Reveille sounded out five minutes after dawn, booming through the barracks and startling men from their sleep with wide, miserable yawns and hastily cut off curses. Zuko was already awake; he had been for several minutes. He lay on his pallet and took several deep breaths, trying to finish his meditation, despite the cacophony around him. Strictly speaking, the wake-up call was just whatever racket the poor private on morning duty could conjure up with a mess tin and the husk of an old brass bell. To call it a proper military reveille would be to give it delusions of grandeur, but Zuko had never been able to shake the habit. He groaned and rolled over, trying to catch another few seconds in the warm bask of the sun, soaking up the power and stirring up the faint embers of his chi. He had fought hard and dirty to get a bunk near the window, and he took every moment he could to make it worth his while. He spent so much time out of the light of Agni’s face; he had to make do with what he could get.
The clattering outside came to an abrupt halt, and Zuko immediately rolled himself out of bed, landing with a heavy thud, and only a slight stumble. He had been more graceful, once, but he was grateful that he could still climb in and jump out of the upper bunk with few problems; most of the other thirty or so men in his barrack hut couldn’t say the same thing. The other inmates were all out of the door and assembled in the main courtyard in less than five minutes. There’d been no need to dress; most of them slept in their clothes. The nights got cold up in the mountains, and their thin uniforms provided very little protection against the chill winds that stole into the barracks through the cracks in their thin walls. Zuko, like most of the other veterans, those who had had been in camp long enough to wrangle a good pair of shoes, slept in his boots. He had inherited them from an old navy captain who had found his escape at the end of a stolen length of rope. They hadn’t fit too well at first, but he’d grown. Zuko was taller than some of the men, now.
The air was cool in the courtyard and Zuko shivered as he forced himself to stand at attention for the blessing of the Fire Lord. Mist twirled across the hard earth beneath his feet, and twisted up around his boots, as his mouth mindlessly spewed the traditional, obsequious refrains in dull chorus with the men around him. The duty officer hurried through roll call and then ran through a few notices: production was up by six percent; the army had taken control over another village, near Gaipan; Princess Azula was to tour the south islands with a company of imperial firebenders. Zuko tuned them out and stared up at the sky. He doubted that any of the announcements had any truth to them, at all. Information was a currency, and one far too precious to hand out to traitors and other criminals. The sky was thick with clouds, but Zuko could feel the power of Angi radiating from just behind them. It would be a hot day; the mist would probably burn off by mid-morning, and the earth would be baking underfoot by early-afternoon. Zuko tried not to dwell on the prospect for too long; it wasn’t as if he’d get to see any of it. A low moan rang around the assembled men and women, and Zuko snapped his thoughts back to the duty officer. Breakfast had been cancelled, again. That meant they would be straight to work. A tall, dark-haired woman near the front grumbled mutinously, but she was quickly silenced by a blow from one of the privates. Once upon a time, Zuko had screamed and cursed at the unfairness of it all, but he’d long since found that the pain of an aching stomach was easier to handle than the pain that came from drawing the attention of the guards.
A few sharp commands from the shift leaders had them all forming up into their groups. Zuko was in group two, not that it made the slightest bit of difference. They all did the same job. Zuko hurried over to the muster point and hunched over against the side of the well. He pulled his boots more snugly onto his feet, and rearranged the padded straw in the toes, as he waited for the rest of his group to form up. He ran a hand through his hair, navigating the manacles around his wrists with practised ease. It was getting long again, he realised, as his fingers brushed through the thin, brittle strands. He wondered how much longer he could get away with it at this length, before the guards took notice. It had been a while since the orderlies had last brought out the shears; they hadn’t needed to. The last few months had been lean enough that most of the inmates’ hair had taken to falling out without any aid. Zuko, as in many things, seemed to be the exception- his own hair was just patchy.
That was, however, one thing that he couldn’t really blame on the soldiers. It wasn’t as thought the starvation rations were entirely intentional. There’d been an unexpected eruption in one of the volcanoes around the Fire Nation capital at start of the last spring. The Fire Sages had done their best to keep the main islands safe, but there was only so much they could do- not even Avatar Roku had been able to tame a volcano. The strong trade winds had carried the ash cloud all the way to the mainland and smothered most of the fields, killing crops and choking farmers indiscriminately. It wasn’t bad enough to declare a national emergency, but it was close. Belts had been drawn tighter and tighter as food had grown scarcer and scarcer. For Zuko and the others, that had meant one meal a day and a few half-arsed apologies from the quartermaster. Twenty men had died, but that hadn’t bothered the soldiers too much. No one cried for the death of a criminal; well, not until the coal quotas came in, and every work hour counted. Then, Zuko knew, the soldiers would care very much indeed.
A quick check at the gate for him and a handful of others, to make sure their chains were still secure, and then the assembled groups were allowed through. The extra security was supposed to hinder them, should they try and run, but they were really just a way for the guards to punish those who were too disobedient. Zuko had managed to escape on two separate occasions. The first attempt had earnt him quick and brutal retribution from the officer on duty, but, once that was complete, they had let him stay free. After he got away from them a second time, the chains had gone on. It had been over a year since Zuko had even looked at the camp boundary with anything more than idle interest, enough time that the soldiers who had been in charge back then had long since moved on to different postings, but the chains had stayed on. Zuko quite honestly believed that no one in the camp even knew where to find the key.
The inmates walked out of camp in six straight lines, through the heavy gates and out past the boundary perimeter. The guards pushed and shoved at them to keep them in formation as they stumbled along on the rocky track, one hundred and two skinny men and women in thin shoes and grey rags. Well, one hundred and one, Zuko noted dispassionately; hut four had lost their newbie last night. The inmates plodded along with grim faces, keeping pace automatically, still trying to shake away the cobwebs of the night’s sleep. Technically, they weren’t meant to start work for another hour. Technically they were meant to have been fed a regulation portion of rice and a cup of water at breakfast. Technically they were supposed to have been woken just before dawn and herded to the shrine to greet Agni, for a mandated five minutes of worship. But rules were only followed when it suited the guards; the coal quota had gone up and they were low on workers, the quartermaster had fucked up the last food order, and most of the officers preferred a few more minutes sleep to any kind of religious observance.
Camp regulations also mandated that all inmates were to be watched at all times by four guards, armed with swords, and another who could firebend. Fire Nation military guidelines stated a strict five to one ratio of soldiers to all prisoners, for the safety of military personnel, but in Zuko’s experience, they were rarely enforced in camp. There was no point; none of the prisoners had the energy to step out of line. Therefore, as they trudged out to work in the cool morning air, the prisoners were instead watched by three bored privates, with truncheons and cattle whips at their belts. They were an effective enough threat to keep the inmates in line. They didn’t even need the firebender; Zuko hadn’t been able to channel his chi into fire in months, and he knew it was the same for the other firebenders. It was laughable in a way. Benders were supposed to be blessed by Agni; they were the pride of the Fire Nation, considered indomitable in the face of any foe. Yet, here they were, brought low by poor nutrition and too much time in the dark. Zuko smiled grimly at the thought; here was the true Fire Nation, in all of her unvarnished glory.
Zuko had been raised to believe in the magnificence of the Fire Nation, of the honour and courage of her army, the resilience and ingenuity of her workers, and the benevolence of her nobility. His childhood had been spent in ornate palaces, playing tag through the corridors of power, with Generals and Admirals as the smiling parents of his close friends. To him, the Fire Nation was the centre of civilisation, the pinnacle of what humanity at its finest could achieve. He had been so very naïve. The Fire Nation was nothing more than a bunch of pirates and warmongers, pillaging the lands of those weaker than them and killing anyone who stood in their way. Three years in camp, far removed from the glory of Caldera City, had shown Zuko a thing or two.
Zuko, lost in his thoughts, stumbled over a rock and nearly tripped, righting himself at the last minute. One of the guards rewarded him with a cuff about the head, and he had to duck his head to hide the fury in his eyes, lest he be hit again for insubordination. It was possible, of course, Zuko considered, that he was misremembering, that he was looking back on his childhood through rose-tinted glasses. If he’d ever tried to play in the halls of the palace, his father would have had him beaten as an embarrassment to the Royal House of Azulon, and all those kindly Generals and Admirals would have simply nodded sagely and extolled the virtues of discipline in children. Could he Zuko honestly say that he hadn’t noticed any of the signs, even back then? Or had he really been so desperate to be liked that he’d ignored things that seemed so plain and obvious to him, all these years on? The only other children he’d ever really known were always Azula’s friends, first and foremost, loyal to the beautiful prodigy princess. They’d been forced together, the royal children and the offspring of shrewd nobles looking to get a head start in the political power plays of the next generation. The same children had only begun to show an interest in him when became Crown Prince, and even then only until their parents realised exactly which of his children the Fire Lord favoured. If Zuko had been any savvier, he might have seen that as his first warning, like the earthquake before the tsunami. But he had always been an oblivious little brat. He’d thought his father loved him. He’d thought that the Fire Nation was good.
But, Zuko thought, sighing deeply as they approached the entrance to the mine, like all children, he’d learnt. It had taken one hell of a lesson from the Fire Lord, but Zuko had always been a slow learner, too preoccupied with turtleducks and flowers and the softness of his mother’s smiles. He’d needed to be harder, to survive the real world, and so his father had given him a truly formidable wake-up call. Zuko shuddered as his face seared in remembered pain, and shook himself to focus back on the present. He walked over to the pile of pickaxes and hefted one over his shoulder, wincing as his back creaked in complaint.
Zuko took one last deep breath as he stood at the dark gaping, entrance to the mine, letting the last of Agni’s rays soak into him and energise his chi. The further he went into the darkness of the mine, the less he could feel the power of his element. At first he had been ill every time he went to work, the darkness draining him and sapping his energy, but even that sensation had faded over time to just a dull sense of emptiness that sat low in his gut. Zuko had certainly toughened up; he’d had to. With half his face scorched off to brand him a traitor and a writ of banishment thrown after him, as he was tossed out the door, Zuko had been cast unceremoniously into the harshness of the real world and told to suck it up. He’d arrived at the camp delirious with fever; his burn had become infected on the ship from the capital. Zuko had pulled through, by the grace of whatever spirit liked to fuck with him so much, and had awoken hurt and confused and all but blind in his left eye to a whole new reality. The prison camp was a cruel, unforgiving place and it had had no patience for crippled children or mercy for traitors. The process had not been easy, but Zuko had learnt. He was far from the pampered prince that he once had been.
A sharp order from the shift leader pulled him back from his thoughts, and he took his place on the mechanical lift that would take them down to work. The initial descent into the mineshaft always felt to Zuko like he was crossing a threshold, stepping into another world where there was only dim light and the clinking sound of metal on rock, where even the light of Agni was a distant memory. The platform moved slowly, but all too soon, it reached the bottom, and the men swarmed off. With a quick nod to the shift leader, Zuko fell into the rhythm of the working day, heading down into the darkness to take his spot at the coalface. It was hard work, but he was used to it. His blisters had turned to callous years ago, and, as he’d grown, his muscles had turned to tough sinew from the harsh manual labour. In the darkness of the mine, he was no longer the banished prince, the traitor who had shamed his father and turned his back on his country. When he stood with the other men, coated in coal dust, and numbing his mind with the repetitive swing of his pickaxe, he was nothing and no one special, he was just Zuko. Down in the bowels of the earth, away from the scorn of the guards, where it was too dark to see the hate-filled expressions of his fellow inmates, he could pretend that that was enough.