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|A Nation Divided|
7 July 2015
A Nation Divided
"They were what?"
Sokka was sitting in the Fire Lord's throne room in front of a map of the Fire Nation that was on the floor, along with his assembled general staff. As a diplomat and sort of adviser to Zuko, he was present at a lot of his military meetings. This was a special meeting called by the Fire Lord to respond to the news from the task force that was dispatched to the far east of the Fire Nation a couple of days ago. The Fire Lord was not taking the news well, it seemed. But Sokka couldn't blame him, given what the messenger was saying.
The messenger who delivered the news, a young lad no older than fifteen or sixteen, looked terrified upon hearing the Fire Lord yelling at him. His face quickly turned pale. Zuko probably noticed this as he calmed down.
"Sorry about the outburst. Please, continue with your report."
The messenger nodded, relieved. "Well, Your Majesty, the task force took heavy casualties. They approached the tower and were attacked by another cruiser that was docked there–"
One general spoke up. "Another cruiser? You mean that three of the four ships we sent were destroyed by just one enemy cruiser?"
He shook his head in response. "No, sir, it says later on that a couple of others emerged from behind the island and took them by surprise."
The general nodded slowly, looking like he was deep in thought. The messenger continued. "As I was saying, they approached this cruiser and it opened fire as they did so. Admiral Chan's flagship was destroyed first, since his was the nearest one to the enemy. He is presumed dead."
Sokka frowned upon hearing that. He had only met Admiral Chan once, and from those encounters, the man seemed to be a good officer. However, Sokka got the vibe that the admiral disliked Zuko for some reason. The Fire Lord, for his part, appeared to be somewhat embarrassed when he was around the admiral. The Water Tribe warrior didn't know the reasons for it, and made a mental note to ask Zuko later when he had the time.
"The enemy targeted the two cruisers that were directly on the flanks of Admiral Chan's flagship," the messenger continued, "dealing them heavy damage due to their confusion and shock. Two other enemy cruisers then emerged and helped the flagship finish them off."
The messenger paused for breath. "So the surviving cruiser escaped and is on its way to the capital."
Fire Lord Zuko nodded at the young messenger, who seemed relieved that the ruler of the Fire Nation was no longer angry at him.
"Alright, if they or any other messages arrive during this meeting then inform us immediately," he told the messenger.
The boy nodded, then bowed and quickly exited the throne room without another word. Several seconds of silence followed the messenger's departure. Zuko decided to break the silence. "Do we know of any nationalist and Ozai supporter groups that are in procession of a fleet of warships?"
The general who questioned the messenger earlier, General Mak, the Fire Nation's supreme commander, stood up and shook his head.
"No, Your Majesty, not as far as we know," he said. After a moment's pause, he added, "but there is another possible explanation that can account for this that I can think of."
Before the Fire Lord could reply, the doors opened to reveal the messenger again. "Your Majesty, the Avatar and his companions have arrived. They are on their way here."
Sokka, who had been staring blankly at the map of the Fire Nation on the floor the whole time and thinking if only we had this during the war, suddenly looked up at his friend.
"You invited them here?"
The Fire Lord nodded. "I contacted Aang and told him that there might be trouble after we first got word of the communications tower failing to report in."
Sokka raised his eyebrows. "Did you? And what if it turned out that this was all nothing and that the outpost was just too busy to check in?"
Zuko merely shrugged in response.
"Well I guess we just got luck then, huh?" Sokka said jokingly . Zuko sighed. "Unlucky, more like it."
The assembled fleet was heading away from the Fire Navy communications tower, after having collected the survivors of their recent skirmish, and onwards to its new destination.
Whatever that is, Captain Li thought. The Grand Admiral hasn't told us yet.
But Tang Li had nothing but confidence in his commander. Since taking part in Admiral Zhao's failed siege of the Southern Water Tribe, the captain had been shamed. He was one of the planners of that attack and had been the only one of Zhao's staff officers who survived the battle. And what a disaster that battle turned out to be. Tens of thousands of men killed or wounded and almost the entire North Seas Fleet destroyed by the Avatar. The public was baying for blood, and Fire Lord Ozai needed to throw someone under the komodo rhinos (quite literally, perhaps) to appease the public.
And as the only survivor of Zhao's command staff, the blame for the defeat fell on Captain Tang Li. He was disgraced, but luckily, not discharged from the military. Nor was he executed. That was because Fire Lord Ozai had a special assignment in mind for the old man. Despite the loss at the North Pole, he was still known among the fleet as a veteran officer and disciplinarian. The crew of his cruiser, the Musashi, was considered to be among the best in the Fleet during the last inspection. Being a lifelong naval officer, and coming from a family of other naval officers, he prided himself on his accomplishments in the Navy.
But in many ways it turned out to be for the best that he had endured this failure. If not, then he would have never been assigned to Ozai's special scouting mission, and if that hadn't occurred, then he would have likely been imprisoned by Zuko at the end of the war. Being one of Zhao's staff officers was like a shadow that cast its darkness over his career. The failure and incompetence of the admiral had become well known after the North Pole debacle, and anyone who had worked with him was, as a result, was seen in a negative light.
But Grand Admiral Shojiro didn't care about that. He heard about Tang Li's disciplined crew and requested the Fire Lord that he be placed in his fleet for the special assignment.
Ozai agreed, since the public just thought that the assignment was no more than a punishment for the officers who fell out of the Fire Lord's favor, so it made no difference to them. Li initially didn't know about the actual assignment and thought that it was indeed a punishment. But the Grand Admiral told showed him the true nature of their mission.
Since then, hey had traveled around the eastern coast and islands of the Earth Kingdom, looking for a potential route to attack Ba Sing Se. However, they heard of the coup that was carried out by Princess Azula and their operation was then canceled. They weren't recalled to the Fire Nation, though, and were ordered to patrol those remote waters to protect the capital from a potential Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe counterattack.
And after the defeat of "Phoenix King" Ozai, the Grand Admiral ordered them into a sort of unofficial exile. Due to the confusion in the Fire Nation immediately following the end of the war, their disappearance has been unnoticed, or if it had been noticed, then the current government thought nothing of it and decided to not do anything about it.
Either way, it suited their purposes. They refused to recognize the weakling Fire Lord Zuko, or as they referred to him sometimes, the "lordlet". He would bring their nation down, not to mention not be able to keep the order and stability in their country. Captain Li was not one of those who believed in Fire Nation supremacy, however. No, he was definitely not a follower of Ozai.
His loyalties were with the crew, the Grand Admiral, and the Navy. In that order.
What Fire Lord Zuko was now doing was weakening the country. The demobilization of troops was understandable, as was the transfer of some equipment into storage. But breaking apart half of the Navy? That alone turned Tang Li against the new Fire Lord. Grand Admiral Shojiro seemed like he would make a much better leader.
"Captain?" one of the officers snapped him back to reality. "Navigations just wanted to know, where are we headed?"
"I myself don't know," Tang Li said honestly. "The Grand Admiral just commanded that we head northwest."
The officer nodded, looking uncertain, but went back to his section. But the man brought up a good point, they needed to figure out where they were going exactly. The captain decided to ask the Grand Admiral himself, who was currently in his quarters. Tang Li turned to his aide.
"Lieutenant Jee, the bridge is yours until I return," he told him.
The man nodded in response. "Yes, captain."
Jee was an old soldier like the captain. Well, not quite as old as Tang Li, but an experienced and loyal officer. The man had fought at the North Pole, and served aboard the exile Prince Zuko's ship before that. Not a very good record. Another man who was given a new chance by serving under the Grand Admiral.
He left the bridge and headed through the labyrinth of corridors to the Grand Admiral's quarters, higher up in the command tower. As Tang Li entered the room, it was mostly dark, the only exception being the light coming through the nearby windows. Shojiro was sitting on a chair near the windows at the other end of the room, looking over his flagship. Captain Li was about to head toward him until he heard a voice from behind–only centimeters away, in fact.
"What brings you here, captain?"
Tang Li, startled, quickly whirled around in a combat pose to face the speaker. He calmed down when he saw who it was.
"I told you to stop doing that!" he told the silent observer.
The man known only as Kobayashi shrugged. "I have to keep my skills sharp."
And with that, he stepped back into the shadows of the room.
Tang Li has always been disturbed by Lieutenant Kobayashi and his actions. The man was a former Imperial Firebender, serving as a bodyguard to the royal family. However, in circumstances unknown to the captain, Koyabashi had been disgraced. Ozai assigned the man to Grand Admiral Shojiro's operation, not wanting to see him at the Royal Palace any longer.
Whatever the reasons might have been, the former Imperial Firebender was a skilled assassin and bodyguard, Tang Li had to admit. He had seen Kobayashi fight during practice duels that soldiers held on the deck of the Musashi, and the man was undefeated. More importantly, Shojiro trusted him with his life. That was enough for Tang Li to trust the former Imperial Firebender as well, but he was still disturbed by the pleasure Kobayashi seemed to take from scaring people and causing pain to his opponents. The fact that he had never seen him with his helmet off was also unnerving.
But with him out of the way, Tang Li approached the Grand Admiral's chair. Shojiro was seated there, looking out into the distance through the windows.
"Sir?" he began. "The crew wanted to know where we are going."
Shojiro, as if awoken from sleep, didn't say anything for a moment.
"Ah yes," he finally replied. "Tell them that we are going to Ember Island."
Tang Li couldn't believe what he just heard. "Ember Island, sir? May I ask why?"
He didn't bother hiding the surprise from his voice. Shojiro merely nodded. "Yes, Ember Island. There is someone there that could be of great use to our cause."
"Who might that be, sir?" the captain asked.
Shojiro smiled. "A certain insane princess."
Now he was even more surprised! Why would they seek Azula?
"Yes, sir, but why are we going to find her, may I ask? And isn't the island defended by a fleet of warships far larger than ours?"
Shojiro turned to look at the captain for the first time since their discussion began. "To answer your last question, yes, the island is heavily defended."
He paused. "And we are finding her because she may prove to be a very useful tool to us."
Captain Li thought for a moment and then nodded slowly. "If you say so, sir. What did you have in mind for her, if she is insane?"
"That will be answered when she is with us," the Grand Admiral said. "She is most likely in exile on Ember Island, Wraith has informed me. Zuko let her live at their parents' old vacation house."
Whatever Grand Admiral Shojiro had planned for the former Crown Princess, Li trusted that it was going to work out in their favor. The old captain turned to leave and return to the bridge, but then stopped, remembering something.
Shojiro looked at him again. "Yes, captain?"
"The survivors from the battle have been given proper treatment and assembled on the main deck of the Musashi. I believe you wanted to speak to them, sir?"
The Grand Admiral nodded. "Yes, now is the time."
The survivors recovered from the wrecks of the cruisers they had destroyed during the earlier engagement were sitting on the main deck of the Musashi. Looking tired and cold, the group had been given medical attention and had been issued with dry uniforms. They were not constrained in any way, its not as if they had anywhere to run. As Shojiro appeared in front of the crowd, the murmuring stopped, and the masses went quiet.
The black uniform of a Grand Admiral demanded respect for its wearer from all ranks of the Fire Nation military, even if in this case the wearer was their opponent. The man cleared his throat.
"I hope all of you have been treated well by my men," he began. "If that is not the case, then report it to me or another officer."
Someone in the crowd snickered. "You mean other than attacking us and sinking our ships, I take it?"
"That was unfortunate, but it had to be done," Shojiro replied. "But I wanted to ask you this–who are you fighting for?"
Most of the soldiers in the crowd seemed a bit confused at the question. The one from earlier spoke up again. "For Fire Lord Zuko, the savior of the Fire Nation!"
There were some murmurs of agreement. Grand Admiral Shojiro just chuckled. "The savior? How did he save our country? By removing our defenses? By appeasing foreign rulers? By helping the enemy?"
The outspoken soldier stood up this time. A young man no older than twenty, judging by his face. "No, sir, he ended the war and defeat the tyrant that ruled over us!"
A sudden beginning of murmurs among the soldiers suggested that not all agreed with him.
"I don't support most of the previous Fire Lord's policies, nor do I think the war was a good idea," the Grand Admiral replied. "But surely you can see the foolishness in what he did?"
Upon not getting a response, Shojiro continued. "He joined the Avatar, the one who wanted to bring down our nation! That alone is reason enough. And now he is shaming us by working to appease the rest of the world, while ignoring our own needs? Would someone who cares about his nation send half of its navy to the scrapyards?"
The soldier sat down in silence. The Grand Admiral looked around at all of the assembled men. "The Fire Lord sold out his people, even though he had the opportunity to join us! He didn't have to leave and join the Avatar. The man is a weak opportunist at best, and an outright traitor at worst."
Shojiro paused to take a breath. Most of the soldiers were watching him intently now. "That being said, I don't support the former Fire Lord's idea of conquering the world. Nor do I think that the war should have been waged at all. But I will not accept a weak collaborator as the head of state. I follow neither Zuko nor Ozai."
Murmurs grew louder among the crowd as he continued. "I believe in order and stability. Two things that the current establishment has failed to provide. Have your lives gotten any better since the war ended? Not much? I thought so. Do you think the lives of average Earth Kingdom citizens have changed at all? Of course not. Not while they are under the rule of a corrupt, despotic regime almost as bad as ours."
Talking began to grow louder among the assembled soldiers, forcing Shojiro to speak up to be heard. "The Avatar is a teenager who does not understand how to keep the peace. The events in the western Earth Kingdom are proof of that. And personally, I don't want to trust my fate to a teenager."
As the soldiers continued listening, Tang Li smiled. They had them.
"As the industrially strongest country, it is the duty of the Fire Nation to keep peace and order in the world," Shojiro continued. "But we cannot do so when we have such a weak and corrupt leadership. They can barely even manage our own nation. So I ask you another question: if the Fire Nation isn't strong enough to keep order and stability in the world, who is?"
A small conference room in the Royal Palace had been prepared for Team Avatar. Since the events of the Yu Dao crisis, the Gaang had split up and headed their separate ways. Aang and Katara mostly traveled together, helping fix problems where they arose. Suki, along with Ty Lee, went back to the Earth Kingdom and continued to lead the Kyoshi Warriors. Toph worked on her bending academy, and Zuko was, of course, leading his nation. Sokka, meanwhile, accepted his father's request to serve as the ambassador between the Southern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation. This would allow them to both resolve possible issues quickly and give Zuko potential backup if something goes wrong.
This was the first time in a long while that the Team was gathered in one room. As they entered the conference room and sat down, greetings and hugs were exchanged by the group. Throughout all of this, Zuko and Sokka joined in the proceedings, but were anxious to get things started. General Mak had come by as they were setting up the conference room and told Zuko his concerns about the situation. Sokka didn't listen to most of the conversation since Zuko told him that he would explain it to everyone once they got here anyway. That is what he was preparing to do as everyone finished and got seated.
"Firstly, I want to thank you for showing up here on such short notice," the Fire Lord began.
"Nonsense, Zuko," Aang said. "If you need our assistance, don't hesitate to ask."
"This had better be good," Toph countered. "Unlike the rest of you, I have important things to do!"
"Rolling around in the dirt doesn't sound very important," Katara replied.
Aang rolled his eyes at Toph's statement and continued. "So, anyway, what's going on, Zuko?"
The Fire Lord looked around the room and began. "A couple of days ago, one of our more remote communications towers, one located in the far east, went silent. I first we thought that it may be nothing, but we sent a task force to investigate, just in case," he paused briefly. "However, it was ambushed there. We lost three Fire Navy cruisers in the engagement."
The whole Gaang looked shocked at his last sentence. Katara was the first to speak. "Who attacked them?"
"We don't know," Sokka told his sister, and then looked at Zuko. "Or at least, we didn't until a war meeting very recently. Right, Zuko?"
"Correct. Shortly before you arrived, my chief of general staff, General Mak, informed me of some possible answers," Zuko said. "Several years ago, during the war, my father sent an expedition to the eastern Earth Kingdom. Officially, it was there to patrol the Fire Nation's easternmost waters and to defend the frontier from a possible attack. But Azula told me that it was just a cover to investigate a possible route of invasion to Ba Sing Se."
"I take it that they were unsuccessful?" Suki asked, speaking up for the first time since the conference began.
"Also correct. It appears that Azula beat them to the punch," the Fire Lord answered. "But the task force was ordered to remain there, just in case, before the war ended. And since then, we haven't heard anything from them. In fact, I completely forgot about them."
"So isn't this something that you can handle?" Suki asked. "It seems like you have experience in dealing with these upstarts."
Zuko nodded. "I think I have the resources to handle it. But–"
He paused and looked around at the other members of Team Avatar. "There's just one problem."
"And that would be?" Toph prompted.
"We have reason to believe that this fleet is led by one of my fa–Ozai's former Grand Admirals."
The Fire Lord received blank stares in response. Oh, that's right, he thought. They don't know who those were, of course.
"They were some of the best and brightest officers in the Fire Navy. My father assembled a group of five of his best commanders, and promoted them to this new flag rank of Grand Admiral."
"So? Ozai and Azula were supposedly the best firebenders alive, but we still kicked their butts all the same, didn't we?" Toph asked. "Whoever this guy is, we can beat him."
Zuko couldn't help but grin after hearing that. "Normally that would be true, but with a Grand Admiral it is not so easy."
"First off, they weren't selected for their fighting ability. These men were strictly non-benders," Zuko explained. "They were instead picked for their intellect. Even one Grand Admiral could be very dangerous, if he has the resources. I think I will need your help in handling him."
Aang looked a bit confused. "I thought you said there are five?"
"Not anymore. Four of them have been captured after the war. They are currently in prison," Zuko said. "This particular one was away from the Fire Nation and has managed to avoid us."
The Avatar nodded, understanding now. Zuko continued. "His name is Shojiro. He first joined the Navy in his youth under Fire Lord Azulon, and rose through the ranks for his brilliance in military strategy. I have no idea what he is up to or what he wants, but the news of his arrival alone worries me."
"Probably to restore Ozai or Azula to the throne and take over the world," Sokka added. "The usual."
"Probably," the Fire Lord agreed.
Sokka was going to make a sarcastic remark when a flurry of movement in the corner of his eye caused him to look over to the door of the room. A military officer was entering, panting heavily from having run here.
"Your Majesty! We've received word that an unidentified enemy fleet is attacking Ember Island!"
- Sorry about the length of this chapter, this was mainly to get more background information on the antagonists' views and to establish the events of the next chapter: a naval battle!
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