S1| Ep06: Moon Festival (下)
February 23, 2011
Rusli sprang up and shoved his way out of the tent. Intan followed him, blood roaring through her veins, Hadil only steps behind.
The last time she had seen a tree sprite so upset, an entire fleet of boats had been lost at sea the next day. They were simple creatures, the sprites, trusting and generous but easily hurt by the slightest betrayal; their revenge manifested in ways that were usually petty, but sometimes more serious. Intan worried that this one in particular had chosen to show itself to her. In her experience, they were shy, reluctant to reveal themselves before so many humans.
The scent of smoke filled the air. Another explosion? But if there had been one, the sound had been swallowed by the noise of the festivities.
“What’s going on?” Rusli demanded of a shaken bystander.
“Fireworks — went off in the middle of the street –”
The set of Rusli’s shoulders relaxed, but he plowed on to where the crowd had gathered around a child huddled over the remains of a string of firecrackers.
“Is anyone hurt?”
The little girl shook her head, rubbing at her eyes with a grubby hand. Rusli crouched down and held out his hand, murmuring soft reassurances under his breath.
“Where’s your mother?”
The girl shook her head again.
Intan looked around. But she saw no other sign of commotion, no other hint of a sprite’s presence.
Beside her, Hadil whispered, “Thank goodness. I thought –”
“What irresponsible parents,” someone else muttered.
At that moment, a tall, suited figure shoved forward through the crowd — one Intan recognized as a friend of Rusli’s.
“Who gave you this?” Rusli was asking.
“Nice brother,” replied the girl between sniffles. It wasn’t clear if she were answering his question or simply referring to the arrival of Rusli’s friend.
Said friend strode over, touched Rusli’s shoulder, and leaned over to whisper something in his ear. Rusli looked up, startled. He stood. After a moment’s hesitation, he turned back to the girl and smiled.
“Let’s go find your mother, shall we?”
As he passed by Intan, his friend pressed closed behind, he stopped again and said, “I’m truly sorry. I must take the girl back to her family. Yusaku will investigate further and confirm whether this was just an accident or a deliberate attempt at sabotage. If you notice anything else unusual…” He trailed off, as if remembering Hadil was there as well.
Intan nodded, still distracted. Hadil shifted from foot to foot, seeming to sense the shift in mood.
“I’d better go too,” said Hadil. “Teacher’s gonna be mad I’ve been gone so long.”
Around them, the crowd had already begun to disperse.
But as Hadil and the others departed, Intan caught the flash of a freckled face and millet-colored hair among the retreating bystanders. Another girl, uniformed. Slipping away into the shadows. A vague memory sparked.
Intan stepped forward and called out. “Ah! You’re…”
At her voice the girl stopped. For a moment Intan thought she would flee, but instead the girl turned.
Sure enough, it was Park. The medic student whose friend had —
“What do you want.” Then the girl froze in apparent recognition. Without waiting for a response, she said, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten. You may not have been the one who killed her, but…” She shook her head and whirled around.
“Wait!” Confused, Intan trailed after her as she strode away. “Did you run across a sprite earlier?”
The girl paused again. “What are you talking about?”
“A tree sprite,” insisted Intan. “You didn’t happen to see one, did you?”
A frown. “Are you drunk?”
Intan blinked. “I have high alcohol tolerance –” she started.
She was in the middle of wondering if Rusli had slipped her any rice wine during the course of the evening, when a irritated voice that was by now becoming quite familiar interrupted her thoughts.
“Dammit, Park. How many times do I have to tell you not to –”
Eguzki halted, noticing Intan. He closed in on Park, face hardening, voice turning cold. “Don’t tell me you went picking a fight again.”
“I’ve not done a single thing for you to be concerned over.” Park tossed her head, no longer paying attention to Intan. Her voice filled with sudden venom. “Even if I had, the old bitch would’ve deserved what she had coming to her.”
Eguzki grabbed her collar, forcing her to face him.
“Don’t you dare talk like that about –”
But Park wrenched away. “Hypocrite,” she spat.
Away she ran, into the teeming crowd.
* * *
Intan and Eguzki remained standing there in awkward silence as the crowd continued to break and reform around them like a river. Eguzki stared off into the distance, scowling, back hunched slightly.
“It’s true she didn’t cause any trouble,” said Intan. “I thought she might have made the sprites angry, but I guess not!”
At that, Eguzki turned and gave her a very strange look. But he said nothing and made no move to leave. Intan took that as an encouraging sign.
She had been, of course, just about dying of curiosity regarding the incident Rusli mentioned months earlier. But she decided to behave.
“You and Park seem very close,” she said instead.
His eyebrows knit together. “What? Kasih? Not particularly.”
Close enough to be referring to her by her given name, it seemed. But Intan, still behaving, did not voice her thoughts out loud.
She tried a different tack. “Are you enjoying the festival? There’s a lot of good food!”
He gave her another funny look. “I suppose.”
“Rusli and Hadil and I were watching the puppet show just now!”
“Ah.” This time he looked a bit startled, then thoughtful. “The shadow plays.”
“Yup! Have you ever seen them?”
“I… No. I haven’t.”
“Really? I hadn’t either! Of course I’d heard the stories before, but that was my first time seeing them acted out. It was really fun!”
“Look,” he began, interrupting her. “About Kasih… I’m sorry.”
Now it was Intan’s turn to be puzzled. “What for?”
He looked away.
Intan, subdued, thought once more of the mournful Doll on the shores of the lake. But she shoved the thought back into the box where it had come from.
“Never mind,” Eguzki said at last. After another lengthy pause, he added, in a voice so low she could barely hear him over the bustle, “You don’t seem the type.”
Her head was beginning to swirl round and round in attempt to make heads and tails of the conversation. “Hm?”
“To sign up for the military.”
“Oh, well,” she said, perfectly serious. “I like Dolls.”
“I hadn’t realized,” he replied dryly.
“Besides, you don’t seem the type either.”
Now he looked up at her. He was frowning again, but this time there was no suggestion of anger to his expression. Indeed, he seemed about to say something when the long, sonorous blare of a horn carried suddenly over the din, suspending all chatter.
The king’s selection was beginning.
Intan offered Eguzki a grin. “Let’s go?”
Once more he hesitated. But at last, he straightened and inclined his head reluctantly.
Intan’s grin grew wider.
* * *
Letting the flow of the crowd guide them, they drifted toward the gaudy platform that had been erected near the center of the campus, not so far away from the junkyard.
“I wonder how the king’s going to choose,” said Intan.
Eguzki only shrugged in response.
Already the king was standing there upon the terraced platform, dressed in heavy ceremonial robes. Four unlit braziers and four old bronze vessels surrounded him in a ring; matching rings of armed soldiers stood on guard below, keeping the audience at a distance. The Headmistress was there too, surveying all the arrivals.
“Looks like some sort of lottery,” remarked a nearby old granny to no one in particular, sounding a bit disappointed.
But soon enough the Headmistress raised her arm, and the murmur of the crowd diminished to a hush, despite the few late-arriving stragglers. Intan looked around for the sprites, but still none were to be found.
A soldier in the crowd brought forth a torch and handed it to the Headmistress, who in turn stepped up the platform and passed it to the king. When she finished descending again, the king flung out his arms, intoning the old words of ritual.
“As sun and moon bear witness!”
Slowly, steadily, he lit the four braziers, one by one. When all four were ablaze, he lifted the bronze vessels and placed them on top of the braziers.
A breeze passed through the silent gathering. The fires crackled and swayed.
The breeze stilled. As if on cue, the king spoke again.
“I have asked the gods for guidance and they have spoken!”
Four soldiers ascended onto the platform, bearing buckets of water. They tossed the water over the braziers, dousing the flames.
The first soldier overturned his vessel, spilling its contents: bamboo slips, steaming slightly, curling and cracked from the heat.
The king plucked one of the slips from the ground with a pair of tongs and held it out for the soldier to read.
“First chosen is Gisela Liem, Bamboo division, second year!”
A scattered cheer went up from the crowd as the girl stepped forward. She was tall and lanky, dark-skinned, bespectacled. Intan wondered idly if Hadil knew her.
“Second chosen is Yusaku Wystan, Azalea division, third year!”
Cheers again. Intan recognized him, startled, as Rusli’s quiet friend. Rusli himself, however, was nowhere to be seen — back on duty after returning the girl to her parents, perhaps. She snuck a peek at Eguzki to see if he knew this other boy, but to her surprise, Eguzki was staring at his feet instead of paying attention to the proceedings.
“Third chosen is Tuyet Dugu, Hibiscus division, third year!”
Tuyet walked up, looking embarrassed but not displeased. Intan’s confusion grew. Hadn’t the general said the Nine Dragons were disqualified? Even Eguzki looked up, suspicion evident in his expression.
Perhaps the general had been mistaken.
“Fourth and last chosen –” The final soldier hesitated.
“Eguzki Kaneshiro, Lotus division, second year!”
Intan turned to Eguzki in shock.
The cheers this time were markedly tempered. The students among the audience exchanged glances; the civilians present either did not notice, or perhaps did not understand.
Meanwhile, Eguzki stood frozen, utterly still among the restless crowd. Intan noticed him glance at the Headmistress — almost beseechingly, she thought. But the Headmistress was watching the king.
This would not do, thought Intan, and nudged him as surreptitiously as she could. He shook his head, as if stirring from a dream.
Slowly, he stepped forward, and wove his way through the crowd to the platform.