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After receiving an invitation and special passes to Ba Sing Se's Inner Ring, Kage and Kensei find that a member of one of the city's ruling families has a shocking secret regarding the Blue Spirit and may also hold the key to solving the mystery of the puzzle box.
Ken waited in the shade beneath a disused awning as he watched Kage and Jon finish up with the last few customers of the day. He couldn't get his mind off of the girl from the Upper Ring estate where he had found the box. He wondered if she had seen him-or if she knew his name-probably not, although he couldn't figure out why she hadn't revealed him to Je when she had had the chance.
A small side-bag tied to his belt contained the metal puzzle box, which he and Kage still hadn't been about to figure out how to open, even after spending several hours at it. More concerning was the fact that the old man from the teashop had returned to play Pai-sho with Jon that morning, fortunately, Ken had taken care to stay out of sight until the old man had left.
Kensei looked up in time to see his sister making her way towards him. She carried a rolled-up scroll in her hand. "You got a letter," she said, handing it to him. "Jon says that the old man left it for you after their Pai-sho game."
"A letter?" Ken unrolled the scroll, allowing a pair of papers to fall out onto the ground. "What are those?"
Kage picked up one of the papers and her eyes grew wider than coins. "Ken," she said, jumping up and down, "These are passes-passes into the Upper Ring! Can you believe it?"
Ken took one of the papers from her. It looked official enough, although having never actually seen one of the passes before in his life, he didn't really know what to expect.
"What does the letter say?" said Kage, "Will you read it? Pretty please? This is so exciting!"
"Okay, okay," said Ken, stuffing the pass in his tunic, In truth, he was beginning to like the sound of it all less and less. "Let me see, it looks like it's some sort of invitation," he said. "It says to come to the house of some guy called Tsen Ron Gal tomorrow afternoon."
Kage nodded. "Does it have directions?"
"Yeah," said Ken, "Upper Ring, look for the house with-" Ken's breath caught in his throat as he read the next line, and his face went white.
"What is it?"
Ken continued in a whisper. "Look for the house where you can see the top of a badgermole fountain from outside the main gate."
The House of Tsen Ron Gal
"It's the Earth Kingdom for crying out loud," said Kage when they had reached the house's front gate, :There's got to be about a million rich families with badgermole fountains somewhere on their property."
The guards on duty a few streets behind the two at the gate hadn't batted an eyelash when Ken and his sister had showed up with the passes, despite the fact that they obviously didn't belong so far uptown. In fact, they met with surprisingly few odd stares from the Upper Ring denizens-then again, there didn't seem to be that many people outside on that particular day, either.
In spite of Kage's reassurance and excitement at being able to see the Upper Ring without have to sneak around in the middle of the night, Kensei was still apprehensive as he approached the badgermole door-knocker, a heavy brass thing that must have been bigger than his head. What if it was a trap? What if it was some sort of ambush set up by Je and the Dai Li and the old man, just waiting for him and his sister to spring it?
He was still lost in thought when his sister came and lifted the heavy brass door-knocker and let it fall down with a great thud onto the heavy, painted wooden doors.
Kageshiko shrugged and smiled up at her brother. "And here I'd thought you'd love a chance to see your girlfriend again."
Kensei glared at her. "She's not my girlfriend," he said as the door swung open.
In truth, he hadn't gotten a good look at the girl on the night he had retrieved the box. She was roughly Kensei's age and height, perhaps somewhat younger and every article of clothing she wore from her robes to her hairclips and jewelry was bright emerald green. Her hair was done up in an elaborate series of coiled-up braids and a curtain of dark hair obscured her eyes, making it difficult to tell what color they were.
She smiled at Ken and he smiled back. For several moments, no one said a word, then Kage gave her brother a nudge.
"Hi," said Kensei, his mind instantly blanked out after he spoke until he glanced down at the invitation in his sweaty hand and held it out in front of him. "I got your invitation." He bowed.
The girl's smile widened as she returned to bow. "Welcome to the house of Tsen Ron Gal, my father," she said, "I am his daughter, Mae. Please come inside."
Kageshiko didn't have to be asked twice when the smell of rich food wafted towards the guests.
"My name's Kensei, by the way," said Ken as he followed after them into the courtyard.
Mae led them through a series of long, richly-decorated corridors and finally into a small, secluded tea-room filled with cushions and soft green carpets.
Brother and sister took a seat amid the cushions while Mae slid the door shut behind her and turned to sit down in front of them. "Now," she said, looking at Kensei, who was sweating bullets, "perhaps the Blue Spirit would like to tell me what he was doing sneaking into my father's house the other night."
Kensei's mouth opened and shut a few times without making a sound.
Kage gestured to her brother with her thumb. "What makes you think he's the Blue Spirit?" she said, "You just met him five minutes ago."
Mae giggled. "A friend of my father's owns the teashop you and several other thieves robbed a few weeks ago," she said, turning to Kageshiko, "Jon, the sandwich maker also happens to be an acquaintance of the teashop owner and so when he saw you and your brother there he knew to leave the invitation with him. Then there's the fact that every time we get together Je was always mentioning how as kids you used to play at being the Blue Spirit and how good you were with dual swords. I just put two and two together."
"You figured out my brother was the Blue Spirit from all that?" Kage said, dumbfounded.
"Well actually," Mae said, "I kind of got a look at your face the other night before I went inside, but the rest of it helped."
"So," said Kensei, "What happens now?"
"One of two things," said Mae, "Either I can turn you in to Je and the city guard-or you can tell me what it is you were doing at my house the other night."
"This," said Kage, producing the puzzle box.
Kensei went wide-eyed. "You brought it with you?" he said, clamoring to his feet.
"Well, yeah," said Kage, handing the box to Mae, "right now this is one of the only bargaining chips we have now that she has your secret identity."
Mae took her time looking over the box, "What is it for?" she said.
Kensei shrugged. "I don't know," he said, taking it from her, "I can't figure out how to get it open. The only thing for sure about it is that it's got something to do with the Fire Nation-see the dragon design?"
Kage scratched her head. "What I don't understand is why boss Ibaru and that creepy bone guy wanted it."
Mae thought for a moment, then spoke. "Me either," she said, "but I think I may know someone who can help us figure this whole thing out."
The Jasmine Dragon was a long, low friendly-looking building. Patrons leaned amiably against the edge of the terrace out front in easy conversation as Mae led the brother and sister into the building itself where most of the patrons enjoyed their respective favorite brews.
She led them to a corner table, out of the main stretch of the common room, away from prying eyes and ears.
"Ah, I wondered when you would be walking into my teashop again, young man," The hairs on the back of Kensei's neck stood on end as he turned around to see the owner of the teashop approaching their table, although something about the old man's smile put him at ease almost instantly afterward. "Although I'm certainly glad you chose to use the front door this time."
Mae smiled and gave the old man a bow. "This is Master Iroh," she said to the brother and sister, "owner of the Jasmine Dragon."
Kensei and Kageshiko bowed as well and introduced themselves before sitting down.
"Is your father feeling any better?" the old man said to Mae.
The girl shook her head. "I'm afraid he's still hasn't been feeling well-the burn wounds still cause him a lot of pain," she said, "but last month the physicians said that he was making excellent progress."
Iroh nodded. "That is good news," he said, "It can be difficult for a child who has no one to look to for guidance, although I think that you, Mae, have grown into a fine young woman under such adversity-and in more ways than one!"
Mae blushed and rolled her eyes, but still remained smiling.
"Although," said Iroh, glancing from Mae to Kensei, "I'll admit I was a little surprised to see you in here without your young man-what was his name? Jin? Je?"
Mae and Ken exchanged awkward looks.
"Oh, it's not like that-" said Ken quickly.
"-We're just friends." Mae finished for him, "We only just met a little while ago."
"Yeah," said Ken, "I barely even know her."
Mae shot him a confused stare.
Kage tugged at Ken's sleeve. "Um, I thought we were going to ask him about the you-know-what," she said, removing the puzzle box from her brother's belt.
"Oh yeah," said Ken, putting the box onto the tabletop, "We have this puzzle box that-"
The girls both shushed him when everyone around them began looking in their direction.
"Sorry," said Ken in a whisper, "Anyway, it's like some sort of puzzle box, but we can't figure out how to open it."
Iroh gave him a wry grin. "Perhaps I can help," he said, "I remember losing one of these a few weeks ago-just like this one in fact. Why don't you all come into the kitchen where we can speak more privately?"
Once they were all in the back of the shop next to the stove, Iroh slid the door shut behind them and turned to Ken. "May I see it?"
It occurred to Kensei that the last time he had been in this part of the shop was when he had stolen the box. Ken sheepishly handed him the box for him to inspect.
"Hmm," he said, "This is clearly Fire Nation, although I haven't seen one of these since I was a much younger man."
"What is it?" said Mae
"It's called a fire puzzle," said Iroh, "they were built to carry secret messages that only Fire Nation spies could decipher and only Firebenders could open. You see, inside the box is a series of metal parts that expand and contract based on how each section is heated, and if they are heated the proper amount-" he turned briefly to the crackling stove, "-it opens."
Sure enough, when he lay the metal box on the top of the stove, it was fully unfolded, revealing all of the minute machinery within along with a protective casing that housed the actual message-a single scroll.
"Wow!" said Kensei, reaching for the scroll.
"Be careful," Iroh cautioned him, "It's very-"
"Hot!" Kensei cried out, gripping his forearm, which was now covered in a series of burns where his skin had contacted the inside of the puzzle box when he had reached across for the scroll.
"It doesn't appear to be too severe," said Iroh, inspecting the burn marks, "Although if you want, I have some bandages and herbal salves in the back room."
Kensei stuck his hand into a nearby basin. "That's okay," he said, "I think I'll live. Hey, what is this stuff?"
"Oh," said Iroh, "That was going to be your tea." Mae glanced over at him. "I thought you said only Firebenders could open it."
Iroh turned back to the scroll in the box. "Let's just say that I have a knack for puzzles," he said, "And an old man's patience, besides. I was working on that one for a long time and it was only just now that I figured it out."
Kage tried to peer over the countertop. "So what does it say?" she said, "Is it some kind of secret message?"
Iroh looked over the scroll for several minutes, turned it upside down and sideways until a fire suddenly went up in his eyes. "Ah-ha!" he said, "I know exactly what it is!"
"What is it?" said Mae.
"This is most definitely the recipe for the long-lost Air Nomad Fruit Pie!"
Secret of the Box
Kage was livid during the walk back to the Lower Ring. "Who goes through the trouble to put a pie recipe into some old Fire Nation spy puzzle box?" she said.
Kensei shrugged and scratched the burn marks on his forearm. "Beats me," he said, "According to Iroh, the Avatar himself sent it to him. I guess that since he's the last Air Nomad, knowledge like that could be pretty valuable."
Kage huffed out a breath. "Enough that people want to steal it? It doesn't make any sense."
"I'm just glad that the old man didn't turn me in as soon as I walked into his shop," said her brother.
Kage rolled her eyes. "I'll bet showing up with your new girlfriend probably helped a lot."
Ken glared at her. "She's not-"
"I know, I know," said Kage, "I'd be more worried at this point about her turning you in."
Ken shook her head. "She's not going to turn me in," he said, "She practically gave us her word."
"Whatever," said Kage.
After that, they were silent for a time as they made their way through the lengthening shadows of the Middle Ring.
"Kialu," said Kage at one point.
"What?" said Kensei.
"Kialu Tan?" "What are you talking about?"
"Hold out your arm," said Kage, "The one with the burns on it."
Kensei obeyed. "What's this all about?"
Kage scratched her head. "I don't know," she said, "But I could swear that those burn marks look almost like-like names."
Kensei inspected the burns himself. "Like a list of names," he said, eyes widening. He gripped Kage by the arm, "Kage, you're a genius! We have to go back to the Jasmine Dragon!"
The two of them turned around and practically raced all the way back, surprising the on-duty guards with a rush of dust behind their feet as they ran back to the Upper Ring and the Jasmine Dragon.
Iroh was just closing up shop when the two arrived on the terrace. "We know what the secret message was," said Kage, all out of breath.
"You have to let us see the box again," said Kensei.
Iroh nodded gravely. "I see," he said, reopening the door to his shop, "Come inside, I've put it in a safe place."
The siblings all but collapsed through the doorway as they made their way inside to the back room.
"I put on top of one of the cabinets," said Iroh, "I've always believed that the best place to hide something like this is in plain sight." The old man spent several moments running his hand across the top of the cabinet while the siblings waited impatiently to the side.
"Oh dear," said Iroh, his expression darkening, "I'm afraid that I've lost it again. I suppose someone else must have wanted that recipe."
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