S1| Ep17: Maze of Dreams (下)

October 19, 2012

(A/N: DOUBLE UPDATE HEADS UP. Click HERE for the first part of the episode!

Unrelated good news — The Ghost Tiger’s Lament is now in print. 😀 If any of you happened to enjoy the book enough to want a signed print copy with pretty illustrated cover + bonus interior illustration, I am currently offering a giveaway at Goodreads! [If you’re not in one of the regions listed, let me know and maybe we can work something out.])

“Gisela,” muttered Hadil, glaring at her fellow Bamboo student. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you still under surveillance or whatever?”

“Oh, if it isn’t my cute little junior,” said Gisela Liem, braid swinging merrily behind her. “Hadil, wasn’t it? We haven’t spoken since… oh, last summer! A pity. I’ve heard a great deal about you from my classmates. They’ve been very impressed, you know. I’ve been hoping for a chance to get to know you better.”

Hadil ignored her. “Is it true what they’ve been saying? That you’re a spy for Lady Ouyang?”

The older girl shrugged and adjusted her glasses. “Was. The lady promised my poor, struggling family hefty recompense for my efforts. Much good that it did her!”

“Man, and they just let you go like that? They really bought some stupid sob story like that without even bothering to question you? What the heck were they thinking?”

“They couldn’t afford not to let me go.”

“Like I’m gonna believe that.”

“Well, it’s true. They know something’s up in our division. After that whole mess with poor Sita earlier this year…”

“Seems to me even more reason they shouldn’t have let you go.”

“Goodness. I can’t tell if you’re on my side or theirs.”

Hadil scowled. “Look, Gisela… I’ve got a lot of respect for you. When you applied for the Academy and got in — you have no idea how amazed I was. I really envied you, you know? That’s why I thought… I thought I’d give it a go too.”

“That’s not the only reason, is it?” Gisela said gently.

“None of your business. But seriously, I thought it was so great! That someone from our village could actually make it in the capital! But then… Why’d you do it, Gisela? My friends — they almost died! If it hadn’t been for you playing rebel — none of this would have –”

“It’s not just some stupid sob story, you know.”

“What do you mean it’s not? Look, I know times are hard and everything. But we’re all in the same boat! And you know any one of us’ll help out, no questions asked, if things really get bad. Plus, now that we’re with the military, our futures are in the bag! So why did you…”

“You’re not the only one who lost loved ones five years ago.”

Hadil opened her mouth. Closed it.

“And you think far too highly of me, Hadil. Playing rebel? Hardly… It’s true that I agreed to spy for the Ouyangs. But I made a spectacularly bad spy, I think. Tricked, knocked out, and replaced without ever accomplishing a thing. It’s kind of funny, actually. Why me, of all people? I wonder…”

Hadil clenched her fists. She realized, suddenly, that she was shaking.

“Because of Sita. Because of five years ago,” she whispered. “But why the Ouyangs? They’ve never given a crap about the western provinces. Why would you believe anything good of that lot?”

“Because the lady proved to me that her hands were clean. And it was more than money that she promised me.”

“And you believed her?”

Gisela lowered her gaze. “I had to. Or no… I should say, I wanted to.”

“So why are you here now, then? More spy work?”

“No. I’ve washed my hands of all spy business.”

“… You’re not afraid the Ouyangs are going to retaliate?”

“Headmistress Liow has promised to protect me.”

“What, in return for doing her dirty work? Don’t think I haven’t heard the rumors. It’s all Kasih from Lotus could talk about for ages.”

Gisela smiled thinly. “Considering who your friends are, I don’t think you’re in any position to talk. But no. She offered me unconditional protection, in exchange for nothing but what little information I could give her.”

“Huh,” said Hadil. “Seems too good to be true.”

“Maybe.”

“All right, fine. But why are you here?”

“I thought I’d find you here.”

“How’d you…”

“Oh, the whole village knows how much you take after your late mother… So very easy to read, the both of you. Besides, I’ve been watching you for months. I wasn’t a complete failure as a spy, you see. Oh, but don’t worry. I haven’t told anyone. Not even the Headmistress.”

The comment about her Ma stung, but Hadil refused to let it get to her. She crossed her arms. “Okay, then. What do you want with me?”

Gisela hesitated. “I want to know what you’ve found out.”

“And you think I’m just going to tell you? When you’re probably just going to run off and blab to whoever you’re working for now? No thanks!”

“Of course, I didn’t expect you to tell me for free. But I do have some information myself that you might find useful…”

“Information the lady or the Headmistress fed you?”

“Information I stole.”

“Really. What kind of information?”

Gisela smiled again, this time genuinely. “Blueprints.”

* * *

Hadil clattered down the hall, shoving her way past her fellow students. There had been some commotion during dinner. Someone had spotted an H-bird transport landing at the central launch pad. Already the rumors were all aflutter about who had been hurt, where, and why.

But Hadil knew at once whom it must be.

Instead of forcing her way to the launch pad, where all the crowds were heading at the moment, she ran for the dorms’ medical facilities.

Her entrance was barred by a grumpy soldier on duty.

“Sorry, kid. This place is off limits for the night.”

“My friends! It is them, isn’t it? Are they all right? Why’d they get back so late? They were supposed to be here hours ago!”

The soldier sighed. “If you must know, nobody’s dead. Now, off with you!”

Something bad must have happened after all. Just as Hadil had feared. But what else could she do? Probably the only people who’d be able to override orders here were Miss Singh and the Headmistress — and even if she could locate them, one of the two must have been the one to issue those orders in the first place.

Really, times like these, she felt so utterly useless.

Resigned, she began retracing her steps to the mess hall, hoping that nobody had touched her half-finished food.

She was passing the entrance to the lowest level of the Azalea dorm when she heard vague strains of a heated exchange. Curious, Hadil followed the voices to a secluded lobby area hidden behind some expensive-looking screens.

Only to freeze as she realized she recognized one of the voices.

“I don’t care what Father and Mother think. I am not going back home!”

“But Miss…”

“Honestly! No matter what you say now, I’m not going to change my mind.”

“It’s not just a matter of your personal safety, Miss. Of course, that is your honored parents’ highest priority. But they fear that if you stay in such a place any longer…”

“Are you going to make me repeat myself?”

“It’s the project, Miss! Though plans have not proceeded exactly as expected –”

“Project?”

A sudden, heavy silence.

“What project?”

“I, er, well…”

“Tell me. Now.”

“Well, I — I am not entirely clear regarding the details myself. I am only a humble servant, after all, such things are beyond me…”

“Oh? Then you can get your humble ass the fuck out of here. And tell my parents they won’t be seeing me again until finals are over!”

“Y-yes, Miss. My apologies. I shall take my leave at once.”

A pale, mousy fellow scurried out from behind the screens, wiping at his forehead with a handkerchief. Followed moments later by a petite and very cross-looking Kikue Sunagawa.

Hadil grinned, all panic and worry temporarily forgotten.

“Wow, Sunagawa. What was that all about?”

Kikue jumped, then visibly relaxed. “Oh, it’s you.”

“I do have a name, y’know.”

“… Wong. What are you doing here?”

Panic and worry came rushing back at once. “What happened with the mission? Where’s Intan? Why’re the med facilities off limits? Is anyone hurt?”

Kikue pressed a delicate hand to her temple. “It was a disaster, she’s with the doctors, who knows why, and no, nobody was hurt. Except maybe for a couple of those rebel bastards.”

“… Oh.” Then Hadil said, “But if she’s not hurt, then why…”

“Like I said, I do not know.”

“You’re sure she was okay?”

“Physically, yes.”

Hadil took a moment to digest this. “What… what happened?”

“As far as I can tell, one of the rebel factions turned on Mok.”

“So there are factions among the rebels after all!”

Kikue frowned at her. “It does seem so.”

“Isn’t that a good thing for us, then?”

“Who knows?” Kikue muttered with a sigh. “Now, will you please leave me alone? I’m tired and I need to get something to eat.”

“I’ll go with you! I haven’t finished dinner yet myself.”

Kikue stalked off without bothering to respond. Hadil took that as a yes.

“So…” she said. “It doesn’t seem like it was that much of a disaster.”

For a moment Hadil thought the other girl wouldn’t answer. But then Kikue said, with a surprisingly subdued undertone of anger, “We were given false orders.”

Hadil stumbled to a halt. “What do you mean?”

“Trieu from Hibiscus was apparently told to recover certain important documents from the village. While we… you were there. You know what the rest of us were told.”

“But…” Trieu had been there too, at the general meeting. Why would he have been given a completely different set of instructions, without the knowledge of the others? “Under whose orders?”

“Headmistress Liow.”

“Does this…” Hadil hesitated, uncertain how much she was willing to reveal, how much the other girl had pieced together, just whose side the other girl was on. But then she thought of the blueprints Gisela had given her. And her earlier nightmare. And she knew she could no longer keep running away from the truth. “Does this have anything to do with that… project you were talking about?”

Kikue whirled around, eyes alight with shock and fury. “What do you know?”

“I’m not sure,” Hadil said, quietly meeting her gaze.

“You’d better not be lying!”

“I’m not.” She hesitated. “I think we’d better talk.”

“Why should I trust you?”

Hadil closed her eyes. “I’m the one who should be asking you that question, Sunagawa. You’re a daughter of a Clan. And not just any daughter or any Clan — you’re the heir and future head of one of the oldest and most prestigious Inner Clans in the history of our nation. But I’ve chosen to trust you because… because well, I guess I kinda like you. And… stuff. You’re not like the other noble kids I’ve known. And I think there are things you know that there’s no way any of us commonfolk could ever even begin to suspect.” She opened her eyes again to see the other girl blushing, but regarding her with a curious, calculating expression. As if suddenly seeing Hadil in a new light entirely.

Encouraged, Hadil continued, “This came into my hands just earlier today. Take a look.”

She reached inside her pack for the blueprints. Carefully unfolded them and smoothed out the creases before handing the stack over to Kikue.

“This is just a map of the school campus, isn’t it?” murmured Kikue, brows furrowed.

“Look again.”

“Wait… you mean to say…”

“Yep. That’s right. It’s a map of the old capital. Before it was abandoned.”

And a map of that which lay underneath it.

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