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|The Six Hundredth Day|
Feburary 25, 2012
The light from the candle flickered. Iroh looked up to check that it would not go out, before resuming his reading. Wind shook his canvas tent, but like any other serious scholar, Iroh was able to ignore the sound. Late though the hour was, Iroh was determined to continue his study.
Several hours earlier, he had stumbled into camp well past sunset. Ambushes had hit most of the Fire Nation army, but most had not been as successful as the one against Iroh's column. "In the end, only two thousand casualties have been sustained from the day's disasters," an officer had reported to him, in a tone that suggested a minor gambling loss in Komodo Rhino racing.
Having turned down food and water, Iroh had returned to his tent, which had survived the ambushes intact. He had brought an entire library, but the amount of material on the subject he was researching would not even fill two pages.
Avatar Roku. Iroh was nearly sixty years old — his memory wasn't what it once was — but he could remember every word of their exchange. It constantly ran through his mind. There were a million unanswered questions. Why did Roku think it important to talk to him specifically? What aim would he not achieve? Why did Roku easily presume that they would speak again? And what did Roku think would happen on the "six hundredth day"? The last question was easy to understand. In a few short hours, the exact six hundredth day since the Siege of Ba Sing Se began would dawn. But what was going to happen? Perhaps there were clues in the mass of books, scrolls and papers. Clues as to why Roku was interested in the Heir to the Fire Lord. Clues as to Roku's foreknowledge. But in the early hours of the morning before dawn, Iroh was forced to conclude that, indeed, many aspects of Roku and his life were unknown. Historians did not even know how, where or exactly when he died.
Roku was wrong, of course. War couldn't ever be pointless. Everything has to happen for a reason. Suffering and death has to be for a greater cause. What would life mean if that wasn't the case? It would mean nothing. The utterances of the sages would be empty words. The legend of the spirit of the world would sound like a fairytale, Iroh thought. Roku was wrong. He had to be.
Dawn came and passed. Two nights in a row now Iroh had not slept, but his weariness was trivial compared to the troubles swirling in his mind. Iroh ventured out from his tent, drew his cloak around him and quickly lit a campfire several feet from his tent. It was cold, but the wind had stopped again. Iroh supposed that this was the eye of the storm. It would start again, with a change in direction, later. Relief from his dark thoughts came in the form of his son, who came bearing more tea. It didn't smell like Jasmine. Iroh looked up.
"White Dragon," Lu Ten said as he poured his father a cup. "It's a rare Earth Kingdom tea. A bit sweeter than Jasmine. More fragrant. Made from a whiteish flower with some red-pink colouration. Not that you'll remember the exact description!"
Iroh took the cup and felt his heart skip a beat. It was the dragons again, and now that Iroh was more tired, it was easier to imagine that one of them was red than it was the day before yesterday, when he had imagined exactly the same thing. He took a sip. It was some of the best tea that he had ever tasted. Who knew that there was tea more delectable and more fragrant than Jasmine!
"It is good, isn't it? Sometimes, I think that if we hadn't been born into the royal family, we'd be running a tea shop," Lu Ten laughed.
Iroh laughed as well. "What would we call it?"
"I have no idea. You like jasmine tea. They like to call you the Dragon of the West. The Jasmine Dragon, perhaps?"
Iroh fidgeted with his cup. He had gone beyond simply imagining a red dragon with the blue. Now they were coiling around each other, even breathing fire... Fire of many colours.
"What's wrong with the cup, father?"
"It's nothing... I'm imagining things."
"I had never tasted this tea before... perhaps it has hallucinogetic properties?"
"No, it's not the tea. The tea is delicious." Iroh paused. "Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname 'the Dragon of the West'?
"Everyone knows how. You killed the last dragon. The title was bestowed on you by my grandfather."
"No, Lu Ten. Let me tell you what actually happened. That year, I had just returned from my first campaign against the Earth Kingdom as a General. It was one of the most successful the Fire Nation had fought in many years. We had finally destroyed all remnant forces in the Taku region. My father was very pleased—"
"You mean more pleased than usual?"
"Yes. I've always found that strange, considering the difference in our temperaments... anyway, I was successful in requesting several months to go on a dragon hunt. Legend had it that there was only one dragon left in the world, and I said that I would take up this challenge." Iroh paused for a moment before continuing. "I was lying."
"What were you doing then, if you weren't hunting a dragon?"
"Ever since I had ventured into the Earth Kingdom, I had become fascinated with the culture of the other three nations. I was visiting an Air Temple. The Western Air Temple.
"So you never met a dragon."
"No," Iroh smiled. "The story isn't finished. Having learnt much about the Air Nomads at the Western Air Temple – I still want to return there one day soon—"
"You respect their weakness?"
"No, I respect their culture and their heritage. Remember what I told you about why we continue to fight this war, Lu Ten. Where was I? Yes... I was returning to the Fire Nation when I sighted this completely uncharted island. Of course, being the curious man I am, I explored it with a mind to map and chart it. Soon, I realised there was something very strange."
"Don't tell me it was some Earth Kingdom outpost..."
"No, of course not. The last time I checked, the Earth Kingdom navy is still firmly blockaded in port! After so many years, they still do not have the brains to build vessels that burn even a little less easily!" Both men laughed uproariously.
Iroh composed himself with some difficulty and continued. "What I had seen were some traps – amateurish attempts, but still a firm sign of recent human activity. The island was inhabited. The island was small enough that I knew I would encounter its inhabitants sooner or later, so I decided to continue my little expedition. In order to gain some perspective of the island, I climbed to the top of the nearest peak. What I saw there was truly unforgettable.
"There was an ancient city, in ruins but its structure and architectural detail relatively intact. And on the other side... a jagged mountain that looked like it had been cleft in two by a giant from another time. I was sure that the city would contain more ensnarements – probably less amateurish than those I had encountered so far – so I ventured to the jagged mountain that so fascinated me. And," Iroh began to laugh, "having avoided all these traps, I was sighted by a large group of the island's inhabitants as they were coming down!
"Unfortunately for me, they did not seem to be inclined to exchange greetings. They seemed to recognise something about me and were immediately determined to try to capture me. That's when I discovered that they were firebenders."
"Firebenders?! But you say they weren't Fire Nation? They were actually trying to attack you?"
"No, they certainly were not Fire Nation. They used a completely different style of bending and dressed differently. They did seem to recognise where I came from though, and I when they finally successfully captured me, I did notice that they knew our spoken tongue. The first thing they demanded was information on how I knew there dragons on this island."
"So you did hunt dragons then!"
Iroh chuckled. "I didn't say I hunted them. I should have known that the cleft was a dragon lair. Who knew that my lie would become truth? You know, I say it too often, but fate is a funny thing! When they realised from my expression of shock that I had not in fact known this, they took me to see their chief instead of killing me. He was still at the top of the peak in the narrow cleft—"
A captain burst into the tent and interrupted. "Sir! Our scouts have spotted an Earth Kingdom army to the east!"
Iroh and Lu Ten exchanged shocked glances. Lu Ten wasn't going to believe the report without some clarification. "The east? But as a result of yesterday's manoeuvre, Ba Sing Se is to the south! You sure that the report didn't say they were coming from the south?"
"I'm absolutely sure, sir. They seem to have specifically wanted to attack us from the east. By my estimation, to be in the position they're in, they must have set out the morning after we broke through the Outer Wall. What are we going to do, sir? The wind is blowing from the east as well! We can't suffer an attack from that direction, there's more than just a gale going on out there – our heavy fire weaponry will be useless!"
"Calm down." Iroh took a sip of his tea. "Did the report include an estimation of numbers?"
"Yes sir – it's a rough estimation, but they probably outnumber our forces by about fifteen or twenty thousand."
Iroh set his tea down, the cup empty. "That's a lot of soldiers."
"You don't say!" cried Lu Ten. "With the wind against us, their advantage is magnified many times, father!"
"You should calm down too, Lu Ten. Finish your tea. Captain Leong, these are my orders. Make sure they are relayed as quickly as possible. The First and Second Divisions as well as the Shock Troop Regiment and my personal contingents will stand our ground at this position and meet the enemy when they arrive on scene. I expect that we shall have casualties due to the wind. The Third through Seventh Divisions will take all of our heavy equipment and march north and make a circuit around. When I give my usual field signal, these Divisions should attack the Earth Kingdom position from the north-east. Lu Ten will lead the Third through Seventh Divisions today."
"I understand, sir." The captain bowed briefly before rushing from the tent.
Lu Ten stood up, concerned. "You will be in great danger, father. Your plan means most of our forces will not be committed until later in the day. With so many of the enemy attacking so few of us in the initial battle, you risk annihilation for yourself."
"I know, my son. It is a calculated risk."
Lu Ten began to leave, but Iroh clapped a hand on his shoulder. Lu Ten turned around to look into his father's eyes. "More to say, father?"
"It is a shame I was interrupted in the middle of my tale, Lu Ten. I will have to tell you the rest of it when this is over. The two dragons I saw live to this day. For now, just know that wisdom can come from the most unexpected of sources. I will see you again, Lu Ten my son."
Lu Ten smiled. "You can be sure of that, father."
There was much to do, but Iroh felt that he needed one last moment of contemplation as his son swept from his tent. He sank into one of the mats beside the tea table. Iroh took a breath and calmed himself, allowing that warmth of life to pulse through him, before finally creating a tiny ball of fire.
It was firebending as the dragons taught it, firebending without anger or rage. Iroh could not help but feel a sense of guilt and unease.
The dragons had proved that the Fire Nation approach to bending was wrong – Iroh had accepted that long ago. But now, Roku had attempted to convince Iroh to believe that the entire Fire Nation ideology was wrong.
Could Roku be right too? Could the Fire Nation's war truly be flawed?
For the collective works of the author, go here.