Fire Lord Ozai was rather unsurprised when the latest intelligence report regarding the Northern Assault was delivered by his daughter. All of Zhao's reports had been delivered from Azula lately. It was part of the reason Ozai looked on Zhao with such favor. The pair of them seemed to have a genuine attachment to each other, and Ozai privately hoped that this might have a humanizing effect on his cold daughter. While he greatly respected her talent, determination, and guile, a leader needed more than that. A leader needed to care. If Zhao was able to teach Azula to care, that alone was worth the promotion to Admiral.
What Ozai was surprised to see was how...downtrodden Azula seemed. He knew she never showed emotion without reason. Her control of her emotions was near absolute. If she was allowing herself to show sorrow, then she had sorrowful news indeed. "What news do you bring from the North?" he asked calmly.
"I bring disheartening news, Father," Azula responded from her place kneeling before the dais. "The entirety of the assault fleet is no more."
"What?" Ozai demanded angrily. "How can this be?"
"Before a single shot was fired...a Deep One rose from the depths of the northern ocean to devour the fleet. Admiral Zhao...and all under his command...are no more."
Had Ozai been less distracted by the news itself, he might have caught how artful the pause was after she spoke the Admiral's name. Just long enough to indicate pain struggling to be controlled. Were he in a more suspicious mindset, he would have questioned that. "Then...there are no survivors?" he asked sorrowfully. To lose such a good commander and so many troops was one thing, but his son and brother were in that fleet. Had not Cadence's protection been on them?
"My brother's ship was unharmed," Azula continued, a hint of steel in her voice. "According to the reports...it turned and fled south without explanation before any sign of the Deep One could be seen. It sounds as though he - or someone aboard the ship - somehow knew it was going to attack...and chose not to warn anyone."
Ozai kept his relief from becoming visible, maintaining his stoic facade. "There is certain to be a reasonable explanation for such actions," he stated firmly.
"His course does not appear to take him anywhere near any of our outposts," Azula replied. "He doesn't seem interested in giving such an explanation."
"Then an opportunity should be given," Ozai replied. "Take a ship and bring them home, Azula. I must debrief them personally."
Azula bowed. "Understood."
Ozai nodded dismissal, and Azula turned and left. He could see how eager she was to pin the blame for this event on Zuko, whether over grief for Zhao or her own ambition was uncertain. Either way, if he gave her too much freedom in this mission, she was likely to take precipitous action of her own. Perhaps it would be best to send a reliable commander along with...to keep her in check.
Zuko groaned as he sat up on the rocky shore. The trip from the North had been...unpleasant, to say the least. So great was the terror the Kraken had inspired in the career seafarers that they had powered the ship as fast as it could go day and night. Some of those not on engine crew had even strapped themselves to the back of the ship and used Firebending to try and speed the ship along even faster. The journey had come to an uncomfortable end when the ship had driven itself full length onto the shore, so great was its speed. It had held there for a few seconds before tilting over and falling to its side, sending everyone tumbling.
"Is everyone alright?" he called out, getting to his feet. A chorus of groans mixed with positive responses greeted him, and he sighed in relief. From the number of voices, he knew no one was dead or in agonized pain. No one had been crushed. Pushing himself to his feet, he glanced around. "Lieutenants!" he called out. "What's the status on our supplies?"
Lieutenants Jong and Zhin reported to his side quickly. "A good portion of our equipment is badly damaged," Jong replied. "We've lost a good amount of our weapons as well. Our food supplies are alright, though."
"The crew's not doing as well," Zhin added. "A lot of them are convinced we aren't far enough south to escape the Kraken. Some are saying we should keep running, now that we can't sail." He paused, a nervous look on his face.
"And you aren't certain they're wrong?" Zuko inferred. At the nod, he turned to Jong. "How steep is the beach?"
"Not very," Jong admitted. "It's a very gentle incline for at least 100 yards out."
"Then we're far enough from the depths to be out of the Kraken's reach," Zuko replied firmly. "Even if it did want to come this far after one little ship, there isn't enough ocean to support his mass if he did come. Cadence did tell us that the Kraken is cruelly wise, so it won't be stupid. Besides..." He turned his face away. "I'm pretty sure it's already eaten its fill..."
Silence reigned over the beach. Up until that point, everyone had either been riding the terror of escaping the Kraken, or the hysterical relief of successful escape. Now, however, everyone was left thinking about how many had died. It was one thing to be glad about the fall of Zhao, with all the bad feeling there had been between him and the Prince. But each ship had a talented commander and a loyal crew...and an entire armada was gone now, drowned or digested. A massive blow to the Fire Nation...in a single night.
Leaving the crew to assemble whatever could be scavenged, Zuko sought out Iroh and Cadence. He found his Uncle comforting the young filly, who was in tears. "Cadence?" Zuko asked in concern.
"It's...it's my fault," she whimpered. "If...If I hadn't contacted La and Tui, the Kraken wouldn't have come. The Avatar was there, he would have done something to protect Tui, that's his job! But I had to stick my hoof in...and now they're all dead..." She buried her face in Iroh's chest.
"Cadence..." Zuko began, but stopped. Any words at this point would be hollow. He couldn't shift the blame for her. He looked to Iroh for help.
"Cadence, every living being can do no more or less than what they think is right," Iroh said calmly. "Whatever we decide to do...the consequences will always come home to roost, and we have to face them. You did what you thought was right, and bad things happened as a result. We cannot turn back time and try again. All you can do in the future is try harder, and consider all possibilities." He shrugged. "I admit, there was no way to foresee La calling on a Kraken to protect Tui. Sometimes, there is no way to tell what outcome our actions will have. We just have to keep moving. It is all we can do."
Cadence continued to cry, but her sobs were less hysterical, more simple grief. "Uncle," Zuko asked, "is there somewhere around here we can all relax? The troops need it...and so do we."
Iroh carefully unrolled the map. "Let me see..."