|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 5 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 4 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 6 (The Spirit Within) 
Her heart jumped in her chest. "What is it? Is Uncle Iroh back?"
"No, child. Fire Lord Azulon has died."
She sat up in surprise. Azulon was dead? But she had just spoken to him at the funeral.
"Died of grief, so they're saying. Over Lu Ten."
She drew her knees up beneath the sheets and hugged them. Dying of grief – that she could understand. With all the loss in her life, especially with Lu Ten, she understood not wanting to go on. But not from Fire Lord Azulon. He was the strongest person she had ever met.
"Will Uncle Iroh be coming back for the funeral?"
Hua drew back the curtains to let in the pale morning light – it was just sunbreak. "Well, he probably won't be back as soon as that. But he'll have to come sooner rather than later, won't he? He's Fire Lord now."
Iroh was Fire Lord! She had forgotten about that in her shock. Iroh was the eldest son, and he would succeed Azulon.
"I guess that means we'll all be moving into the main portion of the palace." She laid out a robe for Lan Chi.
"Of course we will. I don't suppose that they'll make me châtelaine or anything, but I've served your uncle for over 25 years. That's got to account for something."
Lan was silent.
The housekeeper sighed and continued. "At least we already have mourning clothes for you. It's not right that someone as young as you should have to wear them so frequently. Still, maybe the next ceremony we'll be dressing you for will be your wedding." She pulled the bed clothes back. "Oh, I forgot about the coronation. Coronation first, then wedding."
"My – my wedding?" she squeaked.
"Hmm. You're ten now, aren't you? You can be betrothed. And you'll be of marrying age in six years." Hua held out the robe, and Lan slipped her arms into it. "And now that your uncle is Fire Lord, he'll probably be wanting to announce your betrothal soon. He'll want you settled as soon as possible, I'm certain. Of course, there's a lot of protocol and etiquette that you'll need to learn if you're going to be queen someday..."
Lan, who had been fumbling with her slippers, looked up at the housekeeper in alarm. "Queen!"
"Of course. Everyone knows that Prince Zuko is your uncle's heir now, and it's always been Prince Iroh's, I – I mean Fire Lord Iroh's, intention to marry you to Zuko. Everyone knows that. So that will make you the next Queen."
Lan Chi's head began to swim. Marry Zuko? Her uncle wanted her to marry Zuko? And everyone knew? She hadn't known. Did Zuko know? Did his parents know? If so, that would account for the looks of hatred that Ozai had sent her at Lu Ten's funeral.
"Marry Prince Zuko? Me?"
The housekeeper led her to a stool, sat her down, and began running a brush through her hair. "You're a lucky girl. He's very handsome. Of course, that means you'll have to deal with that horrible Princess Azula for the rest of your life, but I have no doubt you can handle her. You just need to stand up to her once – she's a bully, and bullies always back down when they know you won't run away." She began braiding the girl's hair.
Hua continued on. "Prince Iroh – there! I've said it again! I mean Fire Lord Iroh, will probably want you to have a child as soon as possible to continue the line. If he had made certain that Prince Lu Ten had married at sixteen, as is the proper age, then we wouldn't have all this brouhaha about the succession. Of course, had Prince Lu Ten had an heir, then your Prince Zuko would not be succeeding at all."
Have a child as soon as possible? Her Prince Zuko? This was all moving so quickly. First Lu Ten's death, now Fire Lord Azulon's, and the news that she would be the next queen? And that Zuko would be her husband?
"I'm only ten! I can't have a baby now! I don't even know where babies come from!" She was slightly hysterical, and Hua chuckled.
"Well, we'll have a talk in due time. No need to worry about that now. You can't even be married until you are sixteen. But these years will give you a chance to get to know Prince Zuko, before you are wed. Hopefully, you'll fall in love with him. He seems like a kind, gentle boy."
"He is." She murmured.
"Still, he's a bit of a sulker and he does have a temper. But that's good in men. It gives them passion and fire. Ha! Gives them fire – I made a joke, didn't I?" She tied the end of Lan's braid with a ribbon. "Don't fret, girl. You'll have a long, fine life with Prince Zuko, and give him many sons." She leaned down and gave the girl's shoulders a squeeze. "And enjoy every moment."
Lan looked at herself in the mirror. A stranger sat there – a stranger who would become the next Queen of the Fire Nation, and who would marry Zuko...
There was an air of great expectation in the house in the three days prior to Azulon's funeral. The servants were busy packing up all the contents of the house, in anticipation of moving. Every few minutes, one of the maids or the butler or housekeeper would go to the entrance and ask the guards there if they knew anything about the move. The answer was always no.
Lan waited fretfully for something else. Word from Iroh that he was returning. None came, however, and the day of Azulon's funeral, she dressed early, thinking perhaps that Iroh had gone straight to his new quarters, and might call for her any moment. Finally, at noon, she heard a knock on the door. Lan's heart leapt into her throat.
She ran to the door, past all the servants, and flung it open. A royal messenger stood there.
"Lady Lan Chi?" She nodded. "I have a message for you from the Fire Lord's staff."
She took it with shaking hands. Had Iroh arrived? Was this what she had been waiting for?
The messenger bowed low and took his leave.
Lan ripped the royal seal apart and unfolded the letter.
Dear Lady Lan Chi,
Due to the unprecedented number of visitors expected today for Fire Lord Azulon's state funeral, we are unable to provide proper escort and guards for you. Therefore, we ask that you and your staff remain in your home, and await further communication.
It was signed by the head of the palace guards.
"I'm not going to the funeral." Lan was puzzled.
"What? Let me see that!" Hua took it from her hands and read the letter, frowning. "What's this all about? Your uncle is Fire Lord now – why can't they provide guards? And what is the meaning of this your staff remain in your home? Are we prisoners?"
"Why do I need guards? I've never needed them before." Lan was puzzled.
"You're a member of the royal family now, my lady. But why can't we go to the funeral? I'll see about this." She walked to the doors that led to the rest of the palace, and opened them. The two guards who usually stood there had been replaced with the royal guard, men whose faces were obscured by faceplates.
"Where are our usual men?"
"New security, ma'am. We are anticipating threats to your safety, and Prince Ozai has determined that it is in your best interests to remain here."
"What? All of us?"
"We'll see about this!" She slammed the door. "Jianyu!"
The butler came at a run, and Hua quickly explained the situation. The butler threw open the door, which the guards closed after him. After a few minutes, the butler came back in with a shaken look.
"We are to stay here until further notice. Prince Ozai's orders."
"What?" Hua was indignant. "For how long?"
Jianyu shook his head. "They said that they don't know."
"Well, tell them to send for someone who does know. We want to go to the funeral!"
"They said that we must remain here. All of us."
Several other members of the staff had wandered in.
"Are we prisoners?" The cook asked.
"Of course not!" Snapped Hua.
"But if we can't leave..." One of the maids said meekly.
"It's for our own safety." Jianyu said quietly.
"Why are we at risk?" One of the footman asked.
"I don't know!" Hua yelled. She turned to one of the houseboys. "Nianzu, your brother works in Azulon's private quarters, doesn't he?" The boy nodded. "Climb over the back wall and find out what's going on. And be careful not to be seen. And quick." The boy ran off to do his superior's bidding. The housekeeper turned to Lan and smiled. "We'll get to the bottom of this soon enough, my lady."
It took Nianzu nearly two hours to return to all those waiting for him. The palace, he said, was in a virtual lock-down. Doors normally open to the other wings were barred and crowds were massive. Nianzu, out of breath, said that it had taken him a while to get around all the security and find his brother.
What he had found out was shocking. Rumors were circulating through the palace servants that Princess Ursa had collapsed when told of Azulon's death, and she had reportedly died early that day. Whether that was true or not Nianzu had not been able to confirm, but no one had seen her since before Azulon's death.
Lan covered her mouth with her hands. Princess Ursa, dead? Zuko's mother? Lan had just seen her at the fountain, and she had looked fine...
Zuko! Poor Zuko! He adored his mother – everyone knew that, and the thought that Zuko's mother had been ripped away so suddenly, at a time when Lu Ten and Azulon had died as well, was almost too much to bear.
"Princess Ursa has died?" Hua's eyes narrowed. "Well, that could be why they can't provide guards for Lan. If the people hear about her death before the funeral starts, there will be chaos. I can't imagine the crowds! Of course, some of them will be there just to gawk – vultures!" Hua spat.
"But why would we have to stay here?" The cook voiced what everyone had been thinking.
"I don't know," said Jianyu. "But it must have something to do with Princess Ursa's death."
"I think the royal family is cursed," one of the undermaids said meekly.
Hua turned around and cuffed her on the head. "Dolt! Don't say that! The family is not cursed." She smiled at Lan. "The family's not cursed, my lady. Qiang was just joking. Weren't you, Qiang?"
The girl looked scared. "Yes, my lady. I was joking."
Hua gave her another dark look, and turned back to Nianzu. "Get back there and see if you can find out anything else. And find out if anyone has heard from Prince Iroh – I mean Fire Lord Iroh. And be careful."
The next hours passed interminably slowly for Lan. Concern for Iroh, concern for Zuko, worries about living in the palace and why they were being held prisoner here, and worries about marrying Zuko all kept running through her head until she was dizzy. She missed Iroh so much, and wanted his reassuring presence at home with her. She felt sure that, had he been home, Azulon might have lived, and none of them would be in the mess they were now in. Iroh had always been Azulon's favorite, and his presence could have kept Azulon alive.
But he wasn't home, and Azulon had died, and so had Zuko's mother. What would they all do now?
It was almost nightfall by the time Nianzu returned. When he entered through the sitting room door, his eyes were wide, and he was shaking. Lan, who had been curled up in a seat gazing out at the courtyard, thinking, jumped up when she saw him and called for Hua.
The housekeeper rushed in from helping with dinner, a mixing bowl and spoon still in her hands.
"Nianzu! What is it? What's happened?"
The boy's face was ashen. "Prince Ozai was crowned Fire Lord."
The mixing bowl crashed to the ground. "Oh, spirits preserve us!" She turned and called for the butler.
Jianyu came running at the housekeeper's tone. He stopped at the scene before him – Hua standing before a broken mixing bowl, Nianzu pale and out of breath, and Lan Chi, silent, her eyes round and fearful.
"Ozai has had himself crowned Fire Lord," Hua reported.
"Where did you hear this?"
Nianzu broke in. "It's true, Sir. I was there. At the funeral in the central plaza. Prince Ozai and Prince Zuko and Princess Azula were up on the platform with the body, and, after the sages lit it on fire, the senior sage said that it was Azulon's dying wish that he be succeeded by Ozai."
"Are you certain?" Jianyu demanded.
"Yes!" The boy was adamant. "I saw it with my own eyes! Didn't you hear it here? There were crowds cheering."
Jianyu's eyes narrowed, and he went through to the main living area, followed by Lan and the others. He threw open the door. There were no guards on duty.
"I think we're free to go. They have accomplished their mission." His voice was dull and flat.
"Mission? What mission?" Hua asked.
"Making certain that Ozai was crowned Fire Lord."
"Spirits save us all!" Hua breathed.
"What will happen to Uncle Iroh now?" Lan asked in a small voice.
The housekeeper had forgotten the girl standing there. "Oh, dear, my lady." She tried to comfort Lan Chi. "Don't worry. I'm sure that your uncle will be fine. Everything will work out." She hustled Lan from the room. "Go up to your chamber, now, my lady, and rest. It's been a long day."
Lan did as she was told, but she could not rest. There was too much turmoil in her.
She paced around her room for a long time, agitated. Finally, she stripped off the white mourning clothes and changed into her sparring clothes, which consisted of a close-fitting tunic and pants, with a long robe, and soft, quiet boots.
She stole down the stairs. The rooms were now in shadow; few candles burned. She heard voices from the kitchen, and peered through the slats in the door. It was the butler and the housekeeper.
"Keep your voice down," Jianyu hissed at the housekeeper.
"Keep my voice down? Prince Ozai has stolen the throne from our master, and you want me to keep my voice down?"
"If you value your life! You never know who might be listening."
Lan panicked, but Jianyu peered out the kitchen window. Apparently satisfied that no one lurked outside, he turned back to Hua. "We don't know if that's true."
"Do you really think Fire Lord Azulon revoked Prince Iroh's birthright? Iroh was his favored child. Everyone knows that."
"But with Prince Lu Ten gone, Iroh has no one to succeed him."
Hua snorted. "You know as well as I do that Prince Zuko was to inherit in the event of Lu Ten's death. You were there when the document was witnessed!"
The butler sighed.
Hua continued her tirade. "Ozai saw a chance to steal the throne for himself. I wouldn't be surprised if he colluded with those Fire Sages," she sneered at this, "and killed his own father so that he could get the crown before Prince Iroh came home."
"You're speaking treason, Hua. Be careful!"
"It's treason that Ozai stole the throne. And Princess Ursa dying from shock? I don't believe that! Maybe she found out what Ozai was going to do and protested."
Lan covered her mouth.
"So now you're suggesting that Prince Ozai killed his own wife, too?"
"Prince Ozai is the most ruthless man that I have ever known. A true son of Sozin the Demon."
"Hush! Are you trying to get us killed?"
"No one's listening. Ozai has his hands full right now – he doesn't care about his brother's servants gossiping! He made certain that we were out of the way when we could have stopped him..."
"How could we have stopped him?"
Hua was silent for a moment. "Perhaps we couldn't have stopped him – but we could have raised a stink!"
Jianyu snorted. "Well, what is certain is that everything about this stinks."
Hua shook her head. "And now that poor Prince Zuko, left without his mother, with that viper for a sister and Ozai for a father. Mark my words, Zuko will not have an easy time ascending to the throne now. Nianzu said that he saw Zuko crying after the ceremony."
"Zuko needs to grow up – he's always been too coddled."
"Oh, it's a crime for a boy to be close to his mother, is it? Princess Ursa was worth ten of Ozai!"
"Let's stop squabbling. It's no use, anyway. It won't get any of us closer to the palace. If only Prince Iroh had been home."
"I blame him for this. His place was here. He should have known his brother would try a scheme like this after Lu Ten's death."
"I don't even know if Prince Iroh cares about being Fire Lord anymore. Lu Ten was his life." Jianyu sighed again.
"Well, he's gone, and we're stuck here, and poor Lan Chi – what's to happen to her? I doubt very much if Ozai will allow Zuko to marry her now."
"He never wanted Zuko to marry her."
"But if Prince Iroh had become Fire Lord, Ozai couldn't have protested. Now I'm sure he'll find Zuko some pasty-faced, humorless daughter of a nobleman – one with deep pockets, that's certain! It's disgusting! Lan would be a perfect match for Zuko. Prince Iroh saw that! Now what's to happen to her – especially if Iroh doesn't return?"
"Let's not talk about it anymore. My head is swimming. Put on some water for tea. I have some brandy we can put in."
"If ever there was a night to get drunk, this is it."
Lan crawled away and ran outside to the courtyard. She stood on the cobbles, and looked up at the stars in the sky. Everything was wrong now. Lu Ten was dead, Azulon was dead, Princess Ursa was dead, Uncle Iroh was just gone, and nothing was right.
She thought of Zuko, now, like her, without a mother. She had lost two mothers. She knew what it was like. It was like you were in a hole that you couldn't climb out of. And Hua was right. Azula was Ozai's child – as like him as a mirror image. Azula would feel little grief losing her mother. But Zuko – Zuko would be devastated. And he had been so kind to her after Lu Ten had died. Now, he probably had no one to comfort him.
She could see the spire of the main tower of the palace, where Zuko would soon live. An idea came to Lan then, and she narrowed her eyes in thought. Without a chance to talk herself out of it, she ran to the gate that connected this courtyard to Zuko's. It was locked. She turned to the fountain and pulled a stream of water from it. She bended it into the lock and, with concentration, turned the water to ice. She could hear a crack and then a satisfying pop as the mechanism broke under the force of the ice. She released the water, and tried the handle. The gate swung away from her with nary a sound.
Once inside, she put all of the training that Colonel Shinu and Master Piandao had pounded into her head to use. She darted across the courtyard, from bush to bush, until she made her way to the fountain where she had met Zuko – could it really have been less than a week before?
From the fountain it was an all-out dash to the safety of the building itself.
She knew that Zuko's rooms fronted the courtyard, and she made her way around the edge. She found a sitting room, empty, and Princess Azula's chamber, with the Princess quietly sleeping. She guessed that the Prince's rooms had to be close by. She peered through a window, and thought she had found the right chamber. A small lump was on the giant bed that dominated the center of the enormous room, and she thought she heard crying through the open window. Without a thought, she climbed through the window and sneaked up to the bed's platform.
"Zuko?" She whispered. "Prince Zuko?"
He didn't sit up, but he stopped crying. "Who is it?" he asked fearfully.
"It's Lan Chi." She crept closer.
Now he did sit. "What do you want?"
"I wanted to – see if you're okay."
He lay back down. "No, I'm not okay. Now leave."
She came closer. "I'm sorry about your mother."
"Go away." His voice was muffled.
"Do – do you want to talk about her?"
"No. And if I did, I wouldn't talk about her to a half-breed like you!"
She flinched at the insult. He had never called her that before. Words from his father. But he was hurt, and, like a hurt animal, he had lashed out.
"I know what it's like to lose your mother," she continued, softly and slowly. "I lost my mother, and then I lost my aunt. I barely even remember my mother." She reached the bottom of the bed.
There was a long silence, and then Zuko's voice came out in a whisper. "Do you still miss her?"
"It's gotten better, but I don't think I'll ever stop missing her." She came around the bed.
"I feel like I want to die," Zuko confessed.
"I know." She knelt beside the bed, close to Zuko. She could see his tear-soaked face in the moonlight, and one pale hand was extended beyond the covers.
"Did you feel this way?"
She nodded, and reached her hand out to take his. "Yes. It's okay to feel that way. It's natural. But it gets better."
"How can it ever get better? I'm never going to see her again."
"Not in this world, maybe, but you will in the Spirit World."
"In the Spirit World? When I'm dead, too?"
"My mother always visits me in my dreams," she said quietly.
"Then I want to go to sleep and never wake up."
She didn't know what to say. "But you're going to be Fire Lord someday."
"I don't care about that. I've never wanted to be Fire Lord. I just want to see Mom again."
"Dad doesn't even want to have a funeral. He says it's too close to Grandfather's and Lu Ten's."
"I feel like this is all a bad dream. That I'll wake up, and everything will be back to normal. But it's never going to be normal again!"
She smiled sadly. "There was nothing anyone could tell me that would make me feel better when my mother died. Or when Lu Ten died. But it will get better, Zuko. I promise." She squeezed his hand, and his own grip tightened.
"Did talking to me help – when Lu Ten died, I mean?"
She nodded, serious. "Yes."
He was silent for a long moment. "Will – will you stay here – with me – for a while? Just for a little while?"
"Of course, Zuko." She slid up onto the bed, and lay down facing him, only inches away.
He watched her, and once again, as at the fountain during Lu Ten's funeral, she could see his strange light eyes almost glowing in the low light. "You have the most beautiful eyes," she murmured. As soon as she said it, she wished she could call it back. It seemed such a personal thing to say.
Instead, he smiled. It was only the tiniest curving of the lips, but it was wonderful to see. "Thank you. You have the most beautiful hair."
"My hair is horrible. People are always pointing at me and making fun of it. And calling me names."
"It's because they're jealous. Mom always said so."
"Really? Princess Ursa said that – about my hair?"
He nodded. "She always said that your hair was the color of the sunset. She thought it was beautiful, too." He started to cry again.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Zuko! I didn't mean to make you cry."
He swiped his hand across his eyes. "No. It's okay. I – I shouldn't cry. I have to be strong. Mom wanted me to be strong."
Lan was almost certain he was talking to himself, trying to convince himself. "You are strong, Zuko."
"So are you."
She took his hand again and gripped it tightly.
There was a companionable silence. Finally, Zuko broke it. "I'm sorry Uncle Iroh won't be Fire Lord."
Her eyes shuttered. "Me, too."
"I really don't want to be Fire Lord, Lan," he said, mistaking her resentment for Ozai as resentment for him.
"It's not your fault. It's not even your father's. Azulon made the decision."
He compressed his lips, uncertain if he should give his next words voice. "I saw my dad talking to Grandfather the night – the night that he died."
"The night Azulon died?"
He nodded. "Dad wanted to be named Grandfather's successor."
Lan gasped, and Zuko reached out to cover her mouth.
"Not so loud." He whispered.
Lan nodded, and he removed his hand.
"Sorry," he apologized.
"No, you're right. Go on."
"Grandfather got mad. Really mad. He told Dad that he would never betray Uncle Iroh. And then he said that he was going to punish my dad."
"And what happened then?"
Zuko looked sheepish. "I don't know. I ran away, because Grandfather was so mad."
"Did they see you?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so."
"So you think Azulon changed his mind?"
"I don't know. But Azula was there, too –"
"Azula! You didn't say Azula was there."
"She stayed to listen, and then she came to my room later."
"Did she tell you what happened?"
He nodded. "Yes."
She waited, but he kept silent.
"Zuko. What happened?"
He spoke slowly, as if he was concentrating on remembering. "She said that Grandfather told dad that his punishment would be to – to lose a first-born son, like Uncle Iroh had lost Lu Ten." The last part came out in a rush.
Lan drew in her breath sharply. "What do you mean?"
Zuko's face was miserable. "She said that Grandfather told Dad that he would have to – to kill me."
Lan Chi was stunned. She knew that Iroh had been Azulon's favorite son, and that he had been devastated by the loss of Lu Ten, but she couldn't believe that he would make such an outrageous request of Ozai. Azulon killed thousands of people, the voice in her head whispered, but she remembered how Azulon had looked on Lu Ten with such fondness and tenderness, and found that she could not reconcile that with what Azula had told Zuko.
She shook her head. "That doesn't sound like your Grandfather, Zuko."
"How could you know? You barely ever saw him."
"I saw him with Lu Ten. He loved Lu Ten. A lot. I can't believe that he would want his only other grandson killed, Zuko. I just can't believe it."
"Are you saying Azula lied?"
"I'm saying that it doesn't sound like your grandfather."
Zuko stared off over her shoulder. What Lan said echoed in his head, as well as what he had chanted to himself the night of Azulon's death. Azula always lies.
With his eyes still unfocused, Zuko began to speak again. "Mom came to me later that night. She – she was wearing a long cape. The kind she wears when she goes out at night. And she told me that," tears began again, "that everything she did was to protect me. And she told me to remember who I am – to never – never forget who I am – even if things change. And then she left." His hand clenched on hers. "The next morning, when I went to look for her, Grandfather was dead. And so was she."
"Oh, Zuko." Lan began to cry. "I'm so sorry."
"What am I going to do, Lan?"
Tears were running sideways down her face and onto his sheets. "I don't know, Zuko. I just don't know."
They lay there for several minutes without talking, the only sound their crying.
Finally, the tears tapered off, and Zuko attempted another smile. "Thank you, Lan, for coming here. I feel better."
She sat up suddenly and wiped her nose. "I should go."
"No!" he said it sharply, then, more quietly, "please stay a little longer. Please."
His eyes were begging, and she nodded. "I can stay until you go to sleep, if you like." She could already see his eyes start to close.
"Thank you," he murmured softly. His breathing became more regular, and she knew that he had fallen asleep.
She watched him as he slept – he had enormous circles under his eyes, and his lashes were clumped from the tears. She leaned forward, impulsively, and, in the pale moonlight, kissed him, softly, on the cheek. She pulled away then, and settled next to him, watching him breathe. She was so tired, too, after this long, excruciating day.
Her eyelids fluttered down...
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