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|The Grand March, Pt. 1|
The Grand March, Pt. 1 is the ninth chapter of
Previously in A Tale of Rebels
In an act of vengeance, Yi Ming annihilates the villages of Li Di Ce and Rejaki, in the process of which Zoruka decides to betray him.
Kanyzon is crowned Fire Lord, and schedules an attack on the Earth Empire to once and for all unite the Fire Nation.
Anyang proposes Wei to conduct a recruitment campaign, which the latter accepts due to the growing pressure from the Earth Empire.
The six assassins find a wounded Zoruka on their way back to Omashu and decide to vet her wounds even though she technically still is their enemy.
Chapter 9: The Grand March, Pt. 1
Her eyes had been open for a minute now, yet she had barely moved. Breathing heavily, she tried to lift her right hand, but failed. Wincing in pain, which, unsurprisingly, came from her left eye, she closed her eyes and started breathing even heavier. As she had calmed herself, and decided not to reopen her eyes, she gathered the strength to speak.
"Wh- where... where am... I?" The words were faint, yet clear and commanding.
Having retreated in shock from the sudden awakening, Senqok had now seated himself directly beside her, and decided to answer her questions. "Well... I myself am not sure of that one, actually. However, you shouldn't overexert yourself, you need to rest. You've lost a lot of blood, almost one litre, and thus your body is weakened for the moment, however, in a month, you should be able to do most stuff again, or at the very least walking, that is."
Zoruka sighed, and decided to continue her bombardment of questions, now with a little more will. "Who... are... you, anyway?"
"Oh, well, that's classified information, I'm not too sure if I can trust you... But one thing is sure, your majesty, you can trust me." Senqok wore a hint of a smile on his eternally tanned face and sat facing Zoruka, despite knowing she wouldn't see him as of now. "Oh, wait, no... that sounds wrong, I mean- oh forget it."
The door opened, and someone entered, but neither noticed.
"You know... who I am?" Zoruka managed a chuckle. "You have every reason not to trust me... But what would I do with your name? I'm... I'm... disgraced, banished, ought to be dead and... whatnot... in Yi Ming's eyes."
"Wait, WHAT?! She's awake?!" Shizon exclaimed. Senqok, startled as he was, fell off his chair and onto the floor, from where he got up into a standing position, turned to face Shizon and narrowed his eyes, all the time cursing violently.
"Shizon, you damn- you- YOU!" the waterbender shouted at his comrade, poking the latter in the chest.
"What, Senqok? I just was surprised to see her awake!" The firebender spoke his defence as he pushed Senqok's hand away, and then walked up to Zoruka's head, and faced her from above. "So, Crown Princess, was it fun to murder all those innocents? Was it fun to slaughter defenceless people? Was it- "
"SHUT UP, YOU IDIOT!" Senqok's words threw Shizon back like a physical attack, while the latter's had somewhat pierced Zoruka's heart. She started breathing heavily, and tears formed in her still closed eyes. However, the tears burnt like a fire in her left eye, and so all that she could utter was cry of pain. Her amber eyes shot open at it, and the deafening - and desperate-sounding - noise filled the room. Almost instantly, Shizon regretted his words, yet couldn't bring himself to actually speak an apology. He just stood there, looking apologetic. Senqok waited the half hour it took the royal to calm herself to speak again, and already had his healing water ready. "Hold still now, please. I'm going to heal your eye as much as my abilities allow it. So... where were we?"
"So... you're of the Southern Water Tribe?" Zoruka asked as the Water Tribal positioned himself at Shizon's previous position, and started healing. "...and Shizon... that sounds... somewhat... Fire Nation... "
"Yes, and yes. I'm Senqok, son of Chief Gangtok of the Southern Water Tribe, and this moron over there is Shizon, a firebender." Senqok looked over to the door to be prepared the next time, and then resumed his previous position. "So... I guess I might as well reveal our location now, eh? We're in the Earth Empire, that much is for sure."
"...a waterbender and a firebender in the Earth Empire?" The Crown Princess' question was part rhetorical, and part unbelieving. "Has to do something with the Rebel Alliance... "
"And you're right, though we prefer the term 'Liberation Alliance', but it's all a matter of perspective. Now, that's been enough information, don't you think?" He continued healing, but slowly found it to be futile.
"So... it was you... you're... the assassins, for whose actions... the villages were exterminated." The royal had switched back to a serious tone.
Senqok found Shizon inching away, but didn't stop him. He ceased his healing, and hung his head. "Yes." The waterbender shook the head of his, and then spoke again. "Yes. Yes, and yes. YES DAMMIT! IT'S OUR FAULT!"
Senqok had sunk to the ground, and sat there, wearing a bitter expression. Zoruka, however, managed to bring up the strength to see his state for herself, and shook her head. "No, it isn't. It's Yi Ming's, and for you trying to stop him, I admire you. But more than that, I admire your courage, for you will never ever succeed." She decided to lie herself normally again. "It's a pity indeed... "
"What do you mean, we will never succeed?" Senqok was confused and also a bit angry, displaying it as he had stood up and clenched his fists.
"To succeed, you would have to eliminate Yi Ming, and to do that, you would have to break Ba Sing Se," the royal stated plainly, then closing with tone of finality. "In other words, it's impossible."
Senqok sighed, and seated himself again in his previous position. "Perhaps we should talk about something different... where neither of us would screw up."
Just as previously Shizon had entered suddenly, now Skado did the same, carrying some kind of dish with chopsticks and an eye-patch, rather unpreparedly announcing, "So... here you go, cover your- oh. Senqok, cover her left eye with this one... oh, and could you seat her upright and feed her? It'd be- "
"Really? I mean I'm weak but- ," Zoruka began, and tried to seat herself upright, but collapsed instead, which Senqok, taking what Skado handed him, commented, "Well... so much for that one... "
Heavy wind battered the half swampy and half rocky bay, where a fleet of impressive size was anchored, the red sails of their being stricken to keep the ships from sailing away on their own, their equally red flags, however, flying in the wind, denoting the ships' origin over several kilometres to be the Fire Nation. The hundreds of vessels, however, were not the single unusual sight. Not only were primitive footbridges built to make the bay an improvised harbour, but also were the dense woods on the strip of land between two rivers and the bay stubbed, and in their stead, a military encampment spread, the tents and the flags being of the same, red colour. The camp was bounded by a palisade wall and an adjacent trench, wooden watchtowers standing spaced. In the perfect square's centre, a complex of tents of greater size could be found, itself surrounded by a relatively low palisade. There, the commanders of the gathered forces themselves gathered to discuss their plan.
"Your majesty, my scouts have just returned. According to their report, the only settlement within the radius of thirty kilometres is a village named Makapu, however, we are only three days of marching from Taku, one of the four greatest Earth Empire cities." The General reporting took a break to lay a map of the Earth Empire onto the table surrounded by the Generals and their sovereign. Then, he pointed at their current position, then to the aforementioned village, and then to the city of Taku. "We can take this route through the valleys inland, let a column or two pass through the village, and then head for Taku. From there, plenty of roads lead into all directions, and along those roads, I believe, we should march."
A gust of wind blew into the tent, also carrying a bit of mud with it, which sprayed over the map.
"It would be a predictable route, but as we have little knowledge of the area, I guess it's our only chance," another General agreed, walking over to the tent's entrance to close it, only briefly ceasing his talking. "However, we should seek an alliance with the Liberation Alliance before we strike Taku, for the Earth Empire would surely not let their most important trading centre fall to an enemy."
"Maybe the Liberation Alliance isn't that much of an ally like you all pretend it to be?" yet another General presumed. "We have two hundred thousand trained and disciplined soldiers, infantry, cavalry, and artillery. I estimate the Liberation Alliance to consist of maybe one hundred thousand soldiers, or rather, militiamen, undisciplined, untrained, badly equipped, and only infantry. We simply besiege the city, that's it."
"I'm no expert in land warfare altogether, but from what I know, Taku possesses no defensive walls, therefore might be easy to storm," an officer distinguished to be an Admiral chimed in. "But to me, I guess, no land forces can be much of a help. What I require is an enemy to fight!"
"Be careful what you wish for, Admiral." Fire Lord Kanyzon finally joined the discussion. "The Earth Empire's naval forces are the best trained worldwide. And we use wooden ships and are firebenders, therefore... "
The Admiral sighed and shook his head in defeat, and Kanyzon silenced all other conversation going on to propose his idea.
"I already worked out a basic plan. First of all, we must take Taku and persuade the Alliance to mobilise their troops, even if they are only one hundred thousand, which they are not. In fact, they number about one million members, at least the half of whom is trained in combat. To get back to the plan, then, we have to advance fast - the Earth Empire's history is full of the tactic of scorched earth, I don't intend to fail because of this as well. However, we need to move fast, and, as the Alliance's force is the strongest in the Empire's south, we move our troops south of the West Lake, to unite with their forces. Afterwards, we would approach Serpent's Pass from the south, and then attempt to strike northwards. That is the latest where the fleet of ours comes into play." At the mention of the word "fleet", the Admiral lifted his head again, listening eagerly. "We need to annihilate all enemy naval forces in the East and West Lakes to guarantee our success, as we require ours to strike the Lakes' north shore with full force - at once. There is only one crucial thing about it all - we have to be swift about it, or else we're doomed to fail. Now, shall we ready our troops to begin marching towards Taku?"
The four officers of his exchanged glances, then nodded in agreement, the only question coming from the Admiral. "What would our fleet be tasked with for the time being?"
"Oh, that? Annihilating all enemy naval forces on the way to the West Lake," Kanyzon explained casually as he opened the tent again, being welcomed by a gust of air, finishing, "That, and perhaps piracy."
The flags flew, the soldiers' feet struck the pavement synchronised, and the marching music sounded, aside that, the city seemed to be entirely silent. In the column's front, the Fire Lord and his three general rode, mounted on komodo rhinos, the former greeting the dispersing crowds in front of them with various gestures. All in all, each and every single one of them had imagined their storming of Taku to be more warlike, to involve more fighting, but it turned out to be like a parade. As he took a glance at the many commoners' faces, the only emotion he could trace was confusion. Confusion hailing from the sudden invasion of Fire Nation troops, from the ignorance of this happening. Those who didn't make way for the soldiers to pass through were simply standing there, motionless, wondering about this occurrence. The column of soldiers wove through the streets, Kanyzon leading them to the city's centre - the town hall, which also served as the seat of administration for the whole province. After a few minutes, they had reached it. Almost immediately, the Royal Firebender guards, who had marched and ridden directly behind the Fire Lord, dismounted and filled the little square in front of the building, securing the perimeter as Kanyzon himself descended his mount. The sovereign then knocked at the door before opening it and entering. After quickly passing through the foyer, greeting everyone inside with a warm gesture, he followed practical direction signs up the stairs, until he found himself entering the office of the Steward of Taku Province. After he had entered, the official, who had previously stood at one of the room's windows, viewing the scenery below, turned around, only to be shocked immediately. Not only in terms of surprise, as Kanyzon had made use of a rare technique - lighting generation. As he assured himself of the Steward's death, he took the official's seat, and waited the half a minute it took his soldiers to reach him. Upon them entering, he ordered, "Wonderful, this place! Dispose of that... body... " - he gestured at the Steward's corpse - "And get me my writing utensils and a messenger hawk immediately! I have little offer to make... to the Liberation Alliance... "
"You did WHAT?!" the airbender exclaimed. "You exterminated two entire villages?!"
Yi Ming found himself in the defence against his own ally. "You need to understand, Dalit, I was merely- "
"No, just no!" The airbender was, in fact, the de jure Head Elder, de facto Emperor of the Air Empire. Sighing, he calmed himself and continued. "Listen, Yi Ming, you simply can't establish a reign of terror when there's an established resistance organisation. In your case, this organisation - the Alliance - controls one entire province, and great portions of several others, mainly in the south and the Taku area. The territory under their control has not shrunk, as wished, on the contrary, it increased in size!"
Yi Ming shook his head at those undeniable facts as the two leaned over the map table in the Grand Secretariat's office, and submissively declared, "You're right..." then continuing in a commanding - and desperate - tone, "Now WHAT SHOULD I DO?!"
"Let me finish first, please," Dalit spoke, stroking his beard and then rubbing the tattooed arrow on his bald head. "Well, the Alliance won power and land, and they will win more and more, they will be able to bring thousands, if not millions, on their side with slogans as 'Revenge for Li Di Ce!' or 'Rejaki shall live!', and then they'd be able to control the whole south - which would mean they would pose the greatest threat to your rule of all, let aside the economic aspects, as the south is the greatest deposit of iron ores worldwide. They would cut off the Empire's arms and legs, and would leave it with nothing to defend itself than its very head, Ba Sing Se. Ba Sing Se will always be yours, but remember, even without being conquered, it already has fallen several times. To prevent that, I suggest you yourself attempt to initiate a propaganda campaign, you know the drill already. And, not to forget, to start exterminating the Alliance itself instead of collective punishment."
"Sounds plausible, of course... " Yi Ming stroked his own, white beard, and then, shifting from his previous position monitoring the Ba Sing Se area to one of the map showing the Southern Air Temple. "By the way, how are you doing with the passive resistance movements?"
Dalit sighed, and then crooked his lips to form a faint smile, stating, "The propaganda campaign is starting to show first effects, but I have to be careful. Even without my technique of asphyxiation, airbenders are powerful, and they don't necessarily refrain from violence when they are forced to, though I know my brother, this traitor, did... Anyway, I- "
"Brother? You mean, this airbender General of the Alliance? This... Anyang?" Yi Ming inquired interested.
"Indeed," Dalit affirmed the Emperor, then proceeding with his previous explanation. "However, to get back to the actual topic, I am planning their annihilation by several common activities of whatever kind, to show them that they indeed fare better under my guidance. It indeed was hard to establish a dictatorial reign of terror, but it works. Oh, by the way, speaking of common activities... This could be a possible solution for your problem, actually. A common military campaign, with soldiers from all over the Empire, against the Alliance."
"This indeed sounds brilliant!" The earthbender sighed as he turned to face Dalit, smiling slightly. "You know, in my dotage, I'm lucky to have you as a vassal and an advisor, sometimes my mind seems to have to remind me of my age... "
Dalit only nodded gratefully, and then turned to the map again. However, he didn't remain in the position for long, and his robes fluttered as he spun around just as the massive doors into the office swung open. A young, barely armoured soldier had arrived, and handed Yi Ming a scroll, explaining, "This urgent letter just came from Taku, sire!"
Yi Ming went up to the messenger, took the scroll from the bowing figure, and, after opening of course, read it. After he had read the few sentences, his face bore an expression of rage, and he immediately shouted to the leaving messenger, "SOLDIER! GATHER THE COUNCIL OF FIVE! IMMEDIATELY!"
Bowing once more, the soldier hurried away, and Yi Ming handed the letter over to Dalit. After quickly finishing, the latter commented, "Well, who knew Kanyzon would be so foolish?"
"You could never guess what just came in from Taku."
The bold words were hauled at the General by another of his kind. Wei looked up from his desk, where reports from the other two Generals of his organisation were spread. The elder earthbender narrowed his eyes at the airbender before him. "So? What did come in from Taku?"
Anyang smiled and took something he had hid behind himself all the time - a cage containing a messenger hawk. He was equipped like any other messenger hawk would have been, but that was what was unusual about it - it came from the Fire Nation. "I don't know more about what was sent to us, but the way of delivery is already most unusual, eh?"
"...so? Then read the letter aloud, come on!" Wei commanded sarcastically, before Anyang released the bird from the cage, and opened the containment for the letter on his back. The miniature scroll was what he unrolled as the hawk voluntarily re-entered the cage. Anyang quickly overflew the scroll, and then glanced to Wei, who wore a stern glance of approval. Sighing, Anyang started.
"Highly regarded General Wei of the Liberation Alliance! Following the unification of my nation, I seek to further consolidate it by means of warfare, of external kind in this case, and I found that together, we might be able to fulfil your organisation's only purpose. Together, we could bring the Empire down, that is, if we act fast enough. I already have taken Taku and am likely on my way eastwards as this message reaches you. You have complete control of an entire province and great control and authority in a dozen others, however, together, with your rebels, how many they may number, and my soldiers, we might bring all of the Earth Empire under our control, and both our causes would be served." Anyang took a short break as he decided to seat himself. "However, to effectively cooperate militarily, you cannot remain the threat in the shadows, you cannot remain the army of guerrillas. While your rebels are taught another kind of combat, they still could engage the Imperial Army in battle, or was I misinformed? You need to mobilise all resources you have at disposal for this operation - remember: you cannot reach your goal by interrupting supply lines. Should you accept, our armies shall meet at the south shore of West Lake, and we shall hold a council on how to proceed. However, should you refuse, simply state it in your reply. Yours sincerely, His Majesty, Fire Lord Kanyzon."
Anyang once again took a puzzled look at the letter, before tossing it at Wei's desk. "So..." began the airbender. "What do you think?"
Wei sighed, took a look on several of the reports of his, and then looked at Anyang again. "We'll do it. We started the production of crossbows, and given the current mining outputs and the rate of sing-ups and soldiers finishing their training, we'll have every soldier well equipped and trained for the battles awaiting us. Also can we take some time to prepare... If necessary, those from Gaoling can reach Serpent's Pass in two weeks, whereas Kanyzon has to trust in the road network and lacking enemy resistance to reach the same destination in the same time." He stood up and took a scroll, which he then spread on the lower table before his desk, revealing it to be a world map. "However, we should try to get some allies' aid... Let's see... The Air Nomad resistance wouldn't aid us, I presume?"
"And you presume correctly. They are devoted to bring back the old Air Nomad culture and customs, while sticking to them, those idealists..." Anyang explained. "So, no. We can't expect any aid from them."
"Hm... what about... No, the Fire Nation already would be aiding us... How about... the Water Tribes! No, wait, the resistance in the north was successfully broken, their leaders liquidated... only leaving us one survivor..." Wei mused while surveying the world map.
"Kabura?" Anyang presumed.
"Indeed... However, the Southern Water Tribe is in their Golden Age anyway, and bigger than their northern counterpart also! And, on top of that, allied with us!" Wei smiled as he circled the South Pole with his finger. "How many could they provide? Five thousand? Fifteen thousand? Fifty thousand? Well, enough to pose a considerable threat. So... "
"Shall I get word to the south?" Anyang offered. He, mirroring his superior's actions, had leaned over the map.
"No, no, I can do that myself. Now, what- " Wei's eyes widened and he - almost euphorically - pointed to a certain island halfway between Fusang Province and the Southern Air Temple. "Oh, right! Whaletail Island! The Confederacy has always delivered greatest service in terms of mercenaries... So, well- "
"I fear the Supreme Diet of the Confederacy of Whaletail Island has enacted the so-called Eternal Neutrality Law some... sixty years ago." Once again, the airbender spoke in a bold tone, closing with an almost provoking casualty. "Well, it's true, they prefer us over the Empire, but their law forbids them to intervene, I believe."
"At least one true ally, we would have then. Better than none at all, eh?" Wei put up a slight smile, before deciding. "I should inform the Fire Lord about my decision, oh, and should request Gangtok's assistance... You can leave for now, Anyang, just see that everything is prepared for the coming mobilisation."
"Of course, sir, of course... Revenge for Li Di Ce!" the Air Nomad General concluded, thrusting his fist into the air at the last words.
The dirt road went on and on, metre after metre, bend after bend, and with each step, it seemed to get harder to place another one. The pass was the only one leading to their destination which wasn't - occasionally - controlled by Imperial forces, and that for a good reason. While it sure was easy to defend, it was - for the very same reason - uninteresting for them. The steep course the path took made it hard for Kabura to push the wheelbarrow containing the group's belongings up, and also was the path narrow, complicating the climb for Senqok and Zoruka, as the latter still required the former's aid when walking. Not to mention, of course, the fact it lead up to higher levels than those the highest permanent settlements laid at, which was proven by the thick layer of snow surrounding the path in its less rising sections. Which at least kept Shizon occupied, as he had to melt the snow and ice in front of them. However, their climb upwards neared its end, as the mountain saddle was only a dozen metres away. A dozen metres difference in altitude, that was.
"Oh well... We're reaching the saddle, I think we could stop for a-" Shizon spoke as he decided to send a fireball over the short straight section of the path to melt its ice. However, then he caught a look over the valley and mountains below. "WAIT A SECOND. Behold, everyone! I present you, Omashu, the second largest city in the Earth Empire, and likely the world!"
"Whoa... Looks like a tiny, little, stinking metropolis. As usually," Noki cynically commented.
"Now, Noki, come on! It looks magnificent! I mean-" Zoruka started, only to be cut off by Senqok. "Uh, Noki's blind, should you not have noticed. In the past three weeks."
"I- I- No one ever told me, and quite frankly, Noki didn't seem to behave odd in any way...!" the royal protested, to which the blind one replied, astonished, "Oh... well... thank you, I guess... "
Kabura too managed to push her wheelbarrow up, and then simply let it stand at the pass' highest point, taking out some kind of folding chair, which she unfolded and set it in the snow beside the path, then deciding to seat herself there and to enjoy the view, ordering, "Skado, you bought the wheelbarrow, and it's yours now. Oh, and Shizon! Great idea!"
Ranju snuck up to Kabura from behind, and pulled the chair from under the healer, who then fell into the snow. Rolling her eyes, Kabura then walked back to the wheelbarrow, and sighed, "Alright... You win... "
Ranju couldn't suppress a grin as she put the folding chair back onto the wheelbarrow, whereas Skado, who brought up the rear, failed to comprehend what just had occurred. While they all descended again, none - except Noki, naturally - could take their eyes off the sight that presented itself, thus no one noticed the numerous people beginning their climb below, at the pass' base. After three hours, all seven had lost their interest in the view on Omashu, but failed to concentrate on the path as they were slowly tiring, and so, Shizon was the first to loose footing. He fell to the ground, and slipped downwards half a metre, before something stopped him.
"Shizon, is it? Of course! The assassins, our little commando we've got here!" The voice undoubtedly belonged to General Wei, who then seemed to notice Zoruka, and worse even, to recognise her. "Oh, and you've got a... guest with you, I see... "
As Shizon pulled himself up on the path again, the other six moved to the path's edge to get a better look on the soldiers in the setting sun's light. They wore standard armour-uniforms of the Liberation Alliance, their entire equipment somehow being attached, most of it strapped to them in some way, some stored, alongside personal belongings, in the knapsacks everyone carried or in their haversacks, and for each squad, one soldier pushed, like Kabura did, a wheelbarrow. Taking their eyes off the massive agglomeration of Liberation Alliance soldiers, the seven glanced at one another, before then Shizon replied, "Yes, I too wasn't fond of the idea... It's a long story... Just as the reason for... " Shizon gestured around, struggling to find the correct term. " ...this exodus, I presume?"
"Correct. Now, you don't have to hurry back, we've packed all your belongings, and now, onwards! We'll camp once we're past this pass!" Wei answered, and finished ordering, only receiving a sigh as an answer as the seven turned around. Deciding not to leave them unknowing, Wei concluded, "We're going to war, should you wonder... "
Notes and Trivia
- The term Grand March was inspired by Mao Zedong's Long March.
- Kanyzon's expedition was inspired by the Imjin War in terms of cause, and by Napoleon Bonaparte's Russian Campaign in terms of execution, not necessarily outcome.
- The bay Kanyzon's fleet is anchored at is meant to be Yue Bay.
- Kanyzon's troops' camp was inspired by Ancient Roman military encampments and Ancient Chinese urban planning.
For the collective works of the author, go here.