S1| Ep09: Solstice Party (上)
April 8, 2011
(A/N: Short [and slightly lopsided] update this time! I’ll be out of town this weekend so may take some time before I can respond to comments. Next update will be on Wednesday as usual.)
In the hall of stone lay nine woven mats encircling an empty fire pit.
One by one the representatives filed in, bedecked in colorful, elaborate headdresses. Each found their place and knelt, until only one spot remained.
“Gushiken abstains from the Council again?” grumbled one of the men, a pale, portly fellow with a fine, dark beard.
“Perhaps the recent attempt on his life has made him grow fearful,” said another, with hair the color of old blood and a face like a fox.
“Bah. More fearful than usual, you mean.”
“Gushiken is no coward,” said a dark-skinned woman with short, golden hair. “He must be plotting something. Why else would he have gone to the capital at a time like this, after months of seclusion?”
“True,” said the fox-faced man. “He is not a man likely to be intimidated by the likes of such disorganized rabble.”
The first man nearly rose, before remembering himself. The ornaments upon his headdress swung and shimmered in the dimness. “You think those insurgents disorganized rabble? The Dolls, you fool! Think of what that must mean!”
The woman held up a hand. “Not now.”
“Fine,” he growled. “Let’s light the bonfire and be done with it.”
As if on cue, a masked attendant approached, bearing a torch. “As the lords of the hearth bear witness.”
Flame burst into life, illuminating the wary expressions of all those present.
“Let us speak first of the attack,” said the woman.
“It is true, then? That the target was Gushiken?” asked one of the five who had not yet spoken.
“Of course. What else could it have been?” snapped the bearded man. “What else could have spurred those rats to make their move in the capital, of all places –”
“Yet I have heard that the warehouses they hid in belonged originally to Clan Gushiken.”
“Ha! I had my retainers investigate this long ago. It has been more than ten years since those properties were in Gushiken’s possession!”
“In whose possession, then, were they?”
“That — that we were unable to ascertain.”
The fox-faced man chose this moment to speak. “Actually, I have received information from my own sources about the leader of these rebels.”
“Filipe Mok. Captain of the Southern Quarter, 4th division. He fought in the Great War, but left an undistinguished record. By all accounts an unambitious man who followed orders without question.”
A murmur ran through the room.
“Impossible! How could such a man –”
“Was the Headmistress aware of this? What of the generals?”
The fox-faced man smiled.
The golden-haired woman said, “Clearly the man is not acting alone. There must be someone behind him.”
“Of course!” bellowed the bearded man. “That explains everything! How they managed to get their hands on the Dolls, the sheer nerve behind their attack — but you!” He pointed indignantly at the fox-faced man, who sat across from him in the ring. “You would still call them disorganized rabble?”
“I merely call it as I see it,” came the cool reply. “You, on the other hand, seem to think them quite a threat.”
“They nearly laid waste to the capital! How can you not consider them a threat?”
“Yet were they not easily disposed of, in the end? The military smoked out the survivors. Hardly enough of them remain now to accomplish anything of note.”
“But the Captain remains unaccounted for,” said the woman. “And at least three Dolls remain in their possession.”
Beads of sweat ran down the bearded man’s face. “Yes, yes. Exactly. With those Dolls, they can recover. They can regroup.”
“What of the attendants?” cried one of the five. “Will the revival of the project be able to go ahead as planned?”
“Of course,” said the fox-faced man. “His Majesty has granted us his approval, has he not? And I have people in place who shall… ensure it.”
This time, it was the woman’s turn to smile.
* * *
Intan looked up from her bowl of radish broth to find Hadil peering down at her with a look of concern.
“You okay? You’ve looked pretty out of it this week.”
“Mm,” said Intan, thoughts already wandering off again.
Why had the sprites in the capital shown themselves to her? Had they sensed what would happen beforehand? But there had been far too many of them gathered in the same area, and none of them had offered her a warning.
If only they had.
Or had they been trying to, and she had simply misunderstood them?
“Guess I can’t blame you. You were at the capital, weren’t you? When it happened.”
“Man, that must have been scary!” Then, in a quieter voice, she added, “So what do you think? Was it the same people who were behind what happened at my village?”
“Eh?” Intan blinked. “Oh. I’m not sure.”
“You don’t think there’s two factions out there who’re after the king right now? Or whatever it is they want?”
That was the current story — to the general public, still unaware of the attacks earlier in the year, the attack on the capital was an obvious act of defiance against the king, whose palace stood barely minutes’ flight away. Since the military had successfully killed or arrested most of the rebels involved, however, the threat had abated once more.
Still, a thread of uneasiness ran through the murmurs of students and citizenry alike. And Hadil, still harboring resentment regarding the military’s denial of her conclusions about the tampering of the training Dolls, was naturally skeptical.
“I don’t know,” said Intan. “But the Dolls…”
After some hesitation, Intan said, “Remember the one at your village?”
Hadil’s eyes widened. “Ah! The face wasn’t painted!”
Intan nodded. “But the ones I saw in the capital, they were masked — Red Demons.”
“The face of vengeance…” Hadil looked thoughtful. Intan could practically hear the gears in her head whirring to piece things together.
Their conversation was cut short then, however, by bells announcing the end of lunch. Hadil bid Intan a hasty farewell and rushed off to her next class.
It wasn’t until after all her classes (Nine Dragons training included) had finished for the day when Intan headed back to her dorm room to find a strange sealed envelope lying atop her pallet.
She picked it up and flipped it over. Scrawled on the back was a name penned in an elegant foreign script.
She flipped it over again to examine the seal, squinting at its etching for some time before finally managing to decipher it.