Cadence stared askance at the barely there 'ice fountain' in the middle of the oasis town Iroh had guided the group to. It was a far cry from what records had described it as ages ago, and Cadence couldn't help but feel sorrowful as she saw what was left of what had once been a natural wonder of the world. Is this, too, a scar of the war? she found herself thinking.
As she stared, she overheard two men - one looking youngish and strong, the other older and business like, both dressed in well-to-do Earth Kingdom colors - speaking with a local. "Yeah," the local was saying. "A little barefoot blind girl and her friends passed through here a few days ago."
Toph? Cadence thought in shock. Toph was here? Why in the world would she and her group be here? It's not exactly a vacation spot... She glanced towards the ice spring. Not in its current condition.
"They were asking around about new maps or something," the local continued.
Of course, Cadence thought silently, doing her best not to laugh. Aang's map is so out of date.
The older Earth Kingdom gentleman - the one with a long goatee and mustache - spoke up. "Did they give you any indication of where they were headed?"
The local glanced slyly at them. "Maybe you could give me a little...incentive?" he asked, holding out his hand and rubbing his fingers together, an obvious request for a bribe.
"You suggesting I break your fingers?" the muscle bound fellow beside him demanded.
"They went into the desert," the local replied quickly. "Too bad there's almost no chance they survived."
At first Cadence froze in fear, but then shook herself off. They have Appa, she told herself. They'll be fine. But...maybe I should try and contact Wan Shi Tong to keep an eye out for them...if only to be sure Toph survives.
"That's okay," the muscle-bound man replied, crossing his arms. "She's wanted dead or alive."
Cadence's eyes narrowed to slits. We'll just see about that...
"No she's not!" the gentleman countered. "I'm certain her father wants her alive!"
Cadence grit her teeth. Toph had complained a great deal about her father during their short talk over tea a few days back. There was no way Cadence was going to let him drag her back because of these idiots. She could at least sow a little misdirection via Iroh's contact here. Turning, she followed Iroh and Zuko into the tavern while Jong and Zhin began patrolling, pretending to wander around town.
Once inside, Cadence watched, unsurprised, as Iroh moved to play Pai Sho with an old man sitting alone at a table. She saw Zuko watching carefully as Iroh performed the ritualistic greeting, shaping the lotus pattern on the table. "Welcome brother," the stranger old man greeted as the 'game' ended. "The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets."
As they were preparing to follow the old man out, the two strangers from before tried to apprehend them...only for the old man to make the entire tavern aware of the 'gold' value of the bounty, leading to a total free for all. Cadence chuckled as they slipped out in the confusion.
Jong and Zhin seemed almost to materialize out of the night as the group left the tavern. "Earthbenders trying to collect the bounty on us," Zuko told them softly.
"I'm prepared," Zhin replied, shifting his quiver so certain arrows were in easy reach. These were fletched to spin rapidly in flight, and the arrowhead was replaced with a small metal drill. While not very accurate at long range, at close range it would drill right through a wall of earth to hit the one behind it. Zhin had designed these arrows specifically to deal with Earthbenders, who would think a thin wall of earth could deflect arrows.
"Do you have arrows for everything?" Zuko asked, impressed.
"Yup," Zhin replied. "Even ones for non-lethal takedowns."(1)
Zuko shook his head in amazement. "Remind me not to cross you..."
The White Lotus member led the trio into the back room of a flower shop, once he was informed that Zuko was a new initiate. Jong and Zhin stayed outside of the back room, keeping watch. There were several other members of the White Lotus in the back room, and it was quite an intense meeting. One thing that surprised both Cadence and Zuko was one particular member, an old man who kept himself almost completely concealed in ropes and wrappings, and spoke only by whispering to a young companion who shared what his 'Master' had to say. While that was strange enough to Cadence and Zuko, what was even stranger was how everyone - even Iroh - paid great deference to the old man, even more than the Generals did before the Fire Lord.
Cadence came to the conclusion that he was either the head of the Order, or someone of great importance. He asked several questions about the Avatar, but otherwise said little, only occasionally nodding or shaking his head.
Eventually, the decision was reached to arrange for clean Earth Kingdom passports for the party. Cadence spoke up that they only needed to arrange it for Zuko, Jong, and Zhin, as she still had the ones Bumi had provided herself and Iroh back during their journey years back. Bringing them out, it was confirmed they were still valid.
At Cadence's request, anyone asking about 'a barefooted blind girl and her friends' in town would be informed that they were seen heading due south. With luck, this would throw those after Toph off her trail.
As everyone left and the flower seller made preparation to sneak them all out of town, Iroh turned to Zuko and Cadence. "Do you have any questions?" he asked.
"Who...who is he?" Zuko asked, glancing towards the old man as he left.
Iroh quickly pulled Zuko's head back. "Do not watch him, Zuko. If possible, forget you saw him. He and his...are the greatest secret the Order has kept for over a century, and neither of you are advanced enough in the Order to know why. If you can, forget you saw him."
Cadence's eyes widened as she saw something that made her realize just what was so important about the secret. The old man had rested his hand on his young companion's shoulders, and the wrappings on his hand had briefly become unwrapped.
A blue arrow was tattooed on the wizened flesh.
(1) I didn't mean to do this to Zhin, but I feel compelled to say here...no, his non-lethal takedown arrows aren't boxing glove tipped.