Chapter 18: Contrary in Waiting
"Nothing hurts more than waiting, since I don't even know what I'm waiting for anymore." –Unknown
For some reason that was beyond reason to me, I was seized by a strange desire to practice on the stupid erhu instrument. It was a struggle for me to learn, but for the first time I found myself enjoying the melancholy music it gave birth to. Though my playing was far below average, if I played slowly the tune would actually start to sound like a song. I sat at my favorite spot on the estate, except I hid under the eaves that surrounded the courtyard. There was a mournful rain that fell again from a dreary sky. Ran had brought me a low, cushioned stool upon my request. Iwao was leaning against one of the poles that supported the eaves.
I was startled when the sound of a single clap filled the momentary silence after I had finished playing one song. I looked up to see Ran walking towards me under the eaves, followed shortly by another woman. It was the woman who clapped, and then stopped a few feet before me. They both bowed towards me. "I apologize for the intrusion, My Lady," Ran stated more formally than usual. "Lady Teruko insisted upon meeting you. You may remember her from your wedding. She is the oldest child of Lord Haruko of the Akazen family."
"Yes, I remember," I said quietly. The Akazen family is the only other noble family on this island. He had told me to meet with them, expressing that they had a daughter around my age. Katsu had only been gone for a week now, and I had yet to take advantage of the new freedom he had given me. What was wrong with me? I made the excuse of it being what had happened with Satoru, and I would be leaving in two days with Akane and her family for the Capital. I looked over at the now rising Teruko from her bow. She seemed to be around my age, and I immediately knew that she was the perfect image of a Fire Nation lady. The kind of woman Katsu should have remarried too.
Teruko was taller than me, but then again everyone seems to be taller than me. I had never given much thought to my looks before coming here, but I found myself jealous of Teruko's gracious curves. I had the figure of a twig in comparison. A very short and temper-tantrum throwing twig. Her face was heart-shaped and as pale as the moon. Her hands were long and graceful. My nails now showed evident care of being a lady, but I felt like a mockery of one. Even Akane did not make me this feel way. Had it been due to our age difference, or the fact that she had a way of making anyone feel comfortable in her presence if she desired it?
Teruko had a lighter shade of brown hair, and only half of it was pulled up into the traditional top-knot. There was the usual symbol of their nation decorated on her hair. She had similar outfits of mine, same kind of material and design, but her outfit was mostly of light pink mixed with red shades. Her eyes were a dark brown that held only an appealing countenance. I saw no hidden agenda on them. In fact her face seemed easy to read like an open scroll. There was no hidden meaning there. She was the first person I had encountered who did not know the truth of who I was. If she found out…it would not bode well.
Did he trust me now? He must have, or he merely believed I would not expose him out of simple fear for myself as well. I decided on the latter, not wanting to believe the first one for it had to be impossible. For if he truly trusted me….then I would be able to use that against him to make my escape. Promises be damned.
Yet another thought whispered in my mind: Escape to what?...A war-torn people…The risk of being captured once more?...Yet here….You have…
I destroyed the whisper, and turned my attention back to Teruko and Ran. "Thank you, Ran," I said to her with a smile. "You may go, but please bring some tea to the dining room." Ran bowed towards me, and left without another word. I stood up from low stool and leaned the erhu against it. "If you would follow me, Lady Teruko." I tilted my head, and started to walk down the covered runway in the direction of the dining room. Satoru had taught me in the manners of etiquette, and one did not turn away a guest. Especially if it was another noble. But I was most curious as to why she had called on me today. When in fact, none of her family had called upon me before. It was possible that they did with Katsu, for I had no idea what he did during the day. That thought almost made me freeze on the spot. I had no idea what he did with his time. What did he do for fun? What was his business? I knew about this poetry by accident. He had always been my personal tormentor to me. The fact that….I knew about his dead wife and child…but who were his friends? Did he have any? He was close to his brother, and Akane had told me about him throwing himself into his military career…
…I did not truly know him…Other than as my personal hell…
….I did not care of course…but there was a tendril of…the ache in my chest seemed suddenly heavier…
"Your husband is away on a tour," Teruko stated, breaking the silence between us. "My father told me. He had written to us, and expressed a desire for me to befriend you." Well, that would explain her calling up on me now. Typical of Katsu. She followed me as I walked through the doorway in the dining hall. I gestured for her to sit to my left at the low table. Teruko's every movement spoke of a polished grace. I felt clumsy like an oaf in comparison. Ran was a goddess. I do not know how she did it, but there was already the tea waiting to be served and a small dish with fire-cakes on it.
"So he did," I replied softly. I poured a cup of tea for her and myself, and handed one to her first. "I hope you like jasmine tea," I said. "I find that most of the spicier teas are not my favorite."
Teruko accepted the tea with a thankful smile. "Thank you," She said. Her eyes studied the room around us. "I'll admit this is the first time outside of your wedding that I have been here." She paused, and then her curious gaze went back to me. "When we invited to your wedding, the whole island was alive with gossip about you. Everyone down in the village and town is most curious to see you, but you have stayed hidden away here like some captured maiden from a story."
I tensed at her last words, but saw an innocent teasing on her face. She knew nothing, and meant no harm. I gave her a small smile. "It was difficult for me to adjust," I admitted honestly. "I missed my home."
Teruko's eyes grew distant. "Yes," She breathed quietly. "I'll be facing that soon enough as well." I frowned a little at her words. "I'm to be married," She answered me with the happiness leaving her face.
"And you don't want to be?" I queried out of curiosity. "Forgive my intrusion," I added hastily, after seeing her face start to shut down.
"No, I was the one who brought it up," Teruko admitted with a careless shrug. "That was one of the main reasons I was curious to meet you, outside of Lord Katsu's request. You're around the same age as me, and your marriage was arranged as well. Tradition is to be followed." I wondered what expression her face would hold if I told her the truth about my "arranged marriage." An amused grin tugged at my face, while I tried to hold back the cynicism from my face.
"That's a good reason to want to meet me, I suppose," I responded back. Did her mother not talk to her about these things? Of course, I had at least had Kanna….and now Akane…Ran… "I won't lie to you, Lady Teruko…"
"Teruko," She interrupted me. "Please call me by my name."
"Alright," I said in return. Somehow I found myself liking her, against my better judgment. We were around the same age, and it was nice in a way to befriend someone around my age. Back at home….it had only been Hotaka. Yet at the same time I felt awkward around her, due to the fact that I was envious of her looks in a way, and the other I had no idea how to talk to a girl of my own age. "As long as you call me by my name. I've never been one for formality."
"Rana," Teruko responded with a joyful smile. It was hard to not refuse her look of joy. It was contagious.
I smiled fully in return. "Teruko," I said, enjoying the sound of her name. Somehow at that moment I felt connected to her, in a way I was not with Akane or Ran. I could not explain it, but I knew I had found a friend in this girl.
"Is it difficult at first?" Teruko asked me, apparent fear lighting her face. "Being married to a stranger?"
"Yes," I told her honestly. "I hated him at first." My teeth gritted together at my first memories of Katsu. There was a look of shock on Teruko's face. "But it gets better," I went on immediately, lying as I told her this. Perhaps it would be better for her for she is one of them. Not for me though. I was not raised as her, expecting to have my father pick a husband for me, or the fact that I had been married to the enemy. Yet as I told her this lie, there was a strange tugging on the void within me. A feeling that she was not the only one I was lying too.
"How old are you?" Teruko asked me.
"I'll be sixteen this winter."
Teruko gaped at me, before the look vanished from her face. I took a sip of my tea, enjoying the warmth of it spreading through my body. "I had thought you to be older than me," She admitted with a partial laugh. "I'm sorry. I find it funny that I'm getting marriage advice from someone younger than me!"
I half chuckled at her words. "How old are you?" I returned.
"Eighteen," Teruko mused kindly. "You're a bit young to have gotten married. Most of us marry in our early twenties actually." She paused as if in deep thought. "The age difference between me and future husband is also much less." I had to keep the cynical grin that wanted to light my face. That had bothered him when he had found out, and I had used it as a temporary victory over him.
Teruko and I continued to visit with each other for over another hour and a half. We talked about her soon-to-be husband she had not even met. He was the oldest son of another noble family. It was not a particularly noteworthy family for they were much like her's and Katsu's. On the outskirts of nobility and not powerful enough to be of much consequence. Of course there was the little secret I had learned about his family from Akane. Their children became the bodyguards of the Royal Family. Just as Akane's younger son had been taken from her, and a lie told to the world that he was dead.
I found myself connecting to Teruko, and missing the fact that I would be gone for the next few days. I had promised her upon my return to visit her home instead. She told me her family was looking forward to actually meeting me. "My father and Lord Katsu used to be good friends," She had told me. "I remember him visiting all the time when I was a child, back when Masuzu was still alive." A look of regret instantly had sprung on her face at the mention of Masuzu. I had reassured her that it was alright, even though that thought had come to me.
…He had been happy once….With her in that banner of them together…Smiling...
Teruko and I had talked about the island, and her memories of growing up here. She had tried to talk to me about my own childhood. I had managed to leeway her from that topic without appearing suspicious at all. I admit that I am eager to see her again, and hoping she does not leave for her marriage for some time. She had told me that the marriage will not take place for months, something I found myself rejoicing with. It was because of Katsu that I had met her, but I found myself not caring. As much as I detest to confessing that at all. Teruko was in some ways naïve, when compared to the experiences I have had. Yet…would I have been the same as her? Happy and naïve for the most part….if there had been no war? If our beautiful city had not been destroyed, and my people scattered across the southern pole? She reminded me of what my people should have…of what I have been like in a different reality. Teruko was kind and naturally shy, but there was also a brave determination under her lady like looks.
Later that day I sat in the study room, reading a scroll that was about the early history of the Fire Nation. When instead the Fire Lord had merely been the head of the Fire Sages, a council that had led the Fire Nation long ago. The Fire Sages later went on to exclusively serve the Avatar, and then after Avatar Roku's death, the Fire Lord instead. Everyone says that the last Avatar died with the Airbenders. Fire Lord Sozin murdered them over forty years ago, even though their history books claim that the Airbenders were going to attack them. In the southern pole, we did not know all of the Airbenders had been wiped out. We had not seen any in many years. I had only known of them through stories and of how they were a peaceful people, living as monks. It was not until I came here that I learned of this truth through Satoru.
It is assumed by most people of the Fire Nation that the Avatar died along with them. I had always thought Kanna to be wrong back home when she had spoken of hope for a better future. "There is always hope," She would tell me. Even though I had disagreed with her, a small part of me had always wanted to believe her. I had wanted to be able to have her constant hope. If she knew what I knew now, would she still have hope against a truth that destroyed any for a good future? It was futile. I knew that now. Without the Avatar, the world would slowly fall to the Fire Nation. Even if took the rest of this century, until the next arrival of Sozin's comet, they would eventually win. What was the point? I thought bitterly to myself. Why even try to resist against the envitable?
"My Lady?" Ran's voice called out softly.
My thoughts disappeared into the back of my skull as I looked up at her. The formal look from before had vanished from her face. It had been for appearances in front of Teruko I realized. There was a look of slight concern on her face as she bowed towards me. I glimpsed a small scroll in her hand. Would it be another letter from Akane? I had just sent my reply last night. Surely she had not felt the need to respond, given they would be here in day and a half? "Are you alright?" Ran asked me kindly. "You had such a bleak expression when I walked into the room."
"I'm fine," I told her with a tiny smile. Her concern gave me heart somehow. "Just worrying about things beyond my control," I went on, realizing it was true. I am one person. There was nothing I could possibly do to stop a whole war or country. Yet there was still a heavy guilt that lay on my heart, making the void increase. How could I be here, while my people and others suffered daily?
"I have a letter from his lordship," Ran stated, holding out the small scroll to me. There was a sly look on her face that quickly vanished. Slowly I took the letter from her extended hand.
"Thank you, Ran," I told her. A thought came to me suddenly. I had told her once I would like to meet her children. Now I had had free run of the island for a week, and I had yet to use that new freedom! "Ran," I said sincerely, "When I return from the Capital, could I meet your children? Go to your home?"
Ran's eyes widened in surprise. She studied my face carefully before she broke into a full smile. "I would be honored," She said with a bow. I remembered the way her eyes had lit up when she had talked about her husband, and her two children, Ozubon and Masuzu. Katsu paid for Ozubon's education and gave her children birthday presents. Something Ran claimed that was due to her having been Masuzu's maid, whom she had named her child after. Ran left the room, giving me privacy to read Katsu's letter.
I felt a bit of trepidation for it was like his last letter to me when I had been at Akane's, it would send me into a fit. Cautiously I opened the scroll, and began to read the letter that was written in Katsu's graceful, masculine style. Even he had prettier looking writing then I did, and he is a man I thought bitterly.
I find myself wondering if you've tried to run yet, given your new freedom to run around the island. But then I find myself remembering your promise and that you have the honor to not break your promises. Hopefully you will enjoy your time with my brother and Akane at the Capital. The festivities there are the best for the winter solstice, even better then at Ember Island. Tomorrow I will be reaching the Fire Nation port in the Earth Kingdom where I am to report to my commanding officer. From there I am to be given my next orders. Clearly I can't go into detail due to the need for military secrecy. And I find myself amused by the idea that you would probably tell any secrets of the like to the Earth Kingdom without hesitation. Is my presence missed by you? I know you won't ever admit to it. But know that you are in my thoughts.
This letter, like his last one, had me gritting my teeth and fire in my eyes. Akane had been right about men. They were terrified of being forgotten. How was it that he knew me well enough to know my thoughts about escaping and to forget the promise I had made? This was a reminder and a warning from him on the subject. He knows me that well, but how is that I do not know him like that?...There had been dark amusement at his comment about my willingness to use him for military secrets. He was right about that as well though. The last part of his letter made the void enwrap its shadows around me even tight…
Is my presence missed by you?
…No…I thought…Not even after that dream…Or coming to hate the empty spot next to me on the bed…
….But know that you are in my thoughts…I could almost hear his voice saying this…
….because of your strength, your refusing to give in no matter what the odds are…I have fallen in love with you….
I shivered, trying to send the memory of his voice away. Yet his words were still there, making the void all the more powerful. I pulled out a piece of blank parchment and wrote my first letter to the man I hate. The man who is my captor. My husband. And the man that I willingly share the pleasures of a bed with.
I do not miss you at all! In fact I am dancing with joy every day that you are gone! These next six months without you will seem like paradise. Tomorrow Akane and your brother will be coming to pick me and up drag me to the Capital. I find myself having daydreams of getting rid of certain leaders who live in the Capital. Don't worry, I'm not that stupid, and Iwao is here to prevent me from doing anything. I shouldn't even respond to your letter for what I was once said about you is still true. You are a waste of ink to be writing to. But I need to entertain myself while you are gone, and I suppose I pity you for you are no longer a commander of your own fleet. You lead the fleet that is destroying my people. Tell me, did you resign from that unit because of me, or is it that you just might have a soul that feels guilty?
I smiled with sweet relish after finishing my letter. I would hand it over to Ran immediately to have her send out the letter before I leave on the morrow. I imagined his angry face at reading my letter, and chuckled. I felt much better in that moment that I had had all week. Best of all tomorrow I would be leaving this place for a short while. He signed the letter as your husband my deceiving mind thought…why…
I rolled up the letter into a scroll, and bound it with a piece of string. I might have called him that in my thoughts, but it did not mean it was true. One day I would be free of this place. Free of him. I had sworn that to myself. Even if took years to be free. When the day comes to make my choice, I would choose my freedom without a secondary thought!
…Yet why did the void not shrink at this thought…Instead…
…I felt so…