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|Siege at Jing Wa|
February 19, 2012
Chapter Two: Linh
Siege at Jing Wa is the inaugural chapter of the fanon series.
That night, staring out at the patchwork tapestry of indigo and cloud that was the sky, then back at the collection of generals seated around this minor constellation of maps and half empty bowls of rice, I had the feeling that I could fit the entire universe inside my body, could take all its nausea and artifactual wisdom for myself. For, with the imminent fall of Jing Wa, the universe had somehow become territory to be conquered, no longer a place to be lived in and loved, but, instead, something to be pined for and claimed. I surprised myself with this abstraction in the same way a child surprises himself by staring at a face long enough for it to become foreign and therefore full of possibility. I wasn't prone to feelings of triumph, feelings that I was sure were gifts of trajectory to most but to me were vague and a little scary.
I looked to my right at my father, High General Xianzu, his gaze fixed on either a map of Jian or General Wei Jong's roast duck.
As part of Father's invasion force, my battalion had been preparing to siege Jing Wa for what seemed like forever but which I guessed was actually closer to a month. I knew Fire Lord Ozai had suggested that we capture the city within two weeks of our arrival, but that would have required a direct assault on the city. Any attempts to bypass the fortifications that surrounded Jing Wa would have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of many men. Instead, Father had decided to force Jing Wa into a battle of attrition. We'd cut off all trade and supply routes leading to and from the city, razed every acre of farmland surrounding it, and poisoned the water supply. He'd also ordered the five fortifications captured, so as to confine Jing Wa's army to the city limits. Even I had to admit that it was smart. It wouldn't be long now until General Fu surrendered. The city would fall.
Our victory at Jing Wa would signal the end of the Fire Nation's most recent effort to take the Earth Kingdom province of Jian by capturing its three largest cities. By taking Jian, we would be able to regulate the flow of resources to and from the western Earth Kingdom, as well as end the rebellions that had been springing up as of late.
I wondered if the others who had crowded around the surrogate stars of these ink blots on maps were as exhausted as I was. Generals Wei Jong and Seng. They were experienced tacticians who had served under Fire Lord Sozin. And then there was my father, the High General placed in charge of this conquest.
"Private Xianzu, are you okay?" asked General Seng. "You seem a bit tired."
"No, I'm fine. Just a little tired, that's all," I said.
Wei Jong and Seng looked at one another, then at me.
"Well, lad, you'd better listen up." Wei Jong turned to my father and started, "We've taken control of all five of the fortifications that surround the city, as per your orders, but maintaining our hold on them will require a large number of troops. I recommend that we relinquish the fortifications for now and focus on a direct assault on Jing Wa."
"No," Father said. "I'm not just going to throw troops at the enemy; I'm not General Iroh, for heaven's sakes. I'm going to wait for Fu's surrender. How long can a city run without food or water? Besides, those fortifications mark key offensive positions. If the enemy retakes them, they will regain their foothold on us." He paused. "In fact, I want you to dismantle this encampment and form smaller ones around each fortification. And I want it done by tomorrow morning."
"What?" I said. "Dad, are you crazy? Your men are tired. You are tired. Don't you want to rest for heaven's sakes?"
"No, Tao. I want to be able to enter the city as soon as Fu surrenders."
"Well, there's no guarantee they'll even surrender, sir." Wei Jong said.
Father sighed. "No, Fu's going to surrender. I have a large caravan of food, water, and medicine headed to Jing Wa from the west. It'll be a bribe of sorts. Food and supplies in exchange for the city. There's a reason I scorched the farms and poisoned the water. I don't want to lose men." I paused, then continued. "If Fu doesn't surrender, we can use the fortifications to anchor an assault. Either way, we'll end up winning."
"What about the Earth Kingdom forces already garrisoned in the city?" Seng asked.
"We'll kill them where they stand," Father said. "How much of a battle could they possibly put up if we fight them in their own city?"
At this, Wei Jong and Seng began clapping. "Brilliant, sir," they said in concert. "You'll become even more of a legend.
"Silence, you two." He paused, then added, "We still have to get everything to the fortifications before the Earth Kingdom troops reach this place."
"As you wish, sir."
It took an hour for us to disassemble the encampment and organize ourselves into our battalions. General Wei Jong would lead the 56th and 57th to the northeastern and northwestern forts, General Wei Jong would lead the 57th and 58th to the southeastern and southwestern forts, and Father would lead my battalion, the 60th, to the eastern fort. From there, all we'd have to do was wait.
After we'd moved a fair distance away from Shilin Forest, I slipped off my helmet to allow myself a better view of the landscape. I didn't normally have much of an appreciation for nature, but this night was different. Because what had been fatigue but an hour ago was being converted, now, into an uneasy awareness of everything around me, as though through some strange alchemy. With this, there was the feeling that my brain was unravelling and becoming tendrils grasping desperately at the unblinking night, or else what lay at the other end of it. Morning, the probable surrender of General Fu to the Fire Nation, a feeling of genuine renewal from finally getting some rest.
The soldier to the right of me tapped my shoulder and removed his helmet. "T-Tao" he whispered.
"What is it, Mingshui?" I asked as I removed my own helmet.
"S-someone in the fifty-eighth told me that after Jing Wa falls, w-we're going to Omashu to reinforce the occupation force. I-i-s that true?"
"I have no clue what's going to happen after this," I explained. "My father is a very secretive bastard."
"Oh, b-because I'm a little worried—"
"But listen," I interrupted. "Let's not talk about military stuff, okay? I've been in a war meeting with the generals for six hours and I've heard enough of tactics and strategy and Pai Sho analogies."
"Let's talk about Yun," I teased, referring to a girl for whom Mingshui had professed his love several times when we were younger.
He turned away.
I continued, "Fire Lord Ozai will probably name appoint her father governorship of Jian, but you already knew that , didn't—"
"B-be quiet, Tao." Mingshui said, a semblance of pink still accenting his cheeks.
Yun had once referred to Mingshui as being like a "brother' to her. It was, of course, her way of diffusing any hopes he might have harboured for a romantic relationship. I didn't think the enclosed space of a single word was any place for something as free and without structure as a human relationship. Yet how else would people know what they are to one another?
The day she'd said this, Mingshui rushed over to my house. There, he'd asked me how bad his stutter was. He asked me if he was handsome enough, if he was well read enough, if his hairline was good enough. I couldn't really do anything except try and stop him from knocking down vases or statuettes as he wantonly swung his fists around in frustration. I don't think Mingshui ever really resigned himself to a platonic friendship with Yun. It was either really amusing or really pathetic, depending on your perspective.
"And you're never going to get Yun with that attitude."
"I-I-I'm over her."
"Really though. In all likelihood, she's going to end up marrying some snob. That's what all these nobles want, for their daughters to marry into families with higher standings than their own. And the thing is, you've probably met her future husband, probably attended school with him."
Mingshui groaned. "What you just s-said confuses me in so many ways."
"Well, you'd better get used to that feeling. It's only going to get worse from here."
"W-what d-do you mean?"
"Well, Yun doesn't know it, yet, but she's kind of pretty. And once she realizes that, she'll muster up the courage to approach someone like, let's say, Mizu. And then, my friend, there's no telling what could happen."
I watched his eyes dissolve into furious pools of expression. Hurt, anger, sadness, hopelessness. It was all there if you looked carefully enough. I didn't normally take pleasure in messing with Mingshui, but, somewhere between Shilin Forest and where ever we were now, the night had acquired a makeshift quality. Its motions seemed like things to be shed, shrugged off like a bad dream. How could you feel bad for something you said in a dream?
"But, I mean, s-she's just so s-s-s-sweet and kind," he said, unsolicited. "I feel as if she's the o-o-only person in the whole who understands me."
But, the thing was, I did feel bad. I had no right to dismiss his aspirations, his hopes. Feelings like those could spend years accumulating in the fenced in spaces of people's chests, eventually gathering into second hearts as fragile yet enduring as their first. What right did I have to them? "On second thoughts, maybe she is as perfect as you think she is. Maybe she'll look past the whole stuttering thing. You are Princess Ursa's nephew, after all. If she doesn't like you, her parents could end up forcing her to marry you. There. Feel better?"
"But I want h-her to like me for me, not because--"
"Okay, Okay," I started. "I didn't ask for her whole life story, for heaven's sake."
"Well, you're the one w-who wanted to talk about her, T-Tao. You know, w-w-e need to f-find you a nice girl," he joked. "A nice Earth Kingdom girl, m-maybe. From the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se."
Ba Sing Se. I realized something, then. I knew why my father was so intent on preserving his forces.
I moved out of formation and towards the front of the procession. My father liked to take his place as both the literal and metaphorical head of the forces he led.
"Dad!" I called out when I spotted the troupe of guards surrounding his palanquin.
From behind the armour-clad guards, there was the parting of a curtain as a vertical sea, then a whisper in the ear of one of the guards. " Tao, I want you to fall back into formation. That's an order."
"I said fall back into formation," he said again and gestured for the guards to force me back.
"Ba Sing Se," I said simply. "I know what you're planning."
"Hold on," Father said to the guards. "Let me hear what he has to say."
He dismounted his palanquin and began walking beside me. "Ba Sing Se?"
"The reason you don't want to directly assault Jing Wa and risk massive casualties, even when you could do so at any time, is because you're planning to besiege Ba Sing Se. That's why Jian and the southern provinces are so important—you plan on isolating the capital."
He scowled, then chuckled. "Foolish boy. You're right, I've minimized my losses here, but not because I want to conquer Ba Sing Se."
"Ba Sing Se will already have been conquered by the time we're done here. I have much bigger plans."
Father smiled a smile so unnatural I could have sworn it could have been sourced from a fox and grafted onto his face. "I've already said too much. Fall back into formation. That's an order."
* * *
We arrived at the eastern fortification in the middle of the night. Rather than sleep like I'd planned to, I walked over to the docks adjacent the fort. Sitting at the head of a pier, I somewhat masochistically dipped my feet into the ocean, letting the coldness of the waters nip at my ankles.
The waves had travelled so far across the marbled ocean, only to assimilate into the shrinking tide. Perhaps this series of tiny gestures was nature's metaphor for my own life yet to come.
I pulled my feet out of the water and lay down against the old wood of the pier.
The artifice of the world receded from around me, became softened shadows, as if to make way for a dream.
"I love you," someone called out from a space that was anywhere but here. A girl.
"Who are you?"
"That's not important. What's important is who you are."
"Who am I?"
"That can't be right."
"You will understand soon enough."
"What do you mean?"
"Even when they take it awake, you have to fight."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Take what away?"
"Wake up, Private Xianzu. Wake up."
The world expanded, gained depth. My eyes crackled as they met the morning light. General Seng stood above me. "Huh?"
"Private Xianzu, your father's been looking everywhere for you. Why did you come here? It's incredibly dangerous outside the fortification, you know."
"What?" I responded. "Why does my father want to talk to me?"
"He wishes to discuss with you what he plans to do after the surrender of General Fu."
I got up. "Let's go."
"Private Xianzu, pardon me for asking, but you aren't too thrilled by the minutiae of war, are you?"
"It's that obvious, huh?"
"Well, you spent most of the last war meeting staring at General Wei Jong's roast duck."
"I was staring at the map," I hissed.
"I hope you realize how much your father wants you to follow in his footsteps as a General of the Fire Nation Army."
"I know," I said. "And I hope he realizes how much I don't want to follow in his footsteps. I hate war."
As an adolescent, I believed fervently in pacifism. And when I entered the Royal Fire Nation Military Academy, I often debated with students, and sometimes even teachers, over the validity of war as an agent of effective social and cultural change. I'd heard the same few arguments repeated by so many people that, by the time I graduated, I had begun to suspect the ideologies of most Fire Nation nobles were not their own. As children, I imagined, their fathers and grandfathers had taken their own beliefs, had folded them neatly and precisely like origami, and had tucked them into the fragile ears of their children or grandchildren. The nobles, like everyone else in the Fire Nation, were unknowing heralds for this unfinished world, a world of fear and hatred. They were sickening, inbred parasites, and I hated them. I had told myself so many times I just wasn't like them, and the deception of that sunk into me and assumed the gilded husk of a truth.
It wasn't until I'd witnessed firsthand the atrocities of war that I realized how foolish my idealism was. Mankind would never live in longlasting peace, but at least the unification of the three nations under Fire Nation rule would repress international conflict for a while. Really, that was the best the world could hope for.
"Your father is a very ambitious man, and he realizes your potential as both a soldier and a tactician. You should reconsider a career in the military."
"What's the point? Even if I did enjoy slaughtering Earth Kingdom peasants, the war's almost over."
"Hm... That may not be as true as you think."
"What do you mean?"
"On second thoughts, I've already said too much. I'll leave it to your father to explain everything."
I pondered the dream I'd just awoken from. For as long as I could remember, dreams had been creatures of soft colours and muted shapes, but this one had been conducted in a weird array of light and shadow, as if unfinished. Still, the dream had been beautiful in its chronic starkness, the way it seemed to be waiting for something more. I'd stumbled upon this burgeoning apparition and had been allowed to stay, and for that I was grateful.
But then, there was the matter of the girl whose voice I'd heard as the echo of an echo. She was familiar in a way I couldn't pinpoint, and I could already feel her words begin to possess me, each one a ghost with the smallness of a speck of dust. But I had other things to worry about, after all. I couldn't concern myself with something as fleeting as a dream.
My father and General Wei Jong greeted me as I entered the war chamber located at what I guessed was the centre of the fortification. The kotatsu at the chamber's centre was strewn with maps.
"So," my father began. "You want to know about the coup?"
For the collective works of the author, go here.