S1| Ep09: Solstice Party (下)
April 15, 2011
(A/N: I officially suck. D: I have no excuse really, it just took me longer than expected to recover from the weekend. Clearly I need to build up a buffer again. But since we’re here — happy
unextended tax day birthday Kikue! I wish I had time to do something special for her. XP Anyway, this has been kind of a transition episode. I’d better start gearing up for the next few episodes…)
You are cordially invited to the 10th Annual Solstice Party.
Winter exams came and passed, heralding the arrival of the winter holidays. Although family was usually of utmost importance during the new year’s celebrations, this year most of the students chose to stay at the Academy. No one said so out loud, but many were afraid of another rebel attack despite the reassurances of the military.
As for the strange invitation from Miss Singh, however, it seemed only a few select students had received them.
“Oh, I heard the Assistant Headmistress throws some crazy party every year after winter exams are over,” said Hadil. “It’s mostly for the nobles though. She usually only invites students she’s taken a liking to.” She made a face. “Poor you. Have fun!”
Intan did not find herself reassured at all. She thought of asking Tuyet about it, but the older girl had been sent off on another mission as soon as exams ended, apparently at her own request. Intan had worried about her at first, but Tuyet had smiled as if nothing at all were wrong, and in the end there was nothing Intan could say or do.
On the night of the party, Intan headed alone to the faculty building, dressed in her uniform (she had nothing else appropriate to wear). To her surprise, the greeter at the door was the girl from the medic division, Kasih. The girl said nothing, however, and did not even look Intan in the eye as she checked her invitation with a brief glance and waved her in. Intan found this strange, but shrugged it off and entered, feeling a bit out of place.
Milling about the room were a few foreign dignitaries dressed in suits or strange costumes, various nobles from the Great Clans, high ranking officers in dress uniform. Intan recognized only the tall, imposing figure of Brigadier General Hsiung, sipping at a drink in the corner. And of course, Miss Singh herself in a lacy, low-cut gown, playing the gracious hostess as she flitted to and fro the clusters of guests.
At the center of it all stood a fuzzy, triangular pine tree bedecked with shiny decorations. Intan stared at it for some time (the sprite who had once made its home there surely must have been an odd one, even for a sprite!), before getting distracted by the piles of food.
“What are you doing here?”
Intan jumped. It took a few moments before she recognized the girl as Kikue, dressed in a demure rose dress with matching gloves, long hair braided and pinned up.
She grinned. “I was invited!”
Kikue rolled her eyes. “I knew I shouldn’t have come.”
“Is this your first time here?”
“Of course not.” After a moment she added, “It’s a waste of time, honestly. Just a bunch of stuffy old men and frivolous ladies looking for an excuse to get drunk every year.”
“Then why did you come?”
“Because I had to, obviously.”
Intan didn’t think this was particularly obvious, and was about to point this out when she spotted a familiar face in the crowd.
“Hey! Wait! Where are you going?”
But Kikue’s voice was drowned out by the low murmur of the surrounding guests.
* * *
Eguzki was leaning against a wall, scowling and tugging awkwardly at his tie. When he saw Intan approaching, he straightened, watching warily.
“Hello!” she said. “How did you do on exams? Are the preparations for the ceremonies going well?”
“Well enough,” he replied.
“Don’t you want to try any of the food? It’s good!”
“I’m not hungry.”
Undeterred, Intan continued, “Come on! Since we’re here, we might as well make the most of it!” She grabbed his hand — to her surprise, it was cold.
“Are you not feeling well?”
He seemed just as startled as she was. “I’m fine.”
But before she could drag him away from his position against the wall, a voice rang out.
This time it was Rusli and his tall, silent friend, the former dressed in subdued robes and the latter in a pale suit.
Intan waved, and Rusli smiled back at her, until he realized who she was talking to.
“Ah — Kaneshiro.”
Eguzki inclined his head, but said nothing.
“Glad to see you both,” said Rusli at last. “Enjoying yourself?”
Intan looked back and forth between the two boys before nodding.
“Have you tried the food yet? I’ve heard it’s quite delicious this year.”
Intan nodded again. Eguzki remained silent.
Rusli rubbed at the back of his neck. “Kaneshiro… How are you doing?”
Still no response. Intan fidgeted.
At last, Eguzki said, “What do you want from me?”
Rusli’s friend loomed forward. Rusli placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Look,” he started. “I just… It’s almost been a year, hasn’t it? I just wanted to let you know, I mean, I never had the chance to tell you before, but I don’t bla –”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Intan stared at Eguzki, who glared straight ahead at nothing in particular, fists clenched. Rusli simply looked puzzled, perhaps even slightly hurt.
“Well –” Rusli glanced at Intan, then cleared his throat. “I suppose I must go greet my father.” After another moment’s hesitation, he added, “Good luck on the ceremonies. See you around, Aghavni.”
* * *
Intan continued to stare at Eguzki as the older boys left. What had that all been about? Then she remembered her first encounter with the medic girl Kasih, and the strange exchange that had occurred then.
“Is it true that you were originally in Wisteria?” she asked quietly.
His scowl deepened. He ducked his head, avoiding her gaze. “So you’ve heard.”
She made a small noise of confirmation, curious but reluctant to pry further.
“They must have told you about the incident too.”
“Only a little bit,” she said. “There was… an accident?”
“Is that what they’re calling it now?” He shifted his weight, peered up at her, no longer scowling. Jammed his hands into his pockets. When he next spoke it was with an air of resignation. “It was no accident.”
Intan stared. “What do you mean?”
“Vasco Morikawa. My senior in the Dragons. He would have been a third year this year. We didn’t get along.” He paused. “I killed him.”
He spoke in such a matter-of-fact tone that Intan thought for a moment she must have misheard him. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Miss Singh slipping out to the balcony with General Hsiung. All around them, the sounds of laughter and conversation were growing louder, less inhibited. The room too had been steadily growing warmer, but Intan felt as cold as if she were standing outside, in the falling snow again.
“Do you miss being in the Dragons?” she asked.
It was evidently not the question he had been expecting, for he paused again before answering. “No. I hated it there.”
“Do you like being in the Lotus division?”
“Was he Rusli’s friend?”
At that he laughed, a short, bitter sound. “No. He wasn’t exactly the most popular fellow around.”
Intan considered this. “I think Rusli means well,” she suggested at last. “He’s really nice.”
To this he did not respond.
Just then, scattered clapping spread through the room. Intan looked up, and realized that the Headmistress had arrived, looking exactly the same as always. She joined in the applause, and noticed that Eguzki did not, but instead shrank back, flattening himself against the wall, as if fearing to draw attention to himself. But she did not have time to contemplate this as the Headmistress began to speak.
“We are gathered here today to celebrate the height of winter, and the inevitable approach of the end,” said the Headmistress. “Although there has been much to mourn over the course of this year, so too has there been much that might be considered joyous.”
Intan began to tune out. She looked around the room, wondering if anyone else she recognized was present. By the gaudy pine tree stood skinny Gisela Liem, who had been chosen as one of the king’s attendants. Rusli and his friend were chatting quietly with a group of noblemen. Nearby, Kikue stood next to a portly middle-aged man and an elegant lady who were listening raptly to the Headmistress’s speech with glasses of wine in their hands. Kikue had a long-suffering look of supreme boredom plastered on her face, but no one else seemed to notice; Intan fought the urge to giggle. The two second year Dragons were present as well. But Miss Singh and the Brigadier General were still nowhere to be seen. Nor was the medic girl.
Intan turned back to Eguzki, and noted with interest that he was actually listening intently to the speech as well.
“A week from now, the ceremonies of renewal shall be held for the first time in a quarter century. And so I propose a toast now, to His Majesty the king, and to the gods and spirits of the kingdom. May the coming year bring peace and prosperity to us all!”
As the room lifted their glasses in response, Intan whispered to Eguzki, “You’re not a murderer. You wouldn’t have been chosen, otherwise. It must have been an accident after all, like Rusli said.”
He turned to her in surprise, mouth pressed in a grim line.
“Perhaps,” he said, as another round of half-drunken cheers and applause overtook the room.
Then, so quietly that she had to strain to hear, “But no one deserves to die.”