Chapter 15: Regret After
"As contraries are known by contraries, so is the delight of presence best known by the torments of absence." -Alcibiades
I could see him standing on the dock as we had inched up towards the dock. My hands held the railing in a death grip. He was standing in his favorite position, with his arms folded across his chest as if he did not have a care in the world. Instead of the informal, loose clothing he usually wore, he instead was wearing a more formal grey and dark red outfit. The shirt was shorter, with a strip of cloth from the belt hanging decoratively down and had two shoulder spikes. The clothing here was always lighter and thinner, but since the fall had set in, the style now usually maintained longer sleeves. A slighter cooler wind had begun to set it, caressing my face. With the arrival of the winter, the weather was cooler and there was the occasional more rain.
I had let my hair fall free today, being too lazy to put it up at all. Naturally I would never wear their symbol as everyone did here in their top-knots. Even hedid, I could spot it in his hair right now. A small two-pronged fire symbol, which had the color of their cursed eyes. Our eyes made contact. I refused to stare away, so I glared back at him with what I hoped was an intimidating expression. His eyes were glittering, but guarded. Iwao stood beside me, looking down as he saw what my attention was concentrated on. They had not put the ramp down onto the dock yet. "You do not seem happy to see him," Iwao stated dryly.
I looked over at his face, breaking my attention away from Katsu. "Of course not!" I whispered fiercely.
Iwao's face was blank, as if he were a statue frozen in time. How he was able to hold such control I will never be able to understand. "Of course," He repeated in the bland way he spoke, meaning he revealed nothing in his voice.
The men had set down the ramp onto the dock. I let go of the railing, holding in a frustrated sigh. Iwao followed behind me several feet as I started down the ramp. The journey seemed to last forever as Katsu stared me down. He did not move a muscle until both of my feet were on the dock. Katsu filled the gap between us in several bold strides, a distance that would have taken multiple more steps for me. Now it was I looking up at his face, instead of on the ship as moments before. A weird fluttering began in my stomach I could not explain. "Welcome home," Katsu said softly. He took me up into his arms, holding me as he had when I had left with Akane. Then he released me almost instantly, taking a step back from me. My heart thudded loudly in my chest. The void had almost seemed to disappear in that moment…
Katsu nodded towards Iwao, who had done their usual bow towards him. "I expect a full report," He dictated towards him.
"Yes, my lord," Iwao replied neutrally. His eyes did not meet mine. Iwao reported to Katsu, so that meant he told him everything! Did he tell him what he overheard me speak with to Akane? Satoru? My own private conversations? I knew he reported in the past any time I tried to escape, which was natural. But…but did he report everything to him? My body started to shake in an absolute rage at the thought.
"Does he report everything to you?" I seethed at Katsu in a sudden fury. Katsu looked at me in half surprise and instant regret. His face went on the guard instantly. He looked around the dock, where several men were unloading the ferry with my belongings. Others stood up on the deck of the ferry. It was a public transport after all. Katsu reached out and clasped my forarm, pulling me towards him. I tried to pull away from him, staggering as he pulled me in like a fish on a hook. My free hand hit him repeatedly the chest half-heartedly. I knew he was too strong for me to break free. "Stop making a scene, Rana!" He whispered hurriedly into my ear. His warm breath tickled my ear.
"Then let go of me!" I challenged him back quietly. Both of us glared at each other with relentless, enraged eyes. I was stunned when Katsu let go of me, giving in to my demand. This was the first time he had done such a thing, especially when he was riled up. We both had flaring tempers to match.
"Just wait until we are somewhere private!" He growled lowly.
I batted my eyes up at him condescendingly, smug from my momentary victory. "Of course," I said in false sweetness. "You don't want everyone thinking your wife hates you, do you?"
Katsu's face grew contorted as he struggled to control himself. I was enjoying this, I cannot lie. For once I was in control, for there were witnesses to this who were not of his household. Katsu did not want a public scene. I knew the victory would not last and that I would probably pay for it later, but it was worth it. However small it was. I took the lead up on the path towards the steps cut into the cliff side up ahead. The path that would take us directly into the estate, whose suffocating walls loomed overhead on the top of the cliff side. A tiny smile of grim victory decorated my face, one that soon to disappear.
He waited until we were in our usual stop for fighting, the bedroom. Katsu stood there brooding until the men had deposited my luggage into the room, and he had followed behind them, shutting the door with an ominous thud. He kept his back towards me, one hand leaning against the door. My smug smile disappeared immediately, deciding it would be wiser if he did not see it when he turned around.
"Iwao doesn't report to me of what you talk about or anything like that," Katsu stated heavily. "Only if it pertains to some pathetic escape plan, or where your safety is put into question." Katsu turned around from the door, his arms slipping into their usual position as he leaned up against the door. His face was concentrated on mine. "I'm not a total monster as you'd think, Rana," He added bitterly. My rage had seethed at his comment of pathetic escape plans…I had tried to the best of my ability considering the circumstances! It was the way he dismissed them though that just added to my fury.
"I was raised in a nation that has been at war for years. I cannot help being what my people made me…" His voice echoed in my thoughts, sparked by his last words. He had said that in one of our many arguments…
….Monsters…all of them!...
"…because of your strength, your refusing to give in no matter what the odds are…I have fallen in love with you." His voice went on softly…
"War is not a good thing, I think," Satoru thoughtfully stated…
"I wish you could do your bending," Akane said sadly…
Lately, their whispers, contrary to what I believed them to be had started to edge into my thoughts. They were invaders that bided their time, hoping to catch me unaware. Usually I pushed such wrongful thoughts away, but lately it had become more and more difficult to do. "No, you are!" I spat at Katsu, also trying to rid myself of my thoughts. They disappeared, and the fury rightfully took back over.
Katsu looked at me with his bitter smile. "I had been hoping for your return to not mean instant fighting," He ruminated in a dark humor. "It seems my very presence offends you."
"It does!" I snapped. "I wish you were dead!"
The words hung out there, hanging in the air as Katsu's smile slowly disappeared. I held my breath, waiting for an intense reaction. "I believe you," Katsu replied quietly. He turned around and shut the door behind him, this time it was with no loud bang as usual at the end in one of our fights. I stood there bewildered and angry, wondering about his unusual behavior and my own anger at his different reactions. I would rather have had his fury, then his new dark cynicism.
Soon after, Ran joined me in the bedroom. She entered and gave me the usual bow, but a pleased smile as on her face. Her dark brown eyes were alive. I forced a smile at her, but I was happy to see her. "My lady!" She said excited.
Her excitement was contagious, and made me forget about my anger. I beamed at her, and was amazed at my own initiative. I ran to her, flinging my arms around her. Ran was apparently stunned as well, for her body stiffened when I hugged her, until she relaxed and petted my hair hesitantly. She reminded me of Kanna sometimes. "Are you alright?" She asked concerned.
I let go of her and stepped back. My cheeks were on fire from embarrassment. I patted out pretend wrinkles on my clothing. "I'm fine," I murmured. "Yourself?"
"I am well, my lady," She replied, looking at me with concerned eyes still.
"They are all well," She answered me happily. "We celebrated Masuzu's fifth birthday a week ago. His lordship always sends her a birthday present. He does that for both of my children!" He sent her children birthday presents? From a noble lord to a servant's children? Even I had learned about their distinction of class here in the Fire Nation. Why would he do such a thing?
Ran saw the apparent surprise on my face. "He's a good man," She praised him. "Not all nobles are like him."
"Does he send birthday presents to all of his servant's children?" I questioned her scathingly.
Her eyes widened. "No, he doesn't," She replied stiffly. "He has always been close as he can be with my children, because of my previous relation with his first wife." That answered that at least. Maybe Masuzu had made him promise to look after her beloved Ran and her family.
"I'm sorry I missed sending her birthday present," I said in partial apology.
"There is no need to say that, my lady!" Ran returned in her own personal horror.
"I'd like to meet them someday," I added, meaning it. They kids…back at…they had always played with me, especially when I had not wanted it. Takao….
"Shall I unpack for you?" Ran asked me, pulling me away from that particular memory. I flashed a smile at her.
"No, let's do it together."
After I had finished unpacking with Ran, I had gone for a walk in the gardens. Iwao was following me as usual. The sun beat down on us, but the crisp wind from earlier was still about. Another person was strolling ahead of us on the path. Who else would be out walking in the gardens, except for the caretaker? The caretaker for the gardens was a scruffy, older man who did not liked to talk to people. He liked plants better then people. I picked up my pace to catch up with the taller figure ahead of me. The person turned around at the sound of my approach. Startled grey eyes met my own pleasantly, surprised ones. "Rana?" Satoru said shocked.
"What are you doing here?" I asked at the same time, but it sounded rude as soon as it had come out. "I'm sorry," I gushed out. "I mean, I've never seen you out in the gardens before."
"Because I usually do not walk in them," Satoru returned with an amused grin. His face was pleased to see me. I could see visible shadows underneath his eyes, revealing a lack of sleep perhaps. Otherwise he had was unchanged. He wore one of his favored outfits of loose pants and a shirt. His colors tended to a darker reds and soft grays. "When did you return?" He added curiously.
"Today," I answered him. Satoru's eyes glanced over at Iwao who stood feet behind me. For some strange reason, these two men seemed to disdain each other. I could tell as much with Satoru, but it was harder to tell with Iwao. He had an impartial reaction to everyone and everything. I understood Satoru's unintended gesture, and jerked my head towards the alcove that I had once hidden in that was meters away. Satoru followed me. We both sat down on the bench. Iwao had taken the hint and had stayed where he was standing. We were both still visible to him, but out of ear shot.
"You really don't like him," I commented, glancing over at Iwao. His attention were trained on Satoru. I looked back over at Satoru, who had glanced at Iwao with dislike.
"I confess," He admitted, but he fell into a teasing expression. "But he does keep you around, and thus my pay!" Satoru had a running joke about this with me, ever since Iwao had initially been dismissed.
"So, why are you in the gardens?" I probed him again.
Satoru merely grinned. "Perhaps because I hoped to run into you, for I know they are one of your usual haunting grounds," He said in false speculation. I hit him on the shoulder, which he touched with an offended look. "You wound me, my lady," He returned. It was hard to believe him when he still had a smile on his face.
I laughed loudly. He could always make me laugh. Somehow, I did not regret opening up to him…just as I had done with Ran and Akane. "Did you have a good time at Lady Akane's home?" Satoru questioned me, becoming more serious.
"It was good to get away from here," I replied honestly, looking around the gardens in partial hatred.
…A gilded cage…
"I finished your scroll of poetry," I added thankfully. "Thank you. I enjoyed it a lot. I'll return it at our next lesson."
"Keep it," Satoru responded amiably. "I'm glad to know you liked it. The poet is one of my favorites."
"I can't keep it!" I protested. Books amongst my people were few and precious. They had been to begin with since we are land of ice, but even more since….since the destruction of our city.
"You can," Satoru refused with a kind look. "I have plenty where that came from. Some might argue too much." He chuckled at his last words. I could believe him on that, being the scholar he was.
"Thank you," I told him seriously. "This will be the first scroll I've ever owned."
"And a fine one to own," Satoru finished for me. "The beginnings of your own collection. You should consider taking your own hand at poetry, considering your love for it." I smiled in elated surprise at his last words. The idea had never crossed my mind!
"Do you really think I could?" I asked curiously. I would probably offend all of the poets of the world. I had never tried to write poetry before!
"It never hurts to try," Satoru amended for me. "But on a personal note, I'm positive you'll do great."
I beamed at Satoru. "Rana," He began to say quietly. "I have something that-"
The shadow of a taller figure stretched out over the two of us. "What a lovely little scene," Katsu's voice interrupted. I glared up at Katsu, who stood there with his folded arms. The sun was behind him, making it almost impossible to make out his face.
"My lord," Satoru said politely. He rose to his feet and bowed towards Katsu.
"What were you wanting to ask her?" Katsu asked him coldly.
"Only that she comes to me if she needed help," Satoru answered him. Satoru had turned coldly polite as Katsu had. "With the poetry, of course. I have heard your lordship has tried a hand at it."
"I may have," Katsu said with an air of superiority. He extended out a hand and said with an order in his voice. "Come, Rana. I need to speak with you."
I gave Satoru an apologetic smile. "See you at the next lesson," I said. "Which should be-"
"Not for several more days," Katsu interrupted at me. I had risen from the bench, and shot arrows at him with my eyes.
Satoru stood up, not making eye contact with either of us. He bowed and then said politely. "Excuse me, My lord and lady." He walked off quickly. I took Katsu's hand annoyed at his behavior and the still remembered anger from earlier. His much larger hand swallowed my own. I walked with him as he led me into the house silently. He led us towards the study, and Iwao stayed out in the hallway as we entered the room. Katsu released my hand and turned around to face me, striking me with an imposing look.
"Do you go out of your way to torture me?" He insisted in a tight voice. What was wrong with him? I had only been talking to Satoru, he was my teacher that Katsu paid for!
"The answer to that is obvious," I quipped back irritated.
Katsu stared at me until I looked away uncomfortably. He let out a long sigh of exasperation. "I was hoping to take you to Ember Island to celebrate the winter solstice," Katsu admitted calmly, as if he were extremely tired. My eyes widened. Akane had been right! I let out a snort in disbelief. I had thought the idea impossible.
Katsu frowned at my reaction, and I could see the anger glimmering in his eyes. For once, I was not intentionally doing this to anger him nor did I mean it. "It's not you!" I interceded hurriedly, for some reason feeling the need to explain myself. What was getting into me? "Akane had mentioned the idea you might do something like this," I went on, my voice getting wry at the end. "I didn't believe her."
A sour smile penetrated Katsu's face. "You were right actually," He responded thinly. "I have received word that I am needed. I will be leaving in two days to report in."
I almost did a dance of celebration, but then paused as I remembered when he did last three month tour. The time then had dragged on into a listless boredom. Also, when he had said he meant to take me to Ember Island, a place I knew to be for vacationing and celebrations from what Satoru taught me. My heart had softened, but only a minuscule bit! It was just at the idea of getting away from this place once more!
"This time I will be gone for a six month tour," Katsu went on. What? Six months? I tried to hold down the shudder of all that time alone. He was one of my only companions, even if I do hate him! Part of me was celebrating at his words, and the other….the other was quite confused.
"Why so long?" I inquired with a yawn. I would not reveal…I did not care if he was gone! I hate him!
"A rebellion has started in the Hu Xin provinces," He explained. Katsu saw my look of confusion. "The western provinces in the Earth Kingdom."
"At least they have the right idea," I replied coldly. "I'll be cheering for them."
Katsu shot me a glare finally. "I'll double my efforts to make sure you're disappointed then," He said coolly. That was the reaction I was used too!
I gave him a hard smile. "Maybe I'll get lucky and you won't return."
Katsu's eyes turned to blocks of ice, making a shiver run down my spine. This was the anger I was used to and terrified of. I welcomed its return. "Even more reason for me to return," Katsu quipped dryly. "I am your personal hell." I reached out a hand to slap him on the face. He was mocking my pain! Katsu grabbed my hand before it reached its target. We both glared at each other breathless. Suddenly he pulled me towards him, and his lips were down on mine in a furious battle. He fought with fire, and though I feared it….I fought back lest it consume me entirely.
The next two days passed as if I had never left. Yet there was the shadow of his departure hanging over me. I should have been dancing with joy, but the void within seemed to expand. A major distraction was the bedroom department, which I found myself engaging into willingly. I was escorted by Iwao down to the private dock of the estate to see him off, unlike the last time he had left. I had not even spoken to him than. We stood facing each other on the dock as the ramp from the ferry ship was lowered. He was to report to some city where the navy had ships. I had not really cared to listen to any of these details.
His golden eyes, so light, were distant as he looked down at me. "Don't try any of your stupid escape plans," He muttered. "Outside of the fact you made a promise to me."
"Just because of that, I will!" I snapped in return, the familiar anger came swooping in.
"I'll be back in six months," Katsu said, almost as if it was a vow. "Masato and Akane know of my tour," He added. "They were planning to go to the Capital for the winter solstice….I'm sure Akane will invite you."
I gaped up at him. Why was he saying this? To personally torment me? There is no way he would let me travel with them somewhere, especially when he would be out of the country! "I gave my permission to them, and to Iwao," He went on softly, as if he sensed my thoughts. "As long as you are in the company of Iwao and don't cause too much trouble, you are free to travel around the island as well." My jaw dropped open as I stared at him in complete and utter shock. "There's another noble family on this island. I believe they have a daughter around your age," He went on, ignoring my reaction. "They were there at our wedding feast. I'm sure they would be thrilled to befriend you."
I could only feel as if my heart had stopped. This was not true freedom, not what I truly wanted…but it was a step up from what I had now. Maybe he was finally starting to trust me? I remembered the old scheme I had once thought of, to make him fall in love with my, trust me, and then find the perfect moment when I would make my escape. Perhaps this plan could still work, though it could take years. For the first time, I felt a flicker of hope. Yes, someday…
"What would happen to me," I asked curiously and because of my current train of thought. "If you did not come back?"
Katsu's face became shadowed, but he answered my question. "You would inherit my estate," He said monotone. "You'd have what you want." Katsu touched my hair lightly with one hand, as the other encircled around me. "But luckily I don't plan to fulfill that desire," He said in a dark humor. Again he kissed me with a sudden strong, passion, before he let go of me and stormed onto the ship as if he were fleeing the need to hold me longer.
The ferry ship departed from the dock. I knew he watched me from the deck, as I watched it become a dot on the ocean skyline. He had just given me more freedom then I had ever thought possible from him. The strange thing about it is, he had done it when he would be gone. Perhaps he did it out of knowing how…
I paused as that word had come to my mind…lonely…
I destroyed that thought. Lately my thought have been going to places I do not like, and they tend to leave my confused. This confusion in turn only riles up my anger. The ferry ship had disappeared from view. I turned around and started for the walk back up to the estate. Iwao walked behind me as a reminder. My new freedom was still limited and controlled. I would not forget that. No matter what, I am still a prisoner.
The look in his eyes had been so distant, guarded…
I would not be thankful to him or pity him! Yet still…
The void within crept in, teasing me with a peculiar combination of slight guilt and regret. But what over exactly, I did not know…
Nor did I care to find out.