After a week on a constantly-rocking boat, the solid ground — ice? — of the Northern Water Tribe was a welcome relief. Piandao took a moment to stretch his arms and breathe in the cold, crisp air. He was neither a firebender nor an earthbender, but he could understand very well why they rarely ventured this far north. Past the swarm of ships overflowing with merchants and their wares, the landscape that greeted him was stark and lifeless. Everything as far as the eye could see was ice. The Waterbenders who built the city gave the ice a rough texture so it wouldn’t reflect as much light, but even then it was just shy of blinding to Piandao’s eyes.
He decided he had stalled long enough and returned to the ship to supervise the sailors unloading his wares: crates of colorful fabrics and fine dishware from Omashu, and a small chest of jewels. Ostensibly, this voyage was a test, to determine whether he could find sufficient clientele in the Water Tribe. In reality, his trade mission was just a cover — the goods weren’t even his — and he could feel impatience begin to creep up on him as he contemplated the long hours of the upcoming market. He forced himself to take a deep breath. He could handle a few hours of sitting out in the cold, putting his sadly lacking acting skills to the test. Kinto would find him when the time was right.
Piandao tried to keep this in mind while he sold his wares, but with each passing customer he could feel the anxiety within him grow stronger. How would he know when he found Kinto? Fung had told him nothing about his contact, save for his (most likely fake) name and occupation. For all he knew, he had met Kinto the second he disembarked but the other man had kept to himself to watch Piandao like a general observing his opponent’s tactics.
Piandao froze. He knew this wasn’t war, yet he felt like a spirit watching the world through a distorted lens, as he had in the first weeks after leaving the army. He had no reason to analyze these people’s every move, poised for an attack that would not come in a place as far removed from the war as this.
The sound of his customer’s voice, laced with concern, brought him back to the present. “Are you alright, sir? You were going to show me your rice bowls,” the woman said.
He forced a smile. Of course there were eyes watching. He was a stranger here.“Of course, of course, forgive me,” he said. “Let me grab one for you.”
As he handed the woman one of his rice bowls, he scanned the crowd around him in what he hoped was a casual manner. Seeing nobody watching him, he asked, “By the way, would you happen to know of a waterbender named Kinto? He’s an old friend of mine and I was hoping to surprise him while I’m here.”
The woman eyed him critically. “I know several waterbenders named Kinto but — no offense — they are all… rather young to be your ‘old friend.’ My apologies.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He grinned ruefully. “I suppose it’s my fault for not trying to get in contact before I came. Now, if you’ll look at this bowl…”
A few hours later, as he packed away his remaining wares, he heard a set of footsteps approach his stall. Without looking up, he said, “Sorry, I’m closed for the day. I’ll be here again tomorrow.”
“Are you the merchant Guo, from Yuni?”
Piandao looked up. “Er, yes,” he said to the man standing in front of him.
The man grimaced. “Excellent. Finish your work and come with me.”
“And why should I do that?” He used his foot to nudge his bag of money closer to his lap, in case this turned ugly.
The man didn’t reply, instead setting something down on the table. Piandao had to lean closer to see what it was – a Pai Sho tile. The Lotus tile, to be exact. So this was Kinto. He was on the older side, with white streaking his hair and beard. Other than the dour expression on his face he didn’t look remarkable in the slightest. Piandao had been expecting something a bit … more. He knew the people he was dealing with were supposed to be unobtrusive. That didn’t stop him from imagining all sorts of outlandish personas for his contact during the voyage north.
Once he packed away his goods in the warehouse, he went back to Kinto. The man was still standing in front of his now-vacant stall. His eyes were closed, but at Piandao’s approach they snapped open once more.
“Okay, I’m ready,” said Piandao.
Kinto sighed. “Good. You are in dire need of a lesson on subtlety and there are only so many hours in a day.”
“Hey!” That was completely unfair; it wasn’t like Kinto had made it easy for Piandao to find him. He kept his annoyance inside until they reached Kinto’s home, where the other man motioned to Piandao to take a seat by a Pai Sho table before going to make tea. Piandao sat down and took out the Lotus tile Kinto had given him, turning it over in his hands while he waited. He felt out of place and confused here, far more than when he first learned about whatever this venture was supposed to be.
Finally, Kinto returned holding two cups of tea. He passed one to Piandao and set up the Pai Sho board wordlessly, stacking the pieces on the sides. He took a sip of his tea and watched Piandao expectantly.
Right. He set the Lotus tile in his hand down in the center of the board, as Fung had shown him. Kinto set down a different piece to his right, and Piandao countered with another piece of his own. Slowly, they outlined the shape of a lotus on the board with tiles. When the shape was completed, Kinto leaned back and took a sip of his tea.
“Welcome, brother. The White Lotus opens wide to those who know its secrets,” he said.
“Thank you.” Piandao stared at the board. He had travelled for weeks across the Earth Kingdom and the northern seas to get here. The entire time, as he read the information Fung had given him over and over again, he burned with questions and the urge to find their answers. Now he had the chance, but his concerns jumbled together into an unintelligible mass as the seconds ticked on and he found it harder and harder to figure out where to begin. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. Patience. There would be time enough for everything.
He set down his tea and began to gather up the tiles on the board, clearing it for a new game. Kinto watched him impassively, scarcely making a move other than to drink his tea, until the board was set and Piandao picked up his first piece.
“May I ask who I have the pleasure of sharing this game with?” he asked, setting his piece down.
Kinto took his own piece. “You may. My name is Pakku.”
“I am Piandao.” Click. Another tile. “Do you know why I’m here?”
Kinto – Pakku set his piece down without a second thought, but considered his answer for a moment. “You seek unity, and insight.” He watched Piandao take his turn and picked up another tile. “There is conflict in the outer world. Everyone knows this, down to the youngest child in this city. You’ve come here, to this fortress of peace, as a representative of this conflict. Tell me, Piandao, are you a victim or a perpetrator?” He set down his tile. “Your move.”
Pakku’s piece was a Rose, in disharmony with the Lily Piandao set down in the last turn. He set down a White Dragon to cancel out the disharmony and considered his answer. “I’m both,” he said at length. “Both sides are harmed in any conflict. I have wronged others, just as others have wronged me.” He gestured at the cluster of three tiles. “I believe there’s always a way to bridge conflicts, just as the White Dragon can bring the Rose and the Lily into harmony. I removed myself from the war to search for this secret. I could not be a part of the solution unless I stopped being part of the problem.”
“And what if that bridge disappears?” Pakku asked. He set down a Knotweed and cancelled the effects of Piandao’s White Dragon. “The Avatar is gone. You cannot be as idealistic as to believe there is still hope of finding him.”
They were silent for several turns. The game shifted to a different part of the board for a bit until Piandao picked up his Lily from earlier and moved it to complete a harmony ring. “We make our own peace,” he said.
They passed several nights like this, discussing philosophy over Pai Sho in between lessons on what the White Lotus actually did. Pakku’s insight was interesting yet entirely foreign to Piandao. The Northern Water Tribe wasn’t completely removed from the war, but it existed on a different plane of reality from the Earth Kingdom, where the scars of war were evident across the landscape, or the Fire Nation, where few saw the war’s reality until leaving its shores yet were raised from birth to believe they were experts in victory. He commented as much one night as Pakku packed away the Pai Sho tiles, their nightly game completed.
“What do you think the Water Tribe’s stance on the war is?” Pakku asked.
Piandao thought back to what he’d seen of the city over the past several days. On the surface, the Water Tribe fought for existence – how could it not when it remained alone in this war-torn world? Its allies were decimated or busy with their own conflicts, and survival was difficult enough on the unforgiving ice without removing any help from the equation.
However, the Water Tribe also reminded him of the Fire Nation’s inner islands, where war was present mainly in scores of men and women that went abroad to fight and the patriotic fervor in those they left behind. This land never saw any fighting, and those from the protected classes that lived in the heart of the empire were served a stylized version of the war. The Fire Nation always won, non-benders took on the brunt of the fighting, and the officers who served as the Fire Lord’s mouthpiece were noble and fearless leaders. The Northern Water Tribe hadn’t seen an attack – let alone a defeat – in decades. The war was a real enough threat, making it dangerous to venture out of the city and destroying centuries-old trade networks that maintained the settlement before. Warriors trained to defend their land. In the end, though, they never saw what Piandao had seen on Earth Kingdom battlefields, his sword soaking the charred earth with blood until he laid it down and said – enough. Never again.
He told Pakku as much, and as he studied the other man’s contemplative expression, he realized that he had finally confessed to his past. Fung most certainly knew that he was Fire Nation, of course, but he never got him to say so outright.
“So you’re not hiding your nationality?” Pakku asked.
Piandao shrugged. “I suppose there’s not much point in doing so with you. The White Lotus believes in unity across nations. I deserted to renounce the war, not my heritage.”
Despite the long conversations they’d shared, despite Pakku’s confirmation he accepted Piandao into the Order, jets of water streamed out from Pakku’s waterskins and bound Piandao’s hands in shackles of ice. The cold stung but Piandao did his best to hide his discomfort.
“How can you call the Fire Nation your own after everything it’s done?” the waterbender hissed. “Every battle in this war has only thrown the world further into chaos.”
“How can you call the Water Tribe your own after abandoning the rest of the world for so long?” Piandao countered. “No one people is at fault for what’s happened. The Fire Nation that’s bent on destruction is not my Fire Nation. I may not be a firebender, but I know that fire is life as well as death, just as water can destroy as well as heal.” He lifted his hands slightly to illustrate his point. “If I believed the Fire Nation’s cause would restore balance to the world, I would never have left. The empire’s become a destructive force to everyone, even its own people. That is not my Fire Nation, but it’s no different from what the Water Tribe or the Earth Kingdom has done in the name of defense.”
Pakku stared at him for a long moment, then released the ice shackles. “There’s a ship leaving tomorrow; I think it’s best if you went on it.”
“Just like that? You’re letting me go?” Piandao chuckled. “Aren’t you worried I’ll go back to the Fire Nation and spill all the information I’ve been gathering?”
“No, no.” Pakku sighed. “You’ve done what you came to do; there’s no need to stay longer. I won’t say I understand your beliefs, but I do believe that you seek peace. For now, that’s enough for me.”