Iroh walked softly, sorrowfully around the Palace Grounds, seeking silence, peace, and refuge. As little as a month ago, his world had been perfect. Hailed by his people. Respected by his soldiers. Loved by his son. Honored by his family. Each new day looked to be better than the last. And then, bit by bit, his world had fallen apart.
In the midst of his siege of Ba Sing Se, he had received word. His son had died in the war. The force of the grief had stalled his mind, so he could not think how next to attack the great city of the Earth Kingdom. After a time, he came to the conclusion that he would have to work through his grief before he could return to the war.
But when he had gotten home, even greater tragedy awaited him. His father was dead, and had disinherited him in favor of his younger brother Ozai, who was now Fire Lord. Tragedy and loss poured down on him, leaving his will broken.
The funeral for his son had to wait until after the state funeral for Fire Lord Azulan, which had waited for Iroh's return to occur. During that state funeral - and the coronation of Ozai which followed - Iroh had been required to present a stoic, passive face. As brother to the new Fire Lord, he could not show grief, despair, or any other negative emotion. He had to be strong for his family and country, no matter how much he hated it.
It wasn't that he cared about being Fire Lord. He had never wanted the position for himself, or personal glory. Even if he'd gotten the position, it would have taken years - if not decades - to work towards repairing the damage to the world and restoring the Balance as the Order of the White Lotus sought to do. Iroh was a member in good standing within the Order, and dedicated to its goals.
It had been during his son's funeral - where he'd also been forced to maintain his stoic expression - when Master Piandao, another member of the Order, had approached him. He had offered his personal comfort for his loss, and with a palming of a white lotus Pai Sho piece, the sympathy of the Order as a whole. That support had been welcome, but he was still left with grief he could not purge. Unable to cry, he felt the weight of it on his heart, boring in until it would break him.
And now he sought privacy within the royal compound. Somewhere peaceful and unseen, where he could allow his grief to show. Where he could shed tears for the son he'd loved more than his own life, and for the father who had betrayed him.
At last, he found a place within the gardens. Shaded and hidden, filled with bonsai trees and a water display which would hide the sound of his tears, he could express his grief here without concern for observation. Sitting in the garden, he settled his pipa in his lap and began to pluck the strings, playing his son's favorite song, one he'd written for Lu Ten stanza by stanza as he'd grown. Struggling to hold back his grief, he began to sing.
"Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home"
His tears began to fall as he plucked the strings. He heard the sounds of a small creature coming towards him, drawn by his music. He smiled softly, glad of the company that wouldn't judge him. When the noises ceased in the bushes close to him, he began to sing again.
"Those leaves did grow
From branches overgrown
Drifting slowly down
Resting on the loam
Little soldier boy
Taken from home
Forced to fight a war
That's not his own"
That verse he'd written when Lu Ten had joined the army, to make him proud. He had welcomed his desire to prove himself, though had not been entirely happy with his choice to become a soldier. Still, he had shown his support, and had prayed he would come home safe.
But he hadn't. And much to his sorrow, Iroh had been forced to add the last verse to the song.
"Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile tiny shells
Drifting in the foam"
As he sang, he heard a tiny, high pitched voice singing along with him. There were no words, but it carried the tune beautifully, like a tiny flute blending with the plucks of his pipa. Surprisingly enough, it came from the bushes to his side, where he'd heard the creature before. Had it perhaps been a child?
As he sang the second half of the verse, he shifted slowly to move the bushes to one side, hoping to see the singer without disturbing them.
"Little soldier boy says
"Carry me home"
Sleeping soldier boy
Is carried home"
The singing continued with him as he pushed the bushes to one side. His eyes widened as he caught sight of the singer. As best he could tell, it was a tiny pony of some sort, about the size of a cat. He knew of ponies from seeing a poodle-pony, but he had never seen an actual one. They were quite rare, as were their larger counterparts, horses. It was why ostrich horses were the more common land mounts used. However, this pony was unlike any he'd ever seen, even in art. For one thing, it was bright pink, with a pink, purple, and yellow mane and tail. On each side of its rump was a mark of a heart made of blue crystal on an unrolled yellow scroll. It also had a horn spiraling from its forehead, and wings folded to its sides. Its face was also, somehow, distinctly feminine, leading him to the conclusion the pony was female.
She was also sitting on her hindquarters - an unusual pose for any equine type creature - with her head tilted back, eyes closed, and an expression of intense focus and joy on her face as she sang along to the tune of his pipa.
As he stopped playing, she opened pale purple eyes to look up at him. She frowned worriedly when she saw him staring, starting to back away.
"It's alright," he said gently, setting his instrument aside. "You don't have to be frightened. I won't hurt you. Are you a spirit creature?" When she continued to back away, he reached into the basket he'd brought with him, drawing out the roll he'd brought to snack on. When her eyes perked up at the sight of the bread, he smiled, breaking off a small piece and gently tossing it to in front of her. She eagerly seized it, nibbling on it until she'd devoured it.
When she looked up again, Iroh had already dropped the next piece a little closer to himself. She pounced on the piece...then paused, looking up at him before eating it. She glanced from the small piece of bread clutched in her forehooves - an amazing feat to Iroh's eyes, in and of itself - to the loaf, to Iroh himself. She tilted her head in thought...then surprised Iroh further by clambering into his lap before eating the piece in her hooves, nudging his empty hand with her forehead to solicit a caress.
Iroh found himself laughing as he stroked her mane. "Quite an intelligent and forward little creature as well," he laughed, pausing in the caress only to break off another piece to let her eat out of his hand. "And such a beautiful singing voice as well. You showed strong cadence."
On the last word, the little creature suddenly spun to look him in the eyes, a beaming smile on her face.
Iroh stared at her for a time, thinking things through. Highly intelligent and affectionate, capable of singing...perhaps... "Is that your name?" he asked softly. "Cadence?"
The little filly squeaked happily, her horn lighting up with a pale blue aura.
Iroh suddenly felt an overwhelming surge of love and affection erupt within his heart, filling his whole being. Had his mind or heart been weaker of will, it would have completely claimed him, and he would have assumed it was his own emotions for this tiny creature. However, he was a bit more aware of the ways of spirits than the average man, and so he reached up and placed his finger at the tip of the filly's horn.
She squeaked in surprise, the aura fading away, along with the surge of emotion inside him. She looked at him in confusion.
He smiled down at her. "That's quite a lot of power you have for one so small," he pointed out. "You must be careful. I am certain you wanted to just show how happy you were that I knew your name, but were I a lesser man, that surge of emotion would have overwhelmed me, binding me in love and enslaving me to your will." Her eyes widened in fear. "I can tell you are too kind a creature to desire such a thing...but with power as great as yours, you must learn control."
Cadence let out a pathetic sounding squeak, her wings unfolding to hide her face. Iroh felt pity for the poor creature. "Perhaps I can teach you control?" he offered.
She once more smiled happily up at him, trying to hug him with forelegs and wings, nuzzling his chest with her face.
Iroh couldn't help but return the smile. "But where did you come from?" he mused. "And what brought you here?"
Looking up at him sadly, Cadence touched her nose to his chest, right over his heart.
Iroh's eyes widened. "You...felt my sorrow?" She nodded. "And wanted to comfort me?" She nodded again. Smiling, he embraced the tiny filly gently. "What a caring creature you are," he praised. "Are you one of the Love Spirit's creatures?"
She looked up at him in confusion.
Iroh stroked his beard as he thought about how to phrase his questions. "Hmm...can you tell me who your mother is?"
Cadence thought for a time, then shook her head sadly.
Iroh stroked her mane in sympathy. "Hmm...what of your father? Do you know who he is?"
Cadence thought for a time again, then squeaked happily. She stuck her hoof out, pointing at his heart again.
The Dragon of the West blinked in surprise. "I?" he asked. "I am your father?"
Cadence squeaked happily and hugged him again.
Chuckling, Iroh returned the embrace. "Tis a foolish man who ignores the will of the spirits," he murmured softly. "I have been foolish enough in my life. Perhaps the spirits have a purpose for me...and have sent you to guide me in that purpose. And...perhaps even to help me heal..."
He remained where he was for a time, hugging the spirit creature that sought to patch, but not fill, the hole in his heart.