S1| Ep03: Murderer (上)
December 29, 2010
Punishment, as it turned out, was trash duty for a month. Which actually wasn’t so bad. After weeks of no chores and nothing to do but schoolwork, Intan had begun to miss her life back in the village, where there had hardly ever been a moment for rest.
On the other hand, the Nine Dragons class was a punishment in and of itself. “Nine Dragons” was a bit of a misnomer, as it turned out; including Intan, there were actually only seven members, and she was the only cadet from Wisteria. The other two first years, a quiet, polished girl and an even quieter loner of a boy, seemed content to ignore her, and the second years, both girls, were rather intimidating. Tuyet from Hibiscus and Rusli from Azalea were quite kind, however.
But it wasn’t her fellow Dragons that were the issue. It was all the extra work. Intan was quite certain she would go mad by the end of the month, given the dizzying reams of texts she was expected to copy and memorize and debate. Not to mention the training. All Academy students were expected to train in hand-to-hand combat, no matter their division, but the Dragons were required to participate in daily strength and endurance exercises in addition to the regular classes. By the end of each day, Intan was so exhausted that she plopped right into bed and fell asleep immediately. She couldn’t see why the class was so special that it warranted all that effort and secrecy. Not that keeping the secret was difficult, when she didn’t really talk to anyone else.
But as tired as she was, she had been unable to go exploring. (Part of Intan wondered if this were not the true reason the Headmistress had dumped her into the Nine Dragons at the last minute!) And though she wasn’t particularly inclined to dwell on meaningless puzzles, the name “Ausos” continued to weigh uneasily at the back of her mind.
“I still don’t get it,” complained Hadil, at the end of the first week. The two of them were wheeling the last carts of garbage to the incinerator together on foot, having been forbidden — for obvious reasons — to drive the usual ground transports instead. Intan had declined Hadil’s help at first, but the other girl had insisted on joining her anyway. Maybe she felt guilty about her part in Intan’s escapade, though there was no reason for her to. It had not been for her sake that Intan had piloted the Doll.
Or perhaps Hadil, like Intan, was simply restless.
“Don’t get what?”
“I went back to the junkyard again today since I got out of class early. But it just doesn’t make sense. Those things are deader than herring! I even ran some tests. They shouldn’t be in working condition anymore.”
“You have to be gentle,” said Intan, shrugging. The sticky warmth of the night combined with the overwhelming smell of rot made her queasy and not particularly inclined to concentrate on Hadil’s usual stream of conversation. The weather was swiftly becoming insufferable enough that students and instructors alike gave up maintaining any semblance of propriety and rolled up their sleeves in attempt to keep cool. Some, like Intan, had even switched to the thinner hemp robes for the approaching summer already.
“I wish you’d come with me again. Show me how you did it. Maybe I could figure something out then.”
Intan made a face. “I’m in enough trouble already, thanks.”
“Are you sure the Headmistress didn’t ask you anything about it? It sure seems like something she’d be interested in. Just imagine! A retired model! Still working after all this time! I must be overlooking something.”
Intan wiped the sweat from her forehead and began to tune out. To take her mind off the heat, she gazed out into the distance, studying the mountains that encircled the lake in a protective ring. She had been searching for signs of the mountains’ guardian spirits ever since arriving at the Academy, but thus far none had shown themselves. Probably they were just shy, though even in the bustling dreariness of the capital she had caught sight of tree sprites here and there.
Their absence had not troubled her at first, but as time passed, the emptiness seemed to grow, like an itch she could not reach.
“Intan. Hey, Intan.” Hadil tugged at her sleeve, interrupting her thoughts.
Intan, hearing the sudden urgency in Hadil’s voice, turned.
Running toward them was a girl from the Lotus division. In the dim glow of the street lamps, Intan made out swollen eyes, bedraggled fair hair, and a freckled face flushed in what was seemed to be anger rather than mere overheating.
“I wonder if all the people in Lotus are like this,” said Intan.
Hadil looked at her funny as the girl neared. “Huh?”
“Murderer!” screamed the girl.
Hadil stepped forward, frowning. “What the heck are you going on about?”
The girl ignored her and pointed a trembling finger at Intan. “You, you’re the one who killed her!”
Intan stared. “Killed?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know. You — you –” The girl broke down into tears.
“Wait a sec,” whispered Hadil. “That’s…”
Intan did not budge.
“He said you were there! You were there, when Sita, when she –”
“Si… ta?” said Intan, and knew, suddenly, that she must be referring to the dead pilot.
“She was my friend!” wailed the girl, who launched herself at Intan, clawing at her face. Intan stepped reflexively out of the way, still staring, stunned at the revelation. The girl stumbled into a cart of trash, knocking it over.
“Hey, are you okay?” Hadil was saying, looking concerned now. She crouched down by the girl, who lay there sobbing. “Intan, d’you have any idea what’s going on?”
“I’m sorry,” Intan began, distressed, when the girl sprang forward, swinging wildly at Hadil, scattering bits of rotted fruit across the ground.
Hadil, quick and surprisingly strong despite her diminutive frame, leaped up, grabbed the girl’s arm, and twisted. “Honestly! What is your problem?”
The girl continued to struggle and weep. “Murderer! Murderer!”
“What’s going on here?”
A male voice. Intan looked up, and saw a group of Azalea upperclassmen, headed by none other than her senior in the Nine Dragons, Jinwei Rusli. Most of the upperclassmen wrinkled their noses at the sight before them, which Intan distractedly thought was quite understandable, given the circumstances. A few of them shuffled around awkwardly, which was also understandable. One of them smirked and made gagging noises. That, now, was quite uncalled for.
Rusli, however, stepped forward, offering them a gentle smile. “Good evening,” he said in a pleasant, conversational tone. “I see we seem to have stumbled across some sort of misunderstanding?”
Intan opened her mouth to respond, but a sudden wind arose, singing in her ears. Just beyond the crowd, she glimpsed a pair of tree sprites dancing merrily on the rooftop, their bright hair waving in the breeze like flames.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured again, overwhelmed all at once with an odd mix of relief, guilt, and confusion. But before she could continue, the girl managed to wrench free of Hadil’s grasp.
“You!” shrieked the girl.
To the surprise of everyone present, this time she struck at Rusli. Rusli raised his arms in defence. A shadow shifted in the crowd. Another voice rang out.
“You fucking idiot!”
This time, Intan recognized the blond medic instantly. He leaped before Rusli and took the girl’s punch without even the slightest wince, then proceeded to return the girl’s fist with a slap to her face.
“Get a damn grip, Park,” he growled. The girl glared back for a moment before deflating. Without the anger fueling her, she looked rather like a dirty, bedraggled secondhand doll.
Someone in the back hooted. “Take it easy there, kid.”
“She your girl? Guess it’s true what they say. Crazy attracts crazy.”
The boy turned slowly to face the rest of the Azalea students. Intan could not see the expression on his face when he spoke, but his back was straight and stiff, his voice low and brusque. “I apologize for my junior’s behavior. We will take our leave now.” He nudged the girl to a standing position and began to pull her away from the crowd.
“Kaneshiro,” said Rusli.
The boy paused, but did not turn again.
Rusli ran a hand through his wine-dark hair, looking conflicted. In the end he said only, “Thank you.”
The medic students left without another word.