“And even though we never got to ride the dragon, we were both pretty happy and proud of ourselves to have saved her egg. But I was always just a little bit disappointed and thought that the mama dragon was just a titch less grateful than she ought to have been.”
Seven-year-old Iroh, son of Fire Lord Azulon, giggled as his grandfather's story came to an end. He'd heard it half a dozen times already, but it was his favorite. Not only was it full of adventure and humor, but Grandpa always insisted that they go camp out in their secret treehouse in the jungle before he would tell the story. The same was true of all his stories featuring his airbender friend, whom he was careful to never name. He and Iroh had established a secret “club,” consisting of only two members. The content of their club meetings was never to be revealed to anyone. It was all very exciting to the boy, who loved the feeling of rebellion their camping trips gave him. Iroh's father wouldn't dream of dirtying his robes on something so undignified as a camp out. In fact, Azulon hardly spent any time with his only child at all. Nor did he like Grandpa much.
“Did you ever get to ride a dragon, Grandpa?” Iroh asked as he cuddled his cup of tea close to his chest, using his firebending to keep the liquid contents of the mug steamy.
The elder sighed. “Alas, no. Your other grandfather, Fire Lord Sozin, had outlawed the riding of dragons years before, when I was still just a baby.”
“Why would he do that?”
“No one knows for certain,” Grandpa responded, willing the small fire between them back to life from its coals. It was a cool night, and the fire kept them warm and helped ward off unwanted critters. “Rumor has it that Sozin's own dragon turned on him and tried to kill him. He was forced to kill the beast himself.”
“Why did he have to kill his dragon? Did it get sick?” Iroh recalled one of the palace guards shooting down a cat-owl that had been attacking several animals on the palace grounds. When it was shown that the cat-owl was foaming at the mouth, the guards proceeded to round up and destroy all animals that had or may have come in contact with the predator—including every one of the turtle-ducks that Iroh loved to feed. Iroh's mother had explained to the distraught boy that the cat-owl was very sick with a horrific disease, and if it bit any of the other animals, they would get sick as well and begin attacking people. The turtle-ducks were quickly replaced, but Iroh had been scared of cat-owls ever since.
“No, she just went mad,” Grandpa answered. “It was shortly after Avatar Roku died in a tragic volcanic eruption near his home. His own dragon tried to shield him from the fire and smoke, but they only ended up being buried together. Roku's dragon and Sozin's dragon had been friends. So it's possible she simply went mad with grief. Dragons have special connections with one another, you know.”
“Oh yes. A lot of animals are like that, not just dragons. But for dragons, it's a special connection because they are a sacred animal.”
“Why are they sacred?”
“Because dragons are the first firebending masters. Back when our ancestors were still struggling to control fire, a brave young man went and lived in the wilds, where he asked a dragon to teach him to master fire.”
“I bet he rode that dragon everywhere he went!”
Grandpa chuckled. “If I remember the story correctly, he actually rode a cat-deer everywhere he went.”
“What?? That's weird!”
Grandpa laughed aloud. “I suppose it is a bit weird. But everyone's at least a little weird.”
“'Specially us, right Grandpa?” Iroh beamed at his grandfather.
Grandpa gave the boy a proud grin. “Yes, especially us. How many princes like camping in the dirty jungle with their grandpa, without any servants to wait on them?”
Iroh thrust his thumb to his chest. “This prince does! Any prince who doesn't is just a komodo-chicken.”
Grandpa let out another hearty chuckle. “Well, I think it's time for a certain prince to go to sleep. Must be up to greet the sun and do our firebending exercises.”
“But I'm not sleepy.” No sooner had Iroh said the words when his body betrayed him, and he gave a wide, long yawn.
“I think you are. Come, now, finish your tea and get into your bedroll.”
The boy gulped down the last of the tea, handed the empty cup to his grandfather, and crawled under the blanket of his bedroll. He snuggled down as Grandpa tucked the blanket under Iroh's chin.
“G'night, Grandpa. I love you.”
“Good night, Iroh,” Grandpa responded. “I love you too.”
After another hour or so, when young Prince Iroh was sound asleep, Grandpa allowed the fire to die down a bit, then got under the covers of his own bedroll and drifted off to sleep, dreaming of days long ago and the antics he and his best friend, the young airbending master, used to get into.
“I hate this game! I'm never gonna beat you!”
The ten-year-old prince flopped down in his chair, crossed his arms and glared at the Pai Sho board in front of him. He'd lost yet another match against his grandfather, who sat opposite him, hands tucked into his sleeves.
Grandpa just chuckled. “Not with that attitude you're not. You don't master firebending in a day; you don't master Pai Sho in just a few games.”
“But it's so hard! It takes thinking and strategy, and I'm not very good at those. I'm great at firebending.”
“Would you like to see if you can beat me in a firebending match, then? And not one where I let you win because you're young.” There was a twinkle in Grandpa's eye. “Shall I challenge the great master Prince Iroh to an Agni Kai?”
The young prince suddenly grew nervous. “Uh...no, I still need to practice some more before I can beat a master firebender like you, Grandpa.”
“A very wise reply,” Grandpa said with a nod. “By the way, I think you're wrong about yourself. I think you are a natural strategist. You just can't see it quite yet. But I can. That's why I wanted to teach you Pai Sho. It is more than just a game.”
Iroh sniffed and eyed the board skeptically. “How can a few wooden pieces be 'more than just a game?'”
Grandpa picked up the piece he'd used in his winning move against his young opponent. He twirled it in his fingers, studying the white lotus emblazoned on it for a moment. “Have I ever told you the story of how I learned to play Pai Sho?”
“If it's not one of your secret stories for the jungle treehouse, it's probably boring.”
Grandpa made a show of looking around his home, then leaned over the table to whisper conspiratorially, “Oh, but it is.”
Iroh's face lit up. “Camping tonight?”
“No, I'm afraid I have important business early tomorrow.”
Noticing how crestfallen his grandson looked, Grandpa sighed. “It is just the two of us right now. The guards aren't anywhere they can listen in. I suppose, just this once, I can tell you the story without having to go to the treehouse.”
Iroh smiled, propping his elbows on the Pai Sho board to rest his chin on his hands. “Did you learn Pai Sho from your airbender friend?” he asked in a low voice. Best not to risk being overheard. Iroh had long since figured out that if his father were to find out Grandpa was once friends with an “enemy” nation, he would forbid Iroh from ever going to see Grandpa again. In fact, Grandpa could even be sent away to the colonies!
“Not from him, but from his guardian,” Grandpa said. “He was an old monk, well respected among the Air Nomads. You see, my airbending friend had tried to teach me Pai Sho, but he could never resist beating the pants off me. So the old monk agreed to teach me a special and very difficult Pai Sho strategy that my friend did not know. He called it the White Lotus gambit. He said it was a secret strategy that only a few very dedicated Pai Sho players from all the nations were able to learn. It took me many, many games to master the strategy, but when I finally did, I was able to beat my friend in Pai Sho for the first time. After that, the old monk gave me my own set of Pai Sho tiles. He told me to take good care of them, especially the white lotus tile. My life could one day depend on it.”
“On a Pai Sho tile?”
Grandpa gave a somber nod. “A few months later, just days before Sozin's Comet arrived, the old monk came to my home and met me in secret. He told me that my friend had disappeared in a terrible storm. He asked me to keep an eye out for my friend, and said that if I found him, I was to use my Pai Sho set to locate other masters of the White Lotus gambit, and I would be able to get word back to the old monk very quickly.
“I was saddened by the disappearance of my friend, but I was even more saddened a week later, when I learned that the Air Temples had been attacked by Fire Lord Sozin. I was angry, believing for a while that they had killed my friend. The Air Nomads never hurt anyone, being pacifists, and I just could not understand why the Fire Lord would attack them.”
Iroh's eyes went wide. He had never heard the story of Sozin's Comet that way. He had been taught that the Air Nomads were aggressive, organizing their forces to create powerful storms directed against the Fire Nation colonies. Though he had never said it outright, Iroh had believed Grandpa's airbending friend was the exception, not the norm.
“I found other Pai Sho players who felt as I did,” Grandpa continued. “I became friends with them, and we would meet secretly to discuss Pai Sho and what lay ahead for the world. They all believed the avatar had died and been reincarnated into the Water Tribe, but I was certain the avatar was still out there somewhere, hiding.”
Grandpa looked around, leaned in close until he was inches away from Iroh's face, and whispered, “I told them about my friend, and how he was a master airbender so young. I told them how he disappeared, and how I had since come to believe he was the avatar. We agreed that all we could do was wait for him to return, and be ready to help him however we could when he did.
“Iroh, it is imperative that you not speak of this to anyone, not even those closest to you.”
“Not even Mom?” the boy inquired.
“Your mother knows some of my stories, but not all of them. But you cannot speak to her about this because she is never alone, and everything she does is reported back to your father. And he cannot know of any of this. Can I trust you with this secret?”
Iroh nodded vigorously.
“Good,” Grandpa said, sitting back up and gesturing to the Pai Sho board. “Now, Prince Iroh, are you ready to continue your strategy lesson?”
“You bet!” Iroh said, a renewed interest in the game evident in his voice.
“Mom, I'm going to spend the night over at Kaoru's house so we can get up early to spar! He wants me to show his little brother some moves. Dad already said it was okay.”
13-year-old Iroh skidded to a halt outside his parents' quarters. He was confused when he met a closed door and received no reply. His parents' door was very rarely shut during the day or whenever one or both of them were not there. But he knew for a fact that his mother was in the room alone. He approached the door and raised a cautious hand, preparing to knock, when he heard quiet weeping from inside. Knowing he would likely be scolded later, Iroh slowly slid the door open and stepped inside.
“Mom? What's wrong?”
Fire Lady Ilah sat on the bed. She looked up in surprise, tear stains evident on her cheeks. “Iroh! Sweetheart, you shouldn't be here. You know not to enter our quarters without permission.”
“You're upset,” Iroh reasoned, approaching the bed. “What's wrong? Is Father having a fit of rage again?”
Iroh normally only referred to Azulon as “Father” when he was annoyed or angry with him. As distant as Azulon was toward his family, Iroh naturally still loved him, and cherished those rare moments when Azulon would show him pride or affection.
Ilah started to shake her head. “Not exactly. He's...angry with your grandfather. He's sending him away, to the colonies.”
“What?! No! He can't do that! Grandpa's never done anything wrong!”
Ilah put her hands on Iroh's shoulders and shushed him. “Iroh. Please calm yourself, son.”
As Iroh obeyed her and tried to get his temper and breathing under control, Ilah continued. “Your father says he's sending your grandfather on a diplomatic mission to the colonies. But I know he's sending him away for good. Your father believes Grandpa has been disloyal to the Fire Nation. He thinks Grandpa was friends with the Air Nomads.”
A silent understanding passed between them, and Iroh's face paled. He buried his face in his hands. “No...”
Ilah stood and pulled her son into a comforting embrace. “I know, son. But maybe in a few years, when you join the military, you'll have the opportunity to see him again in the colonies. When you do, can you send him my greetings?”
Iroh looked up. “Of course I will, Mom.”
Ilah gave him a teary-eyed smile. “Good for you. Now, don't be sad. Go, spend time with your friend.”
Iroh nodded and turned to leave. He headed toward his own quarters to gather his things. After a quick farewell to his father, Iroh mounted the sedan chair and allowed his bearers to carry him toward Kaoru's house.
Halfway there, Iroh made a decision. He leaped from the sedan and bolted for the alley, his servants and guards shouting after him. He didn't stop running until he reached his grandfather's villa. He had to see Grandpa one last time.
But when Iroh approached the front door, his heart sank. It was clear the place was abandoned. He slipped inside quietly, hoping against all odds that his grandfather would still be there. He was met by eerie silence.
“Grandpa? I wanted to see you before they sent you away. Please tell me you're still here and I'm not too late!”
No response. Iroh sat down and buried his face in his hands once again, trying not to sob in defeat. He lifted his head and took another look around the room. Near the wall sat the Pai Sho board. Iroh got up and walked over to it. As he approached it, he noted something peculiar about it. The tiles were laid out in the formation of a white lotus, with the characteristic tile in the center of the board. Underneath the tile was a small slip of folded paper. Iroh picked it up, unfolded it and read it.
I'm afraid the time has come to part ways. It is very unlikely we will meet again in this life. So I leave to you the memories of the wonderful times we had together, as well as my very first Pai Sho set. Take care of these tiles, and they will take care of you. Find others with whom you can share Pai Sho, a good cup of tea, and the good times you and I had. I know you will make an excellent leader and mentor one day. And remember, though there are not many who still cling to the old ways, those who do can always find a friend. Please do me this one favor. Find my friend, the one who helped me discover a dragon's nest. Find him and help him become all he needs to be to save our nation. Take care of your mother as well, and see to it she is always reminded how much I love her. May Agni always shine upon you with kindness, my grandson.
Iroh did not leave his grandfather's house that night.
The next morning, the guards finally located the prince, who had fallen asleep next to the Pai Sho table, the tiles from the game secured in a leather bag and tucked under his arm. They escorted Iroh home, where he received a lecture from several authority figures in the palace in the presence of his father, who watched silently from his throne, his disapproving glares dropping the ambient temperature of the room despite the walls of flames that constantly surrounded him. Iroh took it all in stride, accepting his grounding and accompanying punishments with very little outward expression of anger, pain, sadness or remorse. Once he was allowed to return to his quarters, he hid the Pai Sho tiles, making sure to tuck the white lotus tile away in one of the pockets of his tunic.
A few days later, a messenger hawk arrived. It appeared the ship carrying “Ambassador” Kuzon on his mission to Yu Dao had gone down in a storm.
Ilah grieved, of course, and Azulon made a show of commemorating his father-in-law in a grand memorial service. But Iroh did not attend. He locked himself in his quarters and refused to come out for over a week.
Months later, Iroh had gone through the grieving process, with help from his mother. But he still hadn't forgiven his father. He resumed his life, attending parties and other social events, where he naturally returned to his role as the life of the party and the one with all the best stories, even if most of them were blatant tall tales. He spent his time training with his friends, preparing for the day he turned 16—old enough to enlist in the army (he had chosen the army, as his father had been a general; his friend Kaoru was destined for the navy, being the son of a commander).
But he also had another life mission, one that he hadn't truly begun yet. There were no Pai Sho enthusiasts among the palace servants or guards, and his mother was not all that interested in the game, though she played with Iroh on occasion to cheer him up. Iroh was growing discouraged. How could his grandfather's rebellious legacy live on unless Iroh found someone with whom to practice the White Lotus gambit?
Iroh sat in the courtyard of Kaoru's home after a sparring session, fidgeting with the white lotus tile. He was joined by Kaoru's little brother, no more than nine years old.
“What are you playing with?” the curious boy asked.
“Huh? Oh, it's a Pai Sho tile. My grandpa taught me how to play.” Suddenly a thought struck the prince. He turned to the child. “Would you like me to show you how to play Pai Sho, Jeong Jeong? I can tell you some of the stories my grandpa told me while we played. They're top secret, though.” He winked at the boy, whose face lit up.
“I'd love to! Kaoru never shows me anything new.”
Iroh smiled, wider than he had in months. “Well, we'll need a place to play, then. Come on, I'll show you my top secret treehouse. I haven't used it in years, so no one but me remembers how to get there.”
With eager student in tow, Iroh set off to continue his grandfather's legacy.
“Another pearl tea, Aang?”
The bald monk wrinkled his nose in disgust. “No thanks, Iroh. It...has a funny texture.”
The old firebender sighed. “No one understands my creative passions.”
Seated across from Aang was Zuko, presently the Fire Lord, and presently on a much-needed leave from the Fire Nation to his favorite vacation spot, his uncle's tea shop in Ba Sing Se. Between the boys was a Pai Sho table, and Zuko was fast losing interest in the game. Try as he might to learn and share his uncle's interests, Zuko found his tastes were just too different from Iroh's. Which was why he now rolled his eyes at his uncle's dejected response to the avatar.
“You have always had strange passions, Uncle. I admit, I've learned a lot about tea, and I finally prefer it over a lot of other drinks, but I'll probably never be obsessed with it like you are.”
Iroh chuckled. “You may never be a master of Pai Sho either, if you keep playing like that. I predict Aang will have you beat in three moves.”
“Story of my life,” Zuko said with a wry grin. Aang chuckled.
“Maybe we should play a game, Iroh,” the young avatar suggested. “Zuko says you taught him to play Pai Sho, and that you're really good at it. Monk Gyatso taught me, and he was the best Pai Sho player I ever knew.”
“Is that so?” Iroh said. “I may have to take you up on that. A chance to possibly beat the avatar in a challenge of wit and luck. Who could resist that?”
“Lots of people, if they're smart,” Zuko said.
Aang laughed. “I don't know if I'll ever be as good as Monk Gyatso was. And anyway, he had decades of practice on me. So I bet your uncle has a pretty good shot at beating me if he's even half as good as Gyatso.”
Iroh joined the boys at the Pai Sho table. “I hope I can compare,” he said, pulling out his own set of worn tiles. “I hope you don't mind if I tell a few stories while we play.”
Aang grinned. “I don't mind at all. I love stories!”
“Then I will begin with the story of how I learned to play Pai Sho from my grandfather.”
“Fire Lord Sozin?” Aang supplied.
Iroh shook his head. “No, Fire Lord Sozin died years before I was born. I'm speaking of my maternal grandfather. He and I would play Pai Sho while camping together, and he would tell me top secret stories of his boyhood with a very good friend of his. You might have known him.”
The old firebender looked at Aang expectantly. As he figured, Aang's face was alight with curiosity and excitement. Iroh inhaled and exhaled slowly. He had been waiting for a long time to broach this subject to the avatar. He smiled at the boy.
“My grandfather was friends with a young Air Nomad, said to be the youngest airbending master in history. Together they once saved a dragon's egg from poachers.”
“That's me and Kuzon!” Aang shouted suddenly, his airbending lifting him several feet above his friends' heads. Once he settled back in place, he beamed at Iroh. “Kuzon and I saved the dragon's egg! I was the youngest airbending master!” He paused as what Iroh had said sank in, then gaped at the teamaker. “You're Kuzon's grandson?!?”
Iroh gave the boy a broad smile. “I am indeed. While my grandfather never told me the name of his airbending friend, he did once tell me he suspected his friend was the avatar. And he always believed you had survived Sozin's genocide.”
Zuko sat stunned, glancing between the two of them. Finally he spoke.
“OK, I knew about the whole connection to the avatar through my mother, and that Sozin and Roku were friends as kids, but now you're telling me I have another great-grandfather who was friends with the avatar? This avatar, no less?”
“So it would seem,” Iroh said with a nod. “You and the avatar were always destined to be friends, even though neither of you could have ever suspected it.”
“Tell me all about him!” Aang begged. “I wanna hear everything that he did since I've been gone!”
“Everything Zuko did?” Iroh said teasingly. “Oh, well, let's see. He was born on the last day of summer, when...”
“No, I mean Kuzon!” Aang said, exasperated.
“Uncle, just tell the kid about his friend before he goes through the roof,” Zuko said. “Stop leading him on.”
Iroh laughed. “Very well, I will start from the beginning. But be sure to pay attention to the game as well, or I will beat you handily.”
“Yeah, I'm on it,” Aang answered, clearly more intent on hearing the story of his friend.
With a smile and a shake of his head, Iroh placed his first piece—the white lotus—on the board and launched into his tale.
“Well, when I was about six or seven years old, my grandfather and I built a secret treehouse in the jungle behind his villa. That's where he taught me Pai Sho and told me wonderful stories that I couldn't tell to anyone else...”