He first met her when the mist-lilacs were in bloom.
Carried through the streets of Shu Jing in a golden palanquin that sparkled in the afternoon sun. Piandao was barely a child then, caught between an anonymous past and an unclear future. But as he watched the entourage wend its way up the hill, toward the castle somewhere beyond the cliffs, he knew with certainty that this moment was one that would change his life.
"Who is that?" he'd asked his caretaker, a portly man whose sole interest was in abandoning him like his parents had years before. The caretaker shrugged after a cursory glance and went back to the registry.
"Some nobleman. Probably visiting a relative up on the cliffs."
It was then he saw her, peeking out of the curtained window. Nothing was visible except her little fingers and curious golden eyes that sparkled even more than the palanquin. She spied a stall next to him that sold musical instruments, and with a delighted cry, she stuck her head out the window.
"Mama, a yueqin!"
A fleeting moment, and she was once more tugged into the confines of the carriage. But it stretched on for him, the image of her haunting him long after she disappeared. How she had seized his ten-year-old heart, he never fully understood.
But he learned to play the yueqin.
He met her again when the fire lilies bloomed.
Piandao had excelled in the camp where the caretaker had left him. At the orphanage, he'd been lost - unwanted and uncertain of what he wanted. But the training camp gave him his calling, and as soon as that leather hilt was in his hand, he knew where his future lay. And just like his blade, his destiny was clear-cut. He would live by the sword, going wherever his weapon would take him. Afterward, he joined the army, and as a gifted swordsman, he swept through his enemies. Then he swept through the ranks.
They hailed him as a hero, and carried him and his division to the heart of the capital in palanquins of gold. Up the steps he climbed, through the halls, and to the Throne Room of Fire Lord Azulon, who sat in the flames like a wrathful spirit.
But it was she who took his breath.
She wore the flame tiara of a Fire Princess now, though its gold was dull in comparison to her eyes. And she held herself like a queen, her crimson silks swallowing the fire behind her. When he bowed to the Fire Lord, and then to his son Ozai, he kept his gaze on her. She watched him so closely that he wondered if she remembered him, too.
They told her that he was the finest swordsman in the Fire Nation. He just wanted to tell her he'd learned to play the yueqin. Because of her.
He met her a third time when the blood poppies bloomed.
They'd hunted him for years, flyers posted on every kiosk in every corner of the Earth Kingdom. They had loved Piandao as a fighter. They hated him as a deserter.
But at age twenty-eight, he'd seen death for nearly half his life, most at the end of his sword. He'd realized that the clear-cut future of his youth was simply a self-imposed prison. That his sword had been no more than a shackle chaining him to someone else's war. Now, though, the sword that he'd thought of as a weapon was his teacher, guiding him spiritually where it had once heeded his naïve commands.
So he listened and learned. And grew. He became more than what he'd been - no longer a weapon himself, but a master. Then in his search for meaning, he finally found them. He didn't understand them at first, believing they were merely an organization. Eventually, he learned what they really were. A brotherhood, dedicated to a higher purpose than the misery the war had caused for everyone, the Fire Nation included. An Order.
He joined them, and moved into the castle on the cliffs where he had once seen her go. On the off-chance that maybe, just maybe, she'd go back.
The men who had been his men came looking for him soon after. They threatened him - told him that if he didn't fight for them, he'd fight against them. And Piandao gladly stood his ground against a hundred. He was his own master now, his sword only for him.
They captured him eventually. Piandao may have held off a hundred, but he could not hold off a nation. Again, carried up the steps of the capital, though this time in chains as onlookers hissed and screamed. Through the halls, once more to the throne of flames where Fire Lord Azulon still glowered in its blaze.
Yet as the Fire Lord handed down a sentence that would have cut short his life as quickly as any sword, she swept in, a note in hand.
"I beg you, my Lord, stay his execution!" Azulon's gaze turned severe, and the burning throne turned into an inferno. Such insolence. Such audacity. Surely, she would be devoured by the fire.
But she stood her ground, her small figure a silhouette between him and his fate. "He was a celebrated hero once! He brought our country great honor. So please, let's honor him now. I beg you to show mercy." She went to her knees.
"You dare impugn my authority" Azulon stood, but Piandao's eyes never left her. "You have great disrespect, daughter." There was a long hesitation, and he wondered if Azulon would mete out punishment on them both. "Yet you've also had my respect. This once, I will grant you your request. But no more, Ursa. You are the mother of my grandchildren, but you are still my subject."
He owed her his life, and he never even had a chance to thank her. He hoped she could read the gratitude in his eyes.
He met her for the last time when the lotuses were in bloom.
She came in the middle of the night, terrified and chased by demons. His servant Fat had shown her into his hall, and she bowed deeply before him.
"Master Piandao, please forgive me. But I have nowhere else to go, and General Iroh said I could trust you. He said I should give you this." She handed him a letter then, which contained a single white lotus tile.
He smiled. "Your Highness, you've given me enough. I need no more Pai Sho tiles."
She stayed with him for a week, while he pressed his connections. Was there any way to keep her in the Fire Nation, where she could be close to her children" Was there any way to remove the dishonor of her banishment" He never asked her what she'd done, for which he knew she was grateful. The truth was that it never mattered to him. There was nothing she could do to lose his high esteem.
All of his life, he'd been enchanted by her. Over the course of one week, he fell in love with her. She was strong, fierce, and resilient. Quick, sharp, and loyal. In everything he did, she kept pace, oftentimes awing him with her tenacity and her skill. And he knew then that if he had held her hand instead of a sword hilt that day twenty years before, he would've found a different purpose in life.
She had to leave; Ozai would have never allowed her to stay. And while Piandao would've gladly fought a nation for her, under her insistence, he could only bend. After all, she still had her children to think of. This battle was not about her, as it was not about him, and so he acquiesced.
"I can't express my gratitude, Piandao," she said at the gate, preparing to leave in a gold palanquin much like the one that had carried her away the day he first met her. "You have given me so much, and I've returned so little."
"You've given me more than you know, my lady," he said warmly. "I will continue to search. I will find a way to bring you home." He kissed the back of her fingers, and though her smile was sad - as sad as everything else about her since the moment she arrived - her golden eyes glittered with affection.
She cupped his cheek and said, "I'll meet you again when the wild orchids bloom." And then she was gone.
Before that day, he'd often walk the cliffs near his home. Now, he walked the forests, as well, searching for the flowers even during the driest of seasons. He never saw them, though he stayed vigilant. For she had promised and he knew she wouldn't fail.
So he waited. During the night, he'd practice his yueqin and during the day, he'd practice his sword. But he always waited, ever patient, for the orchids to bloom.