S1| Ep14: A New Mission (下)

July 16, 2012

(A/N: Oh gosh, this episode has been PROFOUNDLY unhelpful, I realize. Believe me, there is in fact a point to this all… but it may take a few more updates before it really starts falling into place. Also, as you may or may not have seen me mention elsewhere, I’m probably going to have limited internet access until sometime in September. I will definitely try to continue keeping to the schedule, but please excuse any bumps in the meantime. D: In the meantime, The Ghost Tiger’s Lament has been featured at Wattpad — I’ve been really flattered by the reception, and if any of you are coming in from there, hi and welcome! …. ANYWAY, I’ll stop babbling now. Enjoy the update, and see you all again in August for the beginning of the next double-episode arc!)

Irina tapped her foot impatiently as the soldier before her stammered out his report. Nothing she hadn’t already heard from more reliable sources.

“Dismissed,” she said, before the babbling boy could worsen her headache.

At least he was well-disciplined. Unlike Liow’s little pet Dragons.

Yet another soldier poked his head into her office. “General Hsiung, the results are in.”

“Really.” She tried not to look too interested. Damn these little games she had to play.

“Yes, ma’am. Just as the early reports claimed. The girl is all clear. Not even the slightest trace.”

“No chance that her body had already expelled it through natural means?”

“No, ma’am. Not according to the doctors.” He handed her a folded stack of paper. She unfurled the first few pages, skimmed through the indecipherable scrawls, then folded them back into place.

“Thank you. You are dismissed.”

When the soldier was gone, Irina leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. For a moment she could almost believe that she was sitting in the middle of a cockpit again, listening to the comm’s soothing crackle as she flew over the vast seas. Then her chair creaked, and the illusion shattered.

Irina stood, glaring at nothing in particular. She rubbed absently at the scar on her nose, a constant reminder of everything she had given up or lost.

Meddling Council fools. They had grown too arrogant in the king’s absence. At least she had a hold on the Ouyangs now — that young attendant who had been “accidentally” replaced by a rebel assassin had been confirmed as Lady Ouyang’s agent. Bitch had probably been in a panic all week. Accident or not — and Irina was quite certain that it had, in fact, been an accident — the evidence now painted Lady Ouyang as a traitor, a rebel collaborator. It would be quite entertaining to see the insufferable woman weasel her way out of this one.

The trouble lay with the other Clans, now. Rusli and Sunagawa in particular. Sunagawa was an idiot, but he had resources. From what Irina had learned, he had invested the most in the success of this disgusting little secret project of theirs. (It had been no secret for quite some time already, but they didn’t need to know that.) And Rusli… always the worst of the bunch. Irina wouldn’t be surprised if he had arranged the replacement of Ouyang’s agent himself.

Well, too bad for them. Liow’s little pets had thrown yet another wrench into everything. A rather puzzling one, at that — which was irritating. She’d have to corner a specialist later to make any sort of sense out of the results she’d been given. Just an anomaly, she supposed, but Irina had seen too much to be satisfied with that kind of naive conclusion.

She didn’t have to be a doctor to understand the implications of this particular development.

She couldn’t blame the rebels, really. Stubborn Mok and his noble idealism, far more suited to the poor youngsters he’d managed to drag into his cause. A little late for his conscience to be acting up now, though, after all that had gone down during the war. His division had been right in the middle of it too, if she remembered correctly. She herself had had no part in it, had not even been aware of the truth until the war was long over and those who had been involved in those early experiments were all dead or in hiding — an irony she felt keenly even now.

If she had known back then, would she have acted as Mok and his followers were now? Or would she have remained silent and cowering as the younger Mok had: unable to object, unable to refuse, obeying every single order without protest like a good little soldier?

She liked to think she was beyond that kind of bullshit these days. But her younger self, her younger self might not have even seen anything wrong with it, might not have even cared as long as she got to fly her Dolls into battle and give her life in service to the royal family.

Then again, if she were twenty years younger, she might have considered deserting along with Mok and the others just for the chance to kick up some trouble. But in these twenty years she had made promises she should have known better than to make, promises that forced her to hide her claws and bide her time in patience… And Irina was not a woman to go back on her word.

It might be more fun this way, anyway.

* * *

Intan and the other two girls walked out into the corridor and headed toward the main hall, Hadil still chatting away, Kikue stubbornly silent. Though she’d been a bit dizzy when she first got out of bed, Intan was beginning to feel a little more like herself at last.

Then they reached the main hall and Intan stopped in her tracks.

The hallway was built entirely from a sturdy see-through material that resembled glass. But there was no way it could be glass.

Outside, a school of fish swarmed past, then darted out of sight. Sunlight filtered down from overhead, creating shadowy patterns on the floor.

Intan shoved past the other people wandering down the hall, almost tripping a few times, and pressed her nose against the cold pane.

“Neat, isn’t it?” said Hadil at her side. “Too bad they didn’t build our dorms like this! Guess they thought it was pointless, since we’re usually not submerged…”

“It’d be better if we were on the coast,” said Kikue then, in a rather grudging tone. “Who wants to stare at some dusty old lakebed all day long?”

Intan wasn’t listening. She was thinking of long-ago summers in the secret cove near the village. Funny things washed up on the shore all the time. Wreckage. Animals. People. Maybe even Dolls, like that one earlier… No, that was more recent. She had been with Kikue.

Besides, the water had tasted… not salty. Kinda gross. Made her tummy ill.

The well had been in the other direction, though? Or was she confusing her memories?

Sunlight and shrapnel. A ring of suns against the vast seas. The smell of blood and rotten fruit.

Her head hurt. It was hard to think. Really really hard.

It was beginning to frighten her.

“Oh, there you are!” exclaimed a woman’s voice from the other end of the hall. “I wondered what was taking you so long!”

It was Miss Singh. But if she was here and the Headmistress was here then the school…?

“Intan? Intan, what’s wrong?”

“Goodness! Whatever is the matter, darling?”

Tears tasted different from sea water. Sea water tasted different from lake water. Lake water tasted different from spring water. Plus there were good springs and bad springs.

Bad spring. Something about a bad spring and something burning and everything was different now, everything had changed, and it was just so sad, so painfully, unbearably sad.

“Should we take her back to the medical wing?”

No.

“No,” mumbled Intan, wiping at her eyes. “No. I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” demanded Hadil. “Maybe you should rest a bit more… The meeting can’t be all that important, can it?”

People were staring. They had drawn quite an audience.

“Don’t wanna,” said Intan, and took a wobbly step forward. The others looked at her with some concern.

Intan took another step. Then another.

Before she could take her next step, another new voice echoed down the hall from behind her, above the murmur of the uniformed onlookers.

“Singh. Snooping around as usual, I see.”

This time it was Brigadier General Hsiung.

“Why, can’t I be a little concerned over one of my poor dear students?”

“You are not authorized…”

“Come on,” Hadil whispered in Intan’s ear. “Let’s get out of here.”

Intan shook her head. “Meeting?”

“I guess if you insist…”

Someone’s small, callused hand slipped into Intan’s. She looked over. Blinked.

“Kikue?”

The other girl sniffed and looked away, but did not let go.

“That’s… actually not going to help very much, you know,” remarked Hadil with amusement.

“Shut up.”

After some more fussing and readjustment of positions, the girls continued down the hall, leaving the arguing adults behind.

* * *

All seven Dragons aside from Tuyet were present, to Intan’s surprise. Rusli acknowledged their arrival with a nod. Intan and Kikue sat down in empty chairs. Hadil hesitated for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision and plopped down right beside Intan. One of the second-years looked over curiously, eyes sparkling with interest. Kikue glared back.

No one commented.

In fact, one of them — the last of the first-years, the one with the messy tree sprite hair — was dozing rather conspicuously in the corner.

Now that Intan was seated, she was beginning to calm again. But her thoughts still refused to behave. She had been on the verge of figuring out something important, she was sure of it.

Softly, slowly, she began to hum a soothing lullaby to herself — at least she was pretty sure it was a lullaby, for she could no longer remember the words.

Kikue twitched and gave her a funny look, but said nothing. Hadil patted her arm.

In the corner, the first-year boy stirred, but did not wake.

Intan, startled, fell silent.

The door slammed open. In stalked the Brigadier General.

“We have discovered the location of the rebel base,” she said without any preamble whatsoever.

“What, there’s still more of them?” complained the second-year who had looked over earlier.

“Felipe Mok himself is said to be hiding there right now. Once he is disposed of, this will all be over for good.”

“I suppose that shall be our mission this time?” said Rusli doubtfully.

General Hsiung’s lips pulled back in a vicious grin. “No. Not quite yet.”

As the general proceeded to outline their next steps, Intan felt Hadil stiffen at her side. When she looked over, Hadil smiled.

But Intan had already seen her face in the split second before: frozen briefly in an expression of deep and long-standing fear.

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