|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 34 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 33 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 35 (The Spirit Within) 
Guniang had loved Ozai since she had first met him, nearly fifteen years before, and she would do anything for him. She had been a girl not yet sixteen, and her position with the Princess Ursa had been her first as lady's maid. The beautiful and kind Ursa had taken the young girl under her wing, despite the fact that there were only a few years between them. Ursa and Ozai had been happy then, and Guniang had been happy, those first months, until she finally met the young prince.
It was not unusual for servants to have never met members of the royal family, and the fact that she had not met Ursa's husband for several months was not strange. Indeed, in a twist of fate, her first meeting with Ozai had not even been in the presence of his wife. Instead, Guniang, a girl raised on an ostrich-horse farm, had been in the stables. She loved horses; the sight and the scent of them always transported her to her childhood, when she had been cosseted and loved, and had not been forced to think of leaving home for a job.
Ozai had been there, as well, having exercised one of the newest stallions, and Guniang had thought him an arrogant and cocky groom. She had flirted with him relentlessly for several minutes before realizing that he was not a groom, but rather the younger son of the Fire Lord. She had apologized profusely to him, and he had forgiven her laughingly, and told her to pay no mind – it was a silly mistake, and none need know of it.
She had been relieved and grateful that he had kept the confidence, but she did not forget that handsome and charming man that she had met that day. Naught had occurred between them until after Ursa's death, however; to cuckold her employer would have been a shameful thing for a girl raised in a decent family.
However, after Ursa's untimely demise, Ozai made it clear that he had never forgotten that brief moment in time when they had both been young and carefree and attracted to each other, and she had come to his bed willingly – and had been there ever since.
Their relationship was a secret that he compelled her to keep. Although it was quite common for royals to keep concubines, Ozai was a fiercely private man – he felt that a secret of his that was known to others was also a tool for leverage and for blackmail. Therefore, only servants knew of their liaison – servants who kept their mouths shut – on penalty of job loss or worse.
Guniang knew that marriage was out of the question, of course. Even had the Fire Lord actually wanted to remarry, it would not be to a servant. No, it would never be to a servant.
But she was satisfied with what she had – she shared a bed with him when he desired, which, luckily for Guniang, was often, and she enjoyed the status among the servants that came along with being the Fire Lord's woman.
But she did not want to spy for him – it was a dishonorable business. It also meant that she must, of necessity, live in Iroh's house, and thus be away from Ozai. That would be the hardest part. Not leaving Azula – she was a hard mistress for whom to work. Cruel and impatient, she was always ready with a slap for any servant who displeased her, although Guniang recognized that, as a firebender, Azula's punishments could have been much, much worse.
So, with Ozai's orders fresh in her mind, she knocked on the door of Iroh's office. The general was in, more's the pity, so she was able to see him immediately.
He stood when he greeted her, and offered her a seat and a cup of tea. She accepted the first and declined the latter, although she was gratified that he had offered her, a servant, refreshment.
"Sir," she began nervously after they had both seated themselves. "I have come to accept your offer of a position in your household."
Iroh was clearly surprised. "You – you wish to accept?"
"Yes. The position as lady's maid to your niece. Is it still available, is it not?"
He gave a belated nod. "Yes. Undoubtedly. I have not actually investigated any other avenues other than approaching you, yourself."
He was offering her a way out, and, although she was grateful, that was not an option for her. "I would be appreciative if you would – take me on."
"Of course, of course. It's just that – I will admit – I am very surprised that you should want to leave Princess Azula's employ."
"Princess Azula is not the easiest person to serve." That, at least, was true. "Your other niece is more – docile, I hope?"
Docile? Iroh thought. Not exactly the word I would use for Lan. "She is very – spirited. But kind and intelligent," he hastened to add.
Guniang seemed to consider this for a moment. "Spirited I can live with. Spiteful, mean, ill-tempered. Is she any of those?"
Iroh shook his head. "No. Not at all."
Guniang smiled. "Good. That's all I need to know. You did also say that there would be a very generous salary..." She did not actually remember him mentioning the monetary recompense, but she might as well ask for extra money.
"Yes, yes. Of course. Just tell my man of affairs what you require, and it shall be yours."
Guniang smiled. "Good. May I start tomorrow?"
"What? Tomorrow? Yes, yes. Fine. Tomorrow. Capital idea."
"Thank you, General Iroh. I am sure that your niece and I will get along – swimmingly." She smiled, stood and was gone.
Iroh gave a groan. Things were not going as he had hoped. He had approached Guniang because he wanted information – hiring Lan Chi a lady's maid had simply been an excuse to approach her. Although he had intended to hire a maid for Lan quite soon, he had certainly not intended to offer the position to a woman who had been resident in the palace, in Ozai's employ! Iroh could not trust her with Lan Chi's secret arrangement with Prince Zuko. Indeed, should she find out, she might go running straight back to the palace with the gossip. In fact, for all that he knew, the woman could be a spy for Ozai.
No, no. She was not the woman to serve Lan Chi – certainly not as her chaperone! But, now, they were both stuck with her, and would have to make due – at least for a little while. Unfortunately, Guniang's presence in the household would mean that Zuko could not come and go as easily as he had been doing. In fact, the boy might have to give up his visits to Lan Chi entirely.
Oh, dear. Lan was not going to be happy.
Fortunately for Iroh, he was not given the opportunity to ponder Lan Chi's reaction. That morning, after his bending practice, he had been given the good news by Zhushou that Lao Chuai, his father's secretary, was alive and living in the city! That meant that he could go see him immediately. In fact, he had just been about to order Xuan saddled and brought out when Guniang had arrived.
After having concluded that conversation (although not to his satisfaction), he was more than ready to go see his father's faithful old retainer, whom Iroh knew had been in Azulon's employ for – well, for as long as Iroh could remember.
With orders to Zhushou to tell Prince Zuko that he could have the afternoon free, and with Lao Chuai's address in a pocket, Iroh set off for the man's house. On the ride there, he ran over, in his head, what he would ask the old man. First on his list, of course: what happened the night Azulon died. Was Lao Chuai there? Had he been there earlier? Did he see Ozai? Did he see Ursa? How long after Azulon's death did he learn of it?
With all of these thoughts running through his head, the journey seemed quite short. He pulled Xuan to a stop before a small, neatly kept house, with a flower-filled front yard. As he approached the door, he admired the profusion of blooms in every color. It seemed that Lao Chuai had a green thumb.
He knocked, and was rewarded, after several long moments, with the door opening a crack. A wizened woman probably twenty-five years Iroh's senior peeked through it. She had wiry gray hair, a long nose, and an equally long chin.
"Good afternoon, ma'am. Is Lao Chuai in residence?"
Her unkempt eyebrows raised. "Ooh, ain't you fancy? In residence, indeed?"
Iroh smiled, trying to put the woman at ease. She was obviously one of those older woman typically called a crone. "Yes. Is he at home?"
"No." She tried to close the door, but Iroh put his hand on it.
"Would you be his lovely wife?"
That seemed to anger her. "I ain't lovely, and I ain't nobody's wife. Besides, Lao Chuai weren't never married. Married to his work, more like."
"Ah, yes. He was secretary to the Fire Lord."
"Not the one what we got now. No, not to that young cock. To Azulon – the devil that he was."
Iroh suppressed a smile. It was not the first time he had heard his father called that. He was not insulted – Azulon would have been the first to admit that his actions were – devilish at times.
"Lao Chuai. Do you know when he might return?"
"No, I do not. Might be never, at his age."
Iroh felt a momentary dread. "Where has he gone?"
"To visit his sister, hasn't he? Got a letter from her a few days ago. Threw him into a dither. It did. Seems she fell – or something, and wanted his help. How that old coot could help anyone else is beyond me – I have to help him to his feet in the garden! And me, as old as him!"
"Oh, I see. Where does his sister live? Nearby?" Iroh was hopeful.
"Naw. She lives somewhere in the colonies. Lao Chuai complained it would take a month to get there. Or was it a month there and back? Or maybe two months?" She shrugged. "Can't recall."
Iroh's heart plummeted. "Did he leave an address?"
"Nothing – a contact, in case of emergency?"
She cackled at that. "In case of what? The begonia dying?"
Iroh frowned. "Did he leave his sister's letter behind?"
She took umbrage. "No! And if he did, I wouldn't be showing it to the likes of you! Good day to you, Sir!" She got up enough strength to slam the door in Iroh's face.
"In residence, indeed! Him with his fancy words!" Iroh could hear her mutterings from beyond the door, and he sighed.
Iroh turned and walked back to his horse. He was too late. The man had fled. But why? Was it a coincidence that Lao Chuai's sister had written and requested his help at the time that Iroh needed him? Or had he gotten wind that Iroh was looking for him? Or – had someone else found out? Someone who had smuggled the old man out of the capital – or worse?
Iroh mounted his horse and turned for home. There was only one thing he knew for sure – he was further from learning the truth than he had ever been.
As he rode away, a figure unfolded himself from behind a tree and turned, like Iroh, towards the palace.
Zuko hummed as he approached his uncle's office, having just completed his daily sword practice with Jiao Ao. He had done better today than he had for the past few days. He had consciously suppressed thoughts of Lan Chi and of his problems with his father in order to concentrate, and it had worked. He had actually disarmed Jiao Ao, and his master had been very pleased.
Now, he was on his way to see Uncle, and he planned to ask the older man if he could see Lan Chi again that night. Iroh had told him that he could see her no more often than every other day, but he was hoping that, if he told his uncle that there would be no touching, he could come and at least see her – maybe finish learning how to play pai sho. Wait! Do I really want to learn to play pai sho? He asked himself. Not really, but, if that meant that he could see her, he would do it.
"Hello, Zhushou. Is my uncle here?" He greeted the secretary.
Zhushou jumped up and bowed. "Hello, your highness. No, I regret to say that General Iroh had to leave the palace for the afternoon."
"Oh?" Zuko's brows drew together.
"Yes. He told me to tell you that you might be excused today."
"He did?" A wonderful idea came to mind. "Really?"
"Yes, your highness."
A smile came to the prince's face. "Well, then. I guess that I should go." He left the office at a walk, but, when he closed the door behind him, he took off at a run for his family's quarters. Iroh was out – and unable to chaperone anyone. And Lan Chi was most probably at home.
Once back in his chamber, he called for the Imperial Firebenders and requested a hot bath and fresh clothes. He washed both his body and his hair, which he dried and tied up quickly, and slid on a newly pressed uniform. Pulling on his boots, he raced from his room and towards Iroh's home, not noticing that Azula was just coming up the hallway. She ducked behind a potted plant as she noted his haste, and watched him, with narrowed eyes, as he disappeared down the corridor that led to the other family quarters.
"Where are you going, Zu-zu?" She asked softly.
Since he had not actually been invited to his uncle's home, Zuko thought it prudent to make a stealthy entrance. He was going to sneak in, over the wall. He climbed the hedges that lined the courtyard, and pulled himself up.
Perfect, he thought to himself as he lay on the top of the wall. Lan Chi was in the courtyard, alone, practicing stick defense. He watched her for several minutes, a smile on his face. He rarely had an opportunity to observe her unseen, and this was a chance he did not want to pass up.
She was dressed in soft gray sparring clothes, with boots much like his own, and her hair was, of course, in a braid. His hands twitched with the impulse to run his fingers through it.
"Spying is unseemly, you know." She lowered her sticks, and peered up at Zuko, whose head she could see over the wall.
He grinned. "I'm not spying. I'm observing."
"If you're observing a person who doesn't know that you are observing, then that's spying."
He swung his leg over the wall and slid down until he stood facing her. "Well, that's okay, then. Because you saw me, so I couldn't be spying."
She sighed and raised her sticks again, starting to go through her latest form. "You shouldn't be here, Zuko."
He leaned against the wall in front of her. "I wanted to see you."
She stopped and looked at him. "You know you're not allowed to be here if Uncle isn't here." She turned away and started the form over. He followed, and when she completed the form and turned around to repeat it, he grabbed the stick.
"Aren't you happy to see me?" His voice was low and soothing.
She smiled. "Of course I am."
"You sure don't seem that way."
"I'm trying to prove to Uncle that I don't need a chaperone."
"Well, prove it to him when he is actually here." He slowly dragged her to him by the stick. Under the spell of his words and the look on his face, she followed the stick until she and Zuko were only an inch apart.
A ripple of excitement went through her. "You're right."
A slight smile came to his face. "And since he isn't here, he doesn't know I'm here, either."
She sighed. "He knows everything."
He pulled her against him and slid his arm around her back. "He's not a god." His lips found hers, and all coherent thought fled from her mind. The sticks dropped to the ground, released by hands that were suddenly occupied elsewhere. His lips were soft, so soft, and his breath was sweet, and his hands on her back were causing all sorts of sensations that she welcomed and that frightened her at the same time. His hand eased down until it was at the top of her buttocks, and she dragged her mouth away.
"Hands." She murmured.
"Why?" He asked, pressing kisses along her jaw. "He's not here."
"But he'll be really mad if he walks in and finds you with your hands there."
Both his hands had snaked down, and he moved them back up reluctantly. "He's gone for the whole afternoon. Zhushou said so." His hands cupped her face and he kissed her again.
"Zuko –" She pulled away, and he let her. "Someone might see us."
He grabbed her hand and pulled her into a corner of the building. "Better?"
He frowned. "You're a very hard girl to court, Lan."
"Should I be easy?" He kissed her again.
"No. Easier, perhaps, than you are now, though." He took her back into his arms.
"Hmm." She kissed him. "I suppose, if he really is gone for the afternoon –"
"He is." Another kiss.
"There's no harm, I guess, in you putting your hands there." She put her own hands behind her back and grasped his, and lowered them to her buttocks.
Shock showed on his face for a moment, to be replaced with a delighted smile. He caressed her rear experimentally, and she gave a soft moan. "Spirits, Lan," he breathed, and kissed her hungrily, pulling her lower torso against his, allowing her to feel how much she affected him.
She brought her arms around his body tightly and he responded, pulling her pelvis against him until her feet were almost off the ground.
"Oh, spirits," he repeated. "I – I want –"
"What?" Her voice was breathless and her eyes dilated with the sensations washing over her.
"I don't know." He shook his head. "You, I guess. I want you."
"You have me. Always."
He kissed her again, his tongue going aggressively into her mouth. Her own tongue met his boldly.
"Why do you always have to wear breast bindings?" He asked when she pulled away to breathe.
She laughed. "That is an area definitely off limits."
He smiled drunkenly. "Or two areas." He kissed her again.
She finally turned her face from him. "You'd better go."
"Why?" He continued kissing her, his lips on her neck and her ear now.
"Because if you don't, I may end up doing what I told Uncle I never would."
"What's that?" He licked her lobe, and she giggled at the frisson that shot through her.
"Give myself to you under the cherry tree."
He drew back in surprise. "You told him that?"
She nodded. "I told you – I tell him everything."
"You aren't going to tell him about this, are you?" He kissed her again.
"Of course not! I don't have a death wish."
"Good. It will be our secret." He released her reluctantly. "I'll go."
She nodded. "Okay."
"Uncle said that I can see you tomorrow."
She nodded again and walked him over to the wall.
"By the way," he scaled the wall easily, and, when he reached the top, he turned to her. "I don't want you to give yourself to me under the cherry tree. We can wait until we're married." He reached down, and she took his hand.
"If you say so." She was skeptical.
"I love you."
"I love you, too." He stretched down to press a kiss to her palm, winked at her, and was gone.
He was happy as he made his way back to his chamber. Lan was beautiful, and passionate, and wonderful, and understanding, and she was his. All his. He smiled and began whistling an old Fire Nation lullaby that his mother used to sing to him, blithely unaware that disaster was courting him.
She saw her brother as he left their quarters. She saw, and she followed him. She followed him through the winding hallways, cautious not to be being seen by him. She followed him to the courtyard, and watched as he scaled a wall.
Her eyes narrowed. She knew where she was – she knew where he was going. She even had an idea why he was going there.
But she wanted to be certain.
She waited until he disappeared over the top of the wall, and she followed on silent feet. It took her longer to climb the bush than she expected – she had not climbed trees for several years, and was out of practice.
She cautiously stuck her head above the wall, and saw her brother immediately. As well as the person who was wrapped around him.
He and Lan Chi were locked in an ardent embrace, their kisses passionate and lengthy. Azula gave a small gasp as Zuko pulled Lan Chi into the shadow of the building, and watched in fascination as the Water Tribe girl guided her brother's hands down to her own buttocks. She watched as he pulled Lan Chi against his body, as he stroked her with his hands, as passion overtook them.
She watched as the mongrel turned her face from Zuko, as she allowed him to kiss her neck and her ear, as Zuko smiled at her with such – love. Oh, my – with love. Love was on his face, as he smiled at her, as he whispered to her, as he kissed her again and again.
They began to move towards the wall, their tryst obviously coming to an end. Azula ducked back down, dropped from the wall, and melted into the courtyard, a smile on her face. She finally had it – real power over her brother. And she intended to use it.
Iroh did not come home for tea; in fact, he barely made it home in time for dinner. Lan Chi was already at the table, eating noodles in solitude when her uncle finally arrived. He sank down across from her gratefully, and began filling a bowl for himself.
"You're late. Busy day?"
He nodded. "Yes. Very. I had to go out this afternoon. On a fool's errand, as it turned out. And then I had to prepare for a war meeting tomorrow. Several of the generals are in the palace for strategic planning."
"So – busy day tomorrow, as well."
"Probably." His food was cold, but he was too hungry to care.
"Well, better busy than bored."
He chuckled. "I'm never bored, Little Duck. Between you and Zuko, I'm always entertained."
She made a small bow and held her chopsticks out with a flourish. "Glad to be of service. Zuko's coming over tomorrow night, isn't he? Can he come for dinner? I'll have Cook make Komodo pork with candied ginger and pea pods."
"Are pea pods in season already?"
"Just saw some at the market yesterday."
"Well, time flies. Before you know it, it will be summer."
"Yes. Will you ask Zuko if he can come tomorrow?"
Iroh gave her a sheepish look. "Well, as to that, I have some good news and some bad news."
She looked at him warily. "I don't like the sound of that."
He gave an embarrassed smile. "I engaged a lady's maid for you."
She groaned and put down her chopsticks. "Uncle." Her voice was plaintive.
"But she won't be a chaperone."
Suddenly happy again, Lan smiled. "Oh, good. Yeah! No chaperone. So that's good news and bad news rolled into one." She picked her chopsticks up and resumed her meal.
"Not quite. More bad news. Zuko can't come over tomorrow. Or for the foreseeable future."
"What? Why not?" She was aghast.
"Well, you see," he demurred, " the maid that I hired, she, well, she's quite a good lady's maid, with the best qualifications..." He trailed off.
"Get to the point, Uncle. Why can't Zuko come over? Is it something to do with the maid?"
"Well, yes, because – you see – well, she used to be Azula's lady's maid." He finished in a rush.
Lan Chi's jaw dropped. "You hired Azula's lady's maid for me? Have you quite lost your mind?"
"I actually didn't mean to hire her."
"Didn't mean to hire her? Was it an accident? How can you accidentally hire someone?"
"I actually was just hoping to get recommendations from her, but I – accidentally offered her the position, and she took it. I think that Azula is not actually a very forgiving mistress."
This time, Lan's chopsticks struck the table with a loud smack. "You think? Of course she isn't! But that doesn't mean you have to hire every palace employee she mistreats!"
"I haven't. I just hired the one."
"The one who will probably tell the whole world about Zuko!"
"Which is why she won't be your chaperone. And why Zuko can't come here for a while." His last words ended in a defeated whisper.
"Oh, Uncle! How could you? Now I'll never get to see him!" She jumped up from the table and ran from the room.
Iroh winced as he heard her feet pounding up the stairs, and grimaced as the power emanating from her bedroom door slamming shook the entire house.
"Ooh, dinner looks good, Zu-zu. Don't you think?" She sat across from him at the dining table and served herself.
Zuko gave his sister a fulminating look. She was up to something. She was never nice to him unless she was planning something unspeakably horrible. "What do you want?"
She shrugged. "Nothing. Just trying to have a conversation."
"Well, have a conversation by yourself." He shoved some rice into his mouth.
She rolled her eyes. "I think you misunderstand the concept of a conversation, Brother. It requires two or more participants."
He was silent, continuing to shovel food into his mouth, intending to finish dinner as soon as possible and leave the room.
Azula, however, was not done with him. "So, Zuko, how are you enjoying your apprenticeship with Uncle?"
His look was suspicious. "How do you know about that?"
She shrugged. "I have my ways." She watched him for a moment, then continued. "Do you go to Uncle's house frequently?"
Zuko's heart skipped a beat. "Every so often."
"Do you ever get to see Lan Chi when you are there?"
He tried to make his shrug nonchalant. "Sometimes. Not often."
Azula chewed slowly as she watched the play of emotions on her brother's face. He was such a bad liar. "Hmm. Do you ever get to train with her – you know – like stick defense, or anything like that?"
Zuko put his chopsticks down and looked at her intently. "What do you want, Azula? Spit it out!"
"Fine. I know you've been going to Uncle's house to see her."
"So?" He tried to seem unconcerned.
"I saw you with her today."
Zuko's pupils constricted in fear, but he controlled his voice. "You were spying on us?"
"Can't you see, Zuko? She's using you. She doesn't love you. She doesn't want you. She just wants to be queen."
"You're wrong. She does love me, and I love her."
Azula scoffed. "Oh, Zu-zu. What a simpleton you are. She's a half-breed whore who's trying to sleep her way into a coronet."
He stood. "Take that back!"
"I won't. I saw you, Zuko. I saw her offer herself to you. She's no better than a common strumpet!"
"Shut up, Azula!" He raced from the room, but Azula went after him.
"Make me! I'm going to tell Father! I'm going to tell Father, and he'll send her away again!"
He whirled on her suddenly. "Go ahead! Tell him! He can't stop me! We already have Uncle's blessing, and I am going to marry her!"
Azula, who had taken a step backwards, covered her mouth in surprise. "You can't seriously be considering that! She's a Water Tribe slut – and no one will accept her as queen!"
"Don't call her that!"
Azula's eyes narrowed. "Why not? It's what she is. She's not fit to be queen! You can't marry her!"
"I can, and I will. And do you know the first thing she will do when she's queen? She'll banish you because you've always been so mean to her! And I'll let her!" He ran down the corridor.
She stared after him, her fists clenched in anger. Banish her? No one was going to banish her. She would make certain of that!
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