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March 24, 2015
At the crack of dawn of the morning after Heidze left, Ratana was summoned to meet with General Sung one-on-one. Leaving her still-asleep partner behind, she tip-toed from their room, the sounds of his snores still emanating from the top bunk. When she reached the edge of the underground hallway, Ratana climbed the spiral steps of the barracks and was instantly greeted by the shining light, which illuminated the entire landscape for her, in contrast to the dark halls lit merely by torches on the walls. Even the vents to provide minimal fresh air to within were scarcely enough for significant amounts of sunlight to penetrate.
The lone woman on the Terra Team took a good look around herself and the buildings of the Earth Kingdom bases at the Outer Wall. Several dozen feet above her head, Ratana caught a glimpse of the monorail which led from the Outer Wall straight into the Inner Wall and into the city. Off in the distance somewhere, the rolling of a morning monorail car was audible. As she road the earthbending-operated elevator from the ground level up to the top, she stared at the landscape out in front of her, the vast Agrarian Zone between the Outer Wall and the Inner Wall of Ba Sing Se. The long ride to the top reminded her just how large the Outer Wall was. It had never been conquered in all Earth Kingdom history since it was built to this height. All the farmland Ratana could see beneath her was untouched by the Fire Nation. She and her comrades would have to keep it that way.
When she reached the top and disembarked the elevator, Ratana was greeted by two recent recruits to the Terra Team, and also by two Ba Sing Se city guards who were overseeing the operations at the Outer Wall. The sun gleamed over the horizon on the other end of the Outer Wall, and even the Fire Nation fortifications and encampments appeared peaceful from so high up. Ratana knew that only meant they could be preparing a new major assault of some kind. Inside one of the many buildings that marked the corners in between the edges of the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se, Ratana found a grand office. As this was the one closest to the start of the monorail, it was also the base for the one who was for all intents and purposes the commander-in-chief at the Outer Wall. Naturally, the clumsy, sleek-mustached Sung was waiting for her.
"Morning, General," Ratana saluted, having made sure that her conical hat was straight before entering.
"Morning, Ratana," Sung gestured to her while pointing at the chair that stood across from his own. "Please, have a seat."
Ratana complied. "You wanted to see me, sir?"
"Indeed," confirmed Sung. "As you know, these walls provide a great sense of security for us. They are the structures which gives the capital the name of Ba Sing Se. It means impenetrable city, which sums it up nicely. I think as long as these walls stand, we have nothing to worry about. They don't call it Na Sing Se. That means penetrable city."
After a couple moments of silence, Ratana caught onto the realization that General Sung was attempting to make a joke. "Heh, of course not, sir," she forced an artificial smirk, as she found nothing about the Fire Nation's assault on her capital to be funny.
"Still," General Sung went on, "yesterday was quite an unfortunate setback for us. Up until now, this siege has been more or less a stalemate for the ground-level troops. Sure, the enemy did not gain any significant ground, but we lost many more men than they did. Such loss of life is not only a tragedy for our people, but it is a catastrophe for our morale. We recover and bring things back to where they were."
"You mean a stalemate?"
"Precisely," confirmed Sung. "Like the last two times the Fire Nation attacked here, we will defend and hold strong, like a stubborn rock, then ward them off when they've run out of steam.
"Understood, sir," Ratana said with hesitant respect. The soldiers she had seen since the siege begun were some of the toughest she had ever faced, and doubted if they would be so easily beaten the same way as before.
"As you're well-aware, the Terra Team plays a vital role in securing our walls," Sung went on. "And they've been without a real leader since, well...Colonel Quan Jing's incident." Sung at least had the tact not to remind Ratana any further. "So, I think the best way to strengthen our line now is to give the Terra Team some more direct oversight and control, which is why I want to appoint you, Ratana, to be the leader of the squad out in the field."
Ratana blinked. "Sir?"
"I'm promoting you to captain. General How and I already discussed this last night and he approves it as well. Yesterday's engagement was not our best, but you kept a cooler head and showed real skill out there."
"In all fairness, my comrades fought valiantly also. Perhaps they deserve the credit."
Sung shook his head. "Yes, but Hanbao fell in battle. Taigang, meanwhile, is an exceptionally talented bender, but your long-term record speaks for itself."
Ratana put her hand to her heart and blinked a few times, processing the new information. "I am grateful, sir," she bowed politely. "Of course, I accept."
"Excellent," Sung clapped his hands together. "Well, that is all for now, Captain Ratana. You may begin assuming your new duties immediately. Let's hope there are no more careless assaults like yesterday. We need you to bring our defensive lines, well...in line."
Ratana had some misgivings about what General Sung was saying. "While we were too few in number by the time we got there, we did get very close to their camp. Perhaps the spur-of-the-moment attack of yesterday was alright, but it wasn't executed well. Hanbao's aggression wasn't planned, but if it could be planned and pre-organized ahead of time, perhaps it should be carried out better and it would work."
"Nonsense," Sung said dismissively. "We're earthbenders and we know how to shield ourselves from enemy assaults. The way we hold the Fire Nation off and endure this siege of theirs is to hold strong until their failed attacks cease. They attack, we defend and eventually they go away. It's always worked in the past."
Ratana could not shake Sung's words from her mind as she left his office and took the elevator back down to the ground level, looking out over the untouched land once again. Not every city was as fortunate as Ba Sing Se. All her life, she had seen the Fire Nation slowly take land from the Earth Kingdom. The Earth Kingdom troops always on the defensive. The Fire Nation always on the offensive. The brave men of the Earth Kingdom could hold out for long periods of time, years and decades even, but the Fire Nation would always win. Yesterday, Hanbao did something bold, his mind dead-set on attacking the Fire Nation lines, not preserving territory. The endeavor failed, but Ratana could not forget how close they were, even if their numbers had dwindled by then. Perhaps offense was the way to go, to finally win against the Fire Nation, and not just delay defeat. General Sung would not agree, but with her new position, Ratana could make it happen. It was only a matter of time before he found out she was going against his wishes and doing the opposite of what he wanted, so by then she would have to deliver results.
She looked forward to telling Tooru the news, of course. However, she did not know how Taigang would take it. Sure, they could fight alongside each other now, but it still might be too soon for him to willingly accept orders from her.
"The Dragon of Water lives."
"How is that possible?" Lu Ten asked the messenger. "I'd be shocked to find his body not reduced to ash, let alone still breathing!"
"He took a great blow," said Iroh solemnly. "Regrettable, but necessary. I doubt he'll ever look or be the same again. Send him to the infirmary and tend to his wounds. He will be dealt with once he can walk again."
"That may be some time, sir," said the soldier.
"Indeed," agreed Iroh. "Thank you, you're dismissed."
"Dad, I've got to ask you something," Lu Ten announced as the messenger departed the general's tent.
General Iroh, who had been writing something down on his scroll moments before, promptly turned up to face his only child. "What is it?" Despite their recent gains, the Outer Wall showed no signs of budging anytime soon and there were all-too-few hours before daybreak when they would have to fight again. Iroh could tell by Lu Ten's tone that it was something entirely separate that was preoccupying his son, and that it was serious.
Just as Lu Ten had done on many such occasions in the past when the running got desperate, he came to his father for consultation. He knew that his father would have time for it, whatever the case, and he just had to hope that he would allow him to be vague, as he had done in the past if need be. "Growing up, I was taught how the Fire Nation of today is the greatest civilization in history. Likewise, the war we fight now, which has been called 'neverending', is our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. Ever since I joined the army and took up this struggle as one of my own, I have seen the magnitude of the resistance that comes from the other side: the Water Tribes and the Earth Kingdom alike. When I first joined the army, I was shocked at how difficult it truly was for the rest of the world to accept our ways. There is a lot of pushback against our benevolence in sharing our prosperity with the world, which is why we all have to keep our resolve strong, and never waver in it." Now, at the Siege of Ba Sing Se, when his country needed him the most, was the worst time to be unsure of how to face his enemy, but Lu Ten had never thought of how he would react to facing someone he knew.
"Yes indeed," Iroh nodded in acknowledgement, rising to his feet at the same time. "Truer words have never been spoken my boy, and how the years have shaped my understanding of them."
"Right," Lu Ten went on. "Well then, I guess that what I'm asking is..."
Lu Ten let out a deep sigh, and then continued. "What if someone that you knew well...didn't really believe in it?"
To Lu Ten's relief, a mild smile of understanding appeared on his father's face. "My dear boy, that certainly wouldn't be the first time that has happened for me. I have met a great many people that I've considered close that wouldn't approve of what we're doing here one bit."
"Really?" asked Lu Ten, almost disbelievingly. "That's...surprising. I wonder what many of the men here would think if they heard that. After all, you are the heir to their throne, and a dragon-conquerer."
"Yes, Lu Ten," Iroh stated. "I have faced dragons before, and it was a life-changing experience. It was something more brilliant than all the tales that you may have heard the old soldiers talk of."
Lu Ten found himself feeling slightly better about facing Rang Xue now. "You never talk much about it," he commented, now a little more interested.
Crown Prince Iroh, however, did not share. "I will share with you the fullness of that experience of mine some day...perhaps soon. But that's another story. I have traveled widely, and I have met many around the world who have had a very different life to lead than us. I speak of no one you've ever met." At these words, Iroh's eyes flashed to one of the tiles on his Pai Sho board in the corner of his tent, but he subsequently turned back to his son. "Lu Ten, there are many, many people out there who do not understand the Fire Nation's greatness and find it somewhat out of place that we feel the need to spread it to the other nations. It's inevitable that we'll encounter them and see why they're tempted to a different point of view. I have studied many philosophies, even those embraced by our enemies. Never has it been easy for other nations to accept our ways. The airbenders refused the hardest."
"Right," said Lu Ten. "Wasn't the Avatar leading them?"
"It is rumored so, but scarcely anything about the last Avatar is proven," said Iroh. "In the end, this all makes our generations-long battle all the more important to the world, and all the more worthwhile on the day which we finally achieve victory."
"I see." Lu Ten appreciated the fact that his father had taken the unspoken hint and allowed the conversation to remain vague, not asking for specifics about the person he was referring to. "And how do you cope when it becomes hard?"
"I tell myself more of what I already know," Iroh said simply. "Everyone is their own person to be valued in their own way, but the most important thing of all is to do what is best for the world, no matter the sacrifice. You believe in the Fire Nation's cause in this war, right?"
"Yes," said Lu Ten. "Most definitely. No one is more committed to victory at all costs than I."
"Maybe 'at all costs' isn't the best way to put it," Iroh cautioned. "But remember always those who stand with you in this war: your family, your friends, the soldiers that stand by you day after day. I always took great comfort in your mother's presence when she was among us."
Lu Ten nodded in remembrance. "I wish she was still alive. I do miss her...."
"Me too, son," said Iroh. "Every single day that goes by I feel an emptiness by her lack of presence. I have prayed to the spirits to get closer to her, but haven't been able to reach quite that far yet. Perhaps things will become easier for you once you have someone to fight for." Iroh raised his eyebrow slyly. "Have you been seeing anyone, by any chance?"
"No," said Lu Ten. "I don't have time for dating right now." Try as he might, Prince Lu Ten could not chase Rang Xue from Gangkouz from his mind, and he felt nabbing pains at the thought of fighting her on the battlefield, which he may very well be forced to do soon.
"Well, until then, I have faith that you can pull yourself together for this siege," said Iroh. "This desert landscape and grassy-plains landscape could be tough terrain to fight on, and we'll all require our greatest fighting spirit. Not only do we have General How to deal with now, but also the Terra Team, and that female member of theirs that is causing trouble for us."
"Dad," Lu Ten changed the subject, "what did Han Shui mean when he called you 'nothing but an old fraud like him' exactly?"
"Never you mind that," said Iroh. "We'll all be occupied making up for lost time now. It seems that General How of the Earth Kingdom is constructing a similar supply line to ours to the south, and with our base outside the walls not in solid position yet, he's still able to replenish Ba Sing Se for an indefinite amount of time while that line is active. He's overseeing the whole war effort, but he's not too preoccupied to look after Ba Sing Se, whom he watches over indirectly."
"I see," said Lu Ten. "What will you do?"
"I will bring in a new commander to the staff to help deal with this supply line by cutting it off near the lakes, so that we can concentrate solely on the city itself. Like Han Shui, he has naval experience, which will be critical."
"Who is it?" asked Lu Ten, now curious.
"His name is Admiral Jeong Jeong."
- This is 2,760 words, making it long for a DSV chapter.
- Fire Lord Azulon mentioned the Fire Nation's earlier attempts to take Ba Sing Se in .
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