S1| Ep02: Nine Dragons (下)

December 22, 2010

Intan fidgeted as she waited in the lobby of the faculty building. She sank back into her chair and counted the chandeliers, and when she finished, began to mentally twist the funny thin tall shapes of the windows into different creatures and spirits. Before long, she was tracing mazes in the bold geometric designs zigzagging across the floor.

One of the soldiers who had escorted her there finally sighed and said, “Come. I’ll take you to the office.”

The soldier led her to the elevator. Intan stared at the ornate metalwork on its door as they rose. On the ninth floor the doors opened, and they stepped out into a marble hallway. The soldier directed Intan to a bench across the door labeled as the Headmistress’s office.

“Headmistress Liow will call for you when she’s ready,” said the soldier as she bowed and left.

Intan was beginning to contemplate taking a nap right on the spot when she suddenly heard angry voices from within the office. She stood and leaned closer, straining to hear what they were saying, but was unable to make out any words. The shouting paused, then resumed, this time louder, but still indecipherable.

Then footsteps. Intan scooted back into her seat, not a moment too soon. The door swung open, and out stormed a male student, face darkened with rage. For a moment Intan did not recognize him — unlike Hadil, he was no longer in his uniform robes, but dressed instead in suspenders and pleated trousers — but then she realized that it was the medic from the other day.

“Hello,” she offered, but he did not even spare her a glance. In fact, his scowl only seemed to deepen.

Intan supposed she couldn’t exactly blame him.

He stopped in front of the elevator and slammed his fist into the wall. Intan jumped. She wondered if she should say something else, but as she dithered, the elevator doors slid open and he disappeared.

Silence.

Then, a sudden voice from behind. “Excuse me.”

Intan whirled around to see a woman dressed in servant’s robes standing in the doorway, her face blank and unreadable.

“Please follow me.”

* * *

As she entered the room, Intan broke into a fit of coughing. The Headmistress, looking quite unruffled in her long black dress, was seated at her carved wooden desk, smoking a cigar. Intan had seen Headmistress Liow only once before, from far away, at the opening ceremony. At the time, the Headmistress had been wearing a wide black picture hat topped with gray plumes that shadowed most of her features. Her head was bared now, revealing wavy ashen hair framing a pale, sharply featured face. Intan stared openly at her through the haze, unable to help her curiosity. Tales of the brilliant war exploits of the former Captain Liow had spread far and wide.

Headmistress Liow nodded once, acknowledging Intan’s arrival, before turning back to her paperwork. The servant showed Intan to a seat.

“Go fetch Tanith for me, will you?” said the Headmistress, flipping a page.

The servant bowed and left.

For a moment Intan was afraid she was going to get yelled at, like the medic student apparently had before her. But instead the room fell silent, save for the scratching of the Headmistress’s pen.

Rather than being unnerved, Intan relaxed and took the opportunity to look around. The office was as elegantly furnished as the lobby, but more subdued. Intan’s gaze latched onto the silk screen print standing at the back of the room, yellowed and worn and out of place. She could just barely make out dragons snaking through a sea of swirling clouds. Probably imported from the mainland, Intan decided, and promptly lost interest.

She was beginning to squirm again when the door opened at last to the sound of throaty laughter and rustling fabric.

“Good morning, Bea,” said the newcomer, a dark, long-haired woman garbed in colorful silks and a jeweled patch over her right eye. She yawned, covering her mouth with a delicately manicured hand. “Well, well. What do we have here?”

Intan stared at the eye patch as the Headmistress said, attention still focused on her work, “She’s the one who flew the old model.”

“Oh, my, what a surprise.” The woman did not sound surprised at all. “And what might your name be, dear?”

“Intan Aghavni. First year Wisteria. I gave you the file two days ago for a reason, Tanith.” There was only the barest hint of reproach in the Headmistress’s tone.

“You know I’m just teasing, darling.” Then she turned back to Intan. “Now, where are my manners? I’m the Assistant Headmistress, Tanith Singh. I don’t believe we’ve met yet.”

“No, she wouldn’t have. You slept in on the day of the opening ceremony.”

The woman laughed again in response as Intan scrambled to her feet and bowed with a hastily murmured, “Assistant Headmistress.”

“What a mouthful! Just Miss Singh is fine.”

“Now,” interrupted the Headmistress, setting down her stack of papers. “Seeing as you’re finally here, let’s get down to business.” She looked up and addressed Intan directly for the first time. “Aghavni. Sit down.”

Intan sat. Miss Singh curled onto a divan in the corner.

“I’m not in trouble, am I?” asked Intan, who was not feeling particularly troubled.

“No,” said the Headmistress, studying her reaction. “As you must have surmised.”

“Well, don’t keep us hanging, now,” said Miss Singh. Intan wasn’t sure who the words were addressed to, and looked at the Headmistress for confirmation.

The Headmistress inclined her head. “Give us a report on the events from three days ago. Start from the beginning.”

Intan, taking this all in stride, took a deep breath and began.

* * *

The two women listened as Intan relayed her report. The Headmistress interrupted between occasional puffs of smoke to clarify details, while Miss Singh lounged, catlike, on the divan.

When Intan neared the end of her tale, she hesitated.

“What’s the matter?” asked the Headmistress.

“The girl. She said — well, something strange,” said Intan at last, deciding that it couldn’t hurt.

Both women were watching her closely now, the Headmistress with an intensity that belied her cool demeanor. Intan hesitated again, then said, “Something weird about something called Ausos? But I don’t know what that is.”

“What precisely did she say?”

“I,” Intan began. She shook her head, changing her mind. “I don’t remember.”

Miss Singh turned back to studying her nails, evidently bored. But the Headmistress held her gaze for a few moments longer before saying, “Very well. Thank you for your report, Cadet.”

Intan spoke again hurriedly, before the Headmistress had a chance to dismiss her. “Um, may I ask something?”

“Speak.”

“Why have I not received any punishment?”

Miss Singh snickered in a rather undignified manner. The Headmistress said, unperturbed, “Actually, that is what we were about to discuss.”

“Oh,” said Intan, more puzzled than concerned.

“Flouting orders in an emergency situation is in itself normally enough to call for expulsion. Not to speak of… your little escapade in the training Doll.”

Intan had the sense to look somewhat abashed.

“Considering the circumstances, however,” continued the Headmistress, then trailed off, frowning. “I confess myself surprised, Cadet. You did not ask any questions pertaining to the second rogue.”

Intan blinked. “Was I supposed to?”

At this Miss Singh burst out laughing. “Oh, Beatrix. Do give the child some credit.”

But the Headmistress’s frown grew deeper. “The pilot’s motivations are currently under investigation,” she said at last. “There was no damage. And as all students and faculty members were accounted for at the time –”

“With certain exceptions,” Miss Singh interjected quite cheerfully.

“– there is good reason to assume outside involvement. In particular, there has been talk recently of dissidents along the coastline.” The Headmistress hesitated, as if recalling Intan’s own origins, then clarified, “The western coast, that is. As for how much young Miss Chang herself was involved, on the other hand, I cannot say. The king has exonerated her personally on account of her youth and the price she has already paid.” She paused again. “Still, you must understand the sensitivity of the matter.”

It was already more information than Intan had expected to receive. “I do. Ma’am.”

The Headmistress gave her a peculiar look. “Good. That being said, Cadet, we were quite impressed by your feat. That particular model has been out of commission for some five years.”

Something that had been bothering Intan for a while fell into place then. “Were you watching?”

This time, the Headmistress allowed herself a slight smile.

Intan caught herself just in time before she burst out with something unfortunate. Like, Then why didn’t you save her? Instead, she said, “Ma’am, I still don’t understand why I…”

“Aghavni,” said the Headmistress. “Have you heard of the Nine Dragons?”

“The special class?” asked Intan, who was finally beginning to get a bad feeling about where the conversation was headed. “I thought those were just rumors.”

Miss Singh laughed.

“They are not. Every year, we recruit the top student of each entering class in the piloting divisions into a… supplementary course. For security reasons, each recruit is sworn to secrecy.”

“Hence the rumors,” said Miss Singh.

The Headmistress ignored her. “As your scores on the entrance exams were among the highest of your year, you were already under consideration as the new Wisteria candidate. Your feat the other day proves you qualified beyond doubt. Excepting, of course, your disregard of orders.”

Intan snuck a glance at the silk screen with the dragons, tempted to count exactly how many were pictured, and suspecting, now, that she already knew.

“However, I have decided to make an exception for you. You are neither expelled nor suspended. Instead, I am offering you entry into the Nine Dragons on a trial basis. Will you accept my offer, Cadet?”

“But,” Intan said, still in the middle of working out this strange new development, “why?”

“I hate to see talent like yours wasted,” replied the Headmistress, in a tone that brooked no further questioning.

Intan, thinking quickly, bowed. “I am very honored, ma’am.” She opened her mouth again, about to ask for more time, but reconsidered. She suspected she didn’t actually have a choice in the matter anyway. Besides, being a special class, it might actually be more fun than her current coursework.

“Okay!” she said cheerfully. Perhaps a bit too cheerfully, considering the look the Headmistress gave her. “I mean — I accept.”

“Good.” The Headmistress turned to Miss Singh, who had a smug grin plastered on her face. “Would you call Rusli and Dugu over for me, Tanith?”

“They’re waiting outside,” came the reply. “I took the opportunity to summon them earlier.”

The Headmistress raised a slim eyebrow. “Thank you,” she said. “Call them in.”

Jinwei Rusli, as it turned out, was a handsome redheaded third year from the Azalea division, with a dimpled smile that lent him a boyish air. Dugu, also a third year, was a dark-haired girl from Hibiscus, and introduced herself as Tuyet.

“Rusli and Dugu are your seniors in the Nine Dragons,” said the Headmistress. “They will tell you what is expected of you, and answer any questions you might have.”

Intan, still somewhat puzzled and beginning to feel overwhelmed, only nodded in response. The two older cadets were just about to drag her away when the Headmistress spoke again.

“And Aghavni, before you leave. I have not yet spoken of your punishment.”

She grinned sheepishly. Of course she couldn’t have been let off that easily.

At least she hadn’t been expelled.

* * *

“Strange child,” remarked Miss Singh after said child had left with her seniors. “Quite an interesting one you’ve netted this time, hm, Bea?”

The Headmistress turned back to her paperwork in silence.

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