Iroh smiled softly as they approached a large town. "This is the city of Gaoling," he told Cadence. "While not a very large settlement, it is the home of a rather wealthy merchant family. Due to its out of the way location, it is untouched by the war. We are unlikely to find anyone with an issue taking Fire Nation money." He noticed Cadence staring around in awe, and chuckled. "We can explore later," he told her firmly. "After we've found a shop to restock our supplies."
Cadence pouted, whimpering. "But...but I want to explore now!" she whined. "I've never seen a town this size before! Look at all the big buildings!" She hopped down from the ostrich horse and gestured around. "And all the plants and animals I've never seen before! Can't I explore while you shop, Daddy? Please?"
Iroh stared at her begging, pleading look. He couldn't deny how adorable it was, or how hard it was to refuse her. However, he decided to stand firm if he could. "Cadence, even as removed as this town is, we can't simply claim to be Fire Nation royalty. There are still those who are either unscrupulous or hate-filled, who would seek us harm. And there are also those who might see you as a rare creature, one that would fetch a high price. I would hate to lose you to poachers."
Rolling her eyes, Cadence ignited her horn. Iroh levitated into the air, much to his surprise as he was surrounded by her aura. The cart with their things levitated into the air, disconnecting from the ostrich horse. The ostrich horse levitated into the air as well, so used to having her practice this with it that it didn't even bat an eye. "I can take care of myself," she pointed out. "Even without fire bending. And I promise to be careful. Please Daddy?" She turned her cute, begging, pleading eyes on him once again as she carefully set everything back down exactly how it had been.
Glancing back into the cart, Iroh noticed that not a single thing had shifted. He sighed ruefully. "Alright," he replied finally. "But meet me at the inn before sundown!"
Squealing happily, Cadence leapt up and hugged him around the neck. "Thank you, Daddy!" she cried out, kissing him on the cheek before racing off to explore.
Iroh could only shake his head in wonder. "So young, and already so skilled at getting her own way...I fear what she will be like as a teenager." Chuckling at that thought, he headed for the inn.
Cadence raced around town eagerly, looking at the unique architecture, the different plants scattered around, the animals, the people...it was all so fascinating. Obviously the people who saw her also found her fascinating, as they frequently turned to stare when she ran up and examined their clothes. However, her childish curiosity about the world around her meant she never stayed in one spot long enough for anyone to get a close examination of her.
Approaching some high hedges, she spread her wings. Having watched many winged animals taking flight during their journey, Cadence had already mastered propelling herself in short bursts of flight. Iroh's teachings of preserving and sharing knowledge had left her without the concept of 'private property' in terms of property lines. These two things made it perfectly understandable as to how and why she chose to fly over a hedge meant to keep people out.
Once in the yard contained therein, she hovered for a bit, surprised by what she saw. A young girl wrapped in pale green and off white robes had her back to Cadence. She was bent over, playing with stones, only her black hair visible. While the girl's appearance wasn't all that surprising, Cadence was confused that she hadn't turned to see her. The flapping of her wings hadn't been that quiet.
The moment her first hoof touched the ground, however, the girl shot up. "Well," she said simply, "you're certainly a strange looking bird." She then turned around and walked up to Cadence. "Never heard of a bird-pony...or are you a bird goat?" The girl knelt in front of Cadence.
Cadence stared in shock at the girl's pale blue eyes. Most would shrug off the paleness as normal color, but this close Cadence couldn't ignore the almost filmy texture covering the entire eye. Lifting her hoof, she waved it in front of the girl's face.
"Geeze," the girl grumbled. "Even animals do that?"
"I'm not an animal," Cadence complained.
The girl froze. "You talked."
"So did you," Cadence replied sourly.
The girl chuckled. "I like your style," she stated happily, punching Cadence on her right shoulder. While it didn't injure Cadence, there was plainly a lot of force behind the punch. "Name's Toph. What's yours?"
Grinning, Cadence returned the punch on Toph's shoulder. "Cadence," she replied happily. "How'd you see me when you're blind?"
Toph burst into hearty laughter. "Well you certainly don't waste any time with pleasantries."
"Are you going to answer my question or not?"
Toph laughed again. "Earthbending," she explained, lifting up her handful of pebbles. Wriggling her fingers, the pebbles danced in the air over her hand. "I learned most of it from the badger moles in the caves in the mountains." Letting the pebbles drop, she lifted her skirts to show her bare feet. "The badger moles are blind like me, so they see through the vibrations in the ground. I do too, using my feet."
"So that's why you only noticed me when my hoof touched the ground!" Cadence gasped in awe. "Teach me, please?"
Toph chuckled. "How can I teach you when I'm only 7?" she asked.
"Years or months?" Cadence countered. "I'm the latter."
Rolling her eyes, Toph shrugged her shoulders. "I guess we can see if you even can Earthbend. First, take a strong horse stance." Cadence raised an eyebrow, making Toph burst into laughter. "It's just the name of the stance!" Toph demonstrated the position.
Cadence struggled to achieve the same position, but the widespread stance of her hind legs made it difficult for her to stay upright, even with her wings spread.
"Hmm..." Toph murmured, feeling Cadence's imbalance. "Try it on all fours instead, and use your wings as arms."
Nodding, Cadence did as instructed.
"Now close your eyes, and try to feel the Earth," Toph instructed.
Closing her eyes, Cadence focused, trying to expand her awareness. Feeling the Earth around her was easy. Not being overwhelmed by the strength of the Earth Spirit was a bit more difficult. She opened her eyes, waving her wings forward strongly as though trying to disperse the vision.
The pebbles Toph had dropped earlier flew forward like missiles, punching through the nearby hedge. Someone outside yelped. Toph applauded. "Nice start!" she complimented. "But you'd better get going now. The guards are on their way."
Cadence blinked and nodded. "Can we meet up again?" she asked eagerly. "I want to learn more!"
"Sure!" Toph replied. "Meet me by the caves in the mountains west of town a few hours after sunset."
"I'll be there!" Cadence promised, leaping over the hedge again with wing aid. Noticing the sun moving towards the horizon, she raced for the inn to meet up with Iroh.
After dinner, Cadence waited until she heard Iroh snoring, then silently slipped out the window of the inn to go meet up with Toph at the caves.
As Iroh noticed that Cadence had trouble waking up the following morning, he concluded that the long time spent travelling had been a bit rough on her, and so decided to spend an extra week in Gaoling to let her recuperate. Cadence was quite happy with this arrangement, as it gave her plenty of time to hang out with Toph, both studying Earthbending and whatever else they decided to do at any given time. Cadence knew she couldn't pick up too much of Earthbending in just a week, so once she understood the basic principles - from no less than the badgermoles themselves - she focused instead on building up her friendship with Toph.
On the last night of the week - the night before the day Iroh had decided they would continue their journey - Toph and Cadence lay back on the mountainside, apparently staring at the stars. Neither of them was actually looking at the stars, however, as they were instead focusing on feeling the Earth beneath them...and feeling each other through the Earth.
"I'm gonna miss you," Toph said finally. "I've...never had a friend before."
"It's a first for me, too," Cadence replied. "I hope we meet again."
"Me too," Toph replied. "Even if you are Fire Nation."
Cadence's eyes popped open. "How did you know that? I never mentioned it!"
"Followed you back to the inn one night," Toph replied. "Felt you bribe the help to not tell your Dad about you sneaking out...with high denomination Fire Nation money. It's pretty distinct. The only time it ever crosses my Father's desk is when he's dealing with someone high up in the Fire Nation hierarchy."
Cadence sighed. She figured she'd have to tell Toph about this sooner or later. "The Fire Lord's my uncle," she stated simply.
"And I'm the Earth Queen," Toph retorted sarcastically.
Getting to her hooves, Cadence gave an exaggerated bow with a sweep of her wing. "Forgive my rudeness, Your Majesty," she teased.
The two laughed together for a bit, and then Toph raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"
"Seriously," Cadence replied.
They were both silent for a time, though neither was thinking about the revelation. Toph was the next to speak up. "We need a secret handshake," she stated firmly.
Cadence lifted one hoof with a quirked eyebrow.
"You know what I mean," Toph countered. "Something just for us, as a way of greeting each other."
Cadence thought for a time, and something rose in her mind. She leapt to her hooves. "Follow my lead," she stated.
Curious, Toph got to her feet and began to mimic Cadence's movements. "Sunshine, sunshine," she chanted with her as she ran in place for four steps. "Ladybug's awake!" She covered her eyes with her hooves before exposing them.
Cadence continued the chant. "Clap your hooves-"
"I don't have hooves," Toph pointed out.
"Just make a fist."
Grinning, Toph did so, bumping her clenched fists against Cadence's hooves. "Clap your hooves, and do a little shake!" they chanted together, Toph performing the last part by throwing her hands into the air and shaking her hips.
The pair fell to the ground laughing. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard or done!" Toph pointed out.
"Said the blind girl who saw to the talking pony," Cadence pointed out.
Toph's grin split her face. "You're right. It's perfect."
As the moon set, they shared one last bump of fist to hoof, before going their separate ways, both looking forward to when they could meet again.