S1| Ep07: First Snow I (上)
March 2, 2011
The student body was abuzz with rumors for the rest of the week. The four chosen attendants had been spirited off to the palace for further preparations and instructions; everyone else was left to speculate eagerly about the closely guarded secrets of the new year’s rites. There were some, too, who suspected that the selection had not been overseen by the gods as claimed, but rather had been rigged by meddling courtiers. No one could say for sure, as only the teachers were old enough to remember the last time attendants had been selected for the rites, and they discouraged such blasphemous speculation.
Intan herself wondered if it were not merely a case of sour grapes. There had been many who had been eager to be chosen, though Intan didn’t really understand why. Most of them no longer believed in the old ways, after all.
She was, in fact, puzzling over this instead of listening to her professor’s lecture one afternoon when a soldier arrived, interrupting the class. Intan and her classmates watched with interest as the soldier conferred with the professor.
“Aghavni,” said the professor after some time. “You’ve been summoned by the Headmistress.”
“Oooh, in trouble again?” snickered the boy next to her.
Intan grinned and shrugged. (She was glad, in truth, to have an excuse to skip class!)
This time when she arrived at the Headmistress’s office, the door was cracked open by a wedge. Like the last time she had come, she could hear raised voices from within.
” — waited all week –”
Eguzki! So he was back — that probably meant the other attendants were back as well. Perhaps that was the reason for the summons this time.
The second voice — a woman’s, probably the Headmistress’s — was muffled.
Eguzki’s voice rose. ” — didn’t ask for this!”
“This is neither the time nor place for this.”
“Then what the fuck do you want me to do? I can’t just –”
The Headmistress’s response was once more low and difficult to make out. ” — for your own good.”
“Fine! I’ll do it! I’ll fucking do it –”
Intan was a bit surprised that Eguzki did not come storming out this time around. Instead, the door opened slowly to reveal both a sullen Eguzki and a rather tired-looking Headmistress.
“Ah, Aghavni,” said the Headmistress. “You’re early.”
The elevator dinged. Eguzki shoved past Intan, heading toward it. The doors slid open, and out walked Tuyet, who seemed a bit surprised to see Eguzki there, but quickly recovered and greeted him with a cool nod. For Intan, she offered a bright grin and a wave.
The Headmistress sighed. “Dugu, Aghavni. Come in.”
* * *
Intan and Tuyet both took a seat. Headmistress Liow lit up and took a puff on her cigar.
Without missing a beat, she began. “Our contacts have informed us that the dissidents have begun to gather at the capital.”
“The capital!” said Tuyet. “But what are they planning? They can’t possibly mean to –”
“They would be quite foolish to think they could pull off the same thing they did at Sunset Village.”
“It is your job to find out what they do intend.”
“… Ah.” Tuyet hesitated. “Just me and Intan?”
“Rusli, Sunagawa, and Gushiken are out of the question, you know that. Aragaki would be too conspicuous.”
Tuyet rolled her eyes, but smiled.
The Headmistress did not. “And you are quite familiar with the capital.”
For a moment, Tuyet’s smile faltered. Intan blinked, wondering if she had just imagined it.
“I have assigned him other duties with Aragaki.”
“Oh.” Tuyet laughed. “Oh dear.”
“You and Aghavni shall be more than sufficient for the task at hand,” the Headmistress replied, and proceeded to outline the details of their mission to them.
* * *
It was another week and a half before they actually set off for the capital. It seemed the Headmistress had been waiting on one final contact; but as soon as she received that last report, Intan and Tuyet were immediately summoned once more and bundled together onto the train in several layers of civilian clothing.
After the long haze of summer, the cold had set in rather abruptly, and more sharply than in previous years. Intan hadn’t seen another tree sprite since the night of the Moon Festival (that one, perhaps, had simply been playing a prank on her), and suspected they were all hibernating. She wasn’t quite sure whether she was disappointed or relieved by that.
Tuyet was oddly quiet throughout their trip, but she began to cheer up as soon as they disembarked at the station.
“Let’s go to the theater! I know one that puts on talkies. Or do you prefer Lifex the Cat?”
“What about the mission?” asked Intan, who had no idea what Tuyet was talking about.
“Aw, come on,” said Tuyet, grinning. “It’s so rare that we get any time to ourselves. Might as well enjoy this outing for what it’s worth!”
Intan trudged along without further comment, already feeling rather miserable due to the cold. There were no hearth gods here in the new capital, where the sacred fires had long ago been doused, replaced by skinny smokestacks.
“How have you been doing with your coursework? I remember you did quite well on your first term, didn’t you?”
“I guess so,” said Intan, teeth chattering. She hadn’t actually paid attention when their grades for the first term were posted on their return from summer break.
“Exams are coming up again real fast, huh?” remarked Tuyet as they slipped into the crowded streets. A passing car honked at crossing passersby; on the opposite end of the street, a pair of young siblings tugged at their goat’s lead, trying to pull the stubborn animal out of the way of a clattering bicycle rickshaw. “And after that, I’ve got just one more term before graduation…”
The slightly downcast timbre of her tone caught Intan’s attention. “What will you do after that?”
Most people were formally inducted into the military upon graduation. But there were a few students who chose to return home instead, or settle down in one of the big cities.
“I don’t know,” admitted Tuyet. “We Dragons have a pretty good deal, y’know? No matter what our background may be, as soon as we take on this mantle, we become one of the elite. And it’s not like I dislike the military… But what about you, Intan? I’ve been curious about why you applied to the Academy. When I heard that you managed to snag the patronage of one of the Great Clans, I assumed you had to be one hell of an ambitious kid. But…” She laughed.
Intan cocked her head, confused. “I just wanted to fly. And…” She hesitated. “There’s somebody I have to find.”
“The goddess of the hot springs,” replied Intan.
Tuyet peered at her, considering her answer in solemn silence. Suddenly, she looked up at the sky. Laughed out loud.
“Look!” said Tuyet, voice filled with giddy awe. “It’s snowing!”
Intan looked up as well, stunned. Sure enough, pale flakes drifted down from the gray sky, melting as they brushed against her cheeks.
* * *
Snow was rare on the island, even at higher altitude towns like the capital. Intan, who had never been so cold in her life, kept twisting and turning her head to watch as it continued to fall. Meanwhile, she allowed let Tuyet drag and prod her through the crowds of people who had gathered outside in even greater numbers now to stare and run around.
“I was named for the snow, you know,” said Tuyet.
Intan looked at her, surprised. “Really?”
Tuyet laughed yet again. “I was born in the summer, see. But my mom died giving birth to me, and I guess I must have been a sickly kid, so they didn’t name me just yet. Wanted to make sure I’d live through the winter. What with the plague and all, and the war having just ended the year before… I guess my chances weren’t too great, all things considered. And then winter came along and all of a sudden it just started snowing one day. Nobody’d ever seen anything like it before, not even the elders. So I guess they took it as a sign. Though whether they named me to appease or honor the spirits, I’ve never known!”
The novelty was beginning to wear out, though, by the time they reached the theater (which, as it turned out, was barely a block away from the meeting point they had established with one of the Headmistress’s contacts). Tuyet was insisting that they were early yet and still had enough time to catch a quick show when a nearby man looked up, startled, and approached them.
“Tuyet! Is that really you?”
Tuyet froze. “Zeke,” she managed to say. “It’s been a while.”
The man’s hair was white as the falling snow, yet upon closer examination Intan realized he was really quite young.
“Two years… No, almost three,” he said.
“What are you doing here? And who is your friend?”
“This is Intan,” said Tuyet. “A junior of mine at school.” She hesitated. “How’s the old gang?”
“Fine. Great. We’re all doing well.” Zeke hesitated as well. “You sure picked an interesting time to come back. First snow in years, eh?”
“Mm,” replied Tuyet.
Intan looked back and forth between the two as they stood there, awkwardly avoiding each other’s gaze. Intan wondered if she ought to interrupt. (It seemed both of them had completely forgotten she was still there.)
But Tuyet spoke at last. “I’d better go.”
“So soon?” said Zeke. Come, now. Is that any way to treat an old friend? Why don’t we catch a show together, take some time to catch up?”
“We’re over, Zeke. We were over three years ago.” Tuyet turned.
“Wait –” Zeke grabbed her sleeve. “Can’t we at least talk? I’ve been thinking, all this time. You were right, Tuyet. You were right all along, I shouldn’t have –”
There was something wrong with the look in his eyes. He did not look like a man who was apologizing, Intan realized. She realized too, suddenly, that the crowd around them had stopped moving.
“Tuyet –” she began, growing fearful, but closed her mouth again.
Too many people. Intan had forgotten, how easy it was to lose oneself in the teeming masses of the city. Things were different here, than they were in the mountains, in the forests, by the sea.
“It’s too late,” Tuyet was saying. “I’m sorry, but…” She broke off, evidently seeing now what Intan had been trying to warn her about. She whirled back around.
There Zeke stood, holding a gun pointed straight at her.
“You!” growled Tuyet through clenched teeth.
“Sorry, Tuyet,” he said, and this time Intan thought she heard genuine regret in his voice. “No hard feelings.”
Around them, the crowd pressed closer.