Ozai, it turned out, was not his father.
To be fair, Piandao did not know Fire Lord Azulon personally, and spent most of my life far away from the Fire Nation's glorious ruler. However, it wasn't hard to guess Azulon's way of thinking, at least in certain areas. For instance, his intentions were fairly obvious when he sent one hundred men to kill Piandao as a deserter. Less clear was the silence that came afterward. Piandao was left alone by troops and assassins, and was allowed to acquire an underground, national reputation as a master swordsmith and teacher. He supposed that was being officially ignored, and as long as the Fire Lord could pretend that Piandao didn't exist, he wouldn't feel the need to waste any more lives on the matter.
Then Azulon died, and was unexpectedly succeeded by his younger son, Ozai.
For a few years, things continued as they had been. Then, on one otherwise boring day, Admiral Jeong-Jeong himself arrived with a message for Piandao. "I am here," the Firebender growled, "as an emissary for the Fire Lord Ozai." Then he drew a Pai Sho tile from within the gauntlet of his armor. "But he does not own my mind and soul."
Piandao welcomed his fellow White Lotus into his mansion, and they consulted over tea. It was very good tea, but Jeong-Jeong's face never relaxed, keeping two thin slices of scar tissue pulled tight over his right eye. Piandao had never met Jeong-Jeong before, but the man's reputation was wrong in all the right places. "So let me guess- prison or death. They had to send an Admiral just for that"
Jeong-Jeong was not the joking type. "I am on my way back to the Earth Kingdom anyway, and it was thought that my reputation might be of helping in convincing you. I knew they were simpletons who do not understand the way real people think, so I didn't bother disabusing them of the notion."
"Efficient of you."
"As for the message, it is not what you think. Officially, the Fire Lord used to consider you Missing, Presumed Dead. The new Fire Lord has taken notice of you, but in his infinite wisdom, has decided to offer you a chance at redemption. You are to report to the Capital, bow before Fire Lord Ozai, and offer proof of your loyalty. You will then be sent students to train. Needless to say, all of these students will be elite soldiers."
Piandao felt a little dread, deep in the pit of his stomach, but kept his voice light. "Then it wasn't quite 'needless to say,' if you said it."
Jeong-Jeong just stared.
"And as an enlightened mind," Piandao ventured, "what's your opinion of this"
Jeong-Jeong shrugged. "You have a simple choice. The first option is to live like a man, and walk the fine line between Honor and Depravity; you can sabotage your students' training, or withhold certain advanced arts. On the other hand, you could resist all temptation, fight off much more than just a hundred men this time, and run away to live like an animal, hunted until you finally die, alone and weary."
"You don't sound like you have a strong opinion, either way," Piandao said.
Jeong-Jeong finished his tea, and stood to leave. "Really" I tried to make the latter option sound better."
Piandao had Fat prepare luggage for a trip to the capital, and dust off some of the really fancy swords in the basement. The Fire Lord was probably above bribes, but 'gifts' always somehow improved a situation. He chartered transportation to the Capital Island, and went off to sell his soul. By the time he arrived, Piandao had come up with a plan for surviving the occasion. He bowed before Ozai, paid his back taxes with the fancy swords, and promised to marry a local woman of unquestionable loyalty to the Fire Nation.
Unfortunately, it worked.
Piandao shopped around quite a bit, looking someone exploitable. He didn't want a woman who was too smart, in case she was clever enough to figure out his true loyalties (that is, the fact that he had none), or a woman who was too dumb, which would make her more likely to stumble into a situation she didn't really want to know about. If possible, Piandao didn't want a woman who would prefer to marry someone else, because he was very nice that way. Also, it would be preferable if the woman knew either a lot about swords or the more obscure poems of Kojiki, so that they would have something to discuss together.
He somehow wound up with Mai.
Well, Piandao knew exactly how he wound up with Mai. Her parents were desperate to marry her off, after some past scandal that ruined a previous contract, and hopes were apparently fading as her horrid personality systematically drove away every boy in the city. The family was also in something of a tenuous position; Piandao very much didn't want the details, but it seemed that Mai's parents were social climbers and they made a few too many bad moves over the years (including having children) and needed to lose the dead weight if they were going rise in Ozai's regime.
Piandao almost considered buying the little baby brother, too, just out of pity.
The Fire Lord was pleased with Piandao's choice, revealing that Mai was one of his daughter's schoolmates. (It was almost enough to make Piandao break the deal and pay the forfeiture.) Mai herself was less than grateful that her future had been sealed with a gift of swords inside gold-encrusted scabbards.
She didn't talk. She didn't engage. She didn't pretend that the situation was anything other than what it really was. She went through the motions, taking over management of the house from Fat (which consisted of her ordering Fat around half of the time). She seemed to prefer whiling away the time with calligraphy, when she wasn't sulking in the private suite of rooms Piandao had given her. The swordmaster hadn't been expecting very much, the first time he examined her characters, but couldn't help but stare in amazement at the results. "These are perfect."
"Of course," she yawned.
"I'm not sure understand. These could hang in the Royal Archives as the ultimate expressions of our nation's writing system."
"Well, yeah, that's what my parents wanted."
Piandao's eyes narrowed. "How long did they make you practice this"
"No more than any other little girl, I guess. Once I figured out that it was all about aiming and hitting a target, I got it easily enough."
Sadly, when he tried to get her into painting, the results were nowhere near as nice. She hated using colors, and there was no soul in her art.
Fat put the plate down in front of her. "And so your dinner is served, my Lady. Not that I'm expecting any appreciation."
Mai didn't even look at the butler. "Of course. You're a servant. You're lucky I let you talk."
"Yes, so very generous of you," Fat drawled. "I could almost mistake you for a human, displaying such compassion. But your skin is far too pale; it gives away the disguise."
"What are you babbling about"
"I meant no disrespect, oh great Spirit of Death. At least you left your demon steed back home. They make such a mess in the halls."
Mai sighed. "You could at least keep this witty."
Piandao had to admit, dinners were more entertaining than most of the rest of the time with his 'wife.'
She never expressed an interest in his sword-work, and it wasn't until she had lived in his mansion for several weeks that he figured out the root of the mystery. One day, while he was composing a letter, Mai was in one of her extra troublesome moods, and began throwing a set of combat knives she had procured from somewhere at the wall.
She was good. The technical term was probably 'Master.'
Soon enough, he had lost all concern for the woodwork. He came over and painted an 'X' on the wall, daring her to hit it, and she did so without even trying. Then she began doing it with her eyes closed.
Perhaps they had something in common, after all. "Have you ever seen me sparring with Fat"
Mai shook her head.
Piandao walked back to his desk, retrieved his sword, and drew it from its scabbard. "Aim for my heart."
When he effortless deflected her knife, her face took on expression for the first time Piandao had ever seen. It was merely surprise, but it was enough. "I could teach you," he said, keeping his voice nonchalant, in case he spooked her back into depression. "We would start with the basic skills, and then move on to the philosophy of the sword, at least as I espouse it. I mean no offense, but that part will probably take you a while. After that, we would move on to the more advanced techniques.
"After that," he added as afterthought, thinking of a Pai Sho board, "I have other hobbies you might be interested in, if you prove yourself worthy."
Mai remained sitting. "I'm a difficult student."
"I expected as much. But we're rather stuck with each other, aren't we" Might as well make the best of it."
"Well, it's not like I have anything better to do with my time."
"The first thing you must learn is that your weapon is an extension of yourself. You must think of it as another part of your own body."
"Quaint. My knives are an extension of my body even after they're in flight."
"True, but it's a different kind of connection. You will aim the same way, but instead of letting the weapon chase its own destiny, you must remain in control of a sword all the time. It is larger, more dangerous in close quarters, and can injure you just as easily as it can your opponent. All the motion and energy you currently spend on filling the air with blades can be focused on your jian, and it will do the work of an infinite amount of knives, once you're used to it."
"Are you going to ramble at me all day, or are there actual mechanics to this"
"Of course. Our first exercise will be in control. Press the blade of your practice sword against mine. Feel the resistance" Feel the way the slight shifting in angle turns the torque against your grip" We're going to lean our swords back and forth, first towards you and then towards me and then back and so on, keeping them crossed the whole time. It will be your responsibility to steer the blades..."
"See" Throwing it never works."
"There are styles for dual jian, but honestly, the effort that you'd need to master them could be better spent learning the single blade. Dao are one thing, but a jian requires much more control, and the styles for two dao blades would ignore the extra cutting edge that makes the jian unique."
"It's really more for the look of it, then"
"I suppose. Intimidation can't be discounted."
"I like intimidating people."
"That's because you're a bully."
"I think it's time for you to forge your own swords."
"Ew. That's going to involve sweating, isn't it"
The end of what Piandao considered the second era of their 'marriage' came when Mai got good enough to realize what he was doing with the soldiers that were being sent to him for training. It was his own fault, really; he hadn't planned on taking her that far that fast, but Piandao had his own vices, and teaching an eager student was one of them. "I didn't think it was weird at first," she said in that low voice of hers, "because I'm used to always winning fights. But then I realized that they were all making the same mistakes, missing the same tells. Either I'm some kind of prodigy, or you're doing this on purpose."
Piandao put his brush down on his desk, and lifted his head to look at her. "If it makes you feel better, no one but my true, advanced students would see the flaws. There are few enough of you, out there."
"So you're betraying the Fire Lord"
"Is that a problem"
She actually took the time to really think about it. He had learned to tell when she let her mind really work, by the light that kindled in her eyes. "I suppose not. But what's the point"
"I don't consider myself a traitor. I'm a teacher, really. I pass on tools and knowledge, and while I'm favoring certain students above others, it's up to every individual to take what I give them and use it to shape their life as they see fit."
"And what shape do you expect my life to take"
"Frankly, I'm just hoping you will someday want to give it a shape. I found myself when I found my perfect sword. Have you found anything yet"
She didn't answer.
She wouldn't until Sokka arrived at the doorstep of their mansion.