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|Shadows of the Empire|
12 October 2014
Imperial Caldera City, Fire Nation
The Empress of the Fire Empire looked over the parade grounds, in front of the Imperial Palace, within the Imperial capital. Lines and rows of soldiers and officers stood assembled, quiet and unmoving. Ready to march. The usual grey color of the stone on the ground was almost unnoticeable under the many red and black dots; the uniforms of the assembled troops, with their good pieces shining brightly. Flags and banners of mostly gold, red, and black shown over the legions of soldiers as well. Thousands of soldiers, of the Imperial Army, Navy, Air Force, Domestic Forces, and Imperial Guard were here, for this day. The Empress looked up, seeing the sun shining brightly in the sky. A good day to celebrate the glory of the Fire Nation, indeed. Her quiet moment of thought was interrupted by a voice in the background.
"Your Imperial Majesty, it is nearly noon. The parade is ready to begin."
Azula looked back down and glanced over at the man talking to her. Grand Vizier Weizin was a man of medium height, and a thin-looking body. Though this was almost not visible over Weizin's thick black robes, which covered most of his body. The only thing visible was his pale face, and lifeless looking brown eyes. He was only in his fifties, but looked like as if he had lived a century or two. But he was good at his job. As the chief administrator and Imperial Adviser, he oversaw the Empire's massive bureaucracy on a daily basis, while Azula was free to do as she wished. Weizin was clever, and that was why he was loyal and never attempted anything against her. The Empress purposely set up the bureaucracy bigger and more complex than necessary. No one really knew their exact place in the hierarchy, and all depended on her for their power within it. This made it much less efficient, but lessened the chance of a coup or something else like that. Weizin oversaw it all, and was essentially her voice, as she rarely made public appearances in these times.
"Very good. Let us begin," replied the Empress.
The powerful pair made their way over across the elevated platform at the head of the parade grounds, near the palace's southern wall. On the ground, on each side of the platform, were standing almost one thousand of Imperial City's most important residents: nobles, city officials, military officers, and governors of far-flung provinces. Many had come long ways to celebrate this annual events. Azula walked past them onto the platform, walking past the assemblage of fifty or so of her personal Imperial Advisors and top military commanders, towards a podium in the center. With them was also a group of veterans of the Hundred Year War, wearing their uniforms and medals. The podium was elevated above the rest of the platform, giving her a view of the entire parade ground and surrounding area, as well as give the impression that she was above the rest of them, both physically and figuratively. Though it had been generally quiet up until then, there was nonetheless a quiet murmur of voices; attendees silently talking amongst themselves. However, as soon as Azula got to the top of the podium, everyone fell dead silent, staring at their leader.
"Lords and barons. Governors and mayors. Generals and admirals. And, of course, soldiers and sailors. Citizens of the Empire. I welcome you to the sixtieth annual Empire Day! Sixty years ago today, the Fire Empire was founded from the ashes of the old world by Phoenix King Ozai—"
She briefly paused as the soldiers let out a loud Hurrah!
"—and brought in a new era! Of stability, peace, and prosperity! A New Order! And we are here to honor it with a parade of our Empire's glorious armed forces, the creators and defenders of that New Order! A society that will last ten thousand years!"
Azula paused again, to catch her breath and to let the cheering and clapping of the crowds subdue.
"Glory to the Empire, glory to the veterans of the Hundred Year War! May our eternal flame never burn out!"
And with that, she ended her short speech. It was a cue for the march to start, with one of her top officers, Grand Admiral Chan, riding a Komodo Rhino, begin to move forward. He was followed by a procession of army drummers, playing out the temp to which the troops marched. The parade grounds suddenly were filled by the loud sounds of the drums and the sounds of the marching feet of thousands of soldiers.
"The parade is, as traditionally, started out by the drummers of the Imperial Academy's musical institute, and led by Grand Admiral Chan, chief of staff of the Imperial Fleet . . . "
Lieutenant Kazuo of the Imperial Army watched in awe as the Empress stood on the podium. She was not doing anything other than standing their, looking emotionless as ever. But it was what she did that amazed the young officer. Keeping this massive Empire together, and keeping it safe and prosperous. Kazuo's father was a veteran of the Hundred Year War, having lost an eye during the invasion of the Northern Water Tribe. In honor of his father, and to help preserve the great society in which he lived in, Kazuo joined the Imperial Academy in Caldera City. A good firebender, he was accepted and graduated as an officer in the Imperial Army. The graduation was a couple of days ago. After this parade, it was off to the lands of the former Earth Kingdom, where he would perform peacekeeping on the frontier. He was radiating with pride, wishing his father could see him now.
Suddenly, the marching order was given, and Kazuo began walking forward, with the rest of his column. He could hear the loud marching music in the background, and the voice of the announcer.
"Next comes the honor guards, of the Empress' own Imperial Guard, carrying the Flag of the Empire, the banner of the Armed Forces, and the banner of victory!"
The men marched to the end of the grounds, and turned around, as they prepared to pass by the stands where everyone was watching. He could hear the applause of the assembled upper class elites, as different units passed by. Finally, Kazuo's column reached the platform.
"Next, on the country's main square, march the graduates of the Caldera City Imperial Academy! The best officer cadets of the Academy were selected for the place of taking part in the legendary parade!"
That last statement made Kazuo feel even prouder, if that was possible. They marched past, and eventually passed the stands, marching away and out of sight around the corner of the southern and western walls.
Near Ba Sing Se, Earth Kingdom
Han Tzu looked around at the expense of the countryside as his family, in their wagon, passed down the road, towards Ba Sing Se. As farmers, they took annual trips to the former Earth Kingdom capital, to sell their produce at the local market. Their wagon passed by many other travelers, also on their way to the capital. He personally hated this life of subservience to the Empire, these foreign occupiers . . . but none of them could do anything against it. Han was a competent earthbender, but he rarely had the opportunity to try it. Earthbending without permission from the government and oversight by Imperial troops was illegal, punishable by death. In Han's home village, Zhongcheng, he had seen many people being publicly executed for breaking this law. It was absurd, but that was the way it was now.
Han's parents were only children during the final days of the Earth Kingdom, but they had told him stories of what they remembered from back in their time. Even though the country was torn apart by war with the invading firebenders, it still sounded better than living under the iron fist of the Empire. It was present in every day life. In fact, Han could see it now, as they were approaching one of the checkpoints, before the roads that led into the massive city itself.
A group of Imperial soldiers, some armed with spears, wearing pikemen helmets and red and black armor, and others with skull face masks, indicating they were firebenders, stood by a tent. As a couple of travelers ahead of them wearing rags for clothes, carrying several bags of something, walked towards the tent, a soldier with a sergeant's insignia walked up to them, with a couple of other men. Han and his family stopped their wagon a few meters behind them, preparing to for the same procedure. The sergeant yelled out to the pair of travelers.
The two, a middle aged man and woman, had already stopped, and slung the bags off their backs. The sergeant gestured to his men, and two spearmen came forward, and began looking through the bags. The sergeant kept his eye on the pair of travelers as his soldiers—no, as his thugs—continued looking through the contents of the bags that the pair were carrying. After about thirty seconds, one of the soldiers—a corporal, judging by the insignia on his uniform—looked up to his commanding officer.
"Sir, it appears these are just farmers taking their vegetables to the markets in Ba Sing Se," he told the sergeant. "Nothing out of the ordinary in here."
The sergeant picked up the nearest bag and looked through it himself. As he did so, the male traveller spoke up.
"Yes, yes, we grew these and are hoping to sell them to make money. They are top quality, I assure you!"
The sergeant nodded. "I agree, which is why they will make a fine payment for the toll to enter the city."
The man looked shocked. "But . . . but this is all of our savings! Please, let us just pass without taking all of them!"
As a response, the sergeant gestured to his men to pick up the bags. The man and woman looked horrified.
"But this is against Imperial law—"
"We are the law out here, citizen," replied the sergeant. "The mainland is under a permanent state of martial law, and the military can do as it deems necessary for the greater good."
The sergeant smiled as those last few words came out of his mouth. The man, looking terrified, quickly grabbed the arm of one of the soldiers, and pulled the bag from the surprised spearman's hands.
Everyone was shocked at his actions, even the man himself, who turned pale as he realized what he had just done.
"Assault against a member of the military! We are going to have to take you into custody," said the sergeant.
Two firebenders ran over from the nearby tent and grabbed the man's wrists, putting him into metal shackles. The man was still in shock as they began pulling him away from the road, towards the tent. The woman, unable to do anything about it, ran over to the side of the road. As the wagon began moving forward towards the soldiers, Han could hear faint sobbing from where the woman ran off. He could not believe the act of cruelty he had just witnessed. His anger for the Empire just kept growing by the day, almost.
As their wagon approached the tent at the road side, the sergeant and his spearmen stopped them. Han's father looked the sergeant in the eye.
"We also are carrying agricultural goods, but none of them are for you, unless you pay. Like everyone else."
The sergeant, taken aback by the statement, looked surprised for a moment, and returned the glare.
"Do not worry, their goods will suffice as your payment, as it appears they are not entering," he answered.
The spearmen quickly looked over the wagon's contents quickly, without anyone saying another word. Then the ostrich horses began moving again after they were cleared, onto Ba Sing Se. Han felt strongly that he needed to do something, but knew he couldn't. Not now, at least.
Unnamed village, South Pole
Nanuq swung threw his spear at the target, about ten meters away. The spear cut through what would be a person's stomach, and split it in half. Satisfied, he walked over to a small hut, which he had assembled himself. It was outside of his home village, closer to the icy coast. It was an isolated area, the only sign of civilization was a small Imperial port, a couple of kilometers away. Out here, he practiced with his cache of various weapons. Some, mainly the simpler ones, he built personally, others, he stole from the Imperial guards, and some he actually purchased at the market. Nanuq was getting good with swords and spears, and also practiced archery out here. Picking up several small knives, the young Water Tribesman began heading down the path through the snowy hills, that led back to the village. He took his knives everywhere, just in case.
Jogging through the snow-covered pathway, he reached the trailhead, near the outskirts of the settlement. His village was a small collection of snow and ice structures. The only exception was a dark, metal building, which shadowed over the village. It was the headquarters of the local Imperial garrison. The soldiers that were posted here were generally failures and incompetents. This was where careers were sent to die. But that did not really matter to Nanuq. Though he always wanted to leave his snowy homeland behind and see the world, he definitely did not want to join the Imperial Army. People from the former Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom were allowed to enlist, in theory, but they were heavily discriminated against by the military command. If Nanuq joined, he probably would be sent to some far off, meaningless outpost in some corner of the Earth Kingdom. Besides, he already had an idea of how to get out of here.
As Nanuq entered the village, he saw gathering of people at the village square, near the garrison building. Looking over the crowds, Nanuq saw that they were looking at several Imperial soldiers and an officer, wearing their arctic gear. In front of them, near the officer, was a young boy that looked like he was a couple of years younger than Nanuq himself. The officer was addressing the crowd, and holding a short wakizashi.
"—as an example for those who may be thinking of breaking Imperial law! Everyone must understand, that the Empire still owns this wasteland!"
Nanuq watched in horror as the officer raised his blade above the young boy's neck, who looked terrified. He could not let this stand! Taking out his knives, he threw two of them at the officer.
One of them hit the officer's arm, causing him to yell out in pain and drop the sword, which just hit the coat that the boy was wearing, and rolled harmlessly onto the snow-covered ground. The second knife hit the officer in the stomach, causing him to fall to the ground.
For several seconds, a silence fell over the village. No one moved, no one said anything. Looking around, Nanuq saw that all shocked faces were on him. Then, he turned around and ran. Hearing commotion behind him, he sped up and rounded a corner. The guards were after him, no doubt. The Water Tribe warrior just hoped he bought the young kid enough time for him to run off.
Running past a cluster of huts, he went down a few alleys, and reached his small hut. Entering it, and seeing his parents and younger brother were gone, Nanuq sat down, and regained his energy after the run. A few minutes later, he heard footsteps. Nanuq began to pick up his one remaining knife, but then put it down as he saw who it was: his brother, Qulak.
"What the hell did you do? All of the Imperial soldiers in the garrison are scouring the city for you now!"
That was not surprising. "I, uh . . . I—"
"Never mind, it does not matter. The point is that you cannot stay here."
Now Nanuq was surprised. "What?"
"They are going door to door, so they will find you. You need to get out of the village, unless you wanted to be publicly executed, like that kid was five minutes ago."
Damn. So his distraction was for nothing.
"Fine. But where do I go?"
His brother looked at him with a confused look on his face.
"Some other village? I don't know. Just out of here."
Nanuq stood up. He had been preparing to leave, but not this soon. He had a canoe back at his encampment in the hills. From there, it was a short walk to the shore, and he could disappear. Quickly throwing some food and other essentials into a small bag, he nodded to Qulak.
"I guess this is goodbye, brother."
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