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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 6 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 5 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 7 (The Spirit Within) 
So when Princess Azula came to her father with tales of what she had just seen in her brother's chamber, Ozai hastened to his son's room, followed by two recently promoted Royal Guards.
He found them as Azula had said, Zuko asleep on his bed, Lan curled next to him.
Ozai turned to one of the guards. "Cover her mouth and get her out of here. Take her to the west wing and keep her there. She is not to leave."
The guard nodded, and clamped a hand over Lan's mouth. She jerked awake, and the guard bundled her into his arms. She tried to scream, but it came out muffled and weak. She saw Ozai standing there, and her eyes grew wide.
"Get her out of my sight." The guards nodded.
Zuko slept on as Lan was swept from the room, Princess Azula watching from behind a pillar.
Ozai motioned Azula out of the room and closed the door behind them. "Not a word to anyone. Especially not Zuko."
She nodded conspiratorially.
Ozai shooed her away and turned for his office, furious. That little Water Tribe slut! She was trying to trap Zuko into marriage – whoring apparently started very young in the Water Tribe.
But how did she find out that his meddling brother had planned their betrothal? Had Iroh told her? Was this her way of making certain that, despite the fact that Iroh would never be Fire Lord, she would be queen someday?
He was almost impressed by her scheming. Had Azula not found them, had some gossiping servant been the one to catch them together, the word would certainly have gotten out, and he might have had no choice but to betroth that foolish boy to her. He was almost sorry that he could not make use of Lan Chi's conniving nature – she might have been quite an asset.
Lan Chi had never been more frightened in her entire life. One moment she was sleeping next to Zuko, and the next she was being carried through the palace by one of the Fire Lord's personal guards, her mouth covered. She had no idea where she was going, or what was going to happen. Would they kill her? Throw her out onto the street? She prayed for the latter.
The guard brought her to a small sitting room, opened the door, and set her down. "Stay in here."
He closed the door and locked it. She tried the handle, but it did not budge. She crossed over to the windows, but she was on the second floor, and no trees brushed against the walls. She sighed. Unless she wanted to jump twenty feet to the ground, she was stuck.
When Zuko awoke about an hour after Lan's departure, he looked around the room for her. She had said that she would stay with him, but she was gone. She had probably left after he had fallen asleep.
He wondered, for a moment, whether he had dreamed her. Maybe she had never come to his room at all. Maybe he had, in sleep stricken by grief, sought comfort from her in his mind only.
But, no. He could not have dreamed her words, or her soft skin. She had been there. She had been real.
He smiled widely for the first time in four days.
Lan was left in the room for three hours. Three hours to think and worry. What would happen to her? Had her uncle's servants discovered she was missing? If they had, they might have also noticed that the lock in the gate was broken. They might have put those two facts together and guessed where she had gone. Maybe Jianyu would storm in any moment and rescue her.
Or maybe she was stuck here until the Fire Lord was ready to deal with her.
When a guard finally came to get her, it was not the same one as before. He gestured for her to come with him, and she obeyed, fairly certain that, had she protested, he would have picked her up and carried her.
She was taken to the Throne Room. The fires burned in front of the throne itself, which meant that Ozai was on the throne. The guard dragged her to the front, and shoved her to her knees in front of the dais. She bowed her head in respect. Now was not the time to be rebellious.
"I suppose you thought you could trap me into allowing you to marry Prince Zuko." Ozai's low, stentorian tones rang throughout the room. The flames between them glowed blue for a moment, then returned to normal.
Her head snapped up. "What? No, no, my lord, I was not –"
"Silence!" The flames shot up, and she cowered. "You cannot lie to me. You and your kind are liars, thieves! Whores! Did my brother put you up to this? Have you heard from him?"
She lowered her head. "No, my lord."
"You did not construct this plan on your own."
She looked up at him again, although she could only see a shadow of his features. "There was no plan, my lord. I swear to you. I had heard about the death of Princess Ursa, and –"
"And you thought to take advantage of my family's grief?" The flames shot higher.
"No, my lord! I was – worried about Zuko, I mean, Prince Zuko. My mother died, too, and I – I know how it feels." She finished lamely. It sounded feeble even to her ears, although it was the truth.
Ozai's silence was lengthy, allowing enough time for Lan to start trembling in fear. What would he do? Would he send her to prison? She had no doubt that he had the authority.
"I did not know what to do with you," he finally began, "when I first discovered you with my son this morning. I had thought to send you away, to one of the far provinces. Far from Zuko. Far from my family. But there is no one who would want you – not even my brother. He left you, didn't he? Hasn't come back. Why should he come back? You mean nothing to him – less than nothing." He waited for that to sink in, and she flushed bitterly. His words so perfectly echoed her recent thoughts.
"There is no one," he continued, "who wants the ill-begotten offspring of a Water Tribe whore in their home, even if her father was once a great hero."
Anger bubbled up in her, but dropped her head to contain it.
"I could not think where to put a slut like you. Who would take you? A dilemma, you see." He tapped his fingers on the arms of his throne, the flames between him and Lan licking in rhythm to his tapping.
"However, I think that, with difficulty, mind you, I have found a place for you." he paused dramatically. "It appears that the Royal Fire Academy for Girls presently has a boarding spot available."
Lan's head shot up. The only girls from the capital who boarded at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls were those labeled troublesome or were an embarrassment to their families. Princess Azula and her friends only attended the school as day students. To be from the capital city and board there was considered a punishment. Anger and resentment welled up again inside Lan.
Ozai continued. "You will go and live there until my brother returns. If he returns. You are to leave the palace and go there directly."
"I have no clothes, my lord," she protested, bowing her head again. "Only what I have on my back."
"The students there wear uniforms. You have no need of anything else. Everything else will be provided to you. At your uncle's expense, of course."
She was silent, and Ozai continued. "Did you hear me, Lady Lan Chi? You have been provided with an excellent opportunity to further your education. One that few in this country are provided. Should you not say thank you to your benevolent leader, who has troubled himself to secure this position for you?"
Through gritted teeth, she answered him. "Thank you, my lord."
"I need not have gone to this trouble, you know. The Tingju prison is only a few miles from here, and I think that would have done as well to solve my problem about where to put you."
"Thank you, my lord." She repeated.
He waved his hand, and the guard dragged her to her feet. This audience was over. She backed away from Ozai. She did not dare turn away from him.
"Lady Lan Chi –" Ozai's voice was silky. "I believe you have forgotten something."
She fumbled in her mind for a moment, and then realized what Ozai wanted. Her eyes hardened. "I humbly serve at the pleasure of the Fire Lord."
True to his threat, Ozai's guards took her directly from the throne room to a waiting carriage, and they made the fifteen-minute drive to the Royal Fire Academy for Girls.
The building sat on a vast tract of land in the middle of the city, surrounded by a high iron fence. The grounds were beautiful, Lan admitted, as the carriage entered the gate. The sight and sound, however, of the gate closing behind her drove fear into the pit of her stomach. The carriage stopped at the wide stone stairs of the portico, and a waiting servant girl opened the door. Lan scrambled out, followed by the guards.
She climbed the stairs slowly, taking in her first sight of the place she was to spend the next portion of her life. The building was red brick with a golden roof fluted at the corners, and very impressive. The guard ahead of her opened the door for her to pass through, and her eyes took a few moments to adjust to the darkness.
She was ushered past a number of doors and into a room at the far end of the hallway. A secretary at a desk lifted her head as they entered.
The woman looked Lan over with a critical eye. "The girl Fire Lord Ozai sent over?"
One of the guards nodded.
"Wait here," she said, unnecessarily, to Lan. She disappeared into an interior office, and returned a few moments later. "Come with me." She ushered Lan into a large office and indicated that she should sit.
The chair faced an over-sized desk, behind which sat a stern-looking older woman. She was studying a letter before her, and kept Lan waiting long minutes. She finally lowered her pince-nez, and looked Lan over critically.
"Lady Lan Chi Sun."
There was silence. She continued. "You have done your father's memory a disservice by acting so dishonorably. However, it is nothing less than I expect from a child of the Water Tribe. Your mother seduced your father, so it is only natural that you would follow in her footsteps, and try to trap Prince Zuko into marriage."
Lan colored. "My mother did not seduce my father! They loved each other!"
The secretary cuffed Lan on the back of the head. The woman behind the desk raised an eyebrow. "You are being disrespectful. There are penalties for that."
Lan glared at her assailant.
"Fire Lord Ozai writes that you were found in Prince Zuko's bed. I am certain that General Iroh did not raise you as a wanton and a whore, girl. Therefore, your low impulses must have come from your mother."
Lan wanted to defend her mother, but her head still rung from the earlier blow, so she sealed her lips.
"Did you lay with him?"
"What do you mean?"
"Come now, girl. Do not play the innocent with me. Did you allow Prince Zuko to violate your body?"
The woman nodded. "Good. At least you showed a modicum of decency." She sighed. "The Fire Lord is very displeased with you. However, he believes you can be rehabilitated, given the proper environment and guidance. He has left that up to me. I will be watching you. One step out of line, one small mistake, and you will regret it. Do not waste the second chance that was given to you. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
Lan nodded silently.
"Good. Then I am certain that you shall get along well here. There is much you need to learn."
Lan's first days at the Academy were tumultuous. A whirl of new classes and new subjects assailed her mind. She was enrolled in mathematics, Fire Nation literature and Fire Nation history, as well as etiquette and elementary calligraphy. She was not enrolled in bending class, of course, since she could not bend, nor was she enrolled in self-defense and fighting. When she asked the fighting teacher if she could transfer into the class, the older man simply said that her curriculum had been decided "at the highest levels," which Lan interpreted as being forbidden by Ozai.
She had been placed in a large bedroom with three other girls, who, for the most part, ignored her or were openly suspicious. Boarding girls from the capital were, as Lan knew, mostly troubled or quarrelsome girls, and the out-of-town boarders had learned to avoid them as much as possible. Still, they were not openly hostile to her – only guarded.
One day, during her second week at school, she was sitting in math class, busily using an abacus, when the door to the classroom opened, and the Headmistress's secretary came in. She approached the teacher and whispered in her ear. The teacher glanced at Lan.
"You have a visitor."
Lan looked blankly at her.
"Go." The teacher prompted her, and Lan jumped from her seat and followed the secretary.
The only sound in the hallway was that of their slippers scratching against the highly polished floor. Lan kept her hands in her sleeves and her face bowed.
Who could be her visitor? Could it possibly be Uncle Iroh? Or could it be Ozai? She prayed it was not Ozai. No, it couldn't possibly be Ozai. If Ozai wanted to see her, he would have her brought to the palace.
She was shown to the headmistress's office and ushered inside.
"Lan!" Hua, Iroh's housekeeper, stood alone in the room.
"Hua!" Lan ran forward and threw herself into the older woman's arms.
"My lady, we were so worried! What happened to you? When we got the letter from the palace saying you had enrolled at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, we were so relieved that you weren't hurt, but why did you come here?"
Lan looked around in case anyone was listening. "I didn't come here by choice. I was sent here by the Fire Lord!"
"You were sent here by the Fire Lord? What happened?" Hua led her to a low sofa.
Lan sank down on it wearily. "I went to see Prince Zuko the night of the funeral."
"You went to see Prince Zuko?"
"Hua, will you stop repeating everything I say?"
"I'm sorry, but I just don't understand. Why did you go to see Prince Zuko?" A look of horror came over her face. "Have you been meeting with Prince Zuko in secret?"
"What? No!" She blushed. "I went to see if he was – okay. I was worried about him because of Princess Ursa. I wanted to – help him."
"Lan, How did you help him?"
"We – talked."
"I still don't understand how you ended up here."
She sighed, and her shoulders slumped. "We fell asleep, and the Fire Lord found me in Zuko's chamber the next morning."
Her hands flew up to her cheeks. "Oh, my. You were in Prince Zuko's bedchamber?"
She hung her head. "Yes."
"Not – not in his bed, surely?" Hua was aghast.
Lan nodded glumly.
"Oh, no! And Fire Lord Ozai found you?"
"Yes." She muttered.
"Oh, my! Oh, my!" She got up and paced the room twice, and then came and took Lan Chi's hands in her own. She sat down beside her again, a look of anxious concern on her face. "Were you – unclothed?"
"No!" Lan pulled her hands away.
"Oh, thank goodness. Did he kiss you?"
"No. I kissed him."
"Oh. Did he touch you in any way?"
"Oh, dear. Oh, dear! What did he touch you with, Lan?"
She was puzzled. "His hands, of course."
"Well, that's a relief. I suppose. Did he – touch you anywhere – strange?"
"It wasn't strange, really. It felt – good."
"Where did he touch you, Lan?" She was getting frustrated, and she gave the girl a shake.
Lan frowned. "My hands, Hua. We held hands. Why?"
"And that's all you did?"
"Yes. I told you. And I kissed him. On the cheek. While he was asleep."
"And that's all?"
"Well, thank the spirits! But Fire Lord Ozai found you, and I suppose he wasn't happy."
"No. He wasn't. He said I was a –" she searched for a different word than Ozai had used. She couldn't tell Hua what he had said. It was too – shameful. "Troublemaker. And that Uncle Iroh had abandoned me, and that no one else wanted me. That the only place that would take me was here."
"Lan, that's not true. You can come home to us."
Tears started to her eyes. "He said I have to stay here until Uncle returns." She turned a hopeful face to the older woman. "Have you heard from Uncle Iroh?"
She shook her head silently.
Lan drew in a deep breath. "All right. It's all right. I'll be fine here. Did you bring me any of my things?"
Hua nodded. "The letter said I could bring one case of personal belongings." She indicated a chest against the wall.
"Thank you." Lan gave her a quick hug and ran over to throw open the chest, excited. The first things she saw were her miniatures of her mother, father, Iroh, her aunt, and Lu Ten. Lan abruptly burst into tears.
Hua came over to comfort her. "Why are you crying?"
"I had started to forget what my mother looked like."
Hua and Lan sorted through the items in the chest, with Hua taking back "contraband" items such as sweets and street wear. The girls were forbidden to possess any clothes from home other than undergarments, and outside food was not allowed.
Lan was, luckily, allowed to have grooming items, pictures of her family, a journal, and a few books on Fire Nation history. Everything else was packed back into the chest, and a maid came in to tell them that Lan must return to class.
"Thank you for coming, Hua. Will you come back soon?" Lan's voice was hopeful.
"As often as the headmistress allows it." Hua frowned. "She's very strict."
"I think the Fire Lord has told her to keep an eye on me."
"That man! If he wasn't Fire Lord, I'd..."
"Don't say anything, Hua. I know how you feel."
The housekeeper gave her a long hug. "Please take of yourself."
Lan nodded and stood as the older woman was escorted from the room. "No one else will," she said to an empty room.
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