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Last Preparations is the twenty-fifth chapter of
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
After the Battle of Mo Ce Sea and finding out about Yi Ming's invasion of the Fire Nation, the allied fleet sails to Ember Island to repair its ships and get a break from the war for a day. After some initial tensions, Zoruka and Shizon get close to each other once more, Noki and Skado have a swim during which Noki confesses her love for Skado, while Luna, Kanyzon, Ranju and Anyang reminisce about lost loves, and Senqok declares Kabura a waterbending master, and afterwards, their relationship reaches a climax.
Chapter 25: Last Preparations
They passed the caldera walls, the waters in the straits between ever turbulent. First came the two flagships, both hastily repaired, as was the fleet's rest. The Chief Gangtok and the Dragon of the Seas both sailed in proudly, in a way, as if to show off their scars as proof of their strength to survive enemies stronger and more numerous. The rest of the fleet, hundreds of ships of all kinds, all ragged and all repaired only briefly, were less showing off and more fleeing. The city could be smelt from afar. The scent of old fish, of salt, the sharp smell of fire and ashes and smoke, mixed with the reek of dung as well as death overlaid all others. The waves washing all around themselves seemed fouler than they did before, everything within the caldera had seemingly undergone a change to the worse, begun a process of rotting. But more penetrating than all the other smells, somehow, a smell of sulphur lingered. Omnipresent, it made everything seem fouling, and increased heavily in intensity with the decreasing distance to the caldera's centre.
"The city seems fouler than the last time... " noted Zoruka, speaking the obvious. They were gathered near the Dragon of the Seas's bow, with all but Kanyzon conversing, merrily one second, and gravely the next. "That stench has something to it... something... "
" ...doomy?" finished Shizon, deeming the adjective adequate.
"Yeah, that's it. Like we're sailing right from one doom to another," approved Zoruka his choice of words, adding her own impression.
"Well, doom is a bit exaggerated... " found Senqok, his tone almost a mocking one. "It's not like we were defeated around Wrath Islet."
"We weren't, " agreed Ranju, "but we might as well have. Take a look at our losses. Not in ships, in personnel. It was devastating. Pyrrhic."
"You're exaggerating." Skado took Senqok's side, but Noki was against him.
"Well, that's how the crews see it. We're not exactly well-loved amongst them." The earthbender was indeed blind, but far from deaf. "I've heard some talk of mutiny or alike. We have to be cautious. We may not have them available in battle when it comes to it."
"Speaking of which, I have come to a decision." Anyang had waited and observed, but now took action. "I've met my brother during the battle, and it's made me realise something. I'm no better than him if I go around, commanding soldiers and alike, as a general. I must prove him there's a peaceful way to everything, even revolution. I'll cast him down." When everyone, except Ranju and Kanyzon shot him inquiring looks, he explained, "Dalit is my brother. Not just as a monk or something, not that he ever was one, no, we have the same father and the same mother, only he is some years older."
"Wait, what? You're going to leave us on our own?" Betrayal was the first thing to come to Kabura's mind. "We— I don't know how to— if you do this— We're fucked!"
"Not necessarily," shot Anyang back with the sternness of a teacher, and as fast as only an airbender can. "You are quite talented, I'm sure you'll make it out alive."
" ...talented in covert operations, aye, but not in much else," stated Zoruka. Obviously she disregarded his words, and had little hope. "We may— might make it out alive. But Yi Ming would find us and kill us. We can't survive long without an army around us."
"Senqok has quite a talent for commanding, I'd say, and what he doesn't have in that regard, you have. You all can inspire soldiers, turn a battle's tide by boldness, plus you've got Kanyzon on your side. He didn't reunite the Fire Nation by doing nought," encouraged them Anyang. He stood up. "Anyway, I need to get to the Southern Air Temple. I must use the moment of Dalit's defeat to strike him down."
"Sir, you can't just— please, Anyang, don't abandon us! We— " Kabura was not one to give up on her superior.
Where she couldn't even catch his attention, Ranju prevailed. "Master!" Anyang turned his head to face her. "We need to learn much still, and we're in greater need of you than ever before, more than back then at the Five Armies. We need your help. Let us go on to the end, and further, together! Anyang, please... "
Tears formed in his eyes and rolled down his half bare cheeks, though not many, and a tone of regret dominated his voice. "I fear my duty lies elsewhere... " He turned again, unfolded his glider, and shot up into the skies. He soared and soon took course for east-south-east, heading directly for the place of his childhood, for the place he dreaded ever since his brother had developed his technique. Within seconds, the distance had reduced him to a speck near the horizon lit by the sun in its zenith. Ranju was already marching to go after him, ready to sail off. Then, however, Noki tugged her sleeve, blindly but resolutely fumbling the cloth before pulling it towards her with an earthbender's strength. Ranju's resolution melted away as she met Noki's unseeing eyes with her own ones, and saw the growing fear in the former. Thus, she sat back down. The few minutes that remained to them until they had reached the docks were spent in silence – even the sailors received no verbal orders. Kanyzon kept staring at the city they approached, and only turned away when he had to go off board.
"Anyang flew off to take out Dalit," informed him Senqok, as unwilling as the others to deliver the news.
"I'm as deaf as I am blind and mute," responded Kanyzon with a stoic calmness, "In fact, we both agreed to it that at least one of the tyrants should be struck down within these days. It was as much my idea as it was his."
The ascent to the Royal Caldera City was not exactly easy. The sailors, no matter whether sworn to the Fire Lord, the Confederacy, or to liberating the Earth Empire, were fast to drink and faster to spread the tales of the battle, and of their arrival. And as is the habit of rumours and metropolises, word spread all across the Capital. And few of the sailors had praised Senqok's fearlessness in the eyes of seemingly imminent defeat, or Kanyzon's boldness of flanking the Imperial Navy. Even though royal guards and servants of Kanyzon's were fast to arrive, armed and armoured as for the former, and with a palanquin and wagons as for the latter, they did little to shield them from the general dissatisfaction of the people. Their escort was some hundred men strong, trained firebenders all, but nonetheless did the masses come streaming on the streets, pushing left and right, shouting insults, calling for reason, screaming – for once – for peace. The steeper the streets got, the more violent became the attacks – both, verbal and physical.
Luna leant out of the window briefly, before closing it to shield the others in the wagon from the rotten fruits the people had begun to fling. "Seems like a country ready for revolution to me," she stated, slightly surprised and briefly startled by the reaction of her being seen. "That's a reaction I would've expected from traditionalists in the Confederacy, but not here, not by the people."
"Well, might be someone voiced his claim to the throne, someone Yi Ming backs... " suggested Zoruka, who then noticed the looks the wagon's other occupants, Luna, Shizon, and Ranju shot her. "What? It's possible. My dynasty spread out into branches like... like... it spread like mildew. Someone of these nobles has to have a claim to the throne, a better one than Kanyzon anyway."
"Unlikely. I mean, Kanyzon would've noticed if someone would like to rebel against him," argued Ranju, stoically calm. "I think it's more like the soldiers have returned from the Battle of the Five Armies. And the tale of Yi Ming's landing has spread thus far. It'd be logical, after all, the Fire Nation has been at war for over a century now, most of the time with itself, and now with the Earth Empire, too. That'd be enough to change the public opinion of anyone."
"Except Yi Ming, apparently," noted Shizon, his tone suggesting more resignation than anything else.
"Except Yi Ming," repeated Luna in a sigh.
Meanwhile, the other wagon the servants and guards had brought was under heavy attack, relatively seen at least. In a thump, a rotten pumpkin exploded on its right side, immediately followed by dozens of rotten eggs, whose heavy scent crept into the wagon's interior, almost forcing Noki to retch.
"I think they know I'm inside," stated Senqok, as Skado tried to calm Noki, who knew nought of what was going on, for the wagon was made of wood and iron.
"So?" inquired Kabura, despite knowing what he intended to say with his statement.
"They focus their attacks on our wagon." finished the Water Tribesman, not entirely comprehending what Kabura intended to say with her inquiry.
"Oh, you don't say?" Kabura's sarcastic tone was enough to clarify the purpose of her question. "That helps us how much, exactly?"
"Not at all," admitted Senqok.
"Wait. It may actually help us find the reason for this... uproar, and solve it," remarked Noki, her face having a slightly green colour to it.
"If we had the time," shot Skado back, not unkindly, but merely frustrated. "It's not like we have other problems... "
One single thump, and not a slight one, and then it was over. The bombardment had ceased.
"I'm going to take a look. Senqok, may I use you as a ladder? Thanks," decided Kabura, stepping onto Senqok's shoulders without waiting for his answer. Then, she opened a hatch in the wagon's ceiling. She then let her gaze wander over the city below, and to the caldera wall before them, but focussed on the harbour at once. She could see something going on there, but couldn't make out what it was. Briefly, she squatted down into the wagon. "Skado, please tell me you've got a telescope."
"Here you go." Skado handed her the apparatus he had taken from his belt, and was cut off then, "But please, be careful with it, it's a very filigree— oh, nevermind."
Kabura was quick to rise again and to observe the harbour. Suddenly, her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. Nonetheless, she observed further, but she had seen enough. She closed the hatch, swung down from Senqok's – now likely dislocated – shoulders and sat in her place in just one quick motion before handing Skado the telescope back. "We're pretty much fucked," she stated.
"Why? What is it?" Noki had absolutely no idea what might've happened, and had to conclude from what she had heard and smelt.
Before anyone else could voice a question, she exhaled briefly and heavily, and spoke. "If what I saw applies to all the ships in the harbour, we're stuck here. I saw some ships preparing to leave, some already leaving. I mean, Rebel-class, and Black Fleet ones. I think I saw the Phoenix, the Dragonfire, the General Wei, and the Fire Sage leaving, others whose names I couldn't read were as well. They seemed to leave forcibly, driven by mobs. I don't know how many are leaving, but it seemed like most are, if not all."
With a loud, metallic thump, the gates of the Royal Caldera City closed behind them, and those of the palace opened. The servants opened the wagon's door, and let the passengers descend, though Noki had to be carried. Kanyzon descended his palanquin and cleaned his robes of pieces of rotten fruits and eggs. All eight of the rebels and alike approached him as quickly as possible.
"Kanyzon!" began Luna, cut off before she could even think to finish.
"We must—" cut her Shizon off, himself cut off by Zoruka.
"—evacuate the city." Zoruka made it impossible to cut her off, being loud and her tone a stern one.
"That, and we should perhaps forget to count the fleet into any defence plans we may have had," added Kabura.
"Wait. I'm the Fire Lord, but that doesn't mean I can fully comprehend two problems and their reasons at once," shot Kanyzon back at once. "So, elaborate."
"Well, we're likely to witness a revolution here if we don't evacuate the city. Promise them peace, promise them whatever they want, but only if they evacuate. Or threaten them with death should they not, I don't care! Bring them out of the city, we need the city for the battle!" Luna was obviously slightly distressed with the upcoming battle. "We mustn't face two threats at once!"
"Indeed, and it shall be done. We've got some printers up here, I'll just order the order to be spread together with... I'll have it spread," approved Kanyzon, pondering which of the options Luna suggested he would take.
"Completely aside an imminent revolution, our fleets are forcibly deserting us. They likely don't have the morale to go on, or were driven out by angry mobs, or both. Not all ships are fleeing, I hope, but most won't remain," declared Kabura.
"Not a problem," stated the Fire Lord, and upon noticing the looks he received, he elaborated, "We've got a chain to block the harbour. So unless they can walk underwater, they'll need to climb the Caldera walls." He turned to walk the way to the palace, but stopped immediately after he began, and turned briefly again, "Now, come! We've got to prepare the City for battle!"
The War Council was a dull affair, everyone agreed, although it was more than necessary. The sun was setting upon this, Kanyzon's Fire Nation, both figuratively and literally, and all in the council, or throne room agreed to allow it a little more sunshine. Generals and Admirals who had risen in Kanyzon's shadow surrounded the map on the floor, a huge map of the Fire Nation, abstract flames representing Fire Nation troops, miniature earth coins representing Earth Empire forces.
"Yi Ming's host has breached through our defences in the Huo Province, and is racing towards the Capital as we speak. If Yi Ming holds his current speed, we will be surrounded and besieged in two day's time. However, we could despatch a division or two to slow him down one, two days, perhaps as much as a week," opened a venerable man named Xu, who held the position of a General. "In this time, the evacuation could be completed and we could strengthen our defences."
"There's little need to. It seems, honourable General, that you've forgotten to consider the swamps, marshes and mires around Zhaoze River, and the fact that said river has a strong current. To march through this area, even with thousands of earthbenders, or to find a way around, would cost Yi Ming at the very least the time you promised us," noted Kanyzon, who, on his throne, seemed to be the only one with an overview of the map.
"Then I suggest we use that time to mobilise the country and cut his supply lines, attack his host's rear, his vanguard, the middle, everything. I say we use this time to prepare for a guerrilla war," spoke a certain General Cheng, whose boldness was greater than his understanding of grand strategy. "That's what I'd do."
"The country is mobilised, though not exactly in my favour. The people have had enough of war, of constant war, of death, destruction, of all that. Not that I blame them, now it's come to them, to us. We need another way." Kanyzon sat on his throne cross-legged, a mighty dragon wrought in gold behind him.
"We have next to no ships left! I don't get why I'm still here!" complained an Admiral Chan, "But whatever. You want plans. Perhaps we could use our remaining ships in conjunction with a division of firebenders and some additional artillery to prevent Yi Ming from crossing that Zhaoze River. After all, a swamp is a forest, and a forest can burn... but I don't know either. I'm nought without ships."
"What of the dragonriders?" Zoruka hesitated little to voice her question. "Amongst the thousands of lower nobles across the country, there have to be some of these left. If we deployed them together with Admiral Chan's plan, we could burn Yi Ming's host to a crisp and end this dreadful war. Or we could deploy them for a... so far potential defence of the Capital."
"There still are dozens, but not the hundreds there used to be, like in the tales of your dynasty, girl. Be realistic." Words thus harsh only General Zhao could speak. Once a lordling, and now a General and widely-known and feared kinslayer, the only respect he knew was towards stronger ones.
"They're bloody dragons for crying out loud! The bane of all men save those who tamed them! Their fire can melt copper, bronze, iron, steel, even damn granite!" Zoruka defended herself, harsh only in words, not in tone.
"Stop fantasising and grow up— " spat General Zhao back, but was cut off before he could lash out in insults.
"I NEED A PLAN TO SAVE THE NATION, NOT ANCIENT FAIRY TALES, BOLDNESS AND INSULTS!" Kanyzon roared, for as much as a second seeming a dragon himself. When the two he addressed had finished shuddering, he threatened, "Shut up and cooperate or I'll give you to Yi Ming."
"Well... we do need to evacuate the city, then we can do as we please. We need to evacuate them fast, unless we intend to be defeated... " thought Senqok aloud, his wits for once failing him.
"So?" asked his sister. "We could perhaps clear away some buildings to— no, wait. We'll barricade the gates, man all the watchtowers and dig trenches along the caldera walls, from tower to tower, turret to turret. We do that in both caldera walls, and clear away streets to fall back on."
"Seems reasonable enough," agreed Kanyzon. However, he was not fully convinced. "But what if Yi Ming follows us down these streets?"
"What when he does, you mean." Luna smirked. "Are you acquainted to a substance named wildfire? It was developed by the lords of Zhao to reduce enemy fleets to ashes and cinders, and Yi Ming gladly took the substance over, as did you, as far as I remember. We will hide this substance all across the city in rings, though concentrated along the streets, and, with well-timed and well-aimed fire arrows, bring a fiery doom upon the Yi Ming's forces. While ours get away safely, his shall burn. If that won't stop them, it'll demoralise them."
"Do you honestly believe we've a sufficient amount of wildfire in stock to fully employ your plan?" Kanyzon almost laughed. "It seemed well-though-out at first, but then... this... "
"Well, sir, wildfire is explosive. Just take a jar of it and use barrels of oil, alcohol or whatever burns well and spreads fast around. It isn't the best of ways to do this, but it's better than nothing." Kabura brought in her own experience from when she and Shizon had been liberated by Senqok and Zoruka, of how the greenish flames had devoured the prison.
"Won't the wildfire spread across the entire city?" Skado had his doubts.
"Only someone who hasn't been here before would say something like this... " Luna shook her head.
"Only those... ?" Shizon had absolutely no idea what the Lord Protector was talking about.
"Yes. There's circular, concentric canals dividing the lower city into rings. They're not very broad, not like in Kenisibao, aye, but they'll do their job," Luna explained.
"Sir? What is your decision?" inquired the venerable General Xu.
"All else you or I thought of is either too bold or too reluctant or simply utopian. This is a harsh, an ugly solution." Kanyzon hadn't lifted his eyes from the map but once, and thus he continued. "It's too late for any operations outside the city anyway. Lord Protector Luna's plan shall be the one to defend the city, as costly as it may be."
And with that, the generals, admirals, rebels, and the Lord Protector left to prepare for the battle that would become Kanyzon's final one.
Notes and Trivia
- The idea of a chain blocking off a certain part of sea or similar was taken from the boom that blocked the Golden Horn during the Fall of Constantinople.
- Dragonriders may or may not be an equivalent for European knights, only far more devastating.
For the collective works of the author, go here.