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|Before the Walls|
Feburary 19, 2011
First in series
The wind is an unreliable friend. In spring, the fresh air from it signals the brightening of the season, the renewal of hope. On a warm summer day, it lightens the air, and cools the skin in the heat of the sun. In autumn, its breeze is a welcome relief from the many months of heat. But in winter, it abandons friendship and walks onto the path of betrayal. Its icy hand becomes a constant danger to be guarded against.
At the moment, it was definitely the enemy. There was no snow in this region of the Earth Kingdom, but that did not stop the icy hand of winter from penetrating into its bounds. Iroh knew this. As he followed a track up the hill, he drew his cloak closer around him. There were techniques to produce warmth, but they required a degree of concentration. Iroh's mind was focused elsewhere.
He was nearly sixty years old, a strategist and tactician that was second to none, and the heir to the Fire Lord. He was on the brink of total victory, a victory that would elevate him above any other in world history. The thought was filling his mind.
The Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se cast a shadow from a mile away.
It was still standing, an ominous and seemingly impenetrable cliff in the distance. It had not been breached. But after almost six hundred days of creative and aggressive assaults, its garrison was crumbling. The weak morning sun had not yet risen above its uppermost levels, but when it did, the strength of the Fire Nation would never be doubted again.
The track came to a finish at the top of a hill. Iroh straightened up. His son was waiting for him, sitting down in the slope facing east. There was a tea set beside him, and a steaming cup was in his hand.
"You're early," Iroh called as he moved to join Lu Ten.
"No, you're late," his son called back.
Iroh chuckled and sat down beside his son. He lifted the lid on the teapot. "Jasmine."
"It's your favourite."
"You know me too well."
Iroh poured a cup for himself, and took a sip. Its warmth spread through him, invigorating him for the new day, and protecting him from the reach of the wind. Tea was a much more enjoyable way of keeping oneself warm than Fire Breath, he reflected.
It was a moment before the two men spoke again.
"You know, I have been wondering, father. Why Ba Sing Se?"
"Why not?" Iroh said absent-mindedly.
He was observing the design of the traditional blue and white porcelain. There were two dragons elaborately entwined on it. The one on the left looked red for a fleeting moment before he realised that that was impossible.
Iroh quickly looked up at Lu Ten.
"There are other fortresses we have not taken. Omashu stands. The Northern Water Tribe has not fallen. General Fong had the audacity to set up a base in the Western regions three years ago. All three are easier targets, and the capture of any of them would lower morale in Ba Sing Se, and make it easier for victory to occur."
"I am not so sure about that. Chin had conquered the entirety of the Earth Kingdom, and yet he couldn't take Ba Sing Se. Ba Sing Se has never fallen before, Lu Ten. Its citizens believe in its strength. At most, we can only hope to break one garrison at a time."
"I still don't understand."
"That is because I have not told you the story."
"There's a story?"
"When I was young, I had a vision that I would one day take Ba Sing Se. I saw its Inner Wall crumble in our strength. I saw myself before the gates of the Royal Palace."
"You believe in visions?"
"Yes. One day soon, Ba Sing Se will be in our hands."
Iroh refilled his cup as Lu Ten gazed into the distance contemplatively. The two men sat in silence as they observed the vastness of the landscape before them. The only sound came from the constant screech of the wind. Between the hill on which they enjoyed their tea and the mighty Wall lay a dusty plain. When Iroh had arrived here nearly two years ago, it had been dry and grassy rather than the desolate wasteland it was now. The enemy had wasted no time in setting the grass alight. It was a dangerous reminder that even though the Fire Nation was the master of fire, that element could still be used against them.
The same was certainly true of earth and the Earth Kingdom, Iroh thought.
A city of tents was spread across the half of the plain closest to them. Myriad numbers of people, tiny in the distance, were going about their morning business. It was the biggest army that had ever been assembled in Fire Nation history.
"I think we can win today," Lu Ten said.
"You think so?"
"I am certain."
Iroh broke into laughter. "You see those walls? No-one in history has ever penetrated them! We have been here for nearly six hundred days. What makes you think we can break through them today?"
"I believe I have information that will ensure our success."
"Good. I have an idea as well."
"How about this - I will write down why we will succeed on my palm. You will do the same on yours and we'll compare our conclusions." Lu Ten held out a brush and ink for his father, a twinkle in his eye.
"Very well." Iroh turned and brushed three characters onto his palm before leisurely picking up his cup of tea again. It had gone a little cool in the chill of the winter breeze. Iroh was quick to remedy that.
Iroh drained the last of his cup. "I am ready."
Father and son held their palms up to each other. Dust storm was written on both. They laughed, and for a moment, the wind could no longer be heard.
"You are an excellent general. Your mother would have been proud of you."
Lu Ten smiled. At that moment, the shadow broke and the sun shone upon the hilltop. The sun's rays had finally penetrated beyond the wall. It was time. The two men packed up the tea set and started down the hill to the Fire Nation encampment as the wind whistled, its gusts becoming ever stronger. The cold and chill of it was an enemy. Yet today, it would also be a friend.
The five hundred and ninety-eighth day of the War's greatest battle had begun.
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