S1| Ep06: Moon Festival (上)
February 16, 2011
“A Doll without a pilot, huh?” Hadil frowned. “Doesn’t seem like it should be possible.”
Intan and Hadil sat by the lake, dangling their legs in the water. There had been little time for discussion after their return to the Academy. Kikue and Intan, busy with Nine Dragon meetings (in the absence of school and the cancellation of camp, their lessons and their training had been doubled, even tripled, much to Intan’s despair), had resumed their prior non-speaking terms, though every now and then, when they passed each other in the hallways, Intan would poke at her with the dry end of her writing brush and Kikue would bristle but otherwise pretend not to notice. And Hadil had been busy with her own experiments.
“I heard they’ve been developing some sort of remote control stuff over at the base,” said Intan, vaguely recalling some old village gossip she had heard in passing before she left for the capital.
“Yeah, but that’s only for little things. And they can’t handle very sophisticated maneuvers yet. It’s mostly just stop and go so far.” Hadil tossed a pebble at the water. “Just imagine, if we no longer needed pilots for Dolls…”
Intan made a face, then plopped down backwards to watch the clouds. “Do you think it has something to do with our tampered Dolls?”
The military had dismissed Hadil’s conclusions and continued, even now, to insist that she was mistaken. But Hadil was convinced that someone had fiddled with the internal workings. A subtle rewiring or some such. Intan didn’t understand any of it, but she agreed that the training Dolls had not been behaving normally that day.
Hadil looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. You said the Dolls stopped responding, not that they started acting on their own, right? But maybe…”
Intan considered telling her then about the underwater ruins she and Kikue had come across. She’d asked Hadil about the mines, but Hadil had seemed embarrassed about answering, except to confess that the mines had been pretty much defunct for some years now, and that she and her siblings often went exploring there, but had never come across anything of note.
Intan wasn’t too worried. Though she did wonder about her dreams, and the eerie grief of the rogue Dolls, the sprites had seemed fine, the forests healthy despite the evidence of prior destruction.
But it seemed to her disrespectful, somehow, to speak of the storm, and of the broken body of the guardian in the darkness. So in the end she said nothing.
Summer drew to an end, but the heat wave lingered. The other students returned to the Academy, and school resumed once more. Though not everyone had heard of the attack over the summer, and even those who had knew nothing of the specifics, rumors of rebellion grew rife among the general Academy populace. People were beginning to whisper that it was an unlucky year — an unlucky reign. More and more crops had been failing in recent years; the fishermen’s catches grew less bountiful. But left unspoken was the one implication none dared voice — that the gods had truly abandoned the royal family. For surely, surely, that was why the king suddenly chosen to resurrect the old ceremonies, after so many years of silence.
But aside from a brief, nervous restlessness on campus, no other disturbances interrupted the renewed flow of school life. No news came even to the Nine Dragons. It was announced only that that the king had been persuaded by the Great Clans to postpone his selection of attendants until more suitable circumstances.
Said circumstances turned out to be the Moon Festival. The festival was held yearly on campus grounds, in the streets of the former capital. People from all over the kingdom came, and for that reason the courtiers had decided it the most appropriate setting for the king’s grand selection. Or so it was said in public, anyway.
In truth, revealed the Brigadier General on another clandestine visit to the school, it was intended as a trap. Bait, to draw out any rebels or troublemakers.
And so at last Intan and her fellow Dragons were given their first true mission of the year: to mingle among the other students and festival-goers, and watch for any unusual disturbances.
* * *
Over the weeks, a transformation overtook the campus. A tangled growth of lights spread throughout the abandoned streets as booths were erected and weeds cleared away. Even the junkyard was covered with colorful tarps, its surrounding fence adorned with lanterns and banners. Meanwhile, the students made preparations for food and entertainment while the military (or so Intan heard) squabbled over logistics.
The night of the festival soon arrived. Intan was assigned to be one of the greeters at the west gate, which had been rebuilt since its destruction in the attack at the beginning of the school year. Through the gate squeezed a handful of uniformed students and soldiers, families in colorful robes both fine and plain, laborers still in their dusty work clothes — all laughing and chattering and gazing about in wonder. Even at the new capital (where those who could afford it were probably staying for the duration of the festival), Intan had never seen so many people gathered in a single place. And still more were entering from the east and south gates.
Intan watched the endless crowd for some time, entertained by all the different types of people she spotted. But soon enough she bored. Sweet aromas wafted over from the distance, enticing her to wander off in search for their source. But it would be unsightly to drool while she was still on duty, so she tried very hard to think of other things.
Like the sprites. And fish eyeballs. And fried octopus. Mangoes, eggplant, bitter melon.
A voice startled her from her reverie.
“Aghavni, how are you doing?”
Intan straightened and wiped her mouth. Shoving against the crowd in her direction were Rusli and Tuyet.
“Fine, sir,” she said, and wasn’t quite able to keep the dejection out of her voice.
Both seniors laughed.
“Care to come along for a walk?” asked Rusli.
Intan frowned, not really wanting to leave despite the torturous atmosphere. “Walk where?”
Rusli gestured at the crowds. “Well, not really a walk, I suppose. Just over for a quick bite. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“Oh!” said Intan, then slumped. “But my shift isn’t up for another hour.”
Tuyet, who had been grinning all the while, said, “Aww, aren’t you cute.” (Intan wasn’t quite sure if that was directed at her or at Rusli, who was studiously ignoring the other girl.) “Come on, I’ll take over for you!”
Intan wondered if they could hear her stomach rumbling over the noise of the passersby. “The Headmistress –”
“– won’t mind,” said Tuyet, shooing her off with a wave. “You two have fun now!”
Puzzled but not displeased with the arrangement, Intan allowed Rusli to drag her away and into the crowd.
* * *
They wandered around aimlessly for a while, stopping at the various vendors. Rusli bought two boxes of grilled octopus balls, one for Intan and one for himself. Intan munched away politely, still puzzled at his kindness but glad for the free food.
“I heard,” said Rusli after a while, “you come from one of the coastal villages?”
“Mmhm,” Intan replied between bites.
“Must be nice, living by the sea.”
“Sure, I guess.”
“It’s funny, really.” He laughed a bit, as if to emphasize the remark. “I’d never seen the sea before… not until two years ago. After I was accepted by the Academy.”
Intan cocked her head, still chewing. “You’re from the mountains?”
He hesitated. “You could say that.”
“The mountains are nice, too,” she pointed out.
This time, he chuckled. “True.” Then he began, “I was wondering…”
But Intan’s attention had been drawn by a nearby spectacle, a large, colorful tent inside which gathered a small crowd. Beyond the crowd flickered a single oil lamp, and beyond the lamp stood a vast paper screen, upon which shadowy figures danced and leaped.
They turned. Hadil came skidding to stop before them, hair flopping all over the place. “Intan! And sir. Did you come for the puppets? I helped design them, you know!”
Rusli looked at Intan. “Shall we go see, then?”
Intan nodded eagerly, and the three of them squeezed in together.
Inside, a dark-robed puppeteer hid behind the screen, plying his tools. But on closer view, the shadows’ intricate movements revealed that he served only as a guide, a positioner. His set of three hundred sixty-one mechanized puppets danced of their own accord.
“Looks like he’s just starting a new session,” whispered Hadil excitedly as the puppeteer’s assistant closed the tent flaps, dimming the room, drowning out the noise outside.
The puppeteer spoke in the tongue of the old kingdom, projecting his voice across the hushed audience.
“In the beginning, woman was the sun.”
The Golden Lady floated across the screen with her glimmering spear, followed by her silvery twin with his bright sword. They twirled about, at first in joy, and then in fierce, clashing battle, as the puppeteer recited the tale of their descent from the heavens, the creation of the islands and the first people of earth and sea, and their bitter falling out at the last.
Next the puppeteer performed the tale of the archer who shot down the flames of heaven, and after that the tale of the giants who slumbered beneath the high mountains.
“And now,” said the puppeteer, “in memory of those who feared not death.”
Rusli stiffened. Intan leaned forward, recognizing the traditional opening lines to the story of the Sun King and his warrior-priestess consort, who together defeated the one hundred and eight tribes of the Moon and unified the kingdom once more.
The performance continued. Intan watched, mesmerized.
But as the Sun King raised his spear to the heavens and cleaved the sacred mountain in two, she spotted the flickering image of a tree sprite pouting in the corner.
She stood, heart pounding.
Outside, a shriek pierced through the silence.