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May 29, 2011
Cixi Alone is the first interlude in "", which deals with what happened to Cixi while Iroh and Jiuan were away, sailing towards the South Pole. Now, what is an interlude? It is a small chapter (for me) which focuses on a single character of the series. I have already thought to make interludes for Ilah and Hayao, and maybe Azulon and Baba.
In the latest chapter, the author thought he hadn't focused enough on Cixi, who only made two cameos. Since Cixi is still an important character, and that in Chapters 8, 9 and 10, we'll only see Iroh and Jiuan enjoying the cool weather of the South Pole (and kicking Vulmen's butt), I felt the need to give you some "Cixi time".
It will allow you to learn more about Cixi's background and discover some of her lighter and darker traits. I am not fully pleased by it; something seems ... wrong with it.
It is a kind of stand-alone in Sozin's Blood: there is no humor at all in it and it is very dark. This is why I decided I should warn the reader that it contains mentions of physical abuse on children, and lots of slapping, as it might make feel uneasy the most sensitive.
Fall was nearing its end, as the icy gales from the South and North Poles had started to blow on the Fire Nation Capital.
Of course, they wouldn't have snow, or anything like that. They were far too near the equator. Winter in the Fire Nation was synonymous with battering rains, so violent they could cause floods.
Cixi had no idea of what to do. School was forever over. Zola was gone in the colonies. And of course, Iroh and Jiuan had departed to the South Pole for their secret mission.
She sighed. On her desk laid hundreds of sketches of Iroh. She drew him from her memories every day.
And poor Jiuan... When he would be back, they would have to talk.
She kept their letters in a pile which was nearly as big as the one of the portraits of Iroh. They wrote to her every day, but since they were getting farther and farther from the Fire Nation, the Messenger Hawks took longer and longer to reach her.
Of course, this raised another problem. Iroh had brought a dozen of private hawks with him, but Cixi had to pay everyday at the Post Office for a new one, as she just couldn't wait the arrival of her boyfriend's messenger to use it. And now she was broke.
She unrolled a map of the world. She had dutifully put pins on their course every day and by what she had collected, they were now on the latitude of the Patola Mountain Range.
But now all she had to do was to wait.
She waited for an awfully long time.
That was at least what she thought until she checked her small ornamented sun dial to realize barely one minute had passed.
"Huh!" she groaned. Out of frustration she kicked her pillow. Inaction was killing her. She couldn't continue to live like this.
Someone knocked at her door. "Miss Cixi?" It was Zhi, their maid. "Your mother has sent me here to tell you that lunch is served."
Cixi sighed. "Thank you, Zhi. I'll be down in a minute."
They had finished lunch, and now Cixi was back in her empty bedroom, again having no idea of what to do. Go and see Dad at his work? He would be too busy to spend time with her, even if he would try. She didn't have that many friends in the city, and they were anyway all away on Ember Island. She knew all her scrolls and books by heart; she wasn't in the mood of painting; she didn't have any pet.
She eventually decided to wander in the streets of the city. Descending as lightly as she could, she tried to remain unseen as she went by the living room.
"Cixi! Come here!" called her mother.
Brooding, she reluctantly headed to the main room.
It was a vision of nightmare. Her mother was receiving two of her friends and the three of them were giggling around a cup of tea.
The salon itself was horrible: the three women were sitting on an ugly material of a violent pink, their china teacups filled with a beverage - which unfortunately had to be tea; Iroh would have had a stroke simply by looking at it - of an equally revolting salmon colour. The parlor was overcrowded with shiny, useless bibelots, which were certainly of the latest fashion but which were, to Cixi's eyes, hideous: fat rosy porcelain dragons, tribal sculptures supposedly made in the Earth Kingdom but which were actually created in thousands by factories here in the Fire Nation, fake rosé seashells, the sculpture of a pink deer whose antlers were made with coral, trinkets adorned with (fake) gems: pale rubies, shrimp-flamingo-colored diamonds..., and a bouquet of silk roses.
However, the most revolting sight, from Cixi's point of view, were the three women themselves.
At the right of her mother was seated Lady Vomitia, her fat body and bloated limbs wrapped in an acidic green dress which was way too tight for a woman of her age. From her came the asphyxiating stench of cheap perfume, which barely hid the reek which emanated from her feet and lower body, giving Cixi unwanted information on Vomitia's personal hygiene. Her face was snow white with make-up, which however didn't succeed to hide her unpleasant features. She had childishly drawn two pink circles on her cheeks.
At the left of her mother stood Lady Nekuza, an even more obese woman with a severe case of halitosis, which sadly wasn't even a decent player against the miasma of her fragrance, which evoked to Cixi the fetor of decaying flowers. Her sweating fat neck was adorned with an excess of pearls and golden necklaces. Her orange clothes were revealing far more of her abominable warty bosom than any sane man would consent to see.
Finally between the two, like an empress among her devoted subjects, was her own mother, Linyin. She wasn't fat as the others, she actually was a bit skinny; her face still showed evidence that in her younger years she certainly was dead gorgeous; and she still was extremely beautiful. She was so attractive that, in the street, men who could have been her sons stopped doing their activities to look at her as she strode gracefully on the pavement. However there was something slightly unpleasant in her facial traits, something... threatening. Dangerous. She was wearing a delicate mauve kimono which only stressed her naturally regal manners, and the pink powder on her cheeks didn't manage to conceal her cold soul, which was darting through her amber eyes.
You disliked Nezuka and Vomitia like you disliked cockroaches, but you were weary of Linyin like you were of an old viper.
"Cixi, my little girl." mused her mother. "Why don't you take a seat and chat with us? After all, you're a woman now."
Vomitia and Nekazia burst out in laughter, as it was a common joke. Cixi rolled her eyes. Gosh, those women are so stupid.
"Do not roll your eyes in public." her mother suddenly instructed her, her face as stern as steel. "It is rude."
Cixi resisted to the sudden desire to roll her eyes again for the sheer pleasure of annoying her mother. "I'm sorry, mother, I cannot stay; I have business in the city."
"Of what nature?"
Cixi was forced to obey. Happy, Linyin petted her on the cheek. "Very good Cixi. Now, ladies, what were we talking about?"
"Of Lady Marilor, of course!" exclaimed Vomitia with pleasure. "She just re-married! For the fifth time!"
"Oooh." uttered Linyin with the voice of a little girl. "How old is the poor man? Seventy?"
"Seventy-nine, dear. With a fragile health and an immense fortune!"
Cixi closed her eyes. By everything that is holy, if there's a kind spirit out there, please silence those three women. I'm gonna puke.
Linyin smirked. "He'll probably die soon in very mysterious circumstances." She gave them a meaningful look.
Nekuza laughed. "Mysterious? Ha! Her first husband was thirty and in perfect health. And he suddenly died of a heart attack a month after their wedding!"
"What kind of poison do you think she uses, ladies?" Vomitia whispered. "Arsenic?"
"Vomitia!" protested Linyin. "This conversation shall not be aimed in unladylike directions!" She giggled. "At least not so early in the afternoon."
They cackled with laughter, save from the bored Cixi.
"It is quite funny, we have the exact opposite in the case of Lady Sheree." declared Linyin.
Vomitia and Nekuza watched her with amazement, like two toads. "She took another husband?"
"Of course." answered Linyin.
"And what is the age of the unfortunate boy? Twenty-five?"
"Nineteen!" replied Linyin triumphantly.
Why do I have this horrible feeling of déjà vu? thought Cixi as the things giggled once again in chorus. Oh, yes, because they say exactly the same thing with different words.
"I think we're boring the poor young Cixi, here." Nekuza told her friends. "What do you want to talk about, sweetie?"
Oh, shoot. Couldn't you just keep ignoring me? She sought a topic that could interest them.
"Er..." she hesitantly began, "I've recently read the works and thoughts of the great philosopher Takeshi. According to him, we should not mourn over death or be angered when, I don't know, when you break a vase, because our emotions won't change things. It is wasted energy. On the other hand, the equally great philosopher Kaneshiro thought our main purpose in life is happiness, which can only be reached if we eliminate pain from our lives. So we have to line up our desires and wonder which one will bring anguish. For example, if our greatest desire is glory or fame, we are very likely to be disappointed, as those are rarely achieved and they are only temporary. So we should not yearn ... for ... such things."
She met three blank stares.
"It's Iroh who gave them to me." she excused herself. "He wanted to know my thoughts about them."
The three women suddenly felt they were back in a familiar territory.
"The Royals always complicate everything." Linyin told the assembly. "Have you heard that one of Fire Lord Azulon's forty-second cousins, Lady Dee, fled with her gardener?"
"Nooooooooo?" asked the two fat ladies in chorus.
While she explained the case to her friends, Linyin absentmindedly brushed off with her hand the rebellious thread of hair which covered partially Cixi's left eye. Her daughter quickly put it back at his rightful place. Linyin, frowning slightly, put the bang behind her ear again. As Cixi's hand stretched towards it, her mother grasped her wrist.
"You are so pretty," she said with a sweet voice. "It would be a shame to not be able to see your beautiful eyes." She smiled.
"I appreciate your kind feelings, mother," declared Cixi, "but I am, I believe, the only one who decides how my hair should be positioned." She tried to free her hand from her mother's, but Linyin's clutch was tight.
"I am your mother." she insisted with a sugary voice and honeyed, blissful eyes. "I know what is best for you."
"Mother, this is my hair, I do whatever I want with it." Cixi pulled her hand but her mother dug her long fingernails in her forearm.
"Cixi, I am your mother." she told her daughter with her real voice, deep, daunting and dark. "You do as I say, because this is the natural order of things." Her voice was awfully calm. "Now, put this bang of hair behind your ear."
But Cixi smugly kept starring at her through her tears, ignoring the sharp pain in her arm. Linyin tried to put the hair in what she assumed was the correct way, but her daughter grabbed her stretched arm. They struggled for a few minutes until Cixi accidentally pushed the tea tray. Time seemed to slow down as it fell and crashed on the ground, leaving shreds of china everywhere in the room.
Linyin was breathing heavily. She was clenching her fists, a scowl was distorting her face. However, a quick look at her friends seemed to calm her down.
"Get out of here." she intimated her child.
Cixi quickly left the room, holding back her tears.
Linyin dismissively pulled back a loose strand of black hair. "Children today."
Cixi closed the main door and walked aimlessly in the street with long strides. It looked like that whatever she did, she would always end up fleeing from her mother. When she was a child, she ... she adored her mother: that stranger in her house, distant, that incredibly beautiful woman, that every man admired and every woman envied ... she wanted to be just like her when she'd be a "grown-up". She had done whatever her mother had asked her to do. She had desperately tried to mimic her, but even when puberty had showed up, her mother's charms had continued to eclipse hers. But she just couldn't compete with her in the same field.
Some say that children are unable to see the difference between good and evil as long as it doesn't reach them directly. It had been true in Cixi's case. As she had entered adolescence, her eyes had cleared: she had seen the way Linyin looked at her father, she had heard how she was talking in private about him, when Dad was working so hard to give them a decent way of life, pay for their expansive mansion and his wife's costly dresses.
And then she had begun to discern some less than pleasant traits: her mother was obsessed with appearances. Things only needed to look like they were supposed to be. It didn't matter how Cixi or Dad would think about one of Linyin's decisions: it just had to please the majority of the other courtiers.
And the majority of the courtiers thought women had to stay in their place, where they had been put by Nature. The Weak Sex, they were called. And so, of course, would think Linyin.
Thus, adoration had changed into hatred. Cixi had read some smuggled scrolls from the Earth Kingdom about the equality between both genders. And she had entered a perpetual state of anger, against the oppression of her sex in general and her evil, old-fashioned mother in particular.
Cixi's (in)famous volcanic temper had been unleashed. Her comportment had radically shifted.
Linyin hadn't taken it that well. They had clashed over and over again. And the darkest trait of the self-centered matriarch had erupted, as Linyin was ready to anything to silence her daughter's undisciplined, modern rebellion. Anything.
"Make place, make place!" shouted a man's voice behind her. "Make place to Fire Lady Ilah and Prince Ozai!" Cixi turned to see a massive red palanquin with gold trimmings coming in her direction. White veils were obscuring its passengers to the sight of bystanders.
All of the passerby bowed on the ground. "Long live Great Ilah!" one sang. "May Fate bring joy to you and our beloved royal family!" cried out another. "May your health be replenished!"
She was extremely popular.
Like everyone in the street, she kneeled as the palanquin bearers approached. The litter came to a stop just before her.
"Cixi?" asked a sweet voice behind the curtains. "Is that you?" A pale hand pulled back the drapery, revealing the Fire Lady's tired but happy features. She beamed. "Why don't you come with us?"
She didn't let time to her elder son's girlfriend to answer however, immediately ordering the bearers to lower the palanquin. Cixi eagerly entered it.
The interior of the litter was dim and comfortable. The white window hanging forbade all noise from the street to enter, reducing it to a discreet mumble. It was quiet and cozy; exactly what she needed. She had the feeling to have entered a sanctuary.
Ozai jumped on her. "Cixi, Cixi, Cixi!" he repeated excitedly. "I missed you!" He hugged her hand in his tiny chubby arms.
She kissed him on his forehead. "I missed you too, Ozai." She adored this child; he was so sweet and merry. Shall she eventually have one child herself, she hoped he would be just like him.
Ilah chuckled. "Well, that's what I call love." She pulled the tiny prince back on her lap, despite the infant's protests. "I was taking Ozai to my Hospital for a New Start, in the Harbor City. I want to make him realize the chance he has to grow up in a life of luxury, when many others aren't that fortunate." Ilah was indeed well known for the large number of charities she had created. The people may fear her husband, but she was loved by all. We really are a great people. Cixi proudly told herself.
The Fire Lady put a hand on the young woman's wrist. "How are you, dear Cixi?"
Cixi's morale plummeted. All her doubts, her fears, her bitterness came back to her. Not knowing why, she told everything to Ilah: her growing depression with Iroh being miles away, her feeling of apathy as she didn't seem to be able to find a purpose in her life, and, of course, her mother.
"What I fear the most," she admitted, "is to be just like her with my children." She cried. "Like her, I have so little patience and I get so easily angered with the ones I love."
She put her head on her lap. "And I don't want to end like that!"
Ilah was looking at her in a strange way. "Did you tell me that your mother is called Linyin?"
Cixi sobbed. "Yes."
Ilah sighed. "Then I can tell you by experience that you almost have nothing in common with her."
Cixi lifted her head. "By experience?"
"Yes. I happened to meet her a long, long time ago. I didn't talk to her for a long time, mind you, but it was enough for me to learn all I needed to know about her. And I repeat, you have nothing in common with her."
She put a hand on the young woman's arm. "You're a beautiful soul, Cixi. You might have a big temper, but you are selfless, caring, patient and loving. Look at the level of adoration Ozai has for you!" She pointed to her son, who laughed.
"But I have a dark side, my Lady." Cixi insisted. "I have flaws, what you say is wrong! I am stubborn and very easily angered; I can be extremely selfish. When I actually show patience, I become very self-righteous. You only see my outer shell, and know nothing of the darkest abysses of my heart!"
To her surprise, Ilah burst in laughter. "I have always found ironic that good souls always focus on the worst of their being and tend to only see the shadow in the picture, while bad people believe themselves to be perfect and never question that fact." She concentrated her amber gaze on Cixi's eyes. "We all have flaws, Cixi. All of us, without any exception, we have flaws, as it is part of what being human means. No one in this world is inherently good, like no one is completely evil."
She paused and put her hand on the young woman's cheek. "I know you better than you think, Cixi of the Fire Nation. You are good."
"Spirits, it's very philosophical and all," Cixi declared, rolling her eyes, being sarcastic on purpose to prove her point, "but you have no proof of what you say. You barely know me."
"Oh, but I know someone who is I believe an acquaintance to you, to the least." Ilah beamed. "Iroh is very passionate about you."
"In the letters he writes to me, save from the usual inquiries on my health, he keeps rambling about you. "Dear Mother, do you think Cixi would be able to continue to love a man who will always be away..."; "Dear Mother, do you think Cixi trusts enough our relationship to be engaged..."; "Dear Mother, what kind of souvenir could I bring Cixi from the South Pole..." And so on."
Cixi flushed in embarrassment. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize, dear, many mothers would sell their souls to have their sons ask them things on girl matters. But Cixi, after all this time, don't you think Iroh knows you well, like you who has probably learned more on his deepest thoughts in two years than me in eighteen?"
"I guess he does." Cixi admitted.
"And do you think Iroh is the kind to be in love with an evil person? No, wait, of course you can answer he is blinded by love. Do you think Ozai, who is still innocent to the sins of men, would like you this much if you were wicked?"
"No." She felt warmer now. It was like the Fire Lady's words had lit a little fire in her body.
Ilah patted her hand. "It is still your duty to learn more about yourself and to try to make you an even better person." She opened her arm towards the busy street. "That is what I try to do: to make this world a better place, which will as a side-effect make me a better person." She paused. "For every second that is left to me."
Cixi suddenly noticed the Fire Lady's tired facial traits, the dark circles under her eyes, how they seemed to sink in her skull; she remarked her frail hands, her grey hair, her many wrinkles.
Iroh had once told her that his mother was thirty-seven; but she looked like she was sixty.
She was dying. Slowly. Many more years could certainly pass before she would be called back in the Spirit World, but it was unlikely Fire Lady Ilah would live long enough to see her grandchildren.
Cixi pondered on the cruelty of life: the evil woman was beautiful and youthful, while the good mother was gradually losing her life. It was unfair.
"I would like it to be the other way around." she suddenly confessed. "That you were my mother and not this...not that..."
"We cannot waste time contemplating possibilities, that will never happen even if we wish for very hard." Ilah told her. "We must dwell on the gifts of present and reality. And never forget what is truly important."
"What is truly important?"
"To know whom you love. To remember who love you. To be true to yourself. And to never, ever fail to forget that no matter how it might look, you are the only master of your heart, your soul and your decisions, and that no one can choose their aspirations for you."
Linyin was sitting, straight on her chair. "You're late." she declared.
Cixi bowed. "Sorry Mother." She sat at the opposite end of the table, trying to put as much distance as possible between her mother and her. They ate silently for long minutes, before Cixi's mother started to talk alone, monologuing about the latest fashions, how much money they would get when Cixi's father would be promoted (and what they would do with it), gardening, and, of course, young people the age of Cixi and how they had succeeded.
"... and Nekuza's daughter is now married to the richest nobleman of Cinder Island! I've heard she now has three houses, a hundred servants, and albino tiger peacocks! Can you imagine? Her brother, who is twenty, is a very attractive person, who is one of the Secretaries of the Ministry of War! Can you imagine? At such a young age? And he is single! Can you..."
"When will Dad be home?" interrupted Cixi.
Her mother's nostrils widened. "Your father? He should already be here. He's late again. But let's go back to this young Qin. He's single! And..."
"I will not marry him."
Her mother frowned. "Why wouldn't you? He's handsome, young, prosperous and intelligent. All of what a girl dreams of!"
"I do not love him. I don't even know him."
Linyin smirked. "Love is for fairy tales, lower people and fools. And marriage isn't about love."
"May I remind you I've now been dating Crown Prince Iroh for two years?"
Linyin's lips curled. "Yes, quite a disappointment. Had you manipulated him well and been something serious to him, you would already be engaged, if not married."
Cixi fulminated. "You know NOTHING of Iroh and me! We love each other, something you cannot understand! He just doesn't want to marry too early, and I respect that!"
From the other side of the table her mother gave her a condescending look. "Cixi, Cixi, Cixi... Your head is filled with ideologies and dreams. Men are only interested by one thing: them. They only want to fulfil their desires with whatever they hunger for. If you are not careful, Prince Iroh will eventually discard you like an old toy. We are inferiors."
"How can you say that? How can you claim such a thing, without even blushing with shame?"
"Males open to their inferiors, Cixi. It is because they see us as pointless that they dare confess us their fears, their desires, their wounds to the mind and the soul. It is what balances the scales, Cixi. Besides, isn't our life happier than men's? We live far from war, from politics and corruption, from the problems of life. We do not have to worry about what to eat or if we'll get enough money to pay our house. We don't have to work."
"But we are dependent to our husbands, we are just pretty machines which make babies, who sit, behave and do nothing else. We have no freedom. We maybe do not have to work, but we don't even get to live."
Her mother's stare hardened. "I already told you not to bring your personal, misguided point of view at the table, Cixi. This is just fancy talk which will never influence the society. Your rebellion is pointless. Admit it."
"Iroh understands! Iroh treats me as an equal! Iroh shares my views! And Iroh will one day be the ruler of this entire nation and change things for the better!"
Linyin sighed. "You are so naive... How cute!"
"Stop talking to me like I still was a toddler!"
Linyin gave her a radiant smile and came next to her. "Honey, I'm only thinking to your interests. I only want what is best for you."
Cixi shed tears. "No, you don't. You never did. You don't care if I'm happy or not, you just want to have your perfect-looking little family, and I'm too different to please you. You're so selfish..."
Her mother rose and shouted, with stormy eyes: "I will not tolerate this unruly behaviour!"
"I think you're jealous because this unruly behaviour, being myself, earned me a member of the Royal Family, whereas you, who always obeyed to whatever stupid orders were given to you, ended up marrying a man you despise! You just can't bear the idea that I was right all along and you are wrong."
Linyin's beautiful face was now twisted and deformed by blind rage, and she violently slapped Cixi. "Shut up!" She slapped her a second time. "SHUT UP!"
She raised her hand a third time, but Cixi managed to grab her wrist.
"You always slap me when you feel you're slipping, Mother." she whispered between her clenched teeth. "Harm me if you wish; it will not change the fact that I am right. Violence will lead to nothing."
Linyin finally managed to free her hand and slapped her daughter with renewed force. Cixi's cheek was scarlet. And soon the vermeil spread to the totality of her face. Finally allowing her hatred to express itself, she smacked her mother with so much strength that Linyin fell on the ground.
"How dare you?" her mother yelled in rage. "How dare you? Only I, I, have the right to do so!"
"You are no more in your right when you exert violence on me than when I slap you."
"I do it to teach you respect!"
"Funny, I do it for the same reason."
She kneeled before her mother who still laid on the ground. "I am an adult now, Mother. You cannot harm me now; actually, you were never allowed to."
She plunged her starry stare in the fiery eyes of her mother. "I will never, ever, hit you again, as it would simply acknowledge your hold on me. I am fed up with my continuous submission to your temper. Now I will live as I wish, dress as I want, do what I like. From this moment on, I will stop fleeing before you; instead, I will stand, knowing that from the two of us, I am the stronger-willed." She cried as joy filled her. "Finally, I am free."
"You always were a savage beast." Linyin snarled. "I should have tamed you better."
"You don't understand, Mother." retorted Cixi with a broken voice. "Had you been nice to me, had you loved me, had you acted like a real mother, I would have behaved, I would have obeyed. In some way, it's because of you I am what I am. Shall I thank you?" she mused.
"Get out of my sight!" her mother screamed.
Her daughter looked down on her with disgust. "Don't worry; I was leaving anyway." She turned back towards the sliding door.
Linyin, still crouching on the floor, was panting; her eyes were widened with the fact, which she was unable to comprehend, to accept, that she had no control left on her daughter. Her traits warped and whitened, black strands of loose hair falling all over her face, she stretched a bony, white hand towards her child. A pathetic namesake of a woman.
"I ... LOATHE YOU!!"
Cixi stopped walking and looked at the ... woman who was glaring at her with furious eyes.
"I don't hate you anymore." she sadly admitted. "I only pity you."
She slammed the door.
But ... what was Hayao doing at the moment ?
Of course, this is spoiling the drama. But as I wrote, I was wondering : what will Hayao do while "student" is away ? Here comes the answer.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Sozin's Blood Chapters|
|Book 1: Sparks|
|The Second Prince - A Typical Day - The Twenty-First Day of the Eighth Month - To Live - The Beach, Part 1 - The Beach, Part 2 - Inconsistencies - Interlude : Cixi Alone - Southwards|