S1| Ep08: First Snow II (上)
March 23, 2011
Year 20 of the Reign of Enduring Militancy, 3rd Solar Month
Zeke blew on his hands, trying to force some life into his numb fingers. But the warmth from his breath only lasted moments before the cold came seeping back in. He gave up with a sigh and leaned against the wooden alley wall.
They were late.
Sure, Tuyet and the rest loved teasing him about his compulsive punctuality, but surely it was taking too long even for the others. According to the plan, the signal should have gone up ages ago. And none of Tuyet’s plans had ever gone wrong before.
On the other hand, if something had gone wrong, surely they’d have found a way to contact him regardless. Tuyet always made sure they had backup plans in place. Even if Zeke suspected she mostly made them up on the spot.
He glanced up at the darkening sky. The celebrations would soon be under way. Perhaps it was just the quivering excitement of the city getting to him. In his mind he could imagine Tuyet laughing at him. What a silly worrywart you are, she’d say, leaning up on tiptoe to tweak his nose. And most of the time, she’d be right.
But this time, he had every right to fret. They’d never taken on such a big job before. Sure, they’d stolen from rich officials before (even now Zeke couldn’t help but smirk at the memory of the look on that fat bastard’s face when he realized he’d been duped by a bunch of street brats), but that was different.
This time, their target was none other than the head of Clan Rusli, come to attend the festival of lights in person with his wife and young heir in tow.
Or more precisely, their target was the Rusli heirloom, a valuable jade pendant worn by the lady of the clan only on important occasions. And today certainly was such an occasion. The festival of lights marked the last of the new year’s celebrations; this year in particular, gossip on the streets claimed that the childless king intended to make an announcement at long last about his successor. Zeke didn’t care much about the rumors. The king had adopted some nephew or other relation years ago, but simply never made the designation of crown prince official. But in the end, what did it matter who sat the throne?
What really mattered was this damn job. He’d been reluctant about taking it on, even before he learned who the target would be. They’d never taken a contracted job before, and he’d heard plenty of horror stories. Never knew when your employer might screw you over. As the eldest, he felt responsible for making sure they didn’t jump head first into anything too risky.
But though Zeke was the eldest, it was Tuyet everyone followed. When Tuyet said they could pull something off, everyone damn well believed it. In all the years Zeke had known her, she’d never failed them.
And Tuyet had convinced them all it’d be worth it. The promised pay was more money than all of them put together had ever seen in their lives. There’d be no more jobs. No more scraping by on the streets. No more hungry nights.
Zeke thought of the day they’d received the first half of the payment. Recalled the looks on the younger children’s faces.
A distant flash caught his eye, and the memory faded. Zeke squinted. A faint red light blinked. Once, twice. Three times in all, and then two more times, at a faster beat than before.
The signal. Zeke exhaled and stuffed his hands into his pockets before slipping down the alley, back into the crowds gathering at the central plaza. He’d been prepared to act as backup if necessary, but now that the pendant had been obtained, it was his responsibility to get it safely into the hands of their waiting employer.
Everyone’s eyes were trained on the procession of Clan representatives making their way down the main avenue; Zeke watched as well as he headed to the agreed-upon meeting point. Most of the nobles, Zeke couldn’t recognize. But soon enough, he spotted the infamous redheaded Ruslis astride their ceremonial horses, surrounded by armed retainers.
The lady too, rode; the pale pendant lay heavy upon her breast.
The feeling of dread returned.
Zeke shoved through the crowd in the opposite direction. They’d been fools to think they could take on a Great Clan, fools to think they’d even have a chance —
He forced himself to relax. Of course they’d known the lady would be well guarded. That had all been in the plan. Tuyet had thought of a solution to everything. They’d send in the younger kids to beg for alms as a distraction. A few of the older ones would create a second distraction to separate the lady from her group, lose her in the crowd. A few jostles here and there, and the pendant would be in their hands. That was the gist of it, anyway; Tuyet kept her plans mostly to herself in order to minimize confusion. Not even Zeke knew the full details.
And if things started going wrong, well, Tuyet would figure something out. She always did. There wasn’t much the clan retainers could do without upsetting the rest of the citizenry in a crowd like this, anyway. And once they’d gotten away, they knew the layout of the capital better than anyone. They’d never be found.
But the lady never should have made it so close to the plaza. And that signal should have indicated success.
He broke away from the crowd and ran, ducking through backalleys and side streets before finally slowing to a stop.
“DD? Turtle? Jen?” he called out tentatively.
Perhaps he’d panicked for no reason. Perhaps the signal had been meant as a reassurance to him. “Change of plans but everything’s under control.” They were probably on their way, taking their sweet time about it as usual.
He took a deep breath, then another.
Then he froze. A cold, sweeping light illuminated the alley briefly before shadows swallowed the narrow space once more.
But the brief glimpse was enough.
Three bodies, chests stained dark, eyes wide and still.
Zeke fell to his knees.
In the distance, a vast cloud of paper lanterns rose into the inky heavens, drifting past the city skyline like so many silent watching ghosts.
* * *
Year 22 of the Reign of Enduring Militancy, 11th Solar Month
“Hey! Intan! Wake up!”
Intan opened her eyes and looked around groggily. For a moment she thought she smelled the deep cool scent of the forest enveloping her, but then she blinked and remembered where she was.
Captured and tied up on the dirt floor of a warehouse in the capital.
Except she wasn’t tied up anymore. And they were in a different warehouse from the one earlier, it seemed. And her head hurt.
Tuyet’s worried face hovered above her. “You okay?”
“What happened?” she asked, or at least, tried to as the syllables tumbled out all in a knot.
Fortunately, Tuyet understood. “Chloroform. Don’t worry, you weren’t out long.”
Intan considered this. “But why?” They hadn’t been knocked out the first time, just blindfolded. It seemed like a great deal of trouble to go to.
“Who knows.” Tuyet shrugged, evidently not finding it a big deal. All traces of worry had disappeared from her face, replaced by a grim but otherwise indecipherable expression. “Anyway, I think their leader just got called away on some emergency. Now’s our chance.”
Intan rubbed at her raw wrists and considered this as well. “Guards?”
Tuyet’s only response was a smirk. “Already taken care of,” she said, gesturing to the doorway. The two men who’d apparently been stationed there lay slumped on the floor.
Intan decided not to ask.
Tuyet seemed about to say something else when she was interrupted by a knock at the door. She held a finger to her lips, and leaned over the bodies on the ground. When she straightened again she was holding a gun in her hand.
The knock came again.
Tuyet motioned Intan to the door with the gun. Open it, she mouthed.
Intan did so, careful to keep out of the knocker’s line of vision.
A muffled curse. “What the –”
Tuyet pulled the trigger.
Intan jerked away. A woman’s body toppled through the door frame. As Intan stood there, gaping, Tuyet leaped over the body, checking their surroundings. Then she turned back, frowning.
“What are you waiting for? Go! Get help!”
Intan hesitated, but in the end all she could think of to say was, “But what about you?”
“There’s something I need to confirm.”
“Did you figure something out about their plans?”
“Not quite. I have an idea, though.” When Intan still did not move, Tuyet cracked a grin. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
After another pause, Intan nodded. Tuyet smiled and ran off without another word.
It took some time before Intan managed to collect her wits again. But as she stepped toward the door again, keeping her eyes carefully averted from the bodies on the ground, she caught sight of a photograph.
The same photograph she had seen at the first warehouse earlier, she realized with some surprise. Only then did she remember that she’d wanted to ask Tuyet if she’d known the Headmistress had once been friends with the rebel leader.
She wondered, too, about the other woman: pale, gaunt, dark-haired, her face faded and blurred despite her prominent position in the picture.
And so achingly familiar.
* * *
As it turned out, this second warehouse was located somewhere on the outskirts of the city, not too far away from the magistrate’s office. Intan was fortunate enough to still recall the way there.
By the time she reached the office, she was flushed and panting slightly. It was so cold she could hardly think; her teeth were still chattering when she stepped up to the concierge and asked to cable a message to the Academy.
When she finished, she crouched down outside, arms clutched around herself.
Proper protocol indicated that she ought to get to safety. The Headmistress would send backup as soon as she received the telegram.
But would it be soon enough?
Ausos must not be awakened.
There’s something I need to confirm.
“You all right there, little one?” Some well-meaning old lady peered down at her, clucking her tongue.
Intan forced a smile onto her face. “I’m fine. Thanks, granny!”
She had to go back for Tuyet.
* * *
It was the only place Intan could think of.
She skidded to a stop at the grand, gilded entrance where she and Tuyet had stopped by just hours before. But no one was there aside from a handful of giggling girls gathered outside, chattering away in the snow.
Intan kept walking.
As she approached the alley behind the theater, she heard voices.
“Why don’t you just kill me, then?”
Tuyet’s voice. Intan flattened herself against the wall, heart pounding.
“Look, I’m unarmed. I’m completely at your mercy.”
“You saved me, back then. I owe you.” Zeke.
“Then what do you want?”
Intan chanced a peek. Fortunately, Zeke was not facing in her direction. And sure enough, Tuyet, cornered in a dead end, seemed to have either lost her gun or was hiding it. Their gazes locked for a brief moment, but Tuyet’s eyes flickered away immediately, as if she hadn’t noticed Intan’s presence at all.
“Won’t you join us? It’s not too late. I can put in a good word with the Captain for you.”
Tuyet laughed. “You always were a terrible liar.”
“I’m serious, Tuyet. I’ve given it a lot of thought, ever since…” He trailed off, shook his head. “I know it wasn’t your fault.”
Intan began to inch towards them, feeling for the knife she carried. Then she moved her hand away.
She couldn’t throw people as well as Hadil could, but maybe with the element of surprise —
“Oh, darling,” drawled Tuyet. “How many times did you have to tell yourself that before you bought it?”
Zeke tensed. “Look. It’s all in the past now, anyway. Let’s just put it all behind us. There are more important things at stake here now.”
“Getting desperate now, hm?”
Intan was just steps away from them when the keening wail of sirens pierced through the air. Zeke shifted, startled.
Before either of them could react, Tuyet clocked him and ran, dragging Intan away with her.