Chapter 10 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
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The Spirit Within



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Chapter 9 [1]

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Chapter 11 [2]

Summers had always been difficult for Lan Chi at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. The campus was deserted; all but one or two girls went home for the summer. The ones who stayed were those who had come from the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom, and who faced journeys of more than one month each way to get home.

And one girl who had nowhere else to go.

Although there was always only a smattering of girls left at the school, Lan, thanks to the headmistress, always slept in her own room, alone. She did not know whether to be angry or grateful – on one hand, she was kept isolated, but, at least she privacy. Privacy to finally, among other things, practice waterbending. She needed practice desperately. Her only chance to waterbend during the school year took place in the bath, when she was not likely to be disturbed. As a result of that, her waterbending skills, although not degenerated, had, for the most part, not improved, either. Still, despite the new privacy, she restricted waterbending to the nighttime hours, when she could count on full secrecy.

She spent most of the daytime hours in the library, although, after dinner, she was allowed to practice archery in the bending hall. The headmistress, although wary of allowing her to practice such a martial art, apparently decided it was the lesser of two evils, since, she reasoned, the girl's only other alternative was getting into mischief.

The summer before Lan Chi turned thirteen was, unfortunately, one of the hottest summers on record in the Fire Nation. She awoke each morning sticking to her bed, and it only got worse from there. As a child of the Northern Water Tribe, she detested hot weather. Living in the equatorial Fire Nation, as she did, she found much of the weather detestable. By dinner each night, all the unlucky girls, Fire Nation blood or not, were sweaty and snippy, and in foul tempers.

On a particularly sultry night about a month after the solstice, Lan was in a particularly bad mood. She took her meal from the cook, who appeared even more miserable that her diners, carried it to the table where the other girls sat, and dropped it with a clatter, causing the other girls to jump. One of them opened her mouth to say something, but a dark look from Lan silenced her before she made a sound.

Lan settled down on a cushion, and picked up her chopsticks. She put some noodles in her mouth – and promptly spit them back out.

"Ugh! These are horrible! They taste like parchment!" She tossed her chopsticks on the table. "I loathe this place! I loathe the food! I loathe the boredom! I loathe the heat! I loathe –"

"The company?" One of the girls whispered, which caused the other girls to snort into their bowls.

Lan's eyes narrowed. "Everything."

Another girl put down her chopsticks. "So run away. Leave. Be done with it."

"Run away?"

"You know – leave a place without permission?"

"I know what run away means."

The other girl shrugged. "Then do it. It's not as if you'll be the first."

The thought intrigued Lan. Other girls had hated it here enough to run away? She had not even considered the possibility.

The girl, whose name Lan thought was Duozui, continued. "My sister ran away with her boyfriend when she was here – twice. It was kind of funny, since my parents sent her here so she wouldn't see her boyfriend." Duozui shrugged again.

An idea had come into Lan's head. "Really?"

"Of course, she was caught both times, but she was gone almost a week the second time."

"Huh." Lan's mind began working furiously, and she stood up. "I have a headache. I'll see you tomorrow."

None of the other girls cared enough to watch her walk off.

It took only two days for Lan Chi to perfect an escape plan, although perfect, she would have said, was not the best word to use to describe her scheme. It was rough, and full of holes, and just as liable to fail as to succeed. But the combination of the heat and her boredom and frustration caused her to throw common sense away, as she was starting to do more frequently.

Escape would not be a problem. Not for a student of Piandao and the Yu Yan Archers. She would go out the window of her chamber, much as she had the night of the mixer, and then, she would literally go over the wall. The entire school was ringed by ancient hedges grown thick and sturdy over several hundred years. She would simply scale the wall. Once over the wall, she would be in the vast capital city. She could go anywhere she wanted.

The only problem was – she didn't know where to go. Her choices were severely limited, she had to admit. She had no friends. She had no money. She had no means of transportation. All she had was the ability – and the desire – to run away. At this point, though, she did not even really care where she went. She just wanted to prove that she could escape, and she wanted the thrill that came with it – with breaking the rules.

The answer came to her suddenly. She would go to the palace. She would go see Hua and Jianyu. She would see them, and they would fuss over her as they had when she was younger. They might even have news of Iroh! The fact that Zuko might very well be there did not enter her mind more than a dozen times. The fact that Ozai and Azula would most probably be there as well she refused to think on.

So, it was settled, in her mind. She was going home.

It was all far simpler than she had expected. Not long after midnight on the night she had chosen, she made a dummy for the bed, a task at which, she reflected, she was becoming an expert. She knew, however, that it would only buy her eight to ten hours' head start, if that. She put on her sparring clothes but left off the hated robe that advertised her as a Royal Fire Academy of Girls student, and, after rummaging in her roommates' drawers, selected a scarf to conceal her all-too-identifiable hair.

Hideous. She looked hideous. Ah, well, she should blend into her surroundings more easily.

She went out the window and onto the ground with little difficulty. She gained the safety of the hedges easily, as well, and, in minutes, she was on the other side of the wall. She stood on the deserted street in front of the school, the spire of the palace visible from where she stood, and started off in that direction.

She passed long rows of houses and the open market, as well as a city park. She had already decided that she could not attempt to enter the palace under cover of darkness, even though it was tempting. Perimeter security would be tight, she knew, too tight to allow her the opportunity to climb the wall. Therefore, she had planned to go in the front door, with the throngs of Fire Nation citizens there as tourists. She hoped that Ozai had not discontinued the program that Iroh had convinced his father to establish twenty years before – a program that allowed ordinary Fire Nation subjects the chance to look upon the splendor of their ruler's home. That was key to her plan. She had not even considered what she would do otherwise.

She made her way across the city, always keeping to the shadows. She was not afraid, though – not at all – just cautious. She had stolen a dagger from the bending hall, and was confident that she could defend herself, but preferred to avoid all people, if possible.

She reached the palace a little before dawn, which, at this time of year, was very early, and found, nearby, a large tree with heavy leaves. She hoisted herself up into the branches, and found a sturdy one to rest on. She leaned back against the trunk, and with a quick prayer to the spirits that she didn't fall, she drifted into a light sleep.

She awoke several hours later and pushed aside the foliage to peer at the sun. It seemed to be sometime mid-morning. Time to go. She secured the dagger in the top of her boot and experimentally wiggled her ankle. Not obvious. Good. She slid off the branch and made her way to the ground. Fortunately, there was no one near enough to note a girl come out of a tree – that surely would have excited comment.

She adjusted her clothes and kerchief, and nonchalantly sauntered towards the entrance of the palace. Crowds of people were gathered there – bureaucrats obvious by the piles of paper clutched in their arms, guards and other military keeping the peace, families with small children, and even what appeared to be groups of children on school trips.

One of the school groups was comprised of both boys and girls who seemed to be only slightly younger than Lan, so she stood near them, and surreptitiously sidled into the pack. Their teacher was a harried woman of middle years who seemed, to Lan, to spend a lot of her time screeching random names, and who, thankfully, was not alert enough to notice that her group had grown by one. Several of the other students noticed Lan as they lined up to enter the palace, but a menacing look from Lan stilled their tongues.

Their palace tour guide was a thin, fluttery young man who liked to talk at his charges rather than to them, so he launched into a lecture on rules and regulations as he led them within.

"No talking no eating no drinking no quills no ink," this he emphasized, "no candy no large bags no touching anything no stopping no speaking to the guards no loud voices no stomping your feet," finally he turned to them, "and no potty breaks." His grin was more of a baring of the teeth. "Now, let's have fun, shall we? We're walking. We're walking." He was off, with 27 sets of feet shuffling after him.

The twenty-eighth set of feet saw her chance, and joined a smaller group that consisted of several families. They were obviously on a more-in-depth tour, because their guide was actually a royal guard. He was stopped in front of a painting of Zu Jia, twelfth Fire Lord, whom Lan Chi recognized from a history book.

"Zu Jia, as many of you may know from history, was the boy Fire Lord. He ascended at ten years of age," the guard was saying.

Twelve, Lan corrected him silently.

"His uncle, Cai Zhu, was made regent, and, upon Cai Zhu's death when Zu Jia was fifteen, the remaining uncles Guan Zhu and Huo Zhu attempted to usurp the throne. However, that rebellion was quashed when Zu Jia's mother, Su Zhu, a powerful firebender in her own right, rallied the noble families to her son's side and routed the rebels at the Battle of Xiapu."

Lan Chi had to bite her tongue. It was actually at the Battle of Xia Bei that Su Zhu defeated her former brothers-in-law, but Lan did not think it was worth correcting.

She smiled at a little boy was looking at her curiously, and he tugged on his father's hand to be picked up. Lan stuck her tongue out at him.

"Let's move on, now. We'll be entering a portion of the palace that we have included in the tour for honored guests only." He bowed to the man now holding the little boy, who bowed back.

They passed through a large set of ornate doors guarded by two masked firebender soldiers, and Lan averted her eyes from them. It would not do to attract attention by staring at them, and it definitely would not do if she was recognized!

They were now in the portion of the palace that included the private apartments of the royal family. She smiled.

"We will start in the jade sitting room. It was the site of the signing of the treaty that ended the Yian Ding War."

Despite the fact that the historical period that the guard alluded to was among her favorites, she resisted the temptation to listen to the entire tale. Over the course of several minutes, as the tourists oohed and aahed over the lacquered table that still showed the ink marks of the signing, she edged closer and closer to a second door, which she recognized as leading to a series of corridors that would take her to Iroh's quarters.

As the guard began to narrate the events that led up to the cessation of hostilities, Lan opened the door quietly and slipped out.

Fortunately, there was no one in the hall.

Success! The spirits are smiling on me today!

She walked quickly down the hall. She was well acquainted with this portion of the palace. However, she had not been here since Ozai had become Fire Lord, and she was apprehensive. Should she meet any guards, or worse, Ozai or Azula, she knew that being returned to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls was the best outcome. The worst outcome – she could not imagine.

Another door. She turned the knob uneasily. An entire platoon of guards could be on the other side.

A long, empty hallway greeted her. She breathed a sigh of relief and passed through.

One more. Just one more.

At what she thought was the end of her journey through the palace proper, she became careless. In a bid to gain the courtyard exit, she hurried past a doorway that she had not noticed. The door slid open silently, as all doors in the great palace did, and someone stepped out.

Someone very familiar with the Water Tribe child, even disguised.

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