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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 4 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Iroh's butler cleared his throat to get her attention. His face was somber as he produced the silver letter tray, with a thin missive on it. She took the letter with a frown, and waited until he left before breaking the seal. Mail was usually not delivered so early, and she had gotten letters from both her uncle and Lu Ten just a few days before.
She unfolded the paper and scanned its contents. Her fingers convulsed, and the letter fluttered to the ground.
I regret to inform you, wrote Tet Lee, her uncle's second in command, that Prince Lu Ten was killed in battle on the seventh day after the spring equinox...
She did not read anymore.
Even though Lu Ten had been interred on the battlefield, Azulon wanted a service for his beloved grandson in the Fire Nation capital, as was befitting a great warrior struck down in combat. Nothing was known of Iroh other than that he had withdrawn the troops from the siege of Ba Sing Se, and had disappeared after Lu Ten's burial. Lan did not know if he was dead or alive, or if he was captured, or if he was ever returning.
White mourning clothes were ordered for the entire royal family, Lan included. As a close blood relative of Lu Ten, she would be among the chief mourners, and was expected to place an offering on the altar during the service.
The service was just a blur to her. She recalled sitting with Hua, and she recalled presenting her offering. She did not remember who she saw at the funeral or the words that were said. She did not remember nodding in response to the condolences that she was offered. She did not even recall walking from the temple to the throne room.
Her mind was instead filled with pictures of Lu Ten. Lu Ten laughing, studying, fighting, eating, singing, swimming – all things that he would never do again. She would never see him again. Never feel his hug or see the smile on his face. Never see him ascend the throne. Never see him marry, or have children. Never hear the snores that came from his room, and never skip stones with him again. Never see him joke with Iroh. Never see him smile at Azulon. Never feel his hands on her back as he pushed her on the swing. Never, never, never, never, never. Never anything again. She wished, for not the first time in her life, that she was dead. She wished that she had gone with him into battle, and that she had been crushed alongside him. He was her brother, and she had never loved anyone more. Not her mother or her father or Aunt Su Hsing, or even Uncle Iroh. It had always been Lu Ten.
Azulon sat on his throne, high above the mourners, watching the proceedings with a critical eye. He watched for signs among the nobles of what he considered impropriety – any who did not seem suitably grief-stricken would feel his wrath later on. His eyes finally came to rest on Lan Chi, swathed in white from her neck to her feet, and sitting, head bowed, on a chair along the wall. Azulon gestured for Ozai, who was standing by his father's side.
"That child against the wall. With the red hair. That's Iroh's water whelp, is it not?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Bring her to me."
Ozai gestured to a page, and conveyed the Fire Lord's wishes. He watched as the page wove through the crowd to Lan Chi's side. Iroh's housekeeper, Hua, after speaking with the page, prodded Lan to stand. She whispered something into the child's ear, and Lan's eyes grew huge. Lan Chi followed the page, head bowed again, her hands clasped in front of her.
How Ozai hated that child! She was the inferior offspring of an inferior race. Impure. Tainted. Furthermore, he had heard the rumors surrounding Iroh's intentions for the girl. And he hated her even more.
She reached the steps to the dais, and, as was fitting, she sank to her knees in front of the Fire Lord. She was pleased that there were no flames lit in front of the throne.
Azulon was silent for a long moment, appraising the child before him. She seemed properly humble.
"You are my son Iroh's ward?"
Her voice was small. "Yes, my lord."
"What was your name again, child?"
"Lan Chi, my lord."
He grunted. "Yes. That's right. You have grown since last I saw you."
Lan Chi did not know how to respond.
"My son showed great benevolence by taking you into his home." Azulon continued.
"Yes, my lord."
"And now you are all that is left to him. His wife, gone. Lu Ten, the most beloved of my grandchildren, is dead."
Ozai's eyes narrowed.
Tears began to run down her face. "Yes, my lord." Her voice cracked.
"Look at me, child."
Lan lifted her tear-stained face. Azulon was blurry to her eyes.
"Do you mourn your cousin?" The Fire Lord asked.
"Every moment, my lord." Her words were simple, but strong.
Azulon clasped his hands in front of his mouth for a moment, then lowered them. "As do I."
Lan was silent, her eyes locked on the Fire Lord. She could feel the old man's pain, because it mirrored her own. For the first time in her life, she saw him, not as the Fire Lord, but as a human being.
"You can go, child." He waved a hand in dismissal, suddenly weary.
She bowed her head again. "I humbly serve at the pleasure of the Fire Lord."
Ozai watched as she backed away from the dais, as was proper. Zuko never did that. He always forgot. He always forgot the traditional pledge as well, which this orphan recited as if it spilled from her lips daily. Here was this mongrel child, and she had more presence than his own son, born of royalty. He seethed inside.
Lan, after backing away from the Fire Lord, turned and ran from the room, leaving Hua behind. She had to get out of there. She could not stand to be in the room with Azulon, whose grief magnified hers. Lu Ten was gone, and Iroh was missing, and she was alone, and the only person who seemed to bear the same amount of grief was a tyrant and a murderer. A murderer who continued to slaughter her mother's people. A tyrant who had sent Lu Ten to his death.
She ran through the darkened hallways of the palace, looking for an exit. She needed fresh air – she had to see the moon – she wanted to be alone in her heartache.
Through large windows she saw a fountain lit by torches, and she pushed her way through the door. It was a large courtyard between two wings of the palace, and it was deserted. She ran to the fountain and sank down beside it. Cool water poured from a basin in the middle. She dipped her hands in it, and brought them up to her face, waiting to feel the calm that usually fell over her when she was near her mother's element, but it didn't come.
The tears came instead. Huge, wracking sobs that shook her body, that tore breath from her throat, that drained her. She did not know how long she sat there, wrapped in her sorrow, in the absolute belief that she was truly alone once again.
"Lady Lan Chi?" It was a boy's voice, as soft as the brush of his fingers on her shoulder. She swiped at the tears on her face, mortified that she should have been caught in her anguish.
She looked up to find Prince Zuko, glowing in the dark, and she realized it was because he was all in white, as she was.
She scrambled to her feet. "Prince Zuko! I'm – I'm sorry." She suddenly realized where she was. "I shouldn't be here. These are your family's private quarters. I'll go. I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention. I'm not supposed to be here."
His brows knit. "No. Don't go. Stay."
"I really – need to."
"Please." He seemed sincere.
"Okay. I don't want to go home." She sat down again.
He sat down next to her, facing her, and she thought she could feel his strange light eyes on her. "I'm really sorry about Lu Ten."
She sniffled again. "Thank you. I should be saying the same thing to you. He was your cousin, too."
"I didn't know him as well as you did."
She wiped the rest of the tears off with her sleeves. "You would have liked him. He was the most wonderful person I ever met."
"I wish that I had known him better. Will you tell me about him?"
The words began to pour out of her. Times she had spent with Lu Ten - the time he taught her how to ride an ostrich-horse, and the time that he taught her how to throw a dagger. And how he helped her with her studies – patiently showed her the use of an abacus, and how to memorize the names of a thousand years of Fire Lords.
She told Zuko a story about the time that she, Iroh, and Lu Ten had gone fishing in Ember Island Bay. Iroh had fallen into the water, and Lu Ten had laughed so hard that he had fallen into the sea trying to help his father out. They were both soaked, and Iroh had lost a boot, but their laughter had been more important than his shoe.
Zuko listened patiently to her stories, a small smile on his face. He enjoyed hearing stories about Lu Ten; he had never really been close to his cousin – perhaps it was because they were so far apart in ages; perhaps it was because Iroh and Ozai were not exactly the closest of brothers. He was slightly jealous that Lan Chi had known Lu Ten so well.
Zuko inched closer to Lan Chi, and his fingers loosely looped around hers. She did not pull away, but hugged her bent knees, bringing her face closer to him. "Thank you, Zuko, for listening to me."
She looked at him for a long moment. "Why do you think your dad doesn't want us to play together?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I think that my dad doesn't like Uncle very much."
"I don't know why. Uncle's really nice."
"Yeah." She began to twiddle with his fingers, and he flushed. He was glad of the dark.
"Do – do you, um, think Uncle will be coming back soon?" He asked, flustered.
"I don't know. I hope so. Hua, our housekeeper, said that he is really sad, and doesn't know what he's doing. She says he has to come back here sometime."
"Yeah. I guess so."
"I'm scared, Zuko." It took a lot to admit, but she was glad to say it.
Her fingers tightened on his. "What if Uncle doesn't come back? Why should he? Aunt Su Hsing is dead. So is Lu Ten. Why should he come back for me? I'm not even a blood relative."
"Don't say that! Uncle loves you! I know he does. I know he'll come back for you."
"What if he doesn't? What will I do, Zuko?"
"Isn't there anyone else you can live with?"
She shrugged. "I guess so. Uncle sometimes write letters to one of my father's sisters. But she lives in the Earth Kingdom. That's so far away."
Zuko had a wonderful idea. "You could live with us." He pictured in his mind training and living with Lan Chi and found that it was a pleasant prospect.
"I don't think your dad will like that idea."
Zuko was crestfallen. "Oh. You're probably right."
"Besides, I don't know if I would like to live with Azula."
"You're right. I forgot about Azula. She's mean."
"Is she mean to you?"
"All the time. Mom says it's a brother/sister thing."
"I think it's an Azula thing."
"Zuko? Zuko, are you here?" His mother's voice came to them from the palace corridor, and Zuko snatched his hand from Lan Chi's, inexplicably guilty. He scrambled to his feet, and Lan Chi followed suit.
His mother caught sight of them, and came hurrying over, her white gown turning her look into a ghost floating over the path. "There you are, Zuko! I've been worried sick about you, young man!" She stopped short when she saw Lan beside him. "Lan Chi! What are you doing here?"
"I'm sorry, Princess Ursa. I'll leave now."
"You don't need to go, child. I am just surprised to see you." She looked thoughtfully at her son and her brother-in-law's ward. "What were you two doing here?"
"Just talking." Lan supplied quickly. "About Lu Ten."
Ursa laid a hand on Lan's head gently. "I'm so sorry about Lu Ten, Lan. I know you two were very close."
"We should get back, though. You've been gone a long time, Zuko. And I'm sure Prince Iroh's housekeeper is looking for you, Lan." She took each child by the hand, and they walked back to the main wing of the palace, their footsteps echoing hollowly in the grand, empty hallways.
Once back in the crush of people, it did not take Ursa long to locate Hua, who had been frantically looking for her charge.
"Lan! Lan, where have you been?" The relief in Hua's voice was palpable.
"She was with Zuko. They were talking." Ursa's voice was too low for anyone but Hua to hear. Hua shot a look at Lan.
Hua bowed. "Thank you, my lady." She took Lan's hand. "We should go now. It's getting very late." She bowed again to Ursa, who had her hand on Zuko's shoulder.
As she was being led away, Lan turned and looked at Zuko, whose hand rose in a brief wave.
Lan's hand went up more slowly, and she kept her eyes on him until the crowd closed around them both.
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