Zuko manages to walk with a straight back and squared shoulders, his hand still marching the Avatar, all the way back out of the chamber and into the corridor, and stand tall until the great doors sealed shut once more.
He could feel his fathers presence cut out behind him like a lantern snuffed at dawn, and sagged, releasing the Avatar so he could stagger to the wall and just….brace himself up.
I survived. Zuko thinks, shaking. I actually survived that. Agni, thank you.
“Prince Zuko, how may we serve?” Lieutenant Kotone inquired, her voice clear and clipped. Right.
Zuko looks up, and the Fire Sages are murmuring to each other nearby, and Lieutenant Kotone’s team have taken up their flanking positions around the avatar.
“The prison built to hold the Avatar.” Zuko says. “I need to see it.”
“Of course.” Elder Yamato looks his way, inclining his wizened head and gesturing towards another Sage of similar age – one who had not made the journey with them. “Elder Zun Li.” He introduces, another High Sage.
“Honorable Elder.” Zuko bows. Zun Li is a much paler man than Yamato, and his age has marked him more deeply – stars film in his brown eyes, symptomatic of failing sight, and his back stoops, where otherwise he’d have been quite a tall man indeed. He’s bald, though his brows where full and long, and a whispy goatee marked his chin. He had the ink-stained hands of a historian, gnarled though they were, and Zuko could feel the strength of his chi from where he stood. Humbled by his age he may have been, but Zuko wasn’t fool enough to think he’d been weakened by it.
“Honored I am, Prince Zuko.” The Elder nods, gold glittering on his cowl. “Allow me to show you the way, if I might?”
“Of course.” Zuko nods graciously, for which the elder smiles with thin, age-spotted lips, seeming pleased. A younger sage, an acolyte, no doubt, hands the elder a cane as he moves to walk, and Zuko’s guards fall in line, Aang huddled between them.
Zuko watches the cane as they are led deeper into the palace, towards more discreet passages, listening to the rhythmic shuffle-shuffle-tap of the elders’ uneven gait. It takes him three corridors to recognize the pattern on the cane – it’s ringed in lotus flowers.
Zuko broods over that, some inkling of greater connections looming upon his thoughts as they travel beneath the palace itself, into secret passages and down the old lava tunnels, beyond the underground shelters.
A long narrow corridor leads to an open chamber with a high ceiling. Vents let in some natural light, and the shadow of thick bars, and aside from that lanterns at regular intervals keep the metal-plated cavern well lit, at least on their side of the room.
It’s a barren chamber, and at the far end is a cage, a cot, four chains bolted to the bars, not unlike the prison at Pohai Stronghold, and a chamber pot.
Aang whimpers, and Ensign Yan Hui’s grip on the airbenders arm tightens briefly, dull grey eyes flashing for a moment in what might have been sympathy. Sergeant Nishi’s eyes narrow critically, but the archer gives nothing away. Zuko wonders how old her children are, and how deeply she prays for them at this moment.
“This will not suit.” Zuko declares tightly, his eyes returning darkly to the chains inside the cage. The air is dry, hot, and stifled, and even though he can see the sky, he cannot feel the sun. This was a prison designed to cripple everyone, of every nation, and he can feel it weigh upon him too. No sky, no sea, with fire and stone held just out of reach.
“I assure you, Prince Zuko,” Zun Li rasps sternly, the Elder Sage’s hands clasped over his cane. “this cell will hold an Avatar.”
“Of that I have no doubt.” Zuko acknowledges bitterly, turning to look fiercely at the Sages. “But I say it will not suit.”
The High Elder sighs thinly, the sound half a groan, and turns to murmur to Elder Yamato, who whispers back in his ear. The younger sages clasp their hands, but their eyes are somewhat wide, as they glance between their elders and their crown prince.
Lieutenant Kotone stands in the background, as firm and inscrutable as a blade, and Master Sergeant Hisao stands beside her like a mountain, his eyes on the floor, the half-sun ornament in his hair gleaming dully. Zuko can’t see his expression, but he can feel the energy of the veteran’s opinion. It is more than disapproval, than distaste, of this place. It is disgust, and it is a feeling Zuko shares, deep in his belly, when he thinks of those that built this cage. It is a horrible place for a child, yes they all agree on that, but Zuko would not have put an elder man here either.
The elders quiet, and Yamato turns back towards Zuko, while Zun Li hides his mouth behind gnarled knuckles, and looks thoughtful, his scarred gaze watching Zuko with an air of judgement. “And how would you have it done, Prince Zuko?” The High Elder of Shu Jing inquires gravely.
Zuko looks back across the room, towards the little cell, and swallows, eyeing the high walls, and the sunlight shafts, the heavy air pressing down at him.
“Avatar Aang is only half-trained. He knows nothing of Earth and Fire.” Zuko says, wondering how his voice doesn’t tremble with his heart in his throat. “Cast the cell and the chains. I want the bars here, from floor to ceiling.” He points towards the floor, where the torches stop. “I want a fountain there, and mirrors in each corner so he can hide nothing behind his back.”
“A fountain, Prince Zuko? He’s a master waterbender!” A younger Sage protests.
“Who still needs to bathe.” Zuko retorts flatly. “A fountain.” He insists. “Far from the bars. A proper futon, and a privacy screen for that chamber pot.”
“A privacy screen? Surely not! He’s a prisoner!” The Sage protests again.
“He’s a twelve-year old pacifist, Master Sage.” Zuko grits out, feeling his palms grow hot as his fists clench. “Not a monster.” And neither am I!
“Do you not feel that is too much a risk, Prince Zuko?” Elder Zun Li inquires softly. “Whomever else Young Aang may be, he is the Avatar.”
“Yes, he is the Avatar.” Zuko acknowledges grimly. “And it is a risky thing indeed, to try and put the Spirit Of The World in a cage. We mortals do what we must do, Elder Sage, but our spirits must still answer for that one day.”
The Elders’ eyes flash, and both bow. There is nothing more one could say.