. He looked at the baby with utmost care and devotion, almost erasing every trace of the grim look he had been sporting since she arrived. She let go of her caution and looked, really looked and the little infant in his arms.
She was beautiful, small and extremely beautiful. Katara was completely entranced with the baby girl. She began taking note of what she could distinguish. She had light coloured skin, just like both her parents, light gray eyes, so common to newborns, and a little tuft of black hair, soft as fluff. She wasn't a week old but she was even smaller than a normal newborn. She remembered briefly the letter saying that she had come prematurely and it started to make sense in her head. She was looking intently to her, almost as if with decision, like if they were studying one another. She lifted her hand and tried to touch her cheek, reacting as she usually did when meeting a baby, cooing and smiling, but before she could the baby grabbed her finger rather strongly in her minuscule hands.
"Want to carry her for a moment, my dear?" Iroh said, noticing how in that exact moment Katara had fallen in love with the little Fire Princess, just as he had when he met her.
They manoeuvred to pass the little bundle from his arms to her, trying to be as careful as possible, but none of them was new to the art of carrying children around.
As soon as Katara had her in her arms she felt, somehow, as if all the dread and horror of what she had witnessed before coming here was being lifted off her shoulders. She just simply couldn't stop looking at the small baby. It was as if she was bewitched, and most certainly she must be, because things only were getting more and more complicated by the second. She had come here with every intention of meeting this little bundle of joy but she had never expected for their meeting to be this significant. She had carried and cared for plenty of babies before, she had even helped deliver some in her life, but never before had she felt this connected to a tiny human being that couldn't even understand what she was doing or saying.
In that precise moment, almost as if the spirits themselves where blessing their meeting, the sky above the palace opened and a strong ray of warm sunlight came into the window, catching the attention of the small girl in her arms.
"Oh dear oh dear, it seems that Agni is happy with your acquaintance my sweet girls. Why don't you salute him directly." He said with a suggestive look towards the window.
Katara didn't have to be told twice and she started walking to it. Certainly the sunlight coming through it was a nice reprieve from the dark skies that had greeted her in the last part of her journey and at her arrival. It seemed as if some hope was trying to make way through the dark and confusion that was plaguing this land around this days. As soon as she was in front the window pane, she noticed that it was actually a glass door leading to the garden she had visit so much with Zuko before, and right before them, standing looking to the turtleduck pond, his back to them, was the man that had been plaguing her mind since receiving the missive that brought her here.
"Oh Zuko…" she sighed softly, but not softly enough for it to go past Iroh, who was approaching her slowly.
However, it is the Firelord that has me worried.
She turned to Iroh and before she could ask he spoke, softly enough for it to remain between them, keeping in mind the presence of the nurse maid that Katara had completely forgotten about.
"He is not well, that's the answer you have been seeking. He's not well at all. I fear that this has been the last straw on his back. Certainly life hasn't been kind to him before, but at least this last few years he had cultivated some sense of normalcy, even if they had been harder than the previous ones. He was… quite excited… about everything that this days should have entailed and this loss was not something he was expecting or was prepared for. Even less so in the way that it all happened." He looked downwards with a pain that spoke of the love he had for his nephew. "I wish I could take this burden from his shoulders, but sadly life is what it is and he has been dealt a rough hand, once again. Since it all happened he has barely uttered a word, has barely eaten, barely slept at all. His mind seems to be working non stop but at the same time he is not here when you try to speak to him. And knowing the pain he is going through as only someone that has gone through it before can I understand this behaviour, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to stand here and watch my beloved nephew whither with pain while his life and nation crumble around his pain. If my life taught me anything is that even though one desires to succumb to pain and sorrow, one mustn't fall captive of such addictive and negative emotions, sometimes when you come back from all of it, things are worse than when you left."
Katara listened to him intently, observing the imposing figure outside the window. His back was stiff, his posture straight, to straight for comfort, there was an aura of tension, pain and sorrow surrounding him. His head was low, his eyes observing the few turtleducks that were swimming around the pond, mindless to the situation or the people around them. At the same time, as big and strong he looked there was something dejected about him, she could easily imagine that beneath the Fire Lord robes, with all the yards of fabric and shoulder pads, that he was certainly not holding himself as high as he tried to project. He seemed as the statue of a defeated man that was trying everything in his power to keep going, and maybe that wasn't as far away from the truth as it seemed.
"My dear Katara, I'm afraid I may be at the end of my rope right now. As you may have realized, this is not, by any means, a normal situation. There's a lot to fix and take care of, and as much as I would like to take care of everything I'm an old man and no longer able to delude myself of being all powerful and capable of solving every problem that comes my way..."
So I beg you to take the ship I'm sending. It will be waiting for you at the harbour of Republic City the day after receiving this message.
"I understand, I'll do whatever I can. If you want to I can take care of the baby. You can count on her wellbeing and safety as long as I am here" She said, interrupting the question he was definitely going to make.
"My dear, as much as it gladdens me to hear you say that and I don't doubt that you would make an excellent job with her, I have not asked you to come to take care of the princess. As I've been saying, the Fire Lord is not really in a favourable position and it is his well being that worries my soul. So what I'm begging you is for you to take care of him, to be the friend you have been for him so many times before and to be there to answer in a way I seem no longer able to answer him. I know that this little cutie has side tracked us, but the real problem is beyond this glass standing mere feet from us but a thousand miles away at the same time. So that's why I'm not inviting you but begging you to remain with us, we need you my sweet girl, I'm afraid now more than ever before."
My dear, I beg you to consider it.
She never imagined that she would hear the Dragon of the West plea so openly to someone, but she guessed he would never put anything above what Zuko needed. What she thought was merely a figure of speech had turned into a very real look of desperation and a tone in his voice that made all of this much more tragic. He was begging for something she wouldn't have had to be told twice to do. She had once a long time ago promised to never turn her back on the people that needed her, less so friends as dear as Zuko and Iroh were. The whole purpose for her taking that blessed ship with barely any time to pack or fix her affairs was that in her mind the words 'Zuko needs me' had resonated so strongly that they were the ones moving her till she boarded the ship that brought her here.
She looked at the baby in her arms that had fallen asleep sometime through Iroh's talking. She certainly was small and fragile but she looked pretty good and taking care of her health wouldn't be any problem at all with her healing abilities. Zuko on the other hand, once again was sporting scars that no healing waters will be able to fix, even if this ones weren't visible to everybody. The turmoil in his soul must be great indeed, she feared not even her would be able to get through it. But they couldn't lose hope of getting to him and help him come out of the dark place he was in.
"Iroh, you don't even have to ask. I will always be here for Zuko, no matter how long or how much he needs me" She answered decisively.
"Dear Katara, you do understand that I'm asking you to abandon all your life just for us, right? I almost feel ashamed to do it"
"Almost, of course, because you would do anything for him, and guess what, I would too. So don't worry, I can pause some of the things I'm doing to help the friends who need me.- She answered with a half smile, already making mental lists of everything she would need to take care of to make her moving to the Fire Nation more simple and smooth than simply jumping on and off a boat on a whim." I'm staying Iroh, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it, if not for her, for him and if not for him, for you. I'm needed here and will be of more use than in a stupid political assembly. And that's final, so get rid of your false guilt and modesty because we both know this was your idea in the first place.
"Master Katara, I'm most grateful and honoured, for your kind spirit, your loyalty and more than everything for the affection with which you hold my beloved nephew. I thank you." He said, making a formal Fire Nation reverence, the one reserved for the figures that deserved the most respect.
"Please, don't mention it General.- She said turning back to the window, tucking the baby closer to her chest. Life really was a funny thing, how it twisted and changed. And how sometimes, everything took a 180 turn, putting everything upside down. There was a long way before them.