“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?