S1| Ep16: Investigations II (上)
September 1, 2012
(A/N: Still on vacation! Please excuse any continuing bumps. D: Hopefully I’ll have a couple of fun announcements when I get back!)
How strange it was. Intan had always assumed the tribes of the moon lived on still, albeit scattered across the land. Everyone said so, after all. She had never considered herself different in any way from the other people of her own village, or her coloring particularly unusual. The Sun King, though undeniably ruthless, had been a just man. Upon the tribes’ submission to his rightful sovereignty, he had granted the survivors mercy, even lands and titles of their own. Many had even chosen to join his court.
How could they have disappeared over the generations, all but for this lone, pitiful little village? Descendants of the people of the sun could be found wherever one turned. All of the Clans boasted lineage from some relation of the Sun King or other, though in truth many were composed mostly of more recent arrivals to the island. The Gushikens and the Ouyangs even claimed direct descent from the Sun King himself — claims more than a few considered rather questionable. Aside from his heir, the official histories were unclear on just how many children the Sun King ultimately sired.
With that said, traces of moon tribe heritage were equally common, if not more so. The only difference was that such connections were typically left unacknowledged or uncertain due to the lack of written records. But there had been nothing uncertain about Shulinaq’s claim. We are the last descendants of the moon tribes, she had said, without any hint of dishonesty or confusion in her tone. What she meant by such a claim, Intan could not understand at all.
Intan would have asked, but before any chance presented itself, Shulinaq hurried away with yet another swift, curt apology and promise to help her settle in later. The village children took the opportunity to swarm all around their new playmate again.
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Do you know how to play the Eagle and the Chicks? You can be the Eagle!”
“Look, look! Check out my top!”
“Look at this caterpillar I found!”
“Have you seen our village sprites yet?”
It was this last question that gave Intan pause.
“No…” she said slowly. “I haven’t…”
She had not even given thought to them until now.
Those who can see are those who can be trusted. Was that what Granny had told her? Or someone else?
Then she thought of Kikue and the Hibiscus boy and felt sick.
She was no stranger to death, no stranger to sacrifice. But in the end all she said, all she could say, was, “Can you take me to them?”
One of the smaller girls seized Intan’s hand at once, giggling, and pulled her out of the building, back toward the forest. They were followed by the other children, still laughing and shouting over each other.
A village with sprites and happy children was a good village. Yet even that thought could not dispel the dismal tension in her gut.
“What are you brats doing out here?” snapped a sudden feminine voice — another woman of the village, face lined with age. “Didn’t the elders tell you to stay put?”
“Wahhh, scary!” shouted the children, instantly dispersing and running all over the place. The woman brandished her broom at them, chasing after the closest few. The little girl who’d taken Intan’s hand tugged her left and right and back again until at last they arrived panting before a creaky shack with holes in the roof.
“Let’s hide!” said the little girl, dragging her into the shed.
“Maybe we should do as the elders said,” replied Intan, troubled over how easily these children were taking this all as another one of their games. Did they not know… not realize? But of course they could not know.
The girl stuck her tongue out. “But I’m bored! We haven’t been allowed to go out for days!”
“Really, that long?”
“More than a week! There’s nothing to do! It’s so boring!” The girl scampered around and around in circles. Intan coughed as a cloud of dust billowed into her face.
It seemed to be an old storage shed. There were still broken plows and leaking buckets and random scraps of machinery lying around. Hadil would have had loads of fun scavenging for materials if she were here.
Intan was glad Hadil had not come.
Then she spotted something odd. Old, worn rags folded neatly on top of a stool in the corner. On top of the rags rested a woman’s wooden comb. Like most of the other things in the shed, it was dusty and whatever paint once decorated had long since faded. All this in itself was not so unusual, perhaps, but it seemed quite out of place.
And a single strand of dark hair remained tangled through the comb’s teeth.
Intan gingerly picked up the comb as the little girl slowed to a walk and approached, curious about her discovery. Intan could find no mark indicating the comb’s ownership, but she had not really expected to. Instead, she handed the comb to the girl (who examined it eagerly in turn), and began to carefully unfold the rags, which turned out to be the patched remnants of a patient’s white tunic.
A sheet of paper slipped out from the folds and landed on the ground. Intan picked it up and gasped.
It was the photo she had seen in the rebel hideouts before. The one with the Headmistress and the blurred-out woman.
“It belongs to Sister Shulinaq and the others!”
Intan frowned. “Were Sister Shulinaq and the others… friends with these people?”
“Dunno!” the girl replied cheerfully. “She said she’d tell us about them when we got older!”
If she got back — when she got back — Intan had a great deal she longed to ask the Headmistress. In all the time she had known her, the Headmistress had not been forthcoming at all, and Intan knew her questions would likely be useless.
But she’d had the sense that something had changed, the last time she spoke to the Headmistress.
Which was… when again?
She didn’t have much time to consider the matter.
“You treacherous little sneak!” roared a familiar voice outside. “You rotten spy! How many others did they send with you?”
The man named Pakka slammed into the shed, knife in his hand. Intan backed away to the wall. The little girl clutched at Intan’s tunic and buried her face in her side.
“Pakka!” said Shulinaq, who appeared suddenly at the door and twisted his arm away. “Calm yourself! We do not know for certain that she is one of them! There is no proof!” But something like doubt darkened her gaze.
“Proof?” growled Pakka. “What more proof do you need?” He waved a crumpled sheet at Shulinaq; Intan recognized it a moment later as a cutting from a newspaper. In fact, it was a cutting of another, newer photograph.
The image was of her and Tuyet at the capital, during the aftermath of Mok’s escape.
Intan did not remember the photograph being taken, but she did not make a habit of reading the papers, nor had her memory been at all reliable in recent days.
It did not matter, anyway.
“We have no time to be wasting here on petty arguments,” Shulinaq was saying.
“This is no trifling matter, Lin!”
“Perhaps. But we have no right to come to any decisions on our own. And so long as the girl remains our captive, we have nothing to fear from her.”
“You mean to let the council resolve this? When there are far more pressing issues at hand?”
Shulinaq laughed, but it was not a pleasant sound. “You said yourself not a moment ago that this was no trifling matter. Which is it, Pakka?”
“You know what I meant, damn you.”
“We have no right,” repeated Shulinaq. “I am no chieftain, no priestess. I am only Lin of the Reds. And you are only Pakka.” Without giving him a chance to respond, she turned at last to Intan. “Child, do you deny his accusations?”
Intan — unable to lie, but equally unable to destroy the trust the woman had gifted her, albeit for mistaken reasons — said nothing.
Shulinaq sighed. Her expression hardened. “Then you leave us with no choice.”
* * *
Do not insist on fighting a battle you cannot win. This too was something Intan seemed to recall someone telling her before, though it slotted in uneasily with the rest of her vague recollections of rules and protocol. She was at any rate uncertain if such a rule applied to her current situation.
There was no battle here. Her original mission had long since been compromised. She had received useful information, certainly, but whether this was information her teachers and commanders sought, she could not know. The villagers seemed allied with Filipe Mok, but this told her nothing they had not already known.
What the villagers’ — and by extension, Mok’s — plans were remained unknown.
What the villagers had thought to accomplish by destroying the train remained a mystery. If they had not been aware of the Dragons’ presence, if the train had not been carrying anyone else of importance or value…
Whatever they planned, she had to stop them. If not for Kikue and the Hibiscus boy, for the children of the village, and the spirits who watched over them all.
For this reason Intan gave no thought to escape as Pakka and Shulinaq sent the little girl back to the other children, then led Intan to the meeting hall.
There, a handful of other silver and white-haired adults with varying shades of skin were in the midst of a heated argument.
But at their entrance, all silenced and looked up.
One of the men frowned in recognition. “What have you brought into our midst, Lin? What doom have you wrought upon us with your soft heart?”
“Would you have abandoned her, then, had you been in my place? A child of our blood, and one recognized by the spirits?”
The man looked at the others, his expression an uncomfortable mix of shame and anger.
“Pakka claims you are one of the students at the Academy,” said one of the older women, addressing Intan. “Shulinaq claims you are a child of our blood. Which is it?”
“Can it not be possible she is both?” murmured another man.
“Let the child speak for herself!”
“Honorable elders, it’s true that I’m a student at the Academy,” replied Intan, fidgeting under their scrutiny. Pakka made a soft noise of triumph. “But I do not wish you any harm. I just — I just want you to stop whatever you’re planning!”
“What did I tell you?” muttered Pakka. “A spy!”
But one of the others said, surprised, “You did not tell us she spoke the old tongue so well.”
“That means nothing. We are not the only ones who keep the old ways!”
“But so few of us remain…”
“This is no time for sentimentality.”
“Please!” said Intan, annoyed that they could be arguing over such things at a time like this. “You mustn’t let Mok carry out his plans!”
“And why not?” said the older woman. “You know nothing of his intentions. You know nothing of our ambitions. Perhaps you believe, like so many others, that we mean to topple the king from his throne and drown the kingdom in blood. And so what if we do? What has the king done for us through all these years? What has the army done? But of course you question nothing. You are but a soldier, a dog. You think only of duty to your liege.”
“It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter what his intentions or your ambitions are! The king will send soldiers here! Everything will, everything will —”
“Soldiers?” snarled Pakka. “Let them come!”
“You still do not understand,” said Shulinaq, looking at Intan mournfully.
Intan shook her head fiercely. “The children — those children —”
The adults were oddly quiet.
Then one of them said, “The soldiers would have come regardless. They would have come to take them away whether or not we took action against His Majesty the king.”
“But now you’ve doomed them to their deaths!”
“Better death than a half life!” spat a woman.
“How can you say that? They’re just children!”
Shulinaq held up a hand. “I will speak with the girl. Alone.”
“Lin, she’s not one of us. It’s too dangerous!”
“She is only a child,” she said, ironically.
“She is of age!”
“But a child nonetheless.”
One of the men said, slowly. “Very well, Shulinaq. But you must be prepared for the consequences. If she cannot be convinced, if she means to betray us…”
“I know,” said Shulinaq, and led Intan back outside without another word.
“It is not right,” Intan said when they were alone at last. “I don’t know what you have against the king, but whatever you are planning, it is not right!”
For some time, Shulinaq did not respond.
At last, she said, “It is not that we hate him, though it is true that many do.”
To Intan’s surprise, the woman no longer spoke in the old tongue, but the standard dialect of the capital.
“But then… why?”
“Let me share a story with you,” said Shulinaq. “Perhaps that will help you see things from our view.” She closed her eyes. Looked away. “There was another girl around your age from this village once. The blood did not run true in her, but she was nonetheless a good, sweet child. When she expressed her desire to head to the capital once she came of age, we gave her our blessing. She was a quick study and a hard worker, much like her parents and her grandparents before her, skilled with the intricate workings of both childish trinkets and heavy machinery. We had no doubt that she, at least, would be able to find acceptance and success at the Academy, where so many of us would be denied entry on sight.”
“What… happened to her?” asked Intan, already beginning to dread the answer.
“At the beginning of the school year. If you truly are a student of the Academy, then you must surely remember…”
“The rogue Dolls!” exclaimed Intan. “But –”
Shulinaq bowed her head. Her silvery hair shifted and settled against her shoulders. “Sita was always such a shy, unassuming girl. I do not know what possessed her to become involved in the military’s experiments.” Her hands clenched into fists. “No. There is no way she could have volunteered herself willingly for such activities. That leaves only a single explanation.”
Experiments. Something jogged Intan’s memory. Something someone had mentioned. But who? Who?
A boy. A boy with dark, troubled eyes and hair like summer light.
But who was he?
Anger flashed through her gut again.
“What do you mean by experiments?” she said quietly.
“Long, long ago,” began Shulinaq in a low, tense murmur. “Exactly twenty years ago, now. The third year of the war. Nahwan had until then stood strong against her enemies, both from within and without. The Old Ones have always protected this island, granting us with gifts lost or forgotten, coming invariably to our aid in times of need. Great was the power they lent us in those early days…
“But soon it became clear that even their power would not be enough. So many were dying… horribly, pointlessly, it seemed. And who knew how much longer the war would last, when all had assumed originally that it would end within mere weeks! The Clans grew afraid. They advised the king to take action. And so he did.
“We of the west have never been blessed with the bountiful farmlands of the eastern plains. The tribes were banished into the mountains long ago, and learned to live from forest and barren rock, and yet still we have never forgotten what we once possessed… When the king’s people came to us bearing promises and honeyed words, how could we not help but accept their terms? So many of the young ones were eager to contribute to the war efforts in any way they could. It was the only way they could. How could they have known that their loyalty would be repaid only with treachery and betrayal of the worst kind?”
“But what did they do? How were they betrayed?”
“They created a monster,” whispered Shulinaq. “An abomination that should have never been awoken.”
But how? Intan began to ask, only to be startled yet again by the sudden appearance of Pakka looming behind Shulinaq.
Intan could see the beads of sweat trickling down his neck, the ashen cast of his face.
Shulinaq turned and took hold of his shoulders. “What is the matter, Pakka? Speak!”
All he could do was shake his head weakly once more before at last his voice croaked out.