Zuko, Iroh, Cadence, Jong, and Zhin had been journeying for a few days after Iroh was deemed well enough to travel. Cadence and Iroh shared their ostrich-horse, whom Iroh had selected for a gentle ride over speed. Zhin raced on foot, often leaping between trees as he kept watch. Cadence and Iroh both marveled, however, at Zuko's "fire skates" as he'd dubbed the technique.
One night after making camp, Cadence stayed up with Iroh while Jong and Zhin were on watch and Zuko had sought his bed. "Father," she began softly. "There's...something we need to discuss. I think it's important."
"Oh?" Iroh asked cautiously. "What is it?" He started to lift his cup to his mouth, but stopped.
Cadence tilted her head. "Not thirsty?" she asked innocently.
"Oh, I certainly am," he replied chidingly. "Which is why I'd rather this cup not end up all over you or Zuko after you spring whatever shocking topic you have in store on me." Seeing her giggle wickedly, he knew he'd found her out. Setting his tea cup down, he composed himself. "I am ready."
"I think Zuko's ready to be an Initiate," Cadence stated as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Iroh stared at her for a time, then took a sip of his tea. "I was mistaken," he admitted softly.
"You weren't ready?" she asked worriedly.
"No," Iroh countered. "That would have been well worth the loss of one cup of tea. It certainly deserved it." He steadied himself a bit. "You do realize what you are suggesting, don't you?"
"Well, our eventual goal is for Zuko to eventually become Fire Lord, however we manage it, right?" she clarified.
"And we're hoping he'll have a balanced outlook regarding the world?" Cadence continued. "So that he can find a way to end this war without bloodshed?"
Again, Cadence interrupted her father. "He already is beginning to grasp the principles on instinct, based on what we've taught him. He wants to learn, to improve himself. And he doesn't keep that knowledge to himself. He taught Jong how to reproduce the Fire Skates he created, and will teach you as soon as you're well enough as well."
Iroh frowned. "You raise good points all," he stated chidingly. "But there's more to it than just whether or not he is worthy to be an Initiate, or ready to be one. Secrets are kept for a reason. Do you think he is able to grasp why?"
Cadence nodded softly. "I understand your concern, Father," she replied. "But my own feelings on the matter are firm. I think he's ready...and I think he's earned that recognition."
"It is not a matter of what is earned," Iroh scolded. "It is about what is wise."
"Precisely," Cadence replied. "And as a Sister of the White Lotus, I present my cousin to you, Grand Master. Do you feel he has the heart and mind of an initiate?"
Iroh's frown turned into a full fledged glower. "...you know what my answer's going to be," he grumbled. "But do you really think it wise to take this course, with the plans we've laid out? Zuko might someday be Fire Lord."
"Bumi," Cadence replied softly. "Pakku. You."
Iroh sighed softly. "Your point is well made, Sister," he replied. "As Grand Master...I recognize Zuko as having the makings of an initiate." He took another sip of his tea. "And I pray this doesn't come back to bite us somewhere painful."
The following morning, Zuko was surprised when he awoke to discover no trace of Jong or Zhin. "Uncle? Cadence?" he called out, seeing them sitting around a raised stone circle shaped into a table, obviously through Cadence's Earthbending. "Where are Jong and Zhin?"
"They are out on patrol," Iroh explained. "Ensuring we are not disturbed for the next several hours. Come, sit with us."
A bit confused by the formality, Zuko took a seat at the table. "Why do we need the privacy?" he asked curiously. Noticing the boxes, he raised his eyebrow. "Are we going to be playing Pai Sho?"
"In a manner of speaking," Cadence replied. "However...not exactly playing."
"I'm sure you've noticed I've placed high value on this piece in all games, despite it being one of the hardest to use successfully?" Iroh began, holding up his White Lotus tile, its edges marked with notches all around. "Have you ever wondered why?"
"A couple of times," Zuko replied cautiously. "Why bring it up now?"
"Because, Zuko," Iroh replied, "today, I'm going to explain it to you...amongst other things..."
Several hours later, Zuko sat back, wide-eyed in amazement. He'd had no idea just what Iroh had been involved in for so long. An Order of scholars dedicated to the preservation and distribution of knowledge? Members in all the nations? A game he'd thought was just about gambling used as a recognition signal between members?
And then there was the meaning behind the signal itself. The positioning of the pieces wasn't just about creating the Lotus pattern on the board. Each tile represented some aspect of the world, placed opposite its own opposite by the other player, and even the ones placed at nearly the same time had reasons behind it.
"Are you alright, Zuko?" Cadence asked worriedly. "I know it's a lot to take in."
"It is," Zuko replied. "But...I think I can wrap my head around most of it...except for one thing." He turned from one smiling face to the other. "Why tell me all this now?"
Smiling, Cadence lifted up a stone box that showed signs of having been recently carved. "Because," she explained, floating it over to him in her telekinesis, "those who cling to the old ways...can always find a friend."
Zuko took the box, his eyes wide. Opening it, he found a complete set of Pai Sho tiles. "W...how did you get these?" he asked, shocked.
"I made them myself with Earthbending," Cadence explained. "I even shaped different colors of stone to create the right patterns on the tiles with a thin layer of embedded crystal."
Zuko clutched the box of tiles tight to his chest, them suddenly becoming far more precious in his eyes. "I'm honored," he stated finally. "I...I'll do my best to live up to your expectations."
Iroh smiled expansively. "You already have," he stated happily. Hearing noise, he turned. "Ah, Jong, Zhin...how was your patrol?"
"We ran into the Rough Rhinos," Zhin replied, giggling a little. "They were after us to take us captive."
"Oh?" Iroh replied with a smile. "I know them. How are they?"
Zhin stared at his partner. Jong finally rolled his eyes with a groan. "They're...a little tied up," he growled out, making Zhin burst into laughter.
Half a mile away, five rhinos charged in a circle, strong ropes hooked to their saddles by arrows, linked in the middle so they couldn't break the circle, with each rhino continuing to chase the one in front of it, believing there to be something important further ahead that they were charging to.
Clinging to the rhinos' saddles under their bellies were their former riders, stuck by arrows to their flipped saddles, unable to fix things until the rhinos eventually grew tired of circling. In the middle of the circle were their weapons, stuck to the ground with arrows.
Several glowers were directed in the direction of Vachir, the former Yuyan archer, however. He himself burned with embarrasment over being bested by a washout.