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 looked at her, transfixed. She sat directly across from him, and had exchanged her heavier Water Tribe clothes, for a sinh his mother 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.