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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 32 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 31 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 33 (The Spirit Within) 
"Good morning, Nephew."
Zuko opened his eyes and smiled at his uncle. "Good morning, Uncle."
"Have you attained serenity today, my prince?"
"Yes. It's relatively easy."
"When you're in love."
Zuko blushed. "Perhaps."
"Would you care to skip firebending today and join me in my office? You could start your apprenticeship. No time like the present, after all."
Zuko grinned and hopped up. "Am I really your apprentice, Uncle?"
"Well, why not?"
"Yes. Why not?" Zuko's smile widened and he grabbed his shirt as they left the courtyard.
"There are some interesting papers to look over. A request for tax relief from a region suffering drought. A report on one of the newest divisions that has been formed. Another report from a captain in the navy – he has been studying ways to conserve our coal usage on the war ships."
"Why do we need to conserve coal? Can't the firebenders on the ships simply supply the power themselves?"
"Well, of course, they can, but there has to be a fuel source to sustain the fire. We can't have a string of firebenders standing at the furnace all day and night!"
Zuko colored, embarrassed at his lack of knowledge. "Oh. I'm really stupid, aren't I?"
Iroh put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Not at all, Zuko. How would you know such a thing if you were never taught? And that is what we are doing here – I am teaching you."
"Thank you, Uncle. I'm grateful – truly."
"And when you are older, you should go out into the Fire Nation, and visit all the islands, and the colonies. There is no better way to learn than to experience."
"Lan Chi could go with me!"
"Shhh!" Iroh looked around, but there was no one near enough to have heard the prince's words. "We do not want to tip our hand, Prince Zuko."
"Oh." Zuko looked chagrined. "I'm sorry, Uncle. You're right. I'll be more careful."
They arrived in Iroh's office, and Zhushou, who had obviously been waiting, jumped up. "General Iroh! I believe I have the information you needed!"
Iroh wagged his eyebrows meaningfully, and Zhushou fell silent, his face sheepish. He bowed belatedly to his betters.
"Thank you, Zhushou. Prince Zuko and I will be working together most of the morning. Perhaps later."
"Ah, yes, of course, Sir. It's just that – um – the appointment you requested is – or well, can be this morning."
Iroh's brows raised. "Oh? Well, in that case, perhaps Zuko can work on his own for a little while." He bustled Zuko into his private office and settled him at his own desk. "Look through these papers, Zuko. This should help to acquaint you with some of the issues that the Fire Nation faces."
Zuko looked at the piles of paper stacked ten inches high, with a mixture of horror and dread. "All – all of this?"
"Not all today! But the best way to start is to just dive right in." Iroh mimicked diving into the papers.
"Yes, Sir." His voice was fearful.
Iroh held up a finger. "And, don't forget – everything you read is classified, so do not breathe a word of it to anyone. Not anyone."
"No, Sir. I won't."
Iroh patted him on the back heartily. "Good boy! Good boy! I will be back soon. In an hour or so. Or perhaps two. Just leave when it it time for you to go to Jiao Ao, if I am not back."
"Y – yes, Sir."
He strode from the room and closed the door behind him, leaving Zuko looking at the stacks of papers with apprehension.
Once in the outer office, Iroh drew Zhushou close. "Princess Ursa's lady's maid?"
"Yes, Sir. Princess Azula is at school, and her maid should be available until late afternoon."
"Of course! I forgot that Azula is still at the Academy. Silly of me. But what of the maid? Where is she?"
"She typically spends the entire day in Princess Azula's chambers. She cares for the Princess's clothing herself. She does all the brushing and the mending."
"Hmm. An industrious woman, indeed." He looked thoughtful. "What is her name?"
"Well, as much as I do not like the thought of bearding the dragon in the den, I also do not want to follow the poor woman into the servants' quarters. Princess Azula's chamber it shall have to be."
Iroh silently opened the door to Azula's bedchamber and peeked in. A woman of about thirty stood by the bed, brushing a robe laid out on the coverlet. From behind, she seemed attractive, with a trim waist and straight, black hair.
"Guniang?" Iroh asked softly.
She jumped and spun around, her hand on her chest. She calmed when she saw who it was. "Oh, General Iroh. You startled me. I am afraid that Princess Azula is not in the palace right now – she is still at school. She should be back by late afternoon, though." She was a very pretty woman, Iroh noted, with a straight nose, fine, almond-shaped eyes, and a pleasing countenance.
He smiled and entered, closing the door behind him. The woman's eyes darted to the closed door, and then to Iroh. "Actually, I was looking for you."
She backed up a step, and put her hand on the bed to steady herself. "You – you were?"
He gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile, and tried to appear non-threatening. "Yes. You see, my niece, Lady Lan Chi, is of an age with Princess Azula. Actually, she is a bit older than Azula, and it is past time that I engage a lady's maid for her." That, at least, was true, and Iroh liked nothing more than killing two birds with one stone.
Guniang looked interested. "Oh?"
"Yes. And, I thought that, perhaps, you might know someone who would be interested. Unless you yourself might be – interested." Why not?
She turned back to her task of brushing Azula's robe. "But I am Princess Azula's lady's maid."
"Of course. Of course. I did not mean to – to suggest that you leave Princess Azula. I know that you have been with the royal family for a long time. You were Princess Ursa's lady's maid, were you not?"
"Yes. The entire time she was married to Prince – I mean, Fire Lord Ozai."
Iroh sighed sadly. "It was quite a shock when – when the princess passed away. Were you aware, at all, that she had a weak heart? Were there any indications?"
Guniang shook her head, but she did not look at Iroh. "No. None at all."
"Were you – with her when it happened?"
She continued brushing the robe, although Iroh was certain that any stains that could be removed by brushing were long gone. "No. It was during the night. The High Sage came to tell Prince Ozai that Fire Lord Azulon had – had passed, and she just –" she shrugged, "had a seizure of some sort."
"How terrible! Were the doctors called immediately?"
She shook her head and turned the robe over. "No. Apparently, Prince Ozai carried her to the infirmary, but, because it was in the middle of the night, there was no one there." She shook her head again. "I do not think that they could have done anything, anyway. She was already dead, from what I understand."
Iroh tsk-tsked, although his mind was whirring. "I was so sorry to miss her funeral."
She twitched the wrinkles out of the clothing. "There was no funeral. The Fire Lord – Fire Lord Ozai, that is, felt it too close to his father's. She was burned on a pyre the same night, I believe, with only the Fire Lord in attendance." She looked at him. "He was much distressed."
Iroh nodded somberly. "Yes. I can understand that."
She finally finished the robe, and folded it carefully. "I will think on your request, General Iroh."
"My request?" Iroh was startled from his thoughts.
She looked at him oddly. "Yes. Regarding a lady's maid for your niece."
"Oh! Oh, yes! A recommendation from you would be high praise, indeed, Guniang."
"Thank you, Sir." She bowed to him. "I am honored that you have a high opinion of me."
Iroh walked back to his office slowly, a slight frown on his face. He had learned little from Guniang – she was obviously not a witness to Ursa's death, or even to her funeral. She knew, it seemed, only the official story of Ursa's death. Perhaps it is the true story of Ursa's death, a voice in his head said, with a measure of common sense. Yes, perhaps it is, Iroh answered back. It was the story that made the most sense – a story that did not include murderous husbands and sons, or conspiracies that included princes and Fire Sages. It would be so much easier if it was the truth – but Iroh had a nagging feeling that it was not. And that was why he must keep digging.
He found Zuko at the tea table in his office with papers spread all about him and a cup of tea at his elbow. He was reading, his finger underlining the words as he read them. Iroh found his commitment very endearing, and smiled.
"How are you doing, Nephew? You seem engrossed."
Zuko lifted his head absently. "What? Oh, yes. Hello, Uncle. Yes. This is really very – interesting. And rather disturbing. Did you know that, if a family cannot pay their taxes, a member of the family can volunteer for the army in lieu of payment?"
Iroh nodded soberly. "Yes, indeed. I do know that."
"Has it always been this way?"
Iroh was very slow to speak, and, when he spoke, his words were very careful. "It is a relatively new policy."
"A policy? You call it a policy to pay in blood rather than in gold?"
"It is not my policy, Prince Zuko."
Zuko set his jaw, and nodded. He knew whose policy it was.
Zuko left his uncle's office, troubled greatly by what he had learned. An entire region, ravaged by drought, had not the ability to pay their yearly taxes. With their crops failing for the second year in a row, they had no income to pay their taxes. Actually, with their crops failing, they had no food to feed themselves – so taxes should have been the least of their worries. However, it appeared that the Fire Lord gathered his taxes rain or shine – and, if the people could not pay in gold or in kind, they would pay in bodies – bodies to wear the Fire Nation uniform. And, according to the petition seeking tax relief that had been brought by the region, some of those forced into the army were as young as sixteen. Sixteen! Only a little more than two years older than Zuko himself.
Zuko had never been ashamed of being Fire Nation – until today. The thought of families sending off their children to war to satisfy a tax debt – it was unconscionable. And the knowledge that it was a policy enacted by his own father – it sickened him. That Ozai could sacrifice mere children on the battlefield was a cruel blow to Zuko's image of his father. He had always thought that his father had the best interests of the Fire Nation at heart, but this – this was anathema to Zuko. This was against all that he had ever been taught about the Fire Nation. It was dishonorable and cruel, and...
...And he had to talk to his father about it.
On the day that Zuko wrestled with his conscience, Lan Chi was wrestling with her own conscience – about a decision that she knew she must make.
It began in late afternoon, when Iroh came home for tea. Lan was in her usual spot, dressed, as she always was, for formal tea, and she smiled as he came in. He sat with her, and took tea, but she could tell that he was distracted.
"What is it, Uncle?"
He shook his head. "Prince Zuko was assisting me today."
"That's a good thing, isn't it? I mean – that is what you wanted."
"Yes, it is. But I fear that he is too young for politics – too tender hearted to make hard decisions – decisions that affect people's lives."
"Well, that's a good thing, too, isn't it? If a politician has no humanity, then he does his people a disservice."
Iroh sighed. "Yes. It's true. But I fear that Zuko will attempt to redress all of the nation's woes himself."
She gave a slight smile. "Bit off a little bit more than he can chew?"
"I think we're all guilty of that."
The smile he returned was a serious one.
Her own smile faded. "What is it, Uncle? Is there something else?"
"I think you may have bitten off more than you can chew, as well, Little Duck."
Her pulse started to quicken. "What do you mean?"
"When do you intend to tell Prince Zuko – about your abilities?"
Her smile disappeared, and she looked down into her cup.
"You cannot keep it from him forever."
She looked up at him. "Why not?"
"Wh – why not? Lan Chi – he is to be your husband! You cannot keep a secret of such magnitude from him!"
"I have kept it – from everyone – for nearly ten years." She raised her voice. Except Princess Ursa.
"Servants have ears, Lan."
She looked around quickly, but there was no one listening. "I cannot tell him! What will he think?"
"What will he think? He loves you! Do you think it would change his feelings for you?"
"I don't know! But I do not want to take the chance!"
"So, are you willing to give it up – for him?"
Give up her bending? It was the only thing – in her life – that was truly hers. Could she give it up?
"Yes." She closed her eyes. "I will – for him."
Iroh frowned sadly. "You will hide such a part of yourself from him?"
"What else can I do? I am marrying the prince of the Fire Nation, Uncle! Not a peasant farmer!"
Iroh pitched his voice very low. "And what of children, Lan Chi? What will you tell him if one of your children has your – unique ability?"
She blanched. "It will not come to that."
"Will it not? Can you guarantee that?"
Her face was miserable.
"No. I see that you realize you cannot. I advise you to be honest with him – and soon. If you keep it from him much longer, he may never forgive you."
Tears came to her eyes. She couldn't tell Zuko about her waterbending. She could not! The thought of his reaction – that she might see revulsion in his face – she could not bear it. She stood suddenly. "Tell Hua that I shan't be coming down for dinner. I find – that I have no appetite." She ran from the room and up the stairs.
Iroh sighed heavily and shook his head.
Lan Chi slammed her bedroom door behind her. What would she tell Zuko about her bending? Iroh was right – she could not keep it a secret from him forever – nor did she really want to. She wanted to share everything with him. She wanted all of him, and she wanted him to have all of her. And that meant her bending, as well. She was going to have to steel herself to his reaction, whatever it might be. But, of course, there was no rule that said she had to tell him about it immediately. She could wait. Until when? When you have a fight and all the water in the room explodes? Or how about when the first baby waterbends the bath water?
She gave a grunt of frustration and clenched her hands into fists. She would definitely have to do it sooner rather than later. But, not too soon. Everything was still so new – so perfect. She did not want reality to intrude – just yet. She wanted him to continue to look at her with that loving gaze – that gaze that told her that she was perfect for him, that he adored her without reservation. She felt that, once she told him, the part of him that was his father – that part of Zuko that had called her a half-breed all those years ago, might make another appearance – and ruin her life. And ruin everything.
But she would tell him – after a while – after he was bound to her more tightly by their love. Perhaps in a year. Yes – in a year. When she was fifteen – after Uncle had convinced Ozai to allow them to marry. Once that hurdle was surmounted, she could tell him. And everything would be fine.
She went back downstairs slowly. Her uncle was no longer at the tea table, so she searched for him, and finally found him in his office.
She stood in the doorway for several long moments before he sensed her presence and lifted his head. His eyes were hopeful when he saw her.
"I'll tell him," she said, without preamble. "I'll tell him when I'm fifteen. After you've talked to Ozai. Not before."
He nodded. "Fair enough."
She gave a firm nod, turned and left the room, leaving Iroh looking at the spot she had vacated, pensive.
Zuko was resolved to speak to his father about the injustice that he had uncovered. Indeed, after a very distracted combat lesson with Jiao Ao, in which Jiao Ao disarmed him not once, not twice, but three times, Zuko headed for his father's throne room – only to find it empty. His father's office was equally empty, as was the Fire Lord's sitting room, but for one person – his father's secretary, Feng. Zuko had disliked Feng for years, since the episode during which Feng had hit Zuko and had shoved Lan Chi to the ground. Still, he bowed slightly to the man, who was gathering papers from the tea table. "Good afternoon, Feng. I am seeking my father."
Feng gave him a look of dislike. "He's not here."
Zuko sighed inwardly. "I can see that. Where is he?"
Feng stiffened, resenting that this boy could demand of him the Fire Lord's whereabouts! "I believe he is out riding."
"Oh. I thought he rode in the mornings."
"The Fire Lord rides when he pleases, not when it pleases you."
Zuko was taken aback, and realized he would get no assistance from this truculent man. He bowed. "Thank you, Feng. I will see my father when he returns."
"Your father is a very busy man. He does not have time for idle chitchat with you."
Zuko drew himself up regally. "The Fire Lord will see me when he pleases, not when it pleases you." Proud to turn the words back on the unctuous servant, he turned on his heel and left the room.
Late that night, Ozai was in the Fire Lord's enormous bed, reading troop reports, when the door opened on silent hinges. He did not look up to see who it was, but, he could tell, by the soft footfalls, who it was.
Guniang smiled as she opened her robe and allowed it to fall to the floor. "Azula was very demanding tonight."
"She is like her father." He looked up as she put one knee on the bed and crawled up to him.
"Hmm. You are demanding in different ways, my lord." She pushed his papers down to kiss him hungrily, and he allowed her to slide them off his lap and onto the floor. She straddled him, and his hands came up to grasp her hips.
She sat back, and flung her hair over her shoulders with a seductive flip. "Your brother tried to poach me today."
One of Ozai's brows raised. "Indeed? For what position?"
Her smile was beguiling. "As lady's maid to that niece of his."
"Ah, well." He ran his hand along her naked hip. "Is he aware of your qualifications, my dear? Because, were he aware, I am certain there is another position he would offer."
She bit her lip, tempting him. "None shall touch, for the Fire Lord's I am."
"Yes. And no one takes what is the Fire Lord's. Especially not my brother." He kissed her again, and their tongues tangled.
He became the aggressor suddenly, and flipped her onto her back. He began an exploration of her body with his mouth, and Guniang purred in contentment. "He also asked about the night Ursa died."
He stilled momentarily, but then continued his assault on her senses until she was gasping. "What did he ask?"
Trying to re-focus, she blinked. "General things, I suppose. Whether I knew she had a weak heart. If the doctors came."
"Oh, yes? How inquisitive of my brother. And what did you tell him?"
She shrugged. "What I have always told everyone."
"Good." He splayed his hand on her belly. "Perhaps you should consider his request."
"What?" She sat up in alarm.
"I am interested in finding out what goes on in Iroh's home. In fact, I have been trying for years to get a spy in there – but his servants are damnably loyal to the old fool – they won't even take bribes!"
"S – so, you want me to spy for you?"
His face was expressionless. "Is that a problem?"
She shook her head, but her eyes were frightened. "No. No, of course not. It's just that – that I – I don't want to – leave you."
"You aren't leaving me. You are serving me, as you do now. And, it won't be forever."
She was quiet for a long time, then finally, she nodded. "All – all right. I suppose – if it would be of service to you."
He smiled and loomed over her to nuzzle her neck. "Oh, it will. And, actually," his smile became predatory, "there is something you can do right now to serve me."
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