Iroh calmly carried Cadence back towards the main part of the Palace once she had accustomed herself to being carried. She seemed fascinated by everything around her, which confirmed Iroh's suspicions that she was a creature from another world. The way nature seemed to react to her presence - he'd seen flower blossoms open at her approach so she could sniff, only to once more close once she'd moved on - seemed to confirm a strong connection to the Spirit Realm. Concluding she was a Spirit creature of some sort seemed more and more viable as he watched her. And the more he tended her, the more he would swear he could see her growing.
Still, he couldn't help but feel nervous about introducing Cadence to the rest of his family...especially since he had accepted the directive that he stand as her father. He wasn't entirely sure how many of them would respond to that. Then again, it had also been a while since he'd seen Ozai, Azula, or Zuko. He had no idea how much the three of them had changed...or been changed by recent events.
Thankfully, the first member of his family he encountered was Zuko, who was sitting outside by a fountain, plainly lost in thought. Iroh could understand. To lose his cousin, his grandfather, and then his mother in such quick succession...it was no wonder he would seek solitude as Iroh had. "Zuko!" Iroh called out softly.
Zuko's head snapped up, and a nervous smile managed to force itself onto his face. "Uncle!" he called back, standing up to walk towards him. As he approached, he paused, plainly struggling to figure out the appropriate thing to say.
Iroh smiled softly, deciding to step over the formalities and awkwardness. "There's someone I'd like you to meet, Zuko," he replied, kneeling slightly so that the filly in his arms was at eye level with his nephew. She looked over at Zuko with interest.
Zuko's eyes widened. "Uncle? What is she?"
Iroh chuckled softly at Zuko's immediate identification of the pony's gender. "She is a Spirit creature," he explained. "She came to me earlier today when, like you now, I sought solitude. Her name is Cadence, and she has decided - whether by her own choice or Spirit directive - that I am to act as her father."
Zuko looked up in shock. "But...after you just lo-" He stalled his words, looking down in shame. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't speak so freely of it-"
"If we do not speak, the poison of grief cannot bleed from the wound," Iroh interrupted, his compassion for his nephew helping him to push back his own grief for a time. "And...I think that may be part of why she has come. Perhaps...to help me move past what has happened. To help me...love again."
"I...I see," Zuko replied, plainly confused. Iroh smiled, knowing his nephew was not the most learned of children.
Cadence, for her part, seemed absolutely fascinated by Zuko. She stretched her neck towards him, sniffing at him. Zuko, for his part, seemed equally fascinated. Reaching his hand up, he gently stroked her mane. This caused her to giggle happily, wriggle out of Iroh's arms, and leap at Zuko, who barely managed to catch her as she proceeded to nuzzle him under his chin.
Laughter bubbled its own way out of Iroh. "It seems she likes you!" he pointed out. "You have a way with the ladies, young warrior. I expect you'll be quite the heartbreaker when you are older. I hope Mai doesn't get jealous."
Predictably, Zuko's cheeks colored. "I-I don't know what you're talking about, Uncle," he replied, looking away. Cadence, for her part, gasped happily, her forehooves coming together as her eyes lit up.
"Brother! Where are you?" a voice called out. "Father wants to see us!"
Iroh was confused by Zuko's wince, but he didn't show it as Azula approached. Of course, the first one Azula caught sight of was Iroh. "Oh, Uncle," she replied with a soft smile. She lowered her head, placing her hands together. "You have my sorrow and sympathy for the pain of your loss. May their spirits rest easy, and may your grief pass swiftly, to once more bring glory to our people in their name."
Iroh did his best to suppress the bile that welled up in his throat as he heard those words. Azula had always been a...strange, determined child. Almost single minded at times. However, when she spoke the formal words, it was more than them being in bad taste or feeling empty, presumably the reason Zuko had hesitated to speak them. When Azula spoke, her voice was...empty. There was no true sympathy to the words. It was less an offer of comfort - however badly phrased by ritual for the Royal Family - and more a recitation, necessary but without care. "I thank you for your offer of comfort, Azula," he replied.
Azula's smile in response was empty, her eyes calculating. Iroh supposed this might be her own means of dealing with grief, to shut down her heart, but it was unpleasant to witness. And it rubbed him raw when she turned that gaze on Cadence. "What a lovely creature," she stated, reaching towards her. "I want-"
Her words were cut off as Cadence hissed, her neck reaching out to snap her teeth at Azula. Had the young girl's reflexes not been so good, she likely would have lost a finger, if the hard clack of Cadence's teeth snapping together were anything to go by.
"It would appear she does not care what you want, Azula," Iroh stated, gently lifting Cadence out of Zuko's arms. "It is unwise to anger a creature of the Spirit World. They do not tend towards forgiveness."
Cadence continued to glower towards Azula, hissing spitefully but quietly now that she wasn't so close. Azula, for her part, frowned at Cadence, on the verge of a sneer. "She's obviously a bit spoiled already," she stated petulantly.
"You would know," Zuko murmured under his breath, causing Cadence to let out a giggle.
"What was that?" Azula demanded, rounding on Zuko.
"Nothing," Zuko replied, not meeting his sister's gaze.
Azula glared at him for a time, then turned away with a huff. "At any rate, Father wants to see us." She glanced back over her shoulder at Iroh. "He wishes to see you as well, Uncle, whenever you are ready."
Iroh watched the two children go for a time. "That went about as well as could be expected," he murmured. He looked down at the filly in his arms. "You seemed rather fond of Zuko rather quickly."
Cadence smiled, touched her nose with one hoof, then put that hoof to Iroh's chest, over his heart.
"He smelled like me?" Iroh asked. Cadence shook her head, drawing a shape in the air. "His heart?" Cadence nodded. "His heart smelled like mine?" Cadence nodded eagerly, making Iroh chuckle. "You are surely tied to the Love Spirit, to perceive things thusly. Though what was it you perceived in Azula?"
Cadence's ears went flat against her skull and she whimpered.
Iroh wasn't sure what caused that reaction, but he could tell Cadence was distressed. He gently stroked her mane. "Hush, little spirit," he comforted. "Don't think about it now. Just relax." He waited as Cadence calmed down. "After all...meeting with my brother is likely to be far worse."