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|Assassins, Pt. 1|
Assassins, Pt. 1 is the sixth chapter of
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
Noki, Senqok, Kabura, Skado, Ranju and Shizon are sent to a village at which they are to stand their final test. After heavy rainfall holds them up for some time, they make their way there.
Zoruka and a dozen of her agents manage, with assistance from nearby army units, to capture a village serving as a training facility of the Liberation Alliance, but fail to completely take it over, as the Alliance's soldiers gather and entrench themselves.
Upon arrival, the group of six makes their way up to the village, only to find it taken over by Imperial units, whose withdrawal they then force on their commander, Zoruka. For their display of prowess and bravery, the six are formed into a Commando unit, and decorated.
Chapter 6: Assassins, Pt. 1
"Any clue why he might've called us?" Senqok was rather confused by their superior's, Wei's, call.
"Not. The. Slightest. Idea." Shizon seemed to share his confusion.
"Shut up, and get inside, I'm not holding this door open for all eternity." Noki's rather harsh attitude was supported by her annoyed voice as she held the door into Wei's office open. The five others of her unit obeyed, and followed Anyang, who previously had entered. As the others seated themselves, Noki slammed the metal door and followed suit, as well sitting down cross-legged on one of the cushions.
"Staff Sergeant Noki, Sergeants Senqok and Shizon, Privates Kabura, Ranju and Skado of the First Commando Batallion... " Wei greeted his guests with a slight chuckle at the titles, but then ceased all amusement and continued seriously. "I presume you wonder why I have called you here... The reason is: you are a commando unit, and there is a mission of high urgency. Well, where to start at... Right, does anyone of you know what the Imperials know as 'Victory Day'?"
The silence following, even from Noki, surprised Wei a bit, and lasted until Ranju suggested, "Maybe the day of Yi Ming's victory at Serpent's Pass?"
"No, it's a bit easier, it's the day of the Wedding of Omashu, as it's called. Annually, it is celebrated with parades and speeches in every major city, that means military parades in every provincial capital, however, nothing outmatches those in Ba Sing Se. Held in the Middle Ring, accessible to everyone, the Victory Day Parade is truly something impressive. Starting with a massive military parade, it continues with a speech and then closes with a huge, uh, feast. Once, Yi Ming held the speeches himself, but recently, he resigned from it. Now, his second-in-command, and that since the beginning of the Omashu campaign, Imperial Marshal Han, leader of the Council of Five, a council of the five most powerful generals and admirals of the Empire, decided to take the responsibility of holding the speeches. Now, as two of you know, namely, Skado and Senqok, I decided to make a test for the adoption of your jointly constructed crossbow. As Skado also constructed some kind of spy glass to be adapted to the crossbow as an aiming device, that, and two specialised kinds of crossbow bolts, I have decided to give you the mission of assassinating the Imperial Marshal - with the crossbows."
"So, you want us to penetrate the impenetrable city?" If there was anything Shizon was capable of, it was banally summing up.
"No, not entirely, I want you to infiltrate it. For that purpose, you will receive false identities which you will have to rehearse - some theatrical talent is required. Once you're in the city, find a place to stay at, as near to the parade square as possible, and stay in touch with each other for that time, but not too much, or someone will suspect something, of that I'm sure. Then, you will have to make plans on how to assassinate the Marshal, preferably from afar so you can get away alive. How and from where you do it is irrelevant, the only things that'll matter will be that you are successful and get away alive, in fact. Which brings me to the last part of the mission: returning. There are plenty of ways of transportation in Ba Sing Se, and my knowledge is not exactly the most up-to-date, so you'll have to find your way. So, to sum it up, your mission is to infiltrate Ba Sing Se, kill Marshal Han and return, preferably alive." Wei's explanation seemed to have come to an end, but some of the unti still found questions unanswered.
"I've got a question, though... Why exactly should we assassinate the highest military authority in the Empire after Yi Ming himself?", a doubtful voice belonging to Kabura asked, more curious than anything else, though.
"Well, interesting question. The answer is, Marshal Han is one of the few people whom Yi Ming trusts enough to let them have power, whom he lets act relatively independently. And Marshal Han has made plans for the extermination of our organisation, and seeks to conduct them far sooner and far more effective than Yi Ming would, that's why we need to eliminate him.", Wei explained, facing the group, before turning around again, "Any other questions?"
"Uh, yes, I've got one... ", Senqok stated, continuing with his actual question, "What about the dangers we'll face in Ba Sing Se, even before the assassination, like, er, the Grand Secretariat of the Earth Empire?"
Wei looked at the waterbender jaw dropping in amazement at the soldier's knowledge. Then, after Senqok urged him to answer with a gesture of impatiently raising an eyebrow, he decided to answer. "Few actually know of this office's power, most think it's a bureaucratic job, nothing else, but you seem to know that's not true, and you're right. The Secretariat is an omnipresent danger, only that in Ba Sing Se, the risk of them compromising someone is far higher than... anywhere else in general. I can't tell you much about how dangerous it is, all I can tell you is to be extremely careful - and quiet - when you speak about your mission, and when you assemble the crossbows. Anyway, how did you come to know of the Secretariat's powers?"
"Not to worry, father, we only forced the Grand Secretariat herself to withdraw her troops from the training village the other day, nothing special... " Noki's explanation was exaggeratedly casual.
"Oh. Well... Who is it, the Secretariat?" Wei seemed a bit curious at the new information he was delivered.
"Zoruka, Princess of the Fire Nation." The answer came, after having glanced at one another from all the unit's members - simultaneously.
"Phew, well... hm... so, I believe you get your false identities, after all, they're essential in your success. So, well... " Wei left the room, or at least, the main compartment of the room, for about a minute, and returned with stacks of paper, handing each of the Commandos' a few sheets. "Here ya go."
After overflying the sheets, only one of them - that was, except Noki, who annoyed remarked her father's senility causing him to, once more, forget of her blindness - seemed to be dissatisfied.
"A cabbage merchant? Oh, come on, could I possibly have a more ridiculous disguise?" Skado's infuriation was at the level at which a firebender would burn down all of their surroundings out of frustration.
"Well, or else we can't get the crossbows into Ba Sing Se, such irrelevant beings like cabbage merchants don't get checked for deadly weapons all too often." Wei's words did little to ease Skado's attitude, who then intended to shout back, but was cut off.
"Uh, like, when do we have to know our, er, roles? In other words, how much time do we have to prepare?" Ranju's question surely wasn't uninteresting for the others. The more shocking the answer was.
"One and a half months. In one and a half months, it's victory day, so, given it takes you three weeks to get to Ba Sing Se, and you take one week to prepare, that leaves roughly three weeks. You've got three weeks to study your roles, so, what you're waiting for?" With those words, Wei had spoken enough to scare the commando unit away, and just as Anyang turned to leave, Wei decided, handing him another small stack of paper sheets, "Anyang, wait. You're coming with them."
"I want a status report immediately. Of all operations. Imperial Marshal Han wants all Victory Day Parades safe. Is this understood?" Zoruka screamed as she entered the office through the massive doors. At each desk, a secretary of hers sat, piles of paper everywhere, some being reports, others being requests for all kinds of support - almost all of her agents were assigned to missions, and left their secretaries behind. Those were ordinarily-looking middle aged women in beige, emerald-lined clothing, which was the uniform of theirs. Every time, Zoruka shuddered at the sight of them, despite not knowing the reason for her doing so. It was then, after a few seconds of numbness, when someone answered her demand.
"Yes, ma'am!" It was one of the few high-ranked agents who hadn't left for missions because of their importance. Walking from desk to desk, he gathered sheets of paper, which he then quickly flew over, before he reported to his superior. "Aside from resistance against our offences in the Gaoling area and the Anshi Province, there hasn't been a single report of any hostilities from the Rebels' side, not a single ambush, not any kind of sabotage operation, except maybe the stealing of food, weapons, armour and alcoholic brewages from several minor outposts, but that sounds more like some band of bandits."
Zoruka thought about what the agent had said, and walked over to a map table showing the Earth Empire, where she concluded, "They're calm, too calm... Something must be coming up. Victory Day is coming up, and will be celebrated in every provincial capital... Just- "
"Every provincial capital except the one of the Fusang Province, that is, ma'am." The agent's correction earned him an angry glare, which he took as a compliment for the correctness of his statement.
"Yes, every provincial capital except the one of the Fusang Province." Zoruka was slightly annoyed, but as she continued, had resumed her serious expression and tone. "Victory Day will be celebrated in dozens of cities, with parades. Given the calm of the Rebels, it could be that they plan to strike the parades, just imagine what that would mean for the civil morale, for the support of Yi Ming's rule. An assault - a successful assault! - on Victory Day. Well, I guess that's why Imperial Marshal Han requested extra guards of ours, or rather, preparations in the provincial capitals, because he fears the Rebels may strike the parades."
"But wouldn't that weaken our defences elsewhere? After all, I mean, we don't have infinite resources!", the agent protested, adding, not to make himself seem suspicious, "I mean, not that striking the parades wouldn't be poison for the people's and army's morale, but I'm just saying- "
"No, no, you're right, actually. But there is a place we waste far too many resources on. A place where this wouldn't be necessary, after all, there are only about two or three, maybe even four ways of getting into this place. Ba Sing Se, it is. Half of our agents are wasted on mass surveillance here in the capital, we could put them to good use in the provincial capitals, after all, the military units, especially the Imperial Guards, ought to be able of defending the Parade and all should some suicidal rebel try to attack it. It's not named Impenetrable City for nothing, so we can redistribute those fellows... " Zoruka's stated, then demanding, "Give me a sheet of paper, and a pen or whatever! I need to make my thoughts official!"
Thus, she wrote, mumbling all the time, taking about half an hour to find the words for her order, before handing the sheet to a secretary to duplicate it. The secretary only commented this, muttering under her breath, "With all spirits-damned respect, ma'am, you think you're the first to try to prevent assaults with such measures?"
The ferry was a sight for itself, not to even mention the famed walls they passed beneath. Senqok wasn't the only one to stare in wonder, but then he pulled himself together - he had to keep true to his role. Kabura too was baffled by the defensive walls' sheer size, while Senqok also found the ferry harbour on this, the north shore of the East Lake rather imposing - other than Full Moon Bay, this certainly wasn't a natural occurrence, which then also was proven by the rather ornate nature of it. Out of the massive granite, two arches had been carved, both of an height of approximately twenty metres, and a width of at least fifteen metres. The two artificial bay which served as the port basin were parted by an equally massive platform, separated from the docks - except a relatively narrow jetty - by lines of columns. Beyond the columns, the area was lighted by numerous lustres, while the port basins were only lit by green, fluorescent crystals. Senqok's amazement ceased, to his surprise, sooner than his comrades' - Shizon's jaw remained dropped for the whole ten minutes it took the crew and port workers to fully secure the ferry. Then, a loud horn was blown, and planks were laid from the deck to the jetty, over which the passengers started to disembark. Senqok thought he would be successful in leading Kabura through the stream of people, but was proven wrong when he found himself standing alone in a mass of strangers, in the middle of the port's platform. Only one familiar voice could he hear, and that one certainly was not entirely delightful.
"Cabbages! Cabbages! I've got all kinds of cabbages!" The voice was unmistakable the one of Skado, and, despite sounding extremely demotivated, loud, before he sighed, and lowered his voice, "This is too embarrassing... "
The newly-arrived Water Tribal spun around and immediately faced Skado pushing a cart, seemingly full of cabbages. As he had decided to take a closer look around, he noticed a disguised Anyang following the cart in some distance, alongside Ranju and Noki, naturally, both disguised as well. Just as he was about to ask Skado whether he'd seen his companions, he found himself facing Kabura, Shizon just behind her. All three nodded, although unintentionally, simultaneously and then ascended the stairs to whatever awaited them there. What they saw there made each of them nervous - passport control counters, manned by Imperial soldiers. Despite the relative chaos on the platform, at the counters, few people were waiting to be cleared through customs, and didn't even form a queue. Having to act in their roles perfectly now, Senqok decided to approach a different counter than Anyang and Skado did. Once there, the soldiers eyed him, Kabura and Shizon suspiciously, before one muttered, "Passports"
Without hesitation, Senqok handed them his, succeeded only a split second later by Kabura, while Shizon took some time to get his passport shown to them. At one particular word in both, Senqok's and Kabura's passports, the soldier's eyes first widened in shock before narrowing them in suspicion. "Don't move!", the soldier shouted at them, lunging at them, continuing in a hiss. "Fusang Province! You- !"
"Please, sir, I can explain! We're merchants from- " Senqok started to explain, but it was too late. The soldier had called his superior. Kabura and Shizon both looked at Senqok confusedly, who whispered, "It's all going according to plan... "
The arriving officer seemed bulky, but indeed it only was his uniform. All the time, the soldier who had lunged at the three whispered into his superior's ear, even when the latter controlled their passports. Then, the officer slapped his subordinate's face, calmly stating, "Those lads are loyal merchants from Gibaru town, you know what that is? The only town loyal to the Emperor in the whole Fusang Province! And the third lad there, well, he's just an associate of them, so please explain why you assaulted them." He then turned to the others, handing them their passports. "Kind sirs, ma'am, would you please excuse my subordinate's harsh behaviour? However, enjoy the Impenetrable City!"
In the meantime, Skado had shown his passport to the soldier at the counter he had chosen. "So... ", the soldier began, taking a close look at Skado's cart, as if to look into the cabbages' souls, "just a routine check if you're transporting anything illegal, I'll just take five instead of the ordinary three control samples... Nope, clear... clear as well... and clear... nothing on this one, and not on this one. I hope you don't mind me doing this, that's routine for Victory Day, y'know? Well, now, sir, here you go - enjoy the Impenetrable City!"
Just when Skado moved through the turnstile, his cart being hauled over it, the soldier shouted, "NEXT ONE!"
Anyang and the two girls walked a little closer, Anyang and Ranju handed their passports, while Noki faked to struggle, until the airbender girl helped her, and handed him the last passport as well. "Names", the soldier emotionlessly demanded, checking the passports and at once twiddling with his black uniform with golden lining.
"I'm Pala, this is my father Chin, and that's my blind cousin Ke, sir.", Ranju answered with faked cheerfulness.
The soldier crooked a smile, even refraining from any kind of further control, handing back the passports. "Oh, well... you seem to be clear... well, enjoy Ba Sing Se! NEXT!"
It was indeed a miracle the cart had been allowed onto the monorail, but as a matter of fact, it had. Skado sat, holding his cart, just beside Anyang. Aside from Skado, who was occupied with guarding his cart, Anyang, who had seen the city numerous times before already, and Noki, because of a quite obvious reason, all - those being Senqok, Kabura, Shizon and Ranju - kept their eyes off the scenery past the window frames. A sea of roofs, two of the massive walls dividing the city into rings, and also the many - erected clearly for the purpose of propaganda, but impressive nonetheless - statues of Yi Ming. They couldn't get enough of the sight that presented itself to them, and they assumed weird-looking stances so they could satisfy their wants. It drew attention to them, something they certainly didn't intend, so Anyang decided to step in.
"First time in the Impenetrable City, I presume?"
Ranju decided to, as much as she hated it, look away from the city and to the General, rolling her eyes. "Dad, you ought to know at least that much about me."
"I know, Ra- er, Pala, I was talking to those two lads with company over there. So, it's your first time in the City?"
Kabura reacted at the word 'company', and shifted her attention to the General, having to poke the other two inconspicuously to divert their attention from the Lower Ring's scenery. "Well, certainly it is. Our respective fathers had established guild of merchants with contacts here in Ba Sing Se, and we recently took over their posts, so, well... " Shizon's explanation wasn't all according to the roles Wei had given them, but indeed seemed more realistic. By then, the people who'd observed them somewhat suspiciously had resumed minding their own businesses'.
"Interesting. Where are you headed?" Anyang seemed to construct a base for their further actions so they wouldn't attract too much attention later on.
"The Middle Ring. We'll make some arrangements, and stay for the parade, before returning home. However, we don't have a place to stay at yet." Senqok had taken over explaining to the stranger, supporting the latter's intent.
"How convenient! I appear just to know a lovely hotel near the parade square, and despite its relatively central position it's in a rather quiet neighbourhood... I could show it to you, if you want." Skado now had chimed in, returning from his trance-like state.
"Well, sounds good, that is, if one can trust the words of a cabbage merchant.", Kabura managed to speak through the crowd of people getting off as the monorail train had ceased its movement. The six of them too stood up, and walked out of the train and onto the platform, where they noticed an area patrolled and guarded by soldiers, with a sign above it reading "Middle Ring". Trusting in Anyang's experience, the others followed him to a booth at the edge of said area.
"Passport, name, intention!", the soldier at the booth demanded. At once, Skado did as ordered, and handed him his papers, stating, "Here you go, sir. I'm Li, and the reason for my visit to the Middle Ring is, on one hand, commerce, and on the other, the Victory Day festivities."
The soldier suspiciously controlled the passport, nodding at the cabbage merchant's explanation, before he took a look at the cart, shrugging, "If you've got through the controls at the ferry ports, well... Welcome to the Middle Ring! The train ought to arrive in two minutes. NEXT!"
"Passport, name and intention!" As ordered, Anyang, Ranju and Noki handed their respective documents. "Pala, sir.", Ranju started, Anyang continuing with, "Chin", and Noki finishing with her false identity's name, "Ke."
Anyang onwards spoke for all of them. "We intend to stay for the Victory Day festivities as well, sir, the usual I presume."
The soldier nodded, and compared the biometrical specifications in their passports with the people themselves, roughly estimating their height and weight, before concluding they were free to pass. "Move along, and enjoy the Middle Ring! As said, a minute and the train's here. NEXT!"
"Passport, name and intention!" Once again, the demand was followed by action immediately and three passports were temporarily handed over to the soldier. Raising an eyebrow at Senqok's and Kabura's false identities' origins, he once again checked the biometrics roughly, even before he received a verbal answer to his demand. "Haruto, sir.", Senqok answered, "Tao", Shizon lied perfectly, and Kabura concluding with, "Airi."
Once again checking the passports and the people in front of him, the soldier handed them the passports back, just as Kabura stated, "We intend to make arrangements with commercial partners and stay for the parade.", which the soldier in the booth replied with, "Yeah, whatever, the train's coming, now off you go and enjoy your damn Middle Ring!"
As the soldier had stated, the train arrived, and all people awaiting this moment on the platform - about nine dozens - got inside. Unintentionally, the six of the General's subordinates ended up in the same car again, and decided to seat themselves across each other once more. Deciding to get a bit of information, Senqok played his role and, astonished, asked Anyang, "Since when is there a monorail network in Ba Sing Se anyway? My father never mentioned something like this!"
"Probably because it wasn't anything special to him - it's used every day by thousands of people!", Anyang began. "It's been constructed just after Omashu's defeat," - Senqok could swear seeing Noki clench a fist at the mentioning - "and also had the consequence of the reconstruction of the then decrepit Walls of Ba Sing Se."
"Oh. Well, didn't know that.", Senqok still had many questions, but decided to remain silent and to fake shame for this ignorance of this piece of general knowledge. They passed the two dozens of metres that formed the border between the peasantry and the bourgeoisie of Ba Sing Se, and failed to hinder his jaw from dropping in amazement at the sight outside.
"I don't know either, last time I was here the rooms were rather... roomy. Maybe they rearranged their furniture because of Victory Day and all that stuff... " Anyang seemed a bit puzzled as he glanced through the doorway into the room the hotelier had given them, with the six beds being positioned just by the walls, three at each side, only leaving a narrow corridor in both the room's centre and between the beds themselves.
"Well, it's not like we've got much baggage anyway. One issue remains, though, right Skado?" Noki, of all people, had been the one to complain, and to notice the issue of transporting the crossbows from the - now hidden - cabbage carriage into the room, unnoticed of course.
"Uh, well, that's a problem indeed... " Skado claimed a bed as his, sitting onto it, when he found the simple yet - more or less - genial solution. "...don't know, maybe we could just hide the parts in the groceries and clothing and whatnot we'll buy 'round here and thus get them up here, and later get them down, and out again the same way. How 'bout that?"
No one responded for a minute, as they all claimed their respective beds, before finally Ranju decided, "Sounds good, but you want to know what sounds even better? Sleep. A few hours of sleep, it's been an exhausting day, and we've earned it."
"Sleep it is, then.", Anyang decided, commanding, "Soldiers, load, take aim... and snore!"
Everyone else laughed maniacally at the most unusual display of humour, everyone, except Noki, that was. The blind girl seemed to be the only one with enough common sense to close the door, or rather, slam it. Upon noticing how much she had shocked her sleepy comrades, she crooked her lips to form a sly grin, and shouted, "Alright now, sleepyheads! I'll allow you to sleep - under one condition: I'll snore the loudest, alright? Good."
Once again, almost uncontrollable laughter erupted, before Noki, now herself lying on the bed, laughing, uttered, "But seriously, tomorrow we should do some actual work, get a... look on the square the parade is to be held at and all that... tomorrow... "
Notes and Trivia
- The nature of the Victory Day and the form of celebrating it, by military parades, is modelled upon Victory Day, which too is celebrated with annual military parades.
- The Grand Secretariat's secretaries are meant to be the predecessors of the Joo Dees. In terms of looks, not function.
- The northern ferry port is yet another influence hailing from Metro 2033, or rather, the Moscow Metro's stations in general.
- Gibaru was derived from a dialectal Austro-Bavarian expression equal to "shut up", namely "Gib' ah ruh'!". Well, duh.
- Palatschinke, pronounced as "Pa(h)lah-cheen-keh", is the Austrian term for pancake.
For the collective works of the author, go here.