|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 14 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 13 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 15 (The Spirit Within) 
Master Jiao Ao beckoned to Lan with one hand. She released the headlock she had on her opponent, and the girl stumbled to the floor.
"Sorry," Lan said, insincerely. She really wasn't sorry. The girl had laughed at her one too many times, and this was the price she had to pay.
It was not that Lan was petty; she was not, but, as a child of the Fire Nation, she had been taught that honor and saving face were of utmost importance. The girl had attempted to humiliate her on several occasions, and had succeeded on other occasions – this was retribution.
No mercy. That's what Jiao Ao had taught her. That was what Piandao had taught her. That was what the Yu Yan had taught her. To do anything less was not only dishonorable, it was foolhardy – and dangerous.
She tossed aside the wooden dagger she had been using, and came over to bow before Jiao Ao. "Master."
His eyes narrowed at her. "Have you been training with the jian, Lady Lan Chi?"
"Yes, Sir. Every night, for a half hour." She was at attention, looking forward and not at him.
"Do you think that sufficient, my lady?"
She stole a look at him. "No?"
"And the guando?"
Her face colored. "I have – not been training with it – recently."
"Do you not find its mastery important?"
She opened her mouth, then closed it.
"Well, Lady Lan Chi?"
"Yes, Master. Vitally important."
"And the dagger?"
Finally! Something she had been training with amply. "Two hours a day, Sir."
He seemed to approve. "Archery?"
Her métier. "Two to three hours, Master."
"A day?" He seemed surprised.
"Do you not have homework from other classes?"
"I complete it during lunch, usually."
His brows raised. "All of it?"
"Do you excel in other classes, as you do in mine?"
She smiled – he said that she excelled at Self Defense and Fighting! "My esteemed teachers say that I am among their top students."
"Do they? A well-rounded young woman, indeed."
"Thank you, Master."
"Lady Lan Chi, do you know the purpose of this class?"
She looked at him briefly, confused. "Um, self defense and – um, fighting?"
He nodded. "Exactly." He turned to look at the rest of the class, all involved in sparring. "Do you know what the thread is that binds all the students in this class?"
Lan followed his gaze. "We are all – girls, Master?"
"Non-benders, Lady Lan Chi. You are all non-benders."
"Benders have a distinct advantage in war, my lady, and indeed, in life. Do you agree?"
"Why is that, Lady Lan Chi?"
"Because they have weapons that we cannot hope to command or master."
"Yes. It would be as if benders were unable to master the use of the dagger – or the jian – or the guando – or the bow. And we know that they can. So they are at an advantage. Self Defense and Fighting class evens the odds, so to speak, between benders and non-benders. That is why I train you all so hard – because you cannot hope to fight and defeat a bender of any element unless you have mastery, true mastery, of your weapon."
"There will be a competition next month, Lady Lan Chi, to wrap up our unit on knife defense. I am going to choose six girls from all of my classes, to do battle." He turned to the other girls again.
Lan's eyes widened.
"The best students. Competing against one another, in front of the entire school. My goal is to put the benders on notice, Lady Lan Chi. They may have a physical superiority, but they are not superior." He faced her. "Are you interested?"
"Oh, yes, Sir. I am definitely interested."
Training was intense for the next month. Jiao Ao told Lan to give up all other weapon training in order to concentrate on the dagger. Although she itched to pick up the bow, she refrained, and instead poured all her free time into knife defense and fighting. She practiced on dummies and on classmates, although neither gave her much of a challenge.
One day, Jiao Ao asked if she would like to spar with him, and she agreed with excitement.
"Allow me to explain the basics of the competition to you first, Lady Lan Chi. And, also, if you don't mind, I would like to find out how much theory you know."
"Please forgive me if what I am about to say to you is redundant. You have not been my pupil for very long, and am certain that Master Piandao shared all this with you, but humor an old man."
She gave a lopsided smile. He was not very old.
"Knife defense, for lack of a better term, is not something that you would be using in combat. Knife against knife combat is relatively rare. The goal of combat is to defeat and likely kill your opponent – not to show some clever techniques. Those who try are likely to become the defeated. Does any of this sound familiar to you, Lady Lan Chi?"
Piandao had given her much the same speech years before. "Yes, Master, but I believe it bears repeating. Could you please continue?"
"Very well. As I was saying, intricate footwork and strikes look very nice, but, in an actual fight, they may bring about your death. Never a pleasant outcome."
"When you are fighting in the real world, you can assume that your opponent is intending to assassinate you. They are not there to flip you over a shoulder and continue on. They are there to kill you before you kill them. You will succeed if your weapon is stronger, if you are faster, and if you do not hesitate."
She nodded, and he continued.
"This is what this competition is about. Real world fighting. No niceties. No sparing the other person's feelings. No mercy."
"We are not using real blades, though, are we, Master?"
He shook his head. "I don't want my students to kill each other. I don't want you to hurt each other, either. I just want you to treat this as a possible situation that you might encounter in the future – an encounter that your life might depend on. Can you do that, Lady Lan Chi?"
"The tip of each wooden knife will be dipped in red paint – to simulate blood, of course. Any strike against the throat, head, or torso will result in a loss of a round. There are three rounds. Should neither opponent strike the kill zone, non-lethal strikes will be tallied at the end of each round, and the one with the greater number of non-lethal strikes shall be given that round. You may utilize other fighting techniques as well – as long as there is nothing used above the neck."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"You may wrestle with your opponent, trip them, kick them. But there is no biting, no eye gouging, or the like. Each round is three minutes, and victory in two out of three rounds determines the winner."
"Are the rules clear?"
"Now, back to theory. Skill is very important, is it not, my lady?"
"Yes, Master. The most important thing."
He shook his head sadly. "Master Piandao did not tell you that, did he?"
Lan's brow furrowed. She thought that he had. Now she doubted her memory. "I – I thought that he had, Sir."
"I doubt it. Come, Lady Lan Chi." He led her to a cabinet that she had never seen him open before. He pulled out a pair of wicked looking dao swords. "We do not teach this weapon here, Lady Lan Chi. Do you know why?"
"They are too dangerous, Sir?"
"They are mostly certainly dangerous. But, no, that is not the reason. These weapons – stand back, please." She obeyed, giving him a wide space. He sliced through the air with one of the swords at a speed so fast that she did not see him move until his maneuver was done. "These weapons are primarily used for slashing and hacking." He swung the sword back again. "For chopping off heads. For front-line combat. It is a weapon of strength – brute strength." She remembered Zuko demonstrating his dao swords to her years before, and, she pictured, in her mind, present-day Zuko, a Zuko of brute strength, brandishing the swords.
Her knees went weak.
He replaced the swords in the cabinet. "That is why we do not teach them to young ladies. Most females cannot use them properly – cannot do them justice." He removed a fearsome-looking dagger from the cabinet. It had a slight arch, and a wickedly sharp edge. "This is a weapon for a woman. It requires little upper body strength. It is small and can be carried on your person." He brandished it as if he had an enemy in front of him, and demonstrated stabbing his invisible opponent. "It slides into the flesh like a warm knife into butter." He straightened. "Just as deadly as the dao, but subtle. Much more subtle."
"Yes, Sir. Master Piandao told me the same thing."
"Yes. We shared the same master. Much of our teaching is similar."
He walked her back across the hall. "Combat, for one using the dao, is not about skill. It's about survival. With either knife, you can be the most skilled swordsman in the realm, and still fall to one with much less training than you. Because the willingness to do what must be done to survive true combat is from within you. It must come from you; it cannot come from your Master, it cannot come from an order from a commanding officer. It isn't about skill, or footwork, or wrist locks; it's about surviving. If you mistake that when you are confronted with it, you will die, because you will not be able to reckon with it, and you will fail to react to someone who knows the difference. It should be second nature. It should be an extension of your instinct."
Lan had been enthralled by his speech, and stood stunned for a moment. He smiled, and she snapped out of her reverie. Lan Chi drew in a deep breath. "I understand, Master."
His brow raised. "Good. Are you ready to fight me?"
"So, what are you waiting for?" He threw her a wooden dagger, and grabbed one for himself.
She took the dagger in her hand and felt its heft. It was light, and she twirled it in her hand a few times to get a feel for it.
Jiao Ao was already circling, and she had to rotate to keep him within her sight. His legs and elbows were bent slightly, and he watched her with eyes devoid of emotion. He turned his body into her slightly, and she saw an opening. She lunged for him, and his dagger found a spot beneath her ribs.
She jumped back, startled.
Jiao Ao's face was disappointed. "You are dead, my lady. Had this been a combat situation, I would be the victor, and you would be the victim."
She flexed her neck back and looked at the ceiling with self-disgust. She had seen an opening, an easy opening, not realizing until too late that it was a trap. It had taken Jiao Ao a total of ten seconds to defeat her.
"Would you like to go again, Lady Lan Chi?"
She took a stance, trying to divorce all her training from a desire for survival. She tried to feel the years of training fall away, the thinking, the strategizing, the techniques, until all that was left was a pure connection between her body and her desire to live.
"Yes, Master. I would."
She ended up sparring with Jiao Ao for the remainder of the class time, and into the next. He was relentless and sly, and always bested her. Once, she thought she had an advantage, but her hand hesitated and he slipped away, and the next she knew his dagger was across her throat. He released her.
"Why did you not press me when you had the chance, my lady?"
She shook her head. "I do not know."
He pointed a finger at her. "I do. You hesitated because it was your master you faced. No mercy, Lady Lan Chi. No quarter given."
They continued fighting, although Lan Chi noted that the kicking and tripping that he mentioned earlier were not utilized by him at all.
"Gives me an unfair advantage, with my height and weight," he explained.
At the end of an hour and a half, with her opponent tiring, Lan saw her opportunity. She ducked beneath his arm as he moved in for a strike, and brought the point of her knife softly against the underside of his chin.
His eyes widened, and he stepped back immediately. "Well done, Lady Lan Chi. Well done, indeed."
"I have not failed you, Master?"
"Why would you say that, my lady?"
"Dozens of times we fought, and I only beat you once."
He smiled. "I have been studying this art for over thirty years. Did you think that you would rout me?"
"No, but –"
"Lady Lan Chi, you are an admirable and formidable opponent, and I am honored to call you my student. As I am sure Piandao is, as well."
She bowed to him, and he returned the bow.
"Ah, look who is here. My other star pupil. Lady Lan Chi, are you acquainted with Lady Mai?"
Mai stood before them, glaring at Lan Chi. In her hand, she clutched a piece of parchment.
"We – we have been in classes together, Master." Lan hated that her voice broke. She also hated that Jiao Ao had called Mai a star pupil.
"She is one of the best I have ever trained. She is quite good, Lady Lan Chi, of that separation we spoke of – separation between technique and instinct."
She is also quite good of that separation between herself and personality, Lan thought.
Mai smiled at Master Jiao Ao's compliment. "Master, Mistress Mei Shyr will not let me out of Domestic Arts during the week of the competition." She waved the paper at Jiao Ao, and he took it from her hand.
"Let me see this." He unfolded it and walked off to read it in private.
Lan and Mai stood watching each other with distrust and dislike. Mai was the first to speak. "So you left Domestic Arts to come here."
"Yes," Lan snapped. "And you're in one of Master Jiao Ao's other classes?"
"The Advanced class."
Lan's eyes narrowed. "You've been a student of his for long?"
A smirk lifted one side of her mouth. "Since I was five."
Seven years? Wow, that was a long time.
"So you're going to be in the competition?" Mai asked her.
"Yes." Lan lifted her chin.
Mai gave a short bark of laughter. "You don't have a prayer of beating me."
That caused Lan's blood to boil. Arrogant! "Master Jiao Ao thinks that I do. In fact, he said that I am the one to beat."
The lie tripped lightly from her lips, and found its target. Mai scowled.
"I am going to destroy you," Mai said, quietly. "In front of the entire school."
Lan smiled with superiority. "You can try."
Just then, Jiao Ao came back and handed Mai the refolded parchment. "Please convey it to Mistress Mei Shyr with my respects."
"Yes, Master." Her eyes slid by Lan as she turned to go.
For the collective works of the author, go here.