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Chapter 22 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)
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The Spirit Within



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Last chapter

Chapter 21 (The Spirit Within) [1]

Next chapter

Chapter 23 (The Spirit Within) [2]

Zuko concentrated. He drew in a deep, cleansing breath. He felt the sun beat down on him; he could see it through his eyelids, and he could feel its strength spiral within him. He repeated to himself the mantra that his uncle had taught him.

"I rise with the sun, I feel its power. What the dragons knew, let me understand. Grant me energy, fill me with your life."

Breath in, breath out.

Breath in, breath out.

Breath in, breath out.

Shift weight.

Breath in, breath out.

Draw in arm.

Breath in, breath out.

Horse stance.

Breath in, breath out.

Extend arm.

He felt the fire leave his fist, and he smiled, opening his eyes.

Iroh stood there, his arms crossed. There was a smile on his face, as well.

"You have achieved tranquility today, Prince Zuko."

"Yes, Sir."

"What has caused this?"

Zuko shook his head, a secret smile on his face. "Nothing – in particular. It's a beautiful day. I feel good. It's good to be – alive." It's good to be in love.

Iroh nodded. "Yes, it is. Would you like to try some more advanced sets?"

"Yes, please."

Just then, Jiao Ao came into the courtyard.

"Ah, Master Jiao Ao is here, Nephew. Perhaps tomorrow, then."

Zuko nodded and bowed to his uncle.

Iroh bowed to Jiao Ao, who returned the greeting. "You will be pleased with Prince Zuko today, Master Jiao Ao."

"I am always pleased with Prince Zuko, General. I have rarely met a student more enthusiastic than your nephew."

Zuko grabbed a towel and a ladle of water from a drinking bucket, trying not to feel smug about the compliments from his teachers.

As if reading his mind, Iroh pointed at him. "Do not get a swollen head, Prince Zuko."

Zuko smiled and shook his head. "No, Sir."

Iroh laughed, slapped Zuko on his bare back, and was gone.

Jiao Ao watched him go, and then turned to his pupil. "Dao swords again today, I think, Your Highness."

"Yes, Master." Zuko took up his weapons.

"Defense today."

"Yes, Sir." He took up a defensive position with his swords.

Jiao Ao picked up a pair of sticks and stood before Zuko. "Prevent me from touching you, Prince Zuko."

"Yes, Master."

Jiao Ao began trying to poke Zuko with the sticks, and Zuko began blocking.

Thrust, parry, block.

Thrust, parry, block.

Jiao Ao began circling his student, trying to get under his defenses, and Zuko kept knocking away the sticks.

"Very nice, Prince Zuko. You are showing focus and intuition. Very skillful. Remember, though, that the dao are not ideal for very close combat. Someone trained in the use of the dagger, such as Lady Lan Chi, for instance, is trained to get under the defense of a dao."

Zuko heard Lan's name and faltered, and Jiao Ao struck him in the solar plexus, causing a rush of breath to leave the prince.

"You were distracted, Prince Zuko."

Zuko nodded, and straightened. "Do you know Lady Lan Chi, Master?"

"Yes, of course. She has been my student for nearly three years. Swords up." He waved the stick at him.

Zuko blocked one of the staffs. "You're training her – now?"

"No. I'm training you now. I train her in the mornings. Do you know her well, Prince Zuko?"

"Yes, very well. I intend to marry her, one day."

That caused Jiao Ao to falter. "Do you? I had no idea her heart was engaged."

Zuko grinned, but did not take his eyes from his teacher's sticks, still moving. "I hope that it is, Sir."

Jiao Ao let the sticks drop, and Zuko stopped. "Is your uncle aware of your intentions, Prince Zuko?"

"I don't know, Sir."

"Is Lady Lan Chi aware of your intentions?"

Zuko looked surprised. He had never actually told Lan – he had never actually told anyone, come to think of it – until now, of his goal. He wrinkled his brow. "I – I don't know."

Jiao Ao looked at him for a long moment, then laughed heartily. "Prince Zuko, it is customary, once you have decided to marry a young woman, to tell her of your determination. Women, I have found, like to take a part in their future. They do not like to be told." He shook his head. "No. That never works out well." He laughed again. "No. Not at all." He indicated that Zuko should lift his swords again. "And it might be a good idea if you told no one else until you've spoken to the lady and her uncle."

The lady in question, although, like her enamored, just thirteen years old, was finding herself more and more concerned with the world of adults. She had begun etiquette lessons to prepare her to someday be an excellent and sought-after hostess, and Hua, with Uncle Iroh's permission, had decided to teach Lan embroidery, that most ladylike of endeavors.

Lan had been given the opportunity to learn embroidery in her last year at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls but had been able, through slightly devious means, to pursue the martial arts instead. Now, it seemed, it was time to pay the piper.

Hua, a talented embroideress, had been doing needlework for most of her life. During Su Hsing's lifetime, the two women, despite their disparate stations, spent many hours together stitching and gossiping. The chance to pass the skill onto Lan Chi, then, was irresistible to the housekeeper.

She gathered all the fine thread that she had, as well as all the pillows and clothing and cushions that she and Su Hsing had completed through the years, and sat Lan Chi down for a preliminary lesson.

Lan looked with suspicion at all the frippery surrounding her.

Hua, oblivious to Lan's attitude, looked at her new pupil with a huge smile. "Lady Lan Chi, I am so pleased to be teaching you how to embroider. I am certain that, once you see how fun it is, you'll want to do it all the time."

Lan's face was covered with disbelief. "If you say so, Hua."

Hua smiled indulgently. "Let me show you some of the things that you will be able to do." She picked up a pillow that had a blood-red rose on it. "This was something that I did while I was still a house maid – my goodness! Almost forty years ago!"

Lan looked at it askance. "Really? Forty years ago? It's still beautiful."

"Thank you. As an embroideress, you must choose the highest quality thread and fabric."

She handed Lan another pillow. "This was done by your aunt for Prince Iroh." It was a stunning piece – a golden and crimson dragon on black silk. Lan ran her hand over it wonderingly. "It's exquisite."

Hua smiled. "Yes, it is. Your aunt, spirits rest her soul, was a remarkable craftswoman. She started very young." She sighed. "She had so wanted to teach you how to embroider, but she never had the opportunity." Hua took the pillow from Lan reverently. "Your uncle still keeps this on his bed." She shook he head as if to clear it. "Now, lest you think that needlework is just for impractical little pillows, take a look at this." She opened a box and lifted out a woman's dress robe. It was red and white silk, with beautiful golden chrysanthemums stitched along the bottom. "This was your aunt's wedding robe."

Lan reached out a shaking hand to touch the hem. "Hua, it's – beautiful. Beyond beautiful!" She looked at the housekeeper with shining eyes. "Do you think that I might be able to do something like this one day?"

"I do not see why not – if you practice. But keep in mind that it took your aunt – and her sister Ming Yi, an entire year to stitch this! You can see the different craft work in each flower." She traced the shapes of the flowers at the hem. "Each sister did every other flower, so the pattern is very pleasing. The taller flowers were your Aunt Su Hsing's. The shorter ones are Ming Yi's." She sighed nostalgically. "I remember that. I worked for your aunt's family, you know, and I came to live with her here at the palace, so I was there with her for everything." She smiled at Lan. "We grew up together." She sighed again. "I miss that woman so much."

Lan gave a sad smile. "So do I." She thought for a moment. "Did – did you know my father?"

"Spirits, yes! My goodness, he was the most handsome young man. All the maids had crushes on him."

Lan's eyes opened wide. "Even you, Hua?"

"Well, he was quite a bit younger than me. But he was, of all of the brothers, the smartest, the bravest, the most handsome. Every girl in town wanted to marry him. But he wouldn't have any of them. He wanted the sea. And your mother."

"Did you ever meet my mother?"

"No. Your father found your mother on the ocean – shipwrecked. Well, you know the story. But that was after I had come here."

"Do you miss your hometown sometimes, Hua?"

"Oh, yes. Yes, I do. I haven't seen my own sister in thirty years." She looked pensive.

"Oh, Hua, I'm so sorry ."

Hua squeezed her hand. "Let's not get maudlin, my lady. I have several other pieces to show you, and then we'll decide what your first piece should be."

She showed her several other items, and Lan was surprised to find out that the cushion she sat on every day for meals had actually been embroidered by Hua.

They decided on a small pillow as Lan's first project, based on a pillow done by Su Hsing. It had the simple design of a lily.

Hua taught her how to stretch the fabric on a hoop, how to choose a needle and thread, and how to thread the needle. She sat by Lan's side and taught her the simple stitches necessary to start the task. She took out a project of her own, and Lan was surprised to see it was one of her robes. Hua was stitching the silhouette of waves on the hem of the orange riding habit.

"Hua, that's beautiful."

"Thank you, my lady." She blushed.

"No, Hua, thank you! I can't wait to wear it!"

"Well, I'm afraid you'll have to. But don't worry. I'll probably finish it about the same time you finish that pillow."

Lan gave Hua an outraged, hurt look, but Hua just laughed.

"General Iroh, Master Jiao Ao is here to see you and begs your pardon that he has no appointment."

Iroh looked at his secretary over his reading glasses and laid down the document he was holding. "Please send him in, Zhushou."

Jiao Ao came in and bowed to Iroh. "Forgive me, General, for coming to your office covered in sweat. I have just finished with your nephew."

Iroh waved him to sit. "I always appreciate honest sweat. How may I help you, Master Jiao Ao? Is it Prince Zuko, or Lady Lan Chi? Or perhaps neither?"

"Both, actually."

Iroh's brows raised, and he took off his glasses. "Oh, dear."

Jiao Ao held up his hand. "I do not want you to become overly concerned, General. Neither of them has done anything, precisely. Actually, Lady Lan Chi has done nothing at all. It's just that –" he thought for a moment. "Prince Zuko has taken me into his confidence, and I am not one who, normally, breaks a confidence, especially with a student, but –" he stopped.

"But?" Iroh prompted him.

"But it concerns your niece, and I thought you ought to know."

"Go on."

"Well, Prince Zuko let slip the other day that – well, that he has certain feelings for Lady Lan Chi. And that he intends to ask her to marry him."

"I see." Iroh's stomach fell into his shoes.

"I counseled him to tell you, and Lady Lan Chi, of course, since he indicated that neither you nor she knew of his feelings." At the look of concern on Iroh's face, Jiao Ao hastened on. "I do not suspect Prince Zuko of planning anything dishonorable, General. Let me disabuse you of that thought. He has shown himself to be a decent, honorable boy. As I said, I just thought you ought to know."

Iroh drew in a deep breath. This was bad news – bad news, indeed. He had hoped to avoid saying anything to Zuko. He had begun to build a good relationship with his nephew, and he did not want to damage it.

"Thank you, Master Jiao Ao. I do appreciate you coming to me with this."

Jiao Ao stood, bowed with a somber look, and was gone.

Iroh gave a long sigh.

"Zuko, we have discussed making the right choices." Iroh and his nephew sat cross legged in the courtyard, having just completed a strenuous firebending session.

"Yes, Sir."

"Thinking through a situation, and making a wise decision."

"Yes, Sir."

"Balancing the advantages and disadvantages."

"Yes." Zuko nodded, his face serious.

"So, tell me, Zuko – tell me, what are the advantages and disadvantages of telling your swordmaster that you want to marry my niece?"

Zuko's eyes bulged. "What? Uncle, I – I –"

Iroh's face was stern. "You should have come to me. You should have told me of your intentions."

Zuko blushed and dropped his eyes. "I'm sorry, Uncle. You're right. I should have discussed it with you."

"Yes. You should have."

"But, I'm telling you now. I – I want to marry Lan Chi. I love her, Uncle!" He said, earnestly.

"Zuko –" he began, but the prince interrupted him.

"I know what you will say, Uncle. We are only thirteen, and – and, I understand your concerns, Uncle, but I know that I love her, and I will continue to love her. I know that we cannot be married until we are sixteen, but, we can wait!" Zuko's voice was happy, and his face was lustrous with happiness. "I will wait for her."

"That is not what I was going to say, Zuko, although the point about your youth is a good one."

"Then – what?" He was puzzled.

"Zuko." Iroh sighed. "I do not know how to say this to you, so I will say it simply: Lan Chi is not the girl for you."

Zuko gave a confused half-smile. "I – I don't understand, Uncle. What do you mean?"

"I mean, Zuko, that I cannot – I will not – give you my permission to marry her."

Zuko's face fell. "But, wh – why?"

"Because, Prince Zuko, when you marry, it will be to a girl of your father's choosing. The life of the crown prince is not his own. My own marriage was arranged. So was your parents'."

"But why cannot my father arrange my marriage to Lan?"

"I am certain that he already has another girl in mind for you."

Zuko jumped up. "But, I – I don't want another girl. I want Lan. I will talk to him, make him see –"

"That is not a good idea, Zuko."

"But, if I do, if he agrees, then I can – approach Lan?"

Iroh shook his head. "No, Zuko, I'm sorry. I have – other plans for Lan Chi."

"Other plans? What other plans?"

"Zuko, that is really none of your business."

The pitch of Zuko's voice rose with emotion. "None of my business? Uncle, I just told you that I love her, and I want to marry her, and –" Small flames appeared from between his fingers.

"Zuko, calm down, please."

"I won't calm down! Why are you doing this, Uncle? I thought you loved me!" He stomped his foot, and a small fireball exploded beneath it.

Iroh was impressed with his nephew's display, but pushed that thought aside. "I do love you. I also love Lan Chi. And I am doing this for your own good. I know that you don't understand now, Zuko, but someday, you will."

"No! No, I won't! I'll never understand!" With those words, he ran from the courtyard and to his bedroom.

He threw himself down on his bed, his face buried in his pillow. How could Uncle do this to him? How could he do this to Lan Chi? Why couldn't Uncle see that he, Zuko, was meant for her – that he would love her and cherish her for the rest of their lives?

Like many boys his age, Zuko saw all things in black and white, and saw all setbacks as the end of the world. He lay there in his bed for a long while, lamenting the thought that Lan Chi would never be his, and, running through, in his mind, his life, up until the bitter end, alone and bereft. With thirteen and a half years of living behind him, Zuko could not understand his uncle's motives beyond thinking that it was Iroh's desire to cause him and Lan Chi unhappiness.

After a while, he drifted off to sleep, his body exhausted by firebending and by emotions. His mind, relaxed, allowed him to see the situation unburdened by his prejudice, and what he thought was the solution to his problem came to his unconscious mind like a lightning bolt. He sat upright in bed to see the noontime sun streaming in his windows, and he smiled. He knew how he would win his uncle over, and perhaps his father, too.

"There! It's done." Lan Chi held her handiwork at arm's length to admire it. True, the lily was a bit lopsided, and the thread was lumpy in places, but, all in all, not a bad first effort – even if it had taken over a week to complete.

Hua came over with a critical eye. She examined it carefully, a wide smile pasted on her face. "It is quite – good, Lady Lan Chi." Her voice was small.

Lan gave her a jaundiced look. "You've always been a very bad liar, Hua. The pillow is terrible. But I don't mind! Ba Sing Se was not built in a day, after all."

"Nor conquered in 600, I'm afraid." Iroh's voice came from the door.

"How do you like it, Uncle?" Lan held her pillow cover out at him. He took it carefully, and looked it over.

"That's marvelous, Lan! It looks just like a cactus!"

She snatched it from his hands. "It's a lily."

"Oh. Well, it's quite a pretty lily."

"No one can appreciate my artistry." Lan sniffed, and Iroh gave a laugh.

"It is true, Little Duck, that artists are often not appreciated in their lifetimes."

"Very funny." She smiled at him. "But I pledge that I will get better at this, Uncle. In fact, I am going to stitch a dragon onto this very robe." She held up a yellow robe edged in midnight blue. "A blue dragon, in fact. Varying shades of blue. And Hua says it is going to be spectacular."

"I'm sure it will be."

"And you will not say the dragon looks like an eel hound."

"I will not." He agreed solemnly, grinning.

"Thank you."

His smile melted away. "I must talk to you, Lan." Iroh turned to his housekeeper. "Could you excuse us, please, Hua?"

She nodded and left the room.

Lan's pulse jumped with anxiety, but she calmly picked up a spool of thread. "Oh, dear. That sounds ominous." She marveled at how calm her voice was.

"I spoke to Zuko this morning."

She selected a needle. "You did."

He settled down beside her. "Yes."

She attempted to thread the needle, but her shaking fingers prevented her. "And?"

"I made it clear that you are – unavailable."

"Oh." She licked the thread.

"It would be best if you stayed away from Zuko. I don't want to give him the wrong idea."

She concentrated on trying to shove the thread through the needle's eye, but it frayed, and, in frustration, she jabbed the needle into the cushion she sat on. "I've told you, Uncle. I have stayed away. I have never gone looking for Zuko, or conveniently waited for him outside the palace, or anything!"

"I am not saying that you have. I am merely saying that –"

"That I cannot go anywhere near Zuko. Yes, Uncle, I know. I know. I know!" She stood up. "I am sick unto death of discussing this, and you telling me what I cannot do. Well, I understand! I understand perfectly well! So please do not tell me again to stay away from him! I will! You needn't worry! I will not seek him out, and, if he approaches me, I will rebuff him. I give you my word! Is that good enough?" With that, she stomped off.

Iroh sighed. He had managed to alienate the two people he loved most in the entire world – and both in one day.

Zuko's plan was, for a thirteen year old boy, a fine and ambitious one. He knew that attempting to cajole his uncle into changing his mind about Lan would not work, so he thought to impress him with diligence and maturity. Zuko would redouble his efforts to become a skilled firebender, and would, in short, become the model student and prince. He would study harder, train more, and learn everything that he could about governing his country, so that both Iroh and his father would see that he was a young man who was capable and worthy of making monumental decisions such as choosing his own wife.

So, with that in mind, he greeted his uncle the next day with both courtesy and respect. Iroh, who had expected a return of the sullen, petulant Zuko who had first begun training with him, was pleasantly surprised by this calm, rational boy.

"I wanted to apologize – for yesterday, Uncle," Zuko bowed to his teacher.

"Indeed?" Iroh's brow rose skeptically.

"Yes, Sir. I was – rash, and imprudent, and – disrespectful, and I am sorry. I hope that you will forgive me."

Iroh was slow to answer, slightly suspicious, and vaguely ashamed for that suspicion. "Yes – of course, Zuko. You know that I only want the best for you – and for Lady Lan Chi, of course."

Zuko gave a slight smile. "Of course, Uncle. And I will accede to your wishes. I will speak no more of Lady Lan Chi in that manner. It would be – dishonorable to disobey your wishes in that matter."

"I am glad that you feel that way, my boy. Now, let's firebend!" He clapped his hands, and Zuko nodded.

They trained for nearly an hour, and Iroh was impressed with his nephew's level of firebending. His movements were smooth, and his fire was strong and consistent.

Iroh nodded his approval. "You show great control, Prince Zuko. You have lost that wild edge that comes from emotional bending. You seem to be more at peace with yourself."

Zuko stood at attention. "Thank you, Master."

Iroh, of course, mistook the source of that peace. "You see, once you understood and accepted my refusal of your suit for Lady Lan Chi, you realized the wisdom of it."

Zuko tried not to smile. "Yes, Sir. I am committed now to becoming a student of whom you may be proud."

Iroh smiled. "Good, good. If you continue in this vein, I think that we shall be able to tell your father that you will be ready for your genbuku by the end of winter."

Zuko's jaw dropped. "R – really? You think that I might be ready that soon?" The end of winter was a scant four months away.

"I do not see why not. Let's chat with Master Jiao Ao, when he arrives."

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir!" Zuko's face glowed with joy. Achieving his genbuku was definitely a step in the right direction!

When Master Jiao Ao arrived not long after, Iroh and Zuko spoke to him about scheduling his genbuku, at which he would be responsible not only for a demonstration of his firebending, but also for his martial arts. While Iroh spoke, Jiao Ao's eyes surveyed his student.

When the general finished, Jiao Ao addressed Zuko. "Do you think that you could be ready to proclaim yourself a master of the dao swords in only four months, Prince Zuko?"

"Oh, yes, Master! I am sure that I shall be!"

"Indeed?" Jiao Ao had his doubts. "You did not even show up for training yesterday, young man. Is this the sort of dedication I can look forward to from you?"

Zuko blushed. "N – no, Master. I am sorry. I was – distraught yesterday, and I was acting foolishly. It will not happen again! I promise!"

"Promises are easily broken."

"Not by me, Master. I swear. I will be completely committed to the dao! I pledge that to you!" His face shone with innocent optimism.

Jiao Ao looked him over, and sighed. "Very well, your highness. I will take you at your word, and allow you, with your father's permission, of course, to begin training for your genbuku. But," he pointed at Zuko, "do not make me regret this faith that I have in you."

Zuko bowed deeply, barely able to contain his enthusiasm. "Oh, you will not, Master. I promise that you will not!"

It was a very nervous, but very hopeful, young man who approached his father in the throne room late that day. Ozai, although reluctant to interrupt the governance of his country with something as insignificant as his only son, agreed to see him.

Glad that Iroh accompanied him, Zuko approached his father's throne on shaking legs. He sank to his knees before the flames, bent his body forward, and pressed his forearms to the polished floor.

"Why do you disturb me, Prince Zuko?" Ozai ignored his brother, who, although on his knees, had neglected to genuflect properly.

"My – my lord," Zuko's voice cracked. "I am come to ask a boon of you."

Ozai stiffened, remembering similar words from his wife, long ago. "A devoted son does not ask favors of his father."

Zuko, without permission, lifted his head. "I am devoted, Sire. Very devoted. I wish to be a dutiful son, and a prince of whom you may be proud." Unconsciously, he echoed the words that he had used with Iroh.

Ozai gave a small sigh, although his son did not hear it. "Get on with it, boy. What do you want?"

"Uncle Iroh says that I will be ready for my genbuku by winter's end, and I came to seek your permission."

Ozai's brows raised in surprise. Zuko – his son – ready for genbuku at thirteen? Ozai had been certain that his whelp would barely make his own genbuku in his fifteenth year. He turned to his brother. "Is this true, Iroh?" If there was one thing that Ozai could be sure of, it was Iroh's honesty in matters such as this.

"Yes, indeed, my lord. Prince Zuko has been the very model of dedication, and I have complete faith that he will be more than ready before spring."

Ozai was impressed despite his usual doubts about his son's abilities. However, he did not allow either Zuko or Iroh to see his pleasure.

"Very well, then. See Feng and set a date."

Zuko's smile was so wide it hurt his face. "Thank you, Sire. Thank you!"

Ozai waved the two supplicants away, but, as Zuko rose to go, he stopped him. "Do not disappoint me, Prince Zuko."

Zuko's face fell. "No, Sir. I will not."

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