|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 19 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 18 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 20 (The Spirit Within) 
After an exhaustive conversation with Jiao Ao on the theory of the nature of combat, and after having satisfied himself that Jiao Ao possessed none of the sadism that seemed to have been a hallmark of all of Ozai's teachers, Iroh had pronounced himself delighted with Jiao Ao, and the man had been duly hired.
One bonus of having Jiao Ao at the palace was that, along with training Zuko, Jiao Ao would also be able to work with Lan Chi. He was also able to remain on the faculty of the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, on a limited basis, and thus not deprive the youth of the Fire Nation an excellent teacher.
On the first day that Jiao Ao began his tenure at the palace, Lan Chi greeted him in the courtyard of her home with great enthusiasm and a warm hug.
"It is wonderful to see you again, Master!" She smiled and released him.
"Thank you, Lady Lan Chi. I, too, am very pleased that you will continue to be my student."
"And you will be working with Prince Zuko, too."
"Yes. I look forward to that. General Iroh says that he is already quite proficient with the dao swords."
"You'll finally have someone to teach that to!" She was excited for him.
"Yes, indeed. Are you familiar with his abilities?"
Lan colored, and averted her eyes. "I saw him use them only once, and it was many years ago."
"Hmm. Well, I will be able to judge for myself in a few hours."
"Oh, are you starting with him today?"
"Yes. But enough about the prince. Have you been practicing?" He indicated the weapons, lined up lovingly against one of the walls.
"Yes, Master. I have more free time, now, since I do not have to take calligraphy and, you know," she waved her hand, "all those other, unimportant subjects."
"Yes. What? No! Not like math. Well, perhaps. All right. Like math." She gave an embarrassed smile.
"Your uncle said that you were not overly fond of math."
"He's right. I prefer history. And literature. Much more interesting."
"We are all entitled to our preferences, my lady. Now, what would you like to start with – since I just said that we all have our preferences."
"Oh, Master, I would very much like to learn stick defense. I know that we never used sticks at the Academy due to the limited space, but here, we have more room – and fewer students, of course."
"By fewer, you mean one."
"Yes, one. Me!" She grinned.
He chuckled. "That is fine. However, this must be in addition to the other weapons. I do not want you to neglect them – they are equally as important."
"Yes, Master. I won't, Master." She ran over to the weapons and picked up four fighting staffs. "Uncle Iroh purchased these for me, on the off chance that you said yes."
Jiao Ao took two of the sticks. "Good, then. Let's begin."
On the same day, Jiao Ao met Prince Zuko for the first time. He was impressed by the young man's earnestness and enthusiasm.
"I understand, Prince Zuko, that you are a student of both Master Piandao and Master Chunhuo."
"Yes, Sir." Zuko stood before his new teacher, quaking with excitement and a touch of fear.
"They are men of disparate schools, Prince Zuko."
"I trained with Master Piandao, so, of the two, my style most resembles his. Is that agreeable to you?"
"Oh, yes, Sir. Yes."
"I understand that you have trained most extensively with the dao swords. Is this true?"
"I see that you have them on your back, your highness. Are you prepared to use them?" Without preamble, Jiao Ao pulled his own swords out and swung one at Zuko's neck.
Zuko, his reflexes honed by years of training, brought his sword out to block.
Jiao Ao smiled. He lowered his weapon, and Zuko followed suit. "I see that you are." Unexpectedly, he reversed direction and brought the same sword up in a slashing motion. Zuko, after a split second hesitation, brought his blade around, just in time to prevent his new teacher's blade from nicking him in the chin.
"Nice move, Prince Zuko," he said, keeping pressure on the sword.
Zuko, his muscles straining to hold back the weapon, thanked him.
"Can you defend against two?" Jiao Ao brought his other sword around.
Zuko saw, in his peripheral vision, the weapon come around, and, with a mighty effort, pushed aside Jiao Ao's first blade and followed with his body, causing the second sword to whiz above his head.
Jiao Ao smiled. "Very nice, Prince Zuko. I am impressed."
"Thank you, Sir."
"It appears that you know that an opponent is not beaten until he is unarmed. Even then, a defeated foe cannot be trusted. Please keep that in mind."
"I will, Sir."
He turned away, and, without warning, swung down low and brought one sword up in an arc. It found no opponent, though, because Zuko, anticipating a move by his crafty new teacher, had already brought the tip of his weapon up to Jiao Ao's throat.
Jiao Ao looked down at the blade with eyes crossed by the sword's proximity. He grinned and stood, and Zuko lowered his sword.
"Oh, this will be fun, Prince Zuko. Won't it?"
"Yes, Master. I believe it will."
"A word, Ozai."
As the other cabinet members and army officers left Ozai's throne room, Iroh approached the throne. At the last moment, the flames were extinguished, and he mounted the stairs.
"What do you want, Brother?" Ozai rose from his seat. "I have better things to do." He started to leave.
"I would like to have Father's will read. If you recall, that was one of the conditions of my acquiescence."
Ozai stiffened and turned to face his older brother. "I do not like to be threatened."
"I am not threatening you. I would simply like to know when you will fulfill your side of the bargain."
Ozai gave a tight smile. "When we find Father's will. He hid it, you see, and no one seems to know where it is."
It was Iroh's turn to smile. "Well, then, Brother, I bring you glad tidings. I have it."
Ozai's face contorted in rage. "You lie! We searched for it – for years!"
"No lie, Ozai. I just knew – where to look." He turned and descended the stairs. "Tomorrow night, at six, I think. Have all the sages there, as well as a royal scribe." He turned when he reached the bottom and smiled. "Oh, and the royal seal – to make it official."
Zuko loved working with Jiao Ao. It was very much like working with Piandao, whom Zuko had idolized. He pushed the young prince every day, and Zuko was grateful. Not only was Jiao Ao teaching Zuko the dao, but also hand-to-hand combat.
"Remember, Prince Zuko, that you must be aggressive." He extended his arm in an attempt to strike his pupil. "You must keep the opponent in your line of vision." Zuko avoided his attack.
"You must distract the opponent." He swung out in the opposite direction, and Zuko blocked him. "You must disable him, or expect to be disabled." He moved in, jabbing with both hands. Zuko blocked him again. "You must vary the attack to fit the situation." He swung around and caught Zuko around the neck. The prince grabbed him around the waist and slid his own foot behind his new master's leg. He picked Jiao Ao up and fell backwards.
Jiao Ao rolled out from under Zuko just as the younger man fell to the ground.
They jumped up, circling each other, and Jiao Ao continued his lecture. "If you are in a defensive position, turn it into a relentless attack. Never allow your opponent to rest." After saying that, Jiao Ao moved in, not allowing Zuko any respite for several minutes. Zuko kept parrying and blocking, until his arms ached. "Be confident, Prince Zuko, regardless of the your opponent's size or strength. You can still triumph, even against the largest man."
Zuko's fist came in for a quick jab, and Jiao Ao caught it and twisted it, ending the bout.
Zuko looked at his teacher, who smiled and dropped the prince's wrist. "Well done, Prince Zuko."
"Thank you, Master." He bowed.
Jiao Ao walked over to a chair where two towels hung. He threw one to Zuko, who caught it easily. "Do you know why you should learn this sort of combat?"
"Yes, Master. Firebending is unreliable in some situations." It was something he oft repeated.
He wiped the sweat from his face. "In rain or snow. It is also weaker at night, and slightly, in winter, and in extreme cold."
"And in close quarters. Firebending for combat demands extension of the limbs." He demonstrated, stretching out one arm. "However, it much less effective hand-to-hand. That is why you must train in this. You must train until it becomes second nature. Remember, when engaged in close combat, you will have little time to stop to think. Therefore, your actions must be automatic. You must attack, aggressively, with only one purpose in mind – to kill – and to survive." He smiled. "Perhaps that is two purposes."
Zuko, of course, had also begun intensive firebending training with Iroh. Teaching was something at which Iroh excelled, and something that he enjoyed. He loved seeing a student's face when he or she finally grasped the elusive key to firebending, which although it varied for each student, was the one thing that caused a student to finally grasp the meaning of firebending. He himself had achieved that enlightenment with the dragons Ran and Shao, may years before. He hoped that it would not take something as drastic for Zuko, since taking him to the dragons was out of the question.
However, after about a week of practicing, he was getting worried.
"Meditate, Prince Zuko." They were seated, cross-legged, on the pavers in the main courtyard, facing one another, as the sun came up, traditionally when the spark of firebending renewed itself every day. Since they were both firebenders and could, for the most part, regulate their own body temperatures, they were both shirtless, despite the chill of the morning.
"Yes, Sir." Zuko set his wrists on his knees, and closed his eyes.
"Don't forget to breathe."
"Concentrate on breathing, Prince Zuko."
"Breathing, not talking."
"Yes, Sir. I mean, no, Sir."
Iroh gave an exasperated sigh. This had been Zuko's trouble since they had started training together. He could not settle his mind enough to allow the firebending to take over. His brain was constantly working – thinking about a million things at once, and Iroh knew that, until Zuko achieved that inner quietness, his firebending would always be mediocre, at best.
"Breathe, Prince Zuko, silently, and feel the fire come from your core. Feel it reach out, into your limbs, as you breathe out. Feel it contract back in, into the heart of you, and then feel it reach out again, further into your limbs, as you exhale. In and out; in and out. Feel it fill you, feel it in your fingertips, and in your toes, and feel it fill your mind. Do you feel it, Zuko?" His voice throughout was calm, and soporific, designed to lull the prince into tranquility.
Zuko was quiet for a long moment, his forehead puckered. Iroh knew the answer before his nephew said anything.
"No." Zuko shook his head ruefully, his eyes still closed.
"It's all right. Try again. Just – sit there. And breathe. Let the fire take you."
Zuko nodded, eyes shut.
They continued the exercise for several minutes, until Iroh spoke. "Now, Prince Zuko, when you breathe out, feel the fire leave your body. Up out of your core, up your throat, out of your mouth, past your lips."
Zuko nodded again, and took a deep breath. When he released it, he tried to feel the fire leave his core, as Uncle had said. He thought he felt it burn its way up, and up, and out his lips.
He opened his eyes to express the fireball he felt, but only a small flame came out. His inner fire collapsed completely.
His uncle gave him a concerned look. "It's quite all right, Prince Zuko."
Zuko's face twisted in anger and frustration, and he slammed his palms on the cobblestones beneath him. "No! It's not all right! I'm the worst firebender ever! Azula makes blue fire, for pity's sake, and I can't even make normal, orange fire. What is wrong with me, Uncle?" He shoved his fingertips through his hair and lowered his head. "I'm the worst prince the Fire Nation has ever had," he whispered.
"No, you're not. You are a fine young man. Perhaps we have to go about this another way. Stand up, Prince Zuko."
Zuko bid as he was bade, but it was apparent in his demeanor that he was disconsolate, his shoulders slumped. Iroh grabbed his arms in an attempt to straighten him. Once he had done that, he nodded firmly. "Now, as you know, firebending, coming from the core, as it does, is a manifestation of the fire within you. It comes from the breath, not from the muscles." He grabbed Zuko's biceps and squeezed. "Although your muscles are quite fine, too, Prince Zuko."
The younger man did not respond.
"Fire is the only element that the human body can produce, so that is why it so important to be at one with your core – to have control over your fire. However, because it is from within you, it is also the element most affected by emotion. I sense that you are an emotional bender. Perhaps it is best if you harness those feelings as you firebend. You may have more success."
Zuko looked at his uncle, his golden eyes filled with sadness.
Iroh nodded and smiled. "Try it."
"Zuko! Get mad!"
"At whatever angers you!"
Zuko squeezed his eyes shut. Visions of Azula, firebending, taunting him – you'll never catch up. Visions of himself trying to firebend for Azulon and ending up on the floor like a simpleton. His father's face, distorted with disappointment.
Zuko waited for the fire to surge up within him, and felt it coil along his limbs, like a snake. He stretched his arm out with a powerful stroke, and felt the fire shoot out, strong and fierce.
He opened his eyes. That felt good. He looked at Iroh, who nodded with approval.
"Very nice. But, allowing yourself to become emotional – you must not depend on it forever, Zuko. Emotion will hinder your growth as a firebender, at some point. You must still meditate, and find the quietness in your soul that will allow you to access your pure fire."
Zuko nodded, but he did not really listen. He had made a flame stronger than he ever had before, and he had loved it. If all it took to be a good firebender was anger, then he could be angry. That would not be a problem.
Lan Chi's days, like Zuko's, were very full. Besides training with Jiao Ao, Iroh insisted that she continue her academic work. He also insisted that she begin to work with an etiquette teacher to improve her social skills.
"What?" Lan demanded, when Iroh informed her of that. "Why do I need an etiquette teacher?"
He gave her a stern look. "Need you ask me that? I would think that your response was answer enough."
"What do you mean?" She asked, petulantly.
"I mean, young lady, that your demeanor with your esteemed uncle should include some respect!" His last word was a bellow.
She jumped up from where she had been reclining. "My esteemed uncle? Do you mean the uncle who abandoned me for four years? The uncle who left me here with his crazy family? The uncle who did not even have the courtesy to let me know that he was alive?" By the end, she, too, was yelling.
"I mean the uncle who has provided for you for most of your life!"
She drew herself up regally, and her next words were calm. "I am sorry, Uncle, that I have been such a burden to you all these years. I apologize most abjectly." She bowed to him, turned, and swiftly left the room.
Iroh fisted his hands, and flames licked out from between his knuckles. He had not meant to yell at her. He had merely meant to show her that her very actions proved his point. Now, she was angry, and he was angry, and they both had bruised feelings.
Parenting a teenage girl was hard work.
Lan Chi ran up the stairs to her chamber, and threw herself down onto her bed. She was angry – with Iroh, but mostly with herself; she was also a little ashamed. She supposed that Uncle Iroh was right – her reactions to him since he had been home had been a tad – insolent. She had cultivated, at the Academy, such a facade of toughness and coarseness, as defense, and now she found it difficult to release.
She sighed. She would have to apologize.
Just then, there was a knock at her door.
Lan sat up. "Come in."
It was her uncle. He looked chagrined. "I wanted to apologize to you, my dear."
"Oh, Uncle, you –"
He held up a hand to quiet her. "Please, hear me out. What you said downstairs – everything that you said downstairs – is true. I did abandon you. I did leave you here at the mercy of my brother. And I neglected to let you know, for two years, that I was alive. That was inexcusable. Those were inexcusable. I failed you, in so many ways. I am sorry. Very sorry. And I will spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to you – if you will let me. I love you, Lan Chi, as much as if you were a child of my own body. You are not, and you never have been, a burden, and I am sorry if my words made it seem that way."
During his speech, Lan's eyes had begun to well with tears. She jumped up and threw her arms around him.
"I am sorry, too, Uncle. You're right – I have been awful to you, most of the time, and I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so disrespectful. And you're right about the etiquette teacher. I do need one, desperately."
He smiled, and stroked her hair. "It is all right, my child. I suppose that some disagreements are to be expected, between people as strong-willed as we."
She looked up at him. "But, I do love you, Uncle. Even when we are disagreeing."
"I love you, too, Little Duck."
So, Lan began etiquette lessons with Madame Nushi, a woman who had been friends with Su Hsing, many years before.
She was a rather rotund woman with overly rouged cheeks, but with a good heart. She took to Lan Chi immediately, and began the process of turning her into a lady.
The first day that they met, she decided to teach Lan the proper way to serve tea. She insisted that Lan be dressed in one of the formal robes that Iroh commissioned, and, although Lan protested, it did her little good.
When Lan Chi appeared in the new robes, Madame Nushi clapped her hands in delight. "Oh, my lady, you look stunning."
Lan looked down at the clothing, which was, as Iroh had requested, moss green silk with jade green trim. "Do you really think so?"
"Yes, I do. So few women dare to wear any color other than red. I suppose it is some sort of patriotic fervor, but, really, it is nonsense. Does wearing green make you feel any less Fire Nation?"
Lan smoothed her hands over the fabric and shook her head. "No. I suppose not."
"No, of course not!" She smiled. "Perhaps you will start a trend, and we will begin wearing other colors again."
Lan frowned slightly. "Perhaps." She did not really want to start a trend – she just wanted to be left alone.
"Sit, Lady Lan Chi."
"Thank you, Madame." She tried to lower herself gracefully, but the tight skirt hindered her greatly. She tried a different tack, turning her legs to the side, but could not reach the floor.
Madame Nushi smiled. "Trying sinking to the floor like a camelephant."
Lan looked at her with astonishment. "Like a camelephant?"
She nodded with a smile, and Lan tried again, and succeeded in falling onto the cushion.
"Well, I suppose that works."
Lan straightened and attempted to get comfortable. She tried to sit as she always did, cross-legged, but Madame Nushi turned a horrified look on her.
"No, no, Lady Lan Chi! Not like that! Oh, my word, no! You'll end up exposing yourself – to the world! No! No! Like this." She demonstrated, sitting on her shins.
Lan shifted onto her shins. "Ow! Ow!" She rolled onto her back. "That hurts! Who can sit like that?" She stared up at the ceiling.
Madame Nushi's voice was dry. "Only every woman in the Fire Nation."
"Ugh. I think I'll stay down here." Lan's voice came from below the level of the table.
Madame Nushi sighed heavily. "Lady Lan Chi, sitting is the most elementary of skills. Really."
"It does not feel elementary. It feels – torturous."
"How do you expect to serve tea to your husband?"
She rolled into a sitting position. "As I have served Uncle Iroh for years."
"Well, you are not his wife – you are his daughter, and do not have to impress him with your skills."
Lan leaned her head on her hand. "What you mean is that he has to love me no matter what."
"Something like that."
She waved her hand dismissively. "Well, it does not matter, because I shan't be getting married."
"Well, not now, of course. You are much too young. But, in several years, the general will arrange for your marriage, and –"
"No, he will not. I do not wish to be married."
"Lady Lan Chi, do not be ridiculous. Of course you will want to get married."
"No. I won't. Believe me." Since the only boy she had ever wanted was unavailable to her, she was uninterested in marriage.
Madame Nushi sighed again. "Be that as it may, Lady Lan Chi, you should know how to conduct yourself anyway. In case you have to serve General Iroh's guests."
She scowled. "Fine. I will sit like a lady," she spat the word. "But Uncle better appreciate this!"
Madame Nushi smiled. "I am certain that he will."
Lan righted herself, and, despite some grimaces of pain, she remained on her shins.
"Now, Lady Lan Chi, serving tea is like a ceremony. It is, in fact, the way in which the woman shows her respect and obedience to her master."
Lan looked miserable. "Must we do this, Madame? It feels very – subservient."
Madame Nushi looked surprised. "It is subservient. You are, after all, serving the man."
"Why can't he serve me?"
"I beg your pardon?" Madame Nushi was not certain that she could trust her ears.
"I said why can't the man serve me?"
The older woman blinked at her myopically. "Because he is your superior?"
"What? Madame Nushi, how can you say that? The Fire Nation is the most forward-thinking nation in the world regarding women's rights. We allow women to go into combat, for spirits' sake! Men are not superior!"
Madame Nushi's face turned a deep red. "Lady Lan Chi, women go into battle because they must – because the numbers of males available for combat are very low. And, the women who go to war are of the lower classes – women of our class are needed to support our men, and to raise the next generation of leaders."
"Lucky lower classes," Lan mumbled.
"I heard that, young lady."
"My apologies, Madame Nushi."
She gave Lan a withering look, and indicated the tea pot in front of her. "Now, despite the fact that our tea is most probably cold, we will continue." She slid the pot in front of herself. "The tea ceremony is about respect and hospitality, which is why the woman always pours for the men gathered."
"What if there are no women present?"
"Then the men may pour for themselves."
"What if there are no men present?"
"Then the hostess shall pour."
"What if they are at a teahouse?"
"Then the woman of the lowest rank shall pour."
"What if there are two women of equal rank?"
"Then the younger of the two shall pour."
"What if the youngest one is very young? For example, five or under?"
"Lady Lan Chi! Please! I want to drink tea!"
Lan blushed. "Yes, Ma'am."
"Now, the steps to the ceremony are quite simple. Your servant should bring the pot to the table very hot – in fact, it should have just boiled. She should also bring the blend that you have requested. Once she has brought those to you, you may add the tea to the water. Now, white and green teas should steep for three minutes. Black teas – as well as jasmine and ginseng – should steep for six minutes. No longer."
"Ma'am, I assure you, if there is one thing that I know how to do – it is make tea. It's apparently the serving at which I am deplorable."
"Well, then. We'll go on." She poured each of them a cup. "For honored guests, there should be a sweet of some sort to complement the tea, as a sign of harmony." She indicated a small plate of cookies.
Lan reached for a cookie, but a stern look from Madame Nushi stayed her hand.
"When pouring tea, you should always pour to the man of the highest rank first. Then, you serve all the other men, in descending rank. After that, you may serve the women, in descending rank, of course, and then the children, oldest first. Then, the sweets are served in the same order. The exception is when you are celebrating a birthday or marriage. In that case, the person celebrating the birthday may be served first, and the wedding couple may be served thusly, as well."
Lan's eyes goggled. "Is any of this written down, Ma'am?"
"No, Lady Lan Chi, it is not written down. It is memorized, through experience."
"Now, please remember, when pouring tea, to hold your sleeve back." She lifted her right sleeve with her left hand. "Otherwise, you may spill the cups you have poured, which could burn someone. And, even if it doesn't, it always leads to awkwardness, and spoils the entire ceremony."
Lan looked with displeasure at her sleeves.
Madame Nushi continued. "When receiving tea, Lady Lan Chi, bow to your hostess. Take it in your right hand, and hold it in the palm of your left hand." She demonstrated. "Then, turn the cup clockwise three times before you take a drink."
"But how did the tradition come about?"
"Lady Lan Chi! Please!"
Madame Nushi blew out a breath. "You may then drink the tea. No! I said drink, not slurp!" She shook her head. "When the tea is gone – "
"Do I burp?"
"When do I burp?"
"When do you burp? Never! Why would you burp?"
"Lu Ten always told me, that, if you enjoyed the tea, you should burp."
Madame Nushi's shoulders drooped. "Prince Lu Ten, I believe, was joking with you. He was a bit of a prankster, as I recall."
Lan gave a sad smile. "Yes. He was."
"Anyway, after you have finished drinking the tea, you should wipe off the part of the cup that your lips touched – with your right hand. You then turn the cup counterclockwise and return it to your host."
Lans gave her teacher a look of dismay. "All that – for a cup of tea?"
"Perhaps I should just always ask for water."
"Don't be facetious, Lady Lan Chi."
"Sorry, Ma'am." She had had no idea that drinking tea was so very, very complicated.
Everything in life, in fact, seemed very, very complicated.
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