|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 16 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 15 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 17 (The Spirit Within) 
Mai, the privileged only child of a loving mother and father whose parents perhaps asked too much of their daughter; Lan Chi the only child of a mother and father taken too early, and from whom life perhaps asked too much.
They circled one another around the ring, neither willing to take the first step – neither willing to be the first to engage. Lan watched each step that Mai took, looking for some small nugget of information that might lead her to decode Mai's strategy.
Stop it! Lan shook herself mentally. Do not plan – react. Just react. Let her come to you.
Wearying of the circling, Mai made the first move. She came at Lan with her arms crossed, the blade in an icepick grip. She swung out with her knife hand, aiming for Lan's chest, but Lan, anticipating the move, leaned back far enough to allow the blade to whiz by her. Mai spun around and came at her from the other side, but Lan twisted and blocked with her free arm and flung Mai's arm away from her body.
Lan swung at her, hoping to catch Mai off-balance, but Mai blocked her and her knife arm came up in an arc. Lan turned, but Mai's blade caught the inside of her sleeve. Lan looked in bewilderment at the red mark for a moment, then, collecting herself, she dropped down and swept Mai's legs out from beneath her. Mai, realizing her danger, rolled out of the circle, and Jiao Ao stopped the round.
"One strike against Lady Mai."
Mai stood up, winded. "Time, Master."
Jiao Ao did not look pleased. "Two minutes." He held up two fingers to Mai, and turned to Lan. "Get water."
She nodded and did as he bade.
Mai walked over to Azula and Ty Lee, her knife still in her hand.
Azula looked almost concerned. "You can beat her, Mai."
Mai's eyes slid to the princess for a brief second. "I know." She turned to her other friend and held out her free hand. "Ty Lee, ribbon."
Ty Lee removed the ribbon from her braid with alacrity, and Mai, still clutching her knife, quickly plaited her own hair and secured it with the ribbon. She returned to the ring. "Thank you, Master."
Lan returned to the ring as well. She had watched Mai tie her hair up, and a small smile came to her face. She had mussed Mai's hair. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Jiao Ao lowered the fan again, and they re-commenced. Mai was on the offensive immediately, coming in with another backhanded maneuver. Lan spun her wrist around Mai's and Mai tried to slip her knife under Lan Chi's arm. Mai and Lan both leaned forward until they were grappling, each trying to plunge their daggers into the other. Their bodies were pressed together, and each of them had their free hands beneath their opponent's backs and their knife hands trapped against the other's body.
Lan thought that she felt a tug on her braid, and she reached up and grabbed Mai's braid in kind. Each pulled on the other's hair until they each started backing up in a circle in an attempt to relieve the pain.
"Time!" Jiao Ao called, and the two girls sprang apart, panting heavily.
"No hair pulling!"
Lan bent over, her hands braced on her thighs, and nodded.
Both girls nodded, and returned to the circle.
Mai attacked again, and Lan Chi wondered, briefly, why the other girl was so aggressive.
As Mai approached her, Lan realized that her opponent was about to strike with another icepick grip aimed at the torso, and Lan ducked and spun to the side, her knife connecting with Mai's ribs.
"Round to Lady Lan Chi." Jiao Ao raised his fan. The crowd roared.
Mai stalked from the ring, anger written in every line of her body.
Lan Chi breathed a sigh of relief. One round down, one to go – she intended to beat Mai in straight rounds.
Both girls took some water. Lan was parched and becoming fatigued; she had never fought anyone like Mai, who was fast and accurate, which was a deadly combination.
They both stepped back into the ring.
They took their stances and stared at each other. Mai's eyes were colder than Lan had ever seen them.
Jiao Ao lowered the fan, and Mai came in immediately. She swung indiscriminately but inched closer, while Lan was brought up against the boundary lines.
In desperation, in order to prevent herself being pushed out, she blocked the outside of Mai's knife hand, and spun around her, trying to escape to the other side of the ring. Instead, Mai followed her around with her free arm and tackled Lan, and they both went skidding to the mat, Mai on top.
They landed within the lines and Mai's dagger came down towards Lan's chest. Lan, abandoning her own dagger, caught Mai's wrist with both hands.
Mai forced the blade closer and closer to Lan's breast bone until it hovered less than two inches away. Lan's years as an archer had strengthened her forearms, and she began pushing the blade away.
At that moment, Mai leaned her body closer. "I saw Zuko at the palace the other day. He has the softest lips, doesn't he?"
All of Lan's resolutions about remaining detached evaporated. With a roar of anger and jealousy, she threw Mai off and snatched her dagger from the mat. Springing to her feet, she lurched forward, swinging wildly at Mai's throat, and Mai saw her opening. She jabbed the wooden blade into Lan's stomach.
Lan staggered back, her breath stolen by the thrust, astonished by how quickly the tide had turned against her. In a fit of rage, she threw down her dagger and left the ring.
"Lady Lan Chi." Jiao Ao called her over, and she stomped over to him.
He looked her over. "Collect yourself. That was bad sportsmanship."
Lan colored, ashamed. "Yes, Sir."
"Pick up your blade and return to the bench."
"Yes, Master." She bowed, grabbed her dagger off the floor, and went over to the water bucket.
Jiao Ao announced a five-minute break, and the people in the crowd, relatively quiet during this time, launched into conversations.
As Lan was drinking, Mai came and stood next to her, pointedly looking at the ladle. Lan finished drinking, and handed it to Mai.
"I know your weakness now. You're an emotional fighter." Mai dipped the ladle into the pail.
Lan's face became suffused with fury, and she had to resist the temptation to dump the water over Mai's head.
She whirled on her heel and left Mai smiling after her.
She must regain her calm or else Mai would take her easily in the next round. She had never anticipated being forced to fight a third round. She had thought that she would defeat the other girl in two rounds. This was worrisome.
She sat on the bench, placed her forearms on her thighs, and lowered her head to clear her mind. She forced the jealousy and anger back where they belonged, and reached deep within her to find that place where survival lived. It surged up inside her, and a feeling of relief came over her.
She took a deep breath, opened her eyes, and stood.
The five minute rest period was just ending, and Jiao Ao beckoned her back to the circle. He handed her the dagger, newly red.
"Remember, Lady Lan Chi, in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength."
"Yes, Master. Thank you."
"You are ready?"
"Yes, Sir. I am."
He nodded firmly and went to talk to Mai. After conferring with her, he stepped out of the ring, and, nodding to them both again, lowered the fan.
Again, Mai took the initiative and came at Lan Chi. Her first swipe was wide, and Lan knocked her hand aside easily. Mai attempted to sweep her legs out, but Lan side stepped her and gave her a small shove. With her stance already too wide, Mai teetered back and fell to her rear end. Lan moved to strike, but Mai, with reflexes far faster than Lan had attributed to her, sprang up, forcing Lan Chi back. A forward thrust from Mai brought her arm close to Lan's side, and Lan grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward. Mai, realizing that Lan's knife was too close for comfort, rolled into the momentum of the tug, and shot under Lan's arm.
Coming up behind Lan, she attempted to knife her in the back, but Lan did not give her the opportunity. Swinging around, she blocked Mai's thrust and brought her leg up to kick her in the back. The back of her heel connected with Mai's arm, and the younger girl staggered forward again.
With a quiet grunt, she whirled to face Lan. She began swinging again, her slashes fast and precise. Lan backed up a few steps but stopped and began blocking, her forearms coming up in a unison that stymied Mai's attacks. Mai changed her tactics and swung from the opposite direction, causing a hiccup in Lan's responses.
With a swift stroke, Mai's dagger arched towards Lan.
Lan saw it coming and without thinking, started to spring back. However, Mai, conscious of the slightest movement, sprang forward at the same time.
Lan saw the red point of the dagger sliding towards her, and felt the impact as it hit her chest. She looked down in amazement to where the smear of paint colored the area above her heart. She looked at Mai, dazed, and saw a look of wonder, and then a smile of triumphant joy, come over the other girl's face.
The room erupted in a roar so loud that Lan was surprised that the windows did not shatter. She stumbled back, and fell to her rear end. She shook her head, in shock, and staggered back to her feet.
Mai was being congratulated by Jiao Ao and the headmistress, and Lan put a hand to her buzzing head.
Master Jiao Ao left Mai and the headmistress, and came over to her with a kind smile. He bowed to her. "Lady Lan Chi, you acquitted yourself splendidly. You fought honorably and very well. You have nothing to be ashamed of."
Lan gathered herself and bowed. "Thank you, Master. I must congratulate Lady Mai, it seems."
"That would be appropriate."
By this time, the students had poured out of the stands and were gathered around Mai. Lan had to shoulder her way through the crowd. Azula saw her first, and sneered.
"What are you doing here, loser?"
Mai gave her a dark look, and Lan Chi ignored Azula, putting herself between Mai and Azula. She bowed to Mai, who returned it. "I congratulate you, Mai. You are the – superior technician."
"If it had been archery, you would have beaten me." Mai confessed.
Lan was surprised by Mai's graciousness. A smile lifted the corner of her mouth. "Yes, I would have."
"You are a worthy opponent."
Lan was astonished. "Thank you."
Mai's eyes became hooded. "But I still hate you."
No change there. Lan smiled, a bit tightly. "Same here."
With a quick nod of acknowledgment, Mai turned back to her well-wishers, and Lan melted into the crowd.
For the collective works of the author, go here.