I could feel the warmth of Zuko washing over me as I slowly woke up. The smell of tea wafted over from a new fire that Iroh had made, and it swirled with Zuko’s scent. I looked at Zuko, his face was soft and relaxed, his eyes were closed, still sleeping. As if he sensed me looking at him, he stirred. I quickly looked away and sat up, not wanting to get caught staring. I heard him groan from beside me, and glanced down. His eyes were open now, and he yawned.
“Good morning you two,” Iroh chirped.
I looked over and smiled, getting up and walking to the fire. He handed me a cup of tea as Zuko came over and sat next to me.
“I am glad you are awake, I wanted to get a head start this morning. We are not too far from the village.”
“What village?” I asked, sipping my tea.
“A village that should help us with what we need,” he responded with a sly smile.
Zuko growled, “Why do you always have to be so difficult and cryptic?” I could hear the annoyance in his voice.
Iroh didn’t say anything, he just smiled and drank his tea.
Once we were ready and done packing up, we set out to Iroh’s mysterious village. Iroh was in the front again, because only he knows where we are going. Zuko was behind him, and then me, with my arms wrapped around Zuko. He made sure that I kept a tight grip, since I was at the back, he didn’t want to risk me falling off.
The trees were scarce now, barely any green life would pass by us at this point. I leaned into Zuko, taking in his scent. I finally felt comfortable with taking a moment to really breathe him in. Right away I knew that he smelled like sandalwood, that was the most prominent scent that I had noticed when we first met. I breathe again, and this time I notice that the sandalwood is mixed with an amber, which gives it a deeper musky tone to it.
Zuko moved slightly, almost as if he was looking back at me. I lifted my head to look, and could see him looking at me from the corner of his eye. I smiled and rested my cheek on his upper back. I breathed him in for a third time, there was something else that I was missing, that was hiding beneath the sandalwood and amber. I couldn’t place it.
“We’re almost to the village, get ready,” Iroh broke the silence that had been over us almost the entire trip.
I perked up, lifted my head from Zuko’s back and looked around. No trees to be seen anywhere, I could feel the dryness in the air, filling my lungs. I held back a small cough. This place was even worse than back at my village.
I cleared my throat, feeling the tension that immediately took over Zuko’s body once we came upon a small, very dry village with odd-looking people in it. They did not look like your normal Earth kingdom people, they must have adapted to the dry climate that is in this area. Zuko was looking around, assessing the area.
“So, what’s the plan?” I asked, and they both looked back at me. Neither of them responded.
I sighed. Iroh led us over to a pole and jumped down, tying the rope to the pole. Zuko got down as well, then helped me down. I could feel his strong arms gripping me tightly as he helped me down, and once my feet touched the ground I got a whiff of sandalwood and amber that sent waves of calm throughout my body. His muscles were more pronounced now since he was alert and watching every person.
“Do you even have a plan?” I asked Iroh as Zuko and I followed him into the village.
“You will see, be patient,” Iroh responded, smirking.
“Why must you be so difficult uncle?” Zuko complained with a hoarse voice. Maybe I wasn’t the only one affected by the change in environment.
As we were walking into a building that I assumed was some sort of saloon, I briefly glanced behind us to see two men with long black hair watching us. I turned back and followed into the saloon, furrowing my brows in confusion. Why would they be watching us? Maybe they know we aren’t from around here and are curious? I looked around the room, assessing the situation. There was a bar to serve drinks from cups carved out of ice, a few tables, and more odd-looking people. Some of them seemed to be just travelers, others I wasn’t so sure. Iroh led us to a table against one of the walls and we all sat down.
“No one here is going to help us,” Zuko started, visibly annoyed, “These people just look like filthy wanderers.”
I raised an eyebrow at him, yeah sure he was right, but it is not nice to judge or assume, especially if you’re saying it out loud.
“So do we,” Iroh responded. “Ah, this is interesting. I think we’ve found our friend.”
Zuko and I both followed where he was pointing, looking over our shoulders. There was an older man sitting at a table in the corner behind us, with pai sho set up, waiting for someone to play him. He looked more normal Earth kingdom than a lot of the other people in the room; he looked promising.
“You brought us here to gamble on pai sho?” Zuko growled and looked at me for help. I shrugged, telling him to wait and see what happens.
“I don’t think this is a gamble,” Iroh got up and walked over to the table, with Zuko and I following behind. I noticed out of the corner of my eye, those two men who were staring at us when we arrived were sitting against the adjacent wall, watching us.
“May I have this game?” Iroh asked the older man.
“The guest has the first move,” he motioned for Iroh to sit across from him at the table.
I stood close to Zuko, eyeing the two men. “Zuko, we might have a problem,”
“Yes, I know. My uncle is gambling at pai sho and we have other problems to worry about.”
Iroh and the older man started playing, talking as well. Their conversation seemed weird, scripted almost.
“Uh, no, not that.”
He turned to look at me. I glanced again at the two men who were watching us still, if they were trying to hide it they weren’t doing a very good job. Zuko waited a minute after I turned back to watch his uncle and the older man play, and then he glanced in the direction I did, following my previous gaze. I assumed he saw the men I was referring to, because I could feel his tension when he turned back. We both sat down at the table. I quickly realized that they didn’t seem to be playing a normal game of pai sho, they seemed to be making some sort of pattern on the board.
“Welcome brother,” the old man said. My eyes widened as I realized they had made the pattern of a lotus flower. “The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets.”
I furrowed my brows and looked over to Zuko, who seemed just as confused as I was. Now the conversation they had at the beginning of the game made more sense. They were talking in code.
“What are you old gasbags talking about?” Zuko blurted out, interrupting them. I rolled my eyes.
“I always tried to tell you that pai sho is more than just a game.” Iroh responded calmly.
I heard something behind us and glanced at the two men. One of them had stood up and was angrily saying something to the other.
“Zuko,” I started as the man stormed over to us, followed by the other.
“It’s over!” the man yelled loudly, and we all looked over at him.
Zuko tensed up again, placing a hand on my thigh. My breath hitched, why would he do that? Was that supposed to be a protective thing?
“You two fugitives are coming with me.” They stalked up to us.
I looked from Zuko to Iroh, not knowing what to do. Before I could react, the old man that Iroh was talking to jumped up between us and the two men. “I knew it!” he shouted extra loud, “You two are wanted criminals with a giant bounty on your heads!”
My heart pounded, what is he doing? I thought he was supposed to be helping us.
“I thought you said he would help!” Zuko growled at Iroh.
“He is, just watch,” Iroh placed a hand on his shoulder.
I then realized what was happening. Like Zuko had pointed out when we first got here, the people in the room were dirty travelers, probably those who don’t have a lot of money, and would do pretty much anything for a reward.
“You think you’re going to capture them and collect all that gold?” The old man went on.
Just as I had suspected, that got everyone’s attention. Every single person in the room stopped what they were going and turned to look, and started to gather around.
“Uh, maybe we shouldn’t,” the second man said.
Two rough-looking guys jumped in front of them, between the pai sho man and the two who were trying to capture us. The first man smirked and then the entire room interrupted into chaos, everyone fighting. It was then that I realized that the two men were Earth benders. Why did they want to capture Zuko and his uncle?
We all stood up, and ran out, taking this as our chance to escape. We followed the pai sho man across the small village into another building. It was dark outside now.
“It is an honor to welcome such a high-ranking member of the order of The White Lotus,” the man started, bowing to Iroh. “Being a grand master, you must know so many secrets.” He brushed past us and led us further into the building. Plants lined each side of the room we were in. I gave Zuko a confused look, and he looked just as annoyed as confused.
Zuko crossed his arms, “Now that you’ve played pai sho, are you gonna do some flower arranging? Or is someone in this club gonna offer some real help?”
I shot him a warning glance, we don’t know who these people are or what they are capable of. It is not smart to offend them.
“You must forgive my nephew, he is not an initiate, and has little appreciation for the cryptic arts,” Iroh said to the man as we approached another door.
The more they talk, the more confused I become. When are we going to get some answers?
“I don’t understand,” I started, as the man knocked on the door. A slot slid open and another man peered through.
“Who knocks at the guarded gate?” his deep voice echoed through the slot.
“One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries,” Iroh responded without hesitation.
The door opened, and Iroh glanced back at me as if to say that it was okay. Iroh and the man walked in, but the door shut before Zuko and I passed through.
“I’m afraid it’s members only. Wait out here.”
Zuko crossed his arms again, with a frustrated look on his face. I sighed and sat down on the floor next to the door. “I’m guessing you’re just as confused as I am?” I broke the silence.
Zuko didn’t say anything, he just glared at me. I slumped my shoulders. He has never glared at me before. I don’t know why all of a sudden he is so angry and frustrated all the time. Ever since we saw his sister and the avatar, he had changed. Become more distant, moody, cold.
He looked back at me again, and his face softened. “I’m sorry Mara, I’m just frustrated. My Uncle has a habit of not telling me what is going on, and it brings out a bad side of me.”
I nodded silently and looked at the ground. I yawned and leaned up against a post behind me. Zuko stayed standing, but also leaned against a post that was behind him.
I don’t know how long we had been waiting, but it seemed like a while. I decided to try to get some sleep, because I didn’t know how much longer Iroh would be in there.
Sunlight streaming through the cracks in the door woke me up. I yawned and looked around, Zuko was still standing against the post, but his head was down. He must’ve fallen asleep, but how is he still standing? Iroh had been inside the entire night. I hope he is okay.
A few moments later, I heard the door start to open and looked up. Iroh walked through the door and let it close behind him, which woke up Zuko. He immediately sprung into a fighting stance, “What’s going on?” he said.
I giggled and stood up.
“Is the club meeting over?” Zuko ignored me and dropped his stance.
The pai sho man came through the door. “Everything is taken care of,” Iroh said, and they bowed to each other. “We’re heading to Ba Sing Se.”
I smiled. I had never been to Ba Sing Se, but I had heard many stories of those who had. It was supposed to be an amazing city.
“Ba Sing Se? Why would we go to the Earth kingdom capital?” Zuko asked. I couldn’t tell if he was still frustrated or if he was just surprised.
“The city is filled with refugees,” the man spoke up, “No one will notice two more.”
“Three more,” Zuko snapped, looking at me.
Iroh nodded understandingly to him, “Three more,” he cleared his throat, “We can hide in plain sight there. And it’s the safest place in the world from the fire nation.”
“Yes, I have heard many stories from my village of people who visit there. It is a wondrous city,” I added, nodding to Iroh.
“Even I couldn’t break through to the city,” Iroh smiled.
A younger man burst through the front door, “I have the passports for our guests, but there are two men out on the street looking for them.”
We walked to the front and looked out the slot to see them, holding up wanted posters of Iroh and Zuko.
I sighed heavily, “Of course they are.” Zuko and his uncle looked back at me.
“How are we going to get by them?” I asked.
“Well, we could just fight our way through, we can take them.” Zuko huffed.
“No,” Iroh stopped Zuko. “I have an idea.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea? I’m not a fan of tight spaces.” I swallowed as Iroh stood in a large pot, and Zuko was climbing into the other.
“It’ll be okay, I’ll keep you safe,” Zuko reached a hand out to me.
“Are you sure you don’t want another pot?” the pai sho man asked, eyeing Zuko and I.
“If we go out with three pots, that would be too suspicious. They are looking for three people. If we go out in two pots, they are less likely to think twice about it,” Zuko glared at him. I could tell he was trying to hide the annoyance in his voice.
“My nephew is right. Two pots is less obvious,” Iroh backed him up.
I grabbed Zuko’s hand and stepped in. I tried to steady my breathing. Zuko grasped my hand tighter reassuringly as we squeezed down into the pot. The pai sho man and the younger man put flowers on top of us to cover the openings. I breathed deeply, the familiar scent of Zuko calming my nerves. I felt him squeeze my hand, and we started moving.