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Chapter 3: The Beginning of a New Era
As the rising sun shed new light into Ba Sing Se, Long Feng eased out of his bed, dressed himself in a simple tunic, and walked into his kitchen. He set out to make some tea for himself, and for his new...guest.
The girl would be waking soon, no doubt, and he was doing his best to prepare for it. She would be thirsty, and it would be best to have her a ready drink. And she might be hungry too, now that he thought of it. Perhaps fixing her a light breakfast was also in order.
Whatever he could do or provide to make his new daughter comfortable, Long Feng would make sure to do so. The upcoming talk about her parents would be a hard one for the child to take, but perhaps his preparations would bring some measure of peace to her. If he was lucky.
The decision to tell the girl that he was her new guardian hadn't been a hard one to make. Telling her that he was only a temporary caretaker, and that her parents would return one day to take her back, was only a temporary solution, at best; it was possible that, given enough time, she would come to accept the new status quo, but it still left too many unanswered questions. Questions that Long Feng did not want her to ask.
And, if he was being honest to himself, Long Feng would rather not lie to her, in that regard. Odd, all things considered, but stretching the truth in such a manner did not feel right to him.
However, he had been more conflicted about what to tell her about her parents.
Briefly, he had considered telling her that the Bei Fongs had abandoned her, but decided that would be too cruel to tell her. It would be hard enough for her to adjust to the loss of her mother and father; making her believe that they had just up and left her was far more than Long Feng was willing to let the poor girl cope with.
So then, he decided to give the girl the truth...more or less. She would learn that her parents were dead, and nothing else. He doubted a child of her age would ask the cause of death, but he had a cover story ready, in any case. Were she older, he might have also worried about explaining away why he specifically was now taking care of her, but he had no need to be worried of that, either. Children her age were very trusting of adults, and Long Feng doubted an exception would be made for him. She was far too young, as well, to even know about the inner workings of guardianship and regency councils.
Not that she would need the latter, of course. The girl's life as a member of the Bei Fong household had ended the moment Long Feng chose to take her in as his own daughter. With no heirs or immediate relatives to take control over as head of the house, there was no doubt in his mind that the Bei Fong family would suffer a schism of some sort. But, that wasn't a concern of his at all. While the Bei Fong name was far reaching and powerful, their influence still held little sway in the management of Ba Sing Se, and would factor little now, in the girl's new life.
"...I don't even know her name." Long Feng paused in his cooking, and blinked at that little revelation. In all his planning and scheming, he hadn't ever really found out his new daughter's name at all. That was rather...distressing.
It was not like he could have asked for her name, though. The Bei Fongs had already been dead by then, and considering how carefully they had kept their daughter a secret from the world at large, the Grand Secretariat doubted they would have written her name down somewhere.
Finally, he concluded that it did not matter. He may not know the name of his new daughter yet, but he would soon enough. By this age, the girl ought to recognize and know her own name.
Banishing such thoughts for the time being, Long Feng went back to focusing on making breakfast. Soon enough it was done, and he placed the food and drinks on a small tray. Balancing it carefully in his hands, he strode out of the kitchen and went over to the room next to his.
Previously, it had been a guest room, though it had never really seen any use since Long Feng had acquired the posh manor from his old mentor, Cheng Shui. But now, the old dusted room would be used as his daughter's bedroom. The room would still need to be refurbished some before it could completely serve in that capacity, but for now it would suffice.
Long Feng gently opened the room's door, and walked inside. He placed the tray upon the nearby dresser, though only after clearing a bit of dust from the surface. Because of its non-use, the room only boasted the bed his daughter now slept in, and the aforementioned dresser; and both were not in the best of conditions, in all honesty.
Though that would all soon change, Long Feng vowed.
After taking a moment to observe the peaceful, sleeping child, Long Feng pulled the sheets off of her and gently started to shake her awake. A minute later, and the girl started to stir from her slumber.
"...Thirsty..." The little girl mumbled, as she rubbed a hand over her eyes. Long Feng blinked, but quickly complied, bringing a cup of tea to her lips. The girl sipped the drink, swiftly finishing it in one go.
"Hungry," She then said.
Long Feng obeyed once more, and the Grand Secretariat brought over a plate of her breakfast, taking a seat down next to her. He gently took her hand and guided it to the food.
After she ate a good portion of the food, Long Feng put the plate back on the dresser and sat down with her once more.
He hesitated for just a second before speaking, "Good morning, my dear child. What is your name?"
"Toph," The girl automatically replied, before tilting her head and looking over in his general direction. "Your voice is funny. Are you a new nanny?"
"...In a manner of speaking." Long Feng allowed, considering it. The child had had non-familial caretakers before, it seemed; that was good. It might help her better adjust to what was to come, then.
"Where's Mommy?" Toph then inquired.
Long Feng opened and closed his mouth, issuing a reluctant sigh after a moment. He breathed in a quick intake of air, and steeled himself for what was to come.
The child—Toph, he mentally reminded himself—was younger than he had been when his own parents had been taken from him, and perhaps due to her age wouldn't understand his words at first, though he had no doubt that she would still suffer and grieve in her own way. He hated himself for having to tell her this—indeed, a small part of him still loathed himself in general for the atrocity he had inadvertently committed, by ordering the execution of the Bei Fongs— but it needed to be done. No matter how painful the truth, Toph deserved to know it.
"I am afraid that you mother will not be coming to visit you, Toph..."
After Toph finally fell asleep for a short nap, much to Long Feng's relief, he was finally able to leave her room.
The whole conversation took less than half an hour to finish, but it felt like an eternity to Long Feng, once it concluded. The explanation to Toph had been concise and brief, but that didn't stopped him from still feeling uncomfortable. He thanked the Spirits that Toph was such a young child, and hadn't fully understood his words. She had a hard time just wrapping her head around the concept that Mommy and Daddy were dead; and because of that there hadn't been too many...troubling questions.
"What is dead?"
"Oh, so like sleeping but not waking up..."
"Are you sure they're just not sleeping really hard?"
"So...will I sleep and not wake up one day?"
Still, now would be a hard time to follow. Long Feng didn't consider himself any sort of expert on children, but from his own experiences, he knew that Toph would need a period to adjust to her parent's death. And he was more than willing to give her such a recuperation.
"Now," Long Feng murmured to himself, as he went back to his room. "It is time to make preparations for Toph's new life."
As much as he would like to raise the girl solely by himself, to limit the chance of someone discovering her, he did have an important job to do in Ba Sing Se. His duty was one that could not be fostered off to some lackey, and thus he would be required to keep up his day job, so to speak.
From now on, however, he vowed to set up a strict limit on his working hours. Even if he couldn't watch over the girl all the time, that didn't mean he'd ignore or shun her altogether. From this day forward, there would be no late night hours at the Dai Li headquarters. He decided that, once evening settled on Ba Sing Se, he would leave work and go home to his daughter, with the only exceptions to that being some sort of immediate emergency that required his attention.
That meant shifting some of his workload onto others—perhaps employing assistants of a sort could help Long Feng in that area—but it was a necessary step to take. The upper management in the Dai Li would grumble and complain, of course, but his word was law, at the end of the day. There would be no permanent objections.
The question was, then, if he worked during the day, who was to watch over his daughter while he was gone?
That was a conundrum that had given him a lengthy headache, as Long Feng had made his plans over the previous night. Due to her status as a state secret of Ba Sing Se, simply hiring a nanny for Toph was out of the question. That person might talk, and if that talk reached the wrong ears...well, that was simply unacceptable.
Thus, he needed someone absolutely loyal to him to watch over his daughter, during the day. Someone who would never betray either of them, someone who would always have the best interests of Toph in mind, someone who was an expert in child care...
And that was why Long Feng eventually decided that the Joo Dee program was the perfect solution to his little problem.
One short trip later, and Long Feng was within the labyrinths that made up the base under Lake Laogai. He passed many agents on his way to his intended destination, and though many gave him curious glances about his surprise visit, none dared to question him. After all, he was the de facto King of Ba Sing Se, and their superior. What right would a lowly agent have to question what their superior was up to?
Soon enough Long Feng reached the end of his journey, and stepped inside the office of the man in charge of Lake Laogai: Supervisor Bai.
Supervisor Bai was a most curious individual, Long Feng had to admit. He was the only member of the hierarchy of the Old Regime that was still alive and working within the Dai Li. With the exception of his own brilliant mentor, who had supported Long Feng from the very beginning and had retired some years ago, almost all of upper management of the old Dai Li had either been killed in the Purge, or had fled the city. Yet, Bai had survived, despite the odds against him.
It hadn't been because of any political ingenuity the man may have had; oh no, it certainly wasn't because of that. Bai didn't have a manipulative bone in his body.
No. The man was a dirty coward, plain and simple.
The body of Yun Uk, the last Head of the Dai Li, hadn't been cold for less than a day when Bai had jumped ship. Almost all of his colleagues had resisted Long Feng's violent seizure of power, for one reason or another, and they had all died as a result. But not Bai. Apparently he had seen the writing on the wall, and once Long Feng had made his bid for power, Bai hadn't hesitated at all in supporting him in his new regime.
Supervisor Bai was the sort of man that liked playing for the winning team, and the instant that Long Feng had murdered Yun Uk, and claimed himself Yun's successor, Bai had joined him immediately. And thus, he had sworn eternal allegiance to Long Feng, while his former friends were put to the sword.
Bai had been a very useful ally in his early days as the new Head of the Dai Li, and his support had swung over a sizable faction of Dai Li agents that had had no loyalties to either Yun Uk or Long Feng. In fact, without his support, Long Feng was quite sure that the Dai Li Civil War would have been much longer, and much more costly to the agency than it had been.
Thus, Bai had been given a premier position within the Dai Li, as Supervisor over Lake Laogai. It was a position that many desired, and few got. Only those who had high connections with the upper management could ever attain an enviable appointment like that.
Still, that didn't mean Long Feng trusted Bai. Oh no, not at all. He trusted Bai as much as he trusted Earth King Kuei. The only reason Bai had supported him at all was because he hadn't wanted to die in some foolish bid to avenge Yun Uk. The man was a coward; end of story. Long Feng had no doubt whatsoever about his real loyalties. If ever a coup were enacted against him and it looked like it would succeed, Bai would stab him in the back and join the other side in a heartbeat.
Thus, it was best to keep the man placated. Even if he had no true allegiance to anyone but himself, Bai was a useful bureaucrat, and a wise man in many things. It would be too troublesome to have him killed. Best to keep him comfortable and well within Long Feng's pocket, then.
"Greetings, Supervisor. It is a pleasure to see you again," Long Feng commented, as he stepped inside the office. Bai, who had been absorbed in the absolutely vital task of drawing doodles on his desk, immediately bolted up and swiftly straightened his robes.
"Ah, my, um, apologizes, sir!" Bai gave him a wide-eyed stare, and knocked over a stack of papers to hide the drawings on his desk. "I, um, didn't know it was time for an inspection of the facility. I apologize for not being ready; it seems I need to update my calendar."
"At ease, Supervisor." Long Feng assured with a slight smirk.
"I am here on a more...personal matter. This visit is not about an inspection of Lake Laogai, I assure you." He added.
"Oh, I see."
Bai visibly relaxed at this revelation, and after a moment's pause, cleared his throat, taking on a more pleasant tone as he asked, "Then, sir, what can I do for you?"
"I am in need of a custom-made Joo Dee." Long Feng briefed, getting straight to the point.
"I see. Well, we have plenty of models that have gone through the recruiting process, sir, but haven't yet been programmed to become a Greeter. Hm, do you need one for placement in a long-term undercover operation? I am sure that Agent Hwan can help you in that matter—"
"As I said, this is personal business. Not directly affiliated with the needs of the Dai Li." Long Feng declared with a wave of his hand. "I am simply in need of a custom-made Joo Dee. Give me the dossiers we have on our newest recruits, and I will pick one from them."
"Oh, well, as you say, sir." Bai gave him a perplexed look, but complied nonetheless. He walked over to a nearby cabinet, pulled out the files for the latest recruits, and handed them to Long Feng.
At once Long Feng started to leaf through the reports, looking for a viable caretaker for Toph. Toward the end of the papers, he came upon a Joo Dee that satisfied him.
Ming Hye, former mother of three. All of her sons were lost to the War after they left Ba Sing Se to join a militia. The husband had died long ago himself. She was alone, and had nothing left to live for. She had jumped at the chance of a 'new life' offered by the Joo Dee program, according to her dossier, and she had responded to the recruiting process positively. A rarity for any volunteer.
Oh, she was perfect. She would serve well as Toph's caretaker.
"I have made my selection." Long Feng declared, handing him Ming Hye's dossier.
"Splendid, sir," Bai took a glance at the file, memorizing the name, and then took the others back as well. "What shall we have her programmed with, then?"
"That is none of your concern, Supervisor. I will program her myself." Long Feng stated, giving him a hard stare. "Have her brought to Examination Room 1A, and I will do the rest."
"Very well. As you command...sir." Bai unintentionally put emphasis on that last word, as his eyes widened once more. Oddly enough, the man then grinned at him, and gave a formal bow.
"It shall be done," He said once again. Long Feng gave him a confused glare, wondering why he was responding this way, when it dawned on him himself.
Well. The request, and the manner in which Long Feng was going about it, could certainly be misconstrued as something like...that.
Still...while the thought was unpleasant, it was better that Bai think it was something perverse like that, instead of knowing the actual truth. A bitter pill to swallow, perhaps, but it was necessary.
"Good," Long Feng finally said at length. "I shall take my leave, then. It was pleasant visiting you, Supervisor. As always."
And with that, Long Feng turned and marched out of the room.
Time to mold Ming Hye into the perfect caretaker for Toph, then.