Chapter 13 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
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The Spirit Within



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Chapter 12 (The Spirit Within) [1]

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Chapter 14 (The Spirit Within) [2]

Summer turned into fall, and classes began again at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Lan's roommates moved back in, with the exception of Ling, who had apparently received sufficient town polish for her parents' satisfaction.

Lan Chi felt the loss of her only friend keenly. She had been particularly low since the interview with Ozai, and now she felt more alone than ever. The one thing that brought her any joy at all were the memories she carried of Zuko, but, along with those memories came the memory of Ozai's words – words that had destroyed the dreams she had carried secretly in her heart for so long.

Then, to further destroy any chance of happiness, the headmistress forbade her from enrolling in Self Defense and Fighting. Lan was instead placed into the Domestic Arts class, which she detested. Students were expected to learn domestic applications such as cooking, embroidering, and household management. It was not a subject at which she excelled.

It was, also, unfortunately, a class rather crowded with her enemies. Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai were all enrolled – apparently, Domestic Arts was quite an easy class that provided credit.

On the first day of class, Lan Chi walked in to find Azula and her cronies already there. As Lan walked past them, Azula gave a sound of disgust.

"What are you still doing here? I thought that the headmistress expelled you for whoring with my brother."

Lan stopped in her tracks, and turned to face Azula. The princess smiled at her evilly. "Is there something you wanted to say, Lan?" She cupped her hand to her ear. "What's that? You want me to give a message to Zuko for you?" She said, overly loud.

Lan Chi's eyes narrowed, but she said nothing. Ozai had obviously told Azula about his warning to Lan, and Azula had decided to have some fun with it. Despite Lan's desire to either encase Azula's head in ice or give her a scathing setdown, she controlled both impulses and found a seat far, far away from the three girls.

The teacher came in, an excruciatingly thin woman with a shock of white hair. She introduced herself as Mistress Mei Shyr.

"I am very much looking forward to educating all of you young ladies in the domestic arts. A well-run home is a harmonious home. And a harmonious home leads to a harmonious husband. And, of course, if the husband is filled with harmony, then so is the wife." She folded her hands into her sleeves, and smiled beatifically, as if she had just imparted the secret of life to her students.

Lan Chi blinked. Apparently, the key to a happy marriage was a clean floor and a delicious meal. She had no idea. She thought love was the key to a happy marriage. Well, actually, it didn't matter to her what the key to a happy marriage was, since she was not likely to experience one.

"We will begin this year's lessons with possibly the most important skill that a wife should have – cooking." At grumbles from the girls, she smiled and lifted her hands. "Now, I understand that most of you will have a staff and will probably never be called upon to cook a meal. However, it is a very valuable skill. It will also enable you to supervise your kitchen staff more closely, and know, for example, if your cook is cheating you in any way."

Lan rolled her eyes. If the worst that these girls faced was a cook who overcharged her employer for sugar, then they would have an idyllic life indeed.

"Now, of course, we have to start with the fundamentals of measuring, as well as identification of basic ingredients and utensils. Then, we will move on to actual cooking. At that point, we will start meeting in the Academy kitchens in order to use their facilities. Any questions?"

Lan felt like raising her hand. How can I escape?

That was not one of the questions answered, however, and Lan spent the rest of the class slumped at her desk, idly folding and unfolding parchment, the teacher's voice droning unintelligibly in her ears.

When the bell came that released them, Lan fairly flew from the room. She had to get out of the Domestic Arts class somehow, and back into Self Defense and Fighting. But how?

The answer came to her as easily as walking, which slowed as the solution unfurled in her mind. Mistress Zhi had removed her from music class because she could not bear Lan's tsungi horn playing any more. Maybe that would work for Domestic Arts. Perhaps, if Lan was such a bad student in that class, the teacher would beg her to go – anywhere.

So Operation Burnt Offerings was put into motion. The first two weeks were actually weeks of preparation – both literally and figuratively. The girls, in class, were preparing to learn to cook, and Lan was preparing plans on how best to sabotage all of the upcoming cooking assignments. Clandestine waterbending would work to remove liquid from cookie and cake batters. Increasing the amount of wood in the ovens would burn the meat. Adding the wrong amounts of salt or garlic to sauces would take care of main courses as well as side dishes. So many ideas came to her mind on destroying every edible creation that she attempted that she wondered if she would get the opportunity to employ them all.

However, as she planned, so did Azula. Azula, though, planned not to ruin class, but to ruin Lan Chi's life. Every day when Lan entered the classroom, Azula had something to say as Lan passed the princess's desk. Whore was a preferred name. As was easy lay, as well as doxy and tramp. Tart was a favorite of Lan's.

Azula's bullying of Lan was not limited to only whispered epithets.

"Lady Lan Chi," she called across the room on the day they were asked to identify ordinary cooking implements, "may I please borrow your slutted spoon?" The entire class collapsed in laughter. "Oh, my mistake, Lan. I meant slotted spoon, of course."

Lan blushed, but ignored Azula. If Azula was unable to get a rise out of her, perhaps she would stop.

She didn't, and the weeks dragged on.

As Lan Chi was leaving the classroom at the end of the second week, Mistress Mei Shyr held her back.

The teacher waited until all of the other girls had gone before speaking. She looked at Lan kindly.

"Lady Lan Chi." She smiled. "I've been wanting to talk with you."

Lan was wary. "You have?"

The teacher nodded. "Yes, I have. I have – noticed the things that Princess Azula has been doing, and saying."

Lan's heart sank.

"And I think that she is being disgraceful."

Lan's eyes grew wide.

"And, although I can't really do anything about it," of course not, Lan thought, "I wanted to tell you that I do sympathize."

"Thank you, Mistress. That – really means a lot to me."

The teacher reached out and impulsively squeezed Lan's hand. "Do not let those nasty girls get you down."

Lan nodded. "Thank you, ma'am. I won't."

As Lan left the classroom, her face was long. There was no way she could sabotage the class now!

She dragged herself back to her chamber. None of her roommates were there, mercifully. Good – she didn't want to deal with them right now. She wanted to lie on her bed, dream about Zuko, and wallow in self-pity for a few hours.

She had really wanted to cause chaos in the Domestic Arts class, but, after the teacher had been so nice to her, she could not, in good conscience, go through with her plan. That left her without any idea of how to get out of that class and into Self Defense.

Rats! What could she do?

A niggling idea came slithering into her mind, and she tried to dismiss it. It was too ludicrous for words. It would never work.

But why not? Her audacious side asked. You have had all your power taken from you, yet again. Take some back!

The more she thought on it, the more she thought that it was worth a try. If nothing else, it would show the headmistress that she, Lan Chi, was a formidable force. One to be reckoned with, if she dared.

Lan Chi's plan was simple: convince the headmistress to allow her, Lan Chi, to transfer into Master Jiao Ao's class. A monumental task, but one she felt up to tackling. Unless she wanted to spend the rest of the school year learning how to stitch dragons into pillows and being subjected to Azula's salacious barbs, she would have to do something.

It was a bold plot, and fraught with uncertainty, but she felt she had no choice.

That night, after all her roommates were asleep, she crawled from her bed and, under the cover of darkness, changed into the clothes she had worn the night she had visited the palace. On silent feet, she eased open the chamber door, closed it behind her, and was off down the corridor.

Her goal was the headmistress's suite of rooms. Although she had never been to the headmistress's rooms, or even in the teachers' quarters, she knew that they all lived in the central tower of the school, with the headmistress's rooms being at the top. It was easy enough to gain entrance through the unlocked door at the bottom of the tower, and easier still to slip up each floor, past the other teachers' rooms. Through doors left ajar she could sometimes see the instructors engaged in their late night activities of reading, chatting with colleagues, quietly playing music, and other scholarly activities. Closed doors invariably meant that the instructor was asleep or did not want prying eyes to invade privacy.

At the very top of the tower was a set of double doors, ornate and heavy – obviously the headmistress's home. Lan Chi put her ear to the panels. She could hear, faintly, the sound of water running.

Well, well, well, the headmistress has a private bath – lucky polarbear dog!

She opened the door quietly and peered inside. The room was in darkness but for a few candles. Lan let herself in.

It was a large area, more than twice the size of her own room, which slept four, and Lan again thought about the fairness of the headmistress having a huge bedroom with attached bath.

Ah, well, she thought, the benefits of power.

Lan crept to what seemed to be the bathroom door. There was still the sound of running water, but it seemed, from the sound, to be coming from a sink. She might come out soon.

Lan found a chair by the window, and silently turned it to face the rest of the room. She curled up in it and waited.

She had only to wait about five minutes.

The headmistress came out of the bathing chamber clad in a soft dressing gown, her hair down and face scrubbed clean. She looked much older than usual.

"Hello, Headmistress."

Lan enjoyed seeing her jump in fear.

"How dare you? What are you doing here?" She demanded, her composure regained.

Lan smiled slightly. "I wanted to talk to you."

"Get out before I call the guards! Immediately!" She raised an imperious finger towards the door.

"You're going to call the guards for a thirteen year old girl? You're not frightened of me, are you? I'm only a child, after all." It was all going very well so far, Lan reflected. Her voice did not shake. Her eyes were not dilated in fear.

The woman flushed. "You're a demon!" She picked up a small vase, presumably in defense.

"There are some people who agree with you." Lan acknowledged.

"What do you really want?" She raised the vase as if to throw it at Lan.

Lan tensed her body to spring aside if necessary. "I just want to talk to you – and to apologize."

That startled the headmistress. "To – to apologize?" She started to lower the vase, then thought better of it. "That doesn't excuse you breaking into my room."

"It's true. I'm sorry. But what I want to say to you is best said far from prying eyes – and ears." She added.

"Well, say what you want to say and be gone! And don't think that you won't pay for this tomorrow!"

Lan ignored her last statement. "I wanted to apologize for running away this summer."

The headmistress finally lowered the vase. "Oh, yes?"

"I was bored, and – idle. And you know what they say about being idle."

"Of course I know what they say! I'm a teacher!"

"Anyway, I was bored, and I wanted to see if I could run away."

"Well, you succeeded!" Her voice was indignant.

"I did. I got out, went to the palace, and got back in here without ever being caught."

"Ha!" The headmistress screeched, and pointed a triumphant finger at Lan. "I knew it! I knew it!"

She shrugged. "So did the Fire Lord." She shook her head. "He was very angry."

"As well he should have been – you, you harlot!"

"He was mad at you, too," Lan pointed out.

At the reminder of the Fire Lord's rage, the headmistress dropped her triumphant finger.

"It's true – what the Fire Lord must have told you – I did go to the palace, and I met Prince Zuko, and we went to my chamber." When it seemed that the headmistress was about to say something, Lan held up her hand. "Nothing happened, though. Just a few kisses."

"I don't believe you."

"It's true, though. We were only twelve!" It was her turn to be indignant.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I want you to know that I only ran away because I was bored. And I'm bored now. My classes – aren't challenging to me. Domestic Arts? Mind-numbingly boring. I can't stand embroidery – or cooking. Don't get me wrong," she hastened to add, "Mistress Mei Shyr is a wonderful teacher, but I'm just not interested in the subject."

The headmistress's eyes narrowed. "What do you want?"

"I want to you to transfer me to Master Jiao Ao's Self Defense and Fighting class."

"No. Absolutely not." She shook her head emphatically.

"If you don't, I'll run away again."

"Don't threaten me."

"I'm not threatening you. I'm really not. But I will run away again. I promise."

The headmistress's chin lifted. "You can try."

"I'll also succeed. You can't keep me under lock and key. Unless you want to assign a guard to watch me twenty-four hours a day, I'll get away. You know that. You know I can."

The headmistress's face took on a mulish set. "Go ahead. Run away. I don't care."

"I'll go to the palace again, and I'll find Prince Zuko, and we'll find someplace private, and then," here came the lie that she had been practicing, "I'll give myself to him."

"You'll just prove to everyone what a slut you are!"

Here was what Lan Chi hoped would change the headmistress's mind. "I'll let the Fire Lord find us." She seemed to consider this a moment. "Maybe we'll use his bedchamber."

Even in the dim light, Lan could see the woman's eyes grow round. "You would not dare!"

"Yes. Yes, I would. And I'll even tell him you encouraged me."

"He won't believe such hogwash!" Her voice sounded uncertain.

Lan shrugged. "He might not. But, he might."

The headmistress's face was a mask of rage and hatred. "You are a horrible, horrible, horrible girl."

"All I want is to be in Self Defense and Fighting. I promise I won't run away."

"Ha! As if I would trust the word of a filthy – " she fumbled for words, "girl like you."

"You don't need to trust my word. I am just telling you that if you don't transfer me into Master Jiao Ao's class, then you can be certain that, at the first opportunity, I'll head for the palace."

The headmistress looked at her for a long moment, weighing Lan's words and measuring her fortitude. "Fine!" She spat.

Lan smiled and stood.

The headmistress's lip curled derisively. "I rue the day that you ever came to this school."

"So do I, Headmistress."

It was with a giddy sense of anticipation that Lan Chi entered the bending hall the next week. She stopped just inside the doorway, and looked at all the weapons of mayhem spread around her. Knives, maces, jian, and guando – all harmless replicas, of course, scattered around the room, as well as the bows and arrows piled by the windows. She drew in a deep, cleansing breath. She was home – well, as close to home as this hellish place would allow her to be. Here, she was in control. Every slash of every blade, every flight of every arrow – it was within her power to direct them, to guide them – it was her decision their paths. No Fire Lord, no Prince or Princess, no Uncle, had dominion over her while she held a dagger or drew a bow string.

Master Jiao Ao entered from another door, and Lan ran across the hall to throw her arms around him. "Oh, Master Jiao Ao, how glad I am to see you!"

He was stiff in her arms. "Lady Lan Chi, this is not a seemly display."

She dropped her arms and stepped back. "I apologize, Master. I'm just so happy to see you!" Her smile was infectious.

He chuckled. "I am glad to see you, too, child." He clapped her on the shoulder. "I despaired of every having you in class again. Tell me, how did you convince the headmistress to transfer you?"

Her face reddened, and she gave a small cough into her hand. "Well, as to that, I – "

He held up his hand. "On second thought, I do not want to know."

"Yes, Master."

The other students began filing in. Many were girls who had been in class the year before, and, upon seeing her, several groaned.

"Do not take it personally, my lady. They are just remembering the thorough thrashings you gave them last year."

Lan frowned. "Shall I go easier on them, Master?"

He looked at her in horror. "A warrior never shows mercy to an opponent, Lady Lan Chi. It is dishonorable, and not befitting one of your station."

Lan drew herself up. "Yes, Sir."

"We are working on knife defense. Would you care to jump right in?"

Lan smiled. "Oh, yes. Please."

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