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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 35 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Right now, her desire was to teach Zuko a lesson – a lesson that he would not soon forget. He had the temerity to threaten her with banishment; well, she had the temerity to destroy his life. She knew how much her father hated Lan Chi, and she knew that Ozai had forbidden Zuko from even seeing her – so Zuko planning to marry the Water Tribe child would be certain to outrage their father. Who knew what her father might do? He had already attempted to separate them by sending Lan Chi to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls – that had obviously not worked, thanks to Uncle Fatso. What might the next step be? Exiling Lan Chi to the Earth Kingdom? Sending Zuko to the outer Fire Nation islands? Either would please Azula.
She stole into her father's private quarters late that night to find him seated at his desk, going over papers.
"Father?" Azula made her voice deliberately small and meek.
He lifted his head, and his mouth turned down at the sight of his favored child. "Azula? What are you doing here? It's late. You should be in bed." It was not often that Ozai exhibited true paternal feelings, but sleep, he knew, was essential.
She bowed before the desk, her forearms on the floor. "Father. I am sorry to disturb you at this time, and in your private quarters, it's just that –" She looked up, and widened her eyes innocently. "I – I learned something that I think you ought to know."
"Really?" Ozai was interested. Azula rarely came to him with anything other than useful intelligence. She was quite an asset – small enough to hide anywhere, and shrewd enough to know the value of information. "What do you know?"
"It concerns – Zuko." She knew better than to pour out the tale without prodding. A story told with reluctance seemed so much more believable.
Ozai sighed to himself. What sort of idiocy was his son involved with now? "What about him?"
"He – he has been – he has disobeyed you, my lord," she said the last in a rush, as if it was painful for her to speak.
"Indeed?" When does he ever obey?
She lowered he eyes again, so that Ozai would not see the triumph in them. "I – I followed Zuko today, because – because he was acting suspiciously, Father."
"Get on with it."
"And I followed him to Uncle's house."
"Oh, yes?" He was very interested, now. If his treacherous brother was involved, he definitely wanted to hear it.
"He scaled the wall, as if he were sneaking in. And, I climbed the wall, after him, to see what he was doing, and –" she paused dramatically. "I – I caught him – with the Water Tribe girl."
Ozai's hands started to unconsciously heat. "Go on."
"He – he was kissing her – most shamefully, and she was – allowing him such liberties, Father. Things that I have never seen." He was silent, his eyes in the distance, and a muscle was ticking in his jaw, so she continued. "After he left her, I confronted him."
"What did he say?"
"He – he said that he was going tomarry her – marry her, Father! And he said that they had Uncle's blessing. And then," she allowed an ersatz sob to well in her throat, "he said that, after he was Fire Lord – that he would allow her to banish me – because she does not like me!" She looked up at her father again, manufactured tears in her eyes.
Ozai could not fail to be touched by Azula' performance – and infuriated by his brother's perfidy. Iroh had pledged – he had pledged, that he would allow no match between Zuko and his ward. Iroh had lied, as he had always lied – seeking to undermine his own brother's reign. Iroh was working to usurp the throne for that mewling, whining prince. And, he was attempting to rule Zuko through the girl – that damned Water Tribe child! She should have met with an "accident" years ago! Iroh should have died at Ba Sing Se! Ozai cursed his own soft heart – had he done what needed to be done, this would not be happening.
"Are you certain?" He asked at last, his voice calm.
She nodded tearfully – regretfully. "Yes, Father. Unfortunately, I am."
He nodded. "You were right to come to me. Say nothing of this to anyone."
Azula rose. "Yes, Father." She started to leave, but Ozai stopped her.
"Oh, Princess Azula. One more thing."
She turned to him, still in her role.
"Guniang will no longer be your lady's maid."
"No, Father?" She was genuinely puzzled.
A slight smile came to his lips. "She has decided to accept a position as Lady Lan Chi's maid."
A similar smile touched Azula's face. "I understand, Father. I understand."
When Lan Chi awoke the next morning, she felt a sense of dread, which she attributed to the impending arrival of her new lady's maid, who was expected some time that morning. She dragged herself out of bed and dressed in sparring clothes in preparation for her session with Jiao Ao, and went downstairs for breakfast.
Iroh had already gone, and Lan ate by herself in the dining room. Just as she was finishing up, she heard the bell at the gate, and knew that Jiao Ao had arrived.
She took her dishes to the kitchen, retrieved her weapons, and walked into the front sitting room, juggling her bow and staffs. She stopped abruptly when she saw a tall, elegant woman looking at the altar that bore Su Hsing's and Lu Ten's portraits. One of the staffs slipped from Lan's grasp, and clattered to the ground, and the woman turned. She smiled when she saw Lan standing there.
She made a quick bow and smiled. "Lady Lan Chi?"
She was very pretty, Lan noted, with thick, straight black hair and a regal carriage.
Lan nodded, and bent to retrieve the staff.
"I am Guniang. General Iroh hired me to be your new lady's maid."
Lan looked at her sullenly. "I know. My uncle told me."
Guniang folded her hands before her demurely. "I am certain that we will become fast friends." She walked around Lan Chi with a critical eye. "Your uncle did not tell me of your unusual hair color."
"I've never seen red hair."
"I'm the only one in the Fire Nation with it, I think. It comes from my mother – she was Water Tribe."
If she was trying to shock the woman, she failed. "It's very pretty."
"No, it's not."
Guniang picked up her braid. "It is. You just don't know how to wear it. It should be worn down – perhaps with a flower or a comb in it."
"It gets in my way – when I'm training."
Guniang gave a small smile. "But you do not train all the time, do you?"
"No. But I should be training now."
"Hmm. Well perhaps it's time for more ladylike pursuits."
"I already have an etiquette teacher."
"Well, etiquette is one thing. I'm talking about learning to be a lady in all things. In the way you sit, the way you talk, the way you laugh."
"I have an unladylike laugh?" Lan was incredulous. "You've never even heard me laugh."
"No. Of course not. Those were just examples."
"Look." Lan sighed. "I would really love to stand here and dissect all of my character flaws, but I have a martial arts lesson with my master right now."
"Oh, you mean Master Jiao Ao?"
"Yes. Do you know him?"
"Not really. We just met outside."
"Oh. See, he's here. I have to go." She made to walk past Guniang, but the woman stayed her.
"He's gone. I sent him off, you see, because I wanted to spend some time getting to know you a little better."
"What? How could you do that? You have no right!" Lan was incensed, and she threw her weapons on the floor.
"There will be plenty of other days when you can swing a sword and shoot an arrow."
Lan crossed her arms. "I don't swing a sword," she said petulantly.
Guniang gave an innocent smile. "Whatever you say. So, tell me, Lady Lan Chi," she indicated that the girl should sit, and Lan reluctantly obeyed. "All about yourself." She seated herself nearby, and Lan noted how gracefully she sat.
Lan's lip stuck out belligerently. "There's nothing to tell."
"On the contrary. You are obviously highly skilled with –" she waved a languid hand at the weapons scattered across the room. "Arms."
"And you have an etiquette teacher, so that presumably means that you have some social skills."
"I thought a lady's maid just concerned herself with clothes."
Guniang smiled again. "Well, of course, there is that. But we also take an interest in the person inside the clothes."
"I suppose a hog in a silk robe is still a hog." Lan pointed out reasonably.
"I do not think you a hog!"
She had to smile at that. "Thank you. Now, Guniang, you tell me. Why did you leave Azula's employ?"
The maid's gaze shifted to her hands. "I – I do not like to talk about my former employers. It is dishonorable to tell tales."
Lan shrugged. "Fair enough."
There was a small silence, and Guniang smiled. "Shall we go up to your chamber and look at your clothes? We can see if there are any foundation pieces that you are lacking."
Lan shrugged again. "I suppose." She led the woman up to her room, where they began going through drawers and closets, with Guniang making small talk, trying to put Lan Chi at ease.
She complimented Lan Chi on her varied wardrobe, and Lan was inexplicably proud – after all, she had not sewn the clothing, but she had insisted on all the colors.
Just then, Hua came to her door. "My lady," she began timidly. "Prince Zuko is here."
All color drained from Lan's face, which Guniang did not fail to note. "Hua, I am sure he is here to see my uncle." She turned to her new maid. "Please excuse me, Guniang. I should greet his highness, and – and inform him that my uncle is – is not here." She raced from the room.
Zuko stood at the bottom of the stairs, and a smile split his face when he saw her.
"I had a few minutes." he began. "I wanted to –"
"My uncle isn't here right now, your highness!" She interrupted in an overly loud voice.
Confusion showed in his expression. "I – I'm not here to see –"
"I think he's at his office!" She shouted at him.
He was puzzled. "I – I know he is. I was just with him." He tried to take her hand, but she avoided him. "Lan, what's going on?"
Guniang appeared at the top of the stairs, her interest in the prince's visit prominent on her face. Zuko caught sight of her and blanched. He turned so that his back was to the stairs. "Lan," he whispered, "what is Azula's lady's maid doing here?"
"Prince Zuko," again, her voice was designed to carry, "do you know Guniang? Uncle just hired her as my new lady's maid."
"He did?" He was incredulous. He schooled his face, and turned to the older woman. "Madam Guniang, a pleasure to see you." He bowed.
Guniang returned the bow. "Good morning, your highness."
"I – I," his eyes slid to Lan's, "I was just hoping to see my uncle, but – I can see that – that he's not here – right now." He looked as if he wanted to say something more, but, instead, he bowed to both women. "Your servant, ladies." He sent Lan Chi a significant look, and was gone.
Lan gave a falsely wide smile, and turned to Guniang, still at the top of the stairs. For a moment, Lan thought that she caught a calculating look on the maid's face, although it was quickly masked, and Lan wondered if she had seen it at all.
Zhushou did not have many friends at the palace. He was a solitary man, as he had been a solitary child, and found few at the palace who could get past those very facets of his personality that had shaped him into the solitary person that he had become.
However, one of Zhushou's only passions in life, besides politics, was ostrich horses. As a child, he had been too timid to ride, but, since being in residence at the palace, he had squelched his innate fear of them, and had begun going to the stables – if only to pet and feed them.
Ma Hu, one of the senior grooms, and a young man about the same age as Zhushou, took pity on the secretary, and began encouraging him to try his hand at riding. He had even gone so far as to allow Zhushou to ride one of the calmer animals around the corrals, and, Zhushou, for his part, had begun teaching Ma Hu how to read, which was opening an entirely new world for the groom. Ma Hu, despite his inability to read, was not a stupid person. He was simply unlucky enough to be born into an illiterate family of farmers and farm hands, and Zhushou recognized this.
As a result of this symbiotic relationship, Zhushou and Ma Hu spent many of their free hours together. Naturally, Zhushou, who was always alert for ways to expand Iroh's, and therefore his own, influence in the palace, began paying Ma Hu for small tidbits of information. This pleased Ma Hu greatly – it not only earned him a few much-needed coins – it also provided him with a greater sense of his own self-worth.
So, when Ma Hu came upon a very interesting tidbit, his first thought was to go to his friend. Unfortunately, however, Zhushou's days and nights were very busy with his own work, owing to the upcoming war meeting, and also owing to the extra work placed on him by dint of being responsible for keeping Prince Zuko's afternoons filled. Although, ostensibly, Zuko was apprenticing under General Iroh, functionally, much of the time, Zhushou was obligated to oversee Zuko's education.
So, it was not until the very day of the war meeting that Ma Hu screwed up his courage enough to go searching for his friend. He knew where Iroh's office was, having gone there in the past for his reading lesson, but he had never made his way through the palace alone during the day, when the corridors were filled with bureaucrats and other important people. He was afraid that his demeanor, and his groom's uniform, would give him away as an outsider to anyone who saw him. Still, his mind told him that the information that he had was important – important enough to break a few rules.
He found Zhushou alone, thankfully, and he slid into the office, closing the door behind him. Zhushou looked up distractedly, but, upon seeing the groom, his eyes widened, and his face blanched. "Ma Hu! What are you doing here?" He got up and came around to the groom, grabbing his arm.
"I had to see you!"
"What?" Zhushou looked around, although he knew that, with the door closed, there was no possible way that there could be a spy concealed. "The war meeting is today. I don't have time. Maybe tonight, after General Iroh has gone."
"No! I needed to see you now! There is something – something I need to tell you!"
Zhushou looked at him with real fear in his eyes. "Has someone found out – something – about us?"
Ma Hu looked at him with confusion. "What? No, it's not about that! I – I heard something."
Zhushou, once his fear had passed, returned to the astute, calm young man that he was usually. "What is it?"
"The other day – we sent a carriage and a horse out to drive someone to the port. Someone going to the Earth Kingdom."
"So – I did not know who it was, then, but, I heard the driver talking later. He said the passenger's name was Lao Chuai."
Zhushou sucked in his breath. "Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure he said Lao Chuai?"
Zhushou's sharp mind went to work, running through all the possibilities. There was, to him, however, only one probable explanation. An explanation that would interest his employer greatly.
"Go back to the stables. And tell no one of this."
"General Iroh! General Iroh, sir!" The man who hailed Iroh in the corridor raced after his quarry.
Iroh stopped and turn in the direction of the voice, and smiled. "Well, well, Captain Zhao! I did not know that you were in the capital!"
Zhao bowed deeply before his superior. He was a man approaching middle age, but trim and handsome, with strong features and sandy hair worn in a topknot. He smiled, and, although the smile did not reach his eyes, it showed off straight, white teeth. "General Iroh. I am very pleased to see you. I was wondering if you had gotten a chance to read my report – the one I sent you on reducing coal consumption."
"Yes, yes, indeed, Captain. I have it in my office. I was just going there now. Would you care to accompany me?"
"Yes, thank you, Sir." The turned towards Iroh's office.
"Have you just arrived in the city, Captain?"
"Yes, Sir. We docked late last night. We are here for Admiral Yu Shan to attend a war meeting today."
"Ah, yes. I will be attending that meeting, as well. I had forgotten Admiral Yu Shan would be there. I haven't seen him in years. Does he still have that rather unfortunate habit of flossing his teeth with a hair from his head?"
Zhao curled his lip in distaste. "Yes, unfortunately, he does."
Iroh chuckled. "Otherwise, he is a good leader."
Zhao said nothing, and Iroh chuckled again. "Your silence is speaking, Captain."
"I meant no disrespect, General."
Iroh smiled. "No. Of course, you didn't." They had arrived at his office, and Iroh bowed him in.
Both Zhushou and Zuko called Iroh's name at the same time, and Iroh laughed, waving his hands. "I am very popular, Captain Zhao!"
Zuko looked at Zhushou with irritation, and stepped in front of the secretary. "Uncle, I need to talk to you about Lan. She said you hired –"
Iroh held up his hand. "Not now, Prince Zuko. Let me make you known to Captain Zhao."
Zuko gave Zhao a distracted look. "Hello." He turned back to Iroh, ignoring Zhao's bow. "Uncle, did you know that Lan's new –"
"Not now, Zuko. Captain Zhao is the very resourceful officer who brought us the suggestions regarding the conservation of coal in the navy. Have you read the report?"
Zuko looked at Zhao with surprise. "Yes. I've read it."
"And what do you think?"
"General Iroh!" Zhao interrupted, then, with an apologetic bow, and smile, continued. "With all respect due to the Fire Lord's pre-teen son," his words were almost a growl, "I do not think him qualified to judge a report on the needs of the Fire Nation's navy."
Zuko bristled at this. "I'm nearly fourteen."
Iroh gave a small smile. "Zuko is very highly educated and has studied Fire Nation military history extensively. He has recently begun an apprenticeship with me, and I value his opinion." He turned to Zuko. "What do you think, Prince Zuko, about Captain Zhao's recommendations?"
Zuko's eyes narrowed at the captain. "Well, Uncle, although I find some of the captain's basic principles to be sound, I find his assumptions about the scarcity of coal to be unfounded, and frankly, I believe some of his mathematics to be suspect. Therefore, if you are interested in pursuing the subject, I recommend that you commission a competent and qualified individual to carry out a reliable study."
Captain Zhao 's face, as well as his hands, turned a deep shade of red, as he struggled to control his temper.
Iroh blinked at his nephew, wondering the source of such vitriol in the young man. "Yes, yes, thank you, Zuko. I will take your thoughts into consideration." He efficiently turned Zhao away from his nephew and steered him toward Zhushou, who, having witnessed Zuko's scathing setdown of the captain, was sitting at his desk with a white face. "Zhushou, please make an appointment for Captain Zhao to sit down with me, alone, and discuss his findings. Some time before the Captain leaves the capital. When do you leave, Captain?" The last was directed to Zhao.
"End of the week, Sir."
"Fine, fine, then. By the end of the week, Zhushou." Behind Zhao's back, he motioned Zuko into his private office. The young man, confused, pointed at himself, and his uncle nodded vigorously, and indicated his office again. Zuko sighed and disappeared, and Iroh breathed a sigh of relief. "Perfect," he smiled at Zhao. "Day after tomorrow – right before lunch. Why don't we have luncheon together after that, Captain? You can tell me all about your exploits at sea. I'm certain that they are fascinating!" He bustled Zhao out of his office and shut the door behind him.
"No disturbances for a few minutes, Zhushou. I need to have a word with my nephew."
"But, General, I need –"
Iroh stopped him. "Hold that thought, Zhushou."
Zhushou sighed. "Yes, Sir."
Iroh entered his private office and shut the door. Zuko stood at the window, looking out, his hands clasped behind his back. For a moment, Iroh wondered who the man standing at the window was, and realized, instantly, that it was, of course, his nephew. When had he grown so tall? When had he acquired the carriage of a prince? Iroh blew a breath out.
"Zuko, what was the meaning of that vituperative display?"
Zuko turned, a frown on his face. "What display, Uncle?"
"Your assessment of Captain Zhao's report was very critical."
"You asked for my opinion – I gave it. Wasn't that what you wanted?"
"Yes, Zuko, behind closed doors, you give me your honest opinion. In front of the person who wrote the report, you say "it's very nice," or something noncommittal – something not so – disparaging."
"Why should I lie?"
"It is not so much lying as it is being diplomatic. There is a difference, you know."
"And you think I should have been diplomatic to him?"
"Captain Zhao's star is on the rise in the navy, Zuko. Someday, you may count on his support."
"I doubt that." Zuko scoffed. "He's a toady, and a fool, and I refuse to court his approval!"
Iroh's face reddened at his nephew's insouciance. "None of us can see the future, so I believe that it behooves you to build bridges rather than burn them!" He slammed his open palm against his desk, and Zuko jumped.
Iroh closed his eyes in an effort to calm himself. "Zuko," he began in a quieter voice, "one day, you will be Fire Lord. And much of being Fire Lord is negotiation and finesse. It is best that you learn now to mediate your emotions, and your language. To learn to make good choices." He shook his head. "I fear that you have made an enemy of Captain Zhao today. And, despite your beliefs, Zuko, you will need the support of your army and navy one day. It is the only way for the Fire Lord to survive." He made a weary motion of dismissal with his hand. "Go now. I have to finish preparing for the war meeting."
"But, Uncle, I wanted to talk to you about Lan Chi's new lady's maid –"
"Zuko, I know who she is. And I will not talk to you about it. It was my decision, and both you and Lan will abide by it."
His face shuttered. "Yes, Sir." He bowed to his uncle and left the office.
Iroh shook his head and sat down heavily at his desk. Zuko was still so hot tempered, so impetuous. He needed to think before he spoke, before he acted. One day, were he not careful, his impulsivity could get him into trouble.
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