S1| Ep03: Murderer (下)
January 5, 2011
Intan exchanged a look with Hadil as the medic students turned the corner, leaving the two of them alone with the Azalea upperclassmen.
“Are you okay?” Hadil murmured, this time addressing Intan.
Intan simply nodded. Of course she was okay. She glanced at the rooftop, but the tree sprites were already gone.
Rusli turned to them then. “Getting rather infamous already, aren’t you, Aghavni?” he said in a light tone. “Did something happen?”
“My apologies, sir,” said Intan. “I appreciate your interference, but it wasn’t necessary.”
He shook his head, smiling. “Come now, Aghavni. I thought I told you already. No need to be so formal!”
Intan nodded again. “It was just a misunderstanding, as you said.” After a moment, she asked tentatively, “Did you know them? Those medic students?”
“Oh,” said Rusli, looking startled at the question. “Just Kaneshiro. We’re… acquainted.”
“Bastard,” muttered one of his friends, face scrunched in disgust. “Just because the Headmistress takes pity on him –” At a glance from Rusli, he fell silent.
“Why do you ask?” said Rusli, turning back to Intan.
He thought she had gotten in trouble with the Headmistress just for disregarding orders. Only Hadil knew about Intan’s turn in the Doll. But even Hadil was unaware of the exact details, and Intan thought it all far too complicated to explain.
“I ran into him the other day,” she said at last. “He seems to be a very angry person.”
For a moment Rusli stared. Then he began to laugh. His friends, too, laughed, a bit nervously.
“I –” Rusli gasped, then broke off laughing again. “I — I suppose you could put it that way.”
“Angry is right. Not to mention temperamental, boorish, and utterly lacking in self-control,” sneered one of the boys in the crowd.
“How can you joke about it like that?” snapped the girl behind him. “Or did you forget that he killed someone?”
“Killed?” squeaked out Hadil, who until then had been uncharacteristically quiet, apparently lost in thought.
Rusli sobered. “It was just an accident.”
“Oh yeah? I think it was all just hushed up,” said another of his friends.
“There was and remains no proof of that,” Rusli said firmly.
“Then how do you explain his getting kicked out of the program? You really think the Headmistress would have done that if he were innocent?”
“It’s possible he chose to quit for his own reasons. We mustn’t judge him without knowing the full story.”
“I heard he was in a street gang back in the capital!”
“I don’t believe you actually buy the crap you’re spouting, Rusli.”
At this last remark, a tall, dark-haired boy whom Intan had noticed hovering silently nearby through this entire exchange, shifted his weight. Whatever he had been about to do, however, Intan did not find out, for Rusli held up a hand and the boy stilled.
“Come now, let’s not get into another fight over this,” said Rusli.
After some more disgruntled muttering, the crowd settled, much to Intan’s surprise.
“Ah,” Rusli continued then, as if nothing had just transpired. “After all that, I nearly forgot –” He turned back to Intan. “Actually, we were sent to inform you of an emergency school-wide assembly gathering in an hour. Half an hour, now. We’d best hurry if we don’t want to be late.”
Hadil said, “An emergency assembly?”
Intan said, “But the trash?”
Rusli laughed again. “Word has it the Bear herself has come calling. Something about the Double Five Festival next week, I wager. As for the trash –” he glanced at the overturned cart and the garbage strewn across the ground “– why don’t I help you finish up here?”
“But Rusli –” protested the girl who had spoken earlier.
He shook his head and addressed the tall boy at his side. “Yusaku, you and the others go ahead. We’ll catch up.”
The boy nodded and began to herd the other students away.
Rusli grinned at Intan.
Intan forced herself to smile back.
* * *
“I must apologize for my friends,” said Rusli under his breath some time later, as they left the incinerator and started making their way to the assembly hall. Hadil, already recovered from the earlier incident, walked a little ways ahead of them, babbling away to no one particular about a hydropowered fan she had been tinkering with in her own time.
Intan, preoccupied with her own thoughts, did not respond.
“He was one of us.”
That caught her attention. She looked at him. “You mean…”
“Eguzki Kaneshiro of Wisteria. Yes. He had a bit of a reputation from the start — whether or not it was justified I don’t know. But there’s also no denying that he was the top pilot in his class, perhaps even in his year… Until he dropped out of the program and transferred to the medic division.”
“Because of the accident.”
Rusli sighed, and it was some time before he continued. “You must have wondered why we number only seven. I don’t know the details myself… but he got in a fight with the second year Wisteria representative right before the winter holidays. It ended with the second year dead. There was a huge outcry for Kaneshiro to be expelled, brought before the king for sentencing, even. But the Headmistress intervened.”
Intan thought of the dead pilot. Sita — Sita Chang. And her medic friend — Park?
She said, “Because she didn’t want to see his talent wasted?”
Rusli looked surprised. “What makes you say that? No… I heard that the Headmistress was good friends with his late mother. I would guess she simply wished to allow him a second chance, in honor of past relations. After all, without the school, he had nowhere left to go.”
“I didn’t think the Headmistress was so kind.”
He chuckled. “She doesn’t seem the type, does she? But you know how it goes. ‘In the beginning, the nature of man is good,'” he said, quoting from a classic text. “To be kind is to be human. The Headmistress may be strict, but even she is no exception. She’s no robot, after all!”
That wasn’t quite what Intan had meant, but she smiled back nonetheless.
Unified are their natures; divergent are their habits.
* * *
The hall was already packed and sweltering by the time they reached it. Intan searched in vain for the rest of her division, but Rusli laughed and waved her and Hadil to an unoccupied corner near his class. They squeezed into the small space, ignoring the other students’ reactions to their stench.
It seemed they had arrived not a moment too soon. As they settled into their positions, the assistant headmistress Miss Singh entered from a side door, dressed in filmy green robes that were quite appropriate for the weather, if not for the occasion at hand. At her side strode a tall, dark-haired woman with an impressive scar slashing across the bridge of her nose. She wore the red and gold uniform of a high-ranking officer, rendering her instantly recognizable as the great war hero, the Crimson Bear.
As the two women stepped onto the raised platform at the head of the hall, a hush descended upon the gathering.
“Your presence with us tonight is quite the pleasant surprise, Brigadier General Hsiung,” said Miss Singh with a sly smile, projecting her voice loudly enough for the entire room to hear. “On behalf of Headmistress Liow, I welcome you to the Academy. What manner of urgent business brings you here, if I may inquire?”
With a barely withheld look of — disgust? irritation? — the general turned to face the audience. “I come,” said the general, gesturing to the hall’s main entrance, “on behalf of His Royal Majesty.”
Students and instructors alike turned as one. There was gasp. The crowd parted, and as one, scrambled to their knees and bowed.
Intan held her breath for an interminable moment. She imagined she could hear the king’s footsteps, treading softly down the path.
“Rise.” The general’s voice echoed through the room.
When Intan looked up again, the king himself stood upon the platform before them all. She found herself disappointed. But for the richly brocaded robes he wore, marked with the emblem of the royal family of Nahwan, she might have mistaken him for a commoner. Some lanky, unassuming middle-aged merchant, perhaps. Or one of the addle-brained classics professors at the academy. Intan had expected more from her first ever glimpse of the king himself, especially on such a rare public appearance.
“We come here tonight,” he said, peering out at them from behind his spectacles, “with an important announcement.” His voice was surprisingly deep and resonant, and in this manner, at least, befitting of a king.
“On the new year in seven months’ time, it is our intention to hold a grand ceremony for the gods.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. The ancient ceremonies had not been held in over twenty years. Intan glanced around the room to see everyone else’s reactions. Hadil looked curiously thoughtful; utter shock flitted across Rusli’s face before he composed himself again. Even the instructors ranged from appalled to bewildered. Only Miss Singh and the general did not seem surprised at all.
The king continued, as if he knew what everyone was thinking. “We have too long neglected our sacred duties. For this we must make amends.” He paused. “Thus did we come to a decision: at summer’s end, we shall come again to this place. We shall choose, from among the students of the Academy, four attendants to hold the initial rites.”
And now the murmur broke out into a storm.
To be chosen as an attendant in the ceremonies was a great honor indeed.
But in the history of Nahwan, none had ever been chosen, but from among the highest ranking of nobles.