S1| Ep13: Day of Renewal (上)
June 1, 2012
(A/N: Phew, snuck in the update just in time! 😛 A quieter one this time… On an unrelated note, my historical fantasy novel The Ghost Tiger’s Lament — which is a rather different sort of story from AUSOS — will be updating daily at Wattpad over the next three weeks, starting today. Feel free to follow along HERE. [It is also available for sale on most of the major ebook vendors if you are impatient.] Next AUSOS update will be on or around the 15th!)
“Demanding an audience with the king, after all they’ve done? How dare they!”
Kikue had been barely even responsive when Intan helped Hadil wake her up before dawn. Even through much of the morning she’d responded to Intan’s pokes and Hadil’s questions with rather unladylike grunts and incoherent mumbles. But now, as Rusli conveyed to them the results of the preliminary interrogations that had been conducted throughout the night, she seemed to have worked herself up instantly to seething indignation.
Rusli offered her a placating smile, but his words betrayed his worry. “They must have their reasons. After all, everyone knows tonight is the night. Although the king will be in seclusion until the ceremonies are over…”
“He’s always in seclusion,” snapped Kikue.
“Exactly,” said Rusli. “Small as it was, they must have believed this to be their only chance.”
“Um,” interrupted Hadil. “This has been kinda on my mind since last night, but doesn’t it seem like this all was some sort of weird suicide mission?”
Kikue looked at her askance. “They wouldn’t have surrendered so easily if they’d been prepared to die.”
Hadil frowned. “Yeah, but… I don’t think they’re that delusional. They must have been prepared for their demands to go unheard. For them to be executed on the spot, or maybe for us to hear them out but then kill them anyway once we found out they didn’t have the information we wanted.”
“What do you think we are, barbarians?”
“Besides, don’t you think those Butterfly Dolls were acting pretty strange?”
“Ugh, not this again!”
Intan ignored them and turned to Rusli instead. “They didn’t say anything about why they wanted to see him?”
“Not a word,” he replied with a sigh. “The stubborn fools.” Then, more quietly, he added, “Fools, perhaps, but brave ones.”
“Are they really going to be executed?”
His brows furrowed. “Of course. They are traitors; they must be punished duly. Not immediately, of course — that would be most inauspicious…”
“Good,” said Intan, and if Rusli found her response odd, he did not say anything about it.
Instead, he said, “I’m worried about tonight, though. Aragaki and Gushiken still haven’t returned…”
Kikue, who seemed to be listening even though she was still railing at Hadil, rolled her eyes.
“… and Trieu still hasn’t been located.”
At that they all fell silent. Then Hadil said, “You don’t think he…”
For a moment Intan thought Hadil meant the boy had been kidnapped by the rebels. Then she saw the grim looks on the others’ faces and realized what they were actually thinking.
Rusli shook his head. “I can’t say for certain. He’s a quiet one, hard to read. I’ve tried to talk to him a few times, but he always slips away before I can say much.”
A quiet one. Like Eguzki? Intan tried to recall her impression of this Trieu, but came up short. Quiet as Eguzki could be, he blazed with an inner fire so wild and brilliant that Intan was sure she would never fail to pick him out from even the densest crowd.
But as for her fellow first-year Dragon, she couldn’t remember a thing. Other than that he wore glasses, and his hair was as messy as a tree sprite’s, only black.
And he had not seemed conniving or unkind. Rather, he had been like a lone swimmer adrift upon the glassy sea…
She snapped halfway back to attention as Rusli continued, “Dugu’d probably have a better idea, since he’s her junior and all. But with her busy infiltrating the ceremonies… it’s difficult for us to make that judgment.”
“But surely the Headmistress would have seen through him?” said Hadil.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” murmured Kikue then.
Rusli cleared his throat. “Well, perhaps it is best for us to be cautious, for now.”
Not so different from Eguzki at all, then, Intan was thinking.
Only — one burned, while the other drowned.
* * *
Dinnertime came and passed, but for once, Intan had no appetite.
If she couldn’t find Eguzki, perhaps she could at least find a tree sprite. But for that she had to go outside, and that would mean ditching guard duty (not that she was doing a particularly good job of it at the moment anyway).
And even if she could find a sprite, what then? Even if she could convince it to trust her, sprites did not see the world as humans did. They would understand the situation as little as Intan did, if not even less. And if she inadvertently upset them through her questioning, they would only make the situation even worse. Probably.
Still, they saw things even Intan could not. Perhaps their views, innocent as they were, would give her better insight.
There were still a few hours before they were to head up the trails to the sacred spring anyway. That would be more than enough time for her to sneak out and back in again.
So she slipped down the passageways and out the back, past the soldiers on guard (who mistook her for a naughty raccoon-dog) and through the abandoned courtyards, before emerging at last in the woods over which she had flown the previous night.
The wind whispered through the grass. It was surprisingly cold. In the distance, an owl hooted. Intan felt and listened her way through the dark, seeking signs of broken wood and debris. Efficient as the soldiers of Nahwan were, even they could not have had time to clear away the evidence of battle yet.
But she had not gotten very far when she spotted a very familiar figure.
“Eguzki!” she said, and barreled toward him without a second thought.
He turned, startled. Then he grabbed onto her shoulders before she could knock him over.
“Shh!” he said. “You’ll get us caught.”
Intan blinked. “Are there still people patrolling this area?”
“Shouldn’t you know?” he replied drily. A smile twitched at his lips. He was dressed not in the robes she had last seen him in, but a mismatching shirt and pants that looked like they had been stolen from a laundry basket.
“I’m looking for a sprite!” she said, beaming. “Come on!”
He let her drag him further into the woods without a word of protest.
Intan hummed a little under her breath as she peered up into the bare branches above. “Hello?” she called out, as quietly as she could manage. “Anyone home?”
No one responded. She wandered off to another promising-looking tree and tried again. “Wanna play? We can have lots of fun together!”
Eguzki followed her in silent bemusement.
“It’s okay, you know? Nothing scary’s gonna come out today!”
“You know…” Eguzki began.
“Aww, maybe I should have saved some scraps from dinner — I wonder if I have enough time to sneak back in and out again?”
This time, Eguzki grabbed her elbow.
“Look,” he said, “if you’re really looking for one of… them… maybe it’s better if I leave.”
She whirled around to face him. “Why?”
He looked off to the side. “They hate me.”
“No they don’t!” she protested.
He sighed. For the first time, Intan noticed how tired he seemed.
“And anyway, I can’t help you if I have no idea what you’re up to.”
“Oh!” she said. “It’s easy! Let me show you.” She pulled him over to the trunk of the tree she had been inspecting, then beckoned him to lean closer. When she was satisfied that she had gotten his attention, she put her ear against the tree and closed her eyes. “Listen!”
She heard a rustling movement and peeked out of one eye to make sure he was following her instructions. As it turned out, he was a very good student, and had copied her motions exactly, down to closing his eyes (that part wasn’t actually necessary). Though his mouth was pressed in a frown, it was not an expression of anger or bitterness, and for that she was glad. In fact, it almost looked as if he were sleeping — though Intan had never seen anyone frown in their sleep before.
After a moment he opened his eyes again, and seemed a bit embarrassed to find Intan staring at him so intently, for he ducked his gaze before saying, “I didn’t hear anything.”
“Okay, now come here!”
Again he followed without protest; again she leaned against the trunk and watched him do so as well. This time, when his eyes fluttered open, it was in surprise.
Intan grinned widely. “Get it?”
She continued to take him around to different trees, calling out every now and then. But no matter how many trees they tried, no sprites appeared.
But that was impossible. Even at their most annoyed or frightened, the sprites were fundamentally curious creatures. And they had never ignored her like this before.
“Hey,” said Eguzki. Their traipsing around had begun to take a toll on him, however slight: his breathing had gotten heavier, and sweat drenched his forehead despite the cold.
But they couldn’t stop here. Not now. Not like this.
Eguzki caught up to her and reached out. “Should we –”
“No!” she said, knocking away his hand before she realized what she was doing. Tears welled in her eyes, but she wiped them away fiercely. “No,” she said again. “We can’t, we can’t…”
“Hey,” he said again. “Look. Intan, I…”
“They don’t hate you,” she said. “They don’t. But, but…”
Was it already too late?
Surely not. Surely, surely…
And yet the time of the ceremonies drew ever closer. Even if she wanted to, there was nothing left to be done here, and perhaps in a few hours the ceremonies would prove that she had worried needlessly. After all, was it not the last night of the year? Was it not the time to bid old farewell and welcome in the new?
A time for renewal, a time for hope.
Why then did she feel such desperation? Such dark foreboding…
“We’d better get back before the others notice we’re gone,” Eguzki said quietly.
“Mm,” said Intan at last.
She could not bring herself to say anything else.