White Bone Nights
Written for the 31_days prompt 'Call of the seas, stars, and sky'.
Princess Yue shifted her grip on the rail and tightened her jaw. Her face felt smooth and tight as one of the old bone solstice masks, shiny with years of fat and finger-grease, taken out for ceremonies twice a year. Far below her balcony, in the deep clear shadows by a canal, a group of women from one of the outer regions were butchering a turtle-seal, knives moving in quick curves of white and blue, their voices smooth and unhurried. Outsiders had been feeding into the city since the Avatar’s arrival, coming to stare at him in solemn groups, holding their children up for him to bless. The Avatar tickled the babies and accepted offerings of dried meat or fish-hooks with aplomb before passing them on to Sokka; he never seemed to find the tribesmen strange, for all their grease-thick skins, deep blue tattoos, and stories of the northern ice.
Yue peered down, her breath curling out white in front of her. A group of city ladies were gingerly skirting their way around the knot of squatting women. The turtle-seal had vanished into a series of neat bundles, tied up with skin and sinew; one of them was sluicing out its shell in the canal, setting stringy ribbons of red raying out into the water. One of the women – or, no, it was a man, of course - waved the others back and took a stance over their butchering spot, arms sweeping in and round: a skin of stained ice swirled up and out into an arc of water, settling smoothly into the canal with a flick of his wrist. He brushed his gloves off and swung his arms again, sending a lip of thick white ice arching out across the canal. Yue was about to call out when one of the other women tugged at the bender’s arm and he let the ice slip back into water with a shrug: some of them at least had taken notice of the city’s strictures on bending. Yue watched the women stride off behind the bender towards the nearest bridge, brushing through the other pedestrians. They moved, she realised, like Katara, not too quick for the city but too steady, as though they had a long way to go yet.
Life at the south pole, at the bottom of the world where even the stars were strange, a place without benders where the ice stood stiff and still, must be hard. As hard as it was in the far north where, Yue’s mother had told her, spirits with hair of red string and click-clacking teeth waited in the ice; where benders could raise up a huddle of houses for a month of hunting before leaving them behind to be hollowed through by the fierce winds. Yue straightened herself, the slick patch where she’d leant on the railing furring over again, above her the deep clear sky. She had to tell Sokka about her betrothal; he would leave with the Avatar in any case. It meant nothing that he did not move like those women, that he was sprawling and jumpy and might perhaps enjoy city life. She had a duty to her people and the war lay out across the ocean. The north, though, it was her place to understand. When Sokka left she would petition her father to be allowed to travel with her retinue around the villages of the coast, where towns clung over steep sea-valleys in great frozen bridges or bulged up inland, broad icy domes rooted deep in the tundra. They would strike up into the ice fields and long nights of the outer lands, and Yue, a woman grown now, after all, would tell her attendants to let her walk out across the ice, to move on and up into the darkening northern sky.