Uncle had ushered us to the grand strategy room where many plans of war and genocide had been made by my father, his father before him, and many generations of Fire Lords before him. It was possibly the most well-kept room of the entire palace, meticulously maintained by the staff even today, though no one had used it since my father’s time.
There wasn’t a single chair in the room, as war called for standing. Instead, in the middle of the room was a table with a map inlaid into the wooden top – each landmass represented by a harvested and polished gemstone. Along the edge of the head of the table, there were drawers with thousands of hand-sculpted stone figures – figures representing the armies of the fire nation, earth kingdom, and water tribes.
There, of course, were none for the air nomadic tribes as they had never had an army.
There was something even more painful about that fact now. Before, none had been made simply because there was no army to keep track of. Now, there weren’t even air nomads. It took everything I had not to stare at Aang as he entered the room, his own gaze falling to the map where his people’s lands were made from citrine gemstones. A room of violence, a room where my ancestors planned the genocide of his peers and teachers centuries before.
He wasn’t the only one whose entire life was altered due to the idle conversations in this room. Katara had taken her place at the left edge of the table, her eyes on the map crafted from polished stones. Her own home was inlaid sapphire. The entire table shimmered in the light from windows that took up almost the entirety of the back wall. The table was polished at least weekly, but even so, if I looked closely, I could see the slight abrasions from moving the army figures about on the table.
It was apparent that the northern water tribe and the various air temples on the map had some of the most apparent scratches of any other location. As Katara and Aang made their way into the room, filling the space once occupied by their people’s would-be murders, it was clear that the scars of war had not been wiped from the table, nor had they been wiped from the memory and souls of the two individuals who had survived such atrocities. The familiar weight of shame filled my belly, even as my uncle’s light aura quickly overtook the dark energy of the room.
“It has been many years since I have stood here. But, if you look carefully around the table, you can see where I stood.”
Sure enough, all around the table were deep imprints of feet where generals and army officials had stood time and time again to go over the many campaigns put forth by the fire nation leaders. There was no way to distinguish whose footprints they were, but I could imagine a much younger Iroh standing near the head of the table, loyally by the Fire Lord’s side.
As expected, that was where Iroh went, making a point to set his feet into the grooves of the stone. His feet fit perfectly.
“I can’t tell you how many times I stood in these footprints. They were here long before I was here. I remember my first day, I stood in this spot, and the edges of the stone pinched my feet, but we were always told to stand in the places of our ancestors – so we could fill their shoes and carry the fire nation forward in their places. Oh, how I would complain after every meeting.”
He sighed deeply then, his hands gripping the wooden edge of the table so he could shift his weight off his creaking knees.
“I can’t remember when they stopped hurting when my feet wore the stone away, so I couldn’t even tell someone else had stood there before me. It’s amazing how people so quickly take on the shapes we are placed into – no matter how much we want to or not.”
Katara’s shoulders were stiff, visibly even beneath the thick fabric of her water tribe robes, and her hands were clenching and unclenching as if she were trying to crush something in her palms. Sweat was beginning to bead up along my neck, already soaking into my hair.
“Why do we need to be in here for this Uncle?”
Iroh’s eyes, though glossy and clouded from age, lighted on me as I spoke. I wondered if he could even see me, really.
“What better place to discuss plans for peace in the room where the times of war began?”
Aang hummed and hawed, bobbing his head in agreement, eyes closed, arms crossed as if he were in deep thought over Iroh’s words. Uncle was more of a monk than Aang, I thought, as I watched them both. Uncle’s sagely advice continued, his words slow and measured as he spoke.
“It is important, for all of you if we plan on moving forward, we must face what has happened in our past. No matter how ugly and no matter how uncomfortable.”
Only then did Aang open his eyes again, his gaze once again slipping off to the map where the yellow stone that represented his home was so plainly laid out for all to see and plan. I could only imagine what he was thinking about. but even more so than Aang, I wondered what Katara was thinking. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wonder for long as she slammed a clenched fist onto the pristine ruby that formed the fire nation.
There was no telling how much her hand was probably throbbing, but none of that pain showed on her face.
“You fire nation folks love making beautiful things for ugly reasons.”
With that, she opened her fist and pressed her palm into the stone, dragging her hand across the aquamarine gemstone sea up through the islands of the western air temple to the land of the northern water tribe. With her nails, she scratched at the nicks and abrasions of the landmass.
“And then you take the beautiful things and break them. It makes no sense.”
Words were bubbling up from the pit of my shame-filled stomach, burning my throat like magma, but my jaw had turned to stone. I couldn’t speak even if I wanted to. What could I say? What could I say to a woman from the northern water tribe, who saw my people come in and take her people – her mother even – and destroy her way of life? Nothing felt sufficient. Nothing would be sufficient.
However, I quickly realized silence was not the correct response, either. Silence had sound, too.
“And then you can’t even say you’re sorry.”
Once again, her hand formed a fist and she slammed it down again onto the fire nation. If she could’ve stood there all day and punch that dense ruby, she probably would have. Thankfully, though, Aang was there.
Though he was pleading with her, it seemed he might have been pleading with himself just as much. Only then did I notice the creases in his brow and the twinge of the muscle in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. It was clear, he was still just as hurt and angry as she was.
His words seemed to be enough to quell the raging surge in her for the time being as she sighed and cradled her aching fist against her chest. Then, her deep blue eyes locked onto me, pinning me in place. My heart was thrumming in my chest and the shame in my stomach was diluting into acid, rushing up into my throat and burning everything in its wake.
“Well, great Fire Lord Zuko. Do you want peace with the northern water tribe?”
I swallowed back the bile and broke through the stone that encased my jaw just to choke out a weak:
Katara grinned, though it was not a friendly or kind smile between colleagues or peers. This was the grin of a predator who had caught its prey.