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|More from Sea-dilemma||Romance||PG-13||None||None|
|Chapter 7 (The Spirit Within, Part 1)|
Chapter 6 (The Spirit Within) 
Chapter 8 (The Spirit Within) 
Ozai even enjoyed the other aspects of ruling – the day-to-day minutiae of running a country. He relished making decisions and sitting in judgment of others; however, he was little interested in how the general populace was impacted by his decisions. He would gladly choose the needs of his armed forces over those of the public. After all, he reasoned, once the army and navy had won the war, the lifestyle of his people would improve greatly – besides, a little sacrifice never hurt anyone. He had had to sacrifice his wife – why shouldn't the citizens of the Fire Nation give up a little food or some gold coins? It was for the good of the nation, after all.
The only blemish on Ozai's happiness was a ten-year old boy with his father's eyes and his mother's temperament.
Zuko still mourned his mother greatly, and despite himself, Ozai was worried about his son. It would not do for Zuko to sink into a deep depression. He was the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation now, and should act accordingly. Strength and resilience should be his hallmarks, not sentimentality and mawkishness!
Ozai was almost glad that Ursa was gone; now he, Ozai, would have a chance to mold Zuko into the man that he should be. A man in the cast of his father: ambitious and cunning. Those qualities had paved a path to the throne for Ozai, and would carve a future for him that would result in his standing as one of the greatest Fire Lords of all time. That history should see Ozai as a great man was of utmost importance to the Fire Lord – he wanted statues erected, he wanted entire books written, he wanted a place in history that would last a thousand years and beyond.
He wanted an heir more suited to rule than his son.
He wanted a son more like his daughter. It was really a pity that he could not leave the throne to Azula; she was born to rule – in her demeanor, in her actions, in her thoughts. She was a true heir to Sozin, and a fit heir for Ozai. However, women were forbidden to rule, and so Zuko it would have to be.
The first thing that Ozai decided to do was change Zuko's education. Piandao would have to go – he was a spy for Iroh, Ozai was certain.
Feng was waiting for Piandao when the sword master attempted to enter the palace.
Guards barred Piandao's way with long pikes.
Piandao raised a brow. "What is the meaning of this?""
Feng stepped forward, a supercilious smile on his face. "Your services are no longer required, Master Piandao."
"Indeed," Piandao said, his eyes coolly surveying all potential combatants. "And to whom may I attribute this decision?"
Feng puffed himself up. "Fire Lord Ozai."
Piandao inclined his head. "I accede to his request."
Feng's smile widened maliciously. "It is not a request, Master Piandao. It is an order."
Piandao did not take the bait. "Please extend my greetings to Prince Zuko."
"Oh, I will, Master Piandao. I will."
Piandao turned to go, but Feng's voice stopped him.
"Oh, Master Piandao, one more thing."
Piandao stopped and turned to face the tutor. He knew that, should he care to, he could remove the heads of Feng and both guards before they could even react. He chose not to.
"The Fire Lord thinks that it would be a good idea for you to, how did he put it? Oh, yes. Expand your teaching beyond the capital, to the outer islands."
Piandao's blood ran cold for a moment, but he remained composed. He was being exiled.
"Think of it as a vacation, Master Piandao. Training farmers in the morning, and playing – pai sho, perhaps, every evening." Feng's eyes turned ice cold.
Piandao bowed slightly, and turned to go. He would leave today, quietly, but he vowed that he would return. He would live, to plan and fight another day.
So, although Zuko's basic education did not change, an emphasis was put on the martial arts. Ozai's own firebending teacher, a strict disciplinarian who brooked no weakness, was brought in for Prince. Although Zuko had a difficult time at first adapting to the man's teaching techniques, he was, as his mother and uncle had always known, a fighter, and he redoubled his efforts to master his element. No task was too much for Zuko. If his master told Zuko to practice two hours a day, Zuko practiced three. However, despite this, Zuko could see his sister outstripping him in firebending skill. She had perfected a technique that allowed her to produce very hot, blue flames, which Zuko envied greatly, but which he could not reproduce. However, he comforted himself with the knowledge that neither his father nor Iroh used this method.
A new swordmaster was brought in, as well, and, even though Zuko missed Piandao keenly, he adapted to this man's teaching. He worked almost feverishly to master the dao swords. His intention, one day, was to find Piandao and show him his progress, and earn his praise.
His hand-to-hand combat was not neglected, either. He learned strategies for the use of the dagger in close fighting, and learned the proper way to disable opponents without firebending. Even though he hoped never to be without firebending, he knew that, in certain situations, such as during a rainstorm, firebending was unreliable.
With such rigorous scheduling, Zuko had little time to dwell on his sadness, for which he was grateful. He fell into bed every night, exhausted, and, as Lan Chi had promised, his mother visited him in his dreams.
The same day that Hua visited Lan Chi at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, Zuko's firebending master was due to give a speech at the Royal Fire Academy, so Zuko was left with a free afternoon. He decided to take this time to write a letter to his cousin, Lan Chi. As a polite and well-mannered young man, he felt obliged to thank her for her kindness to him the night of Azulon's funeral. He also wanted to see her again – that he couldn't deny to himself. Even though they were mostly strangers, he felt an odd kinship with her that extended beyond their honorary familial connection. In the compassion in her eyes, he saw someone – the only one left in his life – who seemed to know him for who he was, and accept it.
He spread a sheet of parchment, and, with his favorite brushes and a bottle of ink next to him, he started his letter.
Dear Lan Chi,
No. Too personal. He took another sheet of parchment.
Dear Lady Lan Chi,
No. Too formal. Another sheet.
That might be good. But, wait. Azula was also her cousin. What if Lan did not know who it was from? Well, you'll sign it "Zuko," idiot, he told himself.
Okay. Dear Cousin, it was.
I wanted to thank you for your help the other night.
No. That was stupid. He threw that sheet aside, got another, and wrote the salutation on it. He sat there for a long minute, trying to think how to begin.
I enjoyed seeing you the other night.
No. Still stupid.
How are you doing? I am feeling better, thanks to you.
Not bad. She'd know what he meant by thanks to you.
Things are strange without Mom here.
That was true.
Azula acts like nothing is wrong. Except me. I'm always wrong, according to Azula.
Lan didn't need to know that. Maybe he shouldn't mention Azula at all. She and Lan did not get along very well, after all. Who did Azula get along with? That was a short list.
He threw that page aside and started over, re-writing what he had already decided.
What to say next? He knew what he really wanted to say. Thank you for holding my hand. Thank you for listening to me. Thank you for staying until I fell asleep. I want to see you again. But he couldn't say that. He couldn't say any of that.
He sighed. What could he say?
I know it is strange for you, too, with Lu Ten dying and Uncle being gone. Maybe he shouldn't mention Lu Ten, either. He didn't want to make her sad. Sadder.
Luckily, he had a lot of parchment.
Rewrite number six. Or maybe it was seven.
How are you doing? I am feeling better, thanks to you. Things are strange without Mom here. I know it is strange for you, too, with Uncle being –
– not gone – what could he say – away? Away was good.
– with Uncle being away.
He twirled the brush in his fingers.
I was wondering if you'd like to come have tea with me.
Tea? Have tea with me? Was that pathetic? Did she drink tea? Of course she drinks tea – she lives with Uncle. Okay, inviting her for tea is okay. Maybe she didn't have anyone to drink tea with anymore. When should she come? How about today – no, that sounded desperate.
I have lessons everyday until two hours past midday. I also have a lot of homework, but I can put that aside. You can come any day you want.
That was better. Not much better, but better. Had he forgotten anything? He had asked how she was. Check. He had told her how he was. Check. He had thanked her for the other night. Check. He had invited her for tea. Check. Told her when he was free. Check. Should he tell her that he really wanted to see her again? Would that be weird? No weirder than anything else in his life, he supposed. Why not?
I'd really like to see you again.
He chewed on the end of his brush idly. Should he say anything else? No. Better not. He didn't want to ramble, or sound stupid.
Now for his signature. But he just couldn't say Zuko without anything in front of it. How about your cousin, Zuko? No. He had already said cousin. Yours truly? That made him sound like he was 45 years old. Yours affectionately? No. That sounded – strange. Maybe yours truly was better. Everything he had written was true, after all. Okay.
He looked over the whole letter critically, judging the wording, the handwriting, and the overall feel of it. It's okay, I guess. He sighed, and read the entire letter to himself.
How are you doing? I am feeling better, thanks to you. Things are strange without Mom here. I know it is strange for you, too, with Uncle being away. I was wondering if you'd like to come have tea with me. I have lessons everyday until two hours past midday. I also have a lot of homework, but I can put that aside. You can come any day you want. I'd really like to see you again.
It was okay. Not a masterpiece. Not the best letter he'd ever written. But, it got the point across, and that's all that mattered.
He folded it carefully, and got out his personal seal and sealing wax. With a flick of his hand, he brought forth a flame, and held the wax over the letter. A lump of it dripped onto the paper, and he pressed his seal into it. Done. Now all he had to do was find a servant to take it to Uncle's quarters.
He looked at the detritus of his letter writing around him. Rejected pieces of parchment littered the floor. He picked them up, threw them into a small metal trash can, brought forth another flame, and watched as they burned.
The letter that Zuko wrote was never seen by its recipient. The Prince sent the letter by messenger to his Uncle's home, where Hua received it. Unsure of whether or not Lan was allowed to receive letters from Prince Zuko, she enclosed it with a letter of her own, destined for the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. She sent it off with one of the houseboys, who returned hours later with the letter. Lan was apparently forbidden from receiving letters from home, and Hua dutifully sent Zuko's letter back with a small note of apology. She did not mention, in her letter, the real reason that Lan had been sent to the Academy; only that Lan had started attending the school, and that she was not, at this point in her schooling, allowed letters or visitors.
Zuko was miffed. He was the Prince of the Fire Nation! How dare the school say that Lan could not accept a letter from him? And what was Lan doing at the Academy, anyway? She had not mentioned the school when he had seen her. She had definitely not mentioned boarding at the school!
Zuko still wanted her to have the letter, and he had a fleeting idea of giving the letter to Azula to deliver, but decided against it. He neither liked nor trusted his sister, and he knew that she disliked Lan intensely. Azula would probably take delight in burning the letter before Lan's eyes, then taunting her about it. Zuko also considered approaching Mai or Ty Lee about delivering the letter, but decided against that as well. Those girls were completely intimidated by Azula, and would not dare gainsay her.
He even contemplated visiting the school himself, and forcing them to allow him to see Lan, but wisely decided against that course of action as well. In the end, he folded the letter and hid it among his belongings, to give to her at a later date – to show her that he had been thinking about her.
For the collective works of the author, go here.