Chapter 18: The Underside of Power Jiazin was roused from her bed by servants much later than when she usually rose, but after the general excitement of last night she felt that was probably a blessing. As they helped clean her and changed the rumpled clothes she'd fallen asleep in for a fresh set, her mind ran back over the events of the previous night, still unable to fully wrap itself around them. Surely there'd been some kind of mistake- she, Jiazin, couldn't be really supposed to replace the Empress, could she? But no, the High Minister had said that he had selected her specifically, and the fact that her whole body still tingled slightly with electricity (not to mention the fact that she had fallen asleep in her clothing) attested that it hadn't been a dream. After she was fully dressed, the servants bowed and withdrew and as they left a man in the rich crimson robes of a minister entered the room. "Lady Jiazin," he said, bowing respectfully but not as deeply as the servants had. "My superior the High Minister has informed me of your special position. I am to begin your instruction today." "Where is Qing Xi?" Jiazin asked. "I was under the impression that he was going to be handling my… instruction personally." "The High Minister," the man said with emphasis on the title, "is a very important man, my lady. It is his task to concern himself with the day-to-day running of the Empire. Do not think that you are so important he can focus on you to the exclusion of all else. He will check in on our progress as often as he is able, but for now you are in my hands." He motioned with one hand. "Come with me." He swept from the room, Jiazin following closely behind him. They walked in silence until they came to another door, which the minister opened and gestured for Jiazin to enter. She did so and found herself in a small office, the walls of which were lined with books and scrolls. Her companion seated himself behind a desk in the middle, motioned for Jiazin to sit on the floor in front of it. "I am the Keeper of the Imperial Archives," the minister said. "Today we shall discuss the names and deeds of Fire Lords past." "I already know that," Jiazin told him. "My tutor taught me all about the history of the dynasty and the founding of the Empire." "You need to do more than know it," the Keeper said. "You must internalize that knowledge- make it a part of you. Remember, from now on to you the history of the Fire Lords is not only that of the rulers of your nation, but of your own family as well. You must know them as well as you know your own name." It was at that moment that it truly hit Jiazin just what assuming Azula's place would cost her. True she would become Empress of the world, but the person she had been would be erased utterly. Her subjects would not even truly be aware of her, except for the chosen few who were in on the secret. They would see only the Dragon Empress, apparently ageless and eternal. For a fleeting moment Jiazin wondered how the High Minister would explain her own disappearance when the true Azula finally died- true, most wouldn't be aware of it, but her parents would, and her father was a powerful man in his own right. Would he be allowed to know what had become of his daughter, or would he simply be told she was dead, or away on some secret mission? Would Jiazin ever truly see him again? "My lady?" the Keeper of the Archives said, and she realized he'd asked the question several times. "Are you well?" "I am," Jiazin told him, shaking her head to clear it. "Please, let's begin." And so for what felt like hours he quizzed her regarding the history of the royal line, correcting her where her information was incorrect and filling in any gaps. They started with the legendary reign of the first Fire Lord, said to be the son of the spirit Agni himself, and went from there through the seemingly endless lists of monarchs until at last they came to the Four Great Lords, whose names and deeds all children in the Fire Empire learned by heart. Here, the Keeper did not need to correct Jiazin at all as she told of wise Sozin, who first conceived of the Fire Empire, though he never saw it formed within his lifetime; his son, grim and canny Azulon, who preside over the bulk of the Great War; the Phoenix King, mighty Ozai, who made Sozin's dream a reality; and finally Azula herself, the Dragon Empress. When Jiazin finished her recitation, the Keeper nodded, seeming pleased. "You do know your history, my lady," he said. "I think that is enough for today. Tomorrow we will practice again, until you have committed them all to memory. Then I will give you over to other hands." Jiazin stood and gave him a respectful bow, which he returned. She turned to leave the room, but then stopped and looked back over her shoulder at the Keeper. There was one question she had that he might be able to answer. "Tell me," she said. "There's a name I ran across recently, and I can't find it anywhere in the histories. Do you know anything about a Prince Zuko?" The Keeper looked genuinely baffled. "There is no one in the history of the Royal House that I know of by that name," he said. "Perhaps he was of the Earth Kingdom? Only fragments of that history survived Ozai's purge, unfortunately. But in any event, that is beyond my knowledge. I cannot help you." "Well, it was worth a try," Jiazin muttered under her breath. Thanking the Keeper again, she left his study and shut the door behind her. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The next several weeks passed like a blur to Jiazin. She spent more time with the Keeper being drilled about the history of the Royal House until she could recite the name and deeds of any given Fire Lord, Prince, or royal cousin without even having to consciously think about them. From there she was sent to a group of elderly servant women who fussed over her as they took her measurements, apparently content not knowing why they had been commissioned to copy the Empress's robes precisely in her size. The knowledge of how to carry herself with dignity and give orders in the tone of one who knows absolutely that they will be obeyed had already been hammered into Jiazin by her aristocratic upbringing, but an old minister whose name she never caught insisted on having her read famous speeches the Empress had given to him so he could correct her inflection. What time she had left over was spent with Zhi, the Chosen who was the Empress’s personal bodyguard and, it seemed, sparring partner- she expressed the guarded approval that was all her order ever gave to an outsider about Jiazin's fighting skills, but corrected her posture and motions so they more closely resembled the way Azula fought. Though Zhi, like all Chosen, was a nonbender, she appeared to be intimately familiar with the Empress’s techniques and style. "It's a pity you never learned how to produce lightning," the Chosen said one afternoon, regarding Jiazin’s bending with a coldly critical eye. "The Empress is well known for it. Still, I suppose we have time for you to learn." The Chosen could correct firebending moves she was familiar with, but couldn't teach Jiazin completely new ones, especially not one which had been the province of the Royal House and the most ancient firebending schools for millennia. Applause sounded from the edge of the sparring field, and both women turned to see a young man in scribes' robes standing among the seats. "Forgive my interruption, ladies," he said, "But my lord the High Minister requests the presence of the Lady Jiazin in his office as soon as possible. He wishes to discuss the progress of her training." Zhi looked him up and down. She was not required to obey any commands save the Empress's alone, but even the elite warrior women had to treat the High Minister's requests with a certain amount of respect. "Very well," she said. "She may go with you." Jiazin followed the scribe along the familiar pathway to the High Minister's office. Within, Qing Xi was sitting at his desk reading a scroll, but when he heard Jiazin enter he looked up and smiled. The scroll he tucked into a box beneath his desk. "Jiazin," he said warmly. "I simply wished to check in on you. I've heard that you've been progressing quite well, but I wanted to hear what your own thoughts were. I know that this must be a bit much." Jiazin launched into a description of her activities of the previous days, taking care not to mention her fears and doubts. The High Minister had been kind to her, but she didn't completely trust him- his friendly exterior was at odds with the cunning and ruthlessness she knew the highest official in the Empire possessed, and that made her uneasy. She was just describing her sparring sessions when the scribe slipped inside and whispered something into Qing Xi's ear. He rose suddenly. "Forgive me, Jiazin," he said, "but something has come up that requires my immediate attention. It shouldn't take long- you can wait here until I return." He and the scribe swept from the room. Jiazin waited calmly for several minutes, but the High Minister did not return. Finally she couldn't sit still any longer, and not desiring to offend Qing Xi by leaving, she stood and began to pace around the room. After several laps, her eyes fell on the box where he had tucked the scroll he'd been reading- it was plain brown wood, seeming very out of place in the Imperial Palace, save that it was marked with the Imperial Seal. Her curiosity piqued, Jiazin picked the box up and sat it on the desk, opening it so that she could see its contents. It was filled with scrolls, and she selected the first one, which seemed have been recently replaced, and began to read. As she took in the meaning of the characters on the paper, Jiazin's eyes widened in horror. Here at last she found Prince Zuko, and she sank down into the High Minister's chair, heedless of propriety, as she read his story. According to this, he had been the Empress's older brother, and it had been he, not she, who had captured the Avatar. That mission had been given not in honor but in shame, and his reward had been death at the battle of Ba Sing Se. The scroll did not say how he had died, only that someone in the Royal House had arranged it, a fact that the writer did not seem to find either surprising or shameful. After death he had been completely written out of the histories, made so that he never existed at all, and what glory he had had gone to his sister. The true story of the ill-fated Prince had been recorded only here, so that only the highest in the Empire might read and know of it. Jiazin didn’t recognize the name of the woman who had affixed her signature and seal to the bottom of the scroll, but based on the title and date she had given, she had been High Minister during the last days of the reign of Ozai and the first of Azula. It was possible this was a forgery… but no, that didn’t seem likely. These documents were kept in a private case belonging to the High Minister- why would they not be real? Casting the scroll aside, Jiazin began to tear through the others, wishing she had never seen them but somehow powerless to ignore their meaning. Here were stories of civilians massacred, histories eradicated, and even a brief reference to spirits chained, all in the name of ultimate order. When she was through, she clutched the scrolls to her chest and stared wildly around the room, half-expecting some menacing figure to leap out at her at any moment. The young woman’s mind was reeling, but there was one thing she was certain of- she had not been meant to see these scrolls, the private accounts of the atrocities her people had committed. Her first, wild thought was to run to the Empress, tell her of these monstrous actions being comitted in her name- but her heart sank as she realized Azula must already know. The histories said that Prince Zuko's death had been arranged by a member of the Royal House- that had to mean either the Empress or her father. Every account, Jiazin was certain, told of a deed that had been done with the blessing- or at least the tacit approval- of the royal family. The Empress would be no help at all, at best- at worst, she would roast Jiazin alive for daring to read the secret histories. But she had to tell someone, or these terrible secrets would eat her out from within. Closing the box quickly, she slipped it back into its hiding place and stuffed the scrolls beneath her black vest. Clutching her arms tightly around her so they wouldn't fall out, she hurried from the office, desperately hoping she’d be able to reach the one person she was sure could help her make sense of these revelations without being intercepted. ------------------------------------------------------------- As the sun sank below the horizon, High Minister Qing Xi sat in his litter on the palace steps and listened to the reports of his agents of the Hidden Flame. "My partner and I tailed Jiazin to the harbor, sir," one of them said. "She used the authority of the nobility to commandeer a warship, and he stayed to infiltrate the crew. We overheard her tell the Captain she needed to go to Long Du Shi as fast as he could take her." Qing Xi steepled his fingers. "Interesting," he said. "So Jiazin runs home to her father." "It isn't too late for us to stop her, sir," the agent said. "You can give us the authority to override her position, and we can send a fast ship to intercept Jiazin before she gets far from the homeland." "No," the High Minister said softly. "Send a message to your partner and tell her to keep me informed of Jiazin’s movements. That will be all." The agents bowed deeply and departed to their various homes or cover occupations, save for one old woman who had stood silently near the back the whole time, hooded and cloaked, her face concealed by a scarf. When they were alone- truly alone, for the courtyard had been cleared by order of the Hidden Flame- she glided forward, and Qing Xi stepped down from his chair and went down on one knee. When he was alone with his Empress, he was not required to make the full bow, but certain formalities must be observed nonetheless. "It would appear Jiazin took the bait, Majesty, as you knew she would," the High Minister said as Azula seated herself on the litter. She removed her mask from where she'd stowed it in a compartment beneath the chair and fitted it over her face. "Though I must confess, this plan makes me uneasy. It leaves too much to chance." The Empress chuckled softly, the sound echoing weirdly from behind the mask. "You were always cautious- it is your one failing as a schemer. I have learned that sometimes one must gamble in order to succeed, but if you know your target well enough, that gamble will almost certainly succeed. "Jiazin is loyal, but she is too naïve- too trusting. She believes in our cause, but she does not know the depths to which a true leader must often sink. Now she has learned of them, and of our deception. She runs home to her father, seeking to expose to him the "corruption" of our Empire- imagine the look her face when she realizes he already knows the bulk of it! Then she will be lost, confused, the bonds of trust broken- and that is essential if she is to become me, for I do not trust- and she will realize that our way is the only way. Then she will return, ready to take up the true burden of Empire." A sardonic smile passed over Qing Xi's face. "Do you not even trust me, Majesty, after all my years or loyal service?" Now the Empress did laugh, long and cold, a sound that was utterly devoid of mirth. "Of course not, my dear High Minister. I understand you far too well to trust you. But because I understand you, I know full well that you will never betray me unless you are certain you would win." "And I understand you, Majesty, well enough to know that day will never come," Qing Xi said. "I suppose a partnership like that is in some ways better than one founded on pure trust." "Indeed. It is better to have cold knowledge than simple faith in another's inherent goodness." The Empress snorted, as though she found such an idea ridiculous. Still, despite her words, the High Minister still thought that this latest scheme relied too much on her assumptions about what Jiazin would do. Personally, having spent a great deal of time with the girl, he agreed with Azula's assessment of her, but he was at heart an administrator before anything, and he hated to leave anything to chance. Something of his thought must have shown on his face, for the golden dragon-mask turned towards him, and he felt the Empress's gaze boring into him from within those dark and hollow sockets. "Remember, High Minister," she said softly, "you are but one piece upon the board. You know much of my thought, but I allow no one to see the complete picture of my designs, for Jiazin or as a whole. Not even you." ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ This chapter marks one of the key turning points in Jiazin’s character arc- her realization that the Fire Empire, the civilization she has loved and been loyal to her whole life, is built on a foundation of lies, cruelty, and death. She’s an interesting character for me because while she’s certainly been aware that the Fire Empire has done ruthless things- she lives in a city built by slaves, after all- it’s always been a distant thing for her and she’s never really had to stop and consider the implications for her society. Now it’s been shoved directly into her face, and she’s, more-or-less, panicked. Jiazin isn’t a religious person, per se- the Avatarverse doesn’t really deal in explicit religion, except for things like the Fire Sages and the Air Nomads’ quasi-Buddhism- but I’d certainly say she’s having a crisis of faith. Azula, of course, planned the whole thing, and I think Qing Xi is right to worry. Even as a teenager Azula was usually several steps ahead of everybody else, and as an old woman she’s had decades to perfect her plotting. Still, as of right now Jiazin is still dancing on Azula’s strings even if she’s fled the capital, and though her time training to be the Empress’s replacement was short, don’t think it won’t be without ramifications for her character arc. Yes, all the Chosen are nonbenders, by the way. Though most of them get recruited as young children before their bending manifests, those who do turn out to be firebenders are trained to suppress it- Azula, after all, doesn’t want to run the risk of creating someone too much like herself. Neither Shiyan nor Cheng would have been a firebender, though I did have some ideas for what being forced to suppress your bending might do to a person mentally and spiritually. Maybe I’ll use them someday. -MasterGhandalf.