Repost: FFnet ate my formatting, and every try to correct it made things worse.
The first time, he catches my eye, is at a boring palace banquet. He is tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a captain's sash over his shoulder, and thereby already attracted a cloud of female admirers. He is charming and polite, flashing strong teeth in a dazzling smile, but I see his eyes roam over the girls around him, dismissing some as negligible; marking others as easy pickings, eager to warm his bed, should he desire so; and some as… neither. His judgement is in perfect accordance with mine, a rare trait in a man. He interests me.
I drift towards one of the main gossips and leave, some time later, with more knowledge about his life, career and general characteristics than any official record could contain. He clawed his way up from the ranks, that explains his age – a good ten years my senior. Still young enough, though, and I prefer a more experienced man. Too low in station to even dream of asking for my hand, yet with enough impetus to his career to make him not beneath consideration, should I make my choice. Recently, he resolved a crucial situation by a mix of cunning, luck and ruthlessness, which won a decisive victory and earned him the promotion, plus an invitation to the palace as a reward.
I let the random movement of the crowd swirl me towards him and attach myself unobtrusively to his corona. He labels me third category, almost instantaneously, a wise choice. I allow my polite smile to grow real and catch a flicker of wariness, quickly extinguished, in his eyes. Wise choice, indeed. It takes no effort to turn the light-headed conversation towards the subject of his military achievements. An airhead by the name of Chou asks if he has ever been wounded, wide eyes running over his body, and is scooped so quickly into the second category, that I have to hide a peal of silent laughter behind my fan. I jab in with a few more specific questions, easily obscured in the general babble – unless one pays close attention, which he does.
His grasp of strategy and tactics is solid, I conclude, retreating after a while, his experience with court politics slight, but he applies the former to the latter, so he'll learn. Overall, not bad for a first impression.
oo oo oo oo oo
With only the barest hint of nudging, one of the young, idiotic nobles whose wooing has started to annoy me, challenges him to an Agni Kai. I'm pleased to see that all the bulk beneath his uniform is indeed muscle. He has no obvious scars either, a good sign in a blooded soldier. A strong bender, with the advantage of real war experience, he wins without difficulty. He's smart enough not to kill a boy whose father could ruin him, but the young idiot won't go picking a fight again, for a long time.
The boy has friends, though. I arrange another duel.
For the third I make sure that he has to fight for his life, against a formidable foe. He lives, his opponent doesn't, and although he does not get away entirely unscathed, I watch his wolfish grin of victory with satisfaction. He will do. He will do very well, when I make him mine. I make my way into the healer's practice that takes care of his wounds, get rid of the assistant and enjoy the opportunity to look down on his seated form, for once.
"You fought very well, captain," I congratulate him.
"Why, thank you, milady." His tone is cautiously surprised, his voice still darkened with smoke and a bit sharp with the edge of pain. A very pleasant sound.
"When your arm is taken care of, maybe you would like to take a stroll through the water gardens with me, to clear the smoke from your head?"
Naturally, he would, if only to satisfy his curiosity about the unexpected invitation. The healer would like to insist on some rest but is brushed off with a brusque "I've had worse."
The injury won't hinder him much in a fight – and indeed it did not, as proven by his victory – but custom demands that he turns the wounded limb into my easy reach. Deeply ingrained reluctance to expose his – momentarily – weakest spot makes his stance awkward for a moment when he stands, but then he bows to custom with an ironic smile and we depart.
We exchange pleasantries about the gardens for a while, then turn towards the topic of his duel. I am discussing the finer points of some of the used techniques with him, letting show, subtly, that I knew his opponent's style quite well. He catches on, very fast. He's an intelligent man, and if he's jumping to conclusions, they are, at least, the correct ones.
"You! You arranged this! Why?" He's smart enough not to try to grab and whirl me round, to bring us face to face, but to turn himself. Another wise decision.
"Prince Ozai enjoys a well-fought duel to the death." True enough, I was pleased to note the sparkle of interest in the prince's eyes, but entirely misleading.
"Oh, really. And what did I do to gain the honour of providing royal entertainment?" His tone drips venomous disdain, and while he checked his tongue from using a more treasonous formulation, he's obviously deeply stung that I procured his participation in another man's amusement.
Jealous already, what a promising start. Though, we'll have to sort out his priorities.
"What you did, was to attract the attention of a prince of Sozin's line, known for his ambitious military visions. A man in your position, captain, has a lot to gain from such an interest." The emphasis on his rank, likely to be the pinnacle of his career for a man of his humble lineage, banks the flames of his jealous anger. The golden eyes are still burning, nonetheless. I wouldn't have it any other way. "What I did, on the other hand, was to ascertain that, in becoming a soldier's wife, I will not make myself a soldier's widow very soon, because my husband-to-be does not possess the skill to defend himself properly."
His reaction is interesting. A moment of slack-jawed astonishment, then he throws his head back for a bark of violent laughter before he bows, deeply, in a formal soldier's salute. "And what, oh great strategian, is now your verdict about this poor soldier's fate?"
A decent attempt at sarcasm, probably worth the effort of shaking it into shape. A deep-seated resentment at be being led by a girl almost half his age and twice his height in status. The intelligence to figure out he's being led and a well-hidden promise of getting revenge for it. Compared to the rest of the alternatives I've checked out before, this is by far the most promising foundation for a successful marriage I have ever seen.
I smile, bowing appropriately in return. "Your fate, Captain Zhao, is about to turn interesting."
oo oo oo oo oo
A sweet smile is all it takes to attach my captain to Commander Katsu, the aged but highly esteemed second-in-command of the North-eastern Fleet, who regularly comes over to play Pai-Sho with my father whenever he's in the capital. After that, he's on his own to charm my mother while the two elder men retire to their game.
He succeeds admirably. I feign disinterest and he does not pay me any more attention than politeness requires. Picking apart his anecdote about some heroic deed or other, results in the commander rising to his fellow soldier's defence by reflex, convincing my mother of his military prowess in the process. When she chides me, listing up any number of arguments in favour of "this brave young man", I know that I have won. He knows it, too, and his nod and fist touching palm for a moment before his chest are a subtle replication of the bow he gave me in the water gardens.
The toothy smile he wears, when I murmur an insincere apology for my lack of manners, on the other hand, reminds me more of the expression he wore when finishing the Agni Kai. I'll have to disabuse him of the notion that he can win against me, but not until the vows are sealed.
oo oo oo oo oo
As I expected he would, he took advantage of my introduction to Commander Katsu to secure himself a new berth, in command of a brand-new serpent-class vessel. A vessel that will not leave the shipyards for another two months, plenty of time for me to arrange for my mother to arrange my wedding.
My mother has a great talent for orchestrating such events. Once subtly aimed at the right target, she requires no further input from my side, because she already knows better "what is the best for you, dear." The old commander is recruited as a go-between before he knows what is happening to him, the 'chance encounter' at my parents' residence is counted as a first meeting and two more set up under more romantic, if suitably chaperoned, conditions. With his parents long dead, the necessary arrangements are much simplified, and a fortnight before he has to leave for his new command post, we light joss sticks together, hands wreathed in shared flames.
oo oo oo oo oo
The wedding night conforms to my expectations; the morning after, when my new husband invites me, with a vicious smile, to join him in his morning exercises, is far more exciting.
Power for power, we are roughly even. He excels in such techniques that utilise relentless strength, just as I expected from a well-trained military man; my advantages lies with speed and fine control. Old Katsu, appearing to deliver the morning gift, as it is proper, watches appalled as we take the training court to pieces.
He has not commanded fleets of ships through storms and battles for nothing, however. His voice carries. "It is a husband's privilege and obligation to make sure that his wife is able to properly defend herself and his children while he is away."
We share a look, through the double veil of a wall of flames engulfed by a dispersing fireball. By unspoken, mutual consent we cease the fight, turning partly to make the old man the tip of a wary triangle. He scowls at our ready stance and scorched state of dress.
"There is such a thing as overindulgence," he growls,"and you, my boy, have nothing to worry about, anyway. Your wife could drive away a dragon."
Drive away? "Honourable elder," I correct the commander with my most florid bow, "I would never drive away a dragon." I wait for a more approving look to turn up on the craggy face before continuing. "I would ensure that a generous meal of dragon roast awaits my husband upon his return."
I'm growing to like the way my husband laughs, half angry, half amused, when he yields to me.
oo oo oo oo oo
My captain is a better catch than even I imaged.
Not that he is going to remain a captain, I gave myself ten years to make him admiral. Five months into our marriage, I have established myself firmly at the top of the North-eastern Fleet's home base. The admiral is a widower, the commanders' wives are old and in awe of my courtly glamour, my husband is a celebrated war hero and I am with child.
The best thing, yet, is what he let slip in drunken revelry, after I gave him the good news upon his return from a very successful raid along the Earth Kingdom coasts. Some years ago, an ill-fated expeditionary force discovered a hidden library, before it perished in the shifting sands. One of the very few survivors, my husband discovered a secret there that will carve his name into the eternal history of our nation – if handled properly. And that it will be, I will see to it!
You, my dear husband, will be great.
He is certainly not nice, he doesn't qualify as honourable under a number of definitions – though by no means all of them – and his ambitions tend to run away with him. But like that Scottish guy, Zhao got played by a supernatural entity, putting the temptation of great power in his hands. The least, I could do, was to set him up with the matching lady, in return.
Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition; but without
The illness should attend it.
Lady Macbeth, Act 1, scene V