S1| Ep11: Guardians Four (下)
August 12, 2011
(A/N: Yep, back. Hope the longish and somewhat complicated update makes up for the long absence. Given the current instability of my RL circumstances, not sure yet if I will be returning to a weekly schedule or not, but continue keeping an eye out for updates on Fridays!)
Some time passed before the tears slowed to a trickle. Intan wiped her face dry. Eguzki stood again and watched her with an uneasy expression, his back stiff with something like fear or wariness.
“It’s all wrong,” she said quietly. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It shouldn’t be like this.”
He was silent.
“Granny told me I wouldn’t like what I’d find here. Still, I didn’t expect — this.”
“What do you mean?”
“The gods,” she said, and almost choked on her words again. “The gods are dying. Aren’t they?” She stared at him, at his face, as if he held the answers to all she sought, though even she knew it was a foolish thing to place faith in, this boy she barely even knew.
For a long time he said nothing, as if attempting to process what she had just told him. Then he looked away. “What did you see?”
“A memory. A memory of crows.”
“The Morikawas,” he said at last, in a low, heavy voice. “They were once of the Inner Clans. Then they were disgraced, their house ruined, their name shamed. Their place in the inner circle replaced. But that was all long ago. Before we were born. I thought I hated him.”
“I don’t know.” He seemed to rouse himself. “We need to find Kasih and report to the Headmistress.”
She nodded, but could not resist one last question. “You loved your mother very much.”
“She was all I knew,” he said.
He turned. Shrugged. “Then she died.”
* * *
How could the Guardian be in such a state? The land was untouched, at peace; the king was just, albeit retiring. But no, that was no longer true. Insurrection brewed once more, from men who claimed to hate the throne. Or did they?
The sprites had been so restless. And the king meant to honor both gods and spirits in the ceremony in just days’ time, the first of its kind in years. Was that the reason, then? The long years of neglect?
Intan did not have time to think for long. She heard moaning beneath her, beyond the edge of the trail, and rushed over, Eguzki mere steps behind.
At first she froze: a boy, she thought. One of the rebels. But no, none of them had been so young. Not even Zeke.
Then Eguzki said, “Park!” and Intan realized, in a rush of emotion, that she had been wrong after all, wrong about so very much.
Or rather, she had been right, only perhaps afraid to admit it.
They scrambled down the tangled slope to the girl’s side. Her arm was twisted at an odd angle, but she seemed otherwise unhurt. Close up Intan wondered how she could have made the mistake in the first place. Aside from her skinny frame and close-cropped hair, much like Hadil’s, Kasih Park looked nothing like a boy.
Her freckled face glistened with sweat. Her breath came in harsh, heavy gasps. Intan revised her assessment once more, though she found no further sign of physical injury at a second glance.
Then she saw the girl’s eyes.
Dilated. Glowing crimson.
At her side, Eguzki swore.
“Shit! I should have known. Dammitall, I should have known! Why didn’t I see this earlier?”
“What’s wrong?” said Intan, panic rising again. “What’s going on?”
To her shock, Eguzki slapped the girl. “You gods-damned fool!”
The girl let out a hiss of breath, smirked. Closed her eyes, her chest continuing to rise and fall, shuddering with effort.
Suddenly furious, Intan grabbed him, jerked him around, forcing him to face her. “What are you doing!” she yelled. “Can’t you see she’s hurt?”
He avoided her eyes. After a moment, Intan realized he was shaking.
“Drugs,” he said, and with that single word, all the fight fled him. He slumped in her grasp. “Idiot.”
To whom he referred, Intan did not know.
* * *
Intan wasn’t sure how they managed it, but she and Eguzki eased Park back onto the trail, then climbed back up themselves. Eguzki was eerily calm as they worked.
“But how? Why?” she asked quietly, uncertain whether he would answer.
“She must have accepted an offer. In exchange for vengeance. The military aren’t the only ones out there running ex…” He trailed off, whether lost in thought or unwilling to continue, she did not know.
“The fireworks incident at the Moon Festival,” Intan said then. “Was she…?”
“I was not,” muttered the girl, still smirking. She added, slurring somewhat, “I’m not totally out of it yet, you know.”
“Shut up,” said Eguzki, without rancor. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? The Headmistress –”
“Fuck that ol’ bitch. I don’t care anymore.”
Intan, still puzzling things out in her mind, interrupted them. “What should we do now? We can’t stay here.” If there were any rebels left around… if something had happened to Hadil…
They’ll protect her.
More importantly, it was clear Park needed medical attention. And Eguzki, for once, it seemed, had come unprepared.
“We’ve got to get her back to the school,” she said. “To the facilities.”
“No, we can’t,” he said, surprising her yet again. His voice took on an odd, muffled tone. “We can’t let the Headmistress find out.”
“Then I’ll go get help!” she said, in the most encouraging voice she could manage, though in truth she had no idea where else they could find the help they needed.
But in this matter, at least, they were fortunate. Just as Intan stood, she heard more voices — this time familiar ones.
“Aghavni! Kaneshiro! Are you all right?”
Rusli and his tall friend, both in uniform. Rusli’s face pale with worry.
“That friend of yours, the engineering girl,” he explained, as he took in the sight before him. “She ran into us — just in time, it seems like.” His expression shifted. “Kaneshiro? What’s the matter?”
Eguzki was standing, shielding Park’s body from sight, his face grim.
He was the real idiot, Intan decided. “It’s one of the first year medics,” she said. “She’s badly hurt.”
Rusli’s friend stepped forward and pushed Eguzki aside. Rusli sucked in his breath. His friend made no response.
“You can’t let her know,” Eguzki forced out through gritted teeth. “You can’t let her find out.”
Rusli looked at Intan, then back at Eguzki.
“I understand,” he said softly.
* * *
“Yusaku’s contacted my father,” said Rusli once they had safely descended the mountain. “She’ll be safe with them.”
Intan elbowed Eguzki meaningfully.
“Thank you,” he muttered.
“No thanks needed,” replied Rusli, looking somewhat flustered. “This is all a mess, isn’t it? I’m certain those rebels you ran into were just scouts. There hasn’t been any sign of others. But the timing — what timing they had.” He pushed his hair out of his face, then shook his head, as if realizing that he was rambling. “Tuyet reported back earlier, too. Actually, that was what Yusaku and I had come to find you for. We’re to gather the attendants immediately. They’re to head to the palace this afternoon. We’ll be joining them later tomorrow morning.”
“For the ceremony?” asked Intan. “But it’s not for another few days yet, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but there are preparations to be made. Rehearsals. Not to mention the formal cleansing rituals –” His face brightened. “Did you know, in the time of the ancients, the purification alone would take up an entire month. According to…”
Intan listened to him politely. She had never seen him so animated. Nice though he was, she had, indeed, thought him dull. Curiously restrained. She could admit that to herself now.
Everything had changed within the space of a few hours, she thought, and snuck a glance at Eguzki while Rusli walked ahead and continued filling the silence with idle speculation on the old ways, what significance they might hold, why the practices had died out. He sounded a bit like Hadil when she was talking about Dolls, only with less fervor. Distanced, even in his apparent enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Eguzki was staring at his hands, clearly not listening as they made their way back onto the campus grounds.
“The Guardian,” she whispered. “There must be something we can do. Some way to help, or a cure, or…”
“A cure,” he repeated wearily. He looked up at her. “That thing… a guardian? Of what?”
She stared back at him, confused again. “Here. The mountain. Everything.”
“A spirit of the land. Is that what you’re saying?”
“One of the Four,” she said, head bobbing up and down in confirmation. “I’m sure of it.”
“One of the Four.” He sighed. A wry smile crept onto his face. “You do realize I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
She stopped nodding. Tilted her head. “But you can see them, can’t you?”
His gaze grew distant once more. After a while, he said, “So you think… it’s possible to cure that — that Guardian?”
“There must be!”
“Not all illness possesses a cure.” His fist clenched. Unclenched. “But I suppose you’re right. We can’t just stand by and do nothing.”
“Then you’ll help?”
“I’ll try,” he said under his breath, as they approached one of the smaller assembly halls at the edge of the campus. Straightened his back, the barest hint of anger in his gaze. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
Intan broke out into a wide grin.
Before them, Rusli stopped at the door and turned, waiting. When he saw her, the set of his shoulders relaxed and he, too, smiled for the first time that day.
“Come on, you two. Singh’ll have our hides if we keep her waiting any longer.”
* * *
As Rusli had said, Assistant Headmistress Singh sat waiting for them inside the hall with a bored look on her face, alongside three others. One was a lanky, bespectacled girl with her hair tied in a single dark braid down her back. And the second —
“Intan! Are you okay?”
Hadil, who had been pacing back and forth by the back wall, sprang over to the door, wringing her hands.
Intan laughed, relieved. “Yup! What about you?”
“Fine. The bastard got away though…”
Another voice rang out from behind them.
“Oi, Rusli, you’re late. Where’s Wystan?”
Tuyet. Intan stared, realizing that the older girl had cut her hair.
Rusli stepped forward. “He’ll be here momentarily. He had a spot of business to take care of.”
“Hey, Intan,” said Tuyet. She seemed to realize that Intan was staring, and laughed. Ran a hand through the fringe against her nape. “Oh, this? It was getting in the way.”
A lie, thought Intan.
But already Tuyet was frowning, exclaiming, “Looks like you had quite the adventure!”
“Mmhm,” said Intan, noticing that Eguzki had slipped away from the crowd to skulk in the corner on his own.
She did not have time to go after him, however, for even as Tuyet and Hadil fell into an urgent, half-whispered discussion of all that had occurred on the mountain, interrupted only by an occasional aside from Rusli, she noticed that the braided girl was staring.
There was nothing hostile in her demeanor, so Intan stared back.
The girl smiled and adjusted her glasses, then stood.
“Hello,” she said. “You’re Intan Aghavni. Wisteria division. Aren’t you?”
“Mmhm,” replied Intan, still wondering about the lie. “And you’re Jelly.”
The girl opened her mouth as if to say something, but was interrupted by the sound of the door opening.
“Finally!” said Tuyet as Rusli’s friend strode in.
Miss Singh, who had been watching everything with the same bored look plastered on her face all the while, unfolded herself from her cushions and clapped twice.
“Children,” she drawled. “It’s time.”
* * *
A Hummingbird transport had arrived, hovering just outside. One after another, the four attendants began heading out to board it.
Miss Singh murmured instructions to each of them as the exited the hall. Hadil tagged along with Tuyet, still discussing things with her. Intan tarried, lost in thought.
Eguzki was the last of the attendants to go. But as he left, Rusli called out to him.
Eguzki paused at the door.
“By the way, Kaneshiro,” Rusli said quietly. “This really isn’t the most appropriate time, but — before you go… I wanted to wish you happy birthday.”
Intan blinked. Eguzki lowered his head, face shadowed.
“Thank you,” he said, and left.