Title: "Lady Behind the Fan"
Summary: A young lady from the court of the Fire Nation must balance duty, honor, and love to find herself and her prince. Arranged marriage, court intrigue, and one flying bison served together for one not-so-typical romance.
Disclaimer: I, in no way, own or claim Avatar: The Last Airbender as my original work. It is the property of its creators, Nickelodeon, and Nickelodeon's parent company. I am in no way receiving compensation for my work and it is written for the sole purpose of recreational enjoyment. In short, I'm just borrowing the characters for a little bit. I promise to put them back where I found them after I get done playing with them.
Author Notes: First off, a serious HUMONGOUS apology to my readers, new and old alike! I seriously underestimated the demands of college, so sadly my fanworks got pushed to the backburner. I'll try harder this semester, I promise! Be warned—this chapter is a doozie (it was ridiculously hard to write). It's the longest one yet and it is a lot of politics and intrigue, so buckle up! And FYI, all that stuff about eunuchs in government—completely true, straight out of Chinese history.
Also, just a wee little reminder to ALL readers: This is a severely AU fanfic—all canon beyond Episode 13, "The Blue Spirit," has not and will not be incorporated (a.k.a. Zhao, my lovable bastard, is going to be here for a loooooong time...).
BIG NEWS: My LJ (impextoo DOT livejournal DOT com) will have all my progress of upcoming chapters and my general ideas about characters and such, if you're interested.
Chapter Six: Chicken
When Zhao was quite young, the servant girl in charge of Lord Huhai's chickens had teased him, calling him "the whore's sniveling bastard." Already possessed of the sadism that would become the hallmark of his military career, the young Zhao had sneaked into the chicken coop that night and, one by one, snapped each bird's neck with deliberate pleasure. The shrieks of the servant girl could be heard all the way in the village the next morning and a local Fire Sage was summoned to purify the Feng household of evil spirits. Lord Huhai, scoffing at the malicious intent of spirits, had the girl beat soundly and sent her away in disgrace.
As a terrified Etsu struggled vainly in his arms, Zhao could almost recall the feel of panicked wings beating against his arms. Zhao tightened his grip on Etsu infinitesimally, as the memory of the satisfying crunch of the chickens' bones came rushing back to him…
"Unhand me this instant!" Etsu cried in hysterics, snapping Zhao back to the present. She pushed against him angrily, trying to get enough leverage to get away. Zhao could literally see the growing panic in her eyes. "You damn—"
Zhao clamped a hand over her mouth, silencing her protests. Shifting his hold from her waist to a brutal grip on her upper arms, Zhao leaned forward with a calm smile. "Such lovely terms of endearment! Sadly, we haven't the time to dally in the corridors with such nonsense. No, my dear," he laughed in a voice full of dangerous promise, "great fortune awaits us."
Etsu wrenched her head back, snarling, "There is no us, Commander, nor will there be any us in the future." She cast a dark glare at the smirking man, "And by my ancestors, if your political scheming in any way harms my interests—"
"Oh, do shut up," Zhao shoved her hard into the wall. He loomed over her, sneering. "Your interests are my interests, insofar as they benefit me. And I must say, that fainting spell was quite the opportune scam on your part."
"Oh believe me, it was no scam. I was genuinely and utterly repulsed by the sheer thought of you," Etsu told him, her nose wrinkled in disgust as if it were possible to smell the malevolence radiating off of Zhao.
After their conversation in the garden, Zhao wasn't about to let her bait him again. No woman, let alone this little slip of a girl, would best him. "I am not entirely sure what difficulties you have in comprehending this situation," Zhao said in a low voice, pinning her to the wall by her shoulder, "but let me put it the simplest terms for you. You are a woman, weak and spineless just like the rest of your sex. You will do as you are told. Should you not do so…," Zhao smiled grimly as he felt the delicate shudder of fear pass through Etsu, "well, we both were present for that Fire Sage's execution." Zhao yanked her away from the wall, keeping an iron grip on her and gave her a rough jostle. "So shut up and walk."
But no, nothing could ever be easy with this stubborn child, Zhao thought irritably, as Etsu tried to pull away. "I will not," she told him forcefully, twisting in his grasp.
Damn it all, they were going to be late if she kept insisting on parrying words with him. Zhao squeezed as tight as he could about her slim arm, caring naught for Etsu's sharp cry of pain. "Would you like to add to that collection of bruises I gave you?" he questioned. Etsu shook her head, biting her lip as angry tears welled up in her eyes. Zhao snorted. It was about time she used what little brains she did have to avoid his ire.
Zhao's shoes rang dully in dim cavernous hallway as he moved with all the military briskness he possessed. Etsu stumbled along behind him, nearly falling several times as the hem of her robes got trampled under her swiftly moving feet. Deep within the palace and sparsely lit, these corridors were rarely used, save for subterfuge by discontent servants and illicit meetings between amorous courtiers. As they passed mounted torch, Zhao stole a quick glance at the miserable woman behind him.
For all his ruminations in the garden about her grace and beauty, Zhao was disgusted by the ravages of stress upon Etsu. True, she was fashionably pale, a fact only enhanced by her natural skin tone and the make-up she wore. But now…Etsu's face was nearly bloodless, her mouth tight with anxiety. Her eyes were wide and troubled, looking too large for her face and giving her a haunted, hateful look. Zhao's revulsion grew. Those eyes just needed to reflect the respect to which Zhao was accustomed. That, or fear. To Zhao, there was little difference between the two.
"Where are you talking me?" The question, breaking the pervasive silence, was terse and in the most acquiescent voice Zhao had ever heard from her. Oh yes, there was hope yet that Zhao could mold her into a pleasing wife.
Nevertheless, it was a legitimate question with a relatively safe answer. "The Fire Lord's personal offices," he responded curtly.
Etsu came to a sudden halt, jerking completely free of Zhao. "What did you say!" she gasped, aghast.
"Are you deaf as well as stupid?" Zhao snarled, grabbing her by the elbow and proceeding to drag her down the corridor. "Keep walking!" Hurrying down the corridor as dignifiedly as possible, Zhao cursed under his breath. They were about to leave these narrow back corridors and enter into the main halls that promised to be brimming with inquisitive nobles. Summoning up all the patience he possessed, Zhao gave her a smile that, if not reassuring, would at least tell her to mind her volume and tone. "If I am to free you from your marriage contact with the banished prince, logically I'll need Lord Ozai's approval."
"I do not need nor want this 'freedom' that you offer me," Etsu tossed her head haughtily, "and as I told you before, you are encroaching on the interests of House Reizo. My father can put a stop to this scheme and to you in heartbeat."
By the Sun's holy fires, was she really that naïve? Zhao rolled his eyes indulgently. "So why hasn't he?"
"I…that is, my father—," Etsu turned a delicate shade of red as she fumbled for an answer, "he's probably waiting for the Fire Lord to punish you as soundly as you deserve!"
Zhao's laughter was like a bark. "Sweet little Etsu, you don't have a clue, do you?" he chortled as he came to a stop, just short of the corridor's end. About ten strides off were the great gleaming doors leading to the Fire Lord's personal suite of offices. A small crowd was already forming, mainly consisting of a bevy of bejeweled young women and a few stately advisors. Gleaming more brightly than any gem was the bald liver-spotted head of House Reizo's chief counsel, the eunuch Jiuto. Judging by that thunderous scowl, Jiuto was well aware of how this game was going to be played.
"Now put on that vapid, pretty little smile of yours and go greet your father's advisor," Zhao gave her a sharp push forward. "I'll give you a few minutes before I appear." He chuckled darkly and leaned down to whisper into her ear. "It wouldn't look so good for you if you came stumbling out of a dark hall with me, now would it?"
Tucking a stray lock of hair back, Etsu smoothly flicked her fan open and turned towards Zhao with her bland smile in place. "I don't lurk in the dark corners. Only rats do," she told him in honeyed tones as she slid forward quickly, out of Zhao's grasp.
Zhao snarled, a curse dancing on the tip of his tongue. He flexed his fingers, aching to throttle that damn woman. His pudgy little fingers—the hands of a child—had crushed those hollow bird bones with delicious glee. His angry amber eyes followed the clean graceful movements of Etsu as she glided over to the assemblage, her head held aloft on that pale neck. Zhao wondered if her bones were hollow and delicate too.
All in good time.
Giving his armor an unnecessary tug, Zhao strode confidently over to the babbling crowd. They parted quickly enough, with the women casting flirtatious glances over the tops of brightly patterned fans before coyly lowering them. Zhao resisted the urge to preen. Oh yes, he thought as Etsu gave him a withering look, this was much more like it.
Etsu's incensed gaze drifted off to his left to settle on his advisor, or rather, on the man's mistress. To be utterly frank—something that Zhao was most talented at—Ashigo of Mokoto and Ino of Wei were the ugliest couple he had ever seen. Beauty was never an indicator of intelligence—and wasn't Etsu an example of that particular failing?—but it least it made dealing with them easier on the eyes. Ashigo, while being an absurdly brilliant legal consultant, prided himself far too much on that overly greased mustache and beard. And Ino…well, she just looked like a particularly unfortunate turnip turned on end.
Without warning, the tall gilded doors opened soundlessly, admitting a harassed looking Chamberlain into the hall. Gesturing agitatedly to both Zhao and Ashigo, and to Etsu and Jiuto, the Chamberlain bowed low, "My lords, my lady, the Fire Lord is ready to receive you."
Ushering them on with distressed motions, the Chamberlain moved them into the outer sanctum of the offices. Excusing himself with an apologetic albeit distracted murmur, the Chamberlain abandoned the four of them, disappearing through another impressive set of doors. Jiuto immediately guided Etsu off to the side, clearly intent on getting her as far away from Zhao as possible. He scowled, his wrinkles adding to the weight of his gaze.
"I am curious as to the nature of your advisory position, Ashigo—of Mokoto, is that right?" Jiuto asked, his voice as dry as parchment. After a quick glance to Zhao, Ashigo inclined his head. Jiuto's upper lip curled authoritatively, "The laws of this nation strictly limit such positions to eunuchs, such as myself. Judging by that well-kept beard of yours and your, uh, companion," Jiuto placed a delicate, insinuating stress on the word, "I'd say that you are anything but."
Zhao was no fool and nor was his advisor. Ashigo made an exaggerated bow to the two of them. "Lord Ozai is most appreciative of the service of House Feng and since his word is law, he can bend the rules for his most loyal and promising vassals," Ashigo answered smoothly, toying with the curl of his mustache. "Am I—nay, is the great Commander Zhao—to be punished because of one trifling law?"
"That 'trifling law' was put in place to prevent dynastic ambitions—" Jiuto stopped suddenly as Etsu made a silencing gesture. Surrounded by the opulent décor of the royal offices and backed by her father's leathery nut of an advisor, Etsu's frigid demeanor was back, her eyes cool and dangerous in the quiet. Zhao sneered at her. He had reduced her to a frightened girl twice now; did she actually think this act would work in reverse?
"Commander, on a side note, I would highly appreciate it if you kept your slanderous tongue to yourself," Etsu sniffed imperiously, her fan slicing the air with crisp controlled movements. She threw a haughty glare in the direction of Ashigo. "You cannot always be sure of who is listening."
Zhao took two long strides across the room to loom over her. Her shock only registered for a moment before slipping back behind that composed mask of formality. "My lady, I know the subversive power of gossip, and you can have it in the strictest of confidences that Lady Ino was all too glad to be of service. Were you not aware of her…," Zhao wasn't quite sure what to call the relationship, but no matter, "arrangement with my advisor, Ashigo?"
"Y-you horrid pig," Etsu was trembling with rage, her fan clenched in a white-knuckled hand. Jiuto leapt forward, grabbing her by the arm and dragged her out of Zhao's immediate range. "You planned that debacle—"
Zhao chuckled. It really shouldn't please him this much that she was upset. "Sadly, no—you give me far too much credit. I would never have dreamed of using your own peers against you, had Ashigo himself not mentioned it."
"Revered lady, I am most honored to be in your presence," Ashigo told her in a sickly simpering voice, bowing so low that his beard brushed the black marble floor.
Etsu's retort was cut off by the Chamberlain's return. "All things are in order," he informed them, pulling out a scroll and unfurling it with crisp movements. Peering nearsightedly at the tiny characters, "The representative of House Reizo will naturally be given first remarks." Zhao tried to not look too bitter about that. Any and every mention of a higher House rankled Zhao. "…then Ashigo of Mokoto may take the floor for House Feng—"
"Ah, no," Ashigo tapped the scroll impatiently, "just a little last minute change. Commander Zhao has expressed a desire to defend his own House." Ashigo grinned toothily at the flustered Chamberlain. "Surely that won't be a problem…?"
"No, it's easily fixed," the man sighed tiredly, marking out the name and scrawling Zhao's name in the margins. He ushered them forward as the second set of doors swung open. "And do remember, my lady," the man added with a remonstrative look at Etsu, "that you are not permitted to speak from this point." Thank the spirits for small mercies, Zhao thought with a satisfied smile. Etsu looked rather put out by that news, even though the Fire Lord would never listen to anything she had to say.
Brilliantly backlit with iron troughs of fire, the Fire Lord's personal office—or rather, suite of offices—were large enough to constitute an entire wing of the palace by itself. Rows of scribes' tables lined the room and several low, gilded chairs were positioned before the central dais. Lord Ozai himself was seated high above the rest, looking positively bored as his eyes kept a close watch on the proceedings. All five of them bowed low before him, the men having only to bend at the waist, while Etsu actually had to kneel and bow to the floor. Zhao felt his lip curl. Such was the inferiority of women!
Moving forward, the Chamberlain knelt reverently before the Fire Lord. Clearing his throat, the Chamberlain read in a thin, reedy voice, "On this twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month of the twenty-first year of the reign of his divine majesty, Fire Lord Ozai of Shinzaburo, the royal Commander Zhao of Feng—who henceforth will be aided by Ashigo of Mokoto in legal counsel—brings before the royal personage a matter of 'extreme and vital importance to the longevity of House Feng and the stability of the Fire Nation.' For my lord's consideration," here again the Chamberlain executed a low bow of deference in the direction of Ozai, "this case also involves the Lady Etsu of Reizo, whose de facto advocate is Jiuto of Tyogo…"
As the Chamberlain droned on through the preliminaries, Zhao signaled Ashigo to him. "A closed session?" Zhao murmured quietly, noting that, save for one exhausted looking scribe, the room was absolutely void of the usual busybodies. With Jiuto obnoxiously hovering about, Etsu had already taken her seat on the left hand side of the room, her robes spread out in splendid fashion.
"You should be flattered that the Fire Lord deems this marriage such a sensitive topic," Ashigo gave him a long-suffering look as he settled into his own chair on the right. "Though we both know that all of this," he muttered with a lazy flick of his hand, "is just for show, and of course, to keep the rest of the nobles at bay."
Zhao felt a delicious squirm in his stomach. Oh yes, if this worked, then Zhao would be the most powerful man in the world. He snuck a surreptitious look at Etsu, that paragon of antiquated virtue. Zhao set his jaw stubbornly, unwilling to contemplate thoughts of failure. He would hold the entire world's power with one hand and crush all that displeased him with the other.
This had to work.
"My gracious lord," Jiuto nodded his head respectfully, "never doubt that House Reizo is grateful for your attention in this matter. We are and forever shall be loyal subjects to the throne of the Fire Nation, and thus hope that the Crown Prince-in-Exile will be successful in his capture of the Avatar and return home." Jiuto's eyes darted towards Zhao, laced heavily with distrust, "As are all servants to your throne, I'm sure."
Zhao would be damned if he was going to stand here and be indicted with disloyalty. "Surely the esteemed Lord Yasou realizes the magnitude of this task!" he smiled in a placating fashion at Jiuto. He even managed to spare a small conciliatory smile for that arrogant woman. "Lady Etsu is a woman of excellent parentage and is highly regarded by the entire court." Hardly a lie, Zhao thought, since it was her forefathers and their supporters that were causing this mess.
"If I may be so bold," Ashigo chimed in, a finger pointed in accusation, "you are doing a disservice to your own House if you allow this marriage contract to persist any longer,"
Jiuto turned an unflattering shade of maroon. "It is a disservice to the royal line to absolve the marriage. As you should well know, Prince Zuko must marry a bride of acceptable rank in order to have legitimate claimants to the throne." The man's fingers twitched spastically, as though he would have been pulling on his hair if he had any. "Prince Zuko is the only son of the Fire Lord!"
Zhao threw his hands up in the air, utterly frustrated. Dealing with these pigheaded nobles and their equally pigheaded servants was more difficult than trying to lead a komodo rhino to water. "But what good is it to have the bride if we have no prince?" he thundered. "It is Prince Zuko's own traitorous actions that have performed a disservice to the royal line!"
"Really? And by completely discounting Prince Zuko—which is what you are doing—," Jiuto interjected angrily, an accusatory finger pointed straight at him, "who do you suppose will carry on the royal line? Lord Ozai's brother, General Iroh, went into voluntary exile with Prince Zuko. Even if he hadn't, General Iroh's wife and son passed into the Spirit World many years ago."
Ashigo stroked his mustache thoughtfully, giving him a supercilious look. "There is always Tadao of Shinzaburo."
Ashigo arose from his chair, an air of supreme patience about him. Zhao gratefully threw his body down into the vacated chair, seething and wanting to blow something up. His fingers tingled as warmth spread into the palm of his hand. He severely doubted Ozai would be pleased if he torched the upholstery. Angry, he glanced over at Etsu, though she would make an even less suitable target.
She looked…odd. Her lips were parted and she had the strangest, most faraway look in her eyes. It was almost as if she had had an epiphany, that the spirits had granted her some wondrous vision. She looked like she was thinking.
And that didn't sit well with Zhao at all.
With great reluctance, Zhao tugged his mind back to the debate at hand. "My lord, as it has been stated before, Lady Etsu is without equal in the Fire Nation. There are others in our court who would be honored to have her marry into their House—and if I might add, Commander Zhao," Ashigo gestured grandly in his direction, "would be the most honored of all if this marriage contract was absolved and his suit be considered by Lord Yasou."
"Have you not considered the time that must go into this process?" With a condescending roll of his eyes, Jiuto began to list off the requirements. "I'm sure it hasn't slipped your notice that the absolution of the prince's marriage suit must be approved by two-thirds of the Houses. Even then, Lord Yasou does not have to betroth his daughter to House Feng."
It was time to end this roundabout game. "Lord Yasou is a practical man," Zhao stated flatly. "And if you are worried about marrying down—"
All heads in the room turned to look at the Fire Lord. He leaned forward, a look of great contemplation upon his face. Zhao noticed that Etsu's own face had a mixture of apprehension and grim determination dancing across it. Ozai cleared his throat, announcing in ringing tones, "The marriage contract will be sent to all the Houses of this nation with the next diplomatic courier, asking for its dissolution. In addition," here he paused giving both the Chamberlain and the scribe a moment to catch up, their hands flying furiously over the scrolls, "I will personally endorse the suit of Commander Zhao of Feng. This too will be sent by diplomatic courier to Lord Yasou of Reizo for his immediate consideration." Ozai waved his hand, "You are dismissed."
An invigorating, heady rush of exhilaration coursed through Zhao's veins as Ashigo clapped his hand upon his shoulder eagerly. Jiuto's jowls were quivering with anger, his bald head turned a splotchy red. Oh yes, this victory was what Zhao had been longing for. No more would anyone belittle his accomplishments, nor begrudge him the honors and wealth he deserved. Everything would soon be his. Everything.
After bowing once more to the Fire Lord, the Chamberlain pushed them out of the offices with worn apologies of work that needed to be done. Left in the quiet, cavernous antechamber, the four of them stared uneasily at one another. Just as Zhao would've guessed, Etsu was the first to speak.
"Commander Zhao," she began hesitantly, her voice calm…and even if it sounded completely absurd to him, Zhao fancied that it was almost kind. "I have been…well, my behavior toward you these last few days has been nothing short of ghastly." Etsu turned pink in embarrassment, "I must admit that I was much too blinded by the rewards of my station than by my true duty."
Ashigo looked highly taken aback by the confession. Jiuto just looked like he was going to be sick. As for Zhao, he had to consciously remind himself that his jaw ought not to be making the acquaintance with the floor
"As it is," she continued, the color rising in her cheeks, "I would be most honored if we could perhaps, if you are willing, to—to start again." The corners of her mouth tugged gently upward. "It seems as if our interests are to become one, Commander, just as you so cleverly predicted."
"So it appears," Zhao conceded, albeit warily. He hadn't gotten this far in life believing in the inherent goodness of people. Etsu was trying to—well, Zhao wasn't entirely sure what she attempting, but there was no possible way he was going to let her succeed. As other set of doors swung open, he sneered down at her, "Shall we?"
The crowd had swelled to an impressive size during the proceedings. Easily picking out the self-satisfied smirk on Lady Ino's face, Zhao supposed that Ashigo was owed an appropriate expression of gratitude for his forethought. Etsu's toadying—a performance she had surely only intended for a small audience—was about to be thrown back into her face
There was a sudden bit of jostling and shoving as two ladies forced their way to Etsu's side through the people. Zhao bit back a groan as he recognized the beanpole and the lumpy potato that served as her ladies-in-waiting. "My lady!" the taller one huffed indignantly, "What is going on? Why didn't you send for us?"
"Oh, never you mind, Yuri. It was a bit…sudden, this whole affair," Etsu replied airily. She gave Zhao a saccharine smile. She clapped her hands together happily. "But no matter! May I, at least informally, introduce to my soon-to-be fiancé?" In spite of himself, Zhao felt his chest swell with pride. It could still be just an act on her part—but at least others were convinced of the validity of their impending union.
The chubby lady's bottom lip quivered dangerously as Lady Ino elbowed her way over to them, followed by a giggling gaggle of girls. Clasping Etsu's hands in her own, she gushed in an entirely too loud voice, "You are just too lucky, my dear lady! Come along," Ino manhandled Etsu back down the hallway, "Lady Shiko's little tea party deserves all the details on this happy occasion!"
Feeling as if he couldn't handle one more squealing woman, Zhao excused himself from the curious bystanders and took off at a brisk pace to his own quarters. So much to do and so little time in which to do it! Ashigo had assured him of the complete legality of the situation, and Ozai was one to follow through with his promises, especially if it concerned the longevity of his empire. Zhao nodded to himself. He shouldn't worry; he had the upper hand and no one, save for the Fire Lord himself, knew what cards he was holding.
Once inside his own simple but rich apartments, his manservant quickly divested him of his armor, Zhao deep in thought. Etsu…her name alone itched and nagged at him. He felt his features twist into an incensed scowl. Zhao would bet his commission that she was up to something—but that meant admitting that she had the brains to cobble together some plan. But what in blazes could it be? Since he now had the Fire Lord's stamp of approval, there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop the dissolution of the marriage. And while her father was resolutely backward and intractable in his ways, Lord Yasou would not be one to lightly disregard Lord Ozai, even if his insipid daughter came crying to him.
Shrugging into a casual robe, Zhao rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. The only other option was Zuko and wasn't that utterly laughable? No, Etsu hadn't any brains; she was at worst only amusing herself by thinking she had the upper hand.
The manservant returned, a wine cask and goblet in hand. Pouring the wine with careful deliberation, he handed it to Zhao before asking quietly, "Is there anything that my lord would like to specially request for dinner tonight?"
Zhao tuck a hearty swig of the wine, his eyes savoring its dark, blood red color. He grinned cruelly, "I do believe chicken is on the menu tonight."